I wonder why


Bedtime stories were always a treat for me when I was very young; they allowed my mind to travel to places and see things I had never encountered. But although they continued to be a source of fascination, as the months and years progressed, I began to think more about what I was being told. Question what I heard. There seemed to be meanings beyond the words, things that made me wonder if they were accurately portraying what they said… I had discovered metaphors, and I was delighted. It was almost as if I were seeing under the words, and what had been familiar before, could suddenly illuminate something entirely new, something entirely unexpected; an angry face trying to disguise its displeasure became a description of a wolf staring at me from behind a tree; an exasperated teacher was a dark cloud over the sea beginning to roil up the waves.

Words, and even ideas, to which I had become accustomed and which would otherwise have slipped quietly beneath my conscious awareness because they were so obvious, became mutable entities, their significance imbued with unusually rich and unanticipated colours, their meanings subtly changed.

I suppose any child exposed to stories cannot escape this poetic understanding at some stage of their development; I can only say that for me, it was as if the words began to reveal a magical kingdom that was not confined to the stories I was read. In fact, I realized I could discover them for myself again and again, and I could feel the warmth of my father’s smile whenever he saw me with a book. Reading, and indeed, the acquisition of new words and rolling them over and over on my tongue became an obsession for me.

Familiarity is a problem, however, and as time and the years wore thin, it was all too easy to miss the colours, or at least be unaware of the pentimento hidden beneath those words that were disguised by the frequency of their repetition. Context can confuse as well as clarify.  At the risk of sounding unduly academic -unduly Derridean- there is awe in decontextualizing an image, a word, a thought -and a common way I suppose, is through poetry and its ability to transform the expected into the unanticipated, the message into something that may require a thoughtful interpretation before it becomes clear -or at least until the murkiness of its cloud of words settles.

I discovered an essay by Lara Harb, at the time an assistant professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University: https://psyche.co/ideas/the-meaning-of-cowardly-dogs-and-other-puzzles-of-arabic-poetry It seemed to encapsulate my thoughts much more succinctly than I have been able to achieve.

She describes some of the ways Arabic poetry has attempted to induce a state of wonder by helping the listeners –‘tricking’ the listeners- into momentarily thinking that a description is real, and the unexpectedness and novelty of the resulting image, fills them with wonder. ‘Wonder is this unique experience that is located on the cusp between ignorance and knowledge. It is a response to the unknown, unexpected and unfamiliar that spurs one into a search for and discovery of knowledge. In this sense, wonder is the foundation of philosophical, scientific and metaphysical enquiry… In the medieval Islamic world, everything on Earth was a wonder to be contemplated as a way of getting closer to knowing God. The only reason we are not constantly in awe is that ‘wonder fades … as a result of familiarity and frequent observation’’.

But there are ways to circumvent this. ‘Familiarity can be defamiliarised, however, through a concerted effort to pay attention to an object, observe it as if for the first time, and contemplate it… Language can reproduce an experience of discovery and wonder by artificially creating the conditions that lead to wonder: that is, language can render the familiar strange, obscure and unexpected, only for it to be discovered anew… Figures such as simile and metaphor, for example, are, by definition, more beautiful than communicating the same idea directly or explicitly, because their structures inherently produce the conditions for searching and discovery. In a simile, the reader must deduce the implied similarity between the two things compared.’

But I don’t mean to suggest that poetry is unique in its ability to help us see the world afresh. It seems to me that any form of communication which substitutes a surprise instead of whatever was presumed, can reintroduce an element of wonder -however briefly. The ordinary, for one fragile moment, becomes unique -a shard of glass that reflects a previously hidden light.

I was sitting on a park bench one afternoon, enjoying what was left of a late summer’s recalcitrant sun as it slowly hid behind a bevy of clouds clotting in the western sky. The grass, although beginning its inevitable browning was still sufficiently inviting for a couple of high school aged girls as they sat with their dog under the tree we shared. I’m not sure whether they noticed me reading quietly on the bench nearby, but I might as well have been another tree for all they seemed to care.

“Do you think dogs experience a different world than us, Janie?” one of them, a thin little wisp in jeans and a pink tee shirt asked her friend. Her dark unruly auburn hair hung in dense waves across her cheeks, and she seemed to peek through it like a fawn watching from behind some bushes.

Janie looked up from patting the dog. “What do you mean? He sees the same stuff that we do and he walks on the same grass…”

“Yeah, but remember what Miss Grady said in our English Lit class last week? Dogs are different than us; they exist in a world of smells.”

Janie was taller and heavier than her friend, but they were both dressed almost identically -maybe it was a fashion thing. “Miss Grady’s weird, Jas. She said maybe they could even see with their noses, remember?” She brushed a blond curl from her forehead and shook her head at the thought. “But you can’t see smell, can you?

Jasmine shrugged, but I could tell by her face that she thought her friend was missing something important. “Yeah, but that’s what I mean. Maybe smell works differently in their brains. Maybe they get as much information from the stuff in odours as we do from what we see…”

Jane thought about that for a second. “You mean like colours and shapes and things? Come on Jas! That’s just crazy…”

Jasmine glared at her and folded her arms across her chest, uncertain whether or not her friend was making fun of her idea. Then she took a deep breath and smiled. “Anyway, I think Miss Grady was just borrowing the idea, though…”

Jane smiled at that, and resumed petting the dog. “Who’d she borrow it from?”

“Shakespeare, of course…”

“Huh?” Jane’s eyes latched onto her friend’s.

“Juliet, in fact,” she added, nodding her head smugly. “Remember she was talking about the smell of the rose: that it would smell as sweet by any other name…? Miss Grady just turned it around -rather clever I thought…”

“What?” Jane remained as puzzled as before, and I, equally intrigued, couldn’t help turning my head to look at them.

Jasmine simply rolled her eyes at Jane’s confusion.  “It was the smell that identified the rose, Janie. Not the other way around… ”

They both laughed, but I was entranced. And I remembered Harb’s essay about listeners being brought ‘to a state of wonder by making them ‘see’ something never seen before.’ I suddenly understood…

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