Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mystery and Enigma

Do you remember what Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty had to say to Alice about using words?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

I try not to unduly indulge in linguistic Humpty Dumpty-ism (whatever Jim in Alaska has to say), but I've got a case for you where I hope you'll forgive me for it. I'd like to take over the words mystery and enigma.

Here's what happened. I've had in mind for a long time the peculiar instance of Giorgione, a Renaissance painter who actually hung out with Da Vinci one time.

Giorgione's paintings are, to me, mysterious. Consider his Laura of 1506:

I don't know what she's doing. Is she opening her shirt? Closing it? Who is she looking at? What does she think of them? Is she looking at anyone at all? What is she thinking?

Look up the analysis of this painting if you like - nobody knows. It's a very perplexing painting.

Or take a gander at his painting The Tempest (1505):

What do we have here? A city in the background, wilderness and ruins in the foreground. There's a dandy with a big pole on the bottom left, standing near a fairly phallic couple of columns. The sky is covered in stormclouds, in the depths of which a weirdly semen-like or sperm-like bolt of lightning is, shall we say, squirming. Oh, and there's a nursing mother, who seems to have felt compelled to take off all of her clothes except a little white cloak. She is looking at us with a kind of a knowing look.


"Oh," sayeth you, "it's all sexual." Ya think? Really? I didn't catch that. Perhaps you'll allow me to ask you a question then. Here's my question: Granted that it's all sexual, in what universe does this configuration of sexual imagery make sense?

That's what I thought.

So here's a second completely indecipherable painting by our friend Giorgione. If you look this one up, I think you'll find that rather than admitting they have no clue, as in the case of the Laura, the wise men simply dance around the core problem of this painting by talking about other stuff.

Let me propose a third bizarre Giorgione painting:

This one is called, helpfully, Old Woman (1508). I've never seen another old woman painting like this one. This is not a portrait, it's a reverse-shot in a cinematic conversation. This old woman is mid-conversation. She's making a point. She's kind of not all there - you can virtually hear her croaking a semi-coherent comment. Separated from its natural sequence of filmed shots, the still frame is disconcerting, a study in the grasping disquiet of decrepitude.

So much for Giorgione. Let's jump to 1594, to the work of "unknown painter," who completed a painting called Portrait Presumed to be of Gabrielle d'Estrées and her sister the Duchess of Villars:

Sure, sure. Looks just like every other pair of sisters I've ever run into. You can see the family resemblance.

Now, the analysts offer us some commentary on how the one on the right - I forget if that's Gabrielle or the Duchess - is pregnant, so the ring symbolizes her marriage, and the purple nurple symbolizes lactation. Or something like that. Some sort of an explanation that completely settles the totally bizarre, inappropriate, and weird nature of every single thing about this painting. The spread-legged dude in the painting on the wall, the red woman doing some sort of embroidery in the background, the fraternal-twin-like naked sisters with their identical earrings and alien looks of calm and knowledge, the exaggeratedly refined daintiness of the arrangements of fingers, and, of course, the aforementioned nurpling.

So what am I getting at here? These four paintings, the three Giorgiones and the parable offered by Unknown, have a quality that I call mystery.

Mystery won't make so much sense until I cover enigma. Let's talk about some other paintings:

This is The Great Tower, a 1913 painting by Giorgio de Chirico. The great tower's more sociable little brother, the almost-as-great tower, puts in an appearance in his Italian Plaza from the same period:

De Chirico had a long career and painted many other sorts of paintings, but his cityscapes of the period between 1910 and 1920 are the paintings one mostly thinks of when de Chirico comes to mind. Because they're his best and most original work. They have a menacing, silent quality that is not entirely of this world.

