restricted access The Marvelous in Art (1982)
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The Marvelous in Art To make the external internal, the internal external, to make nature thought and thought nature . .. body is but a striving to become mind. -Coleridgel Thus the chemical student is taught not to be startled at disquisitions on the heat in ice. -Coleridge2 In his novel, Fifth Business, Robertson Davies asks: Why do people all over the world, and at all times, want marvels that defy all verifiable facts? And are the marvels brought into being by their desire, or is their desire an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced and questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real?3 Josef Pieper, the contemporary German philosopher, quotes Thomas Aquinas in his essay, "The Philosophical Act": "The reason ... why the philosopher may be likened to the poet is this: both are concerned with the marvellous."4 Pieper wonders at (i.e., philosophizes) the nature of man's capacity to wonder, to marvel. With Aquinas, he attributes this capacity to the reason that "because man's mind is ordained to knowledge of the first cause of the world [God], he [man] is capable of wonder."s He finds further corroboration of the relation of the poet and the philosopher to the marvelous and the capacity to wonder in a poem of Goethe's seventieth year, where Goethe says, "Zum Erstaunen bin ich da" ("I am here to marvel"), and also in a remark recorded by Eckermann ten years later, where the poet says, "The very summit of man's attainment is the capacity to marvel."6 Pieper is careful to distinguish the "enormous, sensational things" of this world from the world of the marvelous, and remarks of the former, "that is what a dulled sensibility requires to provoke it to a sort of ersatz experience of wonder ."7 For Pieper the real experience of wonder acts upon a man like a shock, shaking and moving him to a state in which the newly awakened awareness of living in the incomprehensible becomes the cause and focus of his wonder. In a fully awakened state, such a man could say with Goethe, "I am here to marvel." 214 THE MARVELOUS IN ART 215 But it is not only the poet and philosopher-and we may add the composer, the sculptor, the painter as well as the architect and the scientist-but also "people all over the world, and at all times" who desire the marvelous, whether it is "brought into being by their desire," or their desire is "an assurance rising from some deep knowledge, not to be directly experienced or questioned, that the marvelous is indeed an aspect of the real." When the architect Louis Kahn used to talk about "measuring the immeasurable ," he set for us all a philosophic conundrum which can only be unraveled not by posing another similar conundrum like "comprehending the incomprehensible ," but by translating the word measuring into an act of desire whose profound intent has the sole purpose of reaching over, through the imagination, to some as yet unknown portion or aspect of the marvelous-that which is immeasurable and imponderable because creatively limitless in form-and representing it in a newly fashioned, finite image. To penetrate through consciously willed perception-the act of imagination-into the realm of "the real" (of which the marvelous is an aspect) is a qualitative act of "measuring" which is the only way open to the artist. The energy which fuels and drives the artist's quest to raid the infinite, to wrest from it one of its secrets, to know a little more of the unknowable, is his desire to bring into living actuality in finite form something of the world of the marvelous, the world of the real. Even the scientist who quantitatively "measures" the phenomena of the created world cannot be denied the qualitative side, the imaginative side, of his equally powerful urge to measure the immeasurable, to discover the root structure of material and mental reality through means other than those the artist employs. In trying to guess what people-the art public if you will-want, or expect from art, I don't think it is too farfetched to suggest rather strongly that what they want is the same thing the artist or the scientist wants: to experience the world of the marvelous, grasp if they can, if only for the briefest moment, something of the real. That, I believe, is what draws and pulls...