Thursday, October 20, 2005


I was schooled in wonder when I began reading as a little boy. The first book I ever read on my own was the second half of Charlotte's Web, because my father wanted to take a break from reading it to me and I could not wait to finish it. The tears I cried upon closing that book represent my first dialogue with mortality and grief. The wonderment of feeling literature stayed with me throughout my childhood and adolescence, and stayed true during my undergraduate years. But a funny thing happened in my Cultural Studies Ph.D. program: wonder was killed.

I took the dagger of theory and plunged it into wonder. Wonder was canonical and constructed. It was elitest. It was not of the people and for the people, but against it. Wonder was lazy. A dead-end street. Banal. Just surface. Uncritical. Useless. Awkward like a preposterous and overly sentimental uncle whose appetites and table manners are messy and self-indulgent. In its place, came irony, and winking knowingness, the "I saw that episode of Seinfeld and could deconstruct it for you if you asked me to" look. And so I dropped into a dreamless sleep that lasted several years.

But wonder came back and I realized that it was real. And promoting the experience of wonder, modeling it through my experience of it, became a part of my teaching. The fact is that your average college student doesn't read books and doesn't experience wonder too much. Trying to stir it up in her is an honorable challenge. When it works you feel like a million bucks. When it doesn't, you still believe in it, because you carry it in your heart and it gives you solace.

I'll round up the usual suspects and play the part of scientist. I'm a pseudo-Marxist critic anyway, and can be cynical with the best of them. I do my job, the whole critical thinking shtick. Yeah, there's truth in that, no question, and its worth defending. But not at the expense of wonder. Unlike many other things, wonder is worth defending... on a raft in the mississippi or in the luxuriant tales of a queer Sheherazade locked in a South American prison cell.