Infinite Selves : a Late-Night Conversation on Mysticism

(PAF, Elsewhere & Otherwise, July 1st 2017)

So I tried to produce material for this meeting, and to be brief it fell apart, either by lack of proper work on my part, theoretical dead-ends, or the cruel demands of time. What I’m about to present here is simply the disorganized sum of elements I have found in the process of this failed attempt at a presentation, at least those interesting enough for a public discussion such as this. My background is in philosophy, not theology, or religious studies, which means that all the work and reading I’ve done on these subjects is haphazard and informal, and you should receive it as such.

Since I am fond of stories, and since we’re having a late-night evening, let’s recount a delightful, possibly apocryphical (it was told to me years ago by one of my professors, I didn’t try to fact-check it) anecdote about Saint Theresa of Avila : it was said that one night, a young woman was brought to her convent, the one she was in charge of ; she was highly recommended, for the quality of her visions, her ability to commune with God, and so on. So Therese, known as a rather forceful mystic in her own right, looks at this promising pupil, and declares, Let us give her a good night rest, and a couple of strong meals to fill her stomach ; then we’ll see if she is what she claims to be. The implication being that « spiritual » experiences can be, on a superficial level, actually relatively easy to engineer, through various kinds of ascetic deprivations, where the mind will of its own so to speak generate some form of aberrant or fantastical stimuli.

Immediately this points towards the notion of a scale of so-called illuminative experiences, where some would be worth more, in terms of content, intensity, and even « truth », than other, deeper or more superficial, requiring even more or less training to be executed, like a practice or a talent that can be honed over time (I believe Tanya Luhrmann has written extensively on prayer in an evangelical context, from an anthropological perspective, and ends up describing the hearing of voices from God as a form of skill on par with piano playing).

What I am interested with regards to mysticism, is the way these phenomena deal with the notion of the Self, and might help us produce a different understanding of the self, a reconfiguration of it even. I want to look at this topic, this interest, in a very cautious way, because it is, I find, extremely easy for a philosopher to deal with extra-philosophical material or practice as a sort of playing ground, exploiting it as some form of outside given, thereby elevating it to a status of undiscussed, empirical truth, and, at the same time, reducing it to some crude material for one to produce intra-philosophical, cheap speculation about. This is observable with regards to science, to artistic practices, obviously, but I find it particularly troubling with regards to what we call mysticism, which deals, in one form or another, with extra-ordinary types of experiences. It would be extremely easy, and all the more crass, to say something like « we can find an erosion of the categories of space and time within such and such mystic’s depiction of their experiences, and therefore the kantian deduction of the a priori character of space and time as necessary conditions for subjective experience in the transcendental aesthetic is wrong ».

In a less caricatural, but still problematic manner, we might say that mysticism, as a reconfiguration of what experience is, gives you an experience of something that is not a thing, that is beyond being, and therefore beyond thingness, and thus intuitively shatters the the continuity between self and world : since, in a normal context, in order for experience to take place, there needs to be some form of continuity between the two, and since it so happens that there is this kind of shattering, of radical discontinuity, in the case of mystical experiences, then this would blur or even unground the very concept of what an experience is. (This analysis is a loose paraphrase from Laurent Lavaud’s otherwise excellent, but extremely philosophically appropriationist Mystique et monde).

To use this kinds of cases, of marginal types of experiencing, as fuel for philosophical speculation in the worst sense, is, I find, a somewhat easy trick (one I have indulged in, just to be clear) : you have a set of conditions in which, drawing on an otherly discourse, you enable yourself, as philosopher, to wax about the Outside, or what have you. So I’m consciously trying to avoid that today, and, at the risk of being underwhelming (it certainly involved quite a bit of wilfully disappointment towards my own leanings, at least), I’m going to try and go as far away from the pathos, or the exaltation one can find in themselves in encountering such topics and such texts. What I’m going to do, is take a step back, one that is maybe more cold, and also still typically « philosophical » in its tiring reflexiveness, but which to me is a tool for being more acute in the kind of analysis that is produced.

One topic I was interested, specifically, is this idea that, if we take the Image d’Epinal of a mystical experience, that one sees God, sees something that is akin to what is found or produced with mind-altering substances and other psychotropes, where there is an internal shift in consciousness, if we look to what mystics’ texts I have been looking at, then, this is not really what happens, there is something quite different at work, namely, first this notion of a variety of stages, of levels, of steps. You have levels that are more directly tied with one’s body, others that are more reflexive and tied to the intellect, say, and there’s this notion of progression, with the idea that you have to go step by step through those stages. I’m just introducing this notion here, so that you have it in mind, since it will come back at different points in what follows.

Second, when people talk about mystical experiences, when they comment upon them, the term that comes up repeatedly (maybe I’ve used it a couple of minutes ago, for instance), is that of vision, or some other kind of optical register. You have vision, you see God, you are there with God (whatever « God » indexes in that type of statement). An interesting displacement, then, would be to bracket out this relationship to the visual, because there certainly is a lot of talk of light and darkness, but there is, it seems to me, not so much a litteral notion of images to be found, which is what I think happens in what is called religious transport, or enthusiasm, and the maybe more characteristic forms of mysticism, where what is encountered is in some sense beyond images, beyond imagination. The language seems to have quite a bit to do with touch, with warmth, with presence, with interiority, with feeling, rather than vision.

