This project recounts how the first generation of British women academics fashioned humanistic research into a spiritual practice. Rather than offering dispassionate histories of religion, these scholars presented their intellectual labor as extending—and revealing—a secret tradition of women’s intellectual and spiritual seeking.
Presented on October 22 by Mimi Winick (Virginia Commonwealth University), Visiting Lecturer in Women’s Studies and Religion and Society.
In fact, since I know we have very limited time, we're going to try to keep this session to an hour so as not to strain your Zoom attention. So I'm going to go right ahead and introduce today's speaker, Dr. Meryl Winick, known as Mimi. So I hope you don't mind if I refer to you that way. Dr. Winick comes to us from the Virginia Commonwealth University where she has been teaching in the English department.
She did her doctorate in English literature at Rutgers University. And as soon as we saw her research proposal, we knew that this was really a critical intervention for our field because she has found the roots of gender discrepancies right at the source of the field, the discipline of religious studies, right at the root of our academic inquiry methods that we use.
So we're so happy to have her work as part of our program. She's published a number of articles on some of the early women scholars in religion that you're going to hear her talk about today. Now, without further ado, I'm going to turn you over to Mimi Winick.
Thank you, Ann, and thank you all for being here. I am so delighted to be a part of this program, and the silver lining of our remote work this semester is that I get to talk to so many of you today who are not here in Massachusetts but to whom I am in conversation, indebted, and excited to be thinking along with. So I'm going to share my screen, so bear with me one moment.
All right. I think you're all seeing what I'm seeing now. So as Ann mentioned, I'm going to be talking to you about ecstatic inquiry, women's scholarship on religion in Britain, 1890 to 1930. And these years sort of describe the primary texts that I'm concerned with here, but we'll probably end up talking to the 1990s today, maybe get a little beyond in the Q&A.
But to start, I'm going to start at the end of the 19th century and talk about this moment and a familiar set of relations among religion, knowledge, and gender at this period. And we'll do that with some help from me folklorist, Andrew Lang, whose two volume myth, ritual, and religion, published in 1887, is the image on the slide. I should say, in general, that I've got a bunch of image and texts on these sides, and I'll mostly mentioned the images. But occasionally, I'll just use them as suggestive illustrations, but if you ever have specific questions about any of them that I don't talk about in detail, happy to do that in the Q&A.
So at this moment, figures like Andrew Lang working in the emerging fields of folklore, anthropology, comparative religion were bringing together traditions of thought from a enlightenment tradition of white supremacist theories of the history of civilizations and a post-Darwin natural evolution into the history of religion and aesthetics. And in projects like these, they had these stage view or stadial views of civilization that racialized religion and specifically what's known as sort of a bad or rational form of religion as the kind of primitive, credulous belief systems found in tribal societies and still found to among European peasants and globally, societies made up of people of color and also found all over the world among women. These were characterized by getting credulity, superstition, or false knowledge, sort of bad or rationality and a bad religion that was out of step with modernity.
And if you can really see this on that embossed image on the cover of Lang's book from the 1887 edition, it's what Land and his peers regard it as an artifact of a primitive femininity and a racialized femininity. So this is a pretty familiar constellation at the end of the 19th century, this negative view of primitive, bad religion associated with femininity and that heavily racialized concept.
So I now want to look at what is a related but distinct tradition of thinking and writing about religion, knowledge, and gender. And this is the tradition that I'm calling here ecstatic inquiry. And I think we can start to get a sense of some of the differences on ecstatic inquiry from Lang's model in this image of maenad from Jane Ellen Harrison's 1903 Study of Ancient Greek Art and Religion. And you can see some of her texts talking about these maenads as possessed, magical, and dangerous to handle.
And so one of the ways that I'm going to be talking about this idea of ecstatic inquiry is exemplified by work such as Harrison's is that it's a scholarly and a spiritual practice. So you got this example from a scholarly text. It features both the methods of a very up-to-date science, as well as an embrace of mystical methods. And it features and pursues research as a form of ecstatic ritual, and it features specifically, as in the case of Harrison, women in the position of scholars, writing about women in history, like these maenads as well as feminized knowledge practices.
