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The Quest of Michel de Certeau

Culture in the Plural

translated from the French and with an afterword by Tom Conley, edited and with an introduction by Luce Giard
University of Minnesota Press, 180 pp., $20.00 (paper)

The Possession at Loudun

translated from the French by Michael B. Smith, with a foreword by Stephen Greenblatt
University of Chicago Press, 251 pp., $23.00 (paper)

The Writing of History

translated from the French by Tom Conley
Columbia University Press, 367 pp., $25.95 (paper)


Though in North America Michel de Certeau is known only in the university world, in France he was a celebrity, viewed as a major cultural critic, an innovative historian of early modern religion, and a religious thinker who in his life and work pursued a particularly engaged, open, and generous form of Catholicism. At his funeral in Paris in 1986, the strains of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”—“No, I regret nothing”—wafted over the pews in the Jesuit Church of Saint Ignatius in Paris, and through loudspeakers to the hundreds of mourners crowded in the square outside. The song followed a reading of I Corinthians, where Paul says that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,” and a poem by a seventeenth-century mystic about a “vagabond soul” seeking divine love throughout the world. These verses, requested by Michel de Certeau himself, suggest the unorthodoxy of his spiritual and scholarly vision.

Whether writing about madness and mysticism in the seventeenth century, South American resistance movements in the past and present, or the practice of everyday life in the twentieth century, Certeau developed a distinctive way of interpreting social and personal relations. In contrast to those who described societies by evoking what he called their homogeneities and hegemonies—what unified and controlled them—Certeau wanted to identify the creative and disruptive presence of “the other”—the outsider, the stranger, the alien, the subversive, the radically different—in systems of power and thought. He found it not only in the ways people imagined figures distant from themselves (as in Michel de Montaigne’s famous essay on the “Cannibals” of the Amazon), but also in behaviors and groups close to home, in the ever-present tensions at the heart of all social life, whether in schools, religious institutions, or the mass media.

To be sure, notions of “otherness” were cropping up in literature, philosophy, and psychoanalysis in the 1960s and 1970s, when Certeau was gaining prominence, but he was original in the multiple ways he conceived figures of the “other” and how they functioned in many settings. He coined the term “heterologies” to describe disciplines in which we examine ourselves in relation to otherness; history and ethnography, for instance, could be “sciences of the other” if they confront the often disfiguring assumptions we bring to our understanding of different times and places. He wrote about centralizing institutions of the past so as to show how they defined themselves either by excluding divergent voices and beliefs or by swallowing them up.

And yet the state and church were never the sole source of power and authority in medieval and modern times. Certeau always saw vital alternatives to their rule, as in religious movements like mysticism or in stubborn popular knowledge born of local experience. His heroes are often wanderers, pilgrims, missionaries, and nomads, such as the seventeenth-century visionary Jean de Labadie, who began as a Jesuit, then preached his radical brand of Reformed religion across France and Switzerland, and ended up founding a Protestant community of saints in the Netherlands.

Such a perspective and Certeau’s life itself make interesting comparisons with two of his exact contemporaries, Michel Foucault and Joseph Ratzinger, whose work and thought have also been concerned with evaluating power and institutional boundaries. Foucault’s intellectual daring was rewarded in 1970 by his election to a prestigious professorship at the Collège de France; in France Certeau had only short-term teaching posts until the last year and a half of his life, when he was invited to be a professor at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. Ratzinger, after his ordination and doctoral studies, rose through distinguished posts in theology faculties in Germany to become archbishop of Munich-Freising and cardinal in 1977, a few years later prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and since 2005 Pope Benedict XVI. Certeau pursued his wide-ranging Christian life as a Jesuit brother, holding no office in his order and sometimes wearing the clothes of a layman.

All three men were affected by the protests of 1968. Foucault and Certeau became more committed as men of the left, albeit in different ways. Power was the key concept in Foucault’s understanding of social relations and communication; power inhered in central authorities—monarchs, medical experts, priests—and it reproduced its message in the individual mind and conscience. The process was unrelenting, enhancing discipline, control, and punishment, and meeting little resistance over time. Foucault’s account helped people understand the institutions and practices that distributed power throughout societies, but gave little insight into how they might be eased or changed.

For Ratzinger, the 1968 student movements put a limit to his support for the liberalizing efforts in the Catholic Church associated with the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II (1962–1965), and made him embrace the established Church hierarchy. In his view, the doctrine of the Church must not give way to the false influences of secularism, relativism, religious pluralism, subjectivism, and economic radicalism. Interpretation must rest in the hands of the master theologians of the Church, founded by Christ and guaranteed by apostolic succession. As Ratzinger wrote in Dominus Iesus, an encyclical he drafted in 2000 as Prefect of the Faith, “there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him.” Whatever “gifts” possessed by other Christian communities or churches, any conversation with them is conditioned by this absolute claim to authority.1 Certeau’s quest for connection with the “other” and his belief that boundaries between different communities and ways of thinking should be open were an alternative to Foucault’s somber vision of power and domination and Ratzinger’s certitudes.

Certeau’s views emerged out of decades of struggle, experiment, and writing.2 He was born in 1925 in the Savoy, whose mountain trails he climbed as a teenager bringing messages to the Resistance fighters against the German occupation. In 1944 he began his studies for the priesthood; in 1950 he joined the Jesuit order, writing to a friend, “I think God is calling me to China.” The famous Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had earlier written his books of geology and theology from China; that country had been taken over by the Communists in 1949 and the Jesuits were being ordered to leave. This difficulty may have made going to China all the more appealing to Certeau, but he never did get there.

