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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)

1.

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.

Certeau used some of these ideas, especially in interpreting the yearnings of his “wild mystics” for God. But as Jeremy Ahearne shows in his insightful book Michel de Certeau: Interpretation and Its Other, Certeau developed his own social and historical concepts of “others” that went well beyond Lacan’s rigid categories and examples. At Lacan’s death in 1981, Certeau described him as one of the extravagant wanderers, at his best when expressing his ideas and practicing psychoanalysis, but a failure when caught in the angry feuds of the institutions he set up.6

Especially important in the 1960s were the changes instituted by Vatican II. The once-proscribed Henri de Lubac was summoned by Pope John XXIII to have a leading part in the council; Joseph Ratzinger attended the sessions and wrote approvingly of the Church’s new openness to the laity and even to “elements of sanctification” outside the Church itself (to quote the phrase from the council’s text Lumen gentium). From Paris, Certeau responded more radically. For him the reforms endorsed by the council were a creative “rupture” with the unbending hierarchical patterns of the past. They called for “multiple languages of faith” to express people’s experience instead of remote clerical language. In his view, Vatican II should lead the Church to immerse itself fully in all the issues of the modern world and to recognize how much it still had to learn about these issues—about war and violence, about birth control, and what went on in the city streets and in the press and television.7

This should be the Church’s task not just in Europe, whose priests dominated the council, but elsewhere in the world. Such, he thought, had been the spirit of Ignatius Loyola and his fellow Jesuits in the early sixteenth century. And such would be Certeau’s goal between 1966 and 1968 and for years afterward, as he went frequently to Latin America, especially to Brazil and Mexico, drawn to the liberation theology priests who were active in the neighborhoods of the poor and who believed the Church must fight against social misery as well as try to save souls. He was impressed with the forms of popular spirituality he observed during his travels, seeing in these messianic and ecstatic movements not aberrant behavior that had to be stamped out by the Church but “the inner voice of a continent still culturally Catholic.” He also wrote condemning the torture under the military dictatorship in Brazil.

In 1968, Certeau interpreted the student movement as another creative “rupture.” “Last May,” he wrote in a Jesuit periodical in the summer of 1968,

speech was taken the way, in 1789, the Bastille was taken. The stronghold that was assailed is a knowledge held by the dispensers of culture, a knowledge meant to integrate or enclose student workers and wage earners in a system of assigned duties.

As he saw seventeenth-century mystics struggling for a language to express their experience, and as he urged the Church to develop multiple forms of expression to give voice to modern spirituality, so now he heard students trying to enlarge the right to speak, some of them “putting the whole system into question.” Speech was soon “recaptured” by governmental and academic institutions, which, said Certeau, restored a hierarchical order rather than creating a more pluralistic structure “called for by the [May] events.” Still, he argued, the historian could keep hope for change alive by giving a lucid account of relations between the existing institutions and student “others.”

By the end of the 1960s, Certeau’s teacher Henri de Lubac no longer sought further changes in the Church: for him the era of reform had come to a close. In 1970 Joseph Ratzinger published a book in which he decried the arrogance of those calling for extreme democratization of the Church, including elections and synods where laypeople would participate along with ordained clergy. The Church, he wrote, had “democracy” enough with its collegial structure of priests and bishops, and the pope at its head. Reflecting later on the Sixties, Ratzinger said that “many Catholics moved from a narrow, inward-fixed Christianity to an uncritical openness to the world.”8

Openness to the world was at the heart of Certeau’s position as a Christian. After 1970, his writings widened in scope and audience; his critical use of “heterologies” to describe religious and cultural practices won him support in France and abroad, and also adversaries. To start with, his theology shocked Lubac. Certeau was asked in 1971 to submit materials to the Institut catholique in Paris for a proper doctorate of theology (his existing doctorate was in religious studies); his essay on the meaning of Christianity was rejected, and rather than revising it to satisfy the institute’s faculty, Certeau published it as La Rupture Instauratrice—“The Founding Rupture, or Christianity in the Contemporary World.” Other essays followed and even a radio debate with the Catholic socialist intellectual Jean-Marie Domenach.

