On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self

On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 320
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    On Becoming God: Late Medieval Mysticism and the Modern Western Self
    Book Description:

    Do we have to conceive of ourselves as isolated individuals, inevitably distanced from other people and from whatever we might mean when we use the word "God"? On Becoming God offers an innovative approach to the history of the modern Western self by looking at human identity as something people do together rather than on their own, as a way of managing and keeping at bay the impulses and experiences associated with the word "God." The "self" is a way of doing things, or of not doing things, with "God." The book draws on phenomenology (Heidegger), gender studies (Beauvoir, Butler), and contemporary neuroscience. It surveys existing approaches to modern selfhood (Foucault, Charles Taylor) and proposes an alternative account by investigating late medieval mysticism, in particular texts written in Germany by Meister Eckhart and others. It concludes by exploring the parallel between late medieval confessors and their spiritual charges, and late-nineteenth-century psychoanalysts and their patients, in search of a vocabulary for acknowledging and nurturing our everyday commitments to others and to our spiritual longings.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-4634-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    A text that has become known as theSister Catherinetreatise, written in Strasbourg in the first part of the fourteenth century, tells of a woman who, toward the end of a journey that has been both spiritual and physical, awakens from a meditative trance to declare that she has “become God.”¹ To a reader in the twenty-first century, a woman becoming God in fourteenth-century Strasbourg might appear to be little more than an intellectual curiosity, and this skeptical attitude is not likely to be altered by a closer inspection of the text in which the narrative appears, for it...

  5. Part I: Clearing the Ground
    • 1 Some Recent Versions of Mysticism
      (pp. 11-23)

      There are different ways of being disaffected, and many ways of remedying the situation when we are. Mysticism appeared as a remedy to intellectuals in the twentieth century who were disaffected with their identity and wanted something radically different.¹ It was rare that they wanted to be mystics—Jung perhaps comes closest to this.² Rather, they could use mysticism, as Derrida did, to say that they knew they wanted something but it wasn’t quite that.³ Alternatively, they could draw more positively on the mystical tradition. Heidegger borrowed his concept of detachment, orGelassenheit, from German mysticism of the fourteenth century.⁴...

    • 2 Empty Epiphanies in Modernist and Postmodernist Theory
      (pp. 24-36)

      This chapter presents, in a very brief form, a critique of an underlying structure in modernist and postmodernist theory in order to suggest the wider implications of an approach that, as it appeared in the last chapter, could potentially be construed as part of a parochial debate in mysticism studies. The readings of the four theorists that I offer are very brief because the challenge I’m presenting to the positions of Lyotard, Žižek, Derrida, and Adorno—namely, the argument that the self-consciously paradoxical positions that they adopt are necessary only because of the particular questionable, and historically locatable model of...

    • 3 The Gender of Human Togetherness
      (pp. 37-59)

      Heidegger’s sketch for a model of human identity that does not focus unduly on the isolated individual can be found in a brief passage inBeing and Timethat Hubert Dreyfus has suggested is the center of the book’s argument and that sympathetic readers of Heidegger have frequently returned to as a way of revitalizing the Heideggerian project of conceptualizing human togetherness.¹ The first stages of the arguments inBeing and Timedefend the idea that human life will always take place in a world, and that it makes no sense to separate what we take to be important about...

    • 4 Histories of Modern Selfhood
      (pp. 60-82)

      When Foucault turned to his investigation of sexuality in Athens of the fourth century bc and Rome of the first and second centuries ad, it was precisely to write a history of forms of selfhood that did not confirm what he already knew. “The object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, and so enable it to think differently.”¹ He called this process getting free of oneself, or “the knower’s straying afield from himself.”² In a sense this is what his work had been trying to...

  6. Part II: A Brief Prehistory of the Modern Western Self
    • 5 Meister Eckhart’s Anthropology
      (pp. 85-100)

      In the closing years of the thirteenth century, Meister Eckhart was prior of the Dominican friary in Erfurt, a flourishing town in Thuringia in eastern Germany.¹ One of his responsibilities was to lead evening sessions, orcollationes, for the instruction of novices, during which the interpretation of scripture and more general questions of monastic and spiritual life would be discussed under the guidance of a senior cleric.² A record of these talks survives in the textDie rede der underscheidunge(Talks of instruction, 1294–98). The practical orientation of the text makes it a useful indicator of habits and assumptions...

    • 6 Becoming God in Fourteenth-Century Europe
      (pp. 101-124)

      One of the peripheral texts in the Meister Eckhart corpus is a legend that, both in its content and in the form in which it has been transmitted, illustrates the social and psychological context from which Meister Eckhart’s preaching emerged. In manuscripts in Munich and Wolfenbüttel, it is entitled “Of the good conversation which a good sister had with Meister Eckhart.” The Stuttgart manuscript specifically allocates the text to a genre. “This exemplum is called Meister Eckhart’s Daughter.”¹ The exemplum reads as follows:

      A daughter [of God] came to a Dominican friary and asked for Meister Eckhart. The porter asked,...

    • 7 The Makings of the Modern Self
      (pp. 125-148)

      The Church in the fourteenth century did not approve of individuals aspiring to “become God” in this life, even if only momentarily. The orthodox position, following Thomas Aquinas, who was canonized in 1323, was that man could become God’s full image only in the afterlife.¹ From this vantage point, the church regulated and controlled the spiritual life of individuals but in a manner that almost inevitably produced conflicts with the adherents of the various apostolic movements, and that provoked an incident very illuminating for the development of modern ideas of selfhood.

      The apostolic movements sought to foster a more direct...

  7. Part III: Alternative Vocabularies
    • 8 Taking Leave of Sigmund Freud
      (pp. 151-199)

      When on December 31, 1900, Freud’s patient Ida Bauer (“Dora”) broke off her analysis, she left behind not only her physician. She left behind a number of other things that her treatment with Freud—with or without his help—had enabled her to overcome.¹ She abandoned the image of the cherished father, of whose death she dreamt shortly before ending the therapy. She also abandoned her previous image of the family friends, Herr and Frau Zellenka (in Freud’s account, Herr and Frau K.), and forced from them confessions that Herr Zellenka had made indecent advances toward her and that Frau...

    • 9 Everyday Acknowledgments
      (pp. 200-222)

      WithThe Psychopathology of Everyday Life, Freud hoped to transform everyday interactions, as he drew attention to the unacknowledged impulses that accompany and interrupt our day-to-day exchanges and challenged us to face up to them. To put Freud’s approach in context and so come to a revised sense of how we might transform our relationship with our everyday life, I want to start with a slip of a literal kind and then move on to a text that could literally be called the locus classicus for analyses of slips of the tongue, Lucian’s second-century dissection of his own “Slip of...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 223-276)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 277-296)
  10. Index
    (pp. 297-302)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 303-306)