The Problem of the Mystic East

mystic eastAfter having read Robert Orsi’s rather odd essay on “The Problem of the Holy” (in The Cambridge Companion to Religious Studies, ed. by Robert Orsi), it was suggested to me that a parody might be in order. In his essay, Orsi grants that Rudolph Otto’s concept of “the holy” as something ontologically transcendent from all eternity is no longer sustainable—he thus grants that some of the historicist critiques of Otto were legitimate—but that there is nevertheless something very real about experiences of “the holy” that we as religion scholars must hold on to. I wondered what it might be like to take Orsi’s text and substitute “the mystic East” for “the holy” and see what it might look like. Most of what follows is word for word out of Orsi’s essay.

Many (not all) scholars of religion become restive sooner or later with the simple sufficiency of social or ideological explanations of “orientalism.” It is not that these scholars of religion propose foregoing social explanations. It is that they recognize that such accounts fall short of the realness of the mystic East and the rational West in people’s experience. And not just this: critical accounts that pretend to be exhaustive distort those experiences and diminish them, precisely as historical and cultural phenomena. Such explanations are empirically insufficient, in other words. These restive scholars have witnessed something in their fieldwork or historical study which they want to name as the East or the West and without which our social account is beside the point.

“The Orient” has the musty smell of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century bourgeois European ethnocentrism about it, as it was implicated in the European ideology of Western superiority that underwrote the colonial project. Yes, but—the Orient still seems to me to name both a reality and an approach to religion and culture that scholars ought to think about. For one thing, people all over the world and in different historical periods have experienced something of either the West or the East, and they know what they mean when they use the terms, even feel compelled to use them, as the only possible words for what they have experienced. The mystic East is apprehended as immediately and undeniably real by those who, for instance, practice meditation. Consequently, the concept of the East requires reconsideration, even rehabilitation.

Edward Said was of course correct to offer the critique of Orientalism in his now famous and widely read work. When I hear something called “Eastern,” I am on the lookout for domination, denial, and exploitation. Sometimes “the Orient” is a term of appropriation and domination. However, to insist that the East is not eternally persisting and homogeneous is not to have said very much about it. To explain it as a function of cultural formation (which it is) does not adequately take into account how the people having the experience of the mystic East described it or how it acted upon them. Contemporary scholars like Said want to stop with the social formation of the East, but this is really only the beginning of understanding this human experience. How is “the East” experienced as really real and what does this mean for people’s lives and for the social world?

My work with people who have experienced the mystical East has prevented me from being able simply to dismiss the term, unstable and treacherous as it is in experience and flawed and problematic as a concept. This is my deeper problem with the idea of the mystical East, the place I come to after critical analysis and deconstruction. The East describes something real in culture and history, with real, if ambivalent, effects. I do not mean something free of time and space, at least in its inception. I do however think it becomes free of time and space. It comes to have a life of its own independent of the humans out of whose imaginations, inheritances, and circumstances it emerged.

In conclusion, the mystic East is experienced as “objective.” It is known as objectively real, not as delusion or fantasy. The key category of the East is its realness. The East takes on a life and efficacy of its own, like a ghost with its own aims and intentions.

(Note that the words “believe in” [as in these people “believe in” the mystic East] have not appeared here. This is because the East is met as the really real and this renders otiose such terms that connote ignorance on the part of those who experience the East.)

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About Craig Martin

I am an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College.
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