Emanationist echoes

In the second of two interviews with Richard Boothby about his new book “Embracing the Void” (ok, warning, this may not be available to non-Patreon supporters for a couple of months), Pete Rollins sniping at mystics was combatted somewhat by Richard, which I much appreciated. Richard stressed something which William James wrote of:- “This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states, we both become one with the Absolute, and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, in Neoplatonism, in Sufism, in Christian mysticism, we find the same recurring note.” (from this wider treatment).

Pete and Richard are both philosophers, so when faced with the contrast between unity and diversity, are, it seems to me,  naturally going to be looking for one to “win out” over the other. Pete is very keen on the concept of a fundamental, ontological lack, separation, fault or opposition within reality as a whole. Neither of them are likely, given that background, to arrive at the typical mystic’s response “So they don’t agree with each other? Fine, they’re two viewpoints… we can use both”. As I’m a mystic rather than a philosopher, I tend far more to that point of view than the wrestling with apparently incompatible concepts to try to find some synthesis which seems typical of philosophers, and I shudder at the suggestion that reality is at root “faulty”. If I’m able to assimilate Pete’s point of view at all, it’s via the observation that yes, I have two ways of looking at things which don’t agree with each other, so there’s a fundamental division there.

However, I was interested that in playing also with the two concepts of lack and excess, which are both features of Lacan’s work (which is foundational to what Richard is writing about), the two of them started sounding a little like emanationists (at a little after the 35 minute mark). There’s a long philosophical and mystical tradition of emanationism, which this article delves into somewhat. I’m most familiar with it from the point of view of the neoplatonist Plotinus, whose thinking was used considerably by western esotericists, and from that of the Kabbalah, which has a very elaborated emanationist substructure. At around 43 minutes, Richard talks about needing first to create a vacuum, which to me evokes the Jewish mystical concept of tzimtzum, which is, of course, the first and foundational requirement of emanationist cosmologies. (I personally question whether the creation of a void is a necessary prerequisite of creation, but that’s just me…)

It takes a while after that, but at around the 1h15 mark, Richard is talking of an excess which always exceeds the container – our signifier for something always falls short of the reality of the signified. That in turn strongly echoes the emanationist picture of a creation following tzimtzum where the abundance of divine energy, having created vessels to hold its energies, outstrips the ability of those vessels to hold it and results in a fundamentally broken creation. They don’t elaborate further, unfortunately. This made me recall something from Wake 2019, in a discussion between Pete, Todd McGowan and Jamieson Webster in which my recollection is that there was brief mention of the excess breaking the system (sadly, having gone back to the recording of that session, I can’t find the snippet in question – I do recall however, that I wanted to get some expansion of that but the session ended before I could do that!).

Now, I’m perfectly well aware that the neoplatonists and kabbalists are talking ontologically. OK, Pete talks about an ontolological divide in reality, but I generally discount his mentions of ontology because I don’t think any of us is equipped to talk in anything other than speculative terms about ontology (I’m somewhat Kantian, or perhaps Humian, in that). However, it does seem to me that this emanationist thinking might be applied to the products of language. The signifier always signifies either less or more than the signifier can support, and there’s always a lack or an excess in the meaning behind the signifier (and I wonder if “both” isn’t perhaps a more usual condition).

Whether or not there’s any merit in starting to develop these bare bones of an emanationist account into something more escapes me. The neoplatonist/kabbalist stream definitely does elaborate, and in the process uses nunerology and a startling number of additional concepts (kabbalah ends up with four realms each with ten centres of meaning, those being connected by 22 paths). It’s a system which fascinated me for some time in my teens and 20s, but which I abandoned as it didn’t seem to me to have adequate traction in the way things actually were – it was more a system of arrangement which was imposed over the phenomenological reality than one which illuminated aspects of that. But I could be wrong, and maybe there’s an emanationist development of pyrotheology, or even of Lacan?