Musings on the attitude our modern age tends to have toward true wonders in life.
Reading Thomas Madden’s excellent work on the history of Venice this morning has jogged in me an interesting trail of realization. In a masterfully written account he writes of the decline of Venice from a magnificent maritime empire in the Middle Ages to a decaying (though beautiful) city passed back and forth as a prize between warring nations. His poignant descriptions of the impressions of the romantic poets visiting Venice were thought provoking. But what really touched a nerve was the retelling of Mark Twain’s impression of 19th century Venice. With perhaps a stereotypical American pragmatism, Twain wrote how disappointed he was in the touted wonders of the Queen of the Sea, finding the navigational skill of the gondoliers more intriguing than the famous architecture or rich history. He felt he’d seen it all after viewing one painting of a saint. What is telling about this is the stark contrast in the attitude of this industrialized American and the magic felt by generations of tourists who came before him.
Indeed, I might go so far as to say a jaded and ungrateful attitude toward the wonders we have access to is one of the besetting sins of our age. Perhaps this is especially true of my generation, where for a long time it has been cool to not get excited about anything. This book has brought to my attention, in particular, a sense of wonder in regard to places, something we’ve largely lost in America today. Which of us ever really takes a vacation to see the sights? True, we have destinations we tend toward, but how many of them are for the thrills (Disneyland comes to mind, or even trips for the shopping in NYC) rather than because we care about seeing the actual destination and realize important events have taken place there?
In contrast, the church of San Marco, the Bridge of Sighs, or the Rialto, were once destinations to really see on the Venetian Grand Tour taken by thousands of Europeans. I really think that a wonder of places is what makes many of us today enjoy a good fantasy novel. Tolkien’s works sometimes read like a travel video and exudes a sense of awe at dwarven cave cities or Gondorian statues. Why do I not feel that same sense of wonder on a road trip? I pass just as many wonders as Frodo passed, or Marco Polo passed on his adventures. I just don’t usually notice them. It seems likely that the ready availability of art and architecture and technology constantly at my fingertips tends to make me take for granted things another generation might think wonderful on my road trip. The statue of Don Juan de Oñate in El Paso is not quite as magnificent to me because I can buy bronze statues for my front lawn any time I want.
On a more personal, and really more important level, how many of us are really conscious of local places that are important in our lives and our family’s lives? The Piazza San Marco was remarkable to the Venetians not as a tourist destination, but in large part for the rich and varied history they recalled and identified with that occurred there. Venetians named their prominent homes (the “Palazzo Monenigo”), their local landmarks (“the Lido”), their plazas, and more, in a way that makes them sound so significant. Nowadays we seldom name places important in our lives. Or if we do, they are names on an obscure map at city hall somewhere that I don’t know about.
Chesterton, in his wonderful biography of Charles Dickens, claims that Dickens’ ability to describe places is really one of the most distinguishing aspects of his genius. He takes an obscure neighborhood in London and makes its sooty cobbles significant with descriptions that link it to the lives of his characters. And he does it so well the street seem like a character. Perhaps if I didn’t move every three years I’d start referring to my house in the pecan trees as “the groves” more often, and my children would have a set of fond memories they could identify with when we talked about “the groves.” That sense of place significance would at least be enhanced more than it might be talking about “that second house we lived in in Las Cruces.” The spot in the mountains that we named “Sherwood Forest” has a more imaginative fondness in our minds than “Upper Karr Canyon” (or the even less personally identifiable forest service’s “T120” designation). I go through my life seldom considering either the importance of a place or the importance that place has had in previous generations. I really don’t care as much as past generations did about local landmarks or famous places. And my experience, and the experience of my family, loses just a little bit of sparkle because of it.
Another example brought home to me in this book can also be seen in the loss of wonder in great art. We have to work hard (which I suppose has, to a point, always been the case) to appreciate masterworks like the Michelangelo’s David. I think this is in part because we can get a decent replica of it on Amazon if we want, or find a photo of it with a couple clicks on Google. That and we would rather be entertained by the thrills of a movie or video game than stare at a statue.
But of course, places and art pieces are the masterworks of men. Life is God’s masterwork; and human life is the pinnacle. Here we have (as many have pointed out) perhaps gained some more respect than previous generations, who might have spent human life to create a great monument. But we have long ago lost the wonder. Evolutionary theory and the widespread acceptance of secular humanism now programmed in our social conscience tell the fable that we are just products of chance and not much more important the sludge we came out of. However, we aught to be in greater awe at the wonder we hold in our arms when we rock our child to sleep, than any awe inspired by the most magnificent landmark. Horribly, we’ve lost our wonder at life now to the point that we can thoughtlessly murder millions without a twinge of national guilt.
Such are my musings this morning. What do they all amount to? I need to try to cultivate a greater sense of wonder at the places and the people surrounding me. And I aught to try to cultivate that sense of wonder in my wife and children as well. We should name our house. We should stop and enjoy the sights more, and learn further about the history of places. We should take some trips specifically to see important landmarks. We should especially be more grateful of the wonderful things God has given us. It’s incredible how very much I take for granted every day. There was a time when indoor plumbing or the ability to light one’s home was a luxury of the very rich.
Also, I should worry less. When I compare my life to those medieval Venetians, what do I really have to worry about? Has there been a day that I actually worried I would not have food to feed my family, or stressed that Turkish Janissaries might come pouring over the Adriatic to enslave my family and murder me and my friends? Nope. We have it so very good in this free and wonderful land of ours. I consume and overlook with voracious rapidity one incredible luxury after the other – usually without stopping to thank the God who has given it to me, or consider the many generations of people that advanced science to get it to me.
More wonder. More gratitude. That’s the message to take home from my rambling hike down the musing trail started in 19th century Venice.