Where Does the Wonder Go?

The other day, I riffed on the need for wonder in our worlds. There wasn’t much response to it here, but our friendly neighborhood zombie brought it up to me in conjunction with why H.P. Lovecraft is so popular, and that got me to thinking.

Lovecraft, he pointed out, got people going on Cosmic Horror, the kinds of big things that result in abrupt unconsciousness because they couldn’t comprehend them. Was that what it was all about, though? From my own forays through the Dreamlands stories, I’m inclined to doubt it; what got me hungrily rereading were the less mind-breaking but no less alien images. Bat-winged horrors and the Crawling Chaos are all very well, but what I came out of “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath” most remembering was the bottle of drugged alcohol offered to Carter: “A single hollowed ruby, grotesquely carved in patterns too fabulous to be comprehended.” (Okay, that’s still a slight narrative copout, but the image I got of the patterns being in the empty space of the bottle itself, the area that holds the liquid weaving and knotting itself together like a depiction of the root system on a Tree of Life only more so, doesn’t leave the mind too easily.) “The Doom That Came To Sarnath” was about the death of a civilization, but what I got from it were the gemstone-mosaic floors made to imitate exotic flowers underfoot.

Which brings me back to wonder, since that was what it was that got me: what it is, and what it isn’t. Wonder isn’t terror, particularly not if what you’re starting with is terror and trying to evoke wonder. Particularly when what would be the Wondrous Thing is “GONNA EAT ME!”, as the equestrian claims the horse thinks, because you’re too busy trying not to be eaten to be amazed by the mythical creature trying to do the eating.

Many people conflate wonder with beauty, or vice versa. I’ve done it quite a bit myself. But there’s more to it than that. Wonder is the thing that makes you stop and go wow. Beauty is the easiest way to evoke it—I’m sure we’ve all seen or read the scenes that were made to evoke an “Oh my this is gorgeous” reaction, and certainly those were the first things I thought of when writing my riff.

It isn’t all, though. What about sheer artistry? Imagine a wall on which someone has carved a mural of a tree’s roots, all knotted and interconnected. Now imagine that along with managing to make a tree-root Celtic knot that covers an entire wall, the artist has managed to do so using only one line. I don’t know about you, but I’d stop and stare. Same with one of those “incredibly lifelike sculptures” that half the time are a tribute to their artists and half the time are a sign that a monster with a petrifying gaze is somewhere in the area.

Others might find their wonder in personal moments. Have you ever tutored? If so, have you seen that flash of insight, the moment where the student figures out something that’s been eluding him all day and just plain glows? What about those times when someone who’s ordinarily on guard against the world just relaxes?

Or it might be in natural processes, even the dangerous ones. There’s a reason why people chase storms, or why oftentimes those who aren’t afraid of lightning will make a point of clustering by the biggest window they can find to watch it. And why there is so much fascination with fire—what lies at its heart? When does it stop moving? Be honest with me—if through some astronomical improbability the sun were to go nova in ten minutes, and there was nothing you could do, wouldn’t you just watch it and marvel at it until the end? It doesn’t have to be spectacular, either; as I type this, I look out the window to the purple haze in the eastern sky that heralds the end of the sunset, and I can’t help but stare at it.

Contrast in scale can work as well. Consider the night sky in the country, and how enormous it seems, and how small the one looking at it might feel. Or the trees that one can’t quite see the top of, or the view from the top of a mountain, or the first sight of the ocean. On the other hand, have you ever seen “The Inner Life of a Cell”, and realized just how tiny all this color and motion and things non-bio-majors might not be able to put names to gets?

Wonder’s everywhere. We just need to be ready to put words to it.

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