Secular Mysticsm: Pharmakon, Ritual, and Pain


Reading Alphonso Lingis’s essay on Bataille in Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion. What strikes me in the passage below is the use of the term “lacerated,” which triggered for me one of the keys to certain negative mysticisms of Catholic and other religious forms of negative (unknowing) ecstasies. I kept thinking of various indigenous or tribal cultures that still practice certain ritualistic forms of pain in initiations, Shamanistic practices, or other forms of what Ariel Glucklich, in Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul will define, saying: “task of sacred pain is to transform destructive or disintegrative suffering into a positive religious-psychological mechanism for reintegration within a more deeply valued level of reality than individual existence.” Below is the passage from Lingis’s essay, Bataille’s Contestation of Interpretative Anthropology and of the Sociology of Religion:

Bataille focused on the experience of this identification. The participant in sacrifice exposes himself or herself to the unmanageable and incalculable powers that limit the sphere of work and reason and experiences extreme emotions of being lacerated. But this anguish is also exhilaration; ethnographers report that sacrifices are times of frenzied release of energies and elation The  communication continues in feasts where immense resources are consumed, and in saturnalia where participants abandon their sense of themselves and their controlling will, finding themselves possessed with the forces of pounding music and dance, with violent, erotic, excessive compulsions, and with the forces unleashed in the forests and rivers by night. (140).

It would take to long to go into Bataille’s notions of sacrifice, the impact of his Father’s long death and disease, his mother’s madness, his strange and bewildering childhood, his Catholicism and its rejection (he had at one time studied to become a priest), and all the other aspects of his darker perversities, his mixture of sexual depravity and secular ecstasy; his almost inverted and self-lacerating Gilles de Rais style fascination with sex and horror. Reading his works over the past year has been a strange experience to say the least. Even Michel Surya’s biography of Georges Bataille misses the mark and stumbles before the darker aspects of his life. Yet, his impact in a subtle way upon almost all of the post-modern thinkers from Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, Baudrillard, Lyotard, Land etc. is a quandary to be pondered. It’s not so much his conceptual rigor, which is mediocre at best, more sociological imagination rather than philosophical investigation – as it is his extreme investigations into “inner experience” that tapped into those regions of the unknown and unknowing – the realms of non-knowledge rather than knowledge. It is this that sparked a generation of anti-realists, tapped a secular vein in a form of neural mysticism that is still with us today.

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Secular or Sacred Mysticism?

Can there be such a thing? What would a non-utilitarian, a-theological and base materialist form of mysticism entail? Could one have a non-transcendent, immanent form of ecstatic trance? When I think of the two extremes of religious ecstasy, that of Shamanistic ecstasy (trance, stasis), and Voudoun possession (dance, movement) one traces the two variants of religious transcendence and immanence: the one leads to forms of transcension – an ecstatic movement out of or beside one’s physical being, fully aware and conscious of what is happening (i.e., entering the dreamtime, flying to the World Tree, rising or falling into higher or lower realms, etc.); while the other involves unconscious relinquishment of one’s will and consciousness – an immanent calling down of divine forces (loa) from the Outside in allowing them to inhabit the body and ride it like a storm in ecstasy and dance, movement and song. It is between these two forms extreme forms of ecstatic trance one discovers the gamut of religious and secular forms of ecstasy and mysticism.

I’ve always been wary of my early involvement in New Age thought, having discovered more mystification than actual systematic rigor. And, yet, it is in this strange amalgam of thought that the underbelly of culture resides. All the strands of unacceptable thought, the realms that have been expulsed by Continental, Analytical, and almost all forms of scientific and philosophical speculation. The New Age is our taboo world. Why? Well for most philosophers this is the world of shadow thought that was slowly expunged from the European imaginal over the long centuries of the rise of Science. I need not go into this long sordid history that Adorno and Horkheimer would term in their studies on the Enlightenment:  “the program of the Enlightenment was the disenchantment of the world; the dissolution of myths and the substitution of knowledge for fancy. From now on, matter would at last be mastered without any illusion of ruling or inherent powers, of hidden qualities.” (1979:3-6)

It’s this banishment of the noumenal that was accomplished and given its greatest stamp of approval within Kant’s work. From his time forward we were cut off from the unknown and unknowable realms of the invisible, the hidden world of powers and capacities outside the phenomenal world of what our mind and its 12 categories of understanding could know and perceive. There would be refinements, antagonists of Kant, but they would all seem to agree on this removal and disenchantment of the World.

So what has happened? Has this disenchantment provided humanity with the promised Enlightenment? Have we attained peace and illumination in the world? No. The project of the enlightenment failed us. Of course there are many who dispute that, many who say we failed it not the other way round. Either way the universal reach of enlightened principles and thought are nil, a dead issue; or, at least a hotly contested issue in every area of thought – politics, sociology, history, philosophy, art, etc..

