Longing, Being, Astonishing: Some Notes
In his wonderful book, Speaking into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication, John Durham Peters writes: “’Communication’ is a registry of modern longings.” Central to modern longings as I understand them is the longing for wonder—that is, for astonishment at an existence that we are privileged not only to witness but to inhabit; and not only to inhabit, but to explore; and by exploring, to enlarge.
Simply to be, and to be aware that I am, is about as wonderful as I can bear. All the more beautifully, you are also.
I suspect that I am real, therefore I am real enough to suspect. The suspicion is itself an astonishment. To feel reality billowing up is all the reality I need. But sharing reality—well, this is a kind of wonder that cannot be surpassed.
Somehow—I am not sure this makes sense—there are times when I feel that I have an easier time knowing that you, whoever you are, exist, than that I do.
I imagine that if I can achieve wonder, then I will exist. My consciousness will carry me across a chasm to a world that will be pleased to have me.
That world is real by being astonishing. Among its astonishments are that you and I, together, exist in this world that we did not make but are involved in remaking; remaking it and being remade by it.
Sometimes I feel that we only matter when we wonder, but this is mistaken. When we don’t wonder, we labor. Labor is striving. Wonder is being. Labor lives in absence—in the recognition of what is not yet, what needs to be. Wonder lives in presence—in the recognition of what is right here.
Wonder is the experience that the world exists; and is mysterious; and exists by virtue of being mysterious.
We need both labor and wonder.
I have been told that the key to Merleau-Ponty’s idea of how we exist is his notion of “intertwining.” “The visible about us seems to rest in itself,” is how he begins his chapter on this subject. But this is not how it seems to me. The visible is a vibration tying me to the world. If I were blind, the world and I would still be in each other.
Whatever Max Weber thought, the world is not “disenchanted.” It’s as enchanted as ever. Despite all our rituals, our harkings back, our nostalgia for the steady, rooted assurances that we think used to exist, it is impossible to say whether the world was ever more enchanted than it is now.
Today, a longing for wonder—for a reenchanted world—is the bad mood of intellectuals. But this is not to say that the longing for wonder is futile, or stupid, or beneath notice. To the contrary.
The world is already here. Which is miracle enough. It did not have to exist. It still does not have to. If it does not have to exist, there is no reason not to change it.
But it does have to exist.
I have spent much of my life looking to change the world; and why not? Looking to change it is a perfectly fine way of living in it. It has the virtue of being virtuous. It has the vice of being presumptuous. It is the place where virtue and vice coexist. Trying to change the world thoughtfully is better than trying to do it thoughtlessly. But it has this downside: It condemns me to an endless rediscovery of absence—the absence of the world that I strive for.
But hold on. If that world were here, would there really be nothing left to strive for? Ridiculous. Striving is the way of the biological world. The way we live is by finding a way to grow. The way we grow, our vitality, is our nature.
For some time, I felt I was missing something. I came to the conclusion that I craved an awareness of presence. I mean both my presence in the world and the world’s presence in me. The practice of this awareness would be, I think, what the Buddhists call “mindfulness.”
“Wanting presence” is an absurdity, of course. There is the wanting that suggests a lack, as in “Here in the desert, water is wanting.” There is the wanting that suggests striving, as in, “I want a drink of water.” Both these forms of wanting start with an absence. But presence in the sense I mean isn’t paired with absence. It should be. Awareness of presence arrives when the wanting stops.
Or rather, it is, once you know it. I think this is what Taoism means by the way. Not as in “finding the way,” as if it is something that already exists. More like being the way, making the way.
Awareness of presence must happen in time and space. For example, I am looking out the window at a forsythia. Between me and the forsythia lie a swathe of grass, a driveway, and a few pines shaking in the breeze. The breeze passes over my face. All in all, there is a stillness. It is a luxury. But the breeze is here whether we feel it or not. There is suffering in the world, and also, that suffering is also here whether we feel it or not. Still, there is this breeze and this stillness. My connection to this stillness is a collaboration between the stillness and myself.
Awareness of presence cannot be taken for granted, but neither can it be fought for. As soon as you fight for it, you guarantee you have lost it. You will never “have it” the way you have a candy bar, a job, or even that most elusive of modern grails, an identity. No sooner do you think you have it than you have lost it. You have to be it. You have to assume it.
When I write fiction, I play God. No wonder it’s so hard.
Of course, when I write nonfiction, I play God too, but in disguise.
-Todd Gitlin, guest contributor
Todd Gitlin’s most recent books are Undying, a novel, and Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street.