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Imagination and Story August 16, 2008

Posted by sensawunda in Other Sites, Quotes, Sensawunda 101, Spirituality.
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Here is an excellent post on the place of imagination in Christian life, our need for Story:

Hayhow’s Review.

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The Dark Knight and the dark side of sensawunda August 14, 2008

Posted by sensawunda in Movies, Sensawunda 201.
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At first blush, it might seem Batman: The Dark Knight would be a candidate for the “Not Sensawunda” category. It’s not about the wonder of being Batman, not even in the obligatory Bat-gadget scenes with Morgan Freeman channeling “Q”. In many ways it has the feel of act two of a trilogy, when everything goes wrong. Now, Bruce Wayne—with his friends and all of Gotham—begins to reap the tragic consequences of his choice to don a disguise and go vigilante.

However, the story hearkens back to traditions that parallel the roots of sensawunda. One of these days I intend to write about how sensawunda descends from the Romantic-era concept of the sublime. At the same time the Romantics were developing the literature of the sublime, they were also developing its dark side—the Gothic.

To quote the Wikipedia article linked above, “the literary Gothic embodies an appreciation of the joys of extreme emotion, the thrills of fearfulness and awe inherent in the sublime, and a quest for atmosphere…. Prominent features of Gothic fiction include terror (both psychological and physical), mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted houses and Gothic architecture, castles, darkness, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets and hereditary curses.”

I’m no expert on Gothic literature, but when I ran across that Wikipedia article in my quest to characterize The Dark Knight adequately, it seemed to fit better than anything. It may not have all the trappings, but it has the feel. That being said, I welcome comments from anyone who knows more about Gothic than I do. (It wouldn’t take much.)

Heath Ledger’s jaw-dropping portrayal of madness as the Joker elevates The Dark Knight to the top shelf of Gothic-style terror. I watched him with a horrified fascination that could almost be called sublime, although the term properly refers to feelings inspired by nature’s vastness. In a way, the Joker was like a force of nature: unpredictible and terrible.

Where the Joker’s involved, nothing can be taken at face value any longer, not even his madness. Gotham becomes a hall of mirrors that transforms light into darkness and good into evil. It is the sublime terror of watching this unfold that makes The Dark Knight a textbook example of the dark side of sensawunda.

What fiction is for March 30, 2008

Posted by sensawunda in Quotes, Sensawunda 101.
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Here’s a quote from an unexpected source: How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler & Charles Van Doren. [now my secret’s out, LOL!] This book is mostly about reading expository books analytically; by “imaginative literature” they mean anything that isn’t expository.

We owe much to the expository literature—the philosophy, science, mathematics—that has shaped the real world in which we live. But we could not live in this world if we were not able, from time to time, to get away from it. We do not mean that imaginative literature is always, or essentially, escapist. In the ordinary sense of that term, the idea is contemptible. If we must escape from reality, it should be to a deeper, or greater, reality. This is the reality of our inner life, of our own unique vision of the world. To discover this reality makes us happy; the experience is deeply satisfying to some part of ourselves we do not ordinarily touch. In any event, the rules of reading a great work of literary art should have as an end or goal just such a profound experience. The rules should clear away all that stops us from feeling as deeply as we possibly can….

The great majority of books that are read are stories of one kind or another. People who cannot read listen to stories. We even make them up for ourselves. Fiction seems to be a necessity for human beings. Why is this?

One reason why fiction is a human necessity is that it satisfies many unconscious as well as conscious needs. It would be important if it only touched the conscious mind, as expository writing does. But fiction is important, too, because it also touches the unconscious.

[from pages 205-206 and 220 of the 1972 edition]

How sensawunda makes us feel September 29, 2007

Posted by sensawunda in Sensawunda 101.
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In memory of Madeleine L’Engle, who died on Sept. 6, here is a “sensawunda” quote from her marvelous book of essays, Walking on Water.

We don’t want to feel less when we have finished a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have been opened to us. We don’t want to close a book with the sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.

Realm of Disappointed Yawns September 12, 2007

Posted by sensawunda in Books, Hall of Shame, Not Sensawunda.
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In his novel The Traveler, John Twelve Hawks draws upon the very archetypes of wonder—and renders them banal.

To be fair, I had better disclose that I consumed this novel as an abridged audiobook. It’s possible that the abridgement process stripped out the beauty. It did remind me of The DaVinci Code, which I also listened to in abridged form.

Except John Twelve Hawks’s Wikipedia entry mentions that, because he’s such a recluse, people have speculated that he’s just a pen name for a known author—and Dan Brown was listed as a possibility. Twelve Hawks has specifically denied being Dan Brown. But this does suggest to me that the resemblance isn’t just an artifact of abridgment.

