Nyla Matuk

Two Kinds Of Wonder

The American philosopher Harry Frankfurt opens his book, “The Reasons of Love,” with a discussion of the Greek philosophers’ engagements with wonder. He says that Aristotle provided a list of all the things that led the first philosophers to wonder. These included self-moving marionettes and certain cosmological and astronomical phenomena. Frankfurt writes: “It is hardly appropriate to characterize these things merely as puzzling. They are startling. They are marvels.”

Frankfurt tells us that for Aristotle, wonder “must have been resonant with feelings of mystery, of the uncanny, of awe.”

In his essay “Husserl’s Sense of Wonder” (2000), the philosopher Mark Kingwell writes: “Wonder sees the world of everyday as suddenly strange and mysterious, obtrusive, standing out.”

This clip from David Lynch’s “The Lost Highway” supplies us with a perfect example of a reasonably ordinary experience — meeting someone at a party — that becomes strange, mysterious and frightening.

David Lynch, “Lost Highway” (1997)

“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” There is wonder here: This stranger has all the unhome-like characteristics of the unheimlich (the uncanny) because he is both unknowable to Bill Pullman’s character yet also deeply involved with him.

It is an undeniable mindfuck, what could be called wonder. It is almost a metaphor for detached sexual congress: Being known in one way, but not at all in another. The Bill Pullman character is being opened up against his will, raped.

Could an unsettling person with a friendly smile be talking to me at a party while at the same time waiting for me at my home? It is then no longer a question of going home/not going home with him. He is already there. He is the person who is friendly but invasively so. He is physically disturbing-looking but I resist pre-judging him on his looks, because then am I the one being unfriendly — behaving too readily like a stranger than a potential friend? Yet we do judge strangers on their looks, if not consciously, then subconsciously. If they look good to us, we may invite them into our homes. The stranger’s smile becomes a dispensation of the uncanny.

Where else do we find wonder? Inside love.

In the movie “The English Patient,” when Kip shows Hanna something wondrous, it is meant as an act of love and kindness. It is a way of getting close to another person, but decidedly not in the manner of the stranger at the party.

Anthony Minghella, “The English Patient” (1996)

It seems certain that Kip and Hanna could never be strangers again.

– Nyla Matuk

Ryeberg Curator Bio

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Nyla Matuk is the author of the poetry collections, "Sumptuary Laws" and "Stranger." Her poetry, fiction, and essays have also appeared in numerous literary journals including Event, Room of One's Own, Descant, The New Yorker and Poetry Review. She has also contributed journalism on architecture and literary topics as a freelancer to the Globe and Mail and various magazines. She is editor of an anthology of poems, "Resisting Canada." For more Nyla Matuk, go here.