Diminished Capacity for Wonder

by Bob Schwartz

“Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away.”

This from David von Drehle in Time, about the end of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years:

Though it might sound quaint, there was a time when people could be astonished.

Before super­computers fit into shirt pockets and Presidents tweeted. Before moving pictures were beamed through the air. Before moving pictures.

Not only could people be astonished—they enjoyed it. Loved it enough to pay for it. And so businesses sprang up to meet the demand. The astonishment industry was called the circus.

And what an industry it was. Picture yourself in a quiet American town of ordinary people doing nothing even remotely astonishing. One day, a couple of strangers show up with handbills and paste to cover the town with circus posters. SEE the fearless lion tamer. THRILL to the death-defying wire walkers. GASP at the woman on the flying trapeze. Your brain did the rest. By the time the circus arrived via boxcar or truck, you were desperate to have your mind blown. Elephants—real, live elephants, thousands of miles from Africa or India—pulled the ropes to raise the tents. Inside you would see a man ordering tigers around, women poised on the backs of cantering horses, human pyramids walking on high wires with nothing to catch them if they fell.

On May 21, the most famous circus of all, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, will end its 146-year run, not with a whimper or a bang but mostly a shrug. Death has been a long time coming. A company press release put much of the blame on the recent decision, made under pressure from animal-rights groups, to stop using elephants as performers. But in fact, the Greatest Show on Earth has been headed for this day since the 1950s, when the same force that killed vaudeville—television—drove the storied operation out of its vast canvas big tops and into ho-hum auditoriums and arenas….

Now our supply of stimulation is infinite, and our capacity for wonder is dwindling away. Sex is everywhere, and entertainment is on demand. Nostalgic parents have been struggling for a couple of decades to hide their disappointment from their children after seeing what the circus has become: a deafening soundtrack of recorded music backing a dull program punctuated by strobe lights, foreshortened performances cut to Internet attention spans, a rip-off of $6 sno-cones and $20 flashlights.

Meanwhile, the children have been struggling to understand why their parents would care. Nothing can compete with the circus that they hold in the palms of their hands.

I saw a lot of things at the circus. I saw a man shot out of a cannon, and much more. I was little and could not imagine all the things I would later see—in the world, in my mind, on a screen. We don’t always recognize the things that shape and twist us. Maybe the circus gets some of the blame or credit. Either way, it was wonder full.