Jesus Christ, Certeau argued, is the central figure, the Other, present but also absent; his coming and death founded Christianity, but the signifying event is not the crucifixion but the empty tomb; “the ‘follow me’ [of Jesus] comes from a voice which has been effaced, forever irrecoverable.” Still the Christian wants to believe, Certeau said; wants to take the risk and follows a way to Christ; but the character of the Christian life must be understood according to historical circumstances. In the secularized world of the late twentieth century, with nonreligious structures dominating everywhere, Certeau argued, Church institutions alone could not be the site for Christian intervention in the world. In fact, Christian belief and practices could no longer be associated with a place, or even with a single social milieu like “the poor,” but could be only an uncharted path, a wandering, without power: the person, armed with the “weakness of faith,” tries always to make space for others and to open closed systems to difference and plurality. One printed version of his radio debate with Domenach quotes Certeau as exclaiming, “Christianity is something particular in the totality of history…. It cannot speak in the name of the entire universe.”9

Lubac responded with a ferocious condemnation of Certeau’s views and a defense of the universal Church and its hierarchy. He attacked his former student as a “Joachimite,” seeking, as had that medieval visionary, a golden age of pure spirituality without Church institutions or disciplinary institutions of any kind.10 In fact, Certeau did not desire a future without institutions. They were part of human life, as essential as the practices of “others” that diverged from their rules, though he regretted when, as with the post–Vatican II Church, institutions abandoned the chance for deep reform. Still, when Lubac was made a cardinal in 1983, Certeau wrote his teacher that he owed his own Christian calling to him and was glad his work “had received the seal of the Church.”

In Certeau’s case, however, being a Christian meant “transcending membership.” He would remain a Jesuit willingly, but would not validate his views by his position in his order or church, or claim to be their spokesman. Rather he would stand on their margins, asking unorthodox questions and “confronting the corpus of Christian rites and texts with contemporary practices.”

His L’Invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life) of 1980 applied this questioning to the world beyond the Church, writing of the ways that ordinary human behavior resisted institutional control. Here he was taking issue with Michel Foucault. Certeau wrote appreciatively of Foucault’s close analysis of “discipline” in his influential Discipline and Punish, where the philosopher tracked the shift from the old regime, in which torture was used as a public spectacle, to the modern prison, in which coercion was used behind closed doors to “control” the body. But Certeau commented:

If it is true that the grid of “discipline” is everywhere becoming clearer and more extensive, it is all the more urgent to discover how an entire society resists being reduced to it, what popular procedures…manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them.

Certeau examined commonplace activities over which control could in principle be maintained by the institutional organization of space and language and suggested how in fact control was ignored or bypassed. People walk their own way through the grid of city streets, zigzagging, slowing down, preferring streets with certain names, making turns and detours, their own “walking rhetoric.” People read in ways that escape the social hierarchy and “imposed system” of written texts: they read in all kinds of places from libraries to toilets. They read with their own rhythms and interruptions, thinking or daydreaming; they read making gestures and sounds, stretching, “a wild orchestration of the body,” and end up with their own ideas about the book. “These procedures and ruses…compose the network of an antidiscipline.”

The Practice of Everyday Life appeared in English in 1984, the first of Certeau’s book-length studies to be published in this language. Since 1978 Certeau had been teaching at the University of California at San Diego, and both recent American publications on “popular cultures” and the collaboration of historians and anthropologists created a growing interest in his work in the United States, where it did not arouse the same controversies as in France. During the next fifteen years seven more books were published in English.

His translators faced a challenge. By 1970, Certeau’s ways of thinking about the world had become increasingly elaborate and he sought a new style to accommodate them, but the expression of his thought in his later writing is sometimes opaque. Introducing his own inner dialogue about how to validate his religious belief other than through Church authority, Certeau says:

Feeling the Christian ground on which I thought I was walking disappear, seeing the messengers of an ending, long time under way, approach, recognizing in this my relation to history as a death with no proper future of its own, and a belief stripped of any secure site, I discover the violence of an instant.

Tom Conley, translator of three of Certeau’s books, writes that he now heard in Certeau’s work the rhythms of mystic speech, now psychoanalytic dialogue, and now Renaissance prose. It will help readers that Conley, Luce Giard, and other editors of these works have accompanied them with commentaries.

2.

Though writing on many subjects, Certeau always identified himself primarily as a historian. As a practitioner of that craft myself, I find especially rewarding his work on seventeenth-century spiritual life, its agonies and achievements, of which The Possession at Loudun can serve here as an example. In the 1630s, the town of Loudun—some 170 miles southwest of Paris—bore the marks of the religious wars; Protestants were still in the majority there, but the Catholic reform was making strong headway, with the newly established teaching order of the Ursuline nuns one of its main forces. In 1632, in the wake of a devastating plague, the prioress, Jeanne des Anges, and several members of the congregation were found to be possessed by devils: they twisted and writhed indecently, tried to vomit up the eucharistic wafer, and, when questioned, uttered blasphemies using the voices and names of devils.

Physicians, priestly exorcists, and theologians were summoned from near and far, to be joined by judges and royal officials. Rites of exorcism were performed publicly by the priests before an ever-growing number of visitors from France and abroad. The devils soon named the eloquent, elegant, and womanizing priest Urbain Grandier as the sorcerer behind the possession. He was tried, convicted, and finally executed late in August 1634, maintaining his innocence, even under torture, to the very end.

