While lying under the able hands of an Arab masseur in Malta, getting a candle oil massage from top to toe - the scent is amber – I am irritated with myself. Here I am, close to history, the hermetic kind, and I am unable to get excited by all the legends about templars, fair maidens, and mystical experiences. I used to love costume drama, historical novels. I used to love believing that if only I could stand in close proximity to something that I think is unusual and special, then, my day would be made, and perhaps my future days too. But now I’m not so sure. My romantic and optimist self is yet inclined to say yes. Yes to the effects of proximity. My pessimist self says no; it makes no difference.

Getting a massage is good, however, as it always makes me think some abstract thoughts, which by virtue of their being abstract, are neither optimistic, and therefore potentially merely sentimental, nor pessimistic, and potentially merely cynical. They are in-between. So, after having touched the statue of a templar, and feeling nothing, the first thought that befell me, while in the hands of another, was this one: I don’t know what THIS is. I even visualized THIS in block letters as I render it now. THIS, thus and then, reminded me of a classical text, which is now largely forgotten: William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In his chapter on mysticism, anticipating the one on philosophy – and there is a reason for the progression from mysticism to philosophy in James – he writes these lines:

“Whoso calls the Absolute anything in particular, or says that this is THIS, seems implicitly to shut it off from being THAT - it is as if he lessened it. So we deny the "this," negating the negation which it seems to us to imply, in the interests of the higher affirmative attitude by which we are possessed.” (352)

And why am I thinking of all this? Yes, good question. But I do have an answer. Because I couldn’t help wondering whether the more contemporary film line: “This is this, this ain't something else - this is this,” delivered by Robert De Niro in his stunning performance in The Deerhunter, has anything to do with the script writers’ awareness of the fact that Erich Maria Remarque may have been influenced by James’s psychological theories when he wrote the story Three Comrades in 1937, on which The Deerhunter is loosely based. (In my youthful days in Romania I used to read all the German realist classics, so for once it wasn't the 60s French movies that I had in mind while under spa treatment).

Treasures can be either found or rediscovered. After the incense experience, I went on to reading this passage from James, who quotes Behmen a few lines after the “this is this” line, and who talks about how primal love can be compared to Nothing as it is deeper than THIS, “deeper than any Thing”:

“And because [love] is nothing respectively, it is therefore free from all things, and is that only good, which a man cannot express or utter what it is, there being nothing to which it may be compared, to express it by."[...] "Love is Nothing, for when thou art gone forth wholly from the Creature and from that which is visible, and art become Nothing to all that is Nature and Creature, then thou art in that eternal One, which is God himself, and then thou shalt feel within thee the highest virtue of Love.... The treasure of treasures for the soul is where she goeth out of the Somewhat into that Nothing out of which all things may be made. The soul here saith, I HAVE NOTHING, for I am utterly stripped and naked; I CAN DO NOTHING, for I have no manner of power, but am as water poured out; I AM NOTHING, for all that I am is no more than an image of Being, and only God is to me I AM; and so, sitting down in my own Nothingness, I give glory to the eternal Being, and WILL NOTHING of myself, that so God may will all in me, being unto me my God and all things."[269] (James, 354)

My amber experience came after my ‘nothing’ paper, at the conference on Style in Theory/Styling Theory, and my reading about THIS ‘nothing’ came after that. In this context, I rather thought that such belatedness, or contretemps, can be considered as mystical as it gets under the circumstances, when the templar is silent.


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