OK. So what do I mean by this? And what does this look like in the theories of ecstatic inquiry so we have a very similar archive of anthropology or the comparative religion racialized so-called primitive religions in works such as Harrison's. But it's treated in a very different way.
And so whereas with Lang and his male peers, you get a so-called primitive religion that's seen as earlier denigrated form of religion. In Harrison's work and other ecstatic inquiry, this so-called primitive religion is originary and therefore close to a sacred origin, the sense of an essential original true religion. And instead of being associated with false knowledge, it's understood as featuring well other forms of knowledge, different knowledge practices.
And instead of mere bad irrationality, it features a joyful celebratory ecstasy. And it, too, is associated with women but women in positions of power, so this romanticization version of this so-called primitive religion in the work of Harrison and her female peers as I'm going to be talking about today.
And I want to argue a little bit further that in this work, in this tradition of ecstatic inquiry, you get an idea that religion as a marker of women of knowledge of ways of being and feeling is itself modern. It's a modernizing power. And specifically, religious experience is a marker of modern knowledge that religious traditions are necessary to the future of knowledge and indeed are part of modernizing projects in aesthetic and social change.
And I'm featuring here a painting by the American painter, Agnes Pelton who has a big exhibit at the Whitney in New York just now. So this stuff is in the air, and I'm excited to talk about it. But back from the US and over to the UK to my area of specialty, let's look at our actual ecstatic inquirers. And I'm going to introduce them to you more fully.
So we've already talked a little bit about Jane Ellen Harrison. I'm also going to introduce you to Jessie Laidlay Weston, her exact contemporary, and Margaret Alice Murray. And I've got images of their books from mid-20th century reprints.
So each of them was an expert in her field at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, Harrison in classics, Weston on medieval studies, specifically medieval romance of the Arthurian legend, and Margaret Alice Murray was a pioneering egyptologist who worked under Flinders Petrie in the field-- wrote reports from the field in Egypt that my colleague, Mariam Ayad, tells me are still in use today in the discipline. But she was also a folklorist, later president of the folklore society, and her best known work comes out of that side of her work, which was the witch cult in Western Europe. And you can see those covers there.
So going to pause for a moment just to say where we are here. I kind of done a little bit of an overview of what I'll talking about with this idea of ecstatic inquiry, this tradition, who might be involved. I'm going to do a bit more detailed introductions to these figures, then we'll talk about their reception. We'll do a slightly deeper dive further into Harrison's theory and practice of ecstatic inquiry, this sort of look at the stakes of this project and then make some sort of suggestions and conclusions in the concluding section, and then we'll be able to open up for the Q&A.
So back to our main figures, some portraits and painting, photography, and sculpture of these women at the height of their careers, Harrison, this is the official portrait of her that hangs in Newnham College Cambridge where she was trained and where she ultimately made her career as the first female research fellow. So this cohort had a lot of firsts, a lot of pioneering steps.
The third in the cohort, Jessie Weston, not on this slide also did not have an academic affiliation. Murray had an affiliation with the University of College London where Petrie was. But Weston had an affiliation with the quest society, a quasi occult group, and we can talk a bit more about the place of the cult is in another new religious movements in these practices.
But I see Weston to the next slide because, as far as I know, there is no extant portrait or photograph of her, even though in her own time, she was actually one of the best known. Her book From Ritual to Romance, which if you've heard of, you may have heard in connection with TS Eliot's The Wasteland, which helped make it particularly infamous by citing it in the end notes to the poem as the key to the title and symbolism of the poem.
But despite the fame of Weston's book, which after it was published won the Rosemary Crochet Award for the best study of English literature by a woman, there's this sort of strange gap in the archive. And I think you'll see how this is part of the story.
But a little bit of a further introduction to these women's theories and methods, so in Jane Harrison's classical scholarship, which by the early 20th century was highly focused on religion, her main theoretical contributions was building on the theories of JJ Bachofen and other civilizational theorists the earliest societies had a matriarchal or matrilineal form. And Harrison had been influenced by an conversation with Durkheim, who she, in her letter, sometimes refers to as the Divine Dirk kind or even the Divine D believe that religion originated and social practices, social rituals. And so it was a reflection of societies.
