The Death of Wonder

Over Christmas, we visited family in the New York City area, and one of the sights we took in was the Botanic Garden’s model train exhibit – which features G-scale model trains winding their way through the enclosed garden pavilions past miniature models of historic buildings in the New York area, both existing and past homes, all made out of scraps of trees and plants. There was a model of vanished Penn Station, as well as one of Grand Central Station, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, a whole host of mansions [past and present], various New York bridges, and more other structures than I can remember. And all of them created in great detail from plants or plant material – and nothing else. Even the transparent windows were from plants.

It was truly awe inspiring… at least to us. But there was the couple behind us, who declared, less than quietly, “This is boring. Can’t we skip ahead?”

Now, I’m among the first to recognize that a sense of inspiration or wonder is personal, and where I see something wonderful someone else may not… or may be bored out of their mind. Nonetheless, I’m concerned about what I don’t see that much of these days, especially here in the United States, and what I’m seeing less and less of is wonder in the real world. I can see that spark of wonder in people looking at screens, screens both large and small, but not in people looking at what can be done with plants, or in double rainbows arching in front of red mountains, or in crimson, sky-blue pink sunsets, or in majestic red sandstone pillars in a national park, or in mountain sand dunes made of pink coral sand sculpted by the wind.

I’ve also noticed in my visits to our national parks that while attendance is increasing, a greater and greater percentage of those visiting seem to be from other nations, at least from all the languages I hear that aren’t English.

To me, no screen can capture the beauty of fresh-fallen snow across the pines just as the sun clears the mountains to the east. And maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but to me, a screen is just as screen, and all of the computer-generated imagery on it is just that – an artificial image. A good CGI team can create anything, but it’s not real. And it’s not complete.

What’s in the real world is more complete. A live acoustical concert is more complete and encompassing than a recorded concert, or one electronically amplified, because even the best recording equipment doesn’t capture the overtones and harmonics. Even the best CGI doesn’t capture all the shifting light patterns.

What electronics does do is cram high speed images into shorter and shorter time periods at greater and greater volume – call it the fast food of perception. And like fast food, it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.

And I have to wonder if it’s leading not only to a detachment from reality, as postulated by SF author James Gunn in The Joy Makers way back in 1961,but also to the death of wonder about reality, especially among young people.

7 thoughts on “The Death of Wonder”

  1. John Prigent says:

    @What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.’

    1. Tom says:

      Wiki says of Davies poem “It warns that “the hectic pace of modern life has a detrimental effect on the human spirit.” Modern man has no time to spend free time in the lap of nature.”
      Attention to detail needs time. Perhaps Mr. Modesitt’s couple were expressing not only a disinterest in train models but, unconsciously, their own inability to give attention to what they chose to do and see.

  2. Tim says:

    On the upside, when I have appointments in London which are near Bloomsbury, I tend to prepare for my meetings in the British Museum, so I can take breaks walking through the exhibits.

    The school parties are fascinating to watch as well. They range from single-sex groups in impecable uniforms to very mixed and informal ones.

    They all have one thing in common : they are thrilled by the plain old stone exhibits and were continually asking questions of both their teachers and the curators. And not a selfie in sight!

    All is not lost.


  3. Bob Walters says:

    I think some people have always been somewhat jaded. I believe people just run into more of them since there are so many more people but I am not convinced the percentage is higher.

  4. JakeB says:

    I was just rereading the Parafaith War the last couple of days and was struck at how Trystin’s appreciation for the Gorge on the Revenant home planet and his recognition of how some of the Revenants appreciate its beauty is one of the things that leads him to his creative solution to his mission via a recognition of the fundamental humanity of his enemies.

  5. darcherd says:

    This thread calls to mind the gag I saw a couple of years ago where a computer gamer was heard to say, “Real life? Yeah, I tried that once. The graphics are awesome but the plot sucks.”

  6. Devildog says:

    I find that when I was really young, I was amazed by the wonder of it all. As I have gotten older, I never had the time. But as I get older still, I find that I am amazed by the wonder of it all again and I am disappointed that I did not make the time earlier.

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