How to make a Greek god smile

Lorraine Daston

  • 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.

Since Descartes, wonder has not fared well among philosophers and psychologists. One searches modern monographs on the psychology of the emotions in vain for a bare mention of it; philosophers have long since forgotten the Platonic maxim, famously repeated by Aristotle, that wonder is the beginning of philosophy. The downward slide from first of the passions to ignominious neglect had already begun in the 18th century: Fontenelle, Hume and other philosophes regarded wonder as a bumptious passion, associated with children, gawking peasants and backward civilisations. In his lucid and bold meditation on the aesthetics of the extraordinary in art and science, Philip Fisher seeks to restore it to its Cartesian pride of place as a passion fit for grownups and intellectuals.

It is a tonic to put down the latest issue of a scholarly journal and pick up this short but ample book, in which Fisher ranges well beyond his home territory of literature into science, mathematics, philosophy, architecture, mythology and modern art and where Shakespeare rubs shoulders with Frank Lloyd Wright, Nabokov with Aristotle, Newton with Cy Twombly. Fisher takes wonder where he finds it, in the Chicago skyline, Miranda’s exclamations in The Tempest or Descartes’s explanation of the rainbow. Experiences of wonder may be by definition rare, but for Fisher they are dispersed all over the map of knowledge. He is particularly severe with Romantics like Keats, and the whole gloomy procession of disenchantment theorists, who accuse modern science of murdering wonder and regard poetry as its last safe haven. For Fisher, the ‘haunted air, and gnomed mine’ of Keats’s ‘Lamia’ are kitsch, not wonders, and the sooner emptied the better. (One gets the feeling that for Fisher the line conjures up Halloween and garden dwarfs, whatever Keats might have had in mind.) The rainbow, on the other hand, counts as a genuine wonder, perhaps even as the ur-wonder. Not for nothing does Socrates make Iris, goddess of the rainbow, the daughter of Thaumas, a name derived from the Greek word for ‘wonder’. But pace Keats, Fisher argues that to unweave the rainbow is to perpetuate, not extinguish wonder.

Here Fisher tackles an ancient problem: philosophy may begin in wonder, but does it then kill wonder off, in an oedipal act of explanation? If there is one thing the analysts, from Aristotle to Descartes and beyond, agree on, it is that ignorance lies at he root of wonder. Novelty, rarity and beauty also may provoke and sustain it, but it is not knowing the causes of a phenomenon that makes the jaw drop and the pupils dilate. Hence the magnet, which is neither rare nor beautiful, has counted from ancient times as a prototypical wonder, because attraction at a distance is mysterious in a push-pull world. When Descartes boasted that there was nothing so strange and wondrous that his mechanical philosophy could not explain it, he made good on his claim with an explanation of magnetism; in his autobiography Einstein describes the magnet as one of the two wonders of his childhood (the other being the proofs of Euclidean geometry). According to philosophical fans of wonder, nature has happily given us a special passion for recognising our own ignorance and then doing something about it. If we are thunderstruck by thunder, for example, then we busy ourselves looking for its causes. Once we succeed, wonder ceases, at least on the traditional account. Aristotle compared the effects of explanation to peeking behind the curtain of a marionette show: once we see the mechanism of the strings, we no longer marvel at the little dancing figures. In the same spirit, Descartes concluded his explanations of remarkable atmospheric phenomena with the hope that readers who had followed his arguments would ‘see nothing in the clouds whose cause they cannot easily understand, nor anything which gives them any reason to marvel’.

Against this tradition of wonder explained away, Fisher argues that there is a ‘poetics of thought’ which shades into an aesthetics of wonder. Problem-solving itself, at least under certain conditions, can perpetuate the initial moment of wonder in short bursts of intelligibility. Confronted with the rainbow or a geometric puzzle, we furrow our brows, ransack memory, tax ingenuity and in general feel muddled and out of sorts. (Adam Smith, in his unfinished history of astronomy, likened unresolved wonder to a state of ‘confusion and giddiness’, which could degenerate into madness if too intense or prolonged.) But when the solution clicks into place, we react with that special kind of relief reserved for moments of illumination, when an exclamation mark replaces a question mark: eureka! Each step in a geometric proof, each generalisation that connects singulars unexpectedly into a class detonates its own miniature surprise. According to Fisher, the reader who has followed Descartes’s explanation of why the angles of the bands of the rainbow must cluster around 40 degrees experiences again the wonder of the first sighting – if the heart does not exactly leap up, then at least it skips a beat while perusing Descartes’s table of lines, arcs and angles.

