Conference of the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada, June 21, 2018

Environmentalists often want to cultivate sympathies for nonhuman lives and their life worlds.  Ethical philosopher Martha Nussbaum argues that to cultivate such compassion, the experiences of wonder and imaginative literature are key:  both wonder and fiction entail a kind of empathy, a vicarious experience of suspending oneself and one’s aims to become immersed in the participatory imagination of another life or way of being.  But how does this fictional or imaginative empathy turn into actual sympathy and to a desired ethical response?  This is a question that literary scholar Suzanne Keen’s extensive study is much murkier than often imagined;  it is a question very pertinent to ecocriticism, because in the wake of Rachel Carson, diverse recent scholars in environmental and animal-rights philosophy (Martha Nussbaum, Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, Kathleen Dean Moore) have argued that the empathic experience of wonder is one key to environmental ethics and the cultivation of an environmentalist politics.

This short paper draws on general ideas in my book published this year, Reading for Wonder: Ecology, Ethics, Enchantment, in order to show how wonder’s power is fundamentally ambivalent, and how its ethical promise in art and literature is located not simply in the consideration of an extraordinary object, but also in the modeling of extravagant effects it may have on ordinary lives.  I will begin by looking back to Aristotle, the first writer to put these ideas and problems together in the ecopoetics of tragedy.  I will then look at modern examples of the cultivation of wonder as a model, transformative experience in literature.  This approach is different from the more general perspective of my book, which ranges across literature, film, photography, painting, music, museums, and scholarly writing itself.  Here my focus is restricted to the literary:  specifically, how W. B. Yeats (in lyric) and E. M. Forster (in the novel) try vicariously to re-imagine ecology, culture, race, justice, and action creatively, if melancholically, for a better world.  These examples reveal differing promises and limits to fabricated wonder, differing stories about its impact.  Even so, I want to convey that reading for wonder is crucial to reading for ecology, to learning new, caring relationships with the environment and its lives.

In Reading for Wonder, I offer a critical theory of wonder, develop a transmedia poetics of wonder, and explore its malleable politics.  I argue that wonder is a good, but with two caveats:  (1) wonder may be felt in fear and horror rather than love or hospitality, and yet be just as important to ecological thinking; and (2) the ethical value of wonder is never in wonder itself, but in the crisis of goods that it imposes in the return from wonder to ordinary life, and this transition may alsobe designed and shaped by a distinctive literary poetics.

Aristotle was the first writer to put the cognitive, the emotional, and also the aesthetic dimensions of wonder all together, in his theory of tragedy. Aristotle followed Plato in calling wonder the origin of philosophy, because it revealed ignorance and prompted speculation, reasoning, and the pursuit of knowledge.  Yet he also put wonder at the centre of the best form of literature—that is, tragic drama—because it rooted these cognitive effects in formal devices of reversal and recognition and in emotional effects of surprise, pity and fear.  In the ecology of tragedy, we wonder at the violence or suffering, indeed the wider miasma or pollution to a human and nonhuman environment, to which human knowledge and action may lead.  In Oedipus, the Sphinx is a sign for the wonder of something deeply wrong in Thebes, something which eventually spreads to all its people, animals, and land, just like in Silent Spring.  The reality or ecologies of both DDT and Oedipus are wondrous, and as Sophocles and Carson knew, there are no easy ethical solutions for them.

