XII Manchester Talk May 31, 2012
Gerson, for example, understood annihilation as the suspension of self-consciousness, or excessus mentis as it is referred to in many medieval texts. If there is excessus there can be no mentis, no experience, no interpretation or classification; thus the logical absurdity of the visionary's claim. The suspension of self-consciousness can be known only by its effects, in retrospect, for example, by the realisation that time has passed unawares, or by the unexpected return of the lost word to the tip of the tongue. Experience can refer only to the interpretation of these effects; or, at the most, an oblique perception of the event horizon where self-consciousness disappeared. In terms of the diagram, what a contemplative might name the activity of the Spirit, represented on the right side (deep mind), is not and cannot be experience because it is hidden in the part of the mind that is not directly available to self-consciousness, but that can only be influenced by self-consciousness—hence the importance of intention. The Spirit's activities in the deep mind rather irrupt into the liminal as effects, sometimes life-changing effects, where they are then interpreted by the self-conscious, conceptual mind, as experience.
The misunderstanding by modern scholars of Gerson's famous definition of mystical theology is an example of how texts are adversely affected when a Cartesian methodology is applied to a text that is developed on the assumption of two epistemologies, when there is no theoretical or practical knowledge of the dynamics of the work of silence. For example, one scholar translates it in this way: 'Mystical theology is an experiential [in the modern sense] knowledge of God that comes through the embrace of unitive love'. What here has been translated as experiential should in fact be experimental, which is in any event closer to the Latin (theologia mystica est cognitio experimentalis habita de deo per amoris unitivi complexum (emphasis mine)).
Modern interpreters have a tendency to seize upon and isolate the first half of the definition—when it is in fact the second and consequent phase of the process Gerson is describing. His definition has three parts. First there is the engagement with divine love, which is apophatic; then there is experimental knowledge, which is interpretation in retrospect of the traces, the effects, which the apophatic engagement leaves. And finally, entailed in Gerson's definition—as the Cloud-author and others note—is the relinquishing all claims to experience.