“Alice Through the Looking Glass”
Illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland


What part of our lives is a real mystery?  I’m not talking about our yet-to-be-solved life problems nor about messages made deliberately unclear or ambiguous in order to confuse people.

Leo Bronstein, who was a professor at Brandeis and my father’s best friend, sometimes would exclaim, with rolled r’s, 

The mystery is in the mystification!”

Uttered in his Russian/Catalan/Left-Bank accents, Leo’s exclamation did not sound in my ears like a denial of mystery per se: only a situating of one aspect within the precincts of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who retains manipulative control over a passive humanity by the application of his three opiates: “miracle, mystery and authority.”

Once we take manipulative mystification out of it, is anything left that may rightly be deemed mysterious?  And if so, does that residual mystery call for decoding, or not?

I consider life an inherently interesting adventure, filled with hidden corners, sudden, blazing illuminations, and cloaked situations that can suddenly throw off their cloaks.  One gets issued many invitations to learn “lifemanship.”  One is warned about lots of “don’ts” but alerted to few positive “do’s.”  The people who know don’t tell; the ones who tell probably don’t know.

Perhaps I can help us out here by dividing the problematic (at least in my own case) into, first, obscure situations that I ought to clear up, second, quests that take years before I even learn what the thing sought after is and, third, prompts to go deeper that belong to my fundamental reasons to live.   Let’s take them one by one.

About the first kind of obscurity, this often looks deep, but isn’t.  For example: a guy I rely on for technical support had been unreachable for more than a week.  This gave me boundless existential angst plus paranoia of a distinctly feminine kind.  He thinks I’m unimportant because I’m a woman.  He thinks (rightly) that I’m less profitable than his business clients.  And so on.  As Caesar says in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, “  Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in fuh me!

In that frame of mind, I went to bed hoping for light on the encroaching shadows, but feeling like I’d just flunked Lifemanship 101.  

That night, I had a dream.  I saw a woman on a train who was reluctant to let another woman sit beside her.  Perhaps she feared, reasonably, that the stranger had been exposed to the virus.  But she wasn’t tactful about her reluctance and the stranger looked hurt.  In the dream, I sat down beside the woman and said, “Can you try to put yourself in her place?”  After a gulping moment or two, the woman took my suggestion and the situation calmed.

I don’t usually have dreams like that, so I tried to think what it meant for my own situation.  The same morning, when my helper arrived, I asked him whether his recent days had been particularly busy and whether he thought we should rearrange our contact protocol to allow for remote help.  He looked appreciative that I’d put the question in terms of his present challenges, not mine.  He described his temporary situation and what he was doing about it and … whoosh! … our rapport improved.  Palpably.

Had I read a story like that in a self-help book, I’m sure I would have thought, Pu-leese, stop boring me with your made-up anecdotes!  But since it came to me in my real dream (thank you, good angel of dreams!) I acted on it without hesitation.  So this was a shadowy situation that called for turning on the light – and the light dispelled it!  Dramatically but naturally.  What looked boundless, shrank back to normal size.  The human scale was restored.

The second sort of mystery or challenge is exemplified in the quest I wrote about recently, in my column titled “Closure.”  It was my lifelong effort to figure out what I owed my genius of a father and carry it through to achievement. 

However, the odd thing about resolving a quest is that another quest — long buried under the visible one – can then disclose itself.  This happened to me.

Long ago in Paris I had a first love, described in my forthcoming, Confessions of a Young Philosopher.  He’d left an imprint on my imagination and memory.  As the relation was not a happy one, and did not end well, it left the lingering trace of a problem-never-solved.  It asked something of me, though I’d gone years without noticing that fact.  It was a corner of my life that remained enshadowed.

I now had the freedom to notice it.  It surfaced.  Had it too been with me through the years as a submerged quest?  I did not think there were any elements still misunderstood or unfathomed by me nor promises left unkept.  It was not clear to me what could have been left unresolved.  But if anything was, I prayed to be shown what it was and how to resolve it.

To my surprise, the answer came within a night and a day.   That night, dreams and half-waking memories came unbidden – all with the same theme.  They all showed how domineering and unkind he had been in the times when we were together.  This was not a surprise, but it was striking to be shown only that in my dream state.

In my long-ago understanding of him, he had always been double: with a soul level that was still young, pure and untainted and an empirical level that was a pretty bad actor.  The soul level explained why I had loved him – why we loved each other – and why he had posed an insoluble problem for me.

After that night of dream-like recollections, here is what appeared in meditation that morning: his double nature had collapsed.  By dint of many bad acts, the higher level had now entirely submerged within the lower one.  At the same time that I saw this, I stopped loving him.  The ambivalence – the yes, but no – simply vanished!  This is not something you can fake.  It was gone.  His long reach had fallen short at last.  Henceforth, his life and its debts would be his business, not mine.

So here are two kinds of demystifications: the first fairly simple and “psychological,” the second achieving what had been a lifelong quest, where the resolution might take an ideal form — or even take the form of the quest’s becoming spiritually irrelevant — but in any case the resolution was recognizable and precise.

What is left of the category of mystery?  Are all mysteries like these: obscurities that call only for the light of day?

Is there anything mysterious in itself?  Yes.  There is the realm from which such de-mystifications (or epiphanies) come.

The inexhaustible Source.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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