“The Great Unknown,” by Ravi Mangla, appears in the Fall 2016 Poetics of Science issue of KROnline
A third of the way through his elegant and compact essay “The Great Unknown,” Ravi Mangla’s observes, “The mail, once good for a mystery or two, can be followed with a handy tracking number.” This seemingly innocuous line at once captures the tone and essence of the essay. Every advancement in technology or science results in a gain and a loss, but the epigraph of “The Great Unknown” suggests something much more profound and troubling than the delivery of Amazon packages. “When too much light falls on everything, a special terror results,” Annie Dillard writes. How much light is too much? At what point does the satisfaction of knowing an answer to a question undermine the pleasure of its mystery?
As he explores these questions, Mangla relies on a wide variety of resources. Quoting Patrick Fuller, a science journalist, he writes, “‘In the next few decades, we will be able to predict huge areas of the future with far greater accuracy than ever before in human history, including events long thought to be beyond the realm of human interference.’ . . . By reading the tea leaves of these data streams, we will be able to anticipate natural calamities, the spread of infectious disease, and the spending habits of consumers.” The image of “reading tea leaves” can’t help but suggest carnivals, fortune-tellers, false reassurances about the future. Maybe all this knowledge will help us anticipate earthquakes and tsunamis, but Mangla is more concerned with effect of the growth of knowledge—the easy access to information—on the more immediate aspects of our lives. While he appreciates the pleasure of convenience and efficiency, by the end of the fourth paragraph his concerns have shifted. “Judged individually, these expediencies are clever bits of engineering. However, when exercised in succession, they mark something for more insidious: a systematic dismantling of the quotidian mysteries of life, an insatiable desire to shed light on every unexposed corner and crevice.”
Here is the heart of the piece, the losses discoveries bring with them. Referring to Keats’ concept of negative capability, Mangla writes, “Artistry depends on the presence of mystery, as beauty resides in a place beyond reason.” In giving up our ability to get lost, we give up the chance to stumble on a single “unexposed corner or crevice” not yet mapped by Google or experience “a beautiful disaster,” like Mangla’s birthday dinner in Japan, a meal that “amounted to one of the worst I’ve ever had, in Asia or elsewhere, yet the memory of that evening lingered. A decade later, I wouldn’t hesitate to call it my most memorable and entertaining birthday.” This memory punctuates his argument, personalizes the larger concerns at just the right moment. The essay isn’t about the writer; rather it is an exploration of a mind that links data, facts and art.
A well-chosen epigraph should echo throughout the piece, give the reader a sense of direction or underscore the themes the writer presents. Dillard’s “special terror” doesn’t lie in the ability to predict natural disasters. What, we must wonder at the end, does too much light mean for art? This is a question implicit for all writers—how much we need to show, how much we need to withhold, how to find a balance between too much research and not enough. More information can dull curiosity, curtail questions before they’ve even been formed, and for an artist, this is a terror of its own.