As our resident medievalist, Dr. Cara Hersh helps animate older texts for newer audiences, persuading contemporary students to take a closer look at the simultaneously age-old and currently relevant insights distilled in some of her favorite works. She enables thought expansion and rhetorical rabbit holes through her job, and opts for an English department mindset while outside of the classroom.
Hersh’s keynote speech from the Sigma Tau Delta induction ceremony this past Monday, March 25th, urges English students and faculty to use our reading brains to the best of our abilities, believing our skills help us see the world in an empathetic state of wonder. No, this isn’t a plug for the hit OPB radio show, but a call to arms for the disenchanted. Her brand of teaching and seeing the world rests in a commitment to details and consideration; it functions as a tool for learning across space and time. She shows her students how to pause and ask more profound questions, even if they begin with a simple “Why?.” Dr. Hersh dignifies the power of language in a contagious way. I genuinely enjoyed charting sentences in her “Otherness” class, and cannot recall another time when I was shown how to appreciate the sum of a work’s parts in conjunction with its wholeness. In effort to wholly approach the world, Hersh asks us to remember how literature captivates us and sharpens our abilities to look at things from left-field. Read her keynote speech below for a dose of inspiration and that contagious magic she brings to her courses.
The Wonder of Wonder
Dr. Cara Hersh
Most of you, at some point in your college career, have probably had to answer to the now cliched question—why did you want to become an English major? And—what are you going to do with an English major? As the sole humanist in a scientifically minded family and as a Jewish humanist who spends her time studying medieval Catholic texts I have gotten my fair share of questions over the years. It’s taken me awhile to answer these questions with substance, and I don’t have just one satisfying answer to them. Today, though, I’d like to try to respond to these questions and share with you all one answer that has felt particularly compelling to me in recent years. To those who wonder about my ostensibly esoteric career path commit I reply: I immerse myself in this pursuit, and take immense pleasure in doing so, because of wonder itself.
In the last five years or so I have come to really appreciate how wonder, for me, is one answer to the question “what’s so great about literature?” We might assume that wonder is a trans-historical affect—haven’t all humans wondered about something in their world? Wondering about wonder from the perspectives of both a parent and a medievalist have led me, however, to realize that wonder is historical. It seems to me that wonder is not some timeless emotion like love, jealousy, or anger, that supposedly transcends all time periods. Instead, wonder diminishes over time and it must, I suggest, be reinvigorated through deliberate strategies that involve fiction—in our own lives, in our reading, and when we learn from one another in our literature classrooms.
I became hyper-aware of wonder when my son turned four and I was answering a lot of “why?” questions. I loved these moments of wonder and wrote down a lot of them: why can’t dogs go to restaurants? Why don’t flashlights flash? Why are there boys and girls? Why doesn’t food go down your airtube (and I’ll add that approximately 99 percent of the questions I answered at that point involved the gastrointestinal track)? Constantly answering questions such as these (often times thanks to the assistance of Google) made me extremely aware of the strength of wonder in the young—I once wrote down all the “why” questions my son asked me over one fifteen-minute breakfast and had about two pages worth of questions.
It also made me cognizant of how little we all wonder as we get older. I am guilty of this decrease in curiosity, as are we all. I want to ask as many “why”questions as my son does, but I don’t. In class, I want my students to bombard with me with “why” questions, but that doesn’t always happen. William Wordsworth speaks to this diminishment in the poem, “My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold A Rainbow in the Sky” as he points out the universal decline in geeking out about phenomena such as rainbows in our adult years.
So, here’s where my medievalist perspective comes in. Just as we are more apt to wonder as children, so too, I argue, were medieval subjects more prone to wonder than we are. Just as adults wonder less, so, too does the modern world. The Middle Ages more emphatically embraced phenomena that compel wonder—think about the medieval belief in miracles, marvels, and monsters, for example. We tend today to look negatively on these magical moments of wonder and, according to the modern narrative of disenchantment, the Middle Ages was a time of superstition and ignorance (of “enchantment” in pejorative sense). These crazy beliefs, we tell ourselves today, were replaced during the Enlightenment with rationality, secularism, and individualism, which disenchanted the world (in a positive sense). As Max Weber states of the disenchanted period in which we now live “one can, in principle master all things by calculation”—we tell ourselves that we can understand the world around us better because of disenchantment.
