Chasing Wonder

By Mandel Cabrera

In one of his short stories, the British writer M. John Harrison presents the tale of a lonely bookshop owner named Lucas who ruins his life in fruitless pining after an elusive phenomenon he calls Egnaro, after which the story is named:[i]

                 Egnaro is a secret known to everyone but yourself.

                 It is a country or a city to which you’ve never been; it is an unknown language. At the same time it is like    being cuckolded, or plotted against. It is part of the universe of events which will never wholly reveal itself to you: a conspiracy the barest outline of which, once visible, will gall you forever. [2]

Egnaro is and remains, for the entirety of the story, indefinable. For Lucas, it recalls something he sought in his youth, but was never able to pin down: the object of a mercurial longing that he thought he’d lost. He remembers having glimpsed this ‘something’ in the exotic decadence of Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke prints, or in photographs of now-derelict pop idols; and suspecting it could be found once and for all in obscure editions by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ishmael Reed, if only he could track them down: some intimation of the fantastic, or perhaps the divine. A lifetime of collecting such ephemera, though, never yielded it, and so for a time this longing died.

Until, that is, it returns in a monstrous form. Some he-knows-not-what begins to suggest itself to Lucas through bits of conversation overheard from passersby, random misprints in atlases and gazetteers, and turns of phrase in TV news reports and commercials: a mysterious ‘other’—a faraway, uncharted country, perhaps—that everyone but him knows about and is headed toward. Soon, it seems to be both everywhere and nowhere at once, and he names it Egnaro: his singular obsession. Whatever it is, he desperately wants it, convinced it will offer him escape from the dreariness of the here and now. But he can’t so much as grasp what Egnaro even is, and so his quest for it drives him to bitter desperation, and finally madness.

Egnaro is, in these respects, an apt image for the promises and perils of wonder. In wonder, something we don’t master transfixes us, holds us in place. In Heidegger’s way of putting it, wonder is a state of ‘not knowing the way out or the way in’.[3] These, of course, are vague formulas, but intentionally so. That is, they capture something shared by various accounts of wonder that are otherwise quite different. To begin with, there’s the raw phenomenology of those moments of awareness we’re apt to describe as wonder. You stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or take the time to stare at a marching line of industrious ants, or catch your first glimpse of your newborn child. What’s there before you seems beyond you, and for some reason, as a result, you can’t take your eyes away from it. For a time, everything else seems to drop out of view: nothing else even occurs to you but to stand there and bear witness. What’s going on in such experiences?

One common formula can be found in introductions to philosophy that invite us to the discipline by insipidly quoting Socrates’s declaration that wonder is “an experience that is characteristic of a philosopher” [4] or Aristotle’s that “it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize”. [5] More often than not, in such contexts wonder is treated as a thoroughly epistemic phenomenon: one that fundamentally concerns our knowledge, our understanding. Something strikes you as inexplicable. In this sense, you ‘don’t know your way into’ it. Of course, life is filled with many things we can’t fathom, and much of the time we just move on. However, on this particular occasion, for some reason the mystery grabs hold of you. You’re filled with a hunger for understanding: a hunger you ‘don’t know your way out of’ because it’s so powerful as to be undeniable, and because you don’t have the first clue how the mystery can be solved. Such an experience, the story goes, is what has, as with Plato and Aristotle, driven many thinkers toward profound discoveries: a puzzlement that one neither dismisses nor is cowed by, but that instead inspires a curiosity with all the force of need.

Using this conception of wonder, people will sometimes say that understanding is the death of it. The puzzle is solved, and so its hold on you is lost. Some thus think that wonder is something to overcome, a mere vehicle for getting to the real destination: understanding. To dwell in it, then, would be a mistake. We ought, like Lucas, seek—perhaps even struggle in misery—to unveil the mysteries that provoke wonder in us.[6] Others respond, in an anti-intellectualist vein, that wonder is something we should hold onto: a disorientation that, if nourished, can blossom into a thrilling sort of ecstasy. Those who endlessly chase understanding are, then, dreary or even power-hungry pedants seeking to kill something of great value in human life: victims of the folly that drained Lucas’s life of that beautiful delirium made possible by the wondrous—as he called it, Egnaro—leaving behind only banality and torment.[7]

To both, we might respond, though, that there are no end to mysteries, and thus that understanding is no threat to the sustaining of wonder. In a religious spirit, for example, we might say that God’s ways are mysterious, so that the more you understand, the more wondrous things will be. Such understanding, that is, inevitably reaches its limits, at which point you’ll be confronted with the miracle of creation, incomprehensible by finite minds. Or, we might propose a ‘secular’ variant of the same thought. Understanding—say, through science and mathematics—only ever breeds more unanswered questions. Many such questions, you’ll find, couldn't even have been framed without the understanding provided by the answers you have. After all, you need to know a lot of mathematics or physics just to comprehend many questions about numbers or subatomic particles. Understanding is, for these reasons, endlessly perfectible. Maybe, in a Spinozistic vein, this point could even be collapsed into the religious one: the depths of Nature/God can never be plumbed once and for all, and so wonder always remains.[8] In terms of Harrison’s story, Lucas’s longing was on the right track. His mistake was simply to think that its final satisfaction was ever in the works.