And still the possessions continued. At the end of 1634, a team of Jesuits arrived, including the mystic Jean-Joseph Surin. Much preferring private discussion to public exorcism, Surin devoted himself to turning the soul of Jeanne des Anges toward God. Two and half years later, the last devil left the body of the prioress, while a devil had entered the body of Surin and started a war within his soul that drove him to insanity, from which he recovered years later. Jeanne des Anges promptly became known as a miraculous figure, receiving angelic oracles and offering spiritual advice.

Certeau is at his most engaging telling this tale, his language well translated by Michael B. Smith. With all their ambiguities, the possessed women of Loudun illustrated perfectly Certeau’s belief that “history is never sure.” The sources were abundant—letters, court records, pamphlets, memoirs—and since Certeau’s original French edition was part of a series of primary documents, he could prepare a book with different voices and thereby capture a “heterological” perspective: his own from the present, and those from the past, “each of [the] halves say[ing] what is missing from the other.”

Certeau placed the Loudun events against a background of major shifts in the location of power in seventeenth-century France and the uncertainties produced by these changes. As Certeau saw it, power in regard to the sacred—power to define truth about God and human life—was passing from the various religious institutions that had been at the heart of medieval society to the political institutions of the monarchy, with Cardinal Richelieu appointed as Louis XIII’s chief minister. The Church still carried on its traditional functions and ceremonies, but its clerics were increasingly drawn upon for roles in social life and royal politics. Meanwhile the French monarchy was taking ever more initiative and acting decisively in regard to sacred matters. Genuine religious experience and spiritual struggle were carried on, then, in a more personal way, underneath liturgical ceremonies and behind the institutional structures of the Church and the monarchy. At their most experimental, they took the forms of possession, on one hand, and mysticism on the other.

This momentous shift fractured coherent belief systems, according to Certeau, and the fight about “truth” at Loudun expressed the anguish of uncertainty. Were these women really possessed by devils? Some physicians said their behavior could be explained simply by melancholy humors. Other observers thought the women were just lovesick or that their imagination had led them astray and their errors were confirmed by misguided confessors. Against such doubts, the presence and power of the devil were affirmed. Certeau describes the public exorcisms as a theater in which the priests could command the devils to speak before the people; the priests would thus demonstrate their ecclesiastical control over truth, even though that control was in fact slipping away from them.

By itself, this spectacle could not silence a troubling worry: the devil was the fount of lies, and yet the accusation against Grandier came exclusively from devils. The judges of Louis XIII’s royal courts had to step in with their own procedures to establish the truth, and the principal judge in the case was happy to target a priest whose local supporters stood in the way of Cardinal Richelieu’s plans for royal expansion. One of the exorcists, himself soon to become possessed, finally admitted his limits: “The demons can only be driven out by the power of the [king’s] scepter and…the [bishop’s] crosier would not suffice.”

Certeau also interprets the story from the inside, that is, from the point of view of the women. He does not see them as mere victims, either of devils or of priests and authorities around them, even though they were sometimes treated quite brutally in the public exorcisms. Rather he talks about the “gap”—or tension—between the ordered rule of the Ursuline convent, with its teaching activities and other works, and a “wild” inner life of desire and hidden malice. In such a situation, the nuns had doubts about the religious life, and the theological language of the time supplied them possession by devils as a means to express their despair. The public exorcism allowed them both to declare to the world what they secretly were and yet be assured by priests that they were something else.

Further, says Certeau, in that century of upper-class women performing as “Amazons”—in convents, at court, in politics, in salons, in the vernacular press—the public exorcism offered further occasion for female rebellion. “Go carry your beggar’s bag back to your Limoges,” snaps the voice of one devil speaking through a nun to a mendicant friar, and to the king’s own representative, “You have till now fooled so many people, but now you’ve been exposed.”

Of course, the public exorcisms ultimately did not dispel the demons, and the execution of Grandier did not achieve “the cohesion of a cosmos” that the ecclesiastical activities sought through sacrificing the deviant “other.” Certeau ends his account by showing the limits of institutional power and the inexhaustibility of human inventiveness, no matter how ironclad the restrictions. On the one hand, the King’s men could now readily demolish Loudun’s fortifications, leaving the town and its Protestants more vulnerable to royal control. On the other hand, Grandier’s death left a void, one of those “gaps” or “absences” that for Certeau invites response. An enormous literature about the case emerged in the next years, some of it fostering opposition to royal and ecclesiastical policies that seemed to have triumphed in 1634.

In Jeanne des Anges’s relation with Jean-Joseph Surin, Certeau sees a model of spiritual conversation that both serves as a psychoanalytic “talking cure” and prepares a believer to embrace mysticism. Surin prays for her and with her incessantly, expressing willingness to take on her suffering and her devils and urging her gently to reveal to him and to God the depths of her heart. Jeanne des Anges does spiritual exercises under his direction; she is patiently urged to look inward, and comes to see that she has long got her way through “little dodges,” that she has thought more about the impression she was making on others than on her inner life and God’s intentions for her—and that she herself has given some openings to the devils to take possession of her. Both of them tell this story in writing, she in an autobiography, he in letters. After his years of madness, they correspond frequently, Surin remarking toward the end of his life that she was “the only person” with whom he “feels the confidence to say…[his] deepest thoughts.”