So matriarchal size goddesses. And so she had this idea that the goddesses come before the gods in the history of religion. And that two, ritual and myth, were co-emergent phenomena out of social practices. And so this was important because for her, myth wasn't just a tissue of errors or bad science. It was also an expression, a religious expression.
Margaret Murray's major contributions, you can see some connections with Harrison's theories. And these women were reading each other and knew each other's work so which is practiced sort of ancient fertility cult, pagan fertility cult according to Murray that also featured on goddesses before gods. Her biggest innovation in the history of witchcraft is the idea that witches where neither possessed by the devil nor simply hysterical.
These were the dominant ideas at the time. And they both presented women that the majority of witches as either is especially susceptible to seeding or susceptible to insanity. And Murray's approach was to say, no, we need to actually-- she was like, believe the women. We need to look at the trial transcripts, and actually, if we do that, we're going to see that they were testifying to their faith in this particular witch religion, which she called the witch cult.
Jessie Weston's contributions were related to these. Again, we see the sort of goddesses before gods. She made another intervention in saying where Harrison found the evidence of these ancient, pre-patriarchal, pre-God religions in art and literature. So she often uses Greek drama as evidence.
She always thought it was. She theorized that it was an accidental survival into literature. Weston belief these things were actively preserved as part of a secret tradition. And Weston, as the idea of a secret tradition might suggest, was especially influenced by philosophical ideas of the period. And indeed, from ritual relics does feature a clinching episode where she discusses the astral plane.
So as a group, their big contributions were looking at the origins of religion, goddesses preceded gods, women, as Harrison says in one of works, were dominant and central in this context. Later, art and literature preserve these ancient rituals from woman-centered fertility religions, sometimes accidentally if you're Harrison, sometimes more actively if you're Weston.
And either way, there's a narrative of the persistence of these women-centered pagan religions under often patriarchal, Christian, later oppression. So in Harrison, it's a patriarchal, Olympian God oppression. And Murray and West, it's a patriarchal Christian oppression. I mean also that the origins of religion and art, and for Harrison, also, philosophy and scholarship all could be found in ritual.
OK. So this is where pop quiz. I'm going to ask to see how many of you might be familiar with these figures that I've been introducing as ecstatic inquirers. So Tracy, if you're there, would you pop up the poll?
Oh, great. So you all should be seeing a poll now. And you should be able to sort of click which of these figures or their work have you heard of before today. OK. We've got a nice little pause. All right. So the results, hopefully, you can see them too, but I'll read them out just in case.
JG Frazer in The Golden Bough, 88% of you have heard of. Durkheim in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 91%. And then we table off Jessie Weston for From Ritual to Romance is at 53%. Jane Helen Harrison in either Themis or Prolegomena at 44% and Margaret Murray at 32%.
So Durkheim and Frazer around 90% and then Harrison, Weston, and Murray from 30% to 50%, so a pretty precipitous difference. OK. That poll, even among an enlightened informed group such as yourselves, I think indicates something that we can also see in this rather sad image of the bronze bust of Margaret Murray in storage at the Petrie Museum at University College London among some obsolete computer and filing cabinets.
So I want to talk a little bit about the reception of these figures. So I'm going to use Jesse Weston's From Ritual to Romance as an example here. Weston's work, Harrison's work, Murray's work, when it was first published, in Harrison's case, in the aughts, teens, and 20s, and with Weston and Murray in the 20s, it all was widely reviewed, widely reviewed in a scholarly press and in this dailies and weeklies.
So really, these ideas were really disseminated. And it was reviewed on the whole with praise and some controversy. So you can see in the examples here. We have the prominent British anthropologist R.R. Merit reviewing From Ritual to Romance and The Half a Man as, "scholarly scientific work through and through."
And then we have the anonymous reviewer in the Saturday Review known for its anonymous nasty but witty reviews accusing Weston of having an uncritical mind and unquestioning a badly influenced by theosophist. And what a fall for a woman who had been, who had had a high reputation as a trustworthy copyist to ancient documents and a diligent collector of facts.