Be that is it may, though, is wonder simply an amalgam of particularly intense puzzlement and curiosity? When we’re transfixed by the Grand Canyon, by those ants, by our baby, is what we’re feeling simply the nascent impulse to understand these things? Something like that could certainly be in us. We could be inspired to learn about geology or entomology; or to figure out how to do anything and everything to make the world a welcoming place for this precious new life. And if we are, that could endow our wonder with great value. It’s become a powerful force moving us to understand things better—in the case of our baby, in the service of love.

Yet, if our wonder in these cases sparks curiosity about what provokes it, that certainly doesn’t mean this curiosity is one of its ingredients. Something caused by a phenomenon isn’t necessarily one of its constituent elements. More than this, it seems obvious that our wonder need not spark such curiosity at all. We can walk away from the canyon, the ants, the baby, it would seem, without ever having wanted to understand them. Maybe, then, our wonder is simply the jolt of puzzlement itself: an experience that perhaps disposes us, but need not lead, to curiosity over what puzzles us.[9] However, is that elevating, glorious thing we feel in the face of the wondrous nothing more than a kind of confusion? Of course, the disorientation of confusion can, like that caused by a rollercoaster’s twirling and bouncing, makes us giddy. But is the wondrous really akin to that rollercoaster? Is the proper expression of what it provokes “I’m out of my depth with this. I just don’t understand it”?

Heidegger shares something of the skepticism behind these incredulous questions about the epistemic conception of wonder, but only as concerns its view of wonder’s objects. On his account, when something “has the character of the exceptional, unexpected, surprising, and therefore exciting,” this is because it strikes us as in some way inexplicable.[10] Hence, the amazement (as he calls it) that such things arouse in us is essentially a kind of puzzlement: “a certain inability to explain and ignorance of the reason.” [11] Such amazement need not inspire us to understand those things. In fact, it lends itself, Heidegger thinks, to a reaction more like the anti-intellectualist one noted above: the desire to sustain our amazement—for example, by seeking out, in an endless quest for novelty, other things that will give us the same thrill.

However, Heidegger distinguishes amazement in this sense—essentially, what the epistemic conception describes—from wonder of the sort he thinks animated ancient Greek thought.[12] Such wonder isn’t provoked by what strikes us as unusual. Quite the contrary, it’s a response to what’s absolutely the most usual, the most ordinary; something common to everything whatsoever we encounter: the simple fact that things are present at all—what he calls their ‘unconcealment’. In our ordinary experience, it’s the presence of particular beings that is unconcealed—this chair, that person, those flowers—so that their unconcealment itself falls deep into the implicit background. What makes wonder remarkable, then, he thinks, is that through it unconcealment itself is unconcealed. So to speak, it leaps out of the background and shines forth before us, inspiring wonder: wonder at the sheer fact, as he sometimes put it, that something is there—anything—rather than nothing.

Heidegger’s conception of wonder can be tempting, especially in comparison with the epistemic one. To the extent that the canyon, the ants, or the baby are occasions for wonder, he’d say, this isn’t because we find these things confusing. It’s true that, in line with his formula, wonder is partly a matter of ‘not knowing the way in’. However, that into which we don’t know the way isn’t any of those things, or, indeed, any particular being at all. Rather, it’s something of immensely greater scope: the unconcealment that brings, not just them, but all beings into presence. Unconcealment is, in turn, wondrous in the sense that we ‘don’t know our way out’ of it. In wonder, that is, it arrests us, overwhelms us. Yet, there’s no such thing as leaving it behind altogether. Since unconcealment is that in virtue of which anything is there, it will always be implicit in our every encounter with beings—at work, so to speak, behind the scenes.

 For those who think the epistemic conception of wonder trivializes and confines it, Heidegger’s can seem to lend it appropriate grandeur and scope. Unconcealment is, he thinks, a matter of the deepest significance—much deeper than that of any particular being. At the same time, though, there’s no reason that something needs to stand out as strange and out of place to be its occasion. Something as commonplace as ants marching or a person being born can also be one: wonder can spring from anything, if it strikes us just right. If, in this spirit, we were to once again diagnose the character of Lucas, we could say that his mistake was that of thinking too small, as well as longing to be somewhere else than where he was. He sensed intimations of Egnaro, figure of the wondrous, constantly in everything around him. But, like someone for whom wonder shrinks into mere amazement, he diminished it, reducing it to something particular and rare. Further, he conceived it as something off in the distance: some ineffibly remote, Eden-like place to which he might someday escape.