Certeau’s account of the links between madness and mysticism modifies Michel Foucault’s earlier argument in Madness and Civilization, which assumed that insanity was given an exclusively negative cast in the seventeenth century, with preachers describing it as a descent into animality. But Certeau’s own vision of long-term historical change has its limits. His schema—centuries of a coherent cosmos, with religious power at its center, losing unity in the early modern period with the ascension of political power—becomes untenable when we recall the place of political power and religious conflict in medieval times and how new religious institutions, including Protestant ones, acquired legitimacy in early modern times. A remarkable new book on possession and mysticism throughout Europe, Moshe Sluhovsky’s Believe Not Every Spirit, revises and deepens our understanding of these phenomena and the role of women in them.11 But Certeau’s Loudun stands as a pioneering ethnography of human relations and spiritual practices in the seventeenth century.

Certeau’s The Mystic Fable continues this exploration of creative life on the margins. In some of his richest but most difficult writing, he develops the idea of “mystics,” referring here not to a group of people but to a science of spiritual experience and language (as “physics” is a science of nature). Certeau also makes his argument through stories, such as that of Surin’s meeting with an unlettered lad, a baker’s son from Normandy, during a three-day coach trip in 1630, when Surin was in the third year of his Jesuit novitiate. Surin described it in a letter that was later to be widely circulated:

[The young man] had never been instructed by anyone but God in the spiritual life, and yet he spoke to me about it with such sublimity and solidity that all I have read or heard is nothing compared to what he told me.

Surin went on to detail the “marvelous secrets” that God had communicated to this man of great simplicity.

Certeau also responded to unexpected encounters. In 1979, Le Nouvel Observateur published a ten-part series on the life of Saint Teresa by the graphic novelist Claire Bretécher, whose irreverent but affectionate portrait of Teresa—efficient money-raiser for her convents, possessed writer who wants to sell her books at a good price, addressing God with love but sometimes with irritation—aroused a storm of correspondence. Some readers were indignant at the vulgarity of this “hysterical virago”; others, including Christians, applauded Teresa’s dynamism and said that she herself would have laughed.

The editors asked Michel de Certeau to comment and he obliged, siding with those who thought Teresa would laugh.12 Theology did not just belong to theologians; its deep questions were for everyone to ponder. As much as Claire Bretécher, he saw Teresa as the “Carmelite Amazon, great hunter of dreams and desires.” His lyrical portrait of Teresa draws from his favorite themes: she is a wanderer, creating convents across Spain for “lovers of God”; immersed in daily affairs, she can pass in an instant to ecstatic connection with the beloved Other; she accepts the reality of institutions, but her books, with the dialogues they open, run counter to the lies institutions impose. Certeau’s generous legacy of books is an invitation to continue dialogue in every direction.

  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).

  6. 6

    Michel de Certeau, Histoire et psychanalyse entre science et fiction, edited by Luce Giard (Paris: Gallimard, 1987), Chapter 8, “Lacan: une éthique de la parole.”

  7. 7

    Certeau’s reactions to Vatican II were published in the Jesuit periodical Christus, Nos. 12 (1965), pp. 147–163, and 13 (1966), pp. 101–119; summary in François Dosse, Michel de Certeau: le marcheur blessé (Paris: La Découverte, 2002), Ch. 8.

  8. 8

    Joseph Ratzinger, “Demokratisierung der Kirche?,” in Joseph Ratzinger and Hans Maier, Demokratie in der Kirche: Möglichkeiten, Grenzen, Gefahren (Limburg: Lahn-Verlag, 1970), pp. 7– 46. Later quotation given in Grafton, “Reading Ratzinger.”

  9. 9

    Several of Certeau’s major publications on Christian belief are reprinted in a posthumous book, La Faiblesse de croire, edited by Luce Giard (Paris: Seuil, 1987). A translation from this collection is found in The Certeau Reader, “The Weakness of Believing. From the Body to Writing, a Christian Transit.”

  10. 10

    Henri de Lubac, La Posterité spirituelle de Joachim de Flore (Paris, 1978– 1980), Vol. 2, pp. 447–449.

  11. 11

    Moshe Sluhovsky, Believe Not Every Spirit: Possession, Mysticism, and Discernment in Early Modern Catholicism (University of Chicago Press, 2007).

  12. 12

    Thérèse d’Avila, ou le chemin pour se perdre,” Le Nouvel Observateur, No. 771 (August 20–26, 1979).

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