If we look at someone like Simone Weil, which we could call a twentieth-century mystic, I believe, we encounter something else, more interesting. So Weil was this woman from the 30’s and 40’s in France, who was a Marxist who studied philosophy and then went to work in a factory for a time, and at some point converted to Christianity, and came up with an interesting, strange hybrid between Christianism and radical politics. And she talks about the fact that the self is linked with imagination, and here « imagination » is understood as the index of everything that it fictitious, and so everything that has to do with the possible, with the capacity to see the future as contingent and to act accordingly, all the categories of the philosophy of action in a standard sense, basically, are deemed fictitious because they rely upon imagination. And truth can be gleaned only by relinquishing, by not relying on these fictitious categories of thinking.

Now when I read this, as a philosopher, my instinct is to think of someone like Spinoza, who refuses contingency, who believes imagination is a second-order form of encountering the world, one which deals more with a mode of reception of affects than with anything properly deemed actual. There is another thinker I would introduce here to illuminate things further, which would be the medieval philosopher Averroes, whose theory, in a strange twist on Aristotle’s theory of cognition, was that what happens in thought is best understood as being acted by a general, transpersonal Intellect (called the Agent Intellect), whereby truth and thought is fashioned, so that what happens when one thinks, is that their activity of thinking is best understood thus : first, as receiving what is thought by the Agent Intellect, what is being generated by it ; and second, as integrating this Thought with the means by which to specify it, to particularise it, so that it may be understood within an individual mind. And this second process, says Averroes, is operated through the faculty of imagination, that is, of clothing thoughts with images, so that the universality of thoughts may be mediated with the contingent particularity of a given subject’s experiences (I am grossly simplifying and distorting an extremely sophisticated framework here, it should be noted).

When Averroism crossed over from the Arabic sphere to Western Europe in the 1200s, it was understood as a straightforward negation of individual thinking as such : if thought does not trace its active origin within the human, individual mind, then, this must mean that man does not think (Homo non cogitat). The human is not the proper locus of thought : that this constitutes a gross misunderstanding of Averroes’ precise doctrine does not matter so much here, than the fact that the relationship that is entailed between, on one side, the identification of the Self as enclothed in imagination, and, on the other, the possibility of a negation or relativisation of the self when dealing with orders of higher truth. In Paris, in 1277, the Bishop Tempier wrote a full list of philosophical theses (219 of them, with some overlaps) that were forbidden from teaching in the faculties of theology (a term which in this context encompasses both theology and philosophy, including what we would call physics or cosmology, e.g. the thesis of the eternity of the world). So you have this great catalogue of thoughts that you are not allowed to profess, of propositions that are explicitely deemed beyond the pale of acceptable discourse (this is a retrospective charms of authoritarianism, be it political or intellectual : they are very cognizant of their enemies, however little they actually understand them). Among these inacceptable theses, then, the autonomy of the active intellect and the deprivation of individual human from the locus of thought was one of the major recurring themes.

This is purely anecdotal, but one of the inklings I had when researching was that I was struck by the fact that this list was published in 1277, and that in 1310, barely 30 years later, you find this mystic called Marguerite Porete, who wrote this book, Le miroir des âmes simples et anéanties, which is this great dialogue between all these parts of the human soul, Reason, Love, Faith, and so on, where they talk about the various kinds of experience that is afforded to souls. One of the major points she makes, is that, when struck with the experience of illumination and annihilation, the soul does not recognize itself, does not belong to itself. So she was condamned, and burned at the stake, and the two main motives for her sentence were, first, that the âme anéantie is said to have no use for morality, for virtues ; that is, she says, that such soul does not serve virtue, because the virtues are now subjected to it rather than the opposite, which means that you do not relate to moral commands in a passive manner, but that, once the divine is actualized within the soul, virtue is not something you submit to, it is something which you enact freely, and is dependent on you in that sense. In Nietzschean terms, we could say that this correspond to a shift from a slave morality to a master morality. The second motive, was that she wrote that purified souls do not care about God’s consolation, since they are in the presence of God, and do not relate to it as something to be expected, but rather as something to which they are present.

So in the space of 35 years, you find these two ideas that are judged to be not just wrong, but actively dangerous, which both affirm in some sense that the soul does not relate to itself as a thing that acts and wills and speaks and wants, but as a thing that is completely free, by virtue of not being tied to itself as a contingent being, by virtue of a superior, more intimate relationship with God in the case of Porete, or by virtue of understanding the workings of the soul as intimately rational in Averroes. You do not think, but enact thinking that traverses you, you do not will, but you are acting upon what is to be done, and so on. There is this notion of the relinquishment of imagination, of false notions about the soul, and the ultimate relinquishment, not of independent thought, but of thought as something that can be yours, of action as something that flows from you as a point of origin.

