The Shape of Wonder

What is wonder’s purpose and progress in the human story? Investigating this question, The Shape of Wonder seeks to articulate the purpose of structures, stories, music, drama, and other arts and sciences that are engineered to inspire not fear or instruction but awe. From the Old English wunder, to wonder is to marvel; a wonder is an “object of astonishment.” In this course students will look at the earliest structures and systems hard-wired to elicit wonder, including Paleolithic caves to Neolithic passage tombs, the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, and from these early structures to the written word, the narrative of Gilgamesh, the philosophy of Plato, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Beowulf, and other works whose recipes for wonder seem not to change, though ages pass. The course will first define what elicits wonder and study its evolutionary and social purposes by examining its “machines”: inventions, objects, literatures, and spaces from antiquity to the present. In this first unit of the course, we will focus on the relationship between wonder and fear; wonder and expanded consciousness; wonder and delight. In the second unit of the course, we will explore how wonder has been defined and discussed in science, documentary, physics and philosophy. For the final project, students will “invent” a wonder machine, marking its effects (as text, object, space, or some other medium), and explaining how this piece might add to our conversation about the nature and purpose of all that astonishes.