There is a metaphor many of us might use to think of the idea of mystery that involves the shining light of knowledge. Where there is light the things of the world stand revealed, and where there is darkness lies mystery. So perhaps the most familiar way of looking at the unknown is that it simply stands outside the basking glow of our intelligence. We would know it if only our knowledge caught up to its dim recesses. Its the difference between starting a new book and getting to the end. When you first crack that cover a mystery awaits. As you read further that mystery gets laid bare.
Which of course makes sense. Much about the way we think of understanding lies in a crude model of scientific investigation. The underlying structure seems to be made more clear with every advance of our understanding. And so too it is possible to see that new understanding reveals further mysteries. Its like we stand at the edge of a map of the known world. If we push out a bit farther in a certain direction we may encounter a new valley. But what stands on the other side of that valley presents itself as the new undiscovered territory.
And this too makes sense. But recently my friend Tom Johnson tipped me about me an article that got me questioning just how far these metaphors can be carried. The link was to an article reviewing a recent book intended to debunk the idea that Magic acts benefit from secrecy. In other words, proclaiming that secrecy was unnecessary to the performance of magic. Rather than convincing me of its author’s claims the example provided seemed to expose just how limited and self serving those arguments were. I’ll let you read them rather than going through the litany. Suffice it to say, it seemed that despite actually being a practicing magician, the book’s author was a bit mystified by his subject matter….
Question: Is our apprehension of things like beauty and magic more about the illumination of knowledge or is it more related to an experience of Mystery?
So lets dig. Mystery, it seems, is not as straightforward a thing as to be simply defined by the limits of our knowledge. Its not simply that which stands on the other side of the known. And as the lead off quote above suggests, knowledge itself may not always erase mystery. Sometimes it merely substitutes one kind of mystery for another. Sometimes our perplexity runs up against an impenetrable wall. Sometimes its as if we shine the light on things we think we know and suddenly they are something different. Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the light will more clearly show us our limitations.
And so the map metaphor fails to give us the whole picture. Unless we also include the proscribed and forbidden areas, the edge of the map where the world simply ends, and where we rewrite even our most cherished shorelines. And even then its still only our map. Other people seem to record quite different maps of their own. We can’t always make sense of what’s on other people’s maps. We can’t always read even what we think we’re supposed to know. And sometimes it seems the world has already changed its shape by the time we are prepared to record it. Not only is our depiction of the map always a bit in flux, our reading of the map occasionally marred by differing interpretations, but the reality behind the map doesn’t always seem to hold still for us. Not knowing isn’t as simple as a mere lack of familiarity. And banishing mystery isn’t always a cumulative process. It doesn’t make us an indelible, incorrigible, or incontrovertible map, it seems….
The quality of knowledge itself also has to be weighed. Its perhaps something like the difference between a high powered floodlight and a weak flashlight. And the question becomes, can we ever have a strong enough flashlight for things not to, in some sense, always still be a bit mysterious. A mystery always stand there to be explored.
But there is a third alternative between the known and unknown that acts as a kind of limbo. Unknown but more importantly unacknowledged. Our finite humanity seems itself to occasionally be a stumbling block. For instance, sometimes the fact of our conviction successfully denies mystery simply by refusing to countenance anything not fitting its presumptions. We can make the ‘map’ so small and self contained that what it doesn’t show simply doesn’t exist for us. Its like a blindness. In other words, the light may be shining, but we refuse to believe what we are seeing. Mystery, then, can have as much to do with our attitude as with what we do and do not know.
So in a sense mystery is sometimes less an issue about knowing than an issue about our psychology. And the point I’d like to make is that mystery is also something which we experience. Its not just the ‘what’, but also sometimes the ‘how’ and the ‘why’. We don’t read books simply to find out the ending. We don’t live just to find out how it all comes to a close. Its a journey that has value in the process. We read and live so that we can experience the wonders of discovery, the world, and our imagination.
