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Paul Davies, Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination

Monday, January 15, 2001 - 02:58
Paul Davies, Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination. Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Books, 1998. 208pp. $18.95 (Pbk; ISBN: 0-940262-88-6).

Reviewed by
Sheila A. Spector
Independent Scholar

The task of reviewing for a scholarly journal a book intended for a popular audience invites a comparison between what are essentially two completely different genres—the trade book and the scholarly monograph—as well as some speculation about the gap that separates the two.1 When the book, like Paul Davies's Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination, deals with so-called New Age teachings, the problems are compounded because at least since the Enlightenment, the rationalists dominating intellectual matters in the West have relegated studies of the occult to the outer margins of what has, as a result, become commonly viewed as some sort of pseudo-scholarship. Yet, as the persistent appearance throughout the centuries of books like Davies's suggests, significant numbers of people, even in the rational West, have always been and continue to be attracted to areas of supposedly unenlightened thought, so the question for the reviewer is not whether or not to condemn a popular text for lacking scholarly rigor but, rather, to consider its implications for academics.

New Age theories have developed within the context of the secularization of mysticism, the age-old phenomenon that can be defined on its most basic level as a direct apprehension of reality.2 Although it is usually associated with specific religions, mysticism is fundamentally a non-sectarian mode of thought said to be achieved when the highest level of consciousness merges with what might be called the ultimate reality, thereby producing a non-dual state of being.3 Because that experience is predicated on, to borrow Blake's phrase, the annihilation of the selfhood, it entails concepts antithetical to conventional grammar, whose structures are developed around the distinction between subject and object, the very state the mystic hopes to transcend.4 Therefore, s/he turns to meditation, a contemplative mode of thought that, by circumventing the requirements of the material language system, enables the individual to apprehend in succession all levels of reality on the journey back to the One, a psychological progression generally labeled the via mystica.5 That return from exile, as it is frequently described, is facilitated by a recognition of the Divine analogy, correspondences said to obtain between the physical and spiritual realms. Finally, apprehension of that relationship comprises the essence of Divine Love, knowledge of which is the ultimate goal of the mystical experience.

Several inferences can be drawn from this admittedly simplistic description of mysticism. First, when abstracted to this level, some manifestation of mysticism can be found in virtually all societies, from pre-historical times to the most future-oriented of Western occult movements. Yet, as has been argued, despite these similarities among mystical movements, the event itself is frequently considered to be culturally determined, making the experience of the Sufi, for example, substantively different from that of the Kabbalist.6 Second, mysticism entails a non-rational mode of thought that repositions Western logic into but a preliminary phase on the comprehensive journey, a progression that ultimately transcends the physical boundaries of time and space. Consequently, the very hypothesis of a mystical state threatens the hegemony of Western empiricism. Third, in their totality, the basic concepts associated with mysticism comprise a wide range of academic disciplines, including, in addition to the basic humanities—history, philosophy and religion—linguistics, psychology, anthropology, physical science, and, of course, theoretical physics. Holistically, these disciplines might be considered a kind of ecology, an external reality with which the subjective consciousness establishes some form of an intentional relationship. Finally, mysticism has clear parallels with poetry, the mystic's quest for the ultimate reality being comparable to the poet's attempt to evoke his/her own creative consciousness.7

In Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition: Studies in Imagination, Paul Davies—whose credentials include a doctorate in literature from Reading University, a teaching post at the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland, and publication of The Ideal Real: Beckett's Fiction and Imagination—reveals the similarities between the basic mystical concepts and romantic poetry by juxtaposing selected passages from each to illuminate a shared mode of thought. Intending "not to win a debate, but to deepen the stages of awareness implicit in the study and practice of the arts, mysticism, and philosophy" (15), Davies substitutes for scholarly rigor what he calls gnosiology, a study of the direct apprehension of knowledge:

What the following essays aim at is to deepen our understanding of the "infusions that power and vector" reason, infusions that were present in uncommonly strong concentrations in the poetry of the Romantic era. In this sense, then, this is a book about Romanticism, but it is equally a study of the nature of the creative principle in the eyes of poets and mystics, and its role in the present and future of this culture. (19)

In the eight chapters included in this book, Davies demonstrates the congruence between the basic mystical concepts and romantic literary theory.

