It is said that human beings are distinguished from other animals by our knowledge of our own mortality. As far as distinctions go, that one kind of sucks. It does remind me, though, that we can learn a lot from animals—particularly dogs. They lead their doggie lives blissfully unaware they’ll be garden fertilizer before too long.
This weekend my wife, a professor of English at Skidmore College, will be busy running a two-day symposium on “wonder.” The event kicks off with a keynote address by Mary Jane Rubenstein, author of Strange Wonder, a book that “confronts Western philosophy’s ambivalent relationship to the Platonic ‘wonder’ that reveals the strangeness of the everyday.” There’s a long tradition of intellectuals wondering about wonder. Plato pondered thaumazein in Theaetetus, Aristotle in Metaphysics. Renee Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and Adam Smith all weighed in on what exactly constitutes, generates the elusive emotion. Edmund Burke further pondered wonder in the context of the “sublime.”
For her part, Rubenstein brings Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, Jean-Luc Nancy, and Jacques Derrida into the discussion, arguing that wonder “reveals the extraordinary in and through the ordinary.” Pretty heavy stuff.
The Sublime Beauty of an Open Car Window
I’ll be attending the symposium, so I plan to come away better educated about this whole matter. Meanwhile, in the less wondrous realm of the mundane, there are chores to do. Specifically, my wife didn’t have time to pack a lunch, so I drove out to Panera to buy her a soba noodle bowl. Can’t have my wife running a heavy-duty symposium on an empty stomach, after all.
It’s a rainy day here in the northeast, and though the temperature is finally in the fifties, the overcast sky makes things look colder than they are. As I made my way down Route 50 with a brown Panera bag on the seat next to me, I saw a scuffed-up SUV cruising along with the windows down. Sticking its head out the back window was a German shepherd, his ears flattened, his cheeks blown back into a clownish grin. He was so into this simple pleasure that his eyes were half-closed, as if he were in some kind of religious ecstasy.
Now there was a creature unburdened by existential angst. Maybe that’s the lesson to learn from dogs—by spending less time pondering the human condition we free our sensibilities to experience awe, delight, wonder in ordinary things. All that blissed-out dog cared about was the window was down and the air smelled of Spring. It was a sight the benighted Plato and Aristotle never beheld—unless Greek dogs enjoyed the occasional wagon ride. Yet, in that dog’s face I saw everything I need to know about wonder.
Don’t get me wrong—I’ll still be at the symposium if only to hear someone pronounce thaumazein with a straight face. But on the way there, I may just roll the window down and do some seriously undignified face-surfing.