Published online by Cambridge University Press: 13 May 2014
Stephen Greenblatt has shown that wonder was the central characteristic of the first European encounters with the New World and the decisive emotional and intellectual experience in the face of radical difference (Greenblatt 1994:27). Wonder, says Greenblatt, appears to be a category immune to all denial and ideological co-optation, and it exerts an irresistible force. It occurs in a moment when meanings are lacking and is accompanied by the fragmentation of contextual understanding (Greenblatt 1994:33).
Wonder was already an essential topic of discourses in philosophy and art even before the voyages of discovery (Matuschek 1991); thus, for Socrates, philosophy begins with astonishment and wonder, and the art of poetry intends the creation of the wondrous (Greenblatt 1994:33). Greenblatt argues that the frequency and intensity with which European discoverers of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries referred to the experience of the wondrous provoked its conceptual elucidation (Greenlbatt 1994:34). The colonization of the wondrous began; and astonishment became a means of appropriation and subjugation (Greenblatt 1994:42).
By the nineteenth century, the century of European journeys of discovery in Africa, wonder had been used up. English, French, and German travelers no longer wondered about anything. Their glance had achieved a confidence that allowed them to objectify and take possession of what was foreign to them. It was now the various Others, the objects of their glance, to whom they imputed the wonder they themselves were no longer capable of.