The secret life of mysteries, and what everyone should know about the unknown

Clarity of thought often replaces vague confusion with bewildering complexity. Better understanding just leads to a better class of headache  …Julian Baggini

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.

About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Clay, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The secret life of mysteries, and what everyone should know about the unknown

  1. Tom Johnson says:


    Glad that article about Houdini type magic and card tricks got you going.

    Several years ago, I was QUITE surprised to learn that two of Georgia’s most famous ghosts are respectively a g-g-g-aunt and daughter, a first cousin many times removed. Their fame increased significantly after my poor relatives were written up in the book Weird Georgia. As a plan to get out of debt, I tried contacting them to see if they’d consider starring a video production named Ghosts Gone Wild, as they are much more famous now in death than in life. Went and stood in their front of their house, made suggestions and listened quietly for a long while.
    Alas, no one replied.

    Now the truth, Tomfoolery aside. Their former home, listed on the Historic Registery, now being renovated, could become one day a B&B. Though I purport to not believe in ghosts, I’m not eager to go spend the night there, though numerous ancestors were born, lived and died in that place. Why not? Because before I knew there was any connection between that edifice and me, I stopped to look at it because the house is in the mile or two between Plains and Archery, Georgia, and we were on the Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter tour. While leaning on the fence in front of the overgrown and abandoned place ‘just lookin’, the hair on the back of my neck and head stood up. Thought it to be right strange at the time, this involuntary reaction. Never happened like that before or since.

    Back to art, creativity, design, & clay. Can one know too much? No. Can a person know everything about a topic? No. And it is utter hubris to make that claim. Can a person believe that they know so much about a topic – like clay, design, firing and such that their work becomes insipid? Why yes. But then, 150-years ago, when a person, just doing a job, might make the same shape on a potter’s wheel, all day long, month-after-month, some pieces would be better than others. Huh? How did that happen?

    Today, you’d think we’d get tired of collecting cups, mugs, tumblers and plates, but the amount of variation and creativity between different individuals is truly amazing. Glaze and technique have something to do with the end result, but the ju-ju of a ceramic piece comes from another place. Not explainable.

    Cups and ghosts do have something to do with each other, no matter how many factoids have been collected about a topic or situation. More information, for me reduces utter failures clay-wise. But on the other far end of things, one is left with ‘mysterium tremendum’, all technique and knowledge aside. Magic is still, well, magic.

    • Amen!

      This deserves a longer response, but my brain is struggling to cope right now.

      “The ju-ju of ceramic vessels”! Loved that!

      Thanks for the story (and for the original link that got me headed in this direction)!



      • Scott Cooper says:

        I’m confused. Can someone please explain to me what any of this mystery business has to do with spiral hot dogs?

        • Spiral hot dogs were just a theory until they built a $4.7 billion 16.8 mile tube to smash some atoms together. Duh.

          It all comes down to discovery and our ability to explain. The first time someone did that curly trick with the skewer, a knife, and a grill a mysterious part of the universe was revealed. Thankfully it was something that our best scientists had predicted all along (or at least as far back as the 60’s when we all had bad hair. {A connection?}) and we arrived at a new explanation of mass. Weight gain over the July 4th holidays was no longer a mystery, and the importance of imagining ourselves naked in bathtubs filled with hot dogs was given irrefutable evidence.

          That’s my take on it at least…..

      • Scott Cooper says:

        Oh, so _that’s_ where the atom smasher comes in. I get it now! Thanks for clearing that up, CG. I feel so dumb sometimes.

        • Well, that’s just science for you…. Science makes monkeys out of all of us.

          Which is another example of how different the world of ‘objectivity’ is from how humans explain themselves and the world. The similarity of DNA between us and monkeys is fascinating, and it reveals so much, but 98% conformity only explains a little about our differences. Explanations always seem to have this built in limitation that they are working with only the tools available, the conceptual framework that can be grasped by a human mind, and just how fuddled those minds otherwise are….. So of course its important that we give due credit to our ability to imagine ourselves naked in bathtubs filled with hot dogs (I don’t want to get carried away with that example, but curse ZE for putting it out there!). The fun of being human isn’t always so much in what we know, but in how thoroughly we are tangled up in mystery, delusion, and hallucinations. Science be damned!

  2. just ran across this in the lovely blog aus unruhigen Träumen. Giorgio Agamben writes:

    “What man introduces into the world, his “proper,” is not simply the light and opening of knowledge but above all the opening to concealment and opacity. Alētheia, truth, is the safeguard of lēthē, nontruth; memory, the safeguard of oblivion; light, the safeguard of darkness. It is only in the insistence of this abandonment, in this safeguarding, which is forgetful of everything, that something like knowledge and attention can be come possible.”

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