Literature as Religion

Today I went with a student to the nearest "Research-1" library to dig a little deeper for our summer project. I found plenty of good stuff--some of which I had sort of lost track of since graduate school. My project has to do with Melville and mysticism (or "religious experience") or something like that, and I found plenty of books, both Melville-related and not, that proved themselves well-versed in what mysticism is and how it works, etc.

But I noticed something interesting: there's almost no scholarship focusing on (or even alluding to) the question of whether, and how, mystical experience can or might be "induced."

Can a text create a spiritual/psychological experience for a reader? Could we understand what it is "structurally" about texts that do that successfully, if such texts exist, that makes the experience occur? Does it (almost certainly) require a certain kind of reading?

So could I get away with calling Melville's texts "mystical" by simply suggesting that those who don't have mystical experiences after reading them aren't reading in the "right" (in context) way?

I know this seems sketchy, but isn't this what all parables are trying to do?--to induce a transformation (or enlightenment, or salvation, or redemption) in the listener? And what's the alternative? What is the purpose of Melville's writing, if not something that grand? If he really wanted to just say, "It's dangerous to become obsessive about eliminating evil," why wouldn't he have written a short tract in prose on that topic? What makes "serious" fiction necessary?

Sealy? You around?


Insignificant Wrangler said...

I like your questions "Can a text create a spiritual/psychological experience for a reader? Could we understand what it is "structurally" about texts that do that successfully, if such texts exist, that makes the experience occur? Does it (almost certainly) require a certain kind of reading?"

While at Purdue, I remember having a conversation with Goodhart on Levinas. His take was that a literary text could engender an encounter with the Face (Levinas's language for the kind of spiritual/pscyhological experience you are describing--a caress of transcendence).

I'll admit that I don't agree with Goodhart here. I tend to read Levinas as insisting upon an encounter with the other for an experience of the Other. I do make the argument that the internet can engender such an experience precisely because the encounters it facilitates exceed mere textuality (the possibility of instantaneous response places us in ethical proximity).

In few words: sounds like an interesting research project. Looking forward to updates.

Casey said...

The internet could be another candidate -- but we'd have to really clarify what kind of experience we're talking about "inducing" in the user/reader.

The closest analogy I can think of is those little zen koans -- but the problem is, those have become so much a part of pop culture that we all think that we "get it." And we don't. Those koans are trying to induce the ultimate transformation, right?--enlightenment, or whatever.

For Levinas, I think, this encounter with the Face is the ultimate experience, isn't it? And it's not just mundane... you don't read Levinas, and then look at somebody's face, and go, "Yeah, I see." I mean, wouldn't the experience have to rise to levels of ineffability for it to be interesting at all?

By "ineffable" I mean "unspeakable," and I think the internet, taken as a whole, qualifies on that point.

育德 said...


pure_sophist_monster said...

Casey. You might check out Debra Hawhee's Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language. It has some great stuff on Burke's interest in mysticism and its relation to works of art producing/inducing audience reaction. It be of some use.

Casey said...

Awesome, Monster! -- thanks. This is very much a "rhetorical" approach, involving the question of whether and how to move an audience. Can you recommend a primary work by Burke? Or will Debra?

pure_sophist_monster said...

She will. Mainly because Burke's mystical work is distributed across several of his works.

Jon Sealy said...

Sorry it took me so long to chime in. I don't see any problem with inducing a mystical experience. After all, reading produces physiological responses -- boredom, or anxiety, or joy or sexual arousal or intellectual curiosity or whatever.

Maybe two questions. (1) Can you more precisely get at the physiological nature of a "mystical experience"? (2) Why limit it to just books? Scientists are doing research about virtual reality, and they're discovering that if you put on one of those VR helmets and have sensory data given to you, your brain believes it's real. For instance, they took some young children and simulated swimming in an ocean with whales, and a few months later, children who were young enough had actual memories of swimming with whales, not in virtual reality but in reality. In another case, adults ate a meal in virtual reality and reported feeling full afterward in real life.

Imagine being in virtual reality, and having some version of the Lord presented to you, whether it's confronting a burning bush in the desert or sitting in a room and having all the walls glow blue (which is what Denis Johnson said happened to him). Your mind has been tricked into having a mystical experience. I imagine it would be like reading Melville, only a thousand times more powerful.

I guess my real question is, Is there something unique about reading a book that you can't get from a movie, or from real life, or from a VR experiment? I'm rereading The Brothers Karamazov right now, and what I would say is that the details are what differentiate the actual book from the Wikipedia page. It's not about the story (who killed Dad) or symbolism (what each brother represents). Rather, it's a meditation in psychology. This is what it means to be this kind of human, and these are forces that go into making a person this way. One line that struck me early on was when the narrator says Alexei is like so many spiritual young men, willing to give their lives over to a cause, but not willing to give a few years early in their lives to get educated before making a tenfold difference for the cause. I knew one impatient spiritual young man from high school that was just like that. He dropped out of medical school to go to the peace corp because he couldn't wait to start doing good for the world. That line about Alexei is just one small insignificant line, but the book is full of insignificant lines that add up to something whole and great. But it's only through a slow, careful meditation that you can get to that something great.

I need to get my mind right this morning, so I can't quite make whatever connection I started off with between physiology and reading a book (as opposed to going to Wikipedia), but, in short, I don't see anything wrong with ascribing physiological reactions to a book, though maybe I would question the authenticity of those reactions. If you read erotic literature, and you get horny, there's no question about the authenticity of your horniness, but is there something about a mystical experience that goes beyond base bodily reactions?

Casey said...

Physiology of mystical experiences... hm. Yeah. Hm. That's harder to prove.

Soaring generalities won't cut it, huh?