To go back on this notion of levels, of going through different strata of experiences ending in divine contentment, what is interesting, is that you have a recurrent structure, which is not identical from text to text by any means, but which is recurrent in broad strokes : you start with abandonment of the world, of external things, which is like a struggle against the self’s dependency to the outside, to reach a point of control towards, say, hunger, or sleep, a set of practices where you create conditions for relative independence towards the exterior, by working through a very direct relationship with one’s body. Further on, you get to a sort of intellectual stage, where you are trying to attain a similar kind of relinquishment, but this time a relinquishment with respect to ideas, with images, with concepts as things that are supposed to be fixes, to be stable, to be something other than oneself. You have a relinquishment of meaning, through a rigorous gymnastic of the intellect (this is the stage to which philosophers lay claim from time to time). And then, at least as far as I can tell, you reach an interior level, which can be divided into two stages : a negative one, which is what we could call the night of the world, where there is a radical annihilation, a radical dis-appropriation of the self, which becomes then purged of everything that constitutes it. This is a very painful stage ; before an encounter with the divine, you have this expansion of darkness, of pure absence. There is passage from Simone Weil which I really like, which reads ;

God wears himself out through the infinite thickness of time and space in order to reach the soul and to captivate it. If it allows a pure and utter consent (though brief as a lightning flash) to be torn from it, then God conquers that soul. And when it has become entirely his he abandons it. He leaves it completely alone and it has in its turn, but gropingly, to cross the infinite thickness of time and space in search of him whom it loves. It is thus that the soul, starting from the opposite end, makes the same journey that God made towards it. And that is the cross.

The cross, then : that is, to be touched by God’s presence, to be abandoned, and to have to crawl back, through all the hardships that God went through to touch you in the first place. The soul has to work through, in what I can only assume is an extremely painful process, to reach God again. So this notion of a first stage of pure annihilation, of pure abandonment of the soul, I find quite interesting, because you have to first be acted upon, be touched, in some sense, and, then you have to acquiesce, to say yes to this seemingly destructive force acting upon you. Earlier in the book, Weil writes that « Our consent is necessary in order that he may perceive his own creation through us…God can love in us only this consent to withdraw in order to make way for him, just as he himself, our creator, withdrew in order that we might come into being, and then going through an impossible trajectory, to reach something ».

Afterwards, then, something is reached, and is described (in other authors, not so much in Weil, though I might be mistaken), in joyous, erotic terms ; it is about union, about the soul being lit on fire with presence, it is rejoicing in the full presence of God. So that is what happens, in the end, from mystical experience : you go through all these stages. Simone Weil seems to linger mostly, in the text I have read, on the estrangement from God, rather than this illuminative stage ; but if you look at Porete, at someone like Plotinus, there is this articulation of the negative and the positive stages of mystical experience.

So there seems to be this very sharp edge to mysticism, an intense deconstruction of mind and self, at which point you become available for the possibility of an encounter with the divine. And then, maybe, afterwards, if the destruction is not fatal, it becomes possible to reconstruct the self, to reconstitute it anew. In its most radical form, this reconstruction is a self-less reconstruction, where the soul does not have a self to speak of anymore, in the sense that it acts from God rather than from a sense of self. There is, at the very least, a radical shift in one’s relationship to others, to morality, that ensues.

I think there are two additional remarks I’d like to make with regards to a notion I did not manage to integrate fully into my account, which deals with the notion of embodiment. Michel de Certeau, who has this fascinating historical account of mysticism as writing, says that if you look at the places and the times where mystics appear, it happens in times or in place where the relationship to the Church, to organized religion, starts to break down, to crack down. If you look at Plotinus, which is in my mind the highest instance of Pagan mysticism, whom I talked quite a bit about last year during Philosophy Week, he appears at this moment of crisis of his own world, where Christianity is on the rise, very dynamic, and Paganism is starting to break down (Pierre Hadot wrote a wonderful text about this called « The End of Paganism »). Established codes of meaning, of the symbolic order, stop making sense, are unable to capture experience of what is going on, and so the spiritual capacities become unmoored, detached from institutional framings. If you look at Christianity, at St John, at Eckart, at Porete, well, it seems to happen in places where there is some form of crisis, where things unravel, where meaning is starting to crack. And so there is all this spiritual demand, this spiritual energy, either at the social or the individual scale, where people are rejected, abandoned, marginalized from a prior position of relative grounding, where then the floor starts to give in below them. And so they are pushed, forced even, to make sense of their experience in terms that are not fixed anymore, that are yet to be invented. So this might seem quite a bit reductive, as an account of mysticism, but I think it can also be looked at in a way where whatever inkling of truth and meaning and social and affective investment was contained within institutional forms, cannot be found there, cannot be contained therein, then you have to do that work of symbolisation and formalization of experience yourself. At least, some people do, they have to come up with a new framework, and this framework, by virtue of being independently constructed, takes the form of an immediate contact with the divine, with the numinous.

