When I pulled together some short stories last month from my scribbling over the past two decades, I didn’t really understand that “open-endedness” was their common denominator until I saw the collected whole. All of the twenty tales left something unresolved, or else resolved the critical question in a way that confronted the reader with mystery. Now, if you write “mystery” or “fantasy” in the context of a literary creation, readers naturally picture a supersleuth detective or a journey to Unicorn Land through a wormhole. That’s not what I have in mind. Out here on my thickly wooded hillside, the Milky Way unfolds mystery after sunset: sending Captain Kirk out to map its corridors with script and cast of thousands reduces that mystery to childish fantasy. All irreducible mystery belongs to God. All reduced or resolved mystery belongs to the dustbin of crumpled wrappers after a child has pillaged his pile of Christmas gifts.
The educated elite, of course, have pledged themselves to “demystifying” the world far and wide. This they may accomplish (in their arrogant minds) by exposing the political propaganda hiding in a fairy tale and laying bare the gender-stereotyped brainwash circulating through a classic novel… or they may—the “scientists” among them—more empirically assign our longings to a certain gene or hormone, or establish that no life-supporting planet could possibly be orbiting Sirius. They make a desert and call it progress.
Sirius has actually become quite prominent at my bedside. It is now well up (on clear nights) by the time I turn in, and its very distinctive blue-red flickers lead one irresistibly to suppose… well, that it’s on fire. Sirius is burning. I know that the flickers are “in fact” caused by interstellar dust absorbing and re-emitting light waves at their differing component frequencies… but it pleases me to impose a metaphorical value upon this evocative spectacle, as if I could watch the star’s mane blaze across light-years. Is it the untamed hair of Camilla joyously descending from her mountain ridge… or is it the wild hair of Cassandra running through the doomed halls of Troy? Is it a greeting or a warning? I see a higher power, in any case, which is invisible in its direct and perfect truth. I see beauty, for I sense more of a message than I can read. The image turns the key on doors that must remain locked forever to dull eyes.
The “scientific” community appears willing enough, in its way, to tap the enthusiasm of those who divine secrets in the stars: messages transmitted, not by the voice of God, but by alien civilizations. Okay (smiles the cosmologist in need of a grant—and not averse to camera time)… so maybe there really are little green men trying to send us a handshake in the night. New planets are being discovered all the time—and who’s to say that only a terrestrial equivalent could support intelligent life, when life on Earth was itself so improbable and when life indeed prospers within Earth’s oceans that never sees daylight? And so on, and so on… until we arrive at Steven Spielberg, and a nice little grant to book a few hours on Mt. Palomar’s telescope.
Spielberg, by the way—I can never let this irony pass—was the home of the prison where Silvio Pellico wasted away for fifteen years after openly criticizing a tyrannical regime. Our space fantasies, if they assume any real life at all, always seem to join the trajectory of political totalitarianism rather quickly. Space exploration will require a wholehearted and minutely coordinated commitment of energy and resources. Political centralization will prove essential. The mass of taxpaying citizens, who are the tiniest, humblest of tributaries in a vast root system, must accept that our “destiny” is to colonize the stars—to “evolve”. Those who resist occupy the indefensible position of the old granny in the magnificent Elia Kazan film, Wild River: they sit upon an island slated for flooding in order that progress may be brought to eager thousands. Granny is eventually carted off, retrograde to the end, in her rocker to the mainland, where she dies within days.
And why is contact with superior beings our destiny? What are they going to tell us with Sibylline urgency—how to make an anti-gravity engine? How to draw unlimited electricity from thin air, as Tesla is supposed to have managed before he was silenced? (To this mindset, conspiracies always aim at keeping us from our destiny.) What will we do with all of our sudden wealth in free kilowatts? Travel to farther star systems? To what end? To discover men more lime than green? To discover an all-female planet, like something out of Ariosto? And in what way will that advance us? Having reduced hundreds of fairy-tale possibilities to a single reality… what then? On to the next planet of mystery, to pull off another wrapper and find another shockingly confined and humdrum species?
I seem to be straying into the War on Mystery these days no matter which way I flee. The academic world I abandoned had come to insist (with characteristic stifling smugness) that all stories are propaganda, and that good stories are those that promote an insurgent cause over the status quo. I, on the other hand, have lately grown convinced that great tales are those which leave the reader swollen with a sense of the untold—of the “untellable” rendered almost told. Narrative is the poetry of time. It is flickering Sirius transposed into a series of events. It leads to an end, when done well, which is yet not quite an end.
To the Academy, a female Sherlock Holmes receives an automatic stamp of approval. To me, even the Conan Doyle original fails to reach the top tier because our sleuth simply dissects enigmas like a master samurai practicing on a stalk of bamboo. The dramatizations of the Holmes mysteries that embed their resolution within the misfit, vaguely sociopathic qualities of a bizarre genius are literary triumphs. Behind the solved mystery of the stolen jewels remains the unsolved mystery of a loner so maladjusted that he is never lured astray by routine expectations. (I think of the Holmes played by Jeremy Brett: the latest version, with Lucy Liu as Watson—wouldn’t you know?—goes too overtly Freudian, as if a deadbeat dad explains everything.)
Lest I seem to ramble unforgivably, let me converge on my own evasive ending for the day by declaring that an answer to my last week’s question also lurks here. Why is our society in “self-destruct mode”—why do we grind out talking heads, intellectuals, chronic misfits, and young people who loathe our collective past and want to see the republic turned upside-down? I offered several suggestions specific to the American cultural experience; here’s one that applies to all humanity. When there are no more wrappers to shred under the Christmas tree, we attack the tree itself. Demystified of its lights and ornaments, it turns out just to be a sad mass of withering needles. What else can we ravage—where else might mystery be hiding? See the warm light in the neighbor’s window? Maybe his Christmas was better—maybe that’s where our ultimate heart’s delight awaits us… and if it doesn’t, we’ll raze the deceptive space with a vengeance, like Genghis Khan punishing a resistant fortress.
When we do not accept mystery as the permanent projection of the divine into our material world, we must create and destroy one material mystery after another. That is our destiny, as a people with its collective back stubbornly turned upon the spiritual. Have you detected the recent but contagious longing to fuse with robots that moves among us? To be a robot… to live forever (with occasional recharging), to have one’s “soul” passed along in the form of an information-laden chip to robotic upgrades (what a debased notion of the soul—information!)… and unspoken beneath this fatal romance, yet very much courted in my opinion, is the death of mystery. At last! Finally! To be a robot… and to feel the tug of mystery no more. To look up at Sirius and perform immediately a spectral analysis, but otherwise to have no response whatever… oh, what liberation! To undo what God has created… to be a spiritual being no more!
We will continue our search-and-destroy mission against mystery until we indeed render all terrestrial societies uninhabitable for human beings, because it seems that we must. Or maybe not; maybe we will—some of us—pull out of the death spiral as others of us plunge to annihilation. After all, we were made to adore mystery: that, too, is our destiny.