Horizons and Wonder

Lowther Sunset
Lowther Sunset
Evening over the Lowther Hills, in the Southern Uplands, seen here from near the source of the River Tweed

The appeal of landscapes seems to us enduring, although it is an appeal more recent than we might have imagined. And among landscapes, judging by sales of photographs, it is sunsets that dominate. Part of the reason for this is the way a sunset combines overt natural beauty with the lure and possibilities of the horizon. The colours and contrasts supply the aesthetic satisfaction, but added to these is a frisson, a yearning, in which the horizon calls to something beyond the evident beauty and raises us from the familiar and mundane. However, it is a subtle and elusive voice at play, uncommon compared to the appreciation of the sunset which is proverbial. While allowing us to bask in their peace, horizons sometimes also seem to open a door, an opening-up that whispers about a larger life, making our normal daily round pall. For each person the whisper is different, for it is a balance between the comfort of aesthetic pleasure and some novelty that may be on offer, and that balance varies from person to person, but underlying this individuality is a common swell of vitality for which the best word seems to be wonder.

Chambers, Webster's and the Oxford dictionaries are agreed that unexpected, strange, astonishing and extraordinary are key features of wonder. The word ranges widely from wondering how to make a meringue, through why leaves turn red, or if there is life on Mars, to wondering at the power of the gods: from the mundane to the sublime. The concept is broad and it is relative; it is relative to this problem, to that experience, or to your mystery - relatively there is something new. Wonder is not so much about specific content as about edges and boundaries; the line between the known and the unknown; the familiar and the mysterious, and that is just the line of the horizon - the elusive horizon: always there, but never reached.

Although wonder may be evasive in sunsets there is one place where it has long been accepted. Philosophy, since at least the time of Socrates, has been seen as the exploration of our wonder: the careful examination of that which is indeterminate, and especially that which was thought to be known, but turns out otherwise. The land between us and the horizon becomes familiar, but the land just beyond the horizon constantly suggests novelty. Philosophy embraces that novelty, leaving to systematic natural philosophy (science) material in which it can no longer find excitement, and examining instead the problems which continue to defy and provoke us, or the new difficulties that the evolution of the sciences present; like some friendly hydra, from each head (a resolution or insight) mastered, come new puzzles. Philosophy has found no reduction in its scope over the millennia. Wonder within our conceptual worlds, just like the horizon, stays with us.

Far from being restricted to the intellectual realm, our sense of wonder is most often associated with emotional and aesthetic feelings. Here wonder is even harder to catch. Words, indeed concepts, seem too clumsy, unable to lay their hands on the way wonder raises our mundane world up from the familiar to the entrancing. The sunset's charm brings a sense of peace and gentle expansiveness, and often, in our busy lives, it does no more. But there are times when the expansiveness can grow, and blossom into a sense of wonder, elevating our mood and subtly disturb us deep inside; then we are stimulated by it, and our relationship to it; stimulated to wish to act without knowing what action to take. We want to go, to rise, to engage, but in an 'intransitive' manner - without an object, or an objective or a location. We are disturbed somewhere deep down, albeit pleasantly so.

Wonder seems a joyous addition to our lives; an attraction attended by a yearning, often seemingly for the unattainable. It comes to us from the edges of thought, of feeling, of belief, from the point at which the known dissolves into the unknown, it lives at our mental horizons, at the boundaries of our world. And it calls to us - and oh so loud, is its soft call.

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  • Andrews, Malcolm (1999) 'Landscape and Western Art' OUP. He discusses "the conversion of land into landscape a perceptual process" which has already begun before landscape can become a subject for art. This beginning he traces to the end of the fifteenth century.

  31st July 2013 ~ 18th July 2015