And if diligent and trustworthy seem familiar to you from those things that circulate about how not to write about your female students when writing recommendations, don't call them diligent. Actually, call them brilliant. We can talk more about the history of those gendered terms in this context too.
But this is pretty typical, but I should say that the merits reviews really outweigh the negative reviews, although the negative reviews were present. And this was true for Harrison and Murray as well. So this is in their lifetimes through the 1920s. This is the reception of their work.
As Harrison and Western both die in their 70s in 1928. And in the years following their deaths, in the 30s and into the 40s. their related fields to which they saw themselves as important contributors, anthropology, comparative religion, were undergoing huge paradigm shifts.
So Frazer was going from like the guy, the authority, and seeding to his former student, Malinowski, and over the US, Franz Boas, from the armchair Victorian anthropology to the field work functionalist model. And Harrison, Weston, and Mary were self-confessed disciples of Frazier's. There was a paradigm shift there.
We also have a paradigm shift in the place and professionalization in the Academy. You had a lot of so-called amateur scholars flourishing in para-academic spaces in this period. Even JG Frazer, who was a Cambridge Don, published with Macmillan not with the University Press. There was like a good relationship among scholarship and mature gentleman scholar figures in this period that was really in decline.
And I will argue that this did effect to the women. So someone like Jessie Weston who didn't have an academic affiliation became to be seen as an amateur in a new way. And I think we get a sense of the shift around the reception of Weston. If they actually look at parts of the most famous interlocutor, T.S. Eliot, and if we look at original way he writes about her in his end notes to The Wasteland in 1922 where he says, "so deeply am I indebted. Miss Weston's book will elucidate the difficulties of the poem much better than my own notes can do." So go read this book. It will tell you what my famously difficult poem is about. And he goes on, "I recommend it, apart from the great interest of the book itself, to any who thinks such elucidation of the poem worth the trouble." So it's not an uncomplicated endorsement, but it's an endorsement and in a place where he's working out its own reputation too.
30 odd years later, Eliot will give one of his most famous well-attended lectures in the enormous basketball auditorium at the University of Minnesota, pictured here. It holds a capacity of 15,000 people. And in this lecture, the frontiers of criticism in 1956, he really distances himself from that earlier endorsement, say, writing, "it was just no doubt that I should pay my tribute to the work of Miss Jessie Weston, but I regret having sent so many inquiries off on a wild goose chase after tarot cards and the Holy Grail."
And again, it's not an uncomplicated disavowal. But there's a real shift in tone that's reflected like if this is the tip of the iceberg, the bottom part is all these scholars and Weston's home field of the medieval studies, disavowing her in similar ways on a similar schedule.
So I'd like to argue that what we're seeing in some of this discrediting is a story of the return of an earlier model of gendered knowledge connected to this racialized religion. And I think we can see it. It's there in the first reception of these texts in the 20s, uncritical mind, unquestioning faith. And its kind of resurges in the mid-century, reflections like Kelly. It's a wild goose chase after tarot cards and the Holy Grail. These icons of enchantment are sort of reaffirming of this gender of bad enchant of bad religion.
And we can see it in the reception of all these figures. So it's there originally. Harrison was accused in 1912 of having this excessive sympathy with the goddesses that she's writing about. Murray is accused of having a personal bias in favor of the witches connected with her interest in suffrage, and she's even accused by one reviewer of hysteria. And Weston is accused by a reviewer of having a "Gawain" complex and this fashionable pathologizing language at the time.
And these reviews and these takes that could conjure up this gender bad religion or bad enchantment flourish later too. And I think they flourish more effectively later, and they also have an additional valence, which is interesting and important to the reception of these texts. And that is the valence of a sense that these women who were writing about things that could be understood as suppressed religious or knowledge traditions, the oppression of the witch cult by the inquisitors, as in the image of like Matthew Hopkins' Witchfinder.
This is a story that by some starts to be of applied to their own work. Like, oh, these women are kind of oppressed, or their knowledge, their texts are being suppressed by a sexist academic culture. And you can see some evidence of this if we do it sort of comparative look at those other names that you were polled on.
