little boats & troubled dreams: a meager exploration of mystery and art

This post is a (re)working of another.

Let’s begin here with this video:

Arvo Pärt struggles to put into words what is so natural to him in music. At the end he says, “I’m always looking for it. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Every time I feel I have to start from scratch.” It is that searching that points to a kind of depth not found in much artwork. Pärt is one of the greatest living composers. His music is the result of struggle and faith. His music also points to something beyond, something transcendent, something objective yet unknowable. However, this is not a post on Arvo Pärt per se, rather it is a post on mystery.

I am drawn to mystery.

Gerhard Richter
Two Candles 1982 Oil on canvas
55 1/8″ x 55 1/8″ (140 x 140 cm)
Private collection

What is mystery? More than mere confusion or lack of clarity, mystery is the intimation of a reality beyond the physical or psychological. In its ultimate sense, mystery is the nature of the truly transcendent as it either interfaces with our contingent reality, or as we perceive, at some level that may not yet (or ever) be describable, the truly transcendent. In short, it is when and where we encounter the eternal.

I have often wondered what it is about certain artworks that I love so much, and what it is that draws me towards these kinds of art and, in particular, these kinds of films. I believe that the kinds of artworks and the kinds of films one seeks out and enjoys is directly related to why one views such art or watches films in the first place. Consider watching films: for some, watching films has everything to do with lighthearted, end-of-the-day escapism. For others it may be a kind of testosterone drug fix. And for others it might be some kind of romantic battery re-charging or escapism. Of course, for most of us it is a combination of many reasons. But I have to say that over and over I find myself seeking certain kinds of films and certain kinds of film experiences. Much of the time these experiences, at least the ones that stay with me long after the immediate viewing is over, are what I might call transcendent, or sublime. Another way of saying it might be that the more one digs into the realities of life, death, love, and suffering, the more one keeps coming up against mystery. This mystery is not a Gnostic sort of knowledge for only a select few, for only those with the “secret knowledge,” rather the mystery is there for everyone to experience and contemplate; it is fundamentally human.

Some might say this mystery is the experience of getting a kind of semi-translucent glimpse of the hand of God creating everything, including us, moment by moment. Others might say it is the place where the limits of reason and emotion converge at a kind of metaphysical precipice. Or it could be the place where one merely has the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality only to discover rationality is a bigger thing than one previously imagined. And maybe, finally, the goal is about arriving where one started and knowing that place as though for the first time.

What fascinates me is the ability of artforms and, in particular cinema for me, but also poetry, photography, music, etc., to evoke mystery. Some examples might include the painting by Gerhard Richter at the beginning of this post and the photograph below by Minor White. But there really are countless examples. Why is it that certain images can bring about deep, almost indescribable emotions from within my soul?

Minor White
Pacific, Devil’s Slide
California 1947

In my opinion a great example of a film that does this for/to me is Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1969). There are so many powerful images from that film, and so many moments that produce powerful feelings that I am drawn to re-watching the film repeatedly. This post is not a review of Rublyev; my point is to say that art works can evoke strong feelings of mystery that seem to point to more important aspects of human existence, but do so via a kind of internal mystery, a mystery inherent within art itself. Again, that mysteriousness one finds in certain films is one of the powerful cinematic draws for me.

But what do, or can, we mean by this term mystery?

I am troubled, I must say, at trying to explain the sense of mystery in art. I have come to believe, however, that maybe it arise from the tension between life and death, and the reality that life comes from death. In art we often refer to beauty. But what is beauty and does it have a place anymore in art? As a kind of doorway to an answer, I like this quote from an interview with Andrei Tarkovsky about his, as then yet to be made, film Andrei Rublev:

I am not going to say anything directly about the bond between art and people, this is obvious in general and, I hope, it’s obvious in the screenplay. I would only like to examine the nature of beauty, make the viewer aware that beauty grows from tragedy, misfortune, like from a seed. My film certainly will not be a story about the beautiful and somewhat patriarchal Rus, my wish is to show how it was possible that the bright, astonishing art appeared as a “continuation” of the nightmares of slavery, ignorance, illiteracy. I’d like to find these mutual dependencies, to follow birth of this art and only under those circumstances I’d consider the film a success. (from

Maybe it is only through suffering that true mystery in art appears. I don’t know.

If I could point to an artwork that offers for me one of the best examples of the mystery of art, the feeling of mystery in the receiver of that art work, and also describes the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality or coming into contact with some kind of cosmic mystery, it would be from a tiny section from William Wordsworth’s great autobiographical poem, The Prelude, The first time I read this section I was floored. I continue to be floored each time I read it, but I also recognize that my response is a personal one. And so will be yours.