And how is such wonder written?  Aristotle said that the central feature of tragedy is “plot,” by which he meant the structure of meaningful action.  All texts of wonder, I argue, must construct such an underlying system of causality or interactions—an ecology of agencies which is hidden from view, but mysteriously, fragmentarily revealed in the wondrous event. Some of those agents may be human persons, as in tragedy. Such characters are always torn; they are split apart by the problem of being who they are in a half-hidden, morally problematic world.  Such characters and agencies can be thought of as personae—always appearing as masks that both express and conceal their niche in the world, and the adaptations that have brought them to it. Of tragedy, Aristotle also requires “reversal” of expectations and “recognition” of action in the hidden system. When generalized beyond the genres of narrative and tragedy, these may be understood as examples respectively of the jarring mimesis, in defamiliarization effects, of what wonder psychologists call its conceptual need for accommodation (so that narrative “reversal” of status is one kind of estrangement of normal legibility of an agent) and of an aesthetic dialectics (so that a “recognition” scene is again, only one kind of sudden shift of frameworks, to an ostensibly more totalizing perspective that re-interprets what has come before).  Finally, Aristotle requires that tragic language be “mixed,” that is conflate familiar and strange uses of words—especially metaphor, but in all kinds of ways, including the use of foreign vocabulary. In order to point, again, to a hidden ecology, too vast or mysterious to be complacently comprehended, language must be distorted, must show its inadequacy as well as its creative heteroglossia, must walk along its borderlines—but without veering into nonsense.

As an ethical experience, wonder has posed something of a paradox.  On the one hand, in wonder we are supposed to suspend our interests and values, to immerse in the experience of something wholly outside ourselves.  On the other hand, we are supposed to feel a new appreciation, respect or value for what we find.  But how can we be both non-judging and judging at the same time?  The idea that wonder evokes an intrinsic emotion like “biophilia” is one answer, where love of life at large is evaluatively indiscriminate, but as with Oedipus and DDT, sometimes wonder is the key to a darker ecology.  I think this is because, while wonder is value-neutral, it exposes us vicariously to the values of others—that is, to their interests and pursuits.  I say exposure, but really, the effect of wonder is as a kind of sensory experience or spectacle that imposes itself on the mind and feelings; it strikes, one succumbs to it; it fascinates.

That imposition results in a crisis of values when we come back out of the rabbit hole, just back from wonder.  Crisis is a strong word for an often mundane feeling, but nevertheless precise:  in wonder we are forcibly struck by something flourishing or struggling to flourish without us; we experience purposes and agencies not our own.  To put it more generally, we feel what is felt to be good by other creatures and things. We return to ordinary life awash with too many feelings (possibly irreconcilable) for what may be good.  Wonder’s ethics are extravagant, and in falling out of wonder, we cannot not choose how we will manage them.  In this way, I do not feel that my caring is a capacity I simply apply or not to others; it is not a process of identifying and selecting what is good from what isn’t.  My caring becomes a process of seeking out and managing extravagant or excessive goods, mapping them.  Literature and the sharing of literary experience can express that process—without necessarily guaranteeing that we end up caring about the right things.

In “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (1897), Yeats casts a spell on the reader. He uses incantatory rhythms, rhymes, and word repetitions, along with imagery sharply focused on vibrant objects (berries, stream, moths, stars), which stand out preternaturally against the indistinct nocturnal background.  There is raw magic, of course, in the event of the poem:  a fish that turns into a girl.  But we are already enchanted by the weird luminosity and mysterious interrelations between the dawn, the white moths, the “moth-like” flickering stars, the berry, and the “little silver trout.”  It is as if this chain of animated objects enacted a magic formula, which is also a kind of food chain, leading to the appearance of the shining fish.  The point of the poem is not only to communicate the wonder of the beautiful creature who is at once girl, fish, and an environmental relay.  It is also to communicate the effect and aftermath of wonder on the one experiencing it, so that the wondering reader is offered not only enchantment but a model for the responsibility of choice when enchantment is gone.  Aengus chooses to wander—to deviate from his expected life and duties—in order to search for the girl.  But the girl, who presumably grows as old as he does, represents a capability, not an object.  She becomes wondrous for what Aengus will know and experience when he finds her.  The search culminates in images of his plucking “The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun”—images of a different, less magical and more everyday wonder in an ability to grasp, even in old age, all the mundane things of the earth, radiant by night or by day, as beautiful with youthful life and promise.  A wondrous ecology leads to Romantic choices—to escape the destructive fire in his mind and of his own making, to wander from his normal aims, to love the mysterious, never-to-be-possessed vitality of wild nature.  Yeats shares his Romantic wonder with us, but he also shares an ethic of wonder, which is more melancholic, darkened by a modernist skepticism about knowledge of other lives, perhaps constrained by a primitivist imagery of women, yet an ethic which insists on a barely hopeful, speculative, unresolved action, on a difficult living according to love for that mysterious, more-than-human vitality.[i]