De Chirico wasn't only a painter. He was also a crotchety egomaniac who thought he was the best painter ever, which puts him in the laudable company of George Bernard Shaw for unmerited self-evaluations. He wrote a fantastic surrealist novel, Hebdomeros, which I highly recommend. He took as his motto "Et Quid Amabo Nisi Quod Aenigma Est?" or "And what should I love if not the enigma?" One time, he wrote this:

One must picture everything in the world as an enigma, not only the great questions one has always asked oneself [...]. But rather to understand the enigma of things generally considered insignificant. To perceive the mystery of certain phenomena of feeling [...]. To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness, full of curious many-colored toys which change their appearance, which, like little children we sometimes break to see how they are made on the inside, and, disappointed, realize they are empty.

(miraculously, I found this, the exact quotation I was looking for, at http://ashbery.blogspot.com/)

One is reminded of the book which the alien leaves behind in Voltaire's Micromegas (1752):

He promised to give them a rare book of philosophy, written in minute characters, for their special use, telling all that can be known of the ultimate essence of things, and he actually gave them the volume ere his departure. It was carried to Paris and laid before the Academy of Sciences; but when the old secretary came to open it, the pages were blank.

"Ah!" said he. "Just as I expected."

Had you going there, didn't I?

So - we have a second body of work, chiefly but not exclusively exemplified by De Chirico, which has a quality I want to call enigma.

What kind of a construction am I getting at for these two things, mystery and enigma? Well, I think they allow a useful distinction.

Mystery, as used here, is a quality of human situations and human character which one cannot get to the bottom of.

Enigma, on the other hand, is a quality of the world itself, particularly of metaphysics, which is ultimately illegible.

Mystery is the mystery of the soul. Giorgione constructs riddle-paintings, mystery-paintings, to show us the limits of our understanding of anyone else and even of ourselves.

Enigma is the enigma of being. De Chirico constructs enigma-paintings to show us that the world is a strange and alien place, an unmapped zone of threatening magic, which we only forgot was utterly incomprehensible because we got used to looking at it.

Here is something very important. I've said it before, but it's worth saying it again in this context: I write a lot - a great deal - about how to know better. How to know how the eye sees, how the brain sees - how to know how the heart feels, how the mind analyzes - how to handle paint, how to make an image. You would think I was pursuing total knowledge. In fact, I am pursuing total knowledge. But I do not think that if I ever get total knowledge, I will know everything. The point of total knowledge isn't to know everything. It is to separate every knowable thing about men and women from the Mystery, and to separate every knowable thing about the world from the Enigma.

It is no good to say, "This I do not understand, it is the Mystery." No, without total knowledge it is, at best, a mixture of the Confused and the Mysterious. Confusion comes cheap, it is a dime a dozen. Confusion is a matter of not knowing some things that can be found out. It has a solution. I'm not interested in problems with solutions - not the same way I'm interested in problems without solutions. The Mystery has no solution, but to approach near to the Mystery, to touch it and see its shape, you must pare away all confusions. Total knowledge is a means to glimpse true ignorance.

So - the point here is to localize and name two loci of true ignorance. True ignorance of humanity occurs when a disciplined perception bumps up against Mystery. True ignorance of the universe occurs when a disciplined perception bumps up against Enigma.

These, to me, are fundamentally important categories, latent in all paintings, foregrounded in some, worthwhile to consider every time you pick up a brush. The brush comes third. The person, place, and thing come second. The Mystery and the Enigma come first.

Let me leave you with a favorite painting - we've discussed it before - and it is saturated with both Mystery and Enigma:

Las Meninas
Diego Velazquez, 1656-7, oil on canvas


  1. Ah yes, Daniel castigates and smites me from his bully pulpit, but I will calmly bear it all with grace, decorum and dignity. -grin-

    Other than that, thought provoking piece.

  2. Churchill described the USSR as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma", evoking the image of the matryoshka, or russian nesting dolls. One of my college professors offered as an analogy of the growth of human knowledge the idea of carving out an expanding space (what we know) within the potentially infinite solid of the unknown. As our knowledge increases our space grows, but inevitably the surface area where that space contacts the unknown also increases. The edge of mystery is the place to be, because that's where the action is!

