Ecriture spirituelle : the mysticism of Evelyn Underhill, May Sinclair and Dorothy Richardson.
MetadataShow full item record
The association of women and mysticism this century is not always perceived as a positive one. In Power, Gender and Christian Mysticism (1995), the feminist philosopher of religion, Grace Jantzen, suggests that the experience of mysticism gradually became defined as an ineffable, private emotional encounter in order to remove it from the sphere of political management of society and religion. She writes of a direct increase of association between mysticism and women, who were permitted to have spiritual experiences, but powerless to speak with authority about their insights. Jantzen's view of this association of women with mysticism is therefore somewhat negative; she warns of mysticism's ability to silence and disempower. But as women mystics, particularly in the medieval period, have spoken and written of their (often vivid and imaginative) experiences with authority, this thesis explores how ideas about mysticism have been addressed by women writers this century. In particular, 1investigate whether the women writers treated in this thesis developed the definition of such spiritual experience in a more affirmative and expressive way than Jantzen suggests. Rather than assuming that mysticism is an unchanging spiritual experience within a strictly religious context, this thesis explores how women writers discovered a creative expression of their inner spirituality through the inspiration of contemporary ideas about mysticism, and how they helped to move these ideas on. I introduce my argument, therefore, by examining constructions of mysticism at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the idea of mysticism was defined and developed both in terms of experiential philosophy and of psychology. In particular, the attention paid to the emotional effects of a "mystical experience" became associated, by William James, with the importance of what he termed the "subliminal realm" of the mind, a realm which would subsequently be defined as the unconscious by Freud, but which James saw as a valid channel for imagination and spirituality As well as drawing attention to the "subliminal realm" and its role in spiritual experience, James first suggested the idea of the "stream of consciousness", a term which became important for much modernist literature, but which James did not link directly with the expression of mysticism. Not all psychological studies of mysticism were as open-minded as James'; I also look at texts which were hostile and eclectic in turn. And James himself was not immune to contemporary prejudice regarding gender. But the period's general interest in the imaginative workings of the mind, flowing from the unconscious into consciousness, and the struggle to express this imaginative process, has led me to the study of its literature in order to explore how such ideas about mysticism were used, by women writers, within a creative context. Evelyn Underhill provides a link between the areas of religious thought and women's fiction writing. Underhill in fact started her writing life as a novelist, exploring those themes of spirituality which she was later, more famously, to address in texts such as Mysticism, in which James' ideas are acknowledged. Importantly, Mysticism was certainly read by two women writers - May Sinclair and Dorothy Richardson - who, while fascinated by mysticism, were equally concerned to develop the novelistic form in order to allow the expression of individual consciousness. They were also interested in the subject of gender to a greater degree than was Underhill. By examining the work first ofMay Sinclair, whose mysticism is chiefly concerned with loss, then of Dorothy Richardson, who was to develop the mystical concepts of vision and illumination, I trace the progression of mysticism's influence in women's writing, an influence which Underhill had to a large extent initiated. Underhill, Sinclair and Richardson were not the only women writers to explore mysticism alongside stylistic innovation and an awareness of gender issues. There was, for example, Virginia Woolf, whose aunt, Caroline Stephen, was a respected Quaker. But rather than continue to explore all the women writing in this period, a task too large for this thesis, I move on to show how ideas about mysticism, gender and writing have developed in later thinkers. In examining the ideas of the feminist critics Cixous, Irigaray, and Kristeva, I show that mysticism, and the ways of articulating what James termed an "ineffable" experience, are even more strongly linked with gender and innovative creative writing in their work, whether "novelistic" in a strict sense or not. I have not anal.vsed the work ofUnderhill. Sinclair, and Richardson solely. in terms of psychoanalytically acute feminist criticism I, although I introduce such Such work is generally available: Jean Radford's examination of PiIbTfi mauc. for example critical ideas where appropriate, and have shown that these writers point towards the critical concepts of later feminist writers and thinkers. My emphasis is on the particular space lor creativity which mysticism develops and towards which psychoanalysis with its emphasis on the talking curehas indicated but paid less attention to than the aetiology and symptoms of madness and hysterical disorders. Rather than continue to pursue this psychoanalytical preoccupation, I have looked at the work of the later feminist critics as experimental mystical writers in their own right, and I suggest that it is mysticism. rather than hysteria or other forms of "madness", which has provided the creative space for gendered exploration of imagination and writing. Just as psychoanalytic criticism seeks to explore those "moments of vision" which madness has been said to facilitate in writers such as Woolf I have set out to show that the insights of mysticism, classed as neither mental illness nor rigorous rationality, have played an essential part in the development of women's fiction-writing, criticism and religious thought this century, allowing, additionally, the closer relationship of these three disciplines. In concluding this thesis therefore, I examine the way in which mysticism has provided a place for "visionary" gendered discourse in contemporary theology, and return to the area of religious thought, where I had begun my research. I examine ways in which there is now an increased awareness of the imagination in feminist theology and, specifically, in mysticism within a feminist theological context. The developments of mysticism's creative space have facilitated this awareness in theology, just as they have in the fiction and criticism through which I have traced its influence. Although the question of what constitutes mysticism and who counts as a mystic may remain open (plurality being one of the emphases of feminist critical thought), the conclusion of this thesis affirms that the space of spiritual creativity developed by mysticism has been one of the major forces to have shaped women's writing and critical thought (both literary and religious) this century.
AuthorsLaw, Sarah Astrid Jacqueline
- Theses