A way to analyse this (admittedly speculative) process, would be to look at where the words mystical comes from : it has to do with mystery, and so on, but at least within Christianity, what we call mysticism used to be called contemplation, speculation, etc., but the word « mystic » was paired with the word « body ». The body mystic, that was the Church, which is where the populace, the whole of the people are joined in a single community, a perfect collective harmony. The Church is what keeps the universe in place, in spiritual terms at least. So what you could see, at least in that context, is that when, historically, the body of the Church cease to function as a mystical body, ceases to make sense as an organisation of the symbolic order of the world, then the recourse seems to be to make the political personal, so to speak, to relate to one’s body as the site of mysticism, as the starting point for the relationship with the divine.

What I’d like to suggest, which is where I intended to go at some point but did not succeed in doing, is that maybe we could at what happens in what is called mystical experiences, as a sort of practice of immediacy, practice of producing a certain relationship to one’s body. Again, when you are trying to purify yourself, you go through exercises that try to enact a certain balance of the body, an extension of the limits of what it can do, a restriction of its need to the minimal amount, as well, and then you go through all these steps, intellectual, moral, spiritual, at the end of which there is this quite erotic, quite embodied kind of account of experience. And there’s this notion of spiritual nakedness, that the body becomes a locus of meaning, a locus of relationship with bigger than itself, where the body starts to signify in all kinds of manner (this is where, I assume, psychoanalysis can shed some light). It’s like there’s this relationship with one’s body where you are able to modulate the kind of interaction you have with you body, so that mysticism is not necessarily to be seen as this escape from the world, into a fantastical realm of visions, this kind of nihilism, but a form of purification, of seeing yourself as a fragile creation that does not necessarily makes sense as a personality. And you get this notion, of enacting one’s body as a direct presence, rather than as something that you have, or that you control. There’s this trajectory that starts with the body, goes through the soul, in order to come back to the bodily at a different angle, where transparency is achieved, without any trace of sense of ownership left.

So this is where I am in terms of what I can articulate, of what I can share. There are some aspects I am quite familiar with, others where I am quite on a limb, and this is all very inchoate, very basic in some sense. Thank you for listening.

Katrina : I have a question about this relationship with access, of transforming God though access with it. What exactly the notion of God is, with the people you mentioned ?

I mean, the thing is that what you see in these kinds of texts, is that it is both very culture-dependent, in terms of what is said of God, at least at the stage of writing, which is already a stage or re-interpreting and formalizing a prior, inaccessible (to us) experience. But there’s also, I find, a lot of repetition of themes and motifs. So the concept being invoked in these kinds of experience is quite difficult to talk about. The one which I know best, which is Plotinus, who was a Pagan, is that he talks of something that is beyond being, that is called the One, or the Good. It is felt as this purely positive notion, which is the principle of all things, in which the self comes to be engulfed, where thought comes to its extinction. It is described, alternatively, as being transcendent with regards to everything, or on the contrary as being present in all things.

Since it is something that is beyond language, as such, but you still want to talk about it, actually you have to talk about it, you want to say something, so you use all these kinds of metaphor, while being very explicit that they don’t quite fit, or don’t exactly make sense : « it is as if… », « we could almost say that… ». But it is always lacking. There are some very theologically-infused descriptions of these kinds of encounter, where you’ll read someone talk about the Trinity for instance, about their experience of Grace, of being taken away from earthly lifen in very precise terms, where you come to have a relationship with Mary or with the Trinity, or some other thing. But in other cases it’s much more abstract and metaphorical.

And so the important question is, as an outside observer, you have those texts, you have all those variations, and it would be very unfair, even absurd, to say « that is what you actually mean, when you talk about ‘God‘ ». You are pretending in a way that all these different people talk about the same things in different forms, but if you look at the details you find orthodox mysticism and wildly deviating mysticism, some people who were rejected or burned and so on because their experience, their account, did not fit with what was accepted as legitimate discourse on the divine. And sometime you find that, 200 years later, it is not a problem anymore, you are part of the canon of religious text. There is this guy, whose name I cannot recall, who says that his I, his self, is the I of God, and he was killed for that, because how dare you equate yourself to God ? But now it is not a problem anymore to talk in this way.

So to come back to the question of the concept that is present in these texts, that is a question that you can only ask afterwards, and that actually only people which are interested in these kind of experiences from a remote standpoint, who do not experience them themselves but still want to talk about it, are asking, because you find yourself in a sort of bind about that. I mean, I could spit out some ideas about what I think this or that mystic means when he or she writes, but I don’t want to say what it means, because that would be quite uninteresting.

Wittgenstein says that the mystical is not what the world is, but that the world is, and, that’s maybe the most honest, the most neutral way of saying it, that it relates to the world as something beyond it, that you are talking about what appear, through something that does not appear. It is this lack, this point that cannot be properly inscribed symbolically, or even the World itself as fact, or the principle of the world, something that is beyond the world as such. But it would be unfair to come up with some interpretation as superior, on purely theoretical grounds, I think, to vindicate one’s theories about the world and God and so on.

Stéphanie : In French, would you make a difference between le mystique, the mystical, and la mystique, mysticism ?