As stated in his introduction, Davies's thesis is that romantic literature—generally that written by the canonical European poets, though not exclusively—shares with the world's mystical traditions certain attitudes towards creativity that "are the effective expression of a nonsectarian spiritual impulse that underlies the religious traditions of the world and holds potential for our evolution" (10). Not interested in demonstrating that romanticism is some form of mysticism, Davies brackets mysticism off from any religious orientation and then places the romantic approach to creativity within the context of mystical discourse, ultimately in order to illuminate modern attitudes towards ecology: "The esoteric discipline and tradition is aimed specifically at ways of allowing this creative movement to happen. It is not only in consonance with ecology, but extends its perspective inward to clarify consciousness, as well as outward to the physical environment" (12).

Following the introduction, Davies explores the parallels between romantic thought and the conventional categories associated with mysticism, the first three chapters focusing on language. In Chapter 1, "The Question," Davies identifies the mystical quest for the source of being with the romantic quest for the poetical principle—in Shelley's words, "at once the root and blossom of all other systems of thought" (31). Once the association between Divine and poetic creation is established, Davies can easily, in Chapter 2, "Sacred Grammar: Toward a Mystical Structuralism," demonstrate the relationship between the Word and external reality, as we "contemplate the universe devolving from the Unqualified Source as the word, spoken by that source, the entifying I am spoken by God, 'whose choral echo' says Coleridge, 'is the Universe'" (50). The Word, in Chapter 3, "The Metaphysical Conversation: The Romantics and Meditation," leads to the contemplative mode of thought in which subject and object merge, or as Coleridge says in Anima Poetae: "I seem rather to be seeking, as it were asking for, a symbolical language for something within me that already and forever exists, than observing anything new" (56-7).

The next three chapters describe the intentional relationship established between the subjective consciousness and externality. Chapter 4, "Active Imagination and Creative Intermediaries," defines the different levels of consciousness experienced by the mystic in terms of Coleridge's analysis of the imagination; and Chapter 5, "The Four Worlds," contextualizes the planes of reality to which the different levels of consciousness correspond within "the imaginative eco-system," ranging from the everyday reality of the physical world, to the level of dream states, through integrative potentials and spiritual determinations, to, finally, the ultimate reality. It is by establishing intentional relationships with these worlds, as is demonstrated in Chapter 6, "The Journeys," that the consciousness is able to ascend from the here and now to the One.

The last two chapters are devoted to the ultimate reality. Chapter 7, "Nature in the Science of Being: Symbol and Phenomenon," considers the correspondences between phenomena in this world and the spiritual realm; and Chapter 8, "Fedele D'Amore: The Essence and Arts of Love," projects the culmination of the mystical journey in terms of Divine Love. Davies concludes in his epilogue, "Poetry and the Science of Wholeness," that because the romantic poets associate this kind of love with nature, "The ecological perspective, the poetic perspective, and mysticism share an identical principle: the absolute unity of existence" (173).

As a trade book, Romanticism & Esoteric Tradition lacks the kind of scholarly apparatus to which readers of Romantic Circles Reviews are accustomed. There is virtually no analysis in this book and certainly no attempt to place the similarities between romanticism and mysticism into any kind of theoretical or historical framework. The endnotes are designed to provide sources for further reading on particular subjects, not to support or amplify any of the points raised in the text. The scant three-page index offers only minimal assistance in locating particular topics or figures. Finally, the bibliography, which appears to be a random selection of primary and secondary sources, contains none of the major studies of romanticism, mysticism or modern science that might help develop Davies's thesis.

Despite the dearth of scholarly materials, however, the theme remains provocative and potentially quite profound. Viewing mysticism and physics as essentially the same phenomenon, Davies implies that the Romantic Period is the nexus where its two manifestations meet, and that romanticism somehow provided the intellectual catalyst through which the former was transformed into the latter. When stated bluntly like this, the hypothesis seems jarring. Still, just this year, Mark Lussier, in Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality (St. Martin's Press, 1999), has approached romantic poetry from virtually the same perspective, only he calls it "Physical criticism, . . . the energetic exchange between two broadly cast categories, literature and science, . . . explor[ing] the rhythmic and imaginative resonances between thought experiments crafted by Romantic poets and the full range of contemporary physical theory" (13). In Lussier's bibliography can be found, as would be expected, scholarly materials dealing with romanticism and science, but there are also books on Buddhism and eastern mysticism. Quite significantly, it would seem that neither Davies nor Lussier could confront on an overtly scholarly level the relationship between mysticism and ecology. Lussier does note that

