• Maria Balaska


This is a story about certain times or cases in the human life when expression through language seems inescapably inadequate, when words seem bound to fail us, and meaning to escape. Such a case is the experience of astonishment. I use the word “astonishment” to describe the experience of being struck by something that appears to be extraordinarily significant and which can have a positive emotional tone or a negative emotional tone. Dating back to 1300, the word “astonishment” comes from the old French word estoner that means “to stun, daze, deafen, astound,” which originates from the Latin verb attonare or extonare that literally means to leave someone thunderstruck, to strike with lightning. In its root, then, the word “astonishment” is neutral: it can be positive or negative, but in both cases, it has a profoundly unsettling, dazing effect. Examples of positive astonishment may include an experience of overwhelming beauty, or kindness. Examples of negative astonishment may include an experience of the absurdity of death, of a terrifying evil, or of absolute guilt; in the face of these, one feels anxious and saddened, and perhaps left with a sense of despair. Although I offer here examples of cases in the face of which one might experience astonishment, positive or negative, the principal aim of this book is not to examine what triggers an experience of astonishment; hence I will not address questions such as: “are there certain things in life that are more likely to astonish us?,” or “can anything appear to be astonishing?” These are not my questions. Rather, the book focuses on a central trait of that experience, namely, the way it appears to resist expression in language.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maria Balaska
    • 1
  1. 1.University of HertfordshireHertfordshireUK

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