The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Mysticism: The belief that special knowledge or awareness, particularly of ultimate reality or the divine, can be acquired only through intuitive, extrasensory means. In other words, such knowledge or awareness cannot be attained analytically or through the five senses, for it involves insight into or communion with something beyond thought or sensory perception. People have sought to achieve the mystical state (or the ecstasy that often accompanies it) in a variety of ways, ranging from ascetic deprivation (e.g., of food or sleep) to continuous whirling (e.g., Sufi dancing) and from meditation to mind-altering drugs. However induced or attained, the mystical experience is generally considered to be so intensely personal that it cannot be readily described.

Because the experience sought by mystics often involves knowledge of the divine, mysticism frequently has an explicitly spiritual or religious character. Almost every religious tradition, including Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism, has a mystical branch or branches. Mysticism comes in many forms, however, not all of which are religious. Mystics may seek knowledge of “reality,” for instance, a quest that may or may not involve a deity. Transcendentalism is a form of mysticism often said to draw on spiritual traditions even though its primary emphasis is literary, not religious, and on Nature rather than God per se.

Mysticism has two components that may seem incongruous or even conflicting to nonmystics but that mystics view as complementary. The first component is speculative, asserting the existence of a divine essence or ultimate reality that lies beyond knowledge. The second component is pragmatic, asserting that this essence can and should be known. A nonmystic might ask how people can know that which is beyond knowledge; a mystic might respond paradoxically by stating that what is beyond us and our traditional ways of knowing is also immanent (dwelling within us) and thus can be found through self-discovery. Notably, mystics have tended to position themselves outside the mainstream of philosophical and theological thought, viewing philosophical systems and religious rituals or dogmas as the petrified remains of some originally vital search for truth or a sense of divinity.

Mysticism is an ancient phenomenon in the Middle East, India, and the Far East and a more recent development in the West. A form of Christian mysticism known as Neoplatonism was developed in Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century A.D. by the Hellenistic philosopher Plotinus. He developed the fourth-century B.C. Greek philosopher Plato’s conception that things must be understood in relation to ideas — and that all ideas emanate from The One, The Good, and the Idea of Good — into a quasi-Christian, mystical philosophy / religion allowing for ecstatic coalescence with a transcendent deity, The One, through a process of self-repudiation that begins with the rejection not only of the body but also of intellectual thought. Greek Neoplatonism was further developed by an anonymous philosopher known as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and the Byzantine theologian Maximus the Confessor in the fifth and seventh centuries, respectively.

Other medieval versions of Christian mysticism were espoused in what is now France during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries by Bernard of Clairvaux, Hugh of St. Victor, and Bonaventura, who described union with God in terms of mystic intuition. During the fourteenth century, Christian mysticism was developed by Meister Eckhart in Germany and by Jan van Tusbrock in the Netherlands. Some Protestant theologians have treated the mystics of Germany and Holland as precursors of the Reformation, and, indeed, many of the Christian mystics who lived during the Renaissance did define themselves in opposition to the growing rigidity and ritualism of what we now refer to as the Catholic Church. Christian mystics, however, were not as interested in Church reform as they were in identifying a nondogmatic, meditative path to a spiritual union with God.

The tendency of mystics, Western and Eastern, to posit the simultaneous existence of transcendent power(s) and an indwelling capacity to commune with such power(s) has characterized the thinking of any number of poets. Some have been consciously aware of mystical traditions; others have independently established a meditative mode aimed at communion with the ineffable through the indirection of figurative language. Mysticism pervades the work of William Blake; it also plays a role in works by authors such as Richard Crashaw; William Wordsworth; Samuel Taylor Coleridge; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the American transcendentalists, especially Ralph Waldo Emerson; Herman Melville; Walt Whitman; T. S. Eliot; and D. H. Lawrence. Although the New Critics and other formalists who dominated mid-twentieth-century literary criticism viewed mysticism and mystical writings as unclear and imprecise, subsequent critics have taken a more favorable view of mystical texts, finding unusual experimentation with form; symbolic or other figurative language that responds to psychoanalytic or poststructuralist theory or analysis; and mythic or archetypal images, figures, and patterns that pervade the religious and secular texts of diverse cultures.

FURTHER EXAMPLES: Christina Rossetti’s poetry, as exemplified by her collection Goblin Market and Other Tales (1862), is infused with mysticism. Emerson’s poems “Each and All” (1839), “Hamatreya” (1846), and “Brahma” (1857) show the influence of Eastern mysticism, as does Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which ends with the line “Shantih shantih shantih.” In a note, Eliot explained that “our equivalent” to the word Shantih is the phrase “The Peace which passeth understanding” and that, “repeated as here,” the word serves as “a formal ending to an Upanishad” (a work of Hindu theology expounding mystical knowledge). In “The Dry Salvages” (1941), a poem written after he embraced Christianity, Eliot “wonder[s] if that is what the Krishna meant” before postulating that “the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.” But the poem, one of the Four Quartets (1943), comes closest to the spirit of mysticism in lines treating “the intersection of the timeless / With time”:

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.

Twentieth-century fiction in which the influence of mysticism is pervasive includes Hermann Hesse’s novel Siddhartha (1951) and Lawrence Durrell’s series of novels The Alexandria Quartet (1957—60).