[b]ridges exist between material and spiritual processes, as both "Western" science and "Eastern" religion have recognized, and the need to grapple with emergent physical theory, . . . should be imported into literary critical studies. (45)

Yet, he buries in an endnote his comments on Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism: "Put simply, the collision between Western physics and Eastern religion analyzed therein found considerable confluence yet lacked a rigorous presentation of ecological concerns" (186n35).8

The problem faced by these two authors is, in fact, endemic to academic publishing. Ever since the Enlightenment, curricula have grown progressively more discriminatory (this is not necessarily a bad thing), excluding as being beyond the range of respectable knowledge worth pursuing anything not amenable to logical analysis; and mysticism, by definition, is beyond the purview of Western rationality. Therefore, as disciplines within the Humanities began progressively to represent themselves in terms of the rigors heretofore reserved for the hard sciences, any traces of mysticism, which might have undermined the status of the Humanities, were systematically extirpated. Thus, for example, when Northrop Frye first attempted to sanitize Blake for academic consumption, he exploited a kind of semantic sleight of hand to differentiate between poets and mystics:

The usual label attached to Blake's poetry is "mystical," which is a word he never uses. Yet "mysticism," when the word is not simply an elegant variant of "misty" or "mysterious," means a certain kind of religious technique difficult to reconcile with anyone's poetry. It is a form of spiritual communion with God which is by its nature incommunicable to anyone else, and which soars beyond faith into direct apprehension. But to the artist, qua artist, this apprehension is not an end in itself but a means to another end, the end of producing his poem. The mystical experience for him is poetic material, not poetic form, and must be subordinated to the demands of that form. From the point of view of any genuine mystic this would be somewhat inadequate, and one who was both mystic and poet, never finally deciding which was to be the adjective and which the noun, might be rather badly off. If he decided for poetry, he would perhaps do better to use someone else's mystical experiences, as Crashaw did St. Teresa's.
     I do not say that these difficulties are insurmountable, or that there are no such things as mystical poets. But they are very rare birds, and most of the poets generally called mystics might better be called visionaries, which is not quite the same thing.9

While Frye may have facilitated canonization, he succeeded at the expense of a significant component of Blake's illuminated art. But even beyond Frye's treatment of Blake in particular, romanticists in general have tended to circumvent the question of mysticism, relegating its metaphysical concerns to the margins of religious studies about poets who were popularly viewed as having resisted the constraints of the established Church.10

Yet, it must be emphasized, mysticism is not exclusively a religious phenomenon. A century ago, in Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind, Richard Maurice Bucke argued in favor of a secular approach, redefining mysticism in terms of "a consciousness of the cosmos, that is, of the life and order of the universe."11 Seventy years later, in response to a question about the possibility of mysticism in the twentieth century, Gershom G. Scholem, the pre-eminent authority on Jewish mysticism, cited Bucke when prophesying that the next movement would likely be secular.12 When read together, Davies's and Lussier's books imply the unstated hypothesis that there exists a relationship between romanticism and the secularization of mysticism, but they—and we—don't quite know how to go about testing that theory. One might, like Davies, confront the concept of mysticism head on, though that choice apparently could only be accomplished at the expense of scholarly rigor. For that reason, one might, like Lussier, choose the other alternative, to retain academic respectability, but at the expense of an essential portion of the argument, that is, by relegating the mystical component to a few Buddhist epigraphs and some suggestively ambiguous subtitles.

This is more than simply the issue of tailoring a text to a particular publisher and audience. As a result of the compromises either overtly or implicitly imposed on Davies and Lussier, we have been denied a serious consideration of the role played by romanticism in the secularization of mysticism. What we need is some kind of cross-over text, a hybrid capable of synthesizing the best of both genres. If we were able, like Davies, to accept mysticism on its own terms, and like Lussier, to apply the methodology of rigorous scholarship to that material, but even beyond that, if we were able to develop new analytical tools—like Davies's gnosiology and Lussier's a-causal synchronicity—that might prove more appropriate for non-empirical subject matter, then we might be able to illuminate a significant aspect of romanticism, one that has, until now, been occluded by its association with the occult.