However, if Heidegger’s conception of wonder has these advantages over the epistemic one, it still has many of the same problems. As I suggested above, he simply re-conceives wonder’s object, leaving intact its basic character. Wondrousness, again, is a matter of mystery. Perhaps he’s right that it’s the mystery of mysteries—in the end, that of being itself. But at best, this marks a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference between what he calls wonder and amazement. For him, the problem with the mysteries that amaze us isn’t that they’re mysteries, but rather small ones. They confound and thus agitate us, yes, but only in discrete, localized ways. Any inquiry they solicit from us, then, will be merely particular, and thus comparatively superficial. Further, the problem with our desire for such inquiry isn’t that it’s a kind of curiosity, but rather that it doesn’t run very deep. It might have the intensity of need, but this need is too narrow, and entirely contingent on the specific circumstances that aroused it. In contrast, wonder at the ultimate mystery, the one that’s evident in literally everything around us, provokes in us a "need...which makes needful the highest form of necessity"[13], a ‘distress’ that, paradoxically, is the greatest of gifts, because, that is, it pushes us to philosophy as Heidegger conceives it: the questioning of being. Yet, for all these differences, his conception of wonder is ultimately epistemic: made ‘higher’ by being imbued with ontological splendor, perhaps, but epistemic nonetheless. In it, some mystery arouses a need to unravel it, and thus questioning in the hopes of doing just that.

The fundamental problem with the epistemic account of wonder, now construed broadly to include Heidegger’s, isn’t that it doesn’t get onto real phenomena. Astonishment at mysteries large and small can surely drive inquiry, and when we feel it we do often call it wonder. The problem, instead, is that this account is incomplete, because there are wonder experiences of a completely different sort. The epistemic story is one that begins with lack, then proceeds to agitation, and finally ends in longing, in overwhelming need. But there’s a wonder before the Grand Canyon that knows nothing of lack, that if anything is better described as a kind of fullness; that gazes at the tireless power of ants, and feels all agitation lapse into silence and stillness; that is faced by the newness of life, and in that moment wants for nothing, completely content just to be there. 

Such moments of wonder are often characterized by unflinching attention and clarity of perception. Undistracted by the noise of our thoughts, or by veils of abstraction that blur everything into banal generalities, we notice a stunning wealth of detail—perhaps not even just in the thing that inspires our wonder, but in everything around it, around us. Suddenly, it’s as if the world becomes diaphanous, and we find ever new riches in what it contains. In this respect, Heidegger is right: a wonder that overlooks the ordinary in favor of the strange simply hasn’t seen the ordinary well enough. 

Have we returned, then, to the epistemic conception? No, not at all. There are other ways of looking and noticing than in curiosity, other ways of becoming lucid besides having done so through a drive to understand. Heidegger’s formula of ‘not knowing the way in or out’ is, in a sense, appropriate to the present sort of wonder. However, this is only in the sense that when this wonder befalls us, understanding isn’t on our minds at all. One common vice of philosophers is to see everything that’s remarkable in human life in terms of the things that matter to them most: paramount among these, understanding. As we’re transfixed, though, by the canyon, the ants, the baby, what we do or don’t know isn’t of concern, because we aren’t concerned with ourselves at all. We’re unreflective, thoroughly immersed. We notice things we otherwise wouldn’t have, but precisely because our attention isn’t guided by any predetermined end, let alone the end of understanding. Instead, it’s a kind of nomad. It wanders over the world, without destination, at play like a child. Of course, the things it discerns can evoke new mysteries, but the puzzle of those mysteries isn’t what that our wonder is about. In what we notice there can be seeds for new understanding, but curiosity isn’t what planted those seeds. Rather, epistemic wonder, valuable as it is, is if anything a trace left behind when this wonder lapses—when the precious moment of presence fades, and, elevated by it, we’re again agitated and pursuing our concerns.

