Friday, June 11, 2010

It's a Mystery to Me

Mystery and subsequent revelation--the ritual in which secrets are bared--reach metaphorically back in time to tie us together as a species. Mystery and revelation are commonly associated with religion and/or wisdom thought necessary to make life more meaningful. Commonly associated with some form of mind-altering substance, mystery and revelation in such diverse social gatherings as the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Peyote Cults allowed the mind to be altered through substance and ritual in order for the congregant to experience an closer understanding of and relationship with The Cosmos (whatever the appropriate priesthood took The Cosmos to include).


For the writer of the twentieth and, now, twenty-first century, some form of religious belief or professed atheism is often a subtext to the way characters, their agendas, and their themes emerge, bringing to mind as examples the likes of C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Cynthia Ozick, and Flannery O'Connor. Just as likely for the twentieth- and twenty-first-century writer, mystery and revelation are present, not merely as subtext but as basic premise. As most jazz musicians and many classical musicians are steeped in The Blues--a genre in which notes are sung or played flattened or gradually bent (minor 3rd to major 3rd) in relation to the pitch of the major scale--modern writers are grounded in the construction of the mystery, a novel or short story in which a puzzle is presented and, after the necessary ritual of detection, solved to the point where some kind of justice, stated or unstated, is evoked and celebrated.

Mystery and revelation, if not present in the DNA of the individual, certainly reside in the DNA of dramatic writing. In the same sense that such critical theories as Marxism, Feminism, deconstruction, Post-modernism, and the like can be applied to all literature, the critical theory of mystery leading to revelation can be applied as well--if not better. From such far-flung fringes of the literary landscape as, say, Don Quixote and Henry James' The Ambassadors, each work may be seen and analyzed as a mystery (at the very least, What will the characters do next?)solved with a discovery of the organizing pattern and the revelation of the cause. Even moving back to the nineteenth century and Mr. Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter, we can look for and find an identity revealed, a secret of behavior revealed, and ironic consequences of justice both social and cosmic.

Checking the list of ingredients found in a representative mystery, you will find murder, betrayal, drugs, money laundering, sexual transgressions, blackmail, and concealed identity. As well, there is a likelihood of secret dealings, attempts at cover-up, and threats of violence if some of the secrets are revealed. You will often find corruption and the consequences of it on subsequent generations, martyrdom, hidden agenda, and unbridled ambition, all behavior to be found in much of Shakespeare but more recently in Arthur Miller.

There is in fact a kind of poetry as well as poetic justice in following an investigator who may also have an agenda as he or she follows the trail of clues, hints, and red herrings that will lead to the epiphany of discovery; it is a poetry that reaches deeply into our literary being, causing many of us to be secret mystery readers, still not willing to come out of the closet with an affirmation of taste. Soon, somewhere down the line, in a work by Dennis Lehane or Ruth Rendell or Sarah Paretsky, perhaps in an earlier work discovered in despair of anything else to read, by Ross McDonald or Josephine Tey, the circuitry will be made. The mystery is wired-in behavior for the writer. All the writer writes is mystery and ritual and revelation, as the writer follows the trail of story to see what the discovery will be.

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