The literature alone is beyond any one human to encompass on this realm of the ecstatic. Over the years I’ve collected, researched, and travelled to various areas of the globe to understand – and, at times, even to participate in different forms of ritual and pharmaceutically induced forms of ecstatic trance. Moving between positive and negative forms of ecstasy is in itself a life long challenge, a project if you will. I know for me it became personal after discovering the early history of plant use in ancient cultures. This, too, has become a scholarly pursuit of a tribe of scholars termed by Richard Evans Schultes as ethnobotany, etc.. His book Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers was a long time coming, and back then no one in the common drift of street cultural logics knew much about such things. Even books like Lee and Shlain’s Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: The CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond were a long way off. No. I lived it, breathed it, tripped it…

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On a personal aside I remember the first time dropping acid up in the hills outside Austin, Texas with some friends. I think one’s first trip will always be remembered even if it was but a strange introduction to that area of “inner experience” of which Bataille speaks. Friends of Facebook have asked me what my experiences were like. Like anyone else one admits defeat before such an unique event in one’s life. Describe one’s experience? No one could actually do that with even the slight hopes of it being conveyed, for what one would want to convey is the actual “inner experience,” to touch someone inside and show them what one did in fact experience. This cannot be done, instead one is left with the poetry of language that have grown out of all those tropes (figures of intellect, experience, speech) of poetic, sacred, and mystical traditions. Believe me I’ve spent a lifetime analyzing my years of experimenting in both pharmakon, ritual, and sacred / secular forms of mystical practice in both the negative and positive forms of ecstasy. So that there is no way to really get at it accept to be honest and simple, to throw out all one’s vast learning and let the truth of it – ha ha… is there a truth? – walk out of one’s mouth and mind onto the page (or into the void of electrons – as here!).

The acid I partook of that night was from the Bay area of San Francisco. A friend of mine had just come back from a trip there and bought a big back of what was termed “purple owsley,” after LSD chemist Owsley Stanley. (Dang, already the bullshit flies… the scholar in me wants to add all these little tidbits. Worthless fluff… get on with it, the madness begins!) Anyway, to cut to the chase, I’d never taken anything in the way of drugs up to that time. Oh, sure, I’d dabbled with “mary jay” – pot, weed, hash, or marijuana… enjoyed sex high on the flight – or at least flowed with it immersing my fleshly being in the subtle intricacies of physical exploration of my girlfriends – as they used to say, erogenous zones.

But this was different, this was another realm of being, a transformation from within of one’s whole perception of the world. One felt it in stages, the slow waves rising from some dark place in one’s solar plexus, deep down little nodules awakening, the warmth of a vitalistic energy flowing from one’s spine, moving up and up in waves of laughter and giggles. Yep, it was joyous, a slow and methodical warming of my body, the fire from below I liked to call it later. This would go on and one till one realized it had happened, one was suddenly no longer waiting for something to happen – one was the happening while the happening lasted. (See… one talks like an idiot! There’s no way to transport inner experience and transformation into words; it just isn’t happening…)

It suddenly shifted from light waves of warmth and vibrations, little serpent like movements from my belly round my spinal cord, tapping centers of my body like vipers on a caduceus, streaming rays of power as each flower awakened bursting into my mind like a dance of a thousand rainbows. At first we were sitting around a fire watching the flames dance, when suddenly things started to rise up out of those flames, take flight and form strange beasts and creatures. My mind was seeing a world of mythical dragons, phoenix’s, rainbow hued lizards and small horned beings flitting before me on the lips of the blue and red flames… I remember wanting to laugh, and realizing I already was… time slowed down, things happened in slow time, as if the world had stopped and one was seeing the pulse of the planet is sidereal time.

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I remember a large being suddenly appeared on the other side of the flames, a strange figure – horned and elegant, beckoning to me to come with her; her eyes like two bright moons, full of mischievous laughter. I followed her out into the night woods. I heard my friends behind me calling after me, asking what I was doing, that I should wander off… I remember shouting to them, I have a guide…

What transpired that night will stay with me forever, or at least till my molecules flame out and dissolve into the abyss. This being was neither real nor irreal, neither a part of me (projection) nor external (introjection). She was anomalous, forbidden, indifferent and impersonal being; a creature outside our contingences. I remember talking to her, playing with her, enjoying sex with her, wandering the cosmos with her, traveling among worlds and times… I remember nothing and everything. She showed me things I would have never dreamt in a thousand years. Our universe is both wondrous and full of terrible powers. We are but insignificant creatures on the edge of an insignificant galaxy amid the splendours of elder stars. Beings billions of years older than us live multidimensionally among layers of this cosmos. We are young creatures, experimental beings that have only begun our journey if we can survive ourselves. We will need to learn much love and cruelty to succeed. What I learned from her was not so much in word as it was imprinted on my being. One doesn’t explain such things, and I know that people would say this is all fantasy, madness, crazed reflections of a demented and drugged episode. Yet, it happened.

