Ed Simon on Wonder in the Time of Coronavirus
Ed Simon is an editor at Berfrois, a British magazine on tea, literature, and ideas, a staff writer at The Millions, which the New York Times has called “the indispensable literary site,” and the author of Furnace of this World; Or, 36 Observations about Goodness and the forthcoming Printed in Utopia: The Renaissance’s Radicalism. Much of his writing explains how to find goodness amidst calamity. He spoke to Rabbit Hole about the role wonder can play in helping us appreciate the depth of the tragedy as well as the beauty around us in the time of coronavirus.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Rabbit Hole: I wanted to start with getting a sense of how you see wonder generally and in this particular moment. You’ve written on the role of wonder at Christmas, a time of celebration and love. How does that role change in the face of a pandemic? Is wonder possible, is it relevant?
ES: It’s going to sound cliché, but at a time of calamity, right when wonder becomes the most absolute difficult, is also the moment when it becomes the most necessary. Wonder, as I argued in the New York Times piece that you referenced, is that which not only makes survival possible, but reminds us of even why survival is important. What does that mean during the current situation? Every morning when I get up and drink my coffee I watch CNN, and right next to the talking heads there is a running tally of how many people have died. 20,000 then 30,000, then 70,000, now 100,000. It’s shocking, but it’s also numbing. Those numbers run higher and higher, but they’re so abstracted and so detached that it’s easy to become totally divorced from the reality of what that means – 100,000 unique human beings – preventable deaths – sick from a virus but condemned by policy. A lack of wonder – at the singularity which each human represents, at the significance and difference and uniqueness and irreplaceability of each woman and man – is what makes it possible to ignore such deaths. Wonder at the gloriousness of each other human being’s singularity has to be the antidote to that. What this looks like is difficult to say, other than a deep sense that we haven’t yet properly begun to grieve and mourn.
Rabbit Hole: Do you think there are different modes of wonder (i.e. wonder at physical objects v wonder at other humans)?
ES: This is a fascinating question, because on one hand it could be dangerous, there could be a real feeling, especially among those of us with a humanistic bent, to subsume the wonder at physical objects with the wonder of other humans, or to even valorize the former at the expense of the later. It should go without saying that no inanimate object, no matter how wondrous, is actually more wonderful than any person. What I mean by that is that I think the wonder we feel at approaching other minds, other beings, and I include animals in this, is one where we’re confronted with the sheer magnificence of there even being the idea of a mind, and the ever more transcendent beauty of there being a mind which isn’t your own. In that way, minds are little sparks of light within an incomprehensible universe, and the communion between them strikes me as the purest form of wonder that I can imagine.
Rabbit Hole: I adore that thought. In a period where we are so divided — both physically and politically — what can we do to restore that sense of communion?
ES: That’s a really difficult question, and I think that it’s one that we have to be careful about how we answer. Part of me wants to say that our divisions could be cured by some sort of Martin Buber-like embrace of the I and Thou, a more fully embrace of the magnitude of those who are different from ourselves, or by leaning into a Christian sense of loving our enemies. I think there is a problem, though, in leaning too much on the hypothesis that division is what ails our body politic right now. That’s sort of the consensus position, or the mainstream status quo one, but I don’t think that it’s correct. Division implies two evenly matched sides with equivalent grievances, but at least in the United States I think the problem is much more that a reactionary minority on the right, capable of tremendous rage and violent potential, wishes to dominate and compel the majority of people into their way of doing things. If polarization [was] really our problem, then I think speaking to common humanity might be useful, but I don’t really think that’s our situation. If there could be some Great Awakening where that side would acknowledge the communion of humanity with the religious and racial minorities whom they share this country with, then there would be a crucial beauty in that. I think praying for that to happen is important, but more important still is making sure that our rights are preserved, and should pangs of conscience arise amongst those who’ve rejected the model of a tolerant nation, than that’s between them and their God.
Rabbit Hole: Does wonder fit into some broader ecology of virtues or character traits? That is, are there pre-requisite or associated virtues that reinforce one’s sense of the transcendent or are reinforced by it?
ES: This is a good question, and I hope my answer will be relatively straightforward – I think that the virtue most associated with wonder must be curiosity. It represents something much more precious than raw intelligence. As a virtue, curiosity reflects a willingness to engage with the world, it’s a statement of bravery whereby somebody says “I’m willing to be altered by something foreign to me; I’m willing to be changed in ways that I can’t even anticipate.” Curiosity has an innate humility about it, it’s to stand before the font of all of that which you don’t know, and to genuflect before it in a posture of love. Intelligence is a neutral value; there are both good and bad smart people. Too often the positivist pose, or the technocratic impulse, valorizes intelligence as the highest virtue. And then so much of what we think of as intelligence is simply socialization, acculturation, having the right CV. That sort of intelligence doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with curiosity, and indeed “smart” and “dumb” people can be either curious or incurious, there’s not necessarily a relationship between those attributes. I’ve taught for more than a decade now, and I’ve taught plenty of golden children who do all the right things and [couldn’t] care less about what’s under consideration. I’ve always had more respect for the student who, even if they can’t turn a phrase, have trouble wrapping their mind around a concept, aren’t the best at posing an argument, are simply excited by that which they don’t know, who want to engage more fully with that.
