It was a seemingly innocuous YouTube clip that got me thinking. A fellow parent of a toddler showed it to me, with the accompanying explanation that it had become a highly effective way of quietening her daughter, like a sort-of video tranquilizer.
“Look,” she said, and, presenting her phone to our pair of two-year-olds, invited me to 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—belonging to “a Brazilian ex-porn star,” my friend informed me, absently—reached in and began to open egg after egg after egg.
And there, in the mesmerized, near-drugged toddler faces, was a glimpse of something that’s been niggling me for a while. 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 traveling 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 only has 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 philosopher to understand that this diminution of the human condition 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 proper awe right there.
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 clamor of our overcrowded little planet. Our culture is all grown-up. And like the adult who realizes that the illusionist is a con-man, not a conjurer, we’re becoming dulled by over-discovery and over-supply.
Real-life awe barely cuts it any more. We have Photoshop and CGI outdoing the actual. When the Lumiere 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 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 diminished, near-severed. Romanticizing landscape is barely allowed. Wordsworth would never get away with that lonely cloud shit now. People would just call him a narcissistic hipster wanker. Familiarity breeds contempt. And 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 planned event, loaded with its adherent expectations, is too open to disappointment.
Read More: Here