There’s a type of story called an “ontological mystery” (beware: I linked to tvtropes.org, an extremely addicting website). In an ontological mystery, “the characters are locked in, have no idea how they got there, why they’re there, or how to get out, nor do they know exactly who is behind their predicament, if anyone.” A few examples of ontological mysteries are the movie The Cube, the television show Lost, and Sartre’s play No Exit.
Now, I like ontological mysteries. When they’re done right. But I don’t like it when the mystery of “why they’re there” turns out to be reducible to the secret of “how they got there”. The entire appeal of an ontological mystery is that these people in this bizarre(ly simple) universe are seemingly there for a reason, a reason that’s not reducible to the fact that they were put there.
On the one hand, of course this is what ontological mysteries are. “Ontological” means “metaphysical”, directing us to the idea “final causes”, and “mystery” comes from the same root as “mystical”; both of these are clues leading me to the idea that an ontological mystery’s primary focus is on the numinous, that the final cause is what is secret here, not the material or efficient. But often supposed ontological mysteries seem to lose their way, and forget what they’re supposed to be about, so I can’t just make that claim. Rather, I’d like to argue, by presenting examples, that the quality of an ontological mystery story is fairly directly correlated to how well-done the exploration of this metaphysical question is, and not at all correlated to whether there is an answer at all to the question of material and efficient causes.
So what is the ontological mystery in The Cube? The characters speculate about how they got there. A military-industrial complex conspiracy? An ultra-rich sociopath? Punishment for their sins? No, none of these. It turns out it is simple governmental neglect – a mistake, an abberation, something completely meaningless. At least, the how they got there is meaningless, an explanation that brings them no closer to any understanding of their situation.
Where The Cube gets interesting is in two places: how they end up finding their way around the cube without dying, and what ends up happening to the different characters. How do they find their way around? By using mathematical formulas – the numerical labels on the cubes use prime numbers to designate the “safe” cubes, there is an elaborate mathematical formula that helps them find their way to the edge of the cube and get out. And what happens to the characters? They are all punished – by the cube itself and by each other – and in the end Kazan, the autistic man, is the only one to escape from the cube. The cube seems to be some sort of trial, or perhaps even is purgatory, but what is considered pure is not goodness, in the moral sense. It is simplicity of being and mathematical perfection. That aspect of the movie is interesting; really, given how mediocre the acting is and how simplistic the set designs are, that’s all the movie has going for it.
What about Lost? I remember how at the beginning of the show, there were numerous theories as to what the people on the island were. A common one was that they were in purgatory, being punished for their sins by the Island. I never really bought that, but it was at least interesting.
Where the show really went downhill, I think, was when it just continued stating explicitly “the Island is meaningful” without ever showing us any evidence of that, and then giving us simple cause-and-effect answers for the numerous questions they raise. All right, so we find out in season 2 that the plane crash was caused by Desmond failing to “push the button” – but who cares? What we really want to know is why the plane crashed, what the purpose of the Island is – but all they’ll offer us is vague “everything happens for a reason” aphorisms, and reveal ever more complex layers of “how” – the Dharma Initiative, the various stations, the Others.
Basically, none of it ever seems to actually amount to anything. By the end of the final season, yes, they’ll probably have wrapped up all of the loose ends and so no one will be able to ask “what made X happen?”, but the writers of the show have basically convinced me that the only grand purpose behind everything that’s happened is that the writers needed everything to fit together or there’d be no show. (Incidentally, this is my dad’s main complaint with Battlestar Galactica, and where I disagree with him about the show – he thinks that the final season was just about tying up loose ends and was never anything more than that.)
My final example is No Exit – in my opinion clearly the best ontological mystery of these three, and the best of these three period, really. So what is No Exit’s ontological mystery? The fact of where they are is fairly quickly found out – they are in Hell. The question is, why are they in Hell? What are they being punished for? The answer at first appears to be,”Garcin slept around and deserted from the army, Inez killed her lover, Estelle drowned her child”.
But, while these are the physical manifestations of the reasons for their punishments, they completely fail to say why they are in Hell – they more answer the question of “how did they get to Hell?”. In the end, they all went to Hell because they acted ‘in bad faith’, which doesn’t mean they did any particular action a particular way, but roughly means that they did what they did with the wrong intentions. Their actions point towards what their sins were, but what they did to get to Hell is in the end not the same as why they went to Hell, they’re just related. That’s actually one of the main points of the play, I think. And it’s part of what makes No Exit a much better work of art than either of my other two examples – that it fully understands its nature as an ontological mystery, and part of how the plays functions is as an explanation of how ontological mysteries differ from mere secrets.
To close, I’m going to try to make two contrasting lists of words. “Why” versus “how”; “reason” versus “cause”; “truth” versus “fact”; “mystery” versus “secret”. Does that division basically get across the idea of what I mean by the title of this post?