Rabbit Hole: Let’s shift gears a bit, what does wonder look like at a personal level for you? Describe your personal journey towards wonder.
ES: This is a difficult question, and I want to be very careful in my answer, and so I’ll begin with a mea culpa that hopefully puts anyone reading this at ease. I think that my own personal journey towards wonder, especially at this particular point in time, is very, very poor. I say that I want to put people at ease because I think it would be very easy to come in and say something like “Oh, I read this poem and I feel wonder” or “When listening to some music I sense the numinous” or whatever, but I don’t want people to think that I’m any expert on living a life of wonder, or that I’m tripping the ecstatic transcendent all day while reading Blake and listening to The Brandenburg Concerto. Like most people, especially right now, my personal journey is more one of anxiety, insecurity, worry, fear, and often intense anger. If I had to evaluate, overall, my journey toward wonder, I’d give myself a solid C+. The only saving grace, I think, if I can defend myself from my own self-accusation, [is] that I firmly believe that there is such a thing as a capacity for wonder, for beatification, for ecstasy, for the transcendent, for the numinous, because I’ve felt it before – and not just because of drugs or alcohol. But it’s very rare, very hard to come by, and very precious, which is of course all the more reason to search for it.
Rabbit Hole: How does it manifest itself in your day-to-day life, especially while in quarantine?
ES: Wonder would be an impossible state to exist within all the time, and if you could, it would cease to be wonder. I think that the state of wonder is a little circumscribed universe, a tiny heaven that fluctuates into existence for a moment, and that then dissipates – but so much depends on that moment. I’ve always been thrown by questions about if you believe in God or not, the only honest answer for me has been “sometimes.” I was recently reading a novel, which are incredibly difficult for me to read right now, since getting through narrative feels like running at the bottom of a swimming pool. The novel in question was Mary Beth Kean’s excellent Ask Again, Yes, and at one point I had extreme certainty that there is a God, that He loves us, and that there is a moral order born from the fact that we’re all fallible, fallen creatures still deserving of love, and that we’re all too hard on ourselves and each other. I do not think this very often. I don’t think it right now. Yet in that minute or so, I had a sense of overpowering wonder at the sheer magnificence of all of us who ever have been, or are, or will be, and there was a gratitude in that.
Rabbit Hole: Art seems to play a central role in catalyzing moments of wonder for you. What is it about some great works of art that allows them to facilitate wonder? Are there particular artists that really do it for you? Are there particular modes of reading, watching, seeing, or just general interpretation that make one particularly attuned to this effect of art?
ES: When evaluating art, and the greatness of art, I’m always completely unmoved by the Harold Bloom need to rank, categorize, classify, and canonize certain texts as “better” or “worse.” That sort of conservatism always struck me as little more than baseball card collecting, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with what makes something capable of transmitting the transcendent. At the same time, I don’t want to also eliminate the idea that some art is more capable of transmitting something ineffable that other works maybe don’t; I think that a full-throated relativism can merge into something nihilistic, and arguably reactionary as well. I refuse to assume that the market is some sort of democratic demigod that compels me to admit that whatever I’m supposed to admit is great, is great. So what I have is a not particularly helpful set of principles, one that rejects the logic of the canon and another that says we still have to admit that some art is greater than others. I prefer an almost via negativa approach to poetry, art, film, when it comes to aesthetic evaluations, not one where we can say with any certainty that Paradise Lost is more transcendent than Breaking Bad, or whatever, but where we look to how the individual crystalline moment of the work speaks to us in ways that are hard to categorize. And here I should emphasize that I’m speaking not of humanistic inquiry, which is something different – something more linear, logical, analytical, and empirical. Rather I’m holding to Dickinson’s contention that she knows something is a poem if it takes the top of her head off. I’ve never heard a better test.
Rabbit Hole: How do you think our capacity for wonder changes as we age? Some people think that children all have an innate sense of wonder, but many of us lose it as we get older and more jaded and uninterested in things. Do you agree? Do you think this is an inevitable process, or are there things we can do developmentally to preserve that early sense of wonder?