So in addition, like someone like Sigmund Freud and the also JG Frazier and Emile Durkheim, these figures were still crucial to some canonical figures in the study of religion and other fields and are central to intellectual history. They, too, were using the so-called primitive religions in ways that have been totally discredited, but they were not discredited in the same terms which had the same effect.
So now, this brings me to the question of a different kind of reception of these figures, which is the story not just of being discredited but of persistence, this persistence that sort of echoes the stories that these women were telling about these female-centered religious and religious/knowledge traditions. And one site of this persistence as we'll see is sort of Anglo-American counterculture. And so this really introduced that. I've got this film still from Coppola's Apocalypse Now where you've got on Kurtz's bedside table that mid-century 1950s edition of From Ritual to Romance and another from the same period of the Golden Bough in the one volume.
And I want to talk a little bit more about this one volume Golden Bough , which was published in 1922 after the original one first came out in two volumes in 1890. This is a cover image of a fabulous reprint edition from Macmillan in 1974 that features cover art by an artist who calls himself Robin Goodfellow. And it's obviously a fantasy vista.
If you look closely, there's not just unicorns and quasi-Grecian people in togas, but there's some almost like Philip K. Dick-ian pink substance in the back. It's very strange. And arguably, I think one of the things we're seeing in this image of the Golden Bough later on is an influence of the ideas of Harrison, Weston, and Murray on the reception of this better known book. but forgetting that there's something strange and ecstatic in these scholarly religious texts.
We'll see more about this in a minute, but I want to bring in another image, which is the cover of Time magazine from 1950, which features T.S. Eliot framed by this extremely like westonian imagery of a grail chalice that looks a little bit also like a Martini, sort of woman's, very feminine hand holding up across and, again, this almost like soft, fantastic landscape. It's almost flooding this picture of T.S. Eliot.
And what I want to suggest is that these images of Frazer's book, of Eliot in 1950s framed by this From Ritual to Romance imagery that these women's work, even though it came in first an extreme disavowal in some quarters, some prominent quarters in this mid-20th century period, also still persisted with the persistence of these better known texts. And it persisted with the idea that a book like The Golden Bough could be a window to original, early, true religion, a very Harrisonian idea applied to The Golden Bough, that it could be a textbook for other ways of knowing not just false ways of knowing and that these images suggest forms of ecstasy connected with these texts but really framed by the ideas of Harrison, Weston, and Murray. And even this femininity of some of the imagery suggests a place for women and also spirituality that you can see some of the image resonance with the spiritual painting of Agnes Pelton.
And we see this even more explicitly in some other elements of the reception of these texts. So the work of Harrison, Weston, and Murray made its way into new religious movements starting in the early 20th century with something like the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry , which is also inspired by Theosophy and The Boy Scouts. It was an all-feminist but also very explicitly in the churches of Wicca and modern pagan witchcraft, goddess spirituality, this radical theology of Mary Daly.
And this point of Mary Daly suggests, there's also a critical engagement through Mary Daly with some of these ideas by someone like Audre Lorde who writes that open letter to Mary Daly criticizing Daly's use of Lorde's words in her own work that's relying on Harrison, Weston, and Murray. But Lorde's idea of the uses of the erotic and the place of joy as a form of knowledge also connects with these ecstatic inquirers in compelling ways, and I'll hopefully have a chance to say more about that in conclusion.
Again, I mentioned this American counterculture reception of these things. And mindful of times, I'm not going to dwell on this, but we can talk more about some of this in the Q&A. So I do want to think a little bit about what happens when we restore ecstatic inquiry to intellectual history. Before that, I'm going to take us briefly through just a little bit more concrete examples of some of what ecstatic inquiry looks like and Jane Helen Harrison's work.
So first, we've talked a little bit about her contributions in theory. I just want to add that in her theory of matriarchy, another thing she introduced was complicating the stereotypes of Victorian gender. So this dance of these armed youths around the baby and Harrison's telling is an image of a nurturing young masculinity that's opposed to a patriarchal Zeusian masculinity. So there was this interest in complicating gender in some of this work.