1. Beth Luey attempts to differentiate between
the two genres in her Handbook for Academic Authors, 3d ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1995). See especially Chapter 9, "Books for General Readers"
(148-69). (Back)

2. From the extensive bibliography of reliable
studies dealing with mysticism, the following are selected highlights, intended to provide
only an overview of the field. Among the classic works produced at the turn of the
twentieth century are William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in
Human Nature
(New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902; reprint, New York: Collier,
1961); Rufus Jones, Studies in Mystical Religion (New York: Russell & Russell,
1909; reprint, 1970); and Evelyn Underhill's two books, Study in the Nature and
Development of Man's Spiritual Consciousness
(London: Methuen, 1911), and Practical
(New York: Dutton, 1915).
     In the second half of the century, these were supplemented by,
among others, W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (Los Angeles: Jeremy P.
Tarcher, distributed by New York: St. Martin's, 1960); and R. C. Zaehner, Mysticism
Sacred and Profane: An Inquiry into Some Varieties of Præternatural Experience
York: Oxford, 1961), and Zen, Drugs and Mysticism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972;
originally published in England under the title Drugs, Mysticism and Makebelieve [London:
William Collins, 1972]). Stephen T. Katz compiled three anthologies of great importance to
the field: Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis (New York: Oxford University Press,
1978); Mysticism and Religious Traditions (New York: Oxford University Press,
1983); and Mysticism and Language (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). Also
of interest is Richard H. Jones, Mysticism Examined: Philosophical Inquiries into
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).
     For studies of comparative mysticism, see Rudolf Otto's two
classics—The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea
of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational,
trans. John W. Harvey, 2d ed. (London:
Oxford University Press, 1950), and Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of
the Nature of Mysticism
(New York: Macmillan, 1932; reprint, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical
Publishing House, 1987); and more recently, Leonard Angel's Enlightenment East and West
(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994). Finally, on Christian mysticism in
particular, see Bernard McGinn, The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian
vol. 1, The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1992);
vol. 2, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1994). (Back)

3. I approach mysticism from the perspective of
Jitendra Nath Mohanty's delineation of The Concept of Intentionality (St. Louis:
Warren H. Green, 1972). According to Mohanty, there are four modes of intentional
relationships, the highest of which corresponds to the mystical experience: "To be
brief, the point of departure provided by the notion of intentionality for metaphysical
thought is the concept of 'transcendence.' If intentionality is a reference to what is
beyond, if it is openness to an other, or if it is nothing in itself but a perpetual
self-transcendence—then surely does the thesis of intentionality entail the concept
of a transcendence as that which is the ultimate referent, or as that towards which
man is perpetually open. This transcendence may be construed from the religious point of
view as God, or from the speculative point of view as Being. Intentionality then is in its
hidden essence encounter with God or Being" (192). For a comprehensive discussion of
the relationship between intentionality and mysticism, see the introduction to my
monograph, "Glorious incomprehensible": The Development of Blake's
Kabbalistic Language
(Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2001, forthcoming);
and for an analysis of myth as their controlling structure, see the introduction to its
companion volume, "Wonders Divine": The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic
(Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2001, forthcoming). ( href="#REF3">Back)

4. For a variety of perspectives on the
mystical use of language, see the essays in Stephen T. Katz's anthology, Mysticism and

5. On meditation, see the anthology edited by
Moshe Idel and Bernard McGinn, Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity and Islam (New
York: Continuum, 1996). (Back)

6. Stephen T. Katz introduced the theory of
cultural mediation in the essay, "Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism,"
contained in his early anthology, Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis, 22-74. In
response, Robert K. C. Foreman compiled The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism
and Philosophy
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), an anthology of essays
arguing in favor of the existence of pure consciousness events, unmediated by any cultural
or religious tradition. Katz, who remains unpersuaded by the Foreman position, responded
with "Mystical Speech and Mystical Meaning," the opening essay of Mysticism
and Language,
3-41. (Back)

7. See, for example, Colin Wilson's Poetry
& Mysticism
(1969–70; San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986). ( href="#REF7">Back)

8. Romanticism in Perspective: Texts,
Cultures, Histories
, Gen. Eds. Marilyn Gaull and Stephen Prickett (London: Macmillan,
2000), 13, 45 and 186n35. (Back)

9. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947), 7-8. (Back)

10. Recently, in href="/reviews/ryan.html">The Romantic Reformation: Religious
Politics in English Literature 1789–1824,
Robert M. Ryan has argued that the
British romantics effected a kind of reformation of British religion through their poetry.