I guess that in French, le mystique, the mystical, is what is to be attained, or what is signified in these experiences, and that la mystique is the whole field of experience and discourse that you can have about it. Another thing I wanted to talk about, in relationship to language, is that maybe the crudest way of talking about la mystique, about mysticism, is to call it a litterary genre. It’s just a collection of writings that we have, and we don’t know what it « actually » refers to, what it indexes, we don’t actually know what it means, in any sense. But we have those writings, and they have meaning, and there’s all these networks of metaphores and tropes that crop up within it. So we have writing, which are accounts both of practices, and of experiences. So we have all these discourses, which are all these different ways of talking about le mystique, about what is mystical, to relate to it.

Agnès : In the Chapel, here, there is this stained-glass window, on which there is written « exercices spirituels » ; I was wondering whether those spiritual experiences were meant to be understood as exercices, that one engages in one’s lifetime, or if life itself is viewed as a spiritual exercise. Sainte Therese seems more épanouie, more at ease with her spiritual life, whereas Simone Weil seems more connected, in your account, with pain and guilt. In some cases there seems to be a kind of accomplishment, or something more connected to suffering and self-negation. Is there a way to classify these different kinds of figures ?

There’s this fact about Plotinus, that we get from one of his disciples, Porphyri. So Plotinus was consumed with the One, his whole life was oriented towards telling people about this reality beyond being in a way that people could understand it and make sense of it within the metaphysical framework of the time. He was enacting this relationship he claimed to have with the One, reading people, practicing virtue and so on, his entire life was organised around this reality, and this experience that he had, and the relationship between this reality and the world around him. And Porphyri says, in twenty or thirty years he spent alongside Plotinus, he had seen him experience union with the One, ultimate communion, three or four times in total. And so, it puts things into perspective, I mean, these people are trying to talk about something that can only appear as a rupture within the ordinary continuum of experience. This point of union, this point of perfect harmony, at which the relinquishment of the self gives way to another dimension, that is something extremely rare, and we should not kid ourselves about the possibility of humanly attaining that. There’s this exceptionality about it, which means the sample you have is very limited, obviously.

There’s also, by the way, something very aristocratic about this : some people hve it and some don’t, some people understand it and some do not, you can attain it or not, and that is also where this notion of the stages becomes useful, I think, because even though you can’t really promise anybody anything when it comes to spiritual matters, there are some things that you can attain, there are some things that you can exercise yourself into, prepare yourself for them, in a way, or at least gain enough internal harmony and purification to aspire to such a state.

About this night of the world, this moment of pure destruction, an interesting way of looking at it is, you look at the different kinds of account you have, and try to think, not about what they might have seen, but what is the level, the stage of consciousness, is indexed by the kind of description you have. From the standpoint of a certain experience, a certain stage within the soul, things looks a certain way, God is accounted for in a certain manner. So if we take this distinction between the joyous, ecstatic embrace of God, and the night of the Soul, where all you have is pure emptiness, pure darkness, such as in Bataille, well the account you are likely to get are going to be quite different. Bataille says, that all mystics are faced with the difficulty of talking about their experience, but actually, it is very easy, because you don’t have anything to talk about, you’re faced with nothing, so there’s no problem actually. There’s the problem with all the kinds of accounts you are faced with, how and in the name of what are you supposed to adjudicate ? If someone like Bataille says « That’s how it is at the bottom, there’s just void», or someone says the opposite, like « Wait, there’s another layer that nobody got to before me » ? Again, from the standpoint of someone who hasn’t got anything to do with any of that, from a random philosopher, what are you supposed to allow yourself to say ?

Agnès : Isn’t it paradoxical to have this kind of talk about the destruction of the self, and at the same time, this aristocratic claim to inner knowledge ? Is there not some kind of narcissism involved, to profess access to a higher relationship with the divine ? There’s a kind of dialectic, in the way that Hegel describes the unhappy consciousness, the one which at the same time wants to destroy its own feelings, while claiming that these feelings have some kind of connection to infinity at the same time, isn’t there ?

I don’t see a direct form of narcissism in the accounts I’ve come across. But you’re not talking about a litteral form of narcissim here. Of course, there’s all kind of claims to some form of personal access to truth, and some are narcissistic in nature, especially if you link it to some form of personal ownership…

Agnès : So how do you connect this kind of selflessness, with, for instance in Sainte Therese d’Avila, the importance granted to flesh, to the carnal aspect of experience… How do you have the benefits of flesh, for instance, without finitude, without being someone ?How can you be selfless, and embodied, carnal, at the same time ?

