Ho-Hum; Or, Whatever Happened to the Capacity for Wonder?

As we were driving home from seeing the movie Genius in Chapel Hill, my husband asked me why people don’t read Thomas Wolfe any more. My snappy retort masked what has been for some time an insidious fear: “Because they can no longer understand the end of Gatsby.” And then, to make sure I got it right, I looked up the passage on my phone and read aloud:

Gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes–a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees . . . had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Weldon Thornton, noted scholar of Joyce and Lawrence and my thesis advisor in graduate school, described those lines as the saddest in literature, with their implication that all frontiers had been conquered, all quests won, all dreams dreamed. I agreed with him then.

Now, however, I realize that sadder still are the insights I have gained in the ensuing quarter century. Specifically, Nick Carraway was an unreliable narrator, and he was wrong in his self-important historical pronouncements. The world of the 1620s and the 1920s still contained–and the soon-to-be world of the 2020s still contains–verdant new vistas for the explorer’s imagination. The tragic fault lies instead in our diminished capacity for wonder.

I came to this understanding via the most circuitous of paths, popular culture. When I was a child, I waited impatiently to see The Wizard of Oz when it was televised once a year. With the same anticipation, only somewhat dulled by age and experience, I awaited the annual yuletide broadcast of It’s a Wonderful Life after I first saw it during college. Of course, when VHS technology became available, I scrambled to buy my own copies of these two films. And that was precisely when they transmuted from magic to mundane.

This experience is at least tangentially related to Barry Schwartz’s “paradox of choice,” with which I became familiar via a TED talk at least a decade after he published his influential 2004 book. While Schwartz focuses on the paralysis and the lack of satisfaction resulting from too much choice, though, I am more concerned with another effect: ennui.

I now have DVDs not only of those two youthful favorites, but of all the films on my “Desert-Island Cineaste” list–and many more besides. But I never watch them. Well, I seldom watch them. And perhaps “seldom” is the reason they retain their power to captivate. Because a few of my students were analyzing it for their final paper this term, I recently re-watched One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I experienced renewed awe for Louise Fletcher’s ability to portray evil with a glare in her eyes and a twitch of her lips, and once again I had to choke back tears as Chief Bromden loped into the receding Oregon landscape.

Perhaps I can trick myself into this kind of surprised admiration because I experienced it as a child of the 1950s. We had three channels, and we sat in the evenings and watched television as a family. The girls in the neighborhood played with dolls in the winter and jacks in the summer. We walked to the town library and checked out books, armloads at a time. We wrote letters to aunts in Oklahoma and pen pals in Japan and raced to the mailbox every day to see if Chi-Chi Marich, the mailman, had delivered a response. Long-distance calls were rare and special treats. We lay on the grass on summer evenings and watched for satellites. We watched Little League ballgames, slurping on red snow-cones. We went downtown to listen to the city band play on the steps of the county courthouse. Later, the summer band concerts moved to the city park. However, few attended our concert on July 20, 1969, the kick-off for our six-state tour to Yellowstone Park; most of the townspeople (including my own parents) stayed home to watch Neil Armstrong’s small step/giant leap.

Even now, memories of this simple childhood feel rich. Each experience was a gift because it was invested with wonder: “A feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, [rare], unexpected, unfamiliar, or inexplicable” (Oxford Dictionaries).

I am reminded of lines spoken by Henry Drummond, the Clarence Darrow character in Inherit the Wind:

Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “All right, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote, but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder puff or your petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”

Perhaps birds had lost their wonder when Scopes and his monkey were on trial, but airplanes had not–and soon we had Sputnik and then men walking on the moon. But now Amazon delivers packages and photographers document weddings with drones. We have hundreds of channels, and there’s nothing to watch. Everyone is a writer, and reading is reading, so it doesn’t matter if we read Frankenstein or Twilight, Jane Austen or Jude Devereux–or even fan fiction. (Yes, I recognize irony when I see it, so I realize that this blog is yet another example of the “irresistible proliferation of graphomania”; you would be much better off reading Kundera.) Parody is pandemic because the ennui that accompanies too much choice also engenders the cynicism without which parody cannot flourish.

I will narrow the question that opened this post and ask instead why young people in particular don’t read Wolfe any more. A couple of generations of them were in his thrall. William Styton, born four years after the publication of Look Homeward, Angel, “was awed by the torrential fiction of fellow Southerner Thomas Wolfe” (Hillel Italie, Washington Post 2 Nov. 2006). Pat Conroy, born 20 years later, was still filled with adolescent adulation when he wrote his “Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe” in 1999 (Southern Cultures 5.3: 7-30). Historian George B. Tindall, noted for The Emergence of the New South, was another devoté, as was my mentor, John V. Mering. And that line of followers continued to my own generation. It was wonder we felt when we read Wolfe’s towering and gargantuan prose–wonder squared, if you will, because it was precisely Wolfe’s sense of wonder and awe in the presence of the life teeming around him that resonated with us. And we not only shared his wonder, but also felt the additional wonder in the discovery that he felt exactly as we did when we looked inside our own skulls or beyond the hills of our imagination.

We thrilled even at what Conroy called the “bad Wolfe” (the very passages I committed to memory):

A stone, a leaf, an unfound door; of a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces. Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.

Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?

O waste of loss, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this most weary unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?

O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

I can only imagine the nervous twitters–and poorly stifled yawns–that would greet me if I read this passage aloud to my freshman composition students. Or the guffaws if I asked my American literature students to read the sprawling 544 pages whence these purple passages arose. I don’t think their objections result from changing tastes or from the effort required. Rather, the true irony is that our modern American inventor of too-muchness should be the victim of the ennui of too much.

The first line of “Brise Marine” speaks of precisely this species of lassitude: “La chair est triste, hélas! et ja’i lu tous les livres” (The flesh is sad, alas! and I have read all the books). However, the narrator of Mallarmé’s poem answers his torpor with shouts of adventure (je partirai!) and weighs anchor for exotic lands filled with wonder.

Today, one says “ho-hum” and sends a Tweet.


For further reading: Mallarmé’s “Sea Breeze”

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