'Mysticism' vs Schizophrenia
While I was in Devon I spoke to several people involved in writing and art and everyone said the same thing: the very low barometric pressure the UK has been experiencing has affected their ability to create. I don't offer this as an excuse for not posting more frequently at this time, but it's somewhat comforting to know that I'm not alone in my struggles.
I'm attending a series of lectures sponsored by TORCH, the Oxford University network that supports interdisciplinary seminars in the humanities. It's an opportunity for interested scholars to get together and compare notes. One of the seminars is on affections and ethics, and the other is on so-called mysticism—and, as you might imagine, the papers so far in this latter seminar have been dire. Fortunately two of my colleagues have been in the audience to back up my observations during the discussion periods.
Mercifully I missed the first one on Richard Rolle, which, my colleagues tell me, really scraped the bottom of the barrel. Last week's wasn't much better: I went directly from the train to the seminar and so missed part of the first paper, but the second paper was shocking in its content. Far from concerning a 'mystical' text it discussed the solipsistic diary of a schizophrenic who started cutting herself at an early age (Zurich ZB, MS. Rh 159). This evolved (or devolved) into conversations with 'god' in which the projected pseudo-divinity told her to abuse her body. It reminded me of a book I read decades ago by a psychiatrist who was trying to communicate to the general public what it was like to live inside the head of a schizophrenic with a similar pathology to the author of the Zurich ms. The malign voice within always greeted the protagonist with the phrase 'Suffer, Victim.' The Zurich ms also reminded me of a 19th century Dominican text in which every twitch of a sister in obvious catatonia was recorded by her grotesquely fascinated sisters as evidence of 'holiness'.
It is the elevation of such texts that give God and the pursuit of holiness a bad name. There was nothing in the Zurich ms of redemption, of mercy, of self-forgetfulness, of peace or joy. It was about suffering for its own sake, the glorification of self-abuse, and submission to a sado-masochistic projection. The erasure marks were of particular interest to the presenter, but it was a text so violently in opposition to transfiguration that one questions why one would want to spend any time with it.
Both the presenters used the word 'transcend' to leave the ordinary behind, which readers of this blog will understand as a false apophaticism, and both presenters made all the usual mistakes in regard to the use of 'experience' and demonstrated a gross lack of understanding as to how to study these texts. They were interested only in the point of view of the authors, and while this point of view is important, there also needs to be discernment about the position of the text in regard to other texts which are both similar and dis-similar, which are closer or farther away from beholding (although it is hard to see how any text could be farther away than the Zurich text).
In other words, the reader should also act, to a certain extent, as someone who takes on the role of discerner. It is essential to keep texts such as the Zurich manuscript at arm's length from one's own psyche. To put this another way, it is just as important to retain one's critical distance with some texts as it is to allow oneself to be 'read' by other texts (see 'The Apophatic Image'.
This seminar shows how much of an uphill struggle it is going to be to change the way we study these texts, to lay out a reasonable set of ground rules, and to teach people to read texts such as Bernard's sermons on the Song of Songs as poetry rather than prose even if they are set out as prose; to read literarily as opposed to literally; and to approach them using the model of the two aspects of knowing seeking unity and integration.
I'm going to a theological conference in early April at Durham on silence and language and will present this methodology under the guise of my findings on Pseudo-Denys (see posts above). I will be very disappointed if it doesn't fire up some discussion! I also hope to see Andrew Louth to discuss PsD further.