Language, Literature, and Mysticism

“Language, Literature, and Mysticism” is an interdisciplinary conference, to be held at the Stanford Humanities Center on October 15-16 2010. Organized by Laura Wittman (Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian at Stanford), in collaboration with Marisa Galvez (Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian at Stanford), and in consultation with Heather Webb (Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian at the Ohio State University), it seeks to gather scholars from different disciplines around the topic of “the varieties of mystical experience.”

The focus of the conference is the productive tension between mystical experience, its expression in language, and its transformation into cultural artifacts and institutions. Questions to be explored include: What is personal experience, and in particular spiritual awakening (which mystics claim for themselves), in a world shaped by the senses, language, culture, and politics? What is at stake in defining knowledge less as an object or positive statement (according to a logic of experimental verifiability) and more as an emergence, a dynamic field, a system that contains its own undoing (creatively aporetic, or shot through with ineffability, as mysticism most often is)? Can we bring together the biological brain and the symbolizing mind (as recent cognitive studies of mystical experience do) in a new understanding of consciousness and memory? Finally, what is the relationship between the recent return of the religious in our culture (to what extent is it mystical?), and a century of intellectual thought that has been at once fascinated by and skeptical of mystical experience?

To explore these issues from an interdisciplinary perspective, the conference will bring together scholars from the fields of Literature, History, History of Science, Religious Studies, Psychology, and Linguistics. Tentative topics for panels are “The Sensing Body,” “Mystical Languages,” “The Politics of Mysticism,” and “Mysticism and Science.” The keynote address on Friday 15 October will be given by Professor Paolo Valesio (Giuseppe Ungaretti Professor of Italian Literature and Chair, Italian Department, Columbia University).

One of the main challenges in the study of mysticism is to keep its definition flexible without losing basic specificity. An interdisciplinary conference such as this offers the exciting prospect of a trans-historical, trans-disciplinary, trans-cultural approach to defining mysticism and describing mystical experience. A basic, pragmatic definition might be as follows:

Mystical experience is a state of consciousness different from that of everyday life, which has a significant transformative effect on the subject; such transformation is understood by the subject not only as positive, but as coming into contact with a deeper truth or reality, with being, or with a divine essence that may be within or beyond the self; mysticism, in turn, as the post-facto or external interpretation of such states, seeks symbolic, historical, political, and scientific tools in order to validate, to guide, but also at times to discredit, the subjective experience of the mystic.

Drawing on the thought of Henry James, this definition seeks to acknowledge the inherent tension between subjective experience or personal faith, and the historical, cultural, or philosophical discourses that both shape and question that faith. This is not to downplay these discourses, nor to discount the subjective, but rather to open a space for communication. James himself was drawing on yet criticizing a late-nineteenth-century attempt to understand mysticism syncretically, as the common experiential basis for different world religions and also for a modern secular religion: expanding upon his claim that there are “varieties” of religious experience – similar, yet far from identical in their social, ethical, and spiritual implications – our hope for this conference is not a synthesis, not a single definition of mysticism, but rather a productive dialogue between different interpretations.


About the Chairs

  • Laura Wittman is Assistant Professor of Italian at Stanford.
  • Heather Webb is Assistant Professor of Italian at Ohio State University.
  • Marisa Galvez is Assistant Professor of French at Stanford.


For more information please email Laura Wittman or Alison Stiner.