The Uses Of Mystery
Part of: MY ASSOCIATION WITH THE WONDER
From: The Wonder
Something Challis has told me; something I have learned for myself; and
there is something which has come to me from an unknown source.
But here again we are confronted with the original difficulty--the
difficulty that for some conceptions there is no verbal figure.
It is comprehensible, it is, indeed, obvious that the deeper abstract
speculation of the Wonder's thought cannot be set out by any metaphor
that would be understood by a lesser intelligence.
We see that many philosophers, whose utterances have been recorded in
human history--that record which floats like a drop of oil on the
limitless ocean of eternity--have been confronted with this same
difficulty, and have woven an intricate and tedious design of words in
their attempt to convey some single conception--some conception which
themselves could see but dimly when disguised in the masquerade of
language; some figure that as it was limned grew ever more confused
beneath the wrappings of metaphor, so that we who read can glimpse
scarce a hint of its original shape and likeness. We see, also, that the
very philosophers who caricatured their own eidolon, became intrigued
with the logical abstraction of words and were led away into a
wilderness of barren deduction--their one inspired vision of a stable
premiss distorted and at last forgotten.
How then shall we hope to find words to adumbrate a philosophy which
starts by the assumption that we can have no impression of reality until
we have rid ourselves of the interposing and utterly false concepts of
space and time, which delimit the whole world of human thought.
I admit that one cannot even begin to do this thing; within our present
limitations our whole machinery of thought is built of these two
original concepts. They are the only gauges wherewith we may measure
every reality, every abstraction; wherewith we may give outline to any
image or process of the mind. Only when we endeavour to grapple with
that indeterminable mystery of consciousness can we conceive, however
dimly, some idea of a pure abstraction uninfluenced by and independent
of, those twin bases of our means of thought.
Here it is that Challis has paused. Here he says that we must wait, that
no revelation can reveal what we are incapable of understanding, that
only by the slow process of evolution can we attain to any understanding
of the mystery we have sought to solve by our futile and primitive
"But then," I have pressed him, "why do you hesitate to speak of what
you heard on that afternoon?"
And once he answered me:
"I glimpsed a finality," he said, "and that appalled me. Don't you see
that ignorance is the means of our intellectual pleasure? It is the
solving of the problem that brings enjoyment--the solved problem has no
further interest. So when all is known, the stimulus for action ceases;
when all is known there is quiescence, nothingness. Perfect knowledge
implies the peace of death, implies the state of being one--our
pleasures are derived from action, from differences, from heterogeneity.
"Oh! pity the child," said Challis, "for whom there could be no mystery.
Is not mystery the first and greatest joy of life? Beyond the gate there
is unexplored mystery for us in our childhood. When that is explored,
there are new and wonderful possibilities beyond the hills, then beyond
the seas, beyond the known world, in the everyday chances and movements
of the unknown life in which we are circumstanced.
"Surely we should all perish through sheer inanity, or die desperately
by suicide if no mystery remained in the world. Mystery takes a thousand
beautiful shapes; it lurks even in the handiwork of man, in a stone god,
or in some mighty, intricate machine, incomprehensibly deliberate and
determined. The imagination endows the man-made thing with consciousness
and powers, whether of reservation or aloofness; the similitude of
meditation and profundity is wrought into stone. Is there not source for
mystery to the uninstructed in the great machine registering the
progress of its own achievement with each solemn, recurrent beat of its
"Behind all these things is the wonder of the imagination that never
approaches more nearly to the creation of a hitherto unknown image than
when it thus hesitates on the verge of mystery.
"There is yet so much, so very much cause for wondering speculation.
Science gains ground so slowly. Slowly it has outlined, however vaguely,
the uncertainties of our origin so far as this world is concerned, while
the mystic has fought for his entrancing fairy tales one by one.
"The mystic still holds his enthralling belief in the succession of
peoples who have risen and died--the succeeding world-races, red, black,
yellow, and white, which have in turn dominated this planet. Science
with its hammer and chisel may lay bare evidence, may collate material,
date man's appearance, call him the most recent of placental mammals,
trace his superstitions and his first conceptions of a god from the
elemental fears of the savage. But the mystic turns aside with an
assumption of superior knowledge; he waves away objective evidence; he
has a certainty impressed upon his mind.
"And the mystic is a power. He compels a multitude of followers, because
he offers an attraction greater than the facts of science. He tells of a
mystery profounder than any problem solved by patient investigation,
because his mystery is incomprehensible even by himself; and in fear
lest any should comprehend it, he disguises the approach with an array
of lesser mysteries, man-made; with terminologies, symbologies and high
talk of esotericism too fearful for any save the initiate.
"But we must preserve our mystic in some form against the awful time
when science shall have determined a limit; when the long history of
evolution shall be written in full, and every stage of world-building
shall be made plain. When the cycle of atomic dust to atomic dust is
demonstrated, and the detail of the life-process is taught and
understood, we shall have a fierce need for the mystic to save us from
the futility of a world we understand, to lie to us if need be, to
inspirit our material and regular minds with some breath of delicious
madness. We shall need the mystic then, or the completeness of our
knowledge will drive us at last to complete the dusty circle in our
eagerness to escape from a world we understand....
"See how man clings to his old and useless traditions; see how he
opposes at every step the awful force of progress. At each stage he
protests that the thing that is, is good, or that the thing that was and
has gone, was better. He despises new knowledge and fondly clings to the
belief that once men were greater than they now are. He looks back to
the more primitive, and endows it with that mystery he cannot find in
his own times. So have men ever looked lingeringly behind them. It is an
instinct, a great and wonderful inheritance that postpones the moment of
"We are still mercifully surrounded with the countless mysteries of
everyday experience, all the evidences of the unimaginable stimulus we
call life. Would you take them away? Would you resolve life into a
disease of the ether--a disease of which you and I, all life and all
matter, are symptoms? Would you teach that to the child, and explain to
him that the wonder of life and growth is no wonder, but a demonstrable
result of impeded force, to be evaluated by the application of an
"You and I," said Challis, "are children in the infancy of the world.
Let us to our play in the nursery of our own times. The day will come,
perhaps, when humanity shall have grown and will have to take upon
itself the heavy burden of knowledge. But you need not fear that that
will be in our day, nor in a thousand years.
"Meanwhile leave us our childish fancies, our little imaginings, our
hope--children that we are--of those impossible mysteries beyond the
Next: Harry Collins 1997