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Funny thing is that she told me to keep it to myself, that is was meant for me and me alone; that the others would not understand, and yet a time would come when I would be able to open up and tell my story. I struggled for years against this advice, which I should’ve taken to heart, and instead tried to tell others what I learned that night. Of course it didn’t work, people, my closest friends thought I was “touched” in the head, that it wasn’t real, that it was just an hallucination… And, of course, I asked, if that wasn’t real then what is? Of course, they threw their hands up seeing I was mad and beyond hope. So I began asking the so to speak professionals: priests, psychologists, etc., and got the usual mappings of the imaginal from the sacred or secular cultural conclaves we’ve all come to expect. It took me years to finally realize I was “alone with the alone” as Henry Corbin once spoke of such things. Was it in my mind, or out there? Was it real or just a hallucination like all those friends of mine wanted me to think? Was it as the priest suggested, daemonic; a visitation with demons? Or, as the psychologist would suggest, a mere projection of what I lacked in my life and invented to absolve and resolve my problems, etc.? So I went silent, gave up trying to share such things with others, realized it always led to the same issue: how does anyone relate “inner experience”? Is it truly impossible? Is Bataille and so many others right? Is the undecidable text of my life bound to the aporia of a blank space of “inner experience” that can never be shared intimately?

I gave up trying to explain it or even trying to find someone who would believe me long ago. Hell, at my age (64) who cares… it happened. Now I’m free to say it. What will they do, lock me away, throw the key away, strap me to a table, inflict electrical impulses on my brain, wipe these memories (or they memories?) out of my life? No. People will do as they usually do, have mixed feelings, say its all bosh, madness, drug induced hallucination… a mere fantasia of the mind, nothing more. Yet, for me it began a lifelong process of seeking answers to the riddles posed that night. No matter how many other trips I took with various hallucinogenic plants, or other equally strange experiences I had it was this one that transformed my life. For the better? Who knows? It definitely caused me to lose friends, family, and almost my mind… trying with all my powers to discover a way to translate this experience into art and words. I don’t think it can be done except indirectly, by way of allurements, tropes, hints, subtle metaphors and hyperboles – a rhetoric of the mind and heart that is founded on a cross-cultural inflection of ancient indigenous ritual and practices… my paintings are cartoons, my words are mystical gibberish… yet, like some H.P. Lovecraft of the ecstatic set I sought materialist explanations, sought through Freud, Adler, Jung… Lacan … through philosophers East and West… almost the whole gamut of poetic and literary worlds of the earth till I realized the library of the mind is its own labyrinth, and the only way out is to move inward and downward into the center where one must meet the Minotaur of one’s own dark inhuman being.

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As Alphonso Lingis describes it reflecting on Bataille’s intimate “inner experiences”:

As things lose their apprehendable and graspable forms, they obtrude in all the alien force of their own being. The force of their being excites the energies of exhilaration. The dissolution of the subject of thought and action is the intimate experience of all beings in their alien existence. (140)

Maybe that’s it, such experiences are so alien to our workaday utilitarian world of commerce and communication that when confronted by both one’s own alienness or that of the alien other in one’s midst we can neither describe nor comprehend it in the transactional language of our world of work and mundane survivalist modes of being and apprehension. In Bataille’s account, the powers outside of the world of work and reason and the nothing—beneficent and malevolent—are conceived in a distinctive way. The outer zone is not the sacred or God unified as mysterium tremendum et fascinans but the indefinite multiplicity of reversals:

What is sacred, not being based on a logical accord with itself, is not only contradictory with respect to things but, in an undefined way, is in contradiction with itself. . . . Inside the sacred domain there is, as in dreams, an endless contradiction that multiplies without destroying anything. What is not a thing . . . is real but at the same time is not real, is impossible and yet is there. (142).

This is what happened for me, this sense of real and unreal, of moving in sidereal time, a temporal movement outside normal work-a-day utilitarian time where nothing seemed as it is and is what it is and has always been, more real that the reality we normally take to be the one we exist in. I could pull out studies from the neurosciences and back all this madness up with factual evidence to support what? Would the intricacies of neural diagrams, charts, studies of the brain under ecstatic events convince anyone? And, of what, exactly? For seeing is believing as the old cliché has it, and if one has not experienced it one will not be convinced by all the scientific studies in the world. So, no, that will not convince anyone but those that have already been convinced.

