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Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom

Eroticism and Reflexivity in the Study of Mysticism

William Blake once wrote that "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." Inspired by these poetic terms, Jeffrey J. Kripal reveals how the works of scholars of mysticism are often rooted in their own mystical experiences, "roads of excess," which can both lead to important insights into these scholars’ works and point us to our own "palaces of wisdom."

In his new book, Kripal addresses the twentieth-century study of mysticism as a kind of mystical tradition in its own right, with its own unique histories, discourses, sociological dynamics, and rhetorics of secrecy. Fluidly combining autobiography and biography with scholarly exploration, Kripal takes us on a tour of comparative mystical thought by examining the lives and works of five major historians of mysticism—Evelyn Underhill, Louis Massignon, R. C. Zaehner, Agehananda Bharati, and Elliot Wolfson—as well as relating his own mystical experiences. The result, Kripal finds, is seven "palaces of wisdom": the religious power of excess, the necessity of distance in the study of mysticism, the relationship between the mystical and art, the dilemmas of male subjectivity and modern heterosexuality, a call for ethical criticism, the paradox of the insider-outsider problem in the study of religion, and the magical power of texts and their interpretation.

An original and penetrating analysis of modern scholarship and scholars of mysticism, Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom is also a persuasive demonstration of the way this scholarly activity is itself a mystical phenomenon.


“According to Kripal, mysticism is very much a praxis, a set of techniques that lead to a goal, inner depth and self-knowledge. . . . Kripal’s book can bring much-needed clarity and depth, and no little intelligence, to the ‘subjectivity wars’ of postmodernity, which, even now, have only just begun.”

Peter Homans | Journal of Religion

“Original, even constructive, in its topic, approach, candor, and scope, Roads of Excess is nonetheless an excellent historical and biographical study, written with clarity and charm, demonstrating patience with those who have little familiarity with the discipline in which he is working or the scholars he is exploring. . . . This is the kind of methodological challenge that I hope more people will read and seriously engage.”

David Clairmont | Chicago South Asia Newsletter

"The book has the value of insisting on secrecy and eroticism as relevant elements for determining mysticism and esotericism. . . . Kripal has brought forward some fascinating material in this book and it is good to see how the academic debate on mysticism and esotericism in different religions and traditions is still alive."

Fabrizio M. Ferrari | South Asia Research

Table of Contents

Preface: Sex, Secrecy, and the Sacred
Introduction: Roads of Excess
1. Eyeing the Burning Wings: Analyzing the Mystical Experience of Love in Evelyn Underhill’s Mysticism (1911)
Secret Talk: The Vajr~Vva Vision
2. The Passion of Louis Massignon: Sublimating the Homoerotic Gaze in The Passion of al-Hall~j (1922)
Secret Talk: Heroic Heretical Heterosexuality
3. The Doors of Deception: R. C. Zaehner’s Ethical and Erotic Challenges to Monistic Experience in Mysticism Sacred and Profane (1957) and Discordant Concord (1970)
Secret Talk: Writing Out (of) That Night
4. Writing Out of the Light at the Center: Reading Agehananda Bharati’s Tantric Trilogy (1960, 1965, 1976)
Secret Talk: The Descent
5. The Mystical Mirror of Hermeneutics: Gazing into Elliot Wolfson’s Speculum (1994)
Secret Talk: Svapna-Siddha
Conclusion: Palaces of Wisdom


American Academy of Religion: American Academy of Religion Awards for Excellence

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