The Death of Awe in the Age of Awesome
(And why you should consider binning your bucket-list)
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world… for a transitory enchanted moment 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 Great Gatsby’ — F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1925)
It was a seemingly innocuous Youtube clip that got me thinking. A fellow toddler-parent showed it to me, with the accompanying explanation that it had become a highly effective way of pacifying her daughter, like a sort-of video-tranquilizer.
Look, she said, and, presenting her phone to our pair of two-year-olds, bid me 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 reached in — belonging to “a Brazilian ex-pornstar,” my friend informed me, absently — and began to open egg after egg after egg.
And there it was, in the mesmerized, near-drugged toddler faces — 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 travelling 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…