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.


At 5:48 AM, Blogger Masterfraud said...

This post made me delurk! This is beautiful, and part of what I struggle with, although far less eloquently. As a graduate student myself, I often feel, but didn't have the words before, that this wonder is what the profession plans to take from me. Thank you for a great post!

At 9:00 AM, Anonymous ip said...

What a very beautiful post. And it's so important to think about wonder in the classroom. And not just imparting to others in the classroom, but letting teaching create it in you all over again. That's what I've been noticing this year - re-encountering texts in order to teach them has punctured any notions of my mastery oftexts - thank god - and instead opened up their wonder again. Yay for that. And thanks for this, which came just as I was about to put together a lecture on wondrous texts indeed.

At 9:48 AM, Blogger Richard said...

Cam - have you read Lousie Rosenblatt? Her project was to find a way to legitimize both the critical thinking and the sense of wonder as simlultaneous pedagogical approaches.

The Reader the Text the Poem is especially good, but I also like her better-known book, Literature as Exploration.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Artichoke Heart said...

Nicely said, Camicao! As a writer, I have to be able to believe in the possibility of wonder, of mystery, of the importance of artistry. To have one's life work reduced to nothing more than a merely inevitable cultural product is much too depressing to contemplate. It would be death of the imagination.

At 1:01 PM, Blogger jo(e) said...

What a wonderful post!

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Frank said...

Beautiful post, C. Very lyrical. This is one of the reasons why I question my suitability for the academic life.

At 11:28 AM, Blogger Scrivener said...

Beautiful post! I have struggled with the same process myself, of course, and I have also found that teaching can be an effective antidote to the infection of too much irony and critical distance. It's a lot of why I love to be in the classroom so much, to be honest.

At 12:31 PM, Blogger JosuĂ© said...

This is so true. I haven't ventured into graduate school or professorship, and probably never will, but as an undergraduate English major I could already feel that wonder slipping away at times. Although I did actually enjoy reading Derrida.

This may sound really stupid, but I got my uncritical love for books back by reading the Harry Potter series soon after graduating. I had taken a Joyce seminar among other things during my last semester, and it was just so refreshing to decompress from that by reading something for enjoyment, something that didn't require annotations and maps and diagrams and a knowledge of the catechism and Irish History in order to begin to comprehend two-thirds of it Something of which I didn't have to critically analyze, and which the only question I found myself asking as I read was "How did Rowling make these books so entertaining and easy to identify with?" I was reminded of Roald Dahl and Narnia and all of the funny and mysterious books that got me interested in literature and writing in the first place. Not that I'm knocking Joyce or anything, because he certainly provides his moments of wonder, but it takes so much more work to get to them, and I'm not sure if they are worth the pay.

I think it is funny that wonder is associated with elitism, "not of the people and for the people, but against it." A graduate student trying to pretend to understand Levi-Strauss or a professor disecting an Eliot poem to show cultural biases seems so much more elitist to me than a kid reading Charlotte's Web or Harry Potter just because they want to. That's far more "of the people" to me. But then I guess we are talking about different kinds of elitism. I'm talking about intellectual elitism, and marxist criticism I assume is talking about books that cause wonder as capitalist products made by the elite to be sold for the profit of the elite classes, using wonder as a tool to manipulate and control the masses. And I guess there is truth to that, as well. But it sure is a sucky, disheartening, limited way of looking at the world, in my opinion.

So I'm glad to have had at least some professors who, like you, attempted to share with the students the wonder and life which texts can provide, rather than just pinning them down as specimens of cultural shortcomings. Keep it up.

By the way, thanks for your comment on my blog entry. I gave an overly verbose response that you can read here, if you are interested.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger Carroll, Violinguist said...

Okay, I have hand-wrung and blushed, welled up and shied away from posting a comment to this entry maybe 10 times now. I am at present entirely preoccupied with this subject--with wonder, the language of experience, the heart, originality, art, scholarship, the language of academe, theory, close reading. For the record, I rather enjoy theory, but I don't like how it has seemed to crowd out the music of that peculiar lovemaking, if that is what it is, between reader and text, and render perfectly reasonable and creative people mute. I could explode into a veritable typhoon on this subject, but for here suffice it to say I am so glad, Camicao, that you shared this. Thank you.