ES: It seems an almost obvious truism that if not our capacity, than at least the frequency, of our moments of wonder declines as we get older. That which is cliché is cliché for a reason, and I can’t imagine that too many people do an honest inventory of their soul and conclude that the world became more wondrous once they’re older. To avoid anything too sentimental in that observation, I imagine that it has less to do with some essential, innate quality of wonder in children, and more that they have yet to be fully ground down by all of the systems of social control that benefit from us not being in an enraptured, anarchic, freeing state of wonder. If there is innocence here I’m not claiming that it’s that of some sort of noble savage amongst us, rather that education, industry, state, and church have yet to fully conspire in the successful severance of that ability. This is very different, you’ll note, from saying that such a process is inevitable. There are, it must be said, poets, artists, mathematicians, scientists, writers, and so on who walk in wonder all of the time. How is that inculcated? By consciously separating yourself in all moments from the quotidian cult of positivism and utility, by consistently refusing to think of yourself as a member of those systems, by breaking “the mind-forged manacles,” as Blake would say.
Rabbit Hole: What are some practical things people can do to refresh their perception of their surroundings? What are some to avoid?
ES: This is something I think, that in the particulars, everyone is going to have to answer for themselves. Not to give a cop out for this, I’m happy to talk about some of the things that I do. Because I’m a writer, and I filter the world and my understanding of the world through writing, some of the most grateful, most wondrous states I can enter into, just short of the time I spend with my loved ones, are facilitated through writing. I don’t want this to come across as bragging, I know lots of people are having trouble writing, or are anxious about writing, right now, and I think that that’s a totally valid response to a small apocalypse. For myself, I absolutely need to write to make sense of anything, and if I’m not writing, or if I take too much of a break [from] writing, I get itchy and not well. I’m a recovering alcoholic, and in many ways I replaced my drinking with writing, which is [a] much more healthy, productive, helpful, inspiring, and important use of your time than getting blackout drunk, but it also means that I write because I literally have to – it literally saves my life. So I’m not trying to shame people for not being productive or anything, I’m just explaining that that’s why I do what I do in the way that I do it. I think what that means is that anyone has to find that thing that generates their sense of wonder, whatever it is, be it music, sports, and so on, and let that be a conduit for those higher feelings, for that sense of the transcendent.
I think what’s to avoid is easier, and that’s the brain candy that I shovel into my neural cortex in the form of social media. Often when I wake up the first thing I do is grab my phone and look at anything on Facebook, Twitter, that will more likely than not enrage me. And this is a very cliché answer I know, but there’s a truth born from my experience that I think a lot of people searching their souls will assent to. The internet, as fantastic as it can be, can sometimes act like a drug that dulls your sense and gives you a false feeling of connection (which was also exactly what drugs did). I used to wake up and think about the dreams I’d just had, and preserve them as well as I could so I could revisit them throughout the day. If your first instinct is to grab your phone, you can’t do that. So I’m trying to make an effort to preserve, or maybe rather to reengage, that old sense of things.
Rabbit Hole: Granted that it’s an almost impossible thing to ever really capture in words, what is it in or about writing that catalyzes moments of wonder for you? Beyond the feeling of a need to write, what is it in writing that connects you to the sublime?
ES: Writing remains, at the end of the day, a mysterious art. I think that we can certainly close read pieces formally, that we can read experience and biography into the “production of texts” as we’d put it in cultural studies, but fundamentally literature has something that’s a bit spooky about it. In my own theorizing I’m very much interested in this spooky quality of composition and literature, the ways in which reading, but also writing, can connect you to what feels like a voice beyond your own. Something that sounds recognizably like yourself, but ideally at its most rarefied, its most cognoscente, its greatest ability to “flow,” if you will. Where writing makes me feel connected to wonder, when it’s going well, is that I’m able to rearrange letters and words not of my own invention and to generate something new. Even if it’s not great, even if it’s not brilliant, it’s new, and it’s mine. And in the borrowing of those words, all those things in the dictionary that are older than me and that will outlive me, there’s the forging of things novel. What makes writing wondrous is the feeling that you’ve merged into that historical slipstream.
Rabbit Hole: I like this idea that there are an infinite number of paths towards a sentiment of wonder, and that coming to that feeling is a matter of finding the track most precisely suited to one’s particular identity. Do you have any advice for people still trying to find or refine their conduit for wonder? Are there any near universal principles in this intimately personal search?
ES: That’s the big question! I don’t know what the shortcuts necessarily are, save for awareness and intentionality. I think so much of our commodified, market-tested, consumerist society, enraptured [at] the idea of profit over all else, is vehemently anti-wonder, replacing ecstasy with spectacle which is something very different. And the thing with spectacle is that it’s designed to dull the senses, so that we’re all sort of sleep-walking through life. In that sense, awareness, to fully inhabit a moment, to be aware of the texture, of the depth, of the breadth of every moment and space, is a direct rebuke to that alienation and an invitation to wonder. I’ll full admit that I’m terrible at this. But I’m trying to get better.