7. Literary Introduction

We are not left with mystics, but their writings. Even if we had one before us, we recognize that they express themselves in ways that have long been regarded as literary. Mystics use metaphors, tropes, misdirection of phrases, irony, humour, tragedy, poetry, code and cipher, and many other literary forms. In fact, it may be said that there is a genre of literature called mystical writing, which references itself and which we can intelligibly talk about. As a genre of its own, it has its own conventions, its own rules, its own traditions. Mystical writings may draw in other, more traditional literary genres, such as letter writing, journal writing, philosophical treatises and so forth, but there seems to be more going on that this.

It is not surprising that mysticism and literature should have so much to do with each other. The mystical experience is a text, and the mystic is trying to understand it just as the rest of us are trying to understand the mystic's textualization of the original text. One implication of viewing the mystic's experience itself as a text is that we are admitting that the understanding itself, and our understanding of it, is a hermeneutic enterprise. Like the religious angle on mysticism, we are saying that the experience is one of meaning, and has to be dealt with on those grounds. To reduce it to natural influence or psychological affectation is to miss the point.