The Death of Awe in the Age of Awesome

(And why you should consider binning your bucket-list)

by Henry Wismayer

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world… for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. (‘The Great Gatsby’ — F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)

It was a seemingly innocuous Youtube clip that got me thinking. A fellow toddler-parent showed it to me, with the accompanying explanation that it had become a highly effective way of pacifying her daughter, like a sort-of video-tranquilizer.

Look, she said, and, presenting her phone to our pair of two-year-olds, bid me watch as their expressions began to glaze over. On the screen, a dozen or so Kinder-egg-style treats were arrayed in two neat lines. Then a woman’s manicured hands reached in — belonging to “a Brazilian ex-pornstar,” my friend informed me, absently — and began to open egg after egg after egg.

And there it was, in the mesmerized, near-drugged toddler faces — I’m talking, somewhat pretentiously I’ll admit, about the death of awe.

Travel writers like me spend a lot of time contemplating why people venture abroad. Not just the obvious enticements — relaxation, winter sun, cheap pilsner — but the emotional, soul-stirring stuff: the sustenance of the new. The awe. It has, I think, become one of the main incentives of our travelling lives. As spirituality wanes experience is the new faith, and we are refugees from the mundane.

But behind this quest for the big, beautiful and baffling is a disconcerting sense that wonder in the age of the bucket-list is under attack. From technology, from information overload, from the anti-spiritual cynicism of the post-hippy world. In an era where a child has only to hold a five-inch screen in front of their face to gorge themselves on the apparent miracle of a one-inch Dora the Explorer hatching from a two-tone chocolate shell, awe has started to feel increasingly elusive.

It doesn’t take a bona fide philosopher to understand that this diminution of the human experience is an inevitable price of social progress. Awe, after all, used to be much easier to come by. Imagine you’re a Stone-age hunter witnessing a solar eclipse (not like last month’s anticlimactic, cloud-snuffed eclipse. A proper one.). Suddenly, the sun is extinguished. You don’t know it’s a temporary phenomenon, an orbital idiosyncrasy. So you tremble, piss your mammoth-skin pants, invent Gods! That’s a great big uppercut of awe.

Travel, for many of us, has become a means of trying to resuscitate that sense of humbling incomprehension. Awesome places, whether natural or man-made — the sort that are endlessly catalogued in a thousand ‘things to do before you die’ books — have become lodestars for the restless mind, places to light out for. But it’s harder to feel awe when your eclipse is preceded by a 24-hour news preamble sucking every last grain of mystery out of the process.

The result is a uniquely modern malaise in which awe has become fugitive: desperately sought yet ever harder to wrest from the claustrophobic clamour of our overcrowded little planet. Our culture is all grown-up. And like the adult who realises that the illusionist is a con-man, not a conjurer, we’re becoming dulled by over-discovery and over-supply.

A still from the Lumiere Brothers’ short film: ‘LArrivee d’un train en gare de La Ciotat’.

Real-life awe barely cuts it anymore; we have Photoshop and CGI outdoing the actual. In 1896, when the Lumière brothers premiered their 50-second movie in a Parisian theatre — of a flickering locomotive chugging towards the camera — people fled the auditorium. Now we watch The Hobbit, where 3D armies of orcs, trolls and warmongering dwarves appear utterly, compellingly alive, and shuffle out of the multiplex feeling lobotomized.

The city-dweller’s connection with nature — the most prolific wellspring of earthly wonder — is eroded, near-severed. Romanticising landscape is barely tolerated. Wordsworth would never get away with that lonely cloud shit now. People would just call him a self-regarding hipster wanker. Familiarity breeds contempt. Cynicism withers all. When was the last time you witnessed something special without seeing a photo of it first?

Perhaps the greatest problem, though, lies in the paradox that genuine wonder becomes more slippery the more you pursue it. You can have a bucket-list as long as your arm, but any inveterate awe-chaser will tell you that the carefully planned event, loaded with its adherent expectations, is too open to disappointment.

Say your great travelling aspiration is to witness the Northern Lights (and, let’s be honest, if you subscribe to bucket-lists, there’s an 80% chance it is). You’ve made it to the Arctic Circle, journeyed out to some gloaming Nordic fastness. And there! The ethereal vision of electric green ripples oscillating across space — curling, coalescing, painting great glyphs in the sky. Your imagination unfurls: one moment you see a charging horse, the next a crashing wave. What could it mean, this incandescent tumult, these billion motes of cosmic dust carried on the solar wind? You reach for your camera, then pause. No. You just want to breath this in (there are good photos available on Google images). Hair on end, eyes agog, soul vaulting, you shiver. But wait! What’s this? The couple from your group-tour have marched into your field of view. Backs turned to the light, they hold the phone aloft. Pout, snap; pout, snap. “This is so awesome,” the man breathes, returning to your side. And — POP! — your reverie is gone.

The Aurora Borealis — inevitable bucket-list fixture (© Trond Kristiansen)

What’s the answer? For some, it lies in pushing further. As awe diminishes, peril has become increasingly coveted. In the pre-industrial world, few people felt drawn to mountains. They were foreboding places you ventured into only out of necessity. Now, people fling themselves from their summits wearing wing-suits. Craven to adventure, adrenaline-junkies knows that moments are lived more fully when stood on the precipice.

I have a friend, from what feels like another life, who’s spent the last five years cycling around the world. His sublime dispatches from the road, which I read with equal doses of envy and joy, speak of a journey rife with awe — of danger, chance encounters, and vast tracts of untrammelled Earth.

Though he spends much of his time in discomfort — cold, knackered, and apocalyptically alone — people constantly tell him: “you’re living the dream.” For he has left tyre-tracks across more unusual places on his 45,000-mile bike-ride than most of us will see in a life-time.

Yet when I emailed him to ask his views on awe, his reply, tapped out in an internet café somewhere in west Mongolia, confirmed what many of us probably already know: “Real awe is still attainable, still delights, and still keeps me pedalling,” he wrote. “But it never comes from the stuff the Lonely Planet informs me I should be awestruck by. It’s the stuff that arrives unannounced.”

So perhaps Yeats had it right when he mused:

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

Most of us will never witness a crystalline dawn from the summit of Everest or a 40-foot swell on the Southern Ocean; most of us will never encounter a pride of lions without a dozen other safari vehicles bundling into our peripheral vision.

But, in a humbler way, the feelings such experiences would evoke are still attainable, just as soon as we admit that true awe is probably more easily encountered by accident, spontaneously, often in something simple you’d never stopped to contemplate before.

It may be closer than you think.

The other day, in the park, I came across a wren sat on a conifer-branch. For ten minutes it stood on its twig, chest puffed-out but still barely bigger than my thumb. And as it sang its exquisite high-pitched warble it occurred to me that this little creature, half a mile from home, was just about the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen.

So let’s keep looking, but not too hard. Only then might we hope to recapture that simple childhood wonder, of a toy inside a plastic capsule, enclosed in a chocolate egg.

A wren: awesome (Flickr CC // Natural England)
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