- Paperback: 272 pages
- Publisher: University of Chicago Press; 1 edition (December 1, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226453790
- ISBN-13: 978-0226453798
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,485,699 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom: Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism 1st Edition
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To explore such possibilities, Kripal takes his readers on a tour of comparative mystical thought in Catholicism, Sufism, Hinduism, Tantra, and Kabbalah by examining the lives and works of five major historians of mysticism: Evelyn Underhill, Louis Massignon, R. C. Zaehner, Agehananda Bharati, and Elliot Wolfson. Kripal also critically analyzes his own mystical experiences in a series of revealing autobiographical essays and concludes the book with seven "palaces of wisdom" that envision the study of mysticism as a mystical phenomenon, with its own unique histories, psychosexual dynamics, ethical disciplines, existential paradoxes, and unitive goals.
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Top Customer Reviews
I've read several of Kripal's books; I am impressed with his scholarship and with his insightfulness. I am amazed with the breadth of knowledge he seems to demonstrate. A theme that runs through his writing is that the study of comparative religion almost necessarily results--in both the teacher and the students--in a kind of enlightenment about the nature of religion itself, what Kripal calls a "gnosticism," the discovery of a secret that most believers just don't known about. (I resonate with that idea. I am author of a book titled The Myth of the Great Secret; it's the same secret Kripal writes about—I think.)
The title of this present book comes from English poet and literary character dubbed "insane, genius, prophet," William Blake. In the book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he writes: "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Kripal finds that emotional trauma and psychological conflict—the "excess"—can be a source of religious experience, along with, of course, drugs, fasting, endurance of hardship, self-mortifications, but also intense eroticism and sexual desire—and indeed the eroticism blended into the trauma.
Massignon and Zaehner were both devoutly religious and therefore conflicted over their homosexuality. Homophobic anxiety seems to be one of the causes of religious zeal. (This is an idea that appears, in an only slightly different context, in Donald Boisvert's Sanctity and Male Desire: A Gay Reading of Saints. Boisvert proposes "that a significant, if not a predominant, number of male saints have been homosexual, that they have struggled with the meaning of same-sex desire in their lives, most often for the person of Christ, that some succumbed to their sexual urges, while others chose quite consciously to sublimate their needs in works of heroic Christian virtue and fortitude. And, furthermore, that such needs and desires, as evil, sinful, or condemnable as they were thought to be by the saints themselves or by any number of "godly" others, have been the core, fundamental forces for good, motivating, sustaining, nourishing, and inspiring these great works.")
Indeed, Kripal points out that traditional Christian (and Jewish and Islamic, in their own different ways) mystical teaching, called "bridal mysticism," inculcates homoerotic emotions toward God and Jesus in males who must then take on the female role in relationship to the Divine Lover AND then the same tradition condemns homosexuality and homosexual feelings. While this taboo violation may sublimate sexual drive into mystical rapture--and maybe resulted in sanctity in a character like St John of the Cross--in a modern, psychologically sophisticated, post-Freud, sexually aware, self-conscious individual, it more likely results in spiritual malaise and neurosis because it doesn't make any sense.
In a series of "Secret Talks" interleaved between the scholarly articles, Jeff Kripal tells of his own experience as a heterosexual Catholic seminarian being driven near anorexic by the conflict between love for God as Beloved and his natural heterosexual orientation. After leaving seminary, Kripal's interest in comparative religion led him to India and Hinduism where "God" can be conceived as female as well as male. He candidly and intimately reports on a series of his own Tantric, mystical, dream-like experiences of erotic union with the Goddess Kali.
Kripal's openness about his own sexual experiences in the context of a scholarly work about the history of religious studies is itself taboo-violating. And these sequences nicely demonstrate his main argument. As you read his accounts of meeting Kali, you can certainly feel that when he was writing them he was mystically "turned-on," and you can feel a bit of the rapture yourself in your reading. In fact, he seems to intentionally invoke this power to entrain the reader's mind with his by quoting seemingly disconnected, but evocative entries from his personal journals.
As a novelist myself, I can agree that the process of writing generates a kind of altered state of consciousness, and because I'm fascinated with mysticism and visionary experience and have given my fictional characters such experiences, so that I get to write about them, I've experienced that mystical induction process myself that Kripal writes about. And because I've also written non-fictionally about gay men's spiritual experiences, I understand Kripal's discovery that traditional monotheism with a male God valorizes homosexuality and taboo-violation as a road of excess to divine union. What I've discovered, as a modern, "liberated" gay man, different from Jeffrey Kripal, is that when you take away the homophobia and religious conflict, you get "Gay Spirituality.".
Jeff Kripal is a prolific writer. I've been impressed by everything I've read of his. In spite of his writing about complex and abstruse topics, his writing style is relatively easy to read and there's a casual intimacy with the reader that pulls one right in.
Coincidentally/synchronistically, as I was reading Roads of Excess (at the suggestion of fellow gay spiritual writer Jay Michaelson), I also read William Schindler's Tantric vampire novel Blood of the Goddess. It is full of mystical writing and descriptions, almost like special effects in a movie, of divine raptures and visions. In my review I commented that this book demonstrated Jeffrey Kripal's arguments. In follow-up correspondence with Schindler I learned that he'd met Jeff Kripal and that his own fascination with--and life commitment to--Tantrism was in part inspired by Kripal's first book Kali's Child. Small world. Good affirmation.
Reviewed by Toby Johnson, author of Gay Spirituality: Gay Identity and the Transformation of Human Consciousness, The Myth of the Great Secret: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell and other novels and books
If one is interested in mysticism, or religious studies, this is an excellent book to read in order to get a glimpse of true scholars at work.