The Subharmonic Murmur of Black Tentacular Voids. Commentary on Nothing
We may, in a general sense, think of mysticism as a vague, impressionistic feeling of wonder or awe that may or may not involve drugs, and that may or may not involve nature hikes and generally blissing out. We can also think of mysticism as actually enabled by an overly optimistic, "gee-whiz" scientific instrumentality, in which the Earth is the divinely-sanctioned domain of the human, even and especially in the eleventh hour of climate change. Neither of these is what we mean by mysticism here. Whether it is of the political left or right, whether it is the affectivist-hippie mysticism or the eschatology-of-oil type of mysticism, in both cases mysticism is ostensibly a human-centric and human-oriented experience. Mysticism in these cases is always a union "for us" as human beings.
Something more is gained, however, by considering mysticism in its historical context. Long considered unworthy of serious scholarship, the study of mysticism and mystical writing was largely inaugurated in the 20th century by Evelyn Underhill's book Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness (1911). Underhill elucidates the logic of mystical thinking, paying particular attention to mysticism as a systematic practice, as well as to the psychology of mystical experience. As she notes, "if we may trust the reports of the mystics…they have succeeded where all others have failed, in establishing immediate communication between the spirit of man…and that 'only Reality,' that immaterial and final Being, which some philosophers call the Absolute, and most theologians call God."137 As Underhili notes, however, how this communication is established varies a great deal, from canonic statements by the Church Fathers, to
anecdotes and autobiographies by spiritual laypeople, to fringe heretical insinuations of pantheism.
In the West, the intermittent flowering of mysticism is often explained in terms of a historical context against which mysticism operates. In the 14th century one finds mysticism flourishing in Germany, most notably in the work of Meister Eckhart. While Eckhart remains one of the more "philosophical:' mystics, his mode of thinking also works against the hyper-rationality of Scholasticism and its predilection for logic, nominalism, and elaborate Scriptural exegesis. In the 16th century one again finds mysticism flourishing, this time in Spain, where works of, and collaboration between, John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila are the most commonly-cited examples. Tending more to non-philosophical discourses than their predecessors – mystical poems, autobiography, meditations – both authors are working in an ambivalent relation to the emerging scientific humanism of their time. At the core of their writings is the problem of human suffering in the world – indeed, the extent to which suffering is the very relation between self and world. As John notes, "the darkness and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo… are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately." John continues, noting that "nor does experience of them equip one to understand them. Those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they will find themselves unable to describe it." 138
Given this, it is no surprise to see many mystics positing some type of effacement or union of self and world as the resolution to the problem of suffering. In effectively bypassing the self-world division one also bypasses all of the corporeal, spiritual, and existential suffering that is part and parcel of that division. This then places one – to the extent there is a "one" any longer – in a position to experience a further effacement or union, that between the earthly and the divine, between the natural and the supernatural. This is the benchmark of nearly every text in the speculative mysticism tradition. But there is often disagreement on exactly how this union of natural and supernatural is to be achieved, let alone described in our all-too human language. For some, the union is described using the motif of light, a motif that has a long tradition that extends back to the mystical texts of the Church Fathers, and ultimately to Neoplatonic sources (e.g. the divine topologies of light and radiation in Plotinus). This "light mysticism" is also an affirmative mysticism; it asserts a positive communion with God, and it dictates the correct steps on the ladder of this ascent.
But light mysticism is compromised in several respects, including a highly anthropomorphized God with which one enters into a disturbing, paternalistic embrace. If the divine – and here let us say "divine" rather than "God" to emphasize the anti-anthropomorphic tendency – is not simply a super-human but in some radical way beyond the human (or even, against the human), then it follows that any human thought of the divine can only be a horizon for thought. For other mystical thinkers, the very inconceivability of this union with the divine meant that any possible knowledge of it, and any possible description of it, could only take place by a negative means (e.g. the divine is not-X or not-Y, X and Y denoting earthly, human-centric attributes). Hence the preferred motif is n o t light – be it the radiation of divine Intelligences or beatific light – bu t instead that of darkness and night. This too has a long tradition, one that extends back to Dionysius the Areopagite, who, sometime in the 6th century, had articulated the via negativa or path of negation as the way to divine union. Those in this tradition often utilize several modes of discourse to talk about the divine: that of negative theology, in which one makes use of language, logic, and philosophical argumentation to demonstrate the aporetic unknowability of the divine, and that of darkness mysticism, in which poetry and allegory are used to suggest the ways in which the divine remains forever beyond the pale of human thought and comprehension. John of the Cross's poem "The Dark Night of the Soul" is, along with the anonymous 14th century text The Cloud of Unknowing, often referred to as a key text in this darkness mysticism tradition.
Darkness mysticism is not only figuratively but historically the dark underside of mystical thought. Even at the apotheosis of divine communion, darkness mysticism retains the language of shadows and nothingness, as if the positive union with the divine is of less importance than the realization of the absolute limits of the human. Darkness mysticism is "mystical" not because it says yes to the therapeutic, anthropocentric embrace of God, but because it says no to the recuperative habits of human beings to always see the world as a world-for-us.
But, whether one opts for light or dark mysticism, the question that modern scholars such as Underhill return to is this, summarized in Henry Annesley's Dark Geomancy: "unless the history of the mystics can touch and light up some part of this normal experience, take its place in the general history of the non-human, contribute something towards our understanding of non-human nature and destiny, its interest for us can never be more than remote, academic, and unreal."139 In short, what does mysticism mean to us, in the "ordinary nonmystical"? Underhill's response – a response that has continued to be echoed down to the present day – is that the history of mysticism "is vital for the deeper understanding of the history of humanity."140
While Underhill's book is an invaluable study of mysticism, I would suggest that we retain her question, while jettisoning her answer. And here we can, perhaps, see the darkness mysticism tradition in a new light, which is that of our current geopolitical imaginary of climates, tectonic plates, tropical storms, and the viscous geological sedimentation of oil fields and primordial life. In a contemporary context, one in which we are constantly reminded of the planetary (and cosmic) frailty of human beings, and reminded in ways that appear to be utterly indifferent to the "history of humanity" - floods, earthquakes, wildfires, hurricanes, water shortages, extreme temperatures, and the like – in such a context, perhaps something called mysticism has an unexpected meaning. Rudolph Otto suggests this in his examination of the ambivalent "horror of the divine" in religious and mystical experience. Such experiences, in which the human confronts, in a paradoxical state, the absolutely unhuman, can only be thought negatively. In the West, Otto argues, there have been two major modes in which this negative thought has been expressed: silence and darkness. To these Otto adds a third, which he finds dominant in Eastern variants of mystical experience, which he terms "emptiness and empty distances," or the void. Here the negation of thought turns into an affirmation, but a paradoxical affirmation of "nothingness" or "emptiness."
As Otto puts it, "'void' is, like darkness and silence, a negation, but a negation that does away with every 'this' and 'here,' in order that the 'wholly other' may become actual."141 Hence our opening inquiry – a new darkness mysticism, a mysticism of the unhuman, which is really another way of thinking about a mysticism of the "without-us," or really, a dark mysticism of the world-in-itself. This sentiment is expressed in the work of the Kyoto School philosopher Keiji Nishitani, who repeatedly returned to the modem "tendency toward the loss of the human."142 Nishitani is part of a generation of Japanese philosophers equally versed in Western philosophy and Mahayana Buddhism. Nishitani himself studied with Heidegger in the late 1930s, and he frequently engages with Western thinkers such as Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Meister Eckhart.
For Nishitani, the insight of mystical thinking is to have revealed the core problem of nihilism in the modern era. Echoing Nietzsche's diagnostic, Nishitani notes how modem nihilism is primarily a privative nihilism, in which some thing is revealed to be nothing, in which some locus of meaning or value is revealed to be illusory and empty. For Nietzsche it was the waning of the credulity of religious belief that constituted this nihilism, but for Nishitani it is the twofold waning of religion and science that contribute to the sense of "the nihility that one becomes aware of at the ground of the self and the world."143 Without a foundation to give meaning and substance to the world, modem nihilism finds itself confronted with nothingness.
Our response, argues Nishitani, should not be to rediscover some new ground for giving meaning to the world, be it in religious or scientific terms, and neither should we be satisfied to wallow in despair at this loss of meaning, this "abyss of nihility." Instead, we should delve deeper into this abyss, this nothingness, which may hold within a way out of the dead end of nihilism. For Nishitani, then, the only way beyond nihilism is through nihilism. And here Nishitani borrows from the Buddhist concept of sunyata, conventionally translated as "nothingness" or "emptiness." In contrast to the relative nothingness of modem nihilism, which is privative, and predicated on the absence of being (that is, an ontology), Nishitani proposes an absolute nothingness, which is purely negative and predicated on a paradoxical foundation of non-being (that is, a meontology).
"Emptiness in the sense of sunyata is emptiness only when it empties itself even of the standpoint that represents it as some 'thing' that is emptiness."144 How does one think of this strange nothingness beyond nothing, this' emptiness beyond the empty? Nishitani frequently turns to planetary, climatological, and cosmic tropes in describing absolute nothingness: "… just as nihility is an abyss for anything that exists, emptiness may be said to be an abyss even for that abyss of nihility. As a valley unfathomably deep may be imagined set within an endless expanse of sky, so it is with nihility and emptiness. But the sky we have in mind here is more than the vault above that spreads out far and wide over the valley below. It is a cosmic sky enveloping the earth and man and the countless regions of stars that move and have their being within it."145
In Nishitani's interpretation of absolute nothingness (sunyata), that through which everything exists and subsists is not itself an existent, nor is it an existent foundation for all existents – it is nothingness, emptiness. From this follows an equally strange and enigmatic identity of all that does exist: “everyone and everything is nameless, unnameable, and unknowable… And this cosmic nihility is the very same nihility that distances us from one another."146 For Nishitani, it is from this commonality – of nothing and nothingness – that one passes from relative to absolute nothingness: "In contrast to the field of nihility on which the desolate and bottomless abyss distances even the most intimate of persons or things from one another, on the field of emptiness that absolute breach points directly to a most intimate encounter with everything that exists."147 Self and world come to be regarded not only as groundless, but, in an enigmatic way, as indistinct as well.
This is, of course, the most difficult thought. It doesn't help anyone. There is no being-on-the-side-of the world, much less nature or the weather. If anything, the apparent prevalence of natural disasters and global pandemics indicates that we are not on the side of the world, but that the world is against us. But even this is too anthropocentric a view, as if the world harbored some misanthropic vendetta against humanity. It would be more accurate – and more horrific, in a sense – to say that the world is indifferent to us as human beings. Indeed, the core problematic in the climate change discourse is the extent to which human beings are at issue at all. On the one hand we as human beings are the problem; on the other hand at the planetary level of the Earth's deep time, nothing could be more insignificant than the human.
This is where mysticism again becomes relevant. But the differences between this contemporary mysticism and historical mysticism are all-important. If mysticism historically speaking aims for a total union of the division between self and world, then mysticism today would have to devolve upon the radical disjunction and indifference of self and world. If historical mysticism still had as its aim the subject's experience, and as its highest principle that of God, then mysticism today – after the death of God – would be about the impossibility of experience, it would be about that which in shadows withdraws from any possible experience, and yet still makes its presence felt, through the periodic upheavals of weather, land, and matter. If historical mysticism is, in the last instance, theological, then mysticism today, a mysticism of the unhuman, would have to be, in the last instance, climatological. It is a kind of mysticism that can only be expressed in the dust of this planet.
This text is excerpted from the fourth chapter of In The Dust of This Planet by Eugene Tacker.
Copyright Zero Books, 2011.
137. Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness (Cleveland: Meridian, 1963), p. 4.
138. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, p. 57.
139. Henry Annesley, Dark Geomancy: Mysticism and Politics in the Age of the Old Ones (Boston: Miskatonic University Press, 2009), p. 4.
1 4 0. Mysticism, p. 444.
1 4 1. The Idea of the Holy, p. 70.
142. Keiji Nishitani, Religion and Nothingness, trans. Jan Van Bragt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), p. 89.
143. Ibid., p. 95.
144. Ibid., p. 96.
145. Ibid., p. 98.
146. Ibid., p. 101.
147. Ibid., p. 102.