You can look the self as this structure that has this formal capacity to act, this formal activity, and you can say, that mysticism, basically, in that regard, is what happens when the self as constituted becomes, maybe not destroyed, but becomes irrelevant, because the subject comes in touch with something like the pure I in the Fichtean sense, the pure producing activity looping back on itself, taking itself as an object, and so on ad infinitum

Agnès : Okay, but that would be a figure of reflexivity, not a figure of incarnate fusion with God…

Right, but first, on the notion of depersonalization, you find, in this kind of reflexivity, this notion of infinite activity relating to itself, this structure that does not produce any positive content, that produces only an endless activity. So in that regard, what is described as annihilation of self, we might say that it has to do with a reporpusing of the producing capacity of the self, as opposed to the constituted, produced self. So maybe, on the level of flesh, if you look at what Merleau-Ponty says, that there is this intimate continuity between the self as locus of feeling and the world, which he calls flesh, maybe that is also how you could describe it, in that what happens, is that the capacity to relate to the world becomes unmoored from any particular given object, or even from the world as horizon, and becomes a pure capacity for relation. And that’s why you have, maybe, these very bodily descriptions of experience, because you still have this capacity, which finds itself out of tune with its usual functioning, which you can understand as relating to itself reflexively, or at relating to something on a level below that of ordinary experience. You can say, then, that this capacity for feeling, for fleshiness, is still present within that warped configuration of experience, and that is why getting the body back into mysticism, so to speak, is an interesting path to look at.

Deborah : Gershom Scholem says that mystic desires a tasting and seeing of metaphysical reality or God, as opposed to what you would call a metaphysical knowledge from afar, which you can absorb and reflect upon, etc. The tasting and seeing is not yours to choose, an invitation. These capacities of the body become a sort of mode of access to God, with very physical description of even the body of God. For Scholem, when he does these studies, he says that the main idea is that of the tasting and the seeing, that you taste, but it is not you who is tasting.

The phrase I like is this notion of repurposing of the sensory and mental capacity, to direct them to a different aim than their ordinary one. You can look at it as pathological, as an aberration, as madness, but there’s a shifting that happens.

Katrina: In relationship to what Deborah said, and to this idea of repurposing, it seems to connect to the difference between an understanding or an experience of ecstasy, emanation and to action itself, and between immediacy, like an erotic immediacy, which as a practice is far away from ecstasy, but rather quite mundane, of the mundane rather than of the ecstatic. It is worldly. There’s a distinction to be made here between ecstasy and immediacy ; in this practice of immediacy you were describing, it is not necessarily an ecstatic practice, it can be quite mundane. What would be the practice of immediacy here, because I feel that there’s a kind of erotics within this practice which is very far from an ecstatic understanding of the world.

I’m not sure I follow, and I think the problem I have here is that I’m stuck because, to me, there’s a trap inscribed within the notion of immediacy, because, what we usually mean by it is that there’s this direct connection which does not rely on something that would be outside of sensation or experience. So experience is immediate in that sense. But in psychology, you would say there’s a lot of layers of processing involved in order for you to have that illusion of immediacy, of transparency as Metzinger says. In these spiritual experiences, the fact that you have to go through all these sorts of ordeals and practices, sort of destroy the notion of immediacy in a first sense, because this immediacy is heavily engineered, it is at the end of a very long chain of mediations. That’s why I have a reticence towards this notion in this case, even though I’ve used it earlier, because it implies that there’s something direct about it. So that’s my trap here

Katrina : Actually my understanding of mediations upon mediations is closer to what I would call the mundane, than to immediacy. That the ecsatic understanding of immediacy wouldn’t be this kind of snap, rather than having all of these mediations, or the possibility for action in the first place ; that would be the mundane

Okay, yeah, in that sense, insofar as it relies on those practices, yeah. There’s this kind of fetishization of ecstacy and being taken outside of yourself, as if it could happen like that. These phenomena (I’m using all these terrible metaphors, it’s awful), it would be like being taken by UFOs or something, whereas actually we’re dealing with something that is extremely theory- and practice- and culture-laden. It does not happen out of the blue, or if it happens, to the people that experience it, it takes them such a long time just to develop and deploy all the intricacies of what happened in that instant. So the notion of ecstacy is something we should be quite wary of in that sense, absolutely.

Stéphanie : there are all these trends of mysticism, for instance with Guyon and the moyen court, with Sainte Therese, who were practicing l’oraison de simple remise, which was basically meditation, where they would meet God just by doing nothing. And they were condemned, because to affirm yourself in a spiritual capacity outside of the mediation of the institution. Guyon’s book is called Le moyen court, and you don’t need any mediation to access something.

Agnès : So here we have very litteral spiritual exercise, practice…

Stéphanie : Yes, you just sit, like you do in meditation, and do nothing, no prayer. In buddhism that leads to an encounter with emptiness, in some other contexts it means meeting God. Simone Weil did not practice in a church either to feel Grace.

Yes, it is that kind of immediacy, in the sense of not relying upon traditional church practices or teachings, which are heavily mediated, but you provide people with a series of simple practices that are fixed and communicable. You have those people who, like Francois d’Assise, had to choose between existing outside of the religious institution or within it, and the different kind of life that choice entails is quite different. And these mystical movements have this interesting recurrence, where they come back again and again to haunt the Church, so to speak, as something that does not rely on established mediations, as something that say « we can do without this, we’re going to work by ourselves ».

