Convergence / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 3

Mystic Speech in the Time of Catastrophe

Felandus Thames, Hottentot Marilyn in Blacklight

Image Credit: Felandus Thames, Hottentot Marilyn in Blacklight. (2017), 47.75″ x 48″ x 4″, Acrylic, enamel and glitter on canvas over panel. Courtesy of the artist.

Which modes of speaking, writing, and knowing resound more intimately and powerfully in times of catastrophe? From millenarian prophecy to elegy, one might imagine constructing something of a general typology of modes of speech that resonate around sites of the end. In what follows, I want to briefly dwell with one possible if perhaps less obvious entry into such an imaginary typology: mystical modes of speaking and writing, less as the articulation of divine presence within a given tradition and more as that which repeatedly arises in intimate proximity with catastrophe, when the confident promises of progress break down.

Perhaps no one has done more to theorize the specificity of mysticism and mystic speech than Michel de Certeau. Though more widely known across the humanities for his writings on the practices of everyday life and theorizations of the urban, Certeau wrote extensively across his entire career on the history of mysticism, a trajectory that culminated in the two volumes of The Mystic Fable.1 Heavily inflected by psychoanalysis, Certeau’s account of what he refers to as la mystique is particularly relevant to thinking the question of apocalypse and catastrophe because for him it is a mode of speech that, emerging out of an experience of the end of the world, remains fundamentally structured by loss in the aftermath of “the disintegration of the sacred world” (MS, 86).

The early modern figures across Europe who came to be known as mystics (proper names that include Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Jacob Boehme, Angelus Silesius, among many others) embodied certain fundamental dislocations – whether marginalized by economic progress, ravaged by war, fallen from aristocracy, or tainted by what was considered ethnic impurity. Proximate to forms of disinheritance “with neither inherited goods nor assurances for the future, [they were] reduced to a present that was henceforth wedded to death” (I: 24). Instead of orienting towards a future with dreams of reproduction and accumulation, these mystics inhabited the present as exiles, writing as witnesses to the reality of an evacuated present. They elaborated the necessity of a fundamentally exilic style and mode of experience, and they did so by enacting a poiesis of catastrophe.

Rather than offering a means of escape or consolation, mystic speech and writing might be said to bear witness to the night of history. It becomes an articulation of the passions “of and in history … a passion for what is” (I: 14-15). Mystic speech inhabits dislocation and inaugurates a wandering in an apocalyptic aftermath. Enacting a scattering, it is writing amidst ruins that searches “for a common language, after language has been shattered” (MS, 88). Its texts and social imaginaries retain a proximity to marginalized social figures: the madman, the child, the illiterate – near the wild voices of the so-called little people (and thereby awakening “a wild everydayness” around itself) – against the official discourse of the authorities (I, 13; II, 6). As a result, the figure of the mystic always remains at odds with discourses of mastery or the university – and the firm stability and assurances that they entail.

From this perspective, mysticism is significant for its force of remaining proximate to dispossession and the dispossessed, for the way it offers a language that strays into errancy and abdicates the proper. It offers a writing that puts the subject at stake and explores the varied logics and trajectories of loss and desubjectivation. We see this element as far back as at least as Marguerite Porete (who was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310 for the insistent dissemination of her heretical text The Mirror of Simple Souls) and Meister Eckhart’s exploration of self-annihilation across his vernacular sermons in the early fourteenth century. Venturing a proximity to the nameless and the common, it dwells in the breakdown. And the apophatic languages of unsaying, so fundamental to mystic writing, always carry a force that undoes determination – and thereby remains ever proximate to the effects of catastrophe and apocalypse.

Part of the story that Certeau tells in The Mystic Fable is the way that early modern mystic speech and writing were contending with the very ruins that also gave rise to the articulation of the competing – and historically much more successful project – of the modern nation-state and its political rationality. And it is the very success and consolidation of the modern nation-state and the productive economy of capitalism that will lead to the silencing of this wandering speech of loss. Modernity will become ever more enclosed and contained, mapped and ordered – an organized domain of the proper on all levels. Over time, mysticism will be turned into a depoliticized pathology, a private and individualized experience. A marginal and aberrant phenomenon, it will be diagnosed by psychopathology and othered by the self-congratulatory elaborations of enlightened reason. Its speech will be silenced.

Yet, if the catastrophe of history that we call modernity has never stopped happening, but has only multiplied in a variety of directions, it may be worth dwelling with and in such forms of speech that give voice to the subject as it confronts its own loss. We find explorations of the undoing of the subject at the site of catastrophe – explorations that often return to and rework the writing of the mystical tradition – well into the twentieth century. As one example one might recall the texts written at the time of the second world war that comprise Georges Bataille’s Atheological Summa. Bataille’s writings abdicate the supports of hope and the dreams of salvation (be they secular or religious) in order to viscerally inhabit the ongoing historical catastrophe as what directly relates to the suffering mortality of the sensible body. And Bataille was hardly alone in turning to the mystical tradition to explore the passions of the speaking body: This was a not insignificant tendency within twentieth-century French theory, as Amy Hollywood has intricately traced in her Sensible Ecstasy.2 And there have been other, more recent attempts – I have in mind Stefania Pandolfo’s Knot of the Soul – to articulate the exigencies of listening to voices abiding around the sites of catastrophe.3 In its rich tapestry that weaves across madness, psychoanalysis, and Islam and takes Morocco as its ethnographic site, Knot of the Soul offers insights into the way suffering might be transformed into speech, and how in general speech might take place, might find a place to speak, in the midst of the violence and catastrophe of modernity. What we learn – and something we can continue to learn – is the persistent relevance of psychoanalytic, mystical, and theological archives for thinking the fate of voice, body, and life amidst the ongoing losses that characterize modernity.

Works Cited
1 The first volume of The Mystic Fable: The Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries was published in French in 1982 and in English by University of Chicago Press a decade later. Certeau died in 1986 before completing the second volume, which was released after lengthy editorial work in 2013 – and in English in 2015 by University of Chicago Press. I will be citing from these volumes and from his essay “Mystic Speech” published in Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (Translated by Brian Massumi, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986).
2 Amy Hollywood, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).
3 Stefania Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

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