Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ways of Reading

Yesterday I went to a seminar where all the usual buzz-words were liberally scattered through the the paper: useless words and nonsense-phrases such as 'mystical' and 'mystical experience'. To her credit, the speaker was very dissatisfied with these words and with the traditional scholarly tools at her disposal, and tried unsuccessfully to get a discussion going. But the die-hards were much in evidence and she didn't get very far.

It would have been a much more interesting paper if she had understood the problems with the word experience and how the two aspects of knowing function and are revealed in the text. As it was, enthusiasm got tangled up with Quakers, and the counter-Reformation got tangled up with recurrent notions of so-called platonism. To her credit, however, she did address the problem of doctrine cut off from praxis.

It seems to me that out of the many ways of reading texts three are of paramount importance: first, to try to understand the author's point of view and intention as far as that is possible—and often it is very difficult to do so. Second, to understand what the text actually says, because it is often true that the author is the last to know what he/she has said. And finally, to understand where the text moves along the continuum—for want of a better word, because the process is holistic—between extreme self-consciousness on the one hand, and the depths of the mind (apophatic consciousness, deep mind) on the other.

And it is also useful, instead of using the nonsense word 'mystical', to try to understand whether it is didactic, devotional, abstract or anagogical or some combination of these or other qualities. In addition, many of these texts should be read as poetry, even if they are set out as prose, because the authors are often trying to convey what has occurred beyond the 'event horizon' at the far end of liminality, and so are using both aspects of knowing as most poetry does (see Hirshfield's Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry).

This isn't rocket science, but old scholarly habits seem to die very hard, and the chains of the academy are forged with a particularly hard steel. Scientism and positivism, as she noted, die very hard. What I am suggesting, of course, are not the only ways to understand these texts, but they can be useful until something better comes along. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

'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.