Buried in the middle of William James’s chapter on “The Sick Soul” in The Varieties of Religious Experience is the melancholy voice of one asylum patient. “There is no longer any past for me,” the inmate relates, “I can no longer find myself; I walk, but why?” It is a strange moment of existential despair—one brought on by the loss of the past—in a chapter filled with despondency, not least James’s own. “There is no longer any past for me . . . I walk, but why.” It is not at all strange that an absent past would prove disorienting, but it is peculiar in the midst of Varieties, in which history seems always to be getting lost in the search for the eternal: “The everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition,” James insists, remains unaltered “by differences of clime or creed.” The mystical classics have “neither birthday nor native land. Perpetually telling of the unity of man with God, . . . they do not grow old.” Mysticism has no past, no genealogy, and yet it walks and knows why.
As is so often the case, the asylum patient would seem to be saying something that the psychologist is predisposed to suppress. In these reflections, I intend to play the asylum patient to the mystical present of Courtney Bender’s Cambridge metaphysicals. What does a historian have to say to the historyless? This, of course, is a relatively familiar question in the academy. A generation ago it was a standard question that history posed to anthropology, so much so that, in all kinds of ways, the two fields converged (Bender’s mix of ethnography and history is certainly one good indication of that merger). It was also a question that historians put to historians of religion of the Chicago school—again, a generation or so ago—often with a sneering tone: When is history not history? When it is the history of religions. In this instance, we have a very particular version of this question: What does a sometime historian of American spirituality have to say to an ethnographer of the same? It is very much a two-sided question in this case: one posed by the historian to the ethnographer, and one posed by the historian to the ethnographer’s subjects.
The question is indeed given a distinct doubleness with Bender’s mystics. In them, we have a cadre, as she suggests, that consistently obscures its own history—and in, of all places, Cambridge, the very stage of Emerson, James, Sarah Bull, and company. Confronted with these historical resonances, as well as historical narratives that have emphasized such continuities, Bender nevertheless began, as she says, “to wonder in earnest whether such histories mattered at all to the people I met at Seven Stars bookshop or whom I witnessed ‘soul singing’ at a local arts festival.” These Cambridge adepts seemed “wholly uninterested” in any immediate past, in any “real” historical narrative that might shed light on their own preoccupations. They were pursuing the timeless and everlasting on James’s terms, and they could not care less about joining a historicist sensibility to their metaphysical projects. They have no problem with ancient pasts, however fictive—with, say, Stonehenge USA—but by and large they yawn over local and more proximate histories. It is a fascinating question that Bender’s account raises: How can a history, purposelessly made invisible, be said to affect the texture of Cambridge’s spiritual present?
I have four observations to make in relation to that overarching query:
First, Americans are notoriously bad at history, especially in any modern historicist sense. “Don’t know much about history” could be a national anthem or mantra, as the case may be. Fretting again over cultural literacy, though, is not the point—or, at least, not the point here. Instead, the issue is: What has made the American capacity to elude history so pronounced, or, put more positively, what has made the American religious imagination so expansive in its invention of mythical pasts and in its denial of contiguous traditions? Is there, as Bender suggests, a deeper “anti-nostalgic premise” at work—one in which Americans have repeatedly imagined themselves as free of the aristocratic, cultural, and religious weight of Europe? As the pamphleteer Tom Paine famously put that revolutionary premise, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
The dehistoricizing disposition, in other words, is clearly characteristic of much more than the American metaphysical movement. These Cambridge seekers leapfrog over William James, Charles Leadbetter, or Swami Vivekananda into medieval mysticism or pagan mysteries in much the same way that restorationist Protestants jump right over Barton Stone, Jonathan Edwards, or John Calvin into the primitivist world of Jesus and the apostles. So many American Protestant projects seem built on denying history, on obliterating more than a millennium and a half of church history in order to return directly to Pentecost or the River Jordan or Calvary. When these latter-day mystics and metaphysicals go zooming around, empty cosmopolitans oblivious to their own cultural inheritances, as Bender suggests, they share in a historical naivety that knows few religious bounds in American culture.
