Michael Riordon

the view from where I live


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Human responses to a spider’s web:2006_0819Fleurs_aug19_060001

1.  Awe.

2.  Eeew.  Call the exterminator!

3.  Make metaphors.
O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive!
– Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, 1808.

4.  Make sense. “Given the presumed metabolic effort required by the spider for rebuilding an entire web, localized failure is preferential as it does not compromise the structural integrity of the web and hence allows it to continue to function for prey capture in spite of the damage.” Cranford, S.W. et al, Nature, 2012..

5.  Make products.   In the works:  Tiny sutures for eye and nerve surgery, artificial ligaments and tendons, textiles for parachutes….

6.  Make a superhero: 700 comic issues, 2 live-action TV series, 7 animated series, 4 movies (to date), video games, backpacks, blankets, water bottles, ball-caps, action figures, costumes, weapons, the most expensive Broadway musical in history…

7.  Make military/police products.   In the works: Comfy body armour for the imperial guard…

8.  Awe.  Or its close cousin, horror.

“All knowledge and wonder (which is the seed of knowledge) is an impression of pleasure in itself.”       – Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, 1605.

I would add:  Wonder, or awe, is indispensable in the quest for knowledge.  But it goes far too easily missing along the way.  (Wonder and awe I count as degrees of the same response.)

Awe revels in the mystery, elegance and grandeur of existence.  It is rooted in healthy humility.  In awe, we know our place – in nature, not above it.  Falling out of awe, we lose our place.

Wonder is spontaneous and ecstatic.  Children feel it, uninhibited.  Then we learn how to think, and then we learn what to think.  Wonder is at risk.  If it withers enough, eventually we have to pretend it.  Or buy it.

Awe touches vast questions, some of them best left as questions.  But religion and science keep trying to answer them.

On a mid-winter walk, breath clouds under clear sky, transparent to infinity.   I watch rising sun brush grey tree-tops with a buttery glow.  For an instant I feel its warmth, and the pleasure of it draws a smile.  But in another instant, pleasure surrenders to memory – a hymn from Presbyterian childhood in another century:

When morning gilds the skies
My heart awakening cries…

A rapturous image of awe.  Then the author (unknown) delivers a message from the sponsor (unknowable):

…may Jesus Christ be praised. 

Religion can’t resist transforming awe into worship, a more governable activity.

Science does something different, but remarkably similar.  Very often it treats awe as superstition, a vestige, like the tailbone, of our primitive past.  In doing so it lures wonder away from its natural object, the universe, to be dazzled instead by the brilliance of human science as it deconstructs the universe.

The lure is beguiling.  When we reduce the universe to data it appears more manageable, less terrifying.  Not an unreasonable goal in a universe that dispenses catastrophe as casually and indiscriminately as impressions of pleasure.  But data is cold.  It shrinks, chills, and eventually freezes wonder.

In 1605 Francis Bacon also wrote:  “I am come in very truth leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” – The Masculine Birth of Time.

A cruel paradox here:  Nature enslaved can no longer elicit wonder.  Yet Bacon calls wonder “the seed of knowledge.”  Without seed, what can we expect to grow?

Awe induces respect.  What we don’t respect we tend to neglect or destroy:  people we dislike, countless fellow species, forests, oceans, air, the breath of life.

A cruel paradox: What are we to do?

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

One thought on “Awe

  1. I’ll refrain from commenting on what an awesome piece this is … woops. This is quite the paradox alright. I feel ecstatic thrills of intellectual braingasms when I read of some incredibly elegant and oh so logical scientific theories sometimes and I just can’t deny it. The organizing human mind can be a real marvel of the universe in it’s own right. However this is also the mind that as often as not insists on a hefty dose of shock to usher in the awe, and we know how bloody and deadly this particular euphemism generally is, but not to the 1 or .001 %. As a high functioning Buddhistic and self identified warrior – yup, go figure – I’d have to say that on the whole I prefer the more subtle and yes, awesome joy one gets at rest and at peace in the mystery. Solidarity, Bros and Sis’s.


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