If the end is in a sense inevitable its how we get there that often matters. We suspend a bit of belief and we suspend a tad of our disbelief at the same time. We know the end is coming, but we wait for it. We get on with our lives, and we read the book in hand. And that’s why its interesting that we have things we refer to as “spoilers”. If banishing the mystery gives us knowledge, in what sense is knowledge sometimes a spoiler? Spoilers don’t spoil the knowledge. You will have learned all the spoiler had to tell by reading, and you can even read things more than once. Knowing how things turn out simply is what it is. The ending isn’t spoiled. Its that spoilers spoil the experience. Our experience of mystery is sometimes simply more important than knowing what happens before we should. And despite how we feel about spoilers, why would we ever reread the same book or watch a film more than once? To relearn the map we already drew? Or to reexperience the delight it first gave us?
Mystery, therefor, is profoundly also an experiential state. Its related to our amazement, being baffled, astonished, astounded, surprised, stumped, flabbergasted, hoodwinked, bamboozled, puzzled, bewildered, nonplussed, incredulous, skeptical, suspicious, uncertain, unconvinced….. And that’s why it was so hard for me to believe that a magician (admittedly an amateur) had no conception that revealing the secrets behind tricks to an audience would change anything important. To me it sounded either completely delusional, hopelessly oblivious of the psychology of a magic audience, or self servingly applied in order to sell some books.
The presumption that I had the most difficulty with was that we are always in a better position knowing more. That mystery was in an important sense inferior to knowing. That we should always prefer to know more, and that knowing more won’t sometimes also cost us. But that’s not the cartographer in me talking. The cartographer is there to drive back the night, to tame the wildness out of the world, and to cast about for the ultimate structure into which the world fits. Maybe its more the poet in me or the priest that makes me consider these heresies. But what if I’m not entirely wrong….? For instance, if poetry was like mathematics, a calculus of logic, would it be as much fun? Would it have the same potential for revealing truths as it does with fuzzy words, allusion, metaphors and the like?
So here’s the question: Should we always want to know more and should knowing more always erase mystery? Is that end state of epistemological satisfaction, acquiring definite seeming knowledge, our best and most beloved goal? Well, maybe in a perfect science oriented world. But humans are obviously imperfect and infinitely messy, and it is the truth about being human that should interest us.
For instance, we often can be heard to say that the pursuit is more interesting than the capture. Sometimes the end of mystery can be a let down. The triumph of knowledge, the vanquishing of mystery, can also be a human tragedy. We sometimes want our fantasies more than the real thing. I sometimes imagine the sadness with which Rita Hayworth acknowledged that “Every man I knew went to bed with Gilda… and woke up with me.”
And this need for and infatuation with mystery is deeply rooted. Anticipation will sometimes drive us to distraction. Like kids waiting to open their Holiday presents. And sometimes that first brush with mystery is more important than any similar events down the road. In other words, familiarity and knowledge doesn’t always improve our appreciation. Call it ‘the rule of first kisses’, or ‘the magic moment syndrome’. Things don’t always get better the more you know. Sometimes yes, but sometimes also a thing tangled awkwardly in mystery, cloaked in incomprehension, baffled and amazed, will have its own charm that far surpasses the cold familiarity of the known. Sometimes newness is important precisely because it has yet to fully shed the mystery with which it was born.
And also, what about ‘bad news’? Are we always better off hearing it? Are we always prepared for it? Can we always handle the truth? And if not, what then? Why else would we have ever come up with the slogan “Ignorance is bliss”? Why do we sometimes tell “white lies”? Isn’t telling them sometimes doing a favor? Don’t we sometimes prefer our lives of fantasy to reality?
So after another long ramble you may still be wondering why I bother, what my point was. Simply put, the adventure into the unknown is an important part of being human, not just for the discovered country, but also for the adventure itself. And to dream. Why else would Albert Einstein (of all people) have said “Imagination is more important than knowledge”? Mystery is the birthplace of ideas. Creativity invents the world. Knowledge is not the end point but a stepping stone continually being placed a bit further out for us to again leap into the unknown. The secret life of mystery is not that it gets devoured by an implacable expanding horizon of knowledge, but that it is the foundation for so much of what it means to be human.