The Jesuit Mass Production of a Mystical Self

The Jesuit mission on earth constituted the antithesis of Ruzzante’s materialist utopian vision and, indeed, aimed at guiding the souls of Protestants, Anabaptists, Jews, and lapsed Christians back onto the spiritual path. The one path that alone promised eternal salvation was that laid out by Jesus Christ and rescued from obscurity by the visions of Ignatius Loyola, whose program of spiritual exercises amounted to a dramatic script for acting in accordance with the Truth of God’s vision for humanity. As I demonstrated in the previous chapter, however, the theatricality of the Jesuit self installed an irresolvable conflict within individuals through its revelation of the internal difference that would always remain, even after successfully completing Loyola’s program. In fact, this remnant of internal difference ensured one’s subservience to God who would act as judge at all moments of the day to determine whether the converted individual was acting as his true or his false self. The diarchic dimension of this disequilibrium between one’s self and one’s non-self (i.e. the self that one was but will no longer choose to be) probably does not need to be spelled out any more clearly. I would like, however, to follow through on the historical consequences of the successful Jesuit program of spiritual exercises, which, as the program spread across the globe, effectively mass- produced a type of subjectivity based on internal conflict as well as philosophical internal difference.

The problem of this program of mass production arises when the Jesuits transferred a method of spiritual self-fashioning developed by a mystic to the general populace, thereby forcing a mystical subjectivity onto nonmystics. Parsing Michel De Certeau’s line of argumentation on the spatial dimension of mystic experience in The Mystic Fable helps to illuminate this historical situation. In that argument, de Certeau historicizes the breakaway of mystic experience within the Church institution by analyzing the rewired line of communication between the mystic and God that lay at the core of Loyola’s and other mystics’ spiritual practice. Wanting to become a subject of God, which meant wanting to adsorb into God, but wary of the encumbrances of the Church hierarchy, Loyola occupied an identity marked by a specific understanding of “I,” one that demarcated a space of volition instead of signifying an individuality that he alone could possess. It was to this space that, according to de Certeau, all mystics absconded, and it was from that space that each mystic instigated an “initial volition” (what de Certeau names volo [I want]) that spliced the mystic into God. This volition marked the beginning of the mystic’s subsumption into God and subversion of the institutionally controlled spiritual pathways possessed and proffered by the Church on Earth. It was this “I” within the volo that initiated all mystics into a similar mystic experience.

As de Certeau explains, the mystic “I want” takes no particular object and “‘clings’ to nothing” (de Certeau, Mystic Fable 169). By clinging to nothing, it “changes into its opposite—not to want anything—and thus takes up the entire range, both negative and positive, of wanting. ” Without the fixity of a permanent or stable object, the “I want” frees the will and allows it to “[turn] back upon itself and [identify] with its opposite.” Thus, “‘to want all’ and ‘to want nothing’ coincide.” Once the will encompasses the positive and negative ranges of wanting, once it is no longer linked to the want of something in particular, the volo becomes “the act of ‘renunciation of one’s will.’ It is a not wanting,” and a “giving up” (169). “This paradigmatic quality,” Roland Barthes writes, “is the famous Ignatian indifference which has so outraged the Jesuit’s foes: to will nothing oneself, to be as disposable as a corpse, perinde ac cadaver” (Barthes 73). De Certeau’s analysis draws attention to the space of the volo, the territory of this wanting and not wanting of anything particular, the milieu of a willingness that is also an act of renouncing the will. The space of volo enables the paradoxical act of volition that drives mystic discourse throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and de Certeau refers to it as a “field of a different kind of knowledge.” It is an “ethical postulate of a sort of freedom: ‘I/you can be (re)born’” (de Certeau, Mystic Fable 172). Once reborn, the renounced self that dwells within the “I” of mystic experience communicates directly with God by becoming something like an empty vessel filled and eradicated by the Lord. That dwelling is not a proper place, but rather a no-place that moves along with the individual mystic. It is the mystics’ utopia.

