Hollywood studies mysticism through the lens of philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminist theoryBy Seth Sanders
Amy Hollywood’s work on female medieval saints has been called “a new kind of feminist intervention into the philosophy of the subject.” That seems unusual when these saints are part of an ecstatic visionary tradition at the heart of Catholic piety. Indeed, one representative of this tradition, Anne Catherine Emmerich, created perhaps the most gruesome and intense images in The Passion of the Christ.
But Hollywood’s work, which explores how medieval women “wrote” through visions and physical feeling, is closer to critical theorist Judith Butler’s perspective than to film director Mel Gibson’s. And if mystical experience is what happens when people get dangerously close to God, perhaps it makes sense that a wide range of people struggle over what she studies.
Hollywood, recently appointed Professor of Theology and the History of Christianity in the Divinity School, is a scholar of Christian thought who studies mysticism through the lens of feminist theory, psychoanalysis and philosophy. Her first book, The Soul as Virgin Wife: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Marguerite Porete, and Meister Eckhart, was based on her University dissertation and won the International Congress of Medieval Studies’ Otto Grundler Prize.
“Among scholars of medieval religion working today, Hollywood is without question the most creative and the most authoritative on a whole range of issues spanning mysticism, the ‘writing’ of women and the realities of somatic experience,” said Richard Rosengarten, Dean of the Divinity School. “That she can do this very original work in ways that connect decisively with classic issues in theology is a major contribution,” he added.
After Hollywood’s book showed that famous male medieval mystics like Meister Eckhart got some of their most important ideas from female mystics, “people who’ve read Hollywood carefully will never read Eckhart the same way again.”
Hollywood’s second book, Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History (University Press, 2001), asks why Christian mysticism was so attractive to secular French intellectuals in the 20th century. Hollywood explained: “On the one hand, mysticism often was considered an acceptable form of religion in the modern period, as long as it assumed a universalistic form.” In its bodily and visionary form, when mystics saw things nobody else saw, went into trances, levitated or bled, it was considered dangerous, said Hollywood.
Rationalist defenders like W.T. Stace, she said, “had to make a distinction between ‘good’ mysticism (intellectual mystical union) versus visionary, experiential, bodily mysticism, which he argued was not authentic.”
But thinkers like Georges Bataille and Jacques Lacan embraced the troublesome kind of mysticism. “Why was this stuff, considered the worst for thinkers influenced by Enlightenment ideals, valorized by Bataille and Lacan? Because they were critiquing the anti-bodily, anti-emotional character of the Enlightenment, this hyper-rational conception of what it means to be human and live in the world.
“Bataille rejected that conception fully, so a mystic like Angela of Foligno was a great resource for him in articulating a subjectivity deeply grounded in bodily life. For Angela, the divine can only be known through pain and deep emotional ecstasy. A feminist philosopher like Luce Irigary is more ambivalent toward that tradition, but still sees emotional life as a valuable source of experience and as providing crucial kinds of knowledge,” she added.
But how can a thinker who did not believe in God in any normal sense believe in experiences of God? “Bataille asks what would happen if we tried to engender this kind of experience in a radically different world. Angela is always on the verge of repudiating any traditional view of God,” said Hollywood.
“Insofar as she accepts the traditional God, Bataille calls her work doctrinal mysticism; to the extent that she’s doing something else, she is going after what Bataille calls ‘inner experience,’ which is ultimately what I’m trying to understand.
“In a way, Bataille can be understood as a maverick in a larger movement: French Catholics attempting to uncover lost resources within the Christian tradition in the face of the Thomist revival.
“Bruce Holsinger has a book, soon to be published by the University Press, that wonderfully situates Bataille in relationship to these important Catholic thinkers. Scholars like Jean Dani`Elou and Jean Leclerq began to re-read Origen and the monastic theologians, ancient thinkers whose texts were not studied carefully for centuries, with the idea of revitalizing contemporary Catholicism by recovering untapped aspects of Christian thought.
“Bataille is doing something similar in the service of a religiosity indebted to but other than Catholicism—he was in conversation with the Catholics. There’s an instructive moment when Bataille presented a now-famous piece about Nietzsche in a reading circle that included Dani`Elou. The conversation was recorded, and it’s arguable that only the priest understood what Bataille was doing!”
Another major postmodern thinker Hollywood puts in this category is Michel De Certeau. “He started out studying Jesuit mysticism, again recovering lost traditions, then later attended Lacan’s seminars. He had a lot of knowledge of anthropology, history, theology and eventually cutting-edge psychoanalysis. Cultural theorists today who read his The Practice of Everyday Life may not realize he began as a priest writing on mystical texts from the 16th and 17th centuries.”
Hollywood’s current work also connects mystical experience to everyday life. She is teaching a course in Spring Quarter called “Women, Authorship and Authority.” “Since medieval women were banned from holding church office, and such offices were usually necessary in order to preach, they were generally prevented from publicly interpreting scripture. If interpretation is the main mode of teaching Christian scripture, women got around this prohibition by claiming visionary experience. When Aquinas explained why women couldn’t hold office, he conceded that they could receive special graces like prophecy. Hildegard of Bingen and others are thus able to ground their authority to write on the basis of their visions.
“But it’s an interesting question whether they actually wrote their own texts, in ways we would recognize, or worked with scribes. Hildegard, in the 13th century, clearly knew how to write, but in her position as an upper-class abbess, she would have used a scribe anyway—it’s a sign of her class and office, not her inability as a woman.
“Later, you get women who seem unable to read or write and have to use scribes, or someone like Margery of Kemp in the 15th century, who probably could read but not write.
“For very complex reasons, then, Hildegard had full control over her texts, whereas Margery seems to have had considerably less control over her scribes, who insert editorial comments and judgments about her authority into the book,” said Hollywood.
“The class, like my current research, deals with the question of how to understand experience and its authorizing function in the Christian Middle Ages. As it turns out, the interrelationship between gender, experience, authorship and authority is much more complex than scholars at first imagined.”