- The Ghostly Gait of Michel de Certeau
Vera incessu patuit deaAeneid 1.405
In his essay “L’énonciation mystique” (1976), collected in the English volume Heterologies (1986), Michel de Certeau discusses a famous encounter from Book 1 of the Aeneid: Venus, disguised as a young huntress, assures her son of the safety of his ships and encourages him, not without an air of reprimand, to continue on his way to the queen of Carthage. She then turns to leave. Only in the particularity of her step as she retreats into the woods does Aeneas belatedly recognize his mother: “And by her stride she showed herself a goddess” (Aeneid 1.551).1 For de Certeau, who will reprise this verse from time to time throughout his critical works, the gait of the goddess figures several aspects of the “mystic” style he endeavors to reclaim from a reductively historical description of mysticism. “In the beginning,” he writes of his critical project,
it is best to limit oneself to the consideration of what goes on in the texts whose status is labeled “mystic,” instead of wielding a ready-made [End Page 221] definition (whether ideological or imaginary) of what it is that was inscribed in those texts by an operation of writing. The issues immediately at hand are the formal aspects of the discourse and the tracing movement (the roaming, Wandern) of the writing: the first circumscribes a locus, and the second displaces a “style,” a “walk” or gait, in Virgil’s sense when he says, “her walk reveals the goddess.”2
In this essay, a preparation for his compendious and incomplete work The Mystic Fable, de Certeau begins to develop his account of mystics—Michael B. Smith’s English rendering of la mystique—as both a “space” of discourse, rather than a set of doctrines or beliefs, and a set of practices, modes of employing a received language. The moment of belated recognition in the Carthage woods signals his attention to, in the first place, the “style” that emerges in the confrontation of poetry and religion and exceeds those “ready-made definitions” offered by biography, place, and social-scientific categories of spiritual experience. At the same time, this scene bears a sense of the always-just-missed encounter with the other, that relation which was so fundamental to the Jesuit historian and theorist’s thinking in all realms—from everyday France to early-modern colonies to mystic shores.
When the classical allusion reappears in the revised version of “Mystic Speech” that introduces the first volume of The Mystic Fable (published in French in 1982 and in a posthumous English translation by Michael B. Smith in 1992), de Certeau is explicit about the way he turns toward his material with a reverence for its historical alterity. This is how that volume opens:
This book does not lay claim to any special jurisdiction over its domain. It stands exiled from its subject matter. It is devoted to mystic discourse of (or about) presence (of God), but its own discourse does not share that status. It emerges from a mourning, an unaccepted mourning that has become the malady of bereavement, perhaps akin to the ailment of melancholia, which was already a hidden force in sixteenth-century thought.3
Just as mystic writing itself surfaces in a period of grieving—“the memory of past abundance survived in . . . conditions of impoverishment”—de Certeau conceives of his history as a longing [End Page 222] for that which it pursues, a kind of criticism as elegy.4 Aeneas’s delayed or deferred moment of recognition—which stages a missed or denied opportunity of coming face-to-face—thus serves not just as an analogy for the task of grasping the mystic style but as an emblem for both the devotion and the impossibility of the project. De Certeau’s mystics, a science of spiritual experience, is forever on the retreat, known by the way in which it has abandoned us to the...