Misfit Forms: Paths Not Taken by the British Novel

By Lorri G. Nandrea | Go to book overview

4.
Verisimilitudes
Curiosity, Wonder, and Negative Capability

The spring of action which, perhaps more than any other, charac-
terized the whole train of my life, was curiosity … I could not rest
till I had acquainted myself with the solutions that had been
invented for the phenomena of the universe. In fine, this produced
in me an invincible attachment to books of narrative and romance.
I panted for the unravelling of an adventure, with an anxiety,
perhaps almost equal to that of the man whose future happiness or
misery depended on its issue. I read, I devoured compositions of
this sort. They took possession of my soul….

William Godwin, Caleb Williams (4)

He was the kind of man people looked at twice, deciding whether
or not to stare. What are the criteria for gaping? Samson wondered.

Nicole Krauss, Man Walks into a Room (80–81)

Recent literary and historical scholarship on curiosity, and the related affect of wonder, has shaped a history in which wonder undergoes a sea change during the Renaissance, and then yields cultural prominence to curiosity during the Restoration.1 Both terms—oddly ambidextrous in that they can refer to either subjects or objects, and thus imply a special relationship between the two—have been subjected to intellectual, religious, and moral condemnation, often riding seesaw with each other. Throughout the Middle Ages, curiosity was understood as a major sin of intellectuals, a transgressive desire “to know more than God permits” (Benedict 18); the variant “curiositas” remains, today, associated with pornography and other taboo materials. However, enlightenment thought was more favorable to the spirit of inquiry curiosity connotes; Francis

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