Second, because of the “spiritualized imperialism” in which their dehistoricized mysticism allows the Cambridge adepts to engage, Bender would like to burden the metaphysicals—and the rest of us—with history again. Without that ballast, we all are in danger of zooming about, as Bender eloquently puts it, “freed from our pasts and thus from our sins.” But I detect an unresolved tension on this point in her book. Should metaphysical fantasies of past lives be unmasked, baring the hubris of imperial expansiveness? Or, should the scholar blur the distinction between real and mythical histories, emphasizing instead how—in Bender’s phrase—“myths and fictitious histories become real”? Bender straddles that interpretive divide, simultaneously indicting the metaphysicals for a failure of historical awareness and defending their mythic historicity as a kind of real history. All histories are living practices of memory; all are invented; and hence one needs to see metaphysical past lives as on a continuum with, say, Robert Richardson’s biography of James. Indeed, Bender aims to unsettle the distinction “between religious and secular histories” by emphasizing the “temporal play” between the real and the mythical, between history as an empiricist endeavor and history as imaginative fantasy. Bender rightly sets aside the criticism that these new religious experiments—the elaboration of past lives, for example—don’t deserve serious regard because they lack authentic or real histories. That argument seems about as helpful as the common ethnological claim in the nineteenth century that one of the things distinguishing the civilized from the primitive was that “the savage . . . has no history.” Still, whatever temporal play we might find between real history and historical fantasy—for example, one subject’s belief that in a past life he was Hildegaard of Bingen—does not relieve us of the responsibility of making distinctions between good history and bad, between modest empiricism and dreamy storytelling.
A third point that follows from the last one: Historians are not paid to worry about the disenchanting effects of their historicism. Bender writes in her conclusion that: “The puzzle of spirituality in America cannot be solved by locating it within a history it refuses. . . . Narrating spirituality in a way that gives it a past and affords it a tradition makes it unrecognizable to those who practice and produce it.” I suppose this is a problem the ethnographer has that the historian has a harder time fathoming. Our subjects, being dead, are in no position to refuse the history we offer; the ethnographer’s subjects, being very much alive, can vociferously object. But there is something else at stake here than the familiar divide between the archive-digger and the fieldworker. Bender treads delicately in the conclusion. She can hardly forswear historical narrative, especially after her own beautifully historicized renderings of reincarnation and the gospel of relaxation, but, if nudged just a little to be less polite, I think she would say that historical accounts of metaphysical religion and American spirituality have gotten in the way of good sociology: namely, they have obscured the social, institutional, and economic networks that are most important to understanding the production of today’s spiritual practitioners. Not that Bender pushes this as a stark choice or agonistic battle—nor would I—but it remains an underlying methodological rivalry in her work. One choice, though, we can hardly offer the metaphysicals: Today’s spiritual practitioners have a proximate past whether they find it recognizable or not.
Fourth and finally, I want to return to Bender’s serious doubts that Cambridge’s transcendentalist history matters at all to the spiritual practitioners she meets. As she writes, “the various traces of Cambridge’s spiritual pasts” hold “no thrall” whatsoever among the vast majority of contemporary mystics she encounters. To be sure, that history surfaces from time to time—as shards that occasionally come up like fossils from the ground. “Who is this Blavatsky, a psychologist?” one seeker asks an adept who is trying rather helplessly to explain what the Theosophical Society is. “No,” he says, she is “our founder,” but he really prefers to drift off into the timeless mystical canon: St. John of the Cross and Edgar Cayce, side by side. Sometimes the practitioners get caught in their own historical evasion by the prying ethnographer. That would include Connie, the Christian Scientist who is hiding Mary Baker Eddy’s Science and Health behind the catchall Spirituality.com. Pressed by Bender to acknowledge the historical specificity of what she is offering attendees at the Whole Health Expo, Connie relents and actually embraces the more proximate history. “We were the ones,” she says with some justification and understandable satisfaction, “who started all this!” Occasionally, the American lineages are still more forthrightly embraced. The story told here of Marcia Moore, the Concord yogi, is about as clear as it gets: “Growing up she steeped herself in the transcendentalists. She lived in the libraries where their works were, and in the woods where they drew their inspiration,” her biographer says. Marcia Moore’s story has its own mythologizing fancies, of course, but it also suggests that sometimes whole American skeletons could still come up from the dust. Moore’s self-conscious New England lineage remains the exception in Bender’s book, but it is a reminder that not all metaphysicals prefer fanciful pasts—Oriental, medieval, or ancient—to Yankee tales.
But, should we really expect history to hit us over the head like Moore’s story does? Like the social forces that the sociologist makes apparent, history, too, is all the more powerful for being an invisible force. It structures and delimits the religious imagination as much as it does any other aspect of culture.
Here’s a closing example to embody that point: Bender and I have the rare distinction of being the only two scholars of American religion to have written extensively on belly dancing—for my part, on the last decade of the nineteenth century; and for hers, on the first decade of the twenty-first. When I hear, in these pages, Tina tell her story about belly dancing and women’s spirituality, or Julia discuss her awakening to the same vibrational art, I do not need to know if they know anything about the Chicago’s World Fair of 1893, about Anthony Comstock, Little Egypt, Loie Fuller, or Ruth St. Denis. Whatever Oriental or Arabic imaginings they elaborate for this spiritual turn, that more proximate American history is invisibly present. One does not have Tina’s story or Julia’s story without that history.
My last word is one of appreciation for just how much I relish Bender’s compelling and original book, as well as the opportunity it affords of engaging in some interdisciplinary play between history and sociology.