As it was, his studies brought him into the explosion of theological renewal led by Henri de Lubac, a hero of the Catholic Resistance, and Certeau became one of his favored students at Lyon. (In Germany Ratzinger was also inspired by Lubac’s writing.) Lubac was shaking up rigid assumptions and challenging conventional boundaries at every turn. The Church’s teaching was not fixed for eternity, he argued, but had changed over time; assent to its doctrine must come from a new historical study of Christian texts. Non-Catholic sources had something to teach as well: Lubac devoted a book to Buddhism, in which he drew an interesting comparison between Christ and Buddha. In a 1946 study tracing the changing meanings of the word “supernatural” from Augustine on, Lubac challenged the sharp distinction made by theologians close to the pope since the nineteenth century between, on the one hand, the realm of human nature and the natural world and, on the other, the supernatural order and the divine. The desire for God was “natural” in human beings, he wrote, but it was there because God put it there, a “divine requirement.”

Accommodating as this view may seem for Catholics, important members of the Vatican hierarchy feared it weakened the distinction between the spiritual Church and the worldly concerns of everyday life. In 1950, Pius XII ordered Lubac to stop public teaching and censured his book on the supernatural, but this did not stop Lubac from affirming—in a phrase that Certeau never forgot—that “the Church must always leave all its doors open through which people of different mind can arrive at the truth.”3

Certeau began to write in his seminary days, and his early publications show him making his first steps toward his “science of the other.” He put experience at the heart of religious life, but noted a deep gap between experience and spiritual desire: believers yearned to approach God, but often felt God was absent. Such alienation was inevitable. In Certeau’s conception, God’s presence could only be “imperfect and ephemeral”—but it could be recognized if one understood how human feelings shifted from minute to minute and human beings had to struggle for words to capture experience fully. Further, all religious experience, no matter how solitary, is suffused with the presence of others, whether in the history one has absorbed or in the language in which one thinks and prays.

Certeau found that this quest was lived out in the spiritual diary of the early Jesuit Pierre Favre, written as he traveled around Europe preaching in the 1540s and seeking signs of God’s love within himself. Translated from Latin and Spanish into French and edited by Certeau for his doctoral dissertation, Favre’s interior pilgrimage exemplified for Certeau “the feeling of mystery which emerges in experience.”4 But the mystery did not go far enough for Certeau. He was drawn to the “wild mystics,” the mystiques sauvages, of the seventeenth century, especially the Jesuit Jean-Joseph Surin, who became, said Certeau, his “companion,” “the ghost who haunted his life.”

Surin was not a quiet companion. A wandering preacher and director of souls, seeking signs of God among the humble, Surin was called to Loudun in 1634 to exorcise the Ursuline prioress Jeanne des Anges of the devils that possessed her. He succeeded in curing her, but at the cost, willingly offered, of his own fragile emotional balance. For almost twenty years, he suffered and remained silent in a Jesuit sickroom. In 1654 he emerged and became an impassioned writer on the mystic quest: “I would like the voice of a trumpet, a pen of bronze,” “I would like flames to flow from my pen,” he said. Certeau scoured libraries to find manuscripts of Surin’s writings and his letters of personal confession and spiritual guidance, publishing them in 1963 and 1966, with extensive commentary and reflection.5

The 1960s brought other discoveries to Certeau. Hoping to link theology and psychology, Certeau turned with a few other Jesuits to the study of psychoanalysis; in 1964, he became one of the founding members of Jacques Lacan’s École freudienne de Paris. In his dense rhetoric Lacan elaborated the formal language of the “subject,” or self, and the other. He wrote of the infant’s perception of itself as “other” when it first sees itself in a mirror and of the consequent emergence of the idea of otherness as something absent from or lacking in the self. He discussed the child’s entry into the symbolic realm of language, which, he argued, gives structure to otherness, and the unending but impossible desire to close the gap between the self and the other.

  1. 1

    Ratzinger’s evolution and views are discussed by Anthony Grafton in “Reading Ratzinger,” The New Yorker, July 25, 2005, and in “A ‘Dictatorship of Relativism?’ Symposium in Response to Cardinal Ratzinger’s Last Homily,” Common Knowledge, No. 13 (2007), pp. 337–455.

  2. 2

    In his huge book Michel de Certeau: Le marcheur blessé (Paris: La Découverte, 2002), François Dosse follows Certeau in his many itineraries in Europe and the Americas—friendships, scholarship, religious exploration, and political inquiry.

  3. 3

    Quoted by Certeau in an appreciation of Lubac written shortly before his own death and published several years later in Le Monde (“La Mort du cardinal de Lubac,” September 5, 1991).

  4. 4

    L’Expérience religieuse, ‘connaissance vécue’ dans l’Église” (1956), edited by Luce Giard, in Le voyage mystique: Michel de Certeau (Paris: Recherches de Science Religieuse, 1988), pp. 27–51; Pierre Favre, Mémorial, translated and edited by Michel de Certeau (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1960).

  5. 5

    Jean-Joseph Surin, Guide spirituel, edited by Michel de Certeau (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1963), p. 60; Correspondance, edited by Michel de Certeau (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1966).

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