Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism / Edition 2

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William Blake once wrote that "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Inspired by these poetic terms, Jeffrey J. Kripal reveals how the works of scholars of mysticism are often rooted in their own mystical experiences, "roads of excess," which can both lead to important insights into these scholars' works and point us to our own "palaces of wisdom."

In his new book, Kripal addresses the twentieth-century study of mysticism as a kind of mystical tradition in its own right, with its own unique histories, discourses, sociological dynamics, and rhetorics of secrecy. Fluidly combining autobiography and biography with scholarly exploration, Kripal takes us on a tour of comparative mystical thought by examining the lives and works of five major historians of mysticism—Evelyn Underhill, Louis Massignon, R. C. Zaehner, Agehananda Bharati, and Elliot Wolfson—as well as relating his own mystical experiences. The result, Kripal finds, is seven "palaces of wisdom": the religious power of excess, the necessity of distance in the study of mysticism, the relationship between the mystical and art, the dilemmas of male subjectivity and modern heterosexuality, a call for ethical criticism, the paradox of the insider-outsider problem in the study of religion, and the magical power of texts and their interpretation.
An original and penetrating analysis of modern scholarship and scholars of mysticism, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom is also a persuasive demonstration of the way this scholarly activity is itself a mystical phenomenon.

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of Religion - Peter Homans
“According to Kripal, mysticism is very much a praxis, a set of techniques that lead to a goal, inner depth and self-knowledge. . . . Kripal’s book can bring much-needed clarity and depth, and no little intelligence, to the ‘subjectivity wars’ of postmodernity, which, even now, have only just begun.”
Chicago South Asia Newsletter - David Clairmont
“Original, even constructive, in its topic, approach, candor, and scope, Roads of Excess is nonetheless an excellent historical and biographical study, written with clarity and charm, demonstrating patience with those who have little familiarity with the discipline in which he is working or the scholars he is exploring. . . . This is the kind of methodological challenge that I hope more people will read and seriously engage.”
South Asia Research - Fabrizio M. Ferrari
"The book has the value of insisting on secrecy and eroticism as relevant elements for determining mysticism and esotericism. . . . Kripal has brought forward some fascinating material in this book and it is good to see how the academic debate on mysticism and esotericism in different religions and traditions is still alive."
Journal of Religion
According to Kripal, mysticism is very much a praxis, a set of techniques that lead to a goal, inner depth and self-knowledge. . . . Kripal’s book can bring much-needed clarity and depth, and no little intelligence, to the ‘subjectivity wars’ of postmodernity, which, even now, have only just begun.”

— Peter Homans

Chicago South Asia Newsletter
Original, even constructive, in its topic, approach, candor, and scope, Roads of Excess is nonetheless an excellent historical and biographical study, written with clarity and charm, demonstrating patience with those who have little familiarity with the discipline in which he is working or the scholars he is exploring. . . . This is the kind of methodological challenge that I hope more people will read and seriously engage.”

— David Clairmont

South Asia Research
The book has the value of insisting on secrecy and eroticism as relevant elements for determining mysticism and esotericism. . . . Kripal has brought forward some fascinating material in this book and it is good to see how the academic debate on mysticism and esotericism in different religions and traditions is still alive.

— Fabrizio M. Ferrari

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226453798
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/7/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey J. Kripal is the Vira I. Heinz Associate Professor of Religion at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Kali's Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna, published by the University of Chicago Press, which won the American Academy of Religion's Best First Book in the History of Religions Award.

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Read an Excerpt

Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism

By Jeffrey John Kripal

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2001 Jeffrey John Kripal
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226453790

One - Eyeing the Burning Wings

Analyzing the Mystical Experience of Love in Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism (1911)

When Dionysius the Areopagite divided those angels who stand nearest God into the Seraphs who are aflame with perfect love, and the Cherubs who are filled with perfect knowledge, he only gave expression to the two most intense aspirations of the human soul, and described under an image the two-fold condition of that Beatific Vision which is her goal.... The wise Cherubs... are "all eyes," but the loving Seraphs are "all wings." Whilst the Seraphs, the figure of earnest Love, "move perpetually towards things divine," ardour and energy being their characteristics, the characteristic of the Cherubs is receptiveness, their power of absorbing the rays of the Supernal Light.

Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism
Only mystics can really write about mysticism.

Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism
Istiusmodi canticum sola unctio docet, sola addiscit experientia [Only an anointing can teach a song like this, only personal experience can make it understandable].

Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons on theSong of Songs
Mysticism's etymological and discursive patterns can be traced back as far as the Greek mystery religions, where the adjective mustikon (from the verb muo, "to close" the eyes or lips) was used to signal the hidden or hushed quality of the ritual secrets. From there it entered both Neoplatonic thought--"Shut your eyes and . . . evoke another way of seeing which everyone has but few use," Plotinus wrote--and Christianity, where it was picked up by the early church fathers, still as an adjective, to describe the "hidden" objective and transcendent world that the Scriptures secretly revealed through Christ (here again the mystical and the hermeneutical were fused) and which could be entered ontologically through the mysteries of the church's sacramental life. From this philosophical, hermeneutical and liturgical matrix the term entered Christian intellectual history, winding its way through the centuries, always as a Christian adjective, until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when, after revolutionary shifts in European religion, economics, and politics and the subjectivities that both defined and were defined by these shifts, the term finally became a French noun, la mystique. As Michel de Certeau has taught us, "mysticism" was now understood to be a realm of subjective experience independent of church and tradition and open to rational exploration. In effect, a new tradition of "mystics" was created, with "mysticism" now framed not as an encounter with a personal God or, much less, an orthodox Trinity, but "as an obscure, universal dimension of man, perceived or experienced as a reality hidden beneath a diversity of institutions, religions, and doctrines." Mysticism had become "psychologized."

The modern study of mysticism flows directly out of these historical processes and the psychologization of mysticism that was their result. Thus, the twentieth-century study of mysticism begins with the publication of William James's Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), which defined religious experience as personal experience, "of individual men in their solitude," as James put it, and understood the theological, liturgical, and institutional features of tradition as secondary derivations of the primary stuff of this same personal mystical experience. One fruitful way to understand Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism (1911) is to read it as a transitional or ambivalent text struggling, never quite successfully, to reconcile these traditional and psychological, these premodern and modern framings of "mysticism." Is the term an adjective best used to describe the substantively prior revelations, Scriptures, and liturgies of Catholic Christianity? Or is it a noun that stands in for a universal human potential for a particular type of psycho-religious experience? Underhill's answer in Mysticism is clearly a double, if not duplicitous, yes. She thus can argue on one page that the mystics encounter an objectively real transcendent God and on another employ a whole host of psychological categories to interpret mystical conversion or visionary experience (the latter often rather reductively). It seems, then, that she wanted to psychologize mysticism, but not too much. Or better, she wanted to show that the traditional mystics had out-psychologized the psychologists, that they were "psychologists before their time" and, moreover, were better at it than those annoying modern amateurs, who could only see sex and the subconscious in the mystic's experiences. In effect, Underhill wanted to take mysticism back to its traditional, premodern roots, but enriched now with the intellectual gifts of modernity. That this would be a difficult, and perhaps impossible, task Underhill seemed to sense, and it is of some significance that she spent much of her life struggling to establish and nurture doctrinal, liturgical, and social ties to institutional religion. Here we might place her early (and failed) attempt to convert to Roman Catholicism around 1907, her later return to Anglicanism in 1921, her four-year relationship (1921-1925) with the great German Catholic theologian of the mystical Baron Friedrich von Hugel, and her later public vocation as spiritual director, retreat master, and wartime pacifist (she died in 1941). In modern terms, she had become something of a "public intellectual," always trying to make "mysticism" relevant, practical, psychological, moral, defensible, ecumenical, evolutionary, and--after all of this-- somehow still traditional.