From the viewpoint of this sort of wonder—primal wonder, I’m tempted to call it—Lucas’s error was chasing Egnaro in the first place. His preoccupation with himself and what he didn’t have, his urgent longing, only took him further away from Egnaro, from the serenity of wonder. Because of his futile quest, his life falls apart, and he loses his bookstore and everything else he owns, finally left ranting madly and vomiting in the street. However, deprived of everything he’d clung to, he finally lets go. For a time he disappears, but months later returns, seemingly a new man: healthy, cheerful, with ambitious new plans. The story’s unnamed narrator timidly questions him:

               “By the way. All that ‘Egnaro’ stuff—”

                 For a moment he looked. Then he laughed. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder. “I’ve finished with all that. I can’t think why I made so much fuss. It’s nothing at all when you know, is it?” [14]

What’s behind this cryptic response? From one angle, it seems to dismiss Egnaro altogether. From another, though, what it dismisses is the stance of desire, of self-concern. Egnaro, the wondrous, is ‘nothing at all’, but in the precise sense of being nothing to pursue, because chasing it only makes it more difficult to access. Attending to what we’re missing only makes us blind to it. When we surrender our usual coddling of all the lacks we see in ourselves, perhaps it will instead reveal itself all over—in the ordinary, the mundane, now seen differently. (“Egnaro” is, after all, only “orange” spelled backwards.) Our wonder, in other words, won’t be a pining after what isn’t there, but rather a clear vision of what is.[15]


[1] M. John Harrison, “Egnaro,” in  Things That Never Happen (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2003), 105-25.

[2] Ibid, p.105.

[3] For the extended treatment of wonder in which he employs this locution, cf. Martin Heidegger,  Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected “Problems” of “Logic” , trans. Richard Rojcewicz and André Schuwer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), Main Part, ch.5.[2]Ibid, p.105.

[4] John M. Cooper and D.S. Hutchinson (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 1997), 173.

[5] Aristotle’s  Metaphysics, 982b, translated by W.D. Ross. Quote from Aristotle.  The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation, ed. Jonathan Barnes (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), 1554.

[6] For example, in this vein Aquinas distinguishes between amazement(in Latin, admiratio, akin what I’m calling wonder) and stupor: “One who is amazed refrains for the moment to pass judgement on the object of his amazement, fearing failure. But he does look towards the future. When stupor envelops a man he is afraid either to form a judgement here and now or to look towards the future. Hence amazement is a source of philosophising, whereas stupor is an obstacle to philosophical thinking.” From Summa TheologiaeIa 2ae 41, quoted in John Llewelyn, “On saying that philosophy begins in thaumazein,Afterall4 (2001): 51'

[7] R.W. Hepburn, for example, attributes this sensibility to Giacomo Leopardi: an apt representative of an enduring impulse of modern thought, found especially in post-Romantic views of art and literature, to defend the visionary, ecstatic powers of the latter against what is seen as the deadening force of reason. Cf. R.W. Hepburn, “Inaugural Address: Wonder,” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 54 (1980): 2

[8] I say ‘Spinozistic’ because Spinoza himself famously condemns wonder. For him, wonder (again, admiratio) is something akin to Thomistic stupor (cf. note 6): in particular, the imagination’s presentation of something in isolation from those connections to other things, and ultimately to Nature/God, that can make sense of it. For this reason, he regards wonder as nothing more than a breeding ground for superstition—that form of ignorance which drives us to terror at our own finitude; and thus to a desperate search for some authority, divine or earthly, that transcends such limitations, to which we then desire to enslave ourselves. For Spinoza’s definition of wonder, cf. Ethics IIp52s, e.g. in Benedictus de Spinoza, The Spinoza Reader, ed. and trans. Edwin M. Curley (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 181-2. For his views on wonder in connection to superstition, cf. Benedict de Spinoza, Theological-Political Treatise, ed. Jonathan Isreal, trans. Michael Silverthorne and Jonathan Israel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), esp. the Preface (3-12) and ch.6, “On Miracles” (81-96).

[9] This seems to be close to what Aquinas has in mind in the passage from note 6: stupor is something that ‘envelops’ us in our amazement, thereby introducing a form of fear that suppresses our amazed disposition to reflect on the thing that amazes us.

[10] Basic Questions, 136.

[11] Ibid, 137. “Amazement” is Rojcewicz and Schuwer’s translation of the German Sichwundern. Heidegger alternatively refers to it as ‘marveling’ (Verwundern).

[12] For this phenomenon, he reserves the German term Er-staunen

[13] Basic Questions,132.

[14]“Egnaro”, 125.

[15] Many thanks go to Joseph Almog, Tero Mäkelä, Samuli Isotalo, Irina Salmi, Patrick Sibelius, and Babak Ziaei for comments on an earlier draft of some of these ideas; and to Steven DeLay for his assistance and kind invitation to write this essay

About the Author

Mandel Cabrera is an Assistant Professor of philosophy at Yonsei University in Seoul. His main area of interests are in the philosophy of religion and related topics, with work about and inspired by Spinoza, phenomenology, art, music, and literature. You can sample his writing by visiting his website and blog.