Whenever I see a plane landing at a distance - a hazy, far-off vessel full of human beings, floating down over things close enough (in theory) to hit with a well-lobbed stone - I feel an upswell of emotion that closely resembles anxiety. For some reason, the planes coming to and going from Chicago are an existential trigger for me; something about seeing a distant representation of human purposefulness and intentionality that stands in no clear relation to my immediate situation and surroundings throws a wet blanket of pensiveness over any excitement that formerly colored my actions. "What am I doing here? Who am I? Why are things this way, and not another?" A sense of bittersweet wonder is restored for an instant to my life, as the innumerable contingencies upon which my life precariously works itself out are thrown into relief. In these moments, I empathize with Chesterton, who writes in Orthodoxy about how his conversion to Christianity enabled him to see the sheer mystery in the uncanny facts of grass being green, and the rising of the sun.
The world of human interconnection and directedness carries on, apparently indifferent to one person's persistent living but for traces at the fringes of perception that signify a deeper, more complicated, and more profound all-encompassing web of relationships than is capable of being perceived on this side of the eschaton. Colum McCann's astounding novel Let the Great World Spin gestures like the crazy person at these deeply felt but inarticulable mine-shafts of the human world of life. He evokes the sublime: that which in principle transcends the capacities of language to comprehend and signify, but which can nonetheless be (imperfectly) experienced, and which furthermore is a wellspring of art. This last aspect is interesting: we seem to be intent on communicating our perspectives on the sublime to others somehow, in a way similar to how we would attempt to communicate a private joy to a loved one, by leading them right up to their own encounter with it. In example: "words can't do it justice; you really just have to experience it - which is why I got us skydiving passes from Groupon!" McCann's novel communicates the sublime to me like the planes of O'Hare and Midway do, in a way that ruptures the unreflective equilibrium of my materially-comfortable life.
Here is a photograph that appears in the middle of the book. It triggers the same volatile mix of emotions that signal the sublime, and it reminds me of the dynamic, incomprehensible, supernatural realities that are held in tension just below the taut skin of naturally-sedimented perceptions. It is of the funambulist who held New York City captive in the spring of 1974 while he performed a high-wire act between the two nearly-finished towers of the World Trade Center.
The tiny silhouette seems to urgently ask, "Who are you? What are you doing here? Where are you going? What will you do?" and the grey clouds surrounding and backing him seem ready to grab and hoist the viewer into the overcast sky that glumly surveyed the frantic, harried city full of struggling and thriving human beings some thirty six years ago, on a day that would have apparently started just like any other.
Do yourself a favor this Christmas and read Let the Great World Spin. The sense of awe and the chain of very basic questions it may elicit from a serious reader remind me of a quotation from Merleau-Ponty: "true philosophy consists in relearning to look at the world."