I hope I'm not breaking any blog etiquette in saying that my entire blog circles around the issues you bring up in this post, and my most recent entry in particular invites further dialogue, so you and anyone who reads this are quite welcome to come on by:

(This all is spoken emotively more than rationally, so apologies if this is just an inarticulate babbling.)

At 9:08 PM, Blogger Aspiring Academic said...

THANK YOU!!! The last few weeks of graduate school I have found myself discussing theory, theory and nothing but theory. I, too, can appreciate theory for somethings ... but I enjoy talking about enjoying literature as well. I have missed that a bit. Thanks for the shot in the arm.

At 10:43 PM, Blogger Sfrajett said...

You know, your thoughts on wonder are very similar to my feelings about feeling. You can't teach a middlebrow, flawed, interesting book like The Well of Loneliness, for example, without talking about emotional response and the way the whole book swings on affecting readers' emotions, emotions of sympathy and pathos that have to do with shame and dignity. Students are moved by the book but taught not to credit that as a response unless they can run it through the abstraction mill, or compare it to Victorian sentiment or some other verifiable academic method. But the point of the book is that being moved enough to care about people who love differently is worthwhile. There is wonder in that, too, I think, and a similar need for students to trust their gut responses to books. They can be very good on this if they get the chance. Great post.

At 4:28 AM, Blogger Kim said...

What a wonderful post! Every year, I try to show my students the wonder of literature. Unfortunately, most of my high school students are not very receptive to it. Still, I keep trying, and you are so right when you say that one success can make you feel like a million bucks.

At 1:05 PM, Blogger M said...

New here... but a great post. Will return frequently. Thank you.

At 8:06 PM, Anonymous Canuckdoc said...

oh.... Thank the sweet heavens... it's not just me!
But your expression of the whole thing is so much more eloquent than I have ever been about that experience of loss, and the guilt for missing "wonder".
Since moving from theatre to medical texts and the culture of law, it seems like I have no hope of ever getting back to wonder... but Didi-Huberman is helping, and the recent Noel Coward production did wonders.
Your post here is a salve. Thank you.

At 9:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Can I be the only person out there who doesn't find that reading (looking, listening, thinking) critically not only does not kill wonder, but often augments it? Like everyone else, I guess, I had discovered wonder long before I entered the classroom, but then, thanks to formal study, came to appreciate more things that were wonderful about works I knew, and, of course, discovered wonderful works I didn't know (some of these were works of criticism).

Joyce's oeuvre is often cited as the arch example of art which cannot produce a sense of wonder, that is, in fact, in its much-vaunted difficulty, positively hostile to that wonder. Doing the critical thinking necessary to write a thesis which deals with Joyce's first three books demonstrated that, at least for me, this was far from being the case, and I think there are lots of Joyceans (both amateur and academic) who'd agree with me.

We gain nothing by opposing the wonderful with the critical. Let's use each to fortify the other.



At 10:26 PM, Blogger Camicao said...

Dear David and other generous respondents,

I think most of us might agree that the experience of wonder makes us care about canonical literary genres and can and does inspire critical thinking. I argue that we should use wonder in class, and not dissecate literature when we teach it. But perhaps I was too schematic in my original post.

I find it interesting that most of the people I went to graduate school seemed to 1) not read novels and poems for pleasure; and 2) not study "literature" but rather worked on popular culture and critical theory. I don't mean to attack cultural studies -- my work is still shaped by it-- but it wasn't until I started teaching as a professor that I discovered that my pleasure as a reader of poetry and fiction might matter in the classroom after all.

But you make a good point, David.

Everybody else-- I appreciate your generous comments. I didn't expect to touch a nerve with this post. It's good to know alot of you feel the same way!

At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Gregg said...

Although I was an English major in college in the seventies and therefore missed a lot of the lit crit I read on the WWW, I still got the feeling that I was simply being trained to become an English professor so I dropped out of college.

I ended up in the teaching biz years later, teaching reading and writing to high school students, and I love it. Many of them find wonder and pleasure in some of the texts we use; many of them love to write. I feel lucky and I am glad I dropped out and became a piano player for a few years instead of staying in the academy.

Thanks for the ideas...I'm here for the first time, from wood s lot.

At 4:28 PM, Blogger academic coach said...

I just finished reading Charlotte's Web to my 4th (and final!) daughter. It is perhaps the most beautifully written, carefully crafted book I know (or maybe if I read other wonderful books out loud four times I would pay more attention to their prose and pace.)

now my oldest, like Fern, is starting to think about henry fussys. terrifying.

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