Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A Sense of Wonder

When I was 11 years old my parents and my other adult relatives would go to my grandparents' old, 1920's two-story brick home on Sunday, to play a card game with the very strange pronunciation of "pea-knuckle." Since my idea of playing cards was "Go Fish," I didn't participate. Instead, I hid. I was the only kid in a house full of grown-ups.

The main room was L-shaped, with the dining room at one end and the living room at the other. Each end was so far from the other it might as well have been two separate rooms. The adults sat at the dining table at one end, where they played that odd card game (the rules of which I still haven't learned), while I would lie on the couch at the other end of the L, in the living room, by the fireplace.

On both sides of the fireplace were bookshelves, built into the wall. There weren't many books on them--perhaps half a dozen. All of them were Reader's Digest Condensed Books--the concept of which to this day I still don't quite understand--with the exception of one paperback, a cheap tattered copy which even then had the pages falling out of it. It was a 1963 Ace copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Fighting Man of Mars ("Hidden Menace on the Red Planet!" claimed the sentence below the title. There was no exclamation point at the end, but I always see one in my mind.).

Although I had certainly heard of Tarzan, Burroughs' most famous creation, I had never heard of him. But his name was forever imprinted in my mind along with the cover of that book, which sported a glossy color painting by Roy Krenkel, Jr. It hooked me on the spot. After all these years I can close my eyes and see that cover just as vividly as if it was in front of me.

Whoa, what is this? I wondered. I had never seen anything like it. The cover had two huge moons floating in the night sky above a city of spires and towers. There were what appeared to be three huge airships floating high in the sky. In the foreground were two men, one flying through the air with a dagger in his hand, the other, with his Roman centurion-type helmet flying off of his head, turning toward his attacker with his hands coming up to defend himself. He looked really surprised, with the implication being his attempt at defense wasn't going to do him any good. Why this fight, with a knife aimed at this man's heart? If there was ever a cover that would make me open a book, that was it.

That's certainly not Earth, I thought about that cover. But it's not Mars, either. At least it wasn't the uninhabited and barren Mars I knew from school. So, then, what was this place? Lying there on the couch, next to the fire in the fireplace, I opened that copy of A Fighting Man of Mars.

It was Mars, alright, but it was a Mars that existed only in Burroughs' imagination. It wasn't called Mars, though. It was called Barsoom (Earth was "Jasoom"). At least that's what the natives called Mars, natives who happened to be green-skinned men. Well, sort of "men." The women laid eggs, which hatched little Martians. Until then, I assumed only chickens came out of eggs. But Martians? Ones that carried swords!?

There were other inhabitants--giant, vicious whites apes, ones with six arms. There were also Cackling Mad Scientists, cannibals, disintegrator ray-guns, sword fights, invisibility cloaks, huge spiders (with fangs), cruel tyrants, Damsels in Distress, and a hero with the unlikely name of Tan Hadron of Hastor (our hero's rank: a poor Odwar of the 1st Umak, although he fought in service of the Earthman John Carter, who had become the Warlord of Mars). Adventures galore, more than enough to put an 11-year-old in a tizzy. Years later I realized that although Burroughs had a workman-like style, he could by God tell a story. That's why he was as popular in his day as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books are in ours.

That particular copy, which I took home, is long gone. It simply fell apart from my reading it so much. I don't know what I did with it. I probably just threw it away, I'm sure with regret that Ace put out such cheapo books (which it did all the time in the '60s). But today, I have three copies of that Ace version, which I keep in plastic wrappers. I'm scared to read them; I use a newer copy for that. And every time I find another one of those Ace F-190 40-cent copies, I buy it. Someday I'll corner the market on every existing one of them.

As best as I can remember, that was the first novel I ever read. It's hard to describe the effect it had on me. I had never felt that way before. It sure beat the hell out of "See Dick. See Jane. See Pony. Run Pony run!" Even at six years old I knew the whole concept of Dick and Jane was just plain nuts. And godawful boring, too.

I liked the feeling I got from reading that novel. Not a little bit, but a lot. To use some '60s' slang, I dug it. There was something in me that said, More! More! More Barsoom! More Tan Hadron of Hastor! More of those Kali-armed apes and enormous fanged spiders! More of that unforgettable style of "’Silence, coward!’ I commanded.” More wonder, even more of the terror!

Not long after I found that book on my grandparents' bookshelf, I discovered the term for what I felt-- "a sense of wonder." It's applied almost exclusively to science fiction, but it can apply to fantasy, even children's fairy tales. I have my own definition for it--a combination of love and awe. Awe, I believe, involves some fear, although not necessarily a bad fear. That combination of love, awe and fear can make you feel more alive. Dipping into your imagination, and fantasy, can make the real world more enchanted. Anyone who's felt it knows what I'm talking about. To those who haven't felt it, I don't know if it's possible to convey the experience.

It also involved gratitude and what I only describe as humility. The fantasy writer George MacDonald, in his lifelong quest to describe the child-like (as opposed to the immature and childish) could only describe it as humble. It's the humility that comes from feeling awe and wonder, and the gratitude from receiving those gifts, freely given. Imagination is one of the few great gifts I was given then. I didn't even have to try for it. After A Fighting Man of Mars I moved on to other books, all of them almost exclusively science fiction. That sense of wonder was very strong from the ages of 11 to 14. Even now, all these years later, I can still find it, although faintly as compared to those early years. But it's there. And Burroughs' novel will always have a special place in my heart.

I had not been a particularly imaginative kid, not that I can remember. I can only remember a few times I felt that sense of wonder, all of them only lasting several seconds, all of them from movies. One, I remember, was from watching the movie, The Colossus of New York, and once it was while seeing The Valley of Gwangi. I vaguely remember feeling that way, although to a far lesser degree, while watching such exuberant, anarchistic cartoons as "Merrie Melodies" or "Looney Toons."

