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Conference: Language, Literature, and Mysticism



Friday, October 15, 2010 - 12:00am - 12:00pm


Stanford Humanities Center



Conference: Language, Literature, and Mysticism

Friday 15 October

3:00 p.m.

Welcome and introductory remarks by Laura Wittman (Stanford)

3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p. m.

Mysticism / Prayer / Knowledge
Emma Campbell (University of Warwick), “Language, Knowledge and Faith in Medieval Saints’ Lives.”
Alessandro Vettori (Rutgers University), “Purgatorio X. The Prayerful Ascent in Bonaventure and Dante.”
Chair: Robert Pogue Harrison (Stanford)

4:30 p.m. – 5 p.m.

Coffee break

5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.

Keynote Adress
Paolo Valesio (Columbia University), “On Mysticism and Modern Italian Poetry.”
Introduction by Laura Wittman (Stanford)

6:30 p.m.




Saturday 16 October


9:30 a.m.


10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

Mysticism / Psychology / Popular Culture
Cristina Mazzoni (University of Vermont), “Fairy Tales as Mystical Texts in Simone Weil and Cristina Campo."
William Parsons (Rice), “Between the Clinic and the Academy: Psychology and the Creation of Modern Spirituality.”
Laura Wittman (Stanford), “Out-of-Body Experiences and Embodied Communication.”
Chair: Charitini Douvaldzi (Stanford)

11:30 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.

Coffee break

12:00 p.m. – 1:00 p.m.

Mysticism / Philosophy / Theology
Kevin Hart (University of Virginia), “Modus Sine Modo.”
Didier Maleuvre (University of California, Santa Barbara), “Of Art and Happiness.”
Chair: Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (Stanford)

1:00 p.m. – 2:30 p.m.

Buffet lunch for audience and speakers

2:30 p.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Mysticism / Poetry / Politics

Ernesto Livorni (University of Wisconsin, Madison), "The ‘Mystic Way’ in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot and Mario Luzi."
Luca Somigli (University of Toronto), “Mysticism and Modernism: on Pirandello's Uno, nessuno e centomila.
Alessandro Carrera (University of Houston), “The Mysticism of Politics: Cacciari and the Genealogy of Decision."
Chair: Marília Librandi Rocha (Stanford)

4:00 p.m. – 5:00 p.m.

Concluding conversation with audience and speakers

5:00 p.m.

Closing reception


Thank you to our sponsors:

The Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, Stanford University
The Department of French and Italian, Stanford Univeristy
The Stanford Humanities Center


Laura Wittman
Marisa Galvez
Heather Webb


For more information, please contact Laura Wittman (, Alison Stiner (, or Lorenzo Giachetti (

“Language, Literature, and Mysticism” is an interdisciplinary conference, to be held at the Stanford Humanities Center on October 15-16 2010. Organized by Laura Wittman (Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian at Stanford), in collaboration with Marisa Galvez (Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian at Stanford), and in consultation with Heather Webb (Assistant Professor in the Department of French and Italian at the Ohio State University), it seeks to gather scholars from different disciplines around the topic of “the varieties of mystical experience.”

The focus of the conference is the productive tension between mystical experience, its expression in language, and its transformation into cultural artifacts and institutions. Questions to be explored include: What is personal experience, and in particular spiritual awakening (which mystics claim for themselves), in a world shaped by the senses, language, culture, and politics? What is at stake in defining knowledge less as an object or positive statement (according to a logic of experimental verifiability) and more as an emergence, a dynamic field, a system that contains its own undoing (creatively aporetic, or shot through with ineffability, as mysticism most often is)? Can we bring together the biological brain and the symbolizing mind (as recent cognitive studies of mystical experience do) in a new understanding of consciousness and memory? Finally, what is the relationship between the recent return of the religious in our culture (to what extent is it mystical?), and a century of intellectual thought that has been at once fascinated by and skeptical of mystical experience?

One of the main challenges in the study of mysticism is to keep its definition flexible without losing basic specificity. An interdisciplinary conference such as this offers the exciting prospect of a trans-historical, trans-disciplinary, trans-cultural approach to defining mysticism and describing mystical experience. A basic, pragmatic definition might be as follows:

Mystical experience is a state of consciousness different from that of everyday life, which has a significant transformative effect on the subject; such transformation is understood by the subject not only as positive, but as coming into contact with a deeper truth or reality, with being, or with a divine essence that may be within or beyond the self; mysticism, in turn, as the post-facto or external interpretation of such states, seeks symbolic, historical, political, and scientific tools in order to validate, to guide, but also at times to discredit, the subjective experience of the mystic.

Drawing on the thought of William James, this definition seeks to acknowledge the inherent tension between subjective experience or personal faith, and the historical, cultural, or philosophical discourses that both shape and question that faith. This is not to downplay these discourses, nor to discount the subjective, but rather to open a space for communication. James himself was drawing on yet criticizing a late-nineteenth-century attempt to understand mysticism syncretically, as the common experiential basis for different world religions and also for a modern secular religion: expanding upon his claim that there are “varieties” of religious experience – similar, yet far from identical in their social, ethical, and spiritual implications – our hope for this conference is not a synthesis, not a single definition of mysticism, but rather a productive dialogue between different interpretations.