Review: Amy Hollywood — Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History

7 04 2008

Have finally got around to reading Amy Hollywood’s Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I was initially drawn to Hollywood’s work by the question of the attraction of mysticism for resolutely secular and sometimes virulently anti-christian writers, one that has preoccupied me in the past, and was pleased to find that Hollywood’s work on Bataille was only part of a larger project. Hollywood undertakes a reading of four French theorists (Bataille, Lacan, de Beauvoir, Irigaray) in the light of medieval women writers, such as Angela of Foligno, Marguerite Porete, Beatrice of Nazareth and others; that these writers are marginal, heterogenous and even heretical is the obvious point, but reading juxtaposed with her selected theorists throw the issues of subjectivity, sexuality and the body into a new light.

Hollywood’s reading of Bataille is complex and I don’t want to do it injustice here, but I think it’s fair to say that she reads Bataille’s ‘Inner Experience’ as a process of self-dissolution through the contemplation and mental experience of horror and suffering, and that this suffering begets privileged access to the real. This is compared to Angela of Foligno’s screaming and howling union with Christ, the ‘intensifying spirals of ecstasy and abjection’ (p12). The centre of the argument, that Bataille and Foligno both reverse the process of narrative as a way making sense of trauma and instead use narrative meditation as an entry to divine trauma, is intelligently and lucidly argued; Hollywood’s work is particularly deft at unpacking the desire for self-shattering and complex erotic force of Bataille’s writing while maintaining a sensitivity to the criticisms levelled at the new mysticism by Sartre and others, and endeavours to defend the mysticism of suffering as an act of sympathy that does not seek to explain or reduce that suffering through the narratives of redemption. I’m not sure that so exclusively historicised a reading of Bataille as a writer dealing with the horrors of the world wars is completely adequate: while Hollywood acknowledges the problem of aestheticising torture and suffering, Bataille’s sadism is never really faced full on. This is a problem for any reader of Bataille, unless one takes the Peter Conrad position of Bataille as ‘subversive intellectual comedian’, a position that to me implies a relationship with his reader that doesn’t exist in the Summa or indeed in the Accursed Share.

Bataille and Irigaray buttress the book – they both have three chapters devoted to them – and the intervening chapters on de Beauvoir and Lacan provide opportunities to explore the politics of gender and hysteria, and these are similarly intelligent, particularly on de Beauvoir’s tense attraction to mysticism despite its temptation as a form of narcissism. While the section on Lacan is undoubtedly intelligent, it seems in many ways to be setting the stage for the work on Irigaray, which seems far fresher and interesting to me. Undoubtedly this a personal prejudice, though it does seem that the linguistic apparatus for dealing with Lacanian thought is so imbricated and dusty that I find it difficult to sustain my interest, even though Hollywood’s work – on erasure and the analogues between jouissance and mystical experience – is smart and clearly argued.

It’s clear that of the theorists in this book, Hollywood is most enthused about Bataille and Irigaray, and there is an infectious energy that runs along with her engagement, but whereas her enthusiasm for Bataille occaisonally veers into defensiveness, Hollywood is far more willing to engage with the problems of essentialism and sexual difference in Irigaray. There is a particularly beguiling section on misreading, essentialism and the body that struck me as both audacious and cogent, and an apposite warning for any over-eager reader of a mystic.

The book is a potent exploration of the apophatic mystical impulse, an open-ended exploration of the question of loss and its uncertain resolution, the connection between women, minorities and the experience of trauma. Now I find myself thinking about other traditions of mysticism, in particular the mysticism of language and the alphabet with relation to Derrida and Cixous, and find myself wondering if the notion of writing in Cixous (writing as trauma, stigma) can be connected to Hollywood’s work here…


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