  3. Very interesting distinction. I think another distinction between Mystery and Enigma, as you put it, would be that although we cannot find the solution to a Mystery, the solution does exist somewhere. Whereas there can be no solution to an Enigma.

    1. Exactly how I would describe the difference between the two!

  4. Jim - now I'm feeling kind of bad about my last comment reply to your comment. I don't know if you get this, but I have a kind of demon who pops up sometimes and says, "Sure, it's terrible, but that's too funny to *not* say." Even if it's only funny to me. So blame the demon.

    It wasn't a bad definition of dignity, just different from the one that served my argument. At any rate, I apologize for giving you a hard time. Also I definitely recommend you not follow my other blog, "Mockin' Jim."

    Fred, that's a good Churchill line. And your professor's analogy is very charming. Horrifyingly, the shape of the hollow might be a Gabriel's horn!


    Wouldn't that be a bitch?

    But yes, mystery is the place to be. I have more thoughts on a related idea brewing for a future post. Who knows if I'll get to it or if it'll just fizzle out or wander off.

    Chris - you are perhaps more optimistic about knowledge than I am; assuming that the information exists at all, even if we can't get to it. I suspect that no solution exists for either one. But this doesn't necessarily bother me - I rather like the premise that there are irreducible parts in us as well as in the world.

  5. Sigh, now I feel kinda bad, absolutely no offense was taken, my comment above was meant to be in the same jocular vein. Sigh, you youngsters, worry 'bout the silliest things. :-)

    & enigma vs mystery: "Mystery, as used here, is a quality of human situations and human character which one cannot get to the bottom of." Interesting as the word origen is the Greek 'muein' which means something like keep your mouth shut and your eyes closed, referencing keeping from non-initiates information about a religious initiation or secret rite. OK, not necessarily germane to the discussion but I find it interesting. :-)

  6. On the whole definitions front, it is the rule in the mathematical universe that you can define anything however you want, provided that you are concise and up-front about it; hence the Carroll connection. So, regarding definitions, you're both right, at least mathematically speaking, which may be a fancy way of saying probably not at all.

    I enjoyed the post very much - it is interesting how instinctively the human mind reacts to the unknown, the balancing of curiosity and recoil. Also interesting that in the past century two separate fields of study found their confident march to establish a field free of the unknowable both ran up quite abruptly against an apparently insurmountable wall - mathematics with the help of Godel in the 1930s and science via chaos theory more recently. Which makes both fields infinitely more interesting than if they had managed to know *everything*, just like, well, people.

    A very thought provoking post (can you tell?) and as always fascinating comments thereon. I'm not sure about Gabriel's horn though - too smooth round the edges - I'd say more likely Mandelbrot. :)

  7. Jim - Oh, OK! As long as I didn't genuinely hurt your feelings, please give me as hard a time as you would like. As you know, I am painfully sincere.

    As for the Greek origins of the word "mystery" - nuts to your ass-mar.

    Synamore - Well! As long as I am not, mathematically speaking, talking bullocks, I think I can sleep the sleep of the innocent. I'm glad you enjoyed the post! Your mention of Godel and chaos theory reminds me of a slightly older example - that some luminary of science, I forget which, commented at the beginning of the 20th century that once they figured out the lack of variation in the speed of light, and the photoelectric effect, that ought to just about wrap things up for physics. And of course, the one led to relativity and the other to quantum mechanics. So that luminary, clearly, came out looking like an asshole.

    Have I got that story right? I think I do.

    The Mandelbrot set is a ghastly thing and I try to think about it as little as I can.


  8. D,Fantastic post! Wonderful choices in paintings to illustrate the idea. Just catching up on your blog now and this post meshes perfectly with the big-ass one I just did. If you haven't yet forced yourself to slog through those two papers by Zeki, and I know it's a long slog, I promise it's worth it. One painting he references is Girl w/Pearl Earing to speak about his word "ambiguity".
    Wonder, mystery, the acquisition of knowledge....onward and upward!