How to make a Greek god smile
- Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences by Philip Fisher
Harvard, 191 pp, £21.95, January 1999, ISBN 0 674 95561 7
‘Wonder,’ Descartes wrote, ‘is a sudden surprise of the soul,’ reserved for what is rare and extraordinary. In his classification, it is the first of the passions, the only one unaccompanied by fluttering pulse or pounding heart. Disinterested but not indifferent, wonder is a cool passion that fixes on objects for what they are, instead of what they are for us. The wonder of wonder consists in the paradox of a cognitive passion: it has all the force of other passions like love or hate, but it helps rather than hinders reason. It is the passion aroused by anomalies, and the anomaly among the passions.
Vol. 21 No. 15 · 29 July 1999
In her review of Philip Fisher’s Wonder, the Rainbow and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (LRB, 10 June) Lorraine Daston notes with approval Fisher’s observation that ‘wonder is most at home in the medium of the instantaneous or the visual, which is why music, narrative and other arts that unfold in time may arouse admiration, but not full-strength wonder.’ But surely certain moments in music have the capacity to instil ‘full-strength’ wonder, in precisely the sense Fisher intends – i.e. ‘an experience that bursts the bounds of expectation and possibility’. Take the first movement of Beethoven’s ‘Rasumovsky’ Quartet, at the point where the development begins. The music ushers us into a certain harmonic territory: we think we know where we’re headed. Then suddenly, in the first violin, just where the ear expects an A natural it hears an A flat. The shock is visceral, but it’s more than that: the mind is set racing in an effort to grasp the colossal new harmonic territory that one note opens up. And in that moment the listener stops listening to pay attention to his own wonderment, so the moment grows and steps out of time – exactly as all ‘wondrous’ experiences do. Notice another similarity between musical wonders and the rainbow sort: to be perceived as such they need to be tiny local perturbations of the normal. A world made up of rainbow-coloured wonders isn’t wondrous: it’s a bad trip. A piece of music that breaks its own rules at every step is a bore.
BBC Radio 3
Vol. 21 No. 17 · 2 September 1999
Assuming Mr Hewett means Op. 59, No 2 (one of the three Beethoven quartets dedicated to Count Rasumovsky, but the one in which the first violin part comes closest to his description), I confess my shock was somethat less than visceral – Letters, 29 July. My ear is however hardly a cultivated one, so I consulted Martin Brody, a composer and music theorist, who found the passage ingenious, but too subtly anticipated to be shocking. (How about the doubly wondrous – both about a wonder and in itself a wonder – setting of ‘and there was light’ in the first chorus of Haydn’s Creation? One man’s wonder is another’s raised eyebrow? I would be happy with this account of wonder as specific to time, place and person. But I suspect that while Ivan Hewett and Philip Fisher disagree about what exactly provokes wonder, they are in fundamental agreement about its being an absolute – and therefore the potential basis for an aesthetics without history.
Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin