Saying the Unsayable

Sometimes you rediscover things you have written and wonder! This is an admirably dense review of an exceptionally challenging but rewarding book. Michael Sell's 'The Mystical Languages of Unsaying'. I am unsure as to whether I would have the philosophical stamina to read it now but I am glad I did and its arguments have permeated my thinking (though I would be friendlier to William James now I think)!
"The notion of 'mystical experience' as a discrete kind of experience to be described and defined over and against other kinds of experience has come under considerable scrutiny in the past twenty years. It is an approach most notably articulated by William James. An approach that can be located historically as a response to the steady erosion of confidence in society to provide patterns through which people acquired stable identities. If institutions fail to provide, as Martin Buber observed, a locus for confidence to the question who am I, we retreat to the inner landscape of our feelings and the more 'interesting', 'lively' or 'morbid' they are the more they may assure us of our existence and its value. Religion for James was both private and secured in the possibility of exceptional experience.
This starting point, however, gives us little access to understanding what mystical writers themselves were doing particularly those whose historical context was radically different to our own. As Sells notes, 'mystical experience' is a modern category. None of the writers examined here would have recognised it; and, indeed, if they had, they would have subjected it to sustained criticism. Their objective is not to describe a particular kind of experience but to create an understanding of the context in which anything at all takes place; and, how we are situated within that totality. "Mysticism is often associated with the extraordinary, there is indeed a sense of the extraordinary, but the extraordinary, the transcendent, the unimaginable, reveals itself as the common. For Eckhart, any act of justice, however humble it might appear, is nothing other than the one birth of the son of God that always has occurred and always is occurring."

Sells seeks to explore how his selected writers use language to body forth that reality and its contours. Each language demonstrates a commonality of strategy to achieve its intent. This is to use patterns of 'apophasis' that literally means 'speaking away'. Traditionally, 'apophatic theology has been described as a way of 'negation' and in this has been set opposite 'kataphatic' theology as a way of 'affirmation'. Sells cogently argues for a way of seeing 'apophasis' not as a direct negation of prior affirmative statement but as a way of 'unsaying' them. 'Kataphatic' theology is the necessary context in which 'apophasis' can take place.

Unsaying is a response to a problem. If I posit the existence of an unlimited, ultimate principle, then how can I refer to it? Names by their very nature delimit. To name something I create a boundary between it and what it is not. Names are finite. Our consciousness is conditioned by the use of names to see delimited entities or beings. Thus, does the ultimate become a 'some-thing' amongst other things.

How can I free myself from this tendency inherent in the nature of language? I can use language against itself. If no single proposition can be made of the unlimited, I must use two, the second statement frees the first from fixity. For example, to say it is beyond marks it off from within. To say it is thus marks it off from the not-thus. Yet, what Sells calls, a 'meaning event' can be achieved in the tension between two statements such as 'It is utterly beyond the world and utterly immanent, completely other yet one.' Apophasis is a language of double statements yet each of the writers explored recognises that we tend only to fix upon the single statement to the neglect of its twin so each double statement must be placed within further statements in order to achieve an infinite regress, a referential openness rather than defining the referent. This referential openness in the text evokes the openness and vulnerability to the ultimate necessary to practice the 'perpetual transformation', in Ibn Arabi's words, that the divine life requires.

The particular strategies of 'apophasis' described are:
* the aporia of transcendence
* a language of ephemeral, double propositions
* the dialectic of transcendence and immanence
* disontology and nonsubstantialist deity
* metaphor of emanation, procession and return
* semantic transformations
* meaning event

Sells examines these in demanding yet lucid detail in the works of Plotinus, John Scotus Erigena, Ibn Arabi, Marguerite Porete and Meister Eckhart. His primary focus is on how they work within their own literary form and their broader theological and cultural context whilst drawing illuminating, if tentative, comparisons.

These close textual studies enable you to understand that texts of this kind are performative. They are designed to 'trigger' in the reader a comprehension of the way of being that the text itself mirrors in its performance. Comprehension is participation in the truth that the text reveals according to both Eckhart and Porete. The description 'reader', however, is misleading for most of the texts analysed either actually were performed (as sermon, poem or drama) or are structured as performance (as lecture or dialogue). These texts are themselves practices that seek to 'bewilder' the mind into truth (Ibn Arabi).

Sells closes thus: "To arrive at the kind of unknowing spoken of by the five mystics in this volume is not an easy task. On the literary level, unsaying demands a full utilization of the literary, theological, and philosophical resources of the tradition. Its achievement is unstable and fleeting. It demands a rigorous and sustained effort both to use and free oneself from normal habits of thought and expression. It demands a willingness to let go, at a particular moment, of the grasping for guarantees and for knowledge as possession. It demands a moment of vulnerability. Yet for those who value it, this moment of unsaying and unknowing is what it is to be human."

His volume is itself no easy task yet continually repays close reading because it invites us to reconsider mystical language as a powerful tool for liberating us from the continuous tendency to reify truth built into the very structure of our ordinary language. It is a fixity that, as Ibn Arabi taught, allows us to assume positions around our beliefs that leads to intolerance and conflict. Mysticism is an invitation to discover our common humanity not in a common experience or doctrine but in a vulnerability that continually breaks us open to a ground beyond grounds. And ultimately it can only be lived not said - but the skilled writer who is 'there' can offer us a performance that leads us in."


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