“Knowledge trembling in secret”
Sometimes a phrase just jumps out at me, leaping off the page/screen, out of the conversation and hangs there; an invitation for an adventure. I was reading Patricia MacCormack’s notes after her second lecture at Treadwells (10th January) “Pacting and Desirous Demonology” and this phrase – knowledge trembling in secret – lunged at me and sent me spinning into a delirium, so that I immediately began to tremble. This is a good sign for me. When my writing really starts going well, I often experience this “trembling” and in a way, my writing emerges out of this. Trembling from unfocused excitement, desire – a profound disturbance of equilibrium, like the trembling of a racehorse before the starting gun; it can be overwhelming at times and can go on for days, disrupting my sleep patterns. I often think of it as “tipping” me into something. Trembling is of course, a sign of possession and there’s a lot about “trembling” as a sign in tantric texts (something which I’ll get around to writing about eventually when as I develop the series of posts on possession. There’s a whole set of relations in tantra between yoga, possession, sovereignty and power/achievement which I think hasn’t made it out of academia.
The immediate resonance was that of knowledge as corporeal – a bodily state rather than an abstraction divorced from the flesh. It reminds me of what I was trying to get across in this post – and of course relates to some of the work on embodiment (again, something I want to develop and discuss here).
Then there’s secrecy. I’ve been thinking a lot about secrecy recently – mostly in terms of Bourdieu’s notion of cultural capital, but again, this phrasing brings to mind the idea of secrets which can only be known through the body and relational encounters with other bodies. Secrecy arising out of communion – the sharing of moments which cannot be abstracted, codified, recorded. There’s an idea in some tantric texts that at the point of initiation, the guru “enters” the disciple’s body in order to transfer shakti (power, capacity). Again, there’s a possession theme here. There’s a fascination discussion of these themes in Gavin Flood’s The Tantric Body: The Secret Tradition of Hindu Religion (I.B Tauris, 2006) – particularly in relation to the Isanasivagurudeva-paddhati (ISG) – where various groupings (packs) of beings (bhutas, grahas, etc.) enter the body via one’s shadow. The ISG collapses the distinction between individual and that which possesses them – so a possessed person, according to the ISG, becomes a bhuti. Again, this highlights the ease in South Asian thought with which a human can become a deity (and vice versa, see my note on the Gandharavas for example)
Why does “knowledge tremble in secret”?
Does knowledge tremble out of fear? Fear of being dragged out of the dark, abstracted, dissected, chained and trapped in books? Or does knowledge tremble in anticipation? The anticipation of a new lover’s arrival; the longing for a tryst? It brings to mind a line in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman story “Calliope” where Erasmus Fry says to Richard Madoc of the Muses, “one is supposed to woo them, but I’ve always found force to be effective”:
His first action was to rape her, nervously, on the musty old camp bed. She’s not even human, he told himself. She’s thousands of years old. But her flesh was warm, and her breath was sweet, and she choked back tears like a child whenever he hurt her.Calliope, The Dream Country
This is a classic Kristeva scenario – the abjection of the ambiguous Calliope, who blurs the boundaries between human/divine, through Madoc’s act of rape, recreates him as the successful author – who nonetheless describes himself (later in the story) as a “feminist” author. She on the other hand, is reduced to the spectre in the locked room; Madoc’s “guilty secret”. Only he is real – only he is a subject whilst Calliope is thoroughly objectified; merely a emptied vessel into which Madoc pours his seed into and takes, takes, takes. The violence of this act is heightened by the suggestion that Calliope is child-like. She is the virgin who produces the word. I’m reminded of some of the early twentieth-century works on “sexual magic” where women are merely “vessels” for the creations of the male magus; distant symbolically-ordered presences of spiritual/occult projection and objectification; idealised goddess-women who “promise” sex and power, but cannot be allowed to own their own sexuality. Be want we want you to be, or we’ll hurt you; cast you out, seems to be the message.
Some pithy observations on this theme: Scarlet Women, Feminism and Aleister Crowley
ps: Thanks to Patricia for allowing me to play with her words.