Monday, January 15, 2007

Puzzles and Mysteries

The January 8, 2007, issue of The New Yorker, contains an article by Malcolm Gladwell
called "Open Secrets." As is so often the case, Gladwell is happy to have discovered a counterintuitive concept that allows him to discuss everyday issues in a surprising way (the focus of the article being Enron; Gladwell has also been adding new thoughts on the subject to his blog).

Now an article about Enron may not seem like a good place to steal ideas for thinking about literature, but here's the bit I find suggestive: "The national-security expert Gregory Treverton has famously made a distinction between puzzles and mysteries. Osama bin Laden’s whereabouts are a puzzle. We can’t find him because we don’t have enough information. ... The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much."

This might be a useful way to think about "difficult" poems: some of them are puzzles, providing incomplete information, leaving the reader wondering about the unstated details. Others are mysteries, and the problem is not lack of information, or information that has not been given, but an excess of information, an overdetermination that leaves the reader wondering not what has not been said, but how to sort out what has been said.

I don't have any examples yet, but perhaps I will return to the issue someday soon, if I come across some poems for which the concepts seem to be useful tools (that, of course, is the test of any such concept: is it a useful tool?)

(I should add that I have not read the review that I provided as a link with Treverton's name, but I hope to have a chance to do so.)


Anonymous said...

Composite comment:

The "aleph numbers" reminded me of Borges's "El Aleph."

I wouldn't want my apartment to be a museum either. I'd want it to be a library—a really big one. Come to think of it, I want to live in an actual library among shelves stacked with millions of books; or, speaking of Borges, live in his "Library of Babylon," where all possible permutations of letters are laid away in books. Thus every book has been written. It is just a matter of finding the right one.

I wonder what kind of examples you'll find for "puzzling" and "mysterious" poems. What about "secretive" poems? "Secret" and "mystery" have roughly the same etymological background (secretus and mysterium, both meaning "secret" in a way).

Donald Brown said...

I like the distinction. And it points up a problem with the genre of "mystery-writing." I think mystery stories, with a solution, are really puzzles. There's an answer, just as with a crossword puzzle. Or a correct way to arrange things, as in a jigsaw puzzle. The word "mystery" should be reserved for things that aren't meant to be solved; the mystery is that one feels as though one should be able to "see it" but just can't. I never like lit that is puzzle-like (unlike my mother who is a devotee of jigsaw puzzles and mystery stories), so the poems I like are ones where I'm not trying to "solve" the poem (like some kind of tedious allegory) but am savoring its mysterious relevance to me as i read it.

Andrew Shields said...

For me, the real point of detective fiction is not the cases, but the atmosphere, and the development of that atmosphere through several volumes (or even many volumes). That's why people like such stories set elsewhere (or elsewhen, as with all the recent historical detective novels).

The point of a mystery, according to Gladwell, in his take on Treverton, is that the mystery may have a solution, but it is hard to identify in the vast wealth of information that one has. In these terms, "mysteries" as a literary genre are appropriately named: the novelist provides a vast wealth of information that the reader tries to decode, right?