Even though there is a flash of bravado in enlisting Aristotle’s and Descartes’s explanations of the rainbow against their view that explanation deflates wonder, Fisher has chosen his examples carefully in order to make his case for the wonder-preserving virtues of explanation. First, the explanations must incorporate something of the visual immediacy of the wonder itself – which is why geometry, with its appeal to visual intuitions, works better than algebra. In one of many striking reflections, Fisher notes 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. Poetry may often be about wonder, but it is rarely itself wondrous. Second, and more important, the terms for what constitutes an acceptable explanation must be early and narrowly set. Fisher is rightly impressed with the fact that Aristotle’s stab at an explanation of the rainbow in terms of geometric optics was wrong in all its details, but deeply right overall. What he calls ‘local intelligibility’, somewhere between abject ignorance and certain knowledge, depends on the confining, guiding outlines of a form of – perhaps formal – explanation.

No one who has ever retraced the steps of a geometric proof can deny the pleasures Fisher reconstructs with such eloquence and insight in his brief history of scientific explanations of the rainbow. And these pleasures undoubtedly involve surprise: logic may tell us that the conclusion of every proof lies nestled within its premises, like the infinite generations of humanity preformationists thought were nestled in the womb of Eve, yet psychology often responds to the dénouement of a demonstration as if it were the rabbit pulled from the magician’s hat. But are these the pleasures of wonder? Fisher usually writes with precision, sharpening the edges of perceptions and ideas. Here, however, he seems to conflate the pleasures of discovery (and channelled discovery at that) with those of wonder. Wonder is at its strongest when it bursts the bounds of expectation and possibility. The surprises of the geometric proof pale in comparison with those of an aurora borealis or conjoined twins, and for the very reasons that make mathematics so enthralling. The rules for what can be used (ruler and compass only) and assumed (these axioms and postulates and no others) are stipulated at the outset. Wonder in contrast happens when rules are broken, not when they are cunningly followed. Why then blur the line between these two distinct kinds of pleasure? Fisher insists on the pleasurable side of wonder, and further claims that pleasure has its prerequisites. His preferred kind of wonder, which he calls Cartesian wonder, requires a lawful and secure world in which eruptions of the extraordinary inspire curiosity, not terror. He is willing to exclude a great many of wonder’s time-honoured companions and objects – the sublime, miracles, magic, monsters, the Wunderkammer – in order to keep the fearsome side at bay. ‘Wonder and hospitality, in Hamlet’s phrase, rely on the harmlessness of the world, in most of the unexpected ways we find it.’ This is the mild wonder of the tamed world, and only if it is taken as the paradigm of all wonder do the regulated surprises of the geometric proof appear as its close relations. It is revealing that Fisher takes the contemplative smile worn by statues of Greek gods, rather than the open-mouthed, open-eyed receptivity of 17th-century illustrations of the Cartesian passions, to be the characteristic expression of wonder.