11. (Philadelphia: Innes & Sons, 1901;
reprint, New York: Dutton, 1969), 3. Robert M. May's Cosmic Consciousness Revisited:
The Modern Origins and Development of a Western Spiritual Psychology
(Rockport, MA:
Element, 1991) extends Bucke's thesis through the twentieth century, exploring the
dimensions of the "cosmic consciousness" within the context of modern science. ( href="#REF11">Back)

12. "Reflections on the Possibility of
Jewish Mysticism in Our Time," Ariel, 26 (1970): 43-52. (Back)

Works Cited

Angel, Leonard. Enlightenment East and West. Albany: State University of
New York Press, 1994.

Bucke, Richard Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.
Philadelphia: Innes & Sons, 1901. Reprint, New York: Dutton, 1969.

Capra, Ffitjof. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between
Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.
New York: Bantam Books, 1975.

Davies, Paul. The Ideal Real: Beckett's Fiction and Imagination.
Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1994.

Foreman, Robert K. C., ed. The Problem of Pure Consciousness: Mysticism and
New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Frye, Northrop. Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1947.

Idel, Moshe, and Bernard McGinn, ed. Mystical Union in Judaism, Christianity
and Islam.
New York: Continuum, 1996.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature.
New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1902. Rpt. New York: Collier, 1961.

Jones, Richard H. Mysticism Examined: Philosophical Inquiries into Mysticism. Albany:
State University of New York Press, 1993.

Jones, Rufus. Studies in Mystical Religion. New York: Russell & Russell, 1909.
Reprint, 1970.

Katz, Steven T. "Language, Epistemology, and Mysticism." Mysticism
and Philosophical Analysis,
ed. Katz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 22-74.

---. "Mystical Speech and Mystical Meaning." In Mysticism and
ed. Katz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. 3-41.

Katz, Steven T., ed. Mysticism and Language. New York: Oxford University Press,

---, ed. Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press,

---, ed. Mysticism and Religious Traditions. New York: Oxford University Press,

Luey, Beth. Handbook for Academic Authors. 3d ed. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1995.

Lussier, Mark S. Romantic Dynamics: The Poetics of Physicality. Romanticism
in Perspective: Texts, Cultures, Histories, gen ed. Marilyn Gaull and Stephen Prickett.
London: Macmillan, and New York: St. Martin's, 2000.

May, Robert M. Cosmic Consciousness Revisited: The Modern Origins and
Development of a Western Spiritual Psychology.
Rockport, MA: Element, 1991.

McGinn, Bernard. The Presence of God: A History of Western Christian Mysticism.
Vol. 1, The Foundations of Mysticism. New York: Crossroad, 1992. Vol. 2, The
Growth of Mysticism.
New York: Crossroad, 1994.

Mohanty, Jitendra Nath. The Concept of Intentionality. St. Louis: Warren H. Green,

Otto, Rudolf. The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in
the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational.
Translated by John W. Harvey.
2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1950.

---. Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of
Translated by B. L. Bracey and R. C. Payne. New York: Macmillan,
1932. Reprint, Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1987.

Ryan, Robert M. The Romantic
Reformation: Religious Politics in English Literature 1789-1824
Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Scholem, Gershom. "Reflections on the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our
Time." Ariel, #26(1970): 43-52.

Spector, Sheila A. "Glorious incomprehensible": The Development of
Blake's Kabbalistic Language.
Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2001,

---. "Wonders Divine": The Development of Blake's Kabbalistic Myth.
Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2001, forthcoming.

Stace, W. T. Mysticism and Philosophy. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher,
distributed by New York: St. Martin's Press, 1960.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man's
Spiritual Consciousness.
London: Methuen, 1911. Reprint, New York: New American
Library, 1974.

---. Practical Mysticism. New York: Dutton, 1915.

Wilson, Colin. Poetry & Mysticism. Part 1, San Francisco: City Lights
Books, 1969. Part 2, London: Hutchinson, 1970. Reprint, San Francisco: City Lights Books,

Zaehner, R. C. Mysticism Sacred and Profane: An Inquiry into Some Varieties of
Præternatural Experience.
New York: Oxford, 1961.

---. Zen, Drugs and Mysticism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1972. Originally published
in England under the title Drugs, Mysticism and Makebelieve. London: William
Collins, 1972.