Monday, March 12, 2012

Thomas A. Williams and Mallarmé

I chance across books in what sometimes seems a random manner. Here for instance I have in hand Mallarmé and the Language of Mysticism by Thomas A. Williams. The circumstances, thus the other two books I chanced across in the same isolated spot, suggest that this book was my Mother’s acquisition, but already used—indeed already heavily marked up but not in her hand. Yes. She would have found Mallarmé fascinating. Thomas Williams was a Duluth-born but resettled New Hampshire novelist and professor. The book is still accessible on Amazon.

This work is bi-lingual, you might say. About a third is in French because all of Williams’ quotes of Mallarmé and of French authors about him are rendered in the original. Thus unless you’re really fluent in French, this is a bit of a labor. But what I find fascinating here is mostly in English. It contains a quite extensive collection of quotes from people who have themselves had mystical experiences—including names travelers in this zone know well (Eckhart, John of the Cross) and others quite unknown. Next, Williams thinks that the artistic and the mystical experience have the same rooting—if they are inward enough. Thus he ranks Mallarmé among the mystics although the poet was an atheist.

The book has value because it shows something I’ve long thought true, namely that such “penetrations” into the foundations of consciousness don’t produce any meaning beyond a meaningless ecstasy.  They sometimes happen accidentally; very often they are the consequences of very willful determination to get to the root of things—present in Buddhism and elsewhere. But what they are not is Revelation. They also produce, when deep enough, the powerful conviction of the emptiness of ordinary experience, thus reality-is-illusion—which it certainly is not. Therefore my conviction that this method of understanding reality is backwards. To go that way is possible but not intended. It’s either that or all these travails down here and all those galaxies up there are absolutely empty of meaning.

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