A drink to transfigurings: the world, wonder and beauty symposium

Jan B.W. Pedersen reflects on the symposium: Transfigurings: the world, wonder and beauty that took place on the 14th June 2012 at the Durham Light Infantry Museum:

Having no prior experience of the Durham Light Infantry Museum I initially thought it to be an ominous place for a symposium; however, upon entering the museum grounds with its tranquil and romantic ambiance such thoughts were quickly dismissed. Meeting the friendly interlocutors added a further positive quality to the atmosphere and experiencing the formidable figure and presence of professor Sander L. Gilman from Emory University, who chaired the event, left no doubt that one metaphorically speaking had entered the House of Agathon.

Since no discipline seemingly has a monopoly on addressing beauty, wonder and the prospect of transfiguration I was looking forward to hearing what the variety of speakers would offer in respect to the theme of the symposium. There is always a danger that a symposium gathering representatives from different academic disciplines may suffer due, for want of a better term, to the ‘Tower of Babel Effect.’ Will the speakers and the audience be able to understand one other so a genuine discourse may arise? Or will the use of arcane discipline-centered language prevail, signaling a descent into a maelstrom of obscurity, confusion and frustration?

Fortunately, to my mind all speakers did an excellent job in avoiding discipline-centric jargon and connecting well with the audience, transforming them from passive listeners to interlocutors. Four speakers deserve a particular remark. Mathematician John Bissell did an excellent job in conveying the beauty in mathematics in his opening talk entitled: ‘Surprised by Beauty – Spontaneity within an established order.’ His talk was surprisingly free of advanced mathematical terminology and his delivery captivated, invigorated and edified the audience. To a non-mathematician like me it was an absolute pleasure and a most enlightening opening to the symposium. Philosopher Martyn Evans’ talk ‘Beauty, Wonder and the unseen’ was also elegantly delivered and offered an intimate understanding of beauty and wonder in relation to what we cannot see. Evans emphasized the embodied wonderer and argued that while the aesthetic changes the world within reason, wonder transfigures it beyond reason. This was stylishly conveyed via the use of captivating personal experiences. Finally I like to put the spotlight on artist Mary Robson and Senior Research Fellow in Arts & Health Mike White and their talk ‘Lanterns, places and epiphanies’. Presenting themselves as the ‘light’ entertainment at the end of the day their combined powerful and energizing talk, illustrated by a series of atmospheric photographs, demonstrated how beauty and wonder can manifest and transfigure not only a daunting neighborhood in South Africa, but also the lantern makers themselves.

As the symposium raised for me a whole series of questions, I offer here some candidates for further contemplation:

  • Mark Mcintosh pointed out in his talk on ‘Beauty of thought and the wonder of intelligibility’ that the mind wants progress and seeks understanding. One could in this respect say that we are made to wonder, but is that true of modern life? We seem to seek progress but do we seek understanding? Do we wonder at all or has curiosity, as Heidegger claimed, replaced wonder?
  • At the symposium, no-one explicitly mentioned human nature in conjunction with aesthetic experience or our capability to wonder. What can the notion of human nature do to aid our understanding of wonder?
  • Literally and metaphorically the lantern projects brings light to darkness. I think it would be interesting to explore beauty and wonder in connection with light and our notion of the enlightened being. Why does the sun play such big role in Plato’ allegory of the cave? What is meant by the Christian notion of seeing the world ‘though a glass darkly’? And is it possible to have an enlightened, beautiful and wonderfully clear and distinct vision of the world in it self or indeed our selves?
  • Did the interlocutors really understand one another at the symposium? What can be done to secure interdisciplinary understanding of wonder and beauty?
  • Can we once and for all agree on what wonder is or is it, like philosophy itself, an endlessly fascinating topic that each generation engage with and reinterprets?
  • Are there any wonder skeptics out there who doubt its transfiguring properties?
  • Is there a downside to wonder that wonder enthusiasts are reluctant to investigate? Could it be that we only see the ‘wonder’ of wonder and not its darker and less invigorating aspects?
  • Is beauty waiting to be discovered or is it something we must create?
  • Is it possible to be transfigured for life by an experience of wonder or beauty or will the novelty eventually wear off, creating the possibility for a re-transfiguring?
  • Can we find examples of people whose lives have been dramatically altered by beauty or wonder? Could a database be established?
  • Is wonder a part of eastern philosophy or religion or is wonder in fact Greek wonder, and consequently Christian wonder, and so a European phenomenon?

I would be interested to know what others thought of the symposium, so please feel free to leave comments if you have something you want to discuss.

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