Critique and mysticism share a concern of great tradition: the impregnability of the residuum. Marx’s ban on utopian idolatry, Adorno’s secularization of the residuum via negative dialectics, Norman O. Brown’s fractions upon fractions, Benjamin’s fascination with drilling rather than excavating, etc., reflect the subtlety of mystical theology of Dionysus the Areopagite, according to Sharpe: “for this is truly to see and know, to praise Him who is above nature in a manner above nature, by the abstraction of all that is natural; as those who would make a statue out of the natural stone abstract all the surrounding material which hinders the sight of the shape concealed within, and by that abstraction alone reveal its hidden beauty.”[1] Sharpe provides here an illuminating footnote where he identifies the residuum in an unexpected way:

This illustration is used by Plotinus (De Pulcritudine, vii), and is adduced as an argument against the identity of the author with the Areopagite by upholders of the contrary view. It expresses very precisely the attitude of mysticism towards the immanence of God, though it cannot be pressed as an illustration of the nature of immanence. The statue is revealed by abstracting superfluous material, as God is made known by abstracting all that is not God. But the residuum, which is the statue (sic), is of the same nature as the abstracted superfluity; whereas the abstraction of what is natural leaves only the supernatural, or divine.[2]

In other words, the very illustration used by Dionysus the Areopagite is secular in character, as is only appropriate. Critique is secularized mysticism, a revolt against the identity principle that had itself been secularized by philosophy. Critique radicalizes this revolt. The residuum becomes negative. The stage has shifted, but the principle has remained: theologia mystica non est argumentativa.[3] Even the practical intent behind this principle has been preserved. The residuum must be recovered here and now. An important innovation may be that the collective subject now demands a certain plurality of residua. This is of uncertain value, however, for the demonic is polymorphous.[4]Aldous Huxley believed that the mystical tradition had lost its significance by the end of the seventeenth century, thus ushering perpetual ignorance:

[…] where there is no vision, the people perish; and […] if those who are the salt of the earth lose their savor, there is nothing to keep that earth disinfected, nothing to prevent it from falling into complete decay. The mystics are channels through which a little knowledge of reality filters down into our human universe of ignorance and illusion. A totally unmystical world would be a world totally blind and insane. From the beginnings of the eighteenth century onwards, the sources of mystical knowledge have been steadily diminishing in number, all over the planet. We are dangerously far advanced into the darkness.[5]

Huxley was wrong, however, for the critical tradition had been developing ever since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Theologia mystica has indeed become dysfunctional, but the lasting principles underlying it have been reserved and secularized in a tradition that is potentially much more adequate to the tasks dictated by the residuum.

Addendum (July 7, 1982)

John Cage loves and remembers many an anecdote, and that is good. Among others, he remembers the following anecdote:

Somebody asked Debussy how he wrote music. He said: “I take all the tones there are, leave out the ones I don’t want, and use all the others.”[6]

But John Cage also remembers yet another anecdote, which is no doubt much more to the point:

In the poetry contest in China by which the Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism was chosen, there were two poems. One said: “The mind is like a mirror. It collects dust. The problem is to remove the dust.” The other and winning poem was actually a reply to the first. It said: “Where is the mirror and where is the dust.”[7]

And some anecdotes that John Cage remembers can be safely removed. Just like the dust. Where is John Cage, though?


1. Sharpe, A.B., Mysticism: Its True Nature and Value, London: Sands and Company, 1910, p. 214. Nota bene, this parable has as many forms as it has authors. Thus we read about “Michelangelo’s dictum that the shape is waiting to be discovered in the unhewn stone” (R. Berman, “Beauty in the Age of Pollution: Art and Nature at the Bienalle 1978,” Telos, No. 37, Fall 1978, p. 138), for example. As Borges suggested, parables of such longevity are deeply rooted in all our texts. One could easily follow this parable back to the East, but that would be nothing but a futile attempt to catch one’s own tail.

2. Sharpe, loc. cit.

3. Brown, N.O., Love’s Body, New York: Vintage Books, 1966, p. 237.

4. Op. cit., p. ix.

5. Huxley, A., Grey Eminence: A Study in Religion and Politics, New York: Harper and Row, 1966 (first published in 1941), p. 82.

6. Cage, J., Silence, Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1961 (first published in 1939), p. 118.

7. Op. cit., p. 272.