Stéphanie : This idea of the Grace, is conceived of as something that comes de surcroît, something that you do not dispose of, that might happen or not, that is self less in that sense. It is a very humble approach to practice : you try, and either something happens or it does not, but it is not up to you. It’s intended for everybody, anybody can meet it.

You might not deserve Grace, but, if you look at Augustine, at Pascal and the Jansenists, for instance, there’s this point at which the very generous notion of Grace, which is something that cannot be given, that just happens, without any notion of merit, of desert, that was a notion that was historically used to separate between classes of people, with or without Grace. Augustine institutionalized the fact that since Grace is not earned, it does not depend on you, in some sense (you might ensure that you avoid the worst), but being saved is something that, by not being dependent of you, has this implication of being chosen or not, it is about radical unfreedom. And mysticism provides us with this wealth of experience to interpret, right, which can also be weaponized in very powerful manners.

Stéphanie : By contrast, within buddhism, the first thing that was laid out was this notion that traditional religion is bull, and that what they were offering was for everybody, you don’t need to be a brahman, or a man, or so on.

That is what I find fascinating : there are these points of individual experience, and the way they come to be interpreted, to be related with the rest of the culture around you, you can take it wildly different directions. If we posit, for the sake of the argument, that something similar happened to Buddha and to Augustine, then what happens is, the way each reinscribes his experience within a given symbolic order, the way they interpret it, you can see that you can take a similar things and put it to work in such wildly different frameworks. We can talk about mystics in a very flattering way, as subversive and mavericks, but because there is this power that you draw from a kind of experience you claim, it can be used in very powerful and influent ways, and you can end up as, say, a Buddha, or a something quite less generous than that.

Stéphanie : The interesting part is that what is aspired to, you don’t work for it, it is there, originally, you simply have to connect to that. With Guyon, Weil, Therese, this is what they have in common, this extremely simple, humble perspective.

It might be interesting to see what the feminine position has to do with that, in what way womanhood relates to the sort of mysticism that they construct. What you find in Mme Guyon or the Beguines, is people who are not part of convents, of civil society, who were living in small communities, outside of traditional ways of doing things, communities of women who were rejected from formal convents in some cases, and who had to organise themselves, in this sort of liminal space, with their own towns.

Agnès : there might be a psychoanalytic side to this, a psychoanalysis of mysticism, that is worth looking into. It might be hugely reductive, of course, but it might be nice to confront both discourses.

De Certeau says a few interesting lines on that topic. He says that, in the XVIIth Century, which is where is focus is, the body is not a colony of medecine, of mechanics, that the body can be this place where events happen, can be an object that is directly meaningful, directly signifying. And this notion of the body as a signifier reads to me as very proto-psychoanalytic. That is very much something I’d be interested in looking at, this readings that you can have, that psychanalysts might do with symptoms, what symptoms reveal with regards to the relationship to the body that occurs in mysticism. I mean, people have done that work already, probably, it’s just that I’m not informed about it.

Agnès : There’s this obsession with love in these texts, to the point where I’m wondering « what are you doing in a convent again ? » Of course, there’s some kind of sublimation involved here…

There’s this text, at the opening of Spinoza’s Treatise of the Emendation of Intellect, where he’s like, Everybody is striving for an object of love, that would bring contentment, that is not going to disappoint you ; so you have this thing, God, which is Substance, which is infinitely infinite, which does not care about you properly speaking, but it engulfs you and you recognize yourself as part of it, and you can love it unconditionnaly and get unlimited joy from it, and it’s never going to disappoint you. Bernard Pautrat, who was my tutor as an undergrad, wrote this book on Spinoza and love, where he cheekily recounts that, you know, Spinoza was enamored with this very smart girl, and might have asked her to marry him, and she went and married some other guy, a friend of theirs actually, and then he writes this text about finding the proper object of love, with no disappointment garanteed…

In a more serious way, I guess it’s Simone Weil who says something quite interesting, that mysticism is about refusing imagination, so it means refusing idolatry as well, refusing a gushing, exaltated relationship to God, and she says something along the lines of, people to love, you meet them by chance, of blind randomness, and pure love is being fully conscious of that fact, that contingency, but loving them regardless. You perceive the absurdity of it all, the lack of reason, how not necessary any of it is, but you still are guarded against any disappointment. This notion of love as fused with an awareness of pure contingency, but without any devaluation of the reality of love. In the same way, the fact that you’re just a thing living in a body in a random time and place, does not estrange you from God. There’s this refusal of idolatry, of idealizing, of rationalizing what exists, without negating the determinateness of existence, its value, within God that is.

Agnès : Why is it called La fable mystique, by the way ?

