May 28, 2012

Michel de Certeau's Mystic Fable

Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life is a classic work of cultural theory. The best arguments in my thesis certainly wouldn't be what they are without it. Chapters like "Walking in the City" and "Spatial Stories," are regularly anthologized, but de Certeau's broader discussions of theology, psychology, semiotics and history are routinely ignored, in part because they're so difficult to pin down. The Mystic Fable is De Certeau's unfinished study of sixteenth and seventeenth century mysticism. In it, he works to distance his own project from conventional understandings of early modern spirituality that reduce mysticism to subjective (inner) experience. It's a dense volume, full of enigmatic passages and provocative statements. (Among its highlights, The Mystic Fable includes a brilliant reading of Hieronymus Bosch's triptych, The Garden of Earthly Delights, and offers some curious glosses on Teresa of Avila and Jean-Joseph Surin.)

De Certeau conceives of sixteenth and seventeenth century mysticism not as an inner retreat (which he considers to be part of the ideological project of modernity) but as a socio-political practice: the lives of such mystics spoke of an "otherness" which removed them from the established narrative Western enlightenment; it also made their practices profoundly unstable by comparison."The gesture of 'going on retreat,' or 'withdrawing'" he writes, "is the universal indication of the tendency that countered the necessary 'docility or 'compliance' of State-connected religious institutions with the segregation of a place."

From the Introduction: 
Of course, there is an obvious continuity from religion (or mystics) to historiography, since both have taken in hand the relationship that a society maintains with its dead and the repairs that meaningful discourse, torn by the violence of conflicts and chance, constantly requires. But the historian "calms" the dead and struggles against violence by producing a reason for things (an "explanation") that overcomes their disorder and assures permanence; the mystic does it by founding existence on his very relationship with what escapes him. The former is interested in difference as an instrument to make distinctions in his material; the latter, as a split inaugurating the question of the subject. (11)

The Other that organizes the text is not an outside of the text. It is not the (imaginary) object that one might distinguish from the movement by which is sketched. To locate it apart, to isolate it from the text that exhaust themselves trying to express it, would be tantamount to exorcising it by providing it with its own place and name, to identifying it with a remnant not assimilated by constituted rationalities, or to transforming the question that appears in the guise of a limit into a particular religious representation (in turn excluded from the scientific fields and fetishized as a substitute for what is lacking). (15)

To look at processes in this way, to "interpret," in the musical sense of the term, this mystical writing as one would a different speech act, is to consider it a past from which we are cut off and not presume ourselves to be in the same place it was; it is the attempt to execute its movement for ourselves, to retrace the steps of a labor but from afar, without taking as an object of knowledge that thing which, in passing, changed the written word into a hieroglyphic. To do this is to remain within a scriptural experience and to retain that sense of modesty that respects differences. These trips taken in the textual suburbs of mystics already point out pathways to get lost (even if only to lose a kind of knowledge). Perhaps we will be led, by its confused murmurings, toward the city become sea. (17)

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