The Eternal Mystic March 19, 2017Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback
Beach is eternally worried about mystics, people who have or believe that they have paranormal powers. Where do they come from? What do they mean? Most studies of ‘mystics’ put them in a historical tradition. The Cunning Man in the English or, for that matter, New England countryside in the 1700s draws on Christianity, Anglo-Saxon and perhaps Celtic paganism, Renaissance ritual magic and ancient astrology. The spiritualist in his den in the 1890s, with ectoplasm hidden cunningly under his wig, looks back to the Neo-Platonists and the possessed of the Middle Ages. The self help guru raving about NLP and non-existent Harvard studies is just a successor of the enlightenment seers raving about magnetism.
But Beach has always this nagging concern that we are missing something important here: the biological dimension. If you take a thousand eight year olds and drop them on a desert island interesting things will happen. Leaders will emerge, psychopaths will kill fat boys with glasses, and a hierarchy will slowly struggle to its feet. Beach has absolutely no doubt, too, that mystics will float to the surface of the human soup on the island, the ‘Simon’ of Lord of the Flies.* What would they base their experiences on? Memories of church on Sunday, glimpses of marvels in Disney cartoons, sunsets over the Pacific? These mystics would, in any case, have their visions, their invisible friends, their insights… They would curse and they would cure.
Is this all idle speculation? Well, the experiment is unlikely to be approved by an IRB in the foreseeable future. But we have some accidental historical instances where mystics were born and brought up without context. In north-western European countries from the 1880s through to the Second World War the occult was a minority interest and one that rarely emerged into popular culture. The traditional witches of the countryside had altogether perished. The only serious mystical tradition was spiritualism and theosophy.
What did the mystics do who were born in suburbia? Well, they invented their own traditions. The fairy seers of the 1920s and 1930s owe some of their thinking to theosophy and some reading in nineteenth-century folklore, but their ‘religion’ is absolutely new. The witch covens that pop up in Britain before the war are likewise short on antecedents. If God did not exist you would have to invent him: if mystics don’t have a language they create one. Beach remembers here a post on a modern day mystic.
Perhaps historians of magic and belief would do better, when thinking about mystics, to look at the history and the historiography of sexuality. Sex is a human imperative, we are all here because of it and most of us need it. Society filters sex needs in interesting and varied ways, but society cannot fundamentally rewire human beings: for example, the claims for societies where homosexuality or masturbation do not exist are vanishingly small. Mystics should be seen in this light. Some borderline mystics may perhaps not emerge in an arrogantly rationalistic civilization. But strong mystics will come bobbing to the surface no matter what and if they have to invent their own traditions they will do so. In fact, there has to be a suspicion looking at mystics and their magic through history that there is an awful lot of self invention, even in societies with magic traditions on tap: after all, their main source of inspiration are the wiles of their own subconsciouses.
Other thoughts on the eternal mystic: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
* An absolutely irrelevant aside, but what would have happened had there been girls on Golding’s island as well?
Leif writes, 30 Mar 2017: While the Dr. Beachcombing’s post on mysticism raises an interesting idea, his equation of mysticism with paranormal powers lands a bit off the mark. The fellow who picked two winning lottery numbers is hardly a mystic, while some regard Albert Schweitzer as a mystic even though he is generally not associated with things paranormal. Following are two definitions, one of mystical experience and one of mysticism. Neither are concise, perhaps of necessity. Cheers, Leif PS Years ago, I read one of Maria Rasputin’s books about her (in)famous father. The main idea is that he was a natural mystic who developed without any proper education in its practice– he was, in other words, ‘born and brought up without context.’
William James. The Varieties of Religious Experience, 1902.
‘[I] propose to you four marks which, when an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical…:
- Ineffability – The handiest of the marks by which I classify a state of mind as mystical is negative. The subject of it immediately says that it defies expression, that no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.
- Noetic Quality – Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discurssive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain; and as a rule they carry with them a curious sense of authority for aftertime.
- Transiency – Mystical states cannot be sustained for long.
- Passivity – Although the oncoming of mystical states may be facilitated by preliminary voluntary operations, as by fixing the attention, or going through certain bodily performances, or in other ways which manuals of mysticism prescribe; yet when the characteristic sort of consciousness once has set in, the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance, and indeed sometimes as if he were grasped and held by a superior power.’
Evelyn Underhill. Mysticism: a study in nature and development of spiritual consciousness, 1911.
‘1. True mysticism is active and practical, not passive and theoretical. It is an organic life-process, a something which the whole self does; not something as to which its intellect holds an opinion.
- Its aims are wholly transcendental and spiritual. It is in no way concerned with adding to, exploring, re-arranging, or improving anything in the visible universe. The mystic brushes aside that universe, even in its supernormal manifestations. Though he does not, as his enemies declare, neglect his duty to the many, his heart is always set upon the changeless One.
- This One is for the mystic, not merely the Reality of all that is, but also a living and personal Object of Love; never an object of exploration. It draws his whole being homeward, but always under the guidance of the heart.
- Living union with this One–which is the term of his adventure–is a definite state or form of enhanced life. It is obtained neither from an intellectual realization of its delights, nor from the most acute emotional longings. Though these must be present they are not enough. It is arrived at by an arduous psychological and spiritual process–the so-called Mystic Way–entailing the complete remaking of character and the liberation of a new, or rather latent, form of consciousness; which imposes on the self the condition which is sometimes inaccurately called “ecstasy,” but is better named the Unitive State.
Mysticism, then, is not an opinion: it is not a philosophy. It has nothing in common with the pursuit of occult knowledge. On the one hand it is not merely the power of contemplating Eternity: on the other, it is not to be identified with any kind of religious queerness. It is the name of that organic process which involves the perfect consummation of the Love of God: the achievement here and now of the immortal heritage of man. Or, if you like it better–for this means exactly the same thing–it is the art of establishing his conscious relation with the Absolute. ‘
Beach replies: I concede that there is a difference, though I’d like to think about this some more. Given that many paranormal events are perceived rather than real… Any other words?
Ruth in WA, 30 Mar 2017:
I suspect that at 8 years old the girls would have been bossing the boys, for the most part. Many of us are very bossy at that age. Especially since girls tend to mature faster than boys. No speculation here on what would happen otherwise. Girls can be quite as blood thirsty as boys when they aren’t expected to be fainting lillies, and I don’t want to think about the sex aspect or the fact that some girls would start their periods very soon after the age of eight, or anything else. My thoughts are going to stop here.