- The Chimera in the Garden: Mystical Discourse, Paradox, and the Coincidence of Opposites in Meister Eckhart and Michel de Certeau
When I was a young child, my father made the questionable parental decision of hanging a print of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights above my bed. My sister and I would spend hours in wonderment, intently studying the profuse landscape of the triptych. Grafted into my memory are the images of the chimeras: the bird with a human-like body that consumes a human being; the human face with a cracked egg-like body and with trunk-like legs that rest in boats on a frozen lake where creatures are drowning; the half bird-half lion whirling in the parade of animals and human beings; the human being with a blueberry for a head who leans in towards his lover, to mention but a few. These chimeras in Bosch’s painting and Michel de Certeau’s analysis of it in his 1982 The Mystic Fable offer me an entrée into a discussion of de Certeau and the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart in terms of their shared understanding of mystical language, paradox, and the coincidence of opposites. In these brief reflections, I want to suggest that both thinkers engage in a complicated and frequently opaque apophatic process of what mystic Henry Suso calls driving out images with images, thus moving into a “beyond” afforded by the slippage between experience and image.1 Following a dialectical cadence that embraces otherness and sameness, the process moves beyond into what de Certeau refers to as the “delicious nowhere” of the Garden or into what, for Eckhart, is the blooming desert of the One, only to spring forth evermore into the motion between alterity and sameness and beyond.2 The chimeras in Bosch’s garden become, in a way, apt metaphors for this pulsating, dialectical procedure. An astonishing union of disparate parts, they gesture beyond themselves. In their heterogeneity, they constantly displace ossified meanings and orders, evoke a change of perspectives, and render reality nomadic.
In the twenty-six years since de Certeau’s death, many different theories and trends have shaped interpretations of mystical and spiritual discourse and practices. Some postmodern thinkers, for example, have problematized metaphysics and meta-narrative discourse and attended to alterity, but they have sometimes embraced esotericism at the expense of robust communal spiritual [End Page 180] experiences. Other interpreters, perhaps influenced by analytic theology and philosophy, have tended to domesticate mystical discourse and the range of meanings within the spiritual imagination. How can mystical discourse, tethered to spiritual practices, express divine presence without subjugating it? This is one of the questions that preoccupied de Certeau throughout his work. And his distinctive approach to the question of apophatic experience retains considerable value for us today.
In this essay, I want to consider how the kind of apophatic discursive procedures advocated by de Certeau can help scholars of spirituality and mysticism to address the complexities of engaging apophatic experience. I believe that de Certeau’s work—in its insistent attention to the need to continuously deconstruct and reconstruct discourse about the Divine—can be particularly useful in helping us circumvent the double perils of nihilism (sheer meaninglessness and the absence of transcendence) and reductionism (the flattening and domestication of transcendence and the fashioning of idols). De Certeau was himself aware of the important contributions that had been made to the conversation about these questions by earlier figures in the Christian spiritual tradition. But was it possible or meaningful to retrieve and extend such apophatic discourse in the postmodern world? De Certeau’s responses to this question were remarkably varied and creative and point the way toward how we might engage in a critical reappropriation of apophatic discourse in our own cultural moment. In what follows, I want to offer a modest contribution to this creative work by considering the remarkable correspondence between the approach to these questions undertaken by de Certeau and Meister Eckhart (whose influence on de Certeau’s thinking was profound).
By placing Eckhart and de Certeau in each other’s company, their mystical, apophatic discourses—paradoxical and chimeric—open up...