Fisher’s reluctance to acknowledge the affinity between wonder and fear flies in the face of a great deal of historical evidence that the supernatural, the portentous and the monstrous were the prime occasions for wonder from Roman times well into the 18th century. Wonder was and is (to continue the motif of the rainbow) an iridescent passion, sometimes with a sheen of fear, sometimes with a glimmer of delight. Context was usually decisive: the same monstrous birth could fill onlookers of Descartes’s time with wonder-cum-terror or wonder-cum-pleasure, depending on whether they took it to be a sign of divine wrath or a sport of nature. Not only was the world of Early Modern Europe still dangerous: wonder itself was dangerous, a passion that could whip up crowds into millenarian panic or cow them into docility. Fisher is palpably disappointed by Descartes’s willingness to turn the science of the rainbow into a technology of fountains that will amaze spectators, because it reeks of the sideshow. No doubt he would have been still more disapproving had he realised that Descartes’s ‘invention for making signs’ – for example, the shape of the cross – ‘appear in the sky, which would cause great wonder in those who were ignorant of the causes’ alludes to the celestial apparitions that so many of Descartes’s contemporaries, embroiled in the wars of religion, took to be dire portents of world reformation and apocalypse. Descartes evidently thought his discoveries about the rainbow could be put to political use in manipulating an anxious populace. He himself believed in an orderly world governed by natural laws, but Cartesian wonder was not always the pleasant and innocuous passion Fisher makes it out to be.

Yet in a sense Fisher’s account is more Cartesian than Descartes’s. Like Descartes, he wants things to be unambiguously what they are, with clear and distinct outlines: wonder is a pure and primitive passion, not a hybrid. And like Descartes, he is suspicious of memory and tradition. Memory as the receptacle of history and experience blunts the sense of wonder, because almost nothing is fresh and new anymore. This is why wonder is most acute in the young, whose faculties of perception and understanding are not yet calloused. Tradition is the enemy of novelty; it is also, in Fisher’s view, anti-democratic. Admiring Twombly’s enormous blackboard-like painting of 1970, he pointedly refuses to situate it within the lineage of modern American art since Jackson Pollock. Wonders of art, like wonders of nature, should not depend on erudition. Fisher is particularly wary of religious traditions. The contrast between Noah’s rainbow and Descartes’s is in some ways the fulcrum of the book. Religious wonder is darkened by fear and thus for Fisher not genuine wonder at all: the rainbow covenant sent by God after the Flood is marred by the threat of the fire next time. Worse, religious explanations of wonders like the rainbow are historical rather than causal. The Old Testament story is just that, a story, which presses the rainbow into a narrative, and transforms it from an aesthetic object into a meaningful one. Just as Descartes despised the secret significance of arcana, Fisher loathes the hermeneutics of wonder. To retreat from the overwhelming fact to its multiple meanings is to substitute interpretation for experience, learning for curiosity, clutter for beauty. Here again Fisher breaks with an ancient tradition, this time the association between signs and wonders: Iris was the messenger of the Greek gods as well as the goddess of the rainbow; wonders were almost always announcements from the beyond. But just because the break is so radical and uncompromising, it fits with the Cartesian de novo spirit of the book.

This is a learned, cultivated work, stepping surefootedly from Theodoric of Freiburg to Mallarmé, from Raphael to Max Weber. But the footfalls are so light, the examples so apposite, the argument so front-and-centre, that the work of history and memory all but disappears. It is the impression of clarity and distinctness that lingers. Fisher never succumbs to the excursus or the parenthetical remark. He admires the succession of short, narrowly-spaced, self-evident steps in a mathematical proof, and his own prose mimics this effect to a remarkable degree. Although the telescope figures as the instrument of wonders for Fisher, his own observations are more reminiscent of the microscope. Especially in the final chapter, in which he applies his aesthetics of wonder to two of Twombly’s paintings, he transmutes the ordinary into the extraordinary by looking up close. If in this case the reader ends up finding his art criticism more wondrous than its objects, this, too, was a familiar experience of the early users of the microscope, as they peered at pins, snowflakes, corks and lice.

Fisher presents an argument, not a polemic. The same distaste for tradition that leads him to discount narrative and erudition also prevents him from positioning himself on the grand chart of cultural criticism. This is an attempt to start afresh, from those rare experiences that are truly immediate, in the root sense of being unmediated by what we know and who we are. Wonder explodes commonplaces and splinters categories. It commandeers our full attention, sweeps away distractions, blocks habitual associations, puts us all on a level, and challenges us to begin from scratch in understanding the world. Fisher’s original reflection tries to recapture the youth of philosophy – when philosophy embraced all of knowledge, and began in wonders.