Tuesday, April 17, 2012

`Curiously and Thrillingly Other'

More than forty years ago, while reading Alfred Kazin’s A Walker in the City (1951), I happened on a line that remains for me the definitive literary expression of wonder: “I saw Eternity the other night.” Kazin is remembering his boyhood discovery of literature, and shares his favorite passages from Sir Thomas Browne, Blake, the New Testament, D.H. Lawrence, Whitman and Hemingway, but none is so astonishing in its casual recounting of wonder as Henry Vaughan’s “The World”: 

“I saw Eternity the other night,
Like a great ring of pure and endless light,
       All calm, as it was bright;
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years,
       Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d; in which the world
       And all her train were hurl’d.” 

Mystics lose us with their inarticulate enthusiasm. Their experiences defy language so they resort to yawping, the linguistic equivalent of the early Shakers writhing on the floor. Vaughan, in contrast, might be recounting last night’s chicken dinner. His tone is calm, methodical, almost journalistic. He does this with impressive regularity, especially in his opening lines, as in “They are all gone into the world of light!” and “I Walk’d the Other Day.” The effect is of a gifted storyteller who hooks us with his first words. To be convincing, wonder must be made to sound familiar. 

In “Existing Things,” an essay collected in Fame & Folly (1996), Cynthia Ozick, like Kazin, returns to childhood and recovers an early memory – flecks of mica glinting in the sidewalks of New York City. She writes: 

“If you are five years old, loitering in a syrup of sunheat, gazing at the silver-white mica-eyes in the pavement, you will all at once be besieged by a strangeness: the strangeness of understanding, for the very first time, that you are really alive, and that the world is really true; and the strangeness will divide into a river of wonderings.” 

Ozick recalls such girlish wonderings as wishing to learn all the languages in the world, and contemplating why when she looks at the sun she see a “pure circle” (“a great ring of pure and endless light”). She goes on: 

“I wondered why I was thinking these things; I wondered what wondering was, and why it was spooky, and also secretly sweet, and amazingly interesting. Wondering felt akin to love—an uncanny sort of love, not like loving your mother or father or grandmother, but something curiously and thrillingly other. Something that shone up out of the mica-eyes.” 

Born on this date, April 17, were Henry Vaughan, in 1622, and Cynthia Ozick, in 1928.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"To be convincing, wonder must be made to sound familiar."

With a nod to G.K. Chesterton, it is also true that to understand the familiar, it must be made to sound wonderful.