But while reading that novel I found the feeling lasted for hours. Why it started at age 11, I have no idea. Reading it, I found that imagination can be as vivid, and in some cases more vivid, than reality. I was absorbed in another complete world, one whose existence I had never even suspected. Who needs drugs when you have something like I had? I am reminded of a quote from Thomas Browne: "We carry within us the wonders we seek without us."

Love, and awe. It's why I grokked that book so much. Or maybe I should use a term Theodore Sturgeon created--"blesh." To blend and mesh. I became One With the Book. In a sense, I "lost" my self--I became less aware of "me." When reading the novel, if someone had called my name from around the corner in that room, I doubt I would have heard them. And if I had, I would have been very annoyed at the truly amazing spell being broken.

That's what it was--a spell. A spell of wonder, of love and awe and fear. "Small wonder that spell means both a story told, and a formula of power over living men," says J.R.R. Tolkien. The purpose of such a spell--it's a good spell (which means there are bad ones)--is to create what Eugene Ionesco called a "world of miracle and wonder...utterly new and fresh and astonishing." He also said, "The end of childhood is when things cease to astonish us."

I wasn't exactly a child when I encountered that book. If anything, I was heading out of it. But what I felt then, I still feel today was somewhat of a miracle. It was astonishing. I feel a bit sorry for people who have no idea what it's like, people who lack imagination. Stephen King wrote he considered such people to be in a mental state akin to color-blindness. I understand what he means.

A certain kind of person thinks that imagination is merely day-dreaming, a running away from the world. It is an escape, but it is much more than that. Tolkien said that imagination was "the power of giving to ideal creations the inner consistency of reality." He believed there was a link between imagination and the final result, sub-creation. His term "sub-creation" meant that Man, to him and many others now and throughout history, shared the ability to create with God, the Creator. Imagining a fully realized world is, in Tolkien's opinion and mine, Art.

When you draw away from this imaginative world, when you return to the "real" world, you can, if you're lucky, return to it with a gift--you sometimes see everything in a different, and better, light. You can see the ordinary with wonder, with what that old scary TV series The Outer Limits called "the awe and mystery." And that, to me, is without a doubt a component of sanity. G.K.Chesteron noticed this when he wrote, "The Greeks were right when they made Apollo the god both of imagination and of sanity."

I am also reminded of some of the sayings of Jesus: "Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." The humility of which he spoke, I see as opposed to the arrogance so often found in those adults who I can only describe as crackpot realists, the ones who are convinced they know the hard-headed truth about life, but who in reality know only a small part of it.

I don't mean to imply people should live exclusively in their imaginations. That's a bad thing. There has to be balance. But when people can't escape into their imaginations, that's a bad thing, too. For one thing, it's nearly impossible to create anything. When Robert Fulghum wrote, "Be aware of wonder. Live a balanced life--learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some," he was exactly right. Such balance makes you "whole"--and is it any surprise the word comes from the same root as "holy"?

It would be, well, wonderful to live every second of your life in that state of love and awe. Ray Bradbury, who knows what he's talking about, wrote, "Stuff your eyes with wonder ... live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories."

Bradbury's asking a lot, and I don't know if it's possible to live every second of your life like that. Perhaps it is. Some very rare people appear to have found the way to it. But I do know it requires accepting everything in life, the good as well as the bad, the terror along with the wonder, the gigantic fanged spiders along with rescuing the Damsel in Distress--the whole complex and violent thing. That's why it's bad, again as Tolkien noticed, to bowdlerize fairy tales--or any story--clean for "the sake of the children." Or even for the adults.

Robert South said, "Wonder is from surprise, and surprise stops with experience." That's true. But it's possible to go from innocence to experience and on to something that encompasses both of them. It's a state to which those very rare people have somehow wandered. They've returned to the child-like wonder and wonder, humility and gratitude.

"The moment one gives a close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world unto itself," wrote Henry Miller. A blade of grass is pretty mundane, really. That's what our experience tells us. But in reality it's more than that. It is, as Miller and others have noticed, an entire world--an entire universe--all in itself, full of awe and mystery and wonder. It is possible, as William Blake wrote, to see a world in a grain of sand.

After all, I found awe and love and mystery and adventure and wonder in a cheap paperback book that was falling apart as I read it. Aren't there such stories even in a blade of grass or a grain of sand, if we only listen to them?

Burroughs' novel wasn't sanitized and tidied up. Had it been, A Fighting Man of Mars would have been one boring book, one certainly not worth reading. It might as well been called, Dick and Jane and Spot and Pony on Mars.

Yet, for all the horror and terror that can be inherent in this fallen world, there is still that wonder and love and awe. One of the main purposes of the latter is to not only learn to accept the former, but to also push it back. Tolkien called this "consolation" or eucatastrophe, i.e., the happy ending. It is the moment of joy at the deliverance from evil. Tolkien, who was a devout Catholic, related this happy ending to Christian theology, specifically the Resurrection, or the overcoming of death. To him that was the greatest eucatastrophe of all.

I occasionally wonder what the world would be like without imagination and fantasy. I know it'd be an awful place, something the old East Germany. I am reminded of those shuddery, grit-your-teeth places like Brave New World, or perhaps even more horribly, 1984. It would be a world with little wonder, little awe, little creation. Einstein was right on the mark when he noted, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." Knowledge is important, but imagination more so.

Personally, I prefer not only Burroughs' Mars, but better yet The Circus of Dr. Lao, where you if look at it in the right way, the whole world is a circus, and where a handful of dust is not just dust, but a mystery and a marvel.

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