Nearly the same vision, shorn of vestiges of Romanticism, is found at the end of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1924).  Here the reader is plunged into lengthy descriptions, over several chapters, of a Hindu ceremony at a temple in Mau.  It is a sensorily overwhelming, disorienting experience characterized by maze-like spaces, layerings and explosions of colours, smells, tastes, and gestures; all carried with a continual chanting layered with diverse music.  It is intellectually or spiritually ecstatic in its apparent confusion—I think relaymight be a more precise word—of the God figure as embodied by very diverse objects and participants involved.  The divinity is understood as endlessly dying and being born, as male and female, as completely inclusive in the earthly world—its “Infinite Love” annihilating all sorrow, “not only for Indians, but for foreigners, birds, caves, railways, and the stars” (283).

The wondrous existential incarnation, and its awesome, empathetic and synaesthetic experience, moves Professor Godbole, rather randomly, to find “completion” in an inspired love in memories of the elderly Mrs Moore and of a wasp he has seen perched on a stone.  It is by being plunged into this experience (and literally plunged into ceremonial waters) that the principal characters, Cyril Fielding and Dr Aziz, are able to overcome their estrangement and affirm their love for each other.  “Those ‘imitations,’ those ‘substitutions’ [of God], continued to flicker through the assembly for many hours, awaking in each man, according to his capacity, an emotion that he would not have had otherwise” (285).  So too, the design of Forster’s novel:  to both provoke wonder in this imposing sensual experience of an immanent, inclusive divinity, attentive alike to human, animal, and thing, and to chart its ethical aftermath.

Forster is both more and less optimistic than Yeats.  The experience completes the two men’s (Aziz and Fielding’s) love in a private world, but only one of them is going to struggle against the public world—the racist institutions of imperialist England and its normative masculinity—that would allow their cross-racial, cross-faith friendship to be realized on an egalitarian basis.  The reader must choose between two roads that diverge in a colonial wood.  One is the way of Fielding, who channels the lesson of wonder into a strictly private, domestic idea of kith and kin, while everyone else is relegated to calculation rather than love:  “education was a continuous concern to him,” now, “because his income and the comfort of his family depended on it” (312).  Presented in a newly cavalier, callous light, we are encouraged not to sympathize with Fielding.  He may be curious about the “spiritual side” of Hinduism (314), but he is too condescending to take it or Hindus seriously (315), and seems only annoyed at his wife’s finding “something soothing, some solution of her queer troubles here” (314). The other path is the way of Aziz, who tells Fielding that his plunge into the water at Mau caused him, Aziz, to see his antagonist, Miss Quested’s character differently.  Aziz remains just as prejudiced regarding Hindus, but he becomes supersensitive to his environment, and in his dialogue with Fielding, this sets off a chain of associations, a love spell, really, that relays across people and things, affirming innovative kinds of kith and kin:

  • Something—not a sight, but a sound—flitted past him [in the meadow], and caused him to re-read his letter to Miss Quested. Hadn’t he wanted to say something else to her?  Taking out his pen, he added:  “For my own part, I shall henceforth connect you with the name that is very sacred in my mind, namely, Mrs Moore.”  When he had finished, the mirror of the scenery was shattered, the meadow disintegrated into butterflies.  A poem about Mecca—the Caaba of Union—the thorn-bushes where pilgrims die before they have seen the Friend—they flitted next; he thought of his wife; and then the whole semi-mystic, semi-sensuous overturn, so characteristic of his spiritual life, came to an end like a landslip and rested in its due place, and he found himself riding in the jungle with his dear Cyril.  (315)

Aziz is capable of the “semi-mystic, semi-sensuous overturn” that relays through wilderness sounds, English women, butterflies, Mecca, sacred bushes, and his deceased wife, toward an increased affection for his estranged friend.  It is an extravagant ethics that causes him to act on a widened responsiveness and responsibilities to the place and persons around him.  His heart wanders, Fielding’s is constrained.

In the Temple section of A Passage to India, then, Forster offers a scene of sensual wonder that provokes metaphysical and political questions, and shows divergent responses to it.  His aim is not merely to critique imperialism, its aims and certainties, but to undermine its emotional structure, to render it less relatable—so to speak—than that of his more generous-minded, and also more angry protagonist.  Yet as soon as wonder is designed for a good ethical end, it is also drawn within limits—it is a doorway, but also a corridor.  Even a realist, strongly individualized Indian character, in Forster’s storyworld, may express an Orientalist stereotype, of emotional instinct at the expense of rational thought.  I say “may” because I think the evidence for this dualism in the novel is both undeniable and also inconsistent, and perhaps Forster himself held contradictory feelings about it.  But he pushes readers to prefer the wonder of an Indian against the wonder of an Englishman, because he is also pushing readers to love wasps, bees, stones, and railways, compatriots and foreigners, and to weigh the implications of such love. He is trying to teach the reader, not merely to agree or disagree with a political proposition, but to feel and care more for the Indian’s political action, his anti-imperialist struggle, as an empathetic responsibility, with all its risks and uncertainties, than for his friend’s jaded passivity.

Yeats and Forster both evoke wondrous environmental systems, obscure and politicized ecologies of love and loss, in the enigmatic transformation of the fish-girl and in the mercurial ceremony for Krishnaradha.  In both cases, wondrous beings are unhinged from themselves and relay across other personae of lives and embodiments.  Moreover, they invite other characters to choose to experience their partially hidden reality, which is a defamiliarized or disaccommodated representation of nature, as they do.  In order to convey this, Yeats and Forster draw heteroglotally on Celtic and Hindu language and expression, and deliberately incompletely assimilate these to the English language and style of a modern lyric and novel, creating mythopoetic riddles that characters diversely answer.  Such an art of wonder is morally ambivalent, because the exposure of its peculiar ecology, its riddle of inter-relations, cannot be purified of ideological constraints, nor sure of good responses.  This not as great a problem as it seems.  The importance to scholarship of cultivating wonder is not to buy into a way of reading that suddenly makes literature more right to us, but to make literariness more good for us; that is, to change normal reading practices—normal ways of sharing what we read—in order to discuss and critically adapt how we are opened up to care about what we read, and what we don’t.  Such reading practices may need to supplement the analytic discussion and essay with the normalization of other kinds of research-based creative practices, so that critical thinking, with some abandon to literary empathy, continues to unlearn and relearn what is good in others and for ourselves.


Forster, E. M.  A Passage to India. 1924.  Penguin, 1936.

Yeats, W. B.  “The Song of Wandering Aengus.”  1897.  The Yeats Reader.  Ed. R. J. Finneran.  Scribner, 1997.  Pp. 37-38.

[i]The allusion to the biblical Tree of Life was suggested by Yeats himself (465), and implicitly then also its apple, which imparts knowledge of good and evil.  The reading of the Tree as representing a divine reality separate from mortal nature would contradict my reading, and I believe that Yeats intends, if divinity is important here, an immanent one.  Certainly the notion of moral knowledge is consistent with my reading: the sin or error is to aim, with the fire, merely to consume the fish, recognizing it only as a resource appropriated to oneself; the good is to recognize its mysterious personhood, and to seek its companionship.  The potential for reading the poem autobiographically, in which the poet-god is Yeats and the elusive woman is Maud Gonne (whom he met in 1889, eight years prior to the poem’s publication), is not far fetched.  It would suggest an association of Romantic environmentalist values—expressed in conventional Celtic primitivism, but also in Yeats’s own inventive playing with it—with their nationalist political action.

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