Another map of this mystic utopia comes from Anne Carson’s poetic excursus of Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple Souls (1310), which articulates a metaphysical impoverishment within God conditioned by a complex form of self-negation. Carson understands this ontological impoverishment as a striving toward nothingness. To be nothing, to disappear into God, marks the aim of the mystic who perceives her nothingness “by means of the abundance of divine understanding, which makes her nothing and places her in nothingness” (Carson 164). Porete herself notes a frustrating paradox in all of this, since her “loyalty to God is actually obstructed by her love of him because this affection, like most human erotic feeling, is largely self-love: it puts Marguerite in bondage to Marguerite rather than to God” (166). While Porete will struggle in anguish to achieve the state of an annihilated soul and eventually burn at the stake for her heretical writings, Simon Weil will persist and develop a program of decreation, “a dislodging of herself from a center where she cannot stay because staying there blocks God” (167). Loyola, too, had his program for mystical devotion and self-erasure, the program of the Spiritual Exercises that he initially created for his own private use.

Loyola’s path to rebirth within the space of mystical volition appeared to him after a near fatal wound that he suffered in battle. Deciding against a return to his life as a vassal and decorated knight, Loyola cultivated his Exercises and gained entry to the Catholic Church as a peculiar free radical within that institution. Since, on the one hand, the Church licensed the existence of the Society of Jesuits, the Society in general and Loyola in particular was, from a certain angle, contained; the Jesuits were a mobile front line of the post-Tridentine Church and Loyola reported back to the Pope. On the other hand, Loyola utilized his mobility to radicalize his own practice of faith and forge an independent branch of the Church. Loyola became the general of the order, a position referred to as the “black pope” by those who eyed the Jesuits as something of a threat to Papal rule, and he molded his Society into a semi-autonomous legion of spiritual soldiers.

Following Loyola’s instructions, the Society touted the Exercises as a regiment of conversion practices capable of, theoretically, reclaiming each and every lost soul. In practice, however, the Exercises were something different for the flock than they were for Loyola himself. Whereas the spiritual retreat designed by Loyola funneled him into the space of the volo, it poached the souls of stray sheep and led them back to pastures where they were promised to the Church. In exchange for their allegiance, the flock was offered a promissory note, redeemable only in the afterlife. On Earth, however, the average convert, one not seeking spiritual annihilation or allied to a practice of decreation, had to figure out how to build a sense of self out of a program of self-renunciation.

The historical-philosophical ramifications of a mass-produced and alienating subjectivity come into view by seeing Loyola’s thinking as a baroque extension of the Medieval discourse on sameness and identity developed by Peter Abelard (1079-1142), Henry of Ghent (c.1217-1293), and John Duns Scotus (c.1265-1308). These three figures set about explaining the paradox of a single God that was somehow three (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). Richard Cross works through the philosophical justifications of Abelard for whom two things could be numerically the same and yet differ in property (like a lump of wax and a waxen image made from that same lump) and eventually concludes that, for Abelard, “there are no forms in God other than the divine essence; so while there are differences in predication (we can make claims about the Father—for example, that he generates the Son— that are false of the Son), these differences are not grounded in any real differences of form” (Cross 710). For Henry, the problem hinged not on “form” but on thinking of the divine essence as “quasi-matter,” a term that led him to the realization that “the Son is made ‘from the divine substance’ (generated), not ‘from nothing’ (created)” (707). Scotus’s work on universals (what he called common natures) developed the philosophies of Abelard and Henry further by recognizing three kinds of sameness: identity, sameness without identity, and non-numerical sameness. By analyzing these kinds of sameness, and by distinguishing between the internal thisness of an entity (what he calls haecceity) and the feature of that entity that yokes it to its kind (for example, that which yokes seated-Socrates to Socrates), he is able to claim that “the particular nature and the substance are really the same, but non-identical (since the substance includes a thisness not included by the particular nature), and the particular nature and thisness are together constituents of the complete substance” (714). Together, these theological-philosophical justifications perpetuated the belief in the doctrine of the Trinity and, intriguingly, inspired a long line of “heretical” materialist philosophers (Deleuze being one of them).

Loyola’s philosophy of self (woven in between the lines of his Spiritual Exercises) does not contribute to the scholastic proofs of the Trinity. Instead, it explains what happens when one tries to bring the Trinity down to earth, as it were. In his explanation of the above philosophies of the Trinity, Cross says that there is “no even moderately close analogy from the material world to the Trinitarian case” (709). I argue, however, that the split subject that results from Loyola’s mass-produced program of mystic identity formation, a program that hinges on theatrical understandings of imitation and role play, provides just such a case. As such, Loyola’s mystical philosophy of self contains within it the kernel of heretical materialism that it would be used to fight against. Moreover, with the arrival of the Jesuits and the global spread of their conversion tactics, the philosophical question of the Medieval period seeking to resolve how one God can be three transposes to the earthly realm: How can one person be two? How can one person both be and not be himself?

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