One summer evening (led by her) I found
A little boat tied to a willow tree
Within a rocky cave, its usual home.
Straight I unloosed her chain, and stepping in
Pushed from the shore. It was an act of stealth
And troubled pleasure, nor without the voice
Of mountain-echoes did my boat move on;
Leaving behind her still, on either side,
Small circles glittering idly in the moon,
Until they melted all into one track
Of sparkling light. But now, like one who rows,
Proud of his skill, to reach a chosen point
With an unswerving line, I fixed my view
Upon the summit of a craggy ridge,
The horizon’s utmost boundary; far above
Was nothing but the stars and the grey sky.
She was an elfin pinnace; lustily
I dipped my oars into the silent lake,
And, as I rose upon the stroke, my boat
Went heaving through the water like a swan;
When, from behind that craggy steep till then
The horizon’s bound, a huge peak, black and huge,
As if with voluntary power instinct,
Upreared its head. I struck and struck again,
And growing still in stature the grim shape
Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me. With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,–
And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

The Prelude
William Wordsworth
first published in 1850

I can think of no better way to express why it is I am drawn towards some kinds of films more than others, why it is I love the mystery of art, and why it is I come away from some films with the film still burning in my soul. There is a sensibility in that poem that perfectly describes that feeling of being overcome with awe, fear, and joy all mixed together. This mystery, this feeling, is often referred to as the sublime.

But then I wonder. For I am convinced that the source of mystery is not merely a feeling, even if that feeling is objectively located in the work of art causing the work to function as a kind of talisman of sorts. Mystery must, I am certain, have its roots in God, pointing to, then through, the energies of God towards the essence of God, which is the ultimate mystery. Therefore we have a choice: do we seek mystery as a feeling, attempting to conjure it in our choice of artworks, and using it as a kind of replacement for a more ultimate mystery, or do we seek the ultimate mystery and, therefore, more carefully chose works of art that might point to that mystery, the true mystery?

Historically we have inherited a stream of thought, a modern shift, that has reduced God to nothing and, therefore, reduced the nature of being, of what was once called the true glory of man, to mere narratives of the sublime. The sublime, then, becomes a way of describing the absence of God. Rather than be in awe of true mystery, we rejoice in the ever liminal, psycho-emotional stories of personal and anti-personal contingency. We rejoice in différence and violence, taking them for both something greater than us and something ultimately insignificant. I worry that I would love the sublime only to find that I have been merely playing with mystery and avoiding God. Pointing to that shift, David Bentley Hart says this:

The event of modernity within philosophy (which arrived, at least visibly, in the age of nominalism) consisted in the dissolution of being: the disintegration of that radiant unity wherein the good, the true, and the beautiful coincided as infinite simplicity and fecundity, communicating themselves to a world whose only reality was its variable participation in their gratuity; and the divorce between this thought of being, as the supereminent fullness of all perfection, and the thought of God (who could then no longer be conceived as being and the wellspring of all being, revealing his glory in the depth of splendor in which created things are shaped and sustained). This vision was so thoroughly and quickly forgotten (long before Heidegger would diagnose it, ineptly, as just another mode of the “forgetfulness of being”) that being itself could now be conceived only in absolute opposite terms: as a veil or an absence, thought or un-thought, but in either case impenetrable—the veil that veils even itself, the empty name that adds nothing to the essence of beings, sheer uniform existence. And God’s transcendence, so long as nostalgia preserved philosophy’s attachment to “that hypothesis,” could be understood now only as God’s absence, through perhaps, but only as an alienum or an explanatory cause. Being, no longer resplendent with truth, appearing in and elevating all things, could be figured then only as the sublime. (The Beauty of the Infinite, p. 44)

I am convinced Tarkovsky points beyond the sublime to the transcendence of God, and thus the transcendence of being. I am not fully convinced Wordsworth does that consciously, though I think he may do sounitentionally. Richter, I believe, may be merely exploring narratives of the sublime. And yet, I love the artworks of all three. What is one to do?

If we seek mystery, if we seek works of art that take us to a metaphysical precipice, or create the feeling of overshooting one’s rationality, or drop us in the deep-end of the sublime as it were, then it only makes sense that we ought to stake our experiences to the infinite and permanent things lest we be swept away into the prison of false transcendence. Another way of putting this is that we should seek something other than a life of amusements, even so-called serious ecstasies, and prepare ourselves for for both death and the life that can come only by death. I wrote about this previously here, but I would add that as we might seek mystery, let us seek God first, seek to imitate one who is inimitable, and let us know that we are, as yet, only shadows of our future selves. It is there, and only there, that we find the true mystery that does not disappoint.

Finally, there are many artists exploring the boundaries of mystery and transcendence. Below is a short documentary hosted by Björk that looks at several minimalist musicians/composers. What I find most fascinating is to consider how each of these artists may or may not exemplify a search for true mystery. Some, I fear, are only playing with a false mystery for the sake of the merely sublime, while others may go further. And, or course, Arvo Pärt comes last, and that’s the real reason to watch.

2 thoughts on “little boats & troubled dreams: a meager exploration of mystery and art”

  1. Thanks for sharing this article Tucker. There is much here I need to meditate on. This post makes me a little sad though because sometimes I feel like mystery can be misery —it must be my postmodernity. Do I not have the faculty for it? Conjunction junction, what’s your function? Sometimes I just can’t hook up. I mean, I think there are missing links that must be found so I can figure it all out. The question is, when do we stop trying and let it be. Anyway, I love the art you put in this post. Splendid joy flickers in those candles; I think I almost see it. Thanks Tuck.

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