But Mysticism is more than a transitional text, more than a casualty of our rough passage from premodern to modern forms of consciousness. It is also a literary record of its author's mind and heart. From the very beginning, the book's romantic, deeply personal engagement with the materials was obvious to its readers and, like the charismatic sanctity of the mystics who preached and prayed in its pages, strangely contagious; hence the book's phenomenal success in sales, longevity, and cultural influence. Strikingly, the book is still in print and widely available ninety years after its initial appearance. Never the equal of James's Varieties in phenomenological analysis or psychological depth and certainly far surpassed in philological expertise, historical scope, and theoretical sophistication many times since, Underhill's Mysticism nevertheless remains something of a religious phenomenon, the power and influence of which demands an explanation beyond and beside all the obvious criticisms that have been leveled against its methodological and epistemological assumptions. Christopher Armstrong put the situation this way in his biographical study of the writer: "Evelyn Underhill's greatest book is distinguished by the very qualities which make it inappropriate as a straightforward textbook or vade-mecum to anything connected with mysticism. This is why it will probably continue to be read after numerous so-called objective or scientific treatments of its subject have long been replaced and mouldered into oblivion. The spirit of Mysticism may be summed up by saying that it is romantic and engaged rather than dispassionate and objective, empirical rather than theoretical, actual rather than historical." In the terms of the present study, we might reiterate Armstrong's insight by suggesting that the text's rhetorical power and cultural influence reside in the book's ability to communicate something of its author's own experiences, doubts, and struggles. Although its author, trained by her upper-class society to keep the private and public worlds carefully separated, never openly discusses her own religious experiences in its pages, the text is imbued, from beginning to end, with her spirit and obvious passion for the topic. Plato and Plotinus, Meister Eckhart, Johannes Tauler, and Jan van Ruysbroeck, Richard Rolle and Dame Julian of Norwich, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila are given a voice again and again within the text, but always with the permission of Underhill's selective and highly interpretive pen--in the end, this is her soul on the page. Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism, then, was, quite literally, her mysticism--a discursive art or textual practice where her own religious experiences and deepest existential concerns could come to know and express themselves, if always implicitly, always "in secret," through the selection, ordering, and interpretation of what she often called simply "the mystics." Little wonder, then, that the book's publication initiated a series of correspondences, with awed readers treating Underhill as their veritable spiritual director. She often accepted the role early in her writing career and eventually accepted the mantles of retreat director and spiritual guide as primary personas later in life. Mysticism, it seems, marked Underhill as a director of souls.

Underhill has been blessed with at least three fine biographers (Margaret Cropper, Christopher Armstrong, and Dana Greene) and a very large chorus of interpreters, dissertation writers, editors, and critics. I will not repeat or even attempt to reproduce their many accomplishments here. Rather, my goal is to "read again" Underhill's Mysticism as a literary expression of her private religious life, examining in particular her developmental, psychological, comparative, and hermeneutical understandings of "mystical experience," especially as these relate to my own interests in gender studies and what I have called a comparative erotics, that is, the study of the different ways that mystical traditions employ, deny, construct, deconstruct, realize, and transform human sexualities. Consequently, after a brief discussion of Underhill's early life (part 1), I will turn to a set of three internal themes or rhetorical features of the text that structure its form, provide its movement, and establish a muted but nevertheless very real experiential subtext (part 2): Underhill's organizing metaphors of quest, road, and map and the role her mystagogic "mystical Christianity" played in constructing both this "Mystic Way" and its destination; her liberal use of and struggle with the early psychology of religion; and the analogous "illuminations" of the poet, artist, and mystical writer. I also want to address two external themes that I believe are of particular importance for any contemporary reading of Underhill's Mysticism (part 3): the problematic nature of her understanding of "mystical experience" as a "fact" more or less independent of the conditionings of doctrine, language, and history ("transcendent" or "supernatural," in her terms); and the central, if unacknowledged, roles that gender and sexual orientation play in the mystical experience of love as it is expressed and discussed within Underhill's text. Finally, I will conclude with a few words on Underhill's life after Mysticism and the increasingly incarnational signposts that largely determined its direction.

