Last month I wrote about “The Spectacle of the Ordinary,” inspired by the second line of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Instructions for Living a Life.”
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
This month’s topic is “Astonishment.” Astonishment is an emotion caused by surprise; it occurs when we perceive something rare or unexpected. Rene’ Descartes, the French philosopher of “I think, therefore I am” fame, deemed astonishment to be one of six primitive passions, along with love, hate, desire, joy, and sorrow.
The word astonishment is derived from the French word for thunder--
l’ e’tonnement--hence, “thunderstruck.” Descartes declared that the purpose of wonder is to help us learn and retain things in our memory that, until we were astonished, we were ignorant of. He felt that those who lack a natural inclination to the passion of wonder were “very ignorant.”
In her poem “Instructions for Living a Life,” Oliver is encouraging us to pay attention to the spectacle of the ordinary, but also to be awed by the exceptional and marvel at the world that surrounds us. She’s encouraging us to stay curious, to seek knowledge, to keep an open mind, and to be open to the “Ahhhh” of wonder.
Paradoxically, astonishment isn’t exclusively a by-product of the miraculous or the otherworldly. Paul Cezanne once promised: “I will astonish Paris with an apple.” How might an apple “astonish?” One look at his “Still Life With Apples” (1879) and you can see how well the artist delivered on his bold statement. Cezanne managed to astonish all of Paris with that painting, including his fellow artists, Picasso and Matisse.
Cezanne continually searched for ways to capture form and reframe perspective throughout his career. In his quest to astonish, he worked to “set the heart beating and the blood flowing,” and to “make the paint bleed.” As an artistic innovator, Cezanne “attacked the canvas” with a palette knife--he didn’t just “paint.”
That’s a great metaphor for how to “attack” life. Astonishment is a special emotion because it touches the heart AND the mind. It’s part of what makes life so WONDER-ful.
Cezanne Still Life With Apples
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