John Twelve Hawks seems to be a conspiracy-theory aficionado, so here’s my conspiracy theory: I think there’s a conspiracy among publishers who hawk [get it???] bestsellers. They’re taking the classic sources of sensawunda such as mythology, spirituality, and mysticism, and sucking them completely dry of all wonder and even interest (beyond the synthetic rhythm of formula suspense).

THAT is why his book reminded me of The DaVinci Code.

They both attempt to provide rational explanations for the transcendant. And the sad thing is, I think they both think they are adding wonder to the ancient traditions, with their tales of secret societies and centuries of war waged under the very noses of unsuspecting Muggles (oops, wrong genre).

Twelve Hawks makes a big deal of living “off the Grid,” as if he really believes in the Matrix (which he calls the Vast Machine—he even managed to make that banal). I can’t help wondering how far off the Grid he really is if he’s able to tap into the trend started by Dan Brown, but that’s neither here nor there. Again, it seems to be another attempt on his part to add sensawunda. But he only succeeds in making himself look like a Howard Hughes with no sense of style.

Indoctrination August 26, 2007

Posted by sensawunda in Books, Memes, Sensawunda 101.
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…from Booking Through Thursday (via superfastreader)

When growing up did your family share your love of books? If so, did one person get you into reading? And, do you have any family-oriented memories with books and reading? (Family trips to bookstore, reading the same book as a sibling or parent, etc.)

From as far back as I can remember, through at least the age of ten, I went to the town library every so often with Mom and my brother. She would check out a stack of books, and we were each allowed to get a certain number. We also had sets of children’s classics at home. I think she had bought them before we were born, for her future children. One set I loved in particular—it contained an eclectic mix of fables, fairy tales, mythology and excerpts from children’s novels, all accompanied by reproductions of the illustrations from the original editions. That set more than any other shaped my literary tastes. I’m still a sucker for anything illustrated by Arthur Rackham or his present-day heirs.

Mom read to us too… and even though I could already read to myself faster than an oral reading (having “forced” her to teach me to read when I was 3, she says), I still enjoyed following along, snuggled up to her right side on the sofa while my younger brother snuggled up to her left.

Dad’s influence came later. He introduced me to science fiction. He had a complete (up to that time) set of Larry Niven’s Tales of Known Space, and I read them all, including the short stories. I can still name the shorts that impressed me the most. “Bordered in Black”… “All the Myriad Ways”… “For a Foggy Night”… “Safe at Any Speed.” And, for good or ill, Dad took my brother and me to see Star Wars when it first came out.

In college, someone once asked me how my parents got me interested in classical music. I shrugged and said, “They enjoyed it themselves… and they had records that children could enjoy, like Peter and the Wolf and the 1812 Overture.” It’s the same with reading.

Found words January 10, 2007

Posted by sensawunda in Sensawunda 101.
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Here’s a nice little article about sense of wonder…

So what. Big deal. October 28, 2006

Posted by sensawunda in Books, Not Sensawunda.
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The Da Vinci Code could have employed sensawunda. It coulda used a little sensawunda. Instead, author Dan Brown went for sensational and provocative.

I only read it to see what the fuss was about. (Actually, I listened to the audiobook… I probably wouldn’t have made it through otherwise.) I did get a little het up towards the middle at the quasi-historical claptrap with just enough facts to make it sound plausible.

I guess I should be glad he didn’t get sensawunda in there. If he had, he’d be the high priest of a new religion by now, considering how many people took everything at face value. To whom I say: a) It’s a novel, people. b) Find a university. Take a class. Try “Art History for Non-Majors.”

I realize I’m a bit behind the times. The movie release seems to have damped the interest. But I still wanted to put in my 2 cents.

Sensawundameter: BIG GOOSE EGG

“The oldest kind of tale” March 9, 2006

Posted by sensawunda in Sensawunda 101.
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This quote is from Patricia A. McKillip, who is one of the best fantasists around. If you’re looking for sensawunda, pick up ANYTHING she’s written.

At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven’t heard the end of it yet.

Creating wonder with voice March 7, 2006

Posted by sensawunda in Sensawunda 101.
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An excerpt from a post by Loyd Boldman in the “diablog” at Devotion Media:

In Russell Hoban’s remarkable novel Riddley Walker, the title character introduces himself this way:

“On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbley ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadn’t ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.?

Hoban’s hero is a wandering storyteller, a post-apocalyptic Don Quixote in a world that has mostly forgotten written language. This is a micron away from being a “stunt? voice; in the hands of a less talented writer, it’s a cheap gimmick. But Hoban makes it work, using it as a vehicle for subtlety, insight and expression, yielding amazing results and something more—a sense of wonder.