Many of these issues--for example, the artificial nature of all maps and stage theories or the analogously "illuminated" nature of mysticism and creative writing--Underhill was quite aware of and dealt with explicitly. Others--the epistemological complexities of "experience" or the informing influences of gender and sexual orientation on mystical language-- did not enter the study of mysticism in their present forms until the last quarter of the twentieth century and so naturally did not engage Underhill in any explicit or open way (although both were present in different forms in early French, American, and German psychology of religion). Certainly it would be grossly unfair to expect a writer of 1911 to presciently address the concerns of one of 2001. Still, I have my questions, and these I will ask of her text. Such questioning, I would argue, is a perfectly appropriate response to Underhill as author, for this, after all, is precisely what she herself does in Mysticism: she dialogues with dead mystical authors, quotes them, romanticizes and idealizes them, criticizes them, occasionally makes fun of them (she was particularly hard on Madame Guyon, whom she once described as "basking like a pious tabby cat in the beams of the Uncreated Light," an image which she no doubt knew well from her own quite developed love of cats, those "purry," lazy, and often seemingly sadistic creatures of the domestic space and garden), and asks them questions (some of which they could not possibly have answered), all finally to tease from their fantastically disparate voices her own, eminently modern answers. I cannot approach Evelyn Underhill as she approached Ruysbroeck or Jakob Bohme, but I can, I hope, say something about the modern study of mysticism by showing how Ruysbroeck and Bohme appear in Underhill's text when it is "read again" from our own time and our own perspectives.

1. At Thirty-Six

Underhill published Mysticism when she was just thirty-six years old, an impressive accomplishment for any age, but one especially unusual for a reasonably young woman of Edwardian England with no advanced training in the field. How did she do it? And, more important, why?

Evelyn Underhill was born 6 December 1875 to Lucy Iremonger and Arthur Underhill, a Wolverhampton lawyer. Evelyn grew up a happy, bright, and gifted girl in a well-to-do English suburban family. Neither parent was particularly religious. She absorbed, from her agnostic father in particular, a certain liberalism in things religious. Hence, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday she could write in her little black notebook that "it is better to love and help the poor people round me than go on saying that I love an abstract Spirit whom I have never seen" and confess that "I do not believe the Bible is inspired, but I think nevertheless that it is one of the best and wisest books the world has ever seen." "When I grow up," the same self-description went on, "I should like to be an author because you can influence people more widely by books than pictures."

Evelyn seems to have known no dramatic revelations or out-of-body experiences in her youth, as many traditional mystics and modern writers on mysticism have, but she did know the reality of other types of consciousness. One in particular she described to a correspondent many years later (1911) as a result of what she called her "fainting spells": "in those I used to plunge into some wonderful peaceful but quite 'undifferentiated' plane of consciousness, in which everything was quite simple and comprehended." "I always resented," she goes on, "being restored to what is ordinarily called 'consciousness' intensely." She compared such events to the "'still desert' of the mystics" but expressed doubt "whether this is a very high way of apprehending reality" (L, 122-123). More significantly for our present purposes, she used such altered states to intuitively understand both poetry and literature through a kind of hermeneutical union. With regard to Blood's line "my grey gull lifts her wing against the nightfall" and Stewart's "Myths of Plato," she could thus write: "I recognized at once that they had had exactly the same experience" (L, 122). Moreover, and more fascinating still, Underhill seemed to be able to capture something of this hermeneutical union in Mysticism, whose lines could then catalyze similar experiences, or at least powerful memories of such events, in some of its more sensitive readers. Hence Underhill's description of a twenty-one-year-old woman whose reading of Mysticism made her "restless and miserable" because she knew that she had once known the reality of which it spoke under an anesthetic only to have forgotten it later, much to her dismay (L, 123). The young Underhill, then, had had mild mystical experiences before she published Mysticism (1911) but was still questioning their epistemological value, even as her book on the same subject appeared. This questioning, as we will see, did not disappear as she matured.