Of course, the Enlightenment brought about many amazing things and rationality is an incredibly productive impulse in our modern world. Science, engineering, and mathematics have benefited and will continue to benefit so many of our lives. But so can wonder. We need to cultivate wonder in our collective and individual histories.
So what can we, and do we, wonder about it? How is wonder still available to us? One thing that has stayed consistent since the medieval period is the types of events and phenomena that provoke us to wonder. We wonder, I suggest, at things that we can’t quite incorporate or encompass in our preset mental categories of how the world is ordered. We wonder at mystery, at paradox, at hybridity. In the Catholic medieval tradition this would have included the hybridity of god and man, of mother and virgin, etc. What do you wonder about? When I have asked students like you to share what causes them to stop and wonder they point to similar moments of hybridity or paradox. They wonder at recent research that shows that trees can communicate with each other, that machines can do all the amazing things they can do (think Artificial Intelligence), or about the complexity and mysteries of our own human minds.
Literature, is of course, the perfect instrument of wonder. Think about poetry—poets, freed from the constraints of plot, can constantly surprise, delight, and invoke wonder by mashing incongruous ideas, words, and sounds together. We can wonder at the miracle that the Beowulf poet—who wrote from a position of not being able to imagine in any way a 21st-century readership, can still communicate with us and provoke us. We can wonder at the magic of written language—essentially black squiggles on a page, communicating across time and space. We can wonder at the magic of watching a play or a scary movie and being genuinely scared about something that we also know is not real.
Ok, so what can wonder offer us—why wonder? I propose that wonder offers us an ethical system—one that is incredibly compelling to me. First, wonder is non-appropriative. When one wonders about something, one does not try to master it like one does when being rational, but rather is bowled over by its awesomeness, indecipherability, or paradoxical nature. Some of my favorite descriptions of what wonder is includes Iris Murdoch’s claim that wonder promotes a “unselfing,” Simone Weil refers to the wonder response as a “radical decentering” and Elaine Scarry claims that wonder can make us a feel an “opiated adjacency”—in other words we are sidelined when we feel wonder but it is a pleasurable sidelining. As the medieval writer Bernard of Clairveaux analogized, wonder is like a golden goblet filled with liquid—we can consume what is in the goblet and understand part of it, but we eventually give back the goblet itself—we can’t master all of it. This ethos of ceding control, I argue, can be incredibly ethical as we may shift our relationship to nature, animals, and other humans. Instead of solely trying to control the world around us we should also passively wonder at its awesomeness.
Second, and this is my favorite ethical argument about wonder— wonder is a system based on joy and this joy stimulates generosity. For a long time, when people asked me why I spend my life studying literature I answered “ empathy.” I believed (and still believe, of course) that literature allows us to enter into the minds of others and invites us to avoid harm to others because we imagine what it would be like to be in their shoes. However, in some ways, this answer centers on a concept of suffering rather than joy. Conversely, ethical arguments for wonder rest on the feeling of happiness. Provocatively, the Latin words consistently used for wonder in the Renaissance period, admiratio, mirabilia, and miracula all “seem to have their roots in an Indo-European word for smile.” Wondering at things excites us, invigorates us, makes us smile. And as one scholar on this subject writes, “One must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others.” Wonder makes us take joy in the world around us and then compels us to take better care of it.
For all these reasons, I hope to reverse the timeline of our personal and world histories and advocate for emotional wonder alongside rationality and calculation both in my classrooms and my own life. I invite you, too, to ask those childlike “why” questions and to embrace the mysterious, magical, enchanted and wonder-full qualities of books.