It’s very sensitive to its topic, this book, but also very discontructive about it. Mystical speech, mysticism, is read through the lens of language, here, as a certain way of relating of language, a repurposing of language. You can read it and look at that approach that he has as a kind of dissection, but it is also quite acute. He starts by saying, This book is under the guise of its own lack of competence. It is exiled from what it talks about. That is what I meant in the beginning, that it is very easy to talk about mysticism as if you were there, so to speak, as if the language that you are using is taking you further than what you actually know, so that you end up faking, so to speak, these experiences through the lure of language. And as someone who wants to talk about these matters, without having any pretension of inner understanding of these kinds of experiences, you have to be, maybe colder than you’d like, more analytic, because you don’t want to cheat people into giving them the pretense of spiritual experience, you don’t want to appear as if you know what you’re talking about. So de Certeau talks about the sociology of it, the history, and he has a very detailed analysis of how language fits into the picture. So Fable here, in the Mystic’s Fable, has a relationship to tale, to fiction, but also to the power of language, but what is good about it is the honesty, about the limitations of that language.

Agnès : There’s a lot of concern about pride. I’m thinking about Pascal’s phrase, Il s’abaisse je l’élève, il s’élève je l’abaisse ; whenever there is pride, you strike it down.

That’s also something that is quite ambiguous, this humility, this relinquishment of will. At the end of the day, you wonder if it’s an end into itself. When does humility becomes self-humiliation. This language of destroying the self, of abolishing the self, of relinquishing every will, you are nothing, you do not want anything, and so on. You can see where it could shift into something quite perverse, even violent. It’s a very powerful language.

Stephanie :There’s this buddhist phrase, that humility is the quality of the tiger. It’s when you are powerful, but do not feel the need to show off, you can just walk like that, being in control, in your space.

Agnès : But that’s also a way of showing that humility is also an expression of pride, in a way.

Stéphanie : Not necessarily. You are exactly who you are, you are in your environment, and you don’t need to apologize for your presence. There’s no need for a show of humility, to crawl on the ground, it is not necessary at all.

Bergson touches on mysticism in The Two Sources, where he says that philosophical mysticism is going from action to a contemplative state, whereas the full trajectory would be to bring you back from contemplation to action. The quietist moment is something that is only an unfinished version of the mystical path, you have to go back to the world and to action, in the end. Bergson starts with this primacy of the intuition over the intellect, which is a major point of his thought that I find completely unacceptable, and his version of mysticism is very grounded into this foundational aspect of his thinking. You could say that there are more positive accounts of the relationship between imagiation, intellect, and intuition, then ; Spinoza is more trying to put reason and pure intuition in tandem, based on his exclusion of imagination, and the quasi-mysticism of the experience of God and of eternity that you find in him is very tied to that framework and those commitments. There’s the same language, of unity, and being beyond things, that is then, in, say, Bergson and Spinoza, framed in very different ways. In some sense, the trick, the problem is how to get back to earth from that, which intermediate steps you’re going to take.

Danielle : What about Alfred Jarry, who was a pupil of Bergson, and his idea of the imaginary, and pataphysics, and sometimes pseudo-intellectual games, where the imaginary is linked to the fusion of opposites, that it can be a dancing rainbow and not be a dancing rainbow at the same time…

Some people have looked into that, that you can have this very solemn, very respectful version of mysticism, as a point of blissfulness, quiet, pure unity. And on the other hand, you have this notion of the unity of opposites, the relativity of conceptual frames, is something that, for certain people, has to be made fun of, to be shown as ultimately not so serious, if you are to get to the truth of things. You can have all these elements of parody and humour, going back as far as Diogenes, trying to show a certain way out of traditional experiences, by subversion. That can be done that way, it’s a completely valid path I think, that is what Jarry was about, Rabelais also. It’s its own thing, and I didn’t touch on that front, it’s true, I mostly focused on those who talk about these things in terms of illumination and so on, whereas it could be taken into a very different direction.

Danielle : Duchamp also is quoted as saying that, evidently, he is God, and our concept of art comes out of Duchamp, that art could be anything, which is tied to this madness, to the imaginary, to these things that do not respond to any rule. There’s a mysticism in that, which comes from an understanding of art as practice. I wonder how the imaginary and the mystical comes into play in an art context, then. Even though it’s parody it’s mysticism at the same time.

If you look at Duchamp, he was opposed to what we could call modernism, basically, expressionism and cubism, he talked about it dismissively, as art rétinien, art of the retina, that is pure sensation, whereas art is supposed to be something that talks about something beyond itself, and so he tried to de-sensibilize art, to shift it away from sensation, to make it about intellection, in some sense, which entailed a very intellectual relationship to art, also, which has strange consequences and ramifications when we look at art history. But anyway, the point is that you can take another path from mysticism, which is more akin to what I’d call esotericism, in the sense that it’s about not trying to cultivate an experience in yourself or in others, but to encase that unspeakable experience in a network of signs and symbols. And you try to do that in a playful way, so as to show that signs can be used in a way that is not that of direct reference, but rather allusion, evocation. You’re avoiding directness, you’re putting the mystery within signs themselves. It’s a different strategy. You could even look at it in political terms, almost, how you want to act, what strategy you’re going to deploy.


Averroes, Long Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima

Georges Bataille, Inner experience

Michel de Certeau, La fable mystique

Laurent Lavaud, Mystique et Monde

Octavio Paz, Marcel Duchamp. Appearance stripped bare

Plotinus, Enneads

Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls

Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

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