Philosophically, Underhill went through at least three stages before writing Mysticism: atheism, philosophical theism, and Christianity. As she put in a letter, "[F]or eight or nine years I really believed myself to be an atheist. Philosophy brought me round to an intelligent and irresponsible sort of theism which I enjoyed thoroughly but which did not last long. Gradually the net closed in on me and I was driven nearer and nearer to Christianity--half of me wishing it were true and half resisting violently all the time" (L, 125). Unmentioned here but of some importance was a fourth influence: occultism (Cropper, for example, gives the subject only three passing, dismissive sentences). Underhill joined, probably around 1903, the Hermetic Society of the Golden Dawn, led by the Catholic occultist Arthur Waite, whose many books, Armstrong reminds us, appear liberally throughout Mysticism. Underhill, appropriately known as Soror Quaerens Lucem, "the Sister Seeking the Light," within the community, seems to have taken quite a bit away from her experiences with Waite's brotherhood. This, Armstrong concludes "is undoubtedly the moment when she first encountered and explored in a fellowship of like-minded seekers, the possibility of communication with the ultimate mystery." No doubt as a result of such experiences Evelyn published in 1907 "A Defence of Magic" in the Fortnightly Review and dedicated an entire chapter, "Magic and Mysticism," to the subject in her later classic. Underhill's early work, then, was influenced by those usually unclaimed cousins of Western religious thought--the occult, the gnostic, and the magical.

Also of great psychobiographical significance was Evelyn's early attraction to and struggle with Roman Catholicism, the tradition she considered to be her "ultimate home." Evelyn had been attracted for years to the church's liturgy, its architecture, and its art (particularly on two trips to Italy in 1898 and 1899), but her real conversion came suddenly in what she herself describes, rather elliptically, as a vision. It occurred shortly after a brief stay at a French Franciscan Convent of Perpetual Adoration, Saint Mary of the Angels, in Southampton. On a secret retreat (her family would have certainly objected to such "Romish" pursuits), Underhill had to finally flee (her verb) after four days, "otherwise I should have submitted there and then."

After apologizing to her correspondent for her "egoistical confidences"--"the honestest way is to be a bit autobiographical and explain, and then you can choose if you care to go on with me"--Underhill describes in a letter dated 14 May 1911 what happened next: "The day after I came away, a good deal shaken but unconvinced, I was 'converted' quite suddenly once and for all by an overpowering vision which had no specific Christian elements, but yet convinced me that the Catholic Religion was true. It was so tightly bound up with (Roman) Catholicism, that I had no doubt, and have had none since (this happened between 4 and 5 years ago only), that that Church was my ultimate home" (L, 125-126). Underhill would later write to her spiritual director, Baron von Hugel, of a relatively constant, "on and off" sixteen-year religious feeling that she doubted her mind could construct on its own and which she traced back to this same "conversion experience of a quite definite sort, which put a final end to a (very uncomfortable) period of agnosticism." The vision, it seems, had permanently altered something in her.


Excerpted from Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism & Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism by Jeffrey John Kripal Copyright © 2001 by Jeffrey John Kripal. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface: Sex, Secrecy, and the Sacred
Introduction: Roads of Excess
1. Eyeing the Burning Wings: Analyzing the Mystical Experience of Love in Evelyn Underhill's Mysticism (1911)
Secret Talk: The Vajr~Vva Vision
2. The Passion of Louis Massignon: Sublimating the Homoerotic Gaze in The Passion of al-Hall~j (1922)
Secret Talk: Heroic Heretical Heterosexuality
3. The Doors of Deception: R. C. Zaehner's Ethical and Erotic Challenges to Monistic Experience in Mysticism Sacred and Profane (1957) and Discordant Concord (1970)
Secret Talk: Writing Out (of) That Night
4. Writing Out of the Light at the Center: Reading Agehananda Bharati's Tantric Trilogy (1960, 1965, 1976)
Secret Talk: The Descent
5. The Mystical Mirror of Hermeneutics: Gazing into Elliot Wolfson's Speculum (1994)
Secret Talk: Svapna-Siddha
Conclusion: Palaces of Wisdom

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