The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.

My questions are regarding the sentence in bold. ① Are the tingling and a catch in the voice also referring to the sensation of falling from a height? ② In other words, is the author comparing the shock and awe, which he feels faced with the mystery and grandeur of the cosmos, to the sensation of falling? ③ What's your interpretation of the sentence?

Edit: My questions are about the intention of the author as to WHY he listed these three things. Are these three things meant to describe the same image or scenario of falling from a height. Or, are they separate things in parallel? What image does the sentence conjure up when you first read it?

In my personal experience with roller coasters, skydiving and bungee jumps, the tingling and the inability to scream (even if I wanted to) are integral to the overall sensation of falling from a height. Hence the understanding and the question.

  • Your text is a typical "list of three" context. The three different noun phrases used to characterise the state of being mentally "stirred / moved" are the sequences ending with spine, voice and height. Where the last item is a "compound" phrase that includes within itself the parenthetical / optional element as if a distant memory. But the first two items in the list don't really have any "semantic" connection to the sensation of falling from a height. Only the final item in the list of three is characterised as being faint and like a distant memory. Sep 11 at 16:45
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    @FumbleFingers That looks very much like an attempt at an answer, rather than a comment. It also comes to the same conclusion which I already wrote in an answer 2 hours before.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 11 at 23:25
  • @FumbleFingers Many thanks for the comment/answer from the grammatical and semantic perspective. What I wanted to find out is beyond the semantics, and is more on the author's intention and reason to write the way he does. I understand that the intention is not as clear cut as the grammar, and that's why I seek further feedback from a content/logic/image/go-to response perspective from native speakers. And I've just read my original questions again and noted that I wasn't too clear about my real question. Sorry for any confusion that might have caused. :-)
    – Chao ZHANG
    Sep 12 at 0:14

First of all, it's important to note that the sentence is intended to be poetic - the primary purpose is to convey emotion. This leads to a certain flexibility in the grammar, and in its interpretation.

Although punctuated with four commas, I think the most logical reading is three separate phrases:

  • "a tingling in the spine"
  • "a catch in the voice"
  • "a faint sensation of falling from a height" (with "as if a distant memory" as a parenthetical)

The alternative interpretation would require each part to be qualifying "of falling from a height", but that doesn't work grammatically - you can't say *"a tingling in the spine of falling from a height" or *"a catch in the voice of falling from a height".

The intention is certainly to build an image where these different feelings all happen at once, so I'm sure Sagan would be very pleased that the sentence gave you memories of roller coasters, skydiving and bungee jumps.

  • Thank you very much for the prompt answer, particularly on the intention part. I understand the semantics and grammar here. What baffled me was the intention of the author as to why he lists these three feelings. I find the "image" you proposed very helpful. Thanks again.
    – Chao ZHANG
    Sep 12 at 0:06

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