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Posts Tagged ‘wonder’

My other highlight from the Royal Wedding was the trees that were brought into the nave of Westminster Abbey. It wasn’t just that they beautified the interior of the Abbey, like an oversized bunch of carefully arranged flowers; it was the magical sense they created that by entering into this building you were actually going out into another completely different world.

I’ve always loved this kind of illusion. It demonstrates how going inside can sometimes take you outside; how fixing your glance on something small can sometimes make your vision much broader. It’s like a metaphor for the power of the imagination itself, which uses something ordinary to transport you somewhere extraordinary. The very act of reading, for example – so still, so stationary, so solitary – is to float up into another world, or fall down into a rabbit-hole of adventure.

The trees in Westminster Abbey made me think of one of my favourite childhood books, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, where the inner walls of Max’s bedroom are transformed into the treescape of a terrifying jungle. And the wallpaper in David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth that turned his sitting room into an autumnal forest. And Lucy clambering through the wardrobe as the coats turned into leaves and branches and the darkness opened out into the forest snow of Narnia. And Dr Who stepping into the Tardis.

My favourite example of this kind of imaginative inversion is St Francis of Assisi’s Portiuncula. This is the little medieval chapel that once sat in the forest in the plain below Assisi. But they cut down the trees and built an enormous basilica over the entire chapel. So now you leave the streets, walk into the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and instead of being ‘inside’ you are transported ‘outside’ to the forest glade surrounding the chapel. Every time I have been there I have been struck with child-like wonder.

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I started reading Anthony Kenny’s Ancient Philosophy yesterday evening, volume 1 of his A New History of Western Philosophy. It’s a great introduction, because he has a hundred pages of chronological history, and then nine thematic chapters that synthesise the key insights of the period (logic, metaphysics, ethics, etc).

Ancient Philosophy - New History of Western Philosophy v. 1

I won’t bore you with every discovery I make over the next few weeks (if I keep reading), but this one delighted me:

Since Xenophanes believed that the earth stretched beneath us to infinity, he could not accept that the sun went below the earth when it set… He put forward a new and ingenious explanation: the sun, he maintained, was new every day. It came into existence each morning from a congregation of tiny sparks, and later vanished off into infinity… It follows from this theory that there are innumerable suns, just as there are innumerable days… [p12]

What a wonderful idea! That a new sun is created each morning; that here on the eastern horizon is something seen for the very first time; that this is not just another day in an endless cycle of days, but an adventure in being that has never existed before. It highlights the sense of wonder experienced when we catch ourselves reflecting not on what something is but on the sheer fact that it is and that it need not be at all. The opposite of Groundhog Day.

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Forget Toy Story 3 – the greatest piece of sophisticated entertainment for children is here at the poisson rouge website.

Some parents may be against young children using computer games at all. But if you are going to dip into the world of children’s websites, I would thoroughly recommend this one. (Click on the link above or the picture below, which takes you to the menu page. Each of the images on this page opens up a game of its own.)

It’s beautifully designed. There is a huge selection of games, puzzles, tasks and learning opportunities. It’s all intuitive – a child of two can work out what to do without any instructions from an adult. And instead of trapping children into the passivity of the TV it seems to open them up to endless sources of wonder and fun – like a toddler chasing pigeons in the park.

I sat and watch a two-year old playing on the site, and I kept fighting with him to have a go. The problem of me posting about this is that any adults following the link at work will waste hours of their employer’s time on it.

I’d love to know what any parents think. Is it good, healthy, educationally sound fun? Or is it the road to digital perdition? (Yes, my two-year old friend can use a touchpad with great facility before he has even mastered the pen or pencil.)

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Burj Dubai by Joi.

The Burj Dubai opened yesterday. It is staggeringly tall. Yes, the record for the world’s tallest building is broken every few years, as politicians and engineers try to inch their way ahead of their rivals. But this is not an incremental step, it is a quantum leap. This building is hundreds of metres higher than anything within shouting distance. At 828m it is about twice the height of the Empire State Building, and nearly three times higher than the Eiffel Tower.

Steve Rose captures some of the excitement and ambiguity about its construction:

We’re going to need a new word. The Burj Dubai doesn’t scrape the sky; it pierces it, like a slender silver needle, half a mile high. It’s only because Dubai never has any clouds that we can even see the tower’s top. And, judging by the images released so far, the view is more like looking out of a plane than a building. It has made reality a little less real.

The facts and figures about the tower are equally surreal – like the one about how it could be eight degrees cooler at the top than at the bottom, or the one about how you could watch the sunset at the bottom, then take a lift up to the top and watch it all over again. It’s a new order of tallness, even compared to its nearest rival, Taiwan’s Taipei 101, which it exceeds by more than 300 metres.

But, beyond height, is there anything to celebrate here? From our current perspective, the Burj Dubai symbolises catastrophic excess – of money, confidence, ambition, energy consumption. And the fact that it will most likely stand empty for years to come has been noted with great satisfaction here in the west. But isn’t this how we’ve responded to every tall structure of note, from Babel onwards? And even its many critics have to admit the tower is a rather stunning piece of architecture. Chiefly designed by Adrian Smith, formerly of skyscraper specialists SOM, and engineer Bill Baker, it is beautifully sleek and elegant, rising in a graceful series of silver tubes of different heights. It looks less like a single tower than a cluster of towers, an organic formation rather than a self-consciously iconic object. This is surely the best-looking tall building since New York’s Chrysler and the Empire State in the 1930s.

I remember building towers as a child, out of alphabet bricks, wooden blocks, lego pieces, cardboard boxes – anything at all. And digging holes in the sand on holidays to see how deep I could go: deeper than my own height, deep enough for it to get dangerous. Dad broke my heart by ordering me to cave them in when we left the beach, in case anyone fell in during the night.

Burj Dubai Aerial Shot 103 by Sgt Caboose.

There is something primeval about height and depth (and span…bridges again!). There is a purity about the sense of wonder one experiences within these encounters. I recognise all the social and economic and political ambiguities, but I am still awestruck by this building.

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I was talking to a group about the experience of wonder; how it is more than just an emotional response to something, more than just a subjective effect caused by what is out there in the world. Quite the opposite, it is an intuition that what we meet in this experience is completely other and independent from us – that it is, strangely, outside of our experience. And then I came across this quote from Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, where John Ames is reflecting on his use of the word ‘just’:

“I almost wish that I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just pourred out of it and the girl just laughed – when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree… There is something real signified by the word ‘just’ that proper language won’t acknowledge.” [Virago, p32]

It reminds me of Chesterton’s explanation of fairytales: We need to invent golden apples on golden trees in stories for slightly older children, to remind them of the wonder they experienced as little children when they first came face to face with the sheer being of an ordinary apple and an ordinary tree.

 

 

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