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As Lingis says of Bataille and quotes him the experience of the outer zone involves a collapse of thought, of rational and reflective thought. Such an object can be given only in the imagination, Bataille affirms—but it can be given. “These great tides of miraculous
possibility, where moreover the transparency, the richness and the soothing splendor of death and the universe are to be regained, presuppose the imagination joining together that which is never given except in parts.” The transition of the visual experience of an ecstatic object to the realm of indeterminacy and night is the very medium of the imagination. Dreams and nightmares represent this realm. (142).

Was it a waking dream? A nightmare? A phantasmagoria of my mind and anxieties? My own invention? Or something else altogether, an elaboration by something alien inhabiting and drawing out of my mind those deep seeded images that would allure me into its dark passage? Lingis tells us Bataille finds the mystical experience to correspond to the experience of participants in sacrifice; there is intense absorption in the ecstatic
object that opens upon the impersonal powers of what lies beyond the realm of work and reason, experienced in anguish and exhilaration, as the ecstatic object that held the viewer vanishes. (142)

In that night of nights I experienced a thousand deaths, a thousand births, saw planets and galaxies rise and explode, the suns and stars of an infinite cosmos turn within the patterns of a metamorphic dance that neither science nor art could describe. I met with beings of another order than our own, creatures of other dimensional existence that even now makes no sense to me. I lived in a moment between moments, traveled without traveling, saw what cannot be seen with the naked eye. I was alone and with a vast community of beings. As Bataille says:

Communication . . . with our beyond (essentially in sacrifice)—not with nothingness, still less with a supernatural being, but with an indefinite reality (which I sometimes call the impossible, that is, what cannot be grasped (begreift) in any way, what we can’t reach without dissolving ourselves. . . . It can remain in an undefined state (in ordinary laughter, infinite laughter, or ecstasy).(143).

Yes, the impossible, the unnamable, the unknowable and unknowing, a non-knowledge that gives us neither answer nor solution but rather the ecstasy of our own being, our darkening… into sovereignty.

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As Bataille would remind us sovereign moments are not achieved through work and reason; they occur by chance and are without expectation or hope. They are not states of fulfillment, totality, and serenity. “This sovereignty cannot even be defined as a good. I am attached to it, but would I be if I were not certain that I could just as well laugh at it?” (143).

I resolved long ago not to seek knowledge, as others do, but to seek its contrary, which is unknowing. I no longer anticipated the moment when I would be rewarded for my effort, when I would know at last, but rather the moment when I would no longer know, when my initial anticipation would dissolve into nothing. . . . (146).

Maybe in the end that’s it, we cannot retrieve from these experiences anything resembling knowledge, and to try is a fool’s errand – a vein struggle to reduce the unknown to the known, an impossibility; rather, these experiences, these “inner experiences,” are unique, sovereign… impossible.

Lingis meditating on such ecstatic sovereignty reminds us that the ecstasy that finds itself sovereign in the void is not an experience of integration, wholeness, and serenity, of fulfillment of its desires, but instead an experience of shattering and anguish. Extreme emotions surge in transgression, in breaking through the boundaries and taboos of the social and natural world, and also in the shattering of inner boundaries between zones of the self. (147).

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If one survives such lacerating sovereignty, self-immolations, dark flames of an interminable night in oblivion, – one arises before the midnight sun of Time, neither a god nor a priest of despair but rather a creature who has entered into one’s real and actual life; neither blessed nor damned; neither anxious nor fearful, but rather actively participating in the impossible, an unknowing at once of the pleroma and kenoma, fullness and emptiness; for there is no other: it is the great Silence.


– Jeremy Biles /  Kent Brintnall ed. Negative Ecstasies: Georges Bataille and the Study of Religion. Fordham University Press; 1 edition (August 3, 2015)

7 thoughts on “Secular Mysticsm: Pharmakon, Ritual, and Pain

  1. Now was that so hard? lolol
    All those archetypes a-blazing and you still have room to shit on your own retelling. 😀
    The reason words don’t do that thing to other people that we like the world to do to us is because a factual journalistic retelling, CMoS OED PDQ single-language no-contradictions-allowed aristotelian-kant-analytic-lineage light spritzing of letters is like the dung heap 1st grader version of linguistic communication. Philosophy types are so bad at this that they have to cite their sources because no one will believe them otherwise… 😉

    If you can’t make it sing….it won’t do that thing. There is a reason the good mathematicians end up crazy, theologians, or poets – and the best poets die spectacularly.

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    • Haha… that’s you James…. can’t hide in a no name world! Well I went loco long ago… ask me if I care? Situated between the uncanny and the marvelous, wandering the fantastic zones I’ve always kept one foot in reason, one foot in madness… remember the Trickster folklore… Lokiana is my middle-name…. like those old wandering minstrels who sang their bawdy’s I keep “whim” above my doorway. They’ll never catch me out nor reduce me to some label… I’ll be metamorphic till I die, a chameleon of the spirit, roaming.

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