But what I'm really most interested in Harrison here is the place of joy, a joyful ecstasy in her work. So the way she describes religion in ancient Greece really partakes or evokes this sense of ecstasy. So she writes about the bacchantes, the maenads "half mad with excitement they shout aloud the dogmas of their most holy religion." There's a sense of affirmation there, a joyous religion. And there's not joy only in the religion she describes but in the practices of scholarship itself.
So elsewhere in this same scholarly text, Harrison is describing a scene on a piece of artwork that's part of her evidence for her theory, and she reflects on the joy it causes her as the scholar. And she communicates it to the reader, right, bringing in the reader with these pronouns. "To our delight and amazement." "The conjunction rather takes our breath away," this really embodied emotion.
And she talks about this in some of her more autobiographical and journalistic writings too, so she is theorizing the place of mysticism, of joy, rapture in scholarly practices. And part of the way she does this is in connecting it explicitly to gender. So this last quote here where she's talking about "the rapture of reconstructing for the first time in imagination a bit of the historical past," which really describes her own methods and practices-- this is in an essay that's about how this is something that has long been deemed unwomanly.
Later in that essay Harrison says, historically, "between feeling and knowing there's a certain antithesis; the province of women was to feel-- therefore they had better not know." But in the longer quote she describes her own process of feeling in knowing, that intellect was never wholly separately intellectual. But if you skim the quote, colored by an "uprush of emotion," "tears in the eyes." It's sensuous. It's emotional. It's connected to sex. And so there is this sort of ecstatic gendered inquiry happening for Harrison.
And she connects this too to this idea of the future of knowledge, that "our present age," she writes, "is an age of cooperation." And not marked by the sort of usually masculinized individual genius and even says wittily at the end, "the great geniuses" are kind of moot. "The great criminals yet remain. We do not fret about it." She's a very humorous writer too.
So, in brief, what happens when we restore ecstatic inquiry, this kind of ecstatic inquiry we've seen now, a little bit more in detail in Jane Harrison's work, to the stories we tell in intellectual history? First, it complicates the linear progress narratives of the increasing accessibility of academia to women. And I think we can also use this to help us understand the uneven histories of access of academia too to people of color and people from not elite backgrounds. But access is not just a matter of continually increasing certain people's presence, but also of making room for intellectual histories that credit contributions from these folks.
Another place that ecstatic inquiry can make a difference in our intellectual histories is in literary studies. There's a wonderful, broad group of writers, other scholars like Evelyn Underhill, Janet Spens, Bertha Phillpotts who were doing related work in this period. And then later literary writers who deeply engaged with this work in a myriad of ways. Sometimes critically, sometimes enthusiastically, often a mix of the two. So an assortment here.
As I suggested earlier too, there's a sense that there's a connection between this project in scholarship and projects in literature and art that we can see in some of these blockbuster recent exhibitions of women artists engage in a kind of feminist spiritual modernism. And finally, in religious studies we can think about what it would mean to think about Harrison, Weston, and Murray alongside Durkheim, Frazier, and others, and how this might help us inform a different history of this idea of spiritual but not religious. This idea of a free-thinking, sometimes atheistic approach that is also deeply spiritual and connected to ideas of spiritual ecstasy.
And finally to Women's, Genders, and Sexuality Studies, thinking about how this multidisciplinary, varied field has at different points embraced and disavowed this work, going back to Mary Daly and Audre Lorde. And thinking too about how we can think maybe beyond genealogies into different kinds of constellations. So a place of joy, ecstasy, and scholarly study, which are all topics touched on by Jane Harrison, also Zora Neale Hurston, especially in Mules and Men, Simone Weil, and Audre Lorde again.
And even thinking about the place of late 19th-, early 20th-century black American scholars, like Anna Julia Cooper, heavily involved in folklore, and also in medieval studies, like Weston. And how we can maybe use ecstatic inquiry to better understand some of their practices, contributions, and reception.
Well, thank you so much. I believe we do have time for Q&A. So Ann, I think I will hand it back over to you.
Thank