When we see, and are suddenly and for the first time, struck by that which interrupts the habit of the everyday and our jaws drop and we calculate how this vision might have come to be, we are experiencing wonder. This feeling is not that of shock—which is the shadow of a fatigued society—or that of the sublime—which springs from the aestheticization of fear. Rather, wonder wells from youthful optimism and the aestheticization of delight. The Latin word for wonder, we learn, in Philip Fisher’s Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences, is mira, the root of admiration and miracle.
The ordinary is not an experience, Fisher says. Rather, it is “the necessary optics within which there can be such a thing as an experience, but which cannot itself be seen. We can see a cell within a microscope, but never a microscope” (p 20-21). In this ether of the ordinary, the experience of wonder is one of seeing an extraordinary event that mystifies us as it explicates itself, leaving us smiling and swaying with regulated pleasure.
The aesthetic of wonder is phenomenological; it lies between its sensation and the contemplation that succeeds it. Contrary to popular imagination that views science and magic as an either/or, Fisher intimates that instead, we wonder at instances that carry in them a potential of discovery via logic and learning. The surprise of intelligibility, then, unfolds in “that moment when the puzzling snaps into sharp focus and is grasped with pleasure” (p 7).
Fisher’s examples of these moments are themselves surprising, spanning nature, mathematics and art: he refracts various scientific explanations of the rainbow through the prism of thinkers such as Aristotle and Descartes, measures the bafflement behind the mathematical paradox of doubling the area of a given square and paints a picture of modern art in the 20th century as a canvas for the exclamatory remark, Aha!
This is the experience of wonder: nurturing a defective rationality that gives us moments of “local intelligibility” (8) within a large, uncertain and unknowable world.
The Romantics often evoke this awe of agape by evoking the desire to know. But in this era of discovery, invention and the scientization of magic, how do we retain the mystery of living? Fisher warns us that reading the narrative arts precludes the possibility of wonder since memory—the way it constantly calls up the old, removes us from the now (also the reason why the young perceive with unique eyes)—and expectation are inherent in their craft. The few exceptions to this are when words are strung in unexpected sequences, disarming the rules of syntax and grammar or when music introduces rapid changes of tempo.
Modern art, on the other hand, has no previously recognisable semblance, yet contains codes for its deconstruction, making it a perfect palette for this scientific surprise.
Though this method of reasoning neglects the work of the intuition, it does suggest that thinking through the poetics of wonder, like the rainbow, might allow us to wonder about wonder.