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In which John reviews the human capacity for wonder, one of the more famous lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, and a randomly selected oak leaf, all while still enjoying the view from America's third coast in the Midwest.

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. I'm still on vacation, so here's some more horizon. Today I'll be reviewing man's capacity for wonder.
The phrase comes from a line in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby, in which the narrator imagines Europeans first arriving in the Americas. "For a transitory enchanted moment," Fitzgerald writes, "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 line comes right at the end of the novel, and it's always seemed to me slightly out of place, as if Fitzgerald realized he couldn't write the great American novel without one moment of zooming out to examine the "beginning" of the "history" of his continent.

And of course now it feels wrong on a few levels; there's the gendered language, the false notion that America was somehow empty or pristine before Europeans arrived, and the fact that within a few decades of The Great Gatsby, humans would step foot on the moon and glimpse what the universe looked like just after the Big Bang by gazing upon 16 billion-year-old light. 

Still, Fitzgerald's business about man's capacity for wonder is an awfully good line. So good, in fact, that it's easy to mistake it for true. Like, beautiful arresting observations always seem accurate even when they're not. Take for instance the masterful first line of Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." We know this observation is too reductive to be, strictly speaking, true, but we still love it, not least because most of us find comfort in the idea that if we aren't going to be happy, we might at least be unique. In fact, I suspect most of us, deep down, would rather be interesting than happy. I know I would. 

Now, the best observations in literature are at once beautiful and broadly true. "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board," Zora Neale Hurston wrote. Or this line from Kurt Vonnegut: "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be."

But often, a great line doesn't prove to be a great truth. Like, I remember when my son was about two, we were walking in the woods one November morning. We were along a ridge, looking down at the forest below, where a cold haze seemed to hug the forest floor, and you could see out across the forest below us for miles, and it was just so extravagantly beautiful. And I kept trying to get my oblivious two-year-old to appreciate this landscape. At one point I picked him up and pointed out toward the horizon and said "look at that, Henry, just look at it!" And he said, "leaf!" "What?" I said, and he said "leaf" again, and then reached out and grabbed a single brown oak leaf from the little tree next to us.

I wanted to explain to him that you can see a brown oak leaf literally anywhere in the Eastern United States in November, that nothing in the forest was less interesting. But after watching him look at it, I began to look as well, and I soon realized it wasn't just a brown leaf. Its veins spidered out red and orange and yellow in a pattern too complex for my brain to synthesize, and the more I looked at the leaf with Henry the more I felt like the cliché of the stoner who just can't believe how beautiful everything is.

The intricacy of that leaf astonished me, and I was reminded that aesthetic beauty is as much about how and whether you look as what you see. I was, in short, face-to-face with something commensurate to my capacity for wonder. From the quark to the supernova, the wonders do not cease. It is our attentiveness that is in short supply, our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires.

So in the end, I think Fitzgerald was wrong, but I think human's capacity for wonder is nonetheless pretty great. I give it a 10 out of 10. Highly recommended. Hank, I'll see you on Friday.