Five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, and the birth of a baby, and the contemplation of great art, and being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in song.
— Salman Rushdie
There are times when something in our field of attention elicits a gasp or exclamation, a silent or vocalized “Wonderful! or Wow!” These words don’t corral anything in a category or impart detached knowledge. They are less cogitation than reflex, a mimicking almost musical reflex or moment of applause.
People vary in susceptibility to such reflex. Dullards might fail to register anything on a scale of exuberance or sorrow; extroverts might rise over the top. But if we’re seeking encounters with reality, this is not a trivial matter.
One writer puts it succinctly:
There is no single sort of “event” that evokes a reflex of wonder, terror, amazement, or surprise. It might be a poetic image, a heart-stopping sunset, even surprising titles that leap from the shelf: “Fear and Trembling,” “Philosophical Trifles,” or “Notes from Underground.”
Five mysteries hold the keys to the unseen: the act of love, and the birth of a baby, and the contemplation of great art, and being in the presence of death or disaster, and hearing the human voice lifted in song. These are the occasions when the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden; an eff of the ineffable. Glory bursts upon us in such hours: the dark glory of earthquakes, the slippery wonder of new life, the radiance of Vina’s singing.
What Rushdie calls “keys to the unseen,” “effs of the ineffable,” are a kind of presence that instills “a tang of life.”
“These are the occasions when the bolts of the universe fly open and we are given a glimpse of what is hidden.”
For a friend unmoved by what stuns me, descriptions or explanations are no substitute for direct access. I put her in the path of the ineffable rather than try a tedious speech.
Rushdie’s five mysteries are only a start, though an excellent one.
There are many local, less universal sites of alluring mysteries. A child’s smile, a sweet portrait, a view of Back Cove as it shifts from drab tidal mud fields to expansive watery mirrors that reflect the city: each day, each night, declaring glory.
Whether or not there is agreement about how to elaborate Rushdie’s five mysteries — birth, acts of love, great art, the presence of death and disaster, heart-shattering song — here are some themes they embody.
The mysteries Rushdie names are moments we overlook if we adopt only a dispassionate, objective outlook on things. Curiosity can overtake wonder. How do we know we’re in love? What is so attractive about this performer’s rendering of Beethoven? Is the brain wired to have moments of awe?
This inquisitive and analytical frame of mind comes on the scene secondarily, after being stirred or stunned. Detached explanation is not our only value. I cherish the genius or genesis of love or song as I access it moment by moment.
Fact-seeking or analytic frames of mind are only part of life underway. I don’t need explanations for I we fall in love (though they might be available). When reduced to abstract objects of inquiry, wonder, dread, or love are lost.
It’s not easy to convey the glisten of genius unfolding. Its marvels are seemingly “pulled from thin air.”
Rushdie mentions a dark mystery: being in the presence of death and disaster. If pure wonder marks a moment of light and celebration, terror, despair, or horror (Goya’s riveting “The Horrors of War” mark moments of darkness.) Kierkegaard’s
At impact, death and disaster rule out affirmation or celebration. Yet disaster leaves a striking potentially affirmative imprint, not only a traumatic one. It leaves an aching for what is lost – precious things, precious people, things worth holding, valuing, even in their loss.
It leaves an imprint of our vulnerability — which is a thing of wonder (and fear).
Finally, a terrible onset of darkness need not indefinitely suffocate onsets of light.
Mysteriously, the sun also rises.
Explanation and Shimmering
Explaining a sunset’s reflection on snow is a digression from the experiential impact of the now glancing light. Letting one’s absorption amplify is staying with the phenomena.
Moving too quickly to explain breaks the spell and risks explaining away. Love or sunsets live on despite an urge to invoke brain states or loneliness as causes. Such explanatory invocations change the subject. The prose on the wall beside a museum painting focuses on facts that can work at the expense of experiential impacts.
A passage from Dostoevsky or Beethoven, or a child’s smile or falling in love, can confound us as a mystery that defies explanation — not that explanations can’t be offered, but that radiant impacts survive without explanation or interpretation.
Explaining a cellist’s captivating phrasing is disastrous if the moment of wonder disappears in the process. I want to know what unhappy facts led to Hitler’s rise and what happy facts allow a child to smile.
As important, I don’t want to erase my terror thinking of Hitler, nor my wonder seeing a child’s smile.
Ordinary and Extraordinary
The mysteries Rushdie names can appear as both commonplace and miraculous. What’s so special about childbirth? It’s part of daily routine for nurses and clerks in maternity wards. What’s so special about song? It’s all around us, like the sound of mid-town traffic. For morgue-workers, there’s nothing special about death.
Yet I trust we know there’s also something hauntingly wondrous or terrible on occasions of death, song, or birth.
These mysteries — love, birth, great art, death or disaster, and singing – involve visceral encounters. When they strike, the humdrum disappears.
A mystery clings to a particular painting, in some respects quite ordinary. That sense of uncanny coming-to-be may reappear a week later, as I recall my first encounter. But even this later thought about genius and genesis depends on immediate eruptions from this painting or that.
Mystery offers visceral escape from the humdrum.
Double and Multiple
Artists, writers, congregants, mothers, citizens, sons must have double vision, letting both facts and presences, both explanations and stunned silence, have a place at the table. But double vision is just the start. We need multiple vision.
What we encounter – straight facts and shimmering presences – activates double vision. That we are there for the encounter activates another perspective. Being present to it opens toward triple vision. That I am here available to the radiance of a cellist’s phrasing is a wonder added wonder to the wonder of her playing.
We can expand our purview. To transition from one kind of phrasing to another (and yet another) requires fluidity of focus. It’s not focusing on a static object. So triple vision gets augmented indefinitely.
We need to face the wonder and terror — or the brute fact — of needing multiple angles of vision distributed temporally to take in the truths, the realities, of all that’s available.
—Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor
See his Excursions with Thoreau: Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Bloomsbury, 2015, and Lost Intimacy in American Thought: Recovering Personal Philosophy From Thoreau to Cavell, Continuum, 2009.
Credits and notes: Salman Rushdie, on mystery: The Ground Beneath Her Feet, London, Picador, 2000, p. 19. See my discussion in Lost Intimacy in American Thought, “Saving Intimate Voice in the Humanities,” New York; Continuum, p. 163. The mystery here is not a matter of simple ignorance – not knowing where Kenya is on the map. Mystery makes us hold our breath. In its grip, I don’t long for it to be dissolved by better knowledge. That a shattering of categories gives access to reality is argued by Lee Braver, “A brief history of continental realism,” Continental Philosophy Review, 2012. Kierkegaard spins tales on the tale of Abraham in Fear and Trembling, Penguin, 1986, pp. 1-30.
Images: Van Gogh, Starry Night; Julia Fisher, waiting to play Bach; an unknown child; Dr. Fritz Klein, forward center, who selected prisoners to be sent to the gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen; he was later tried and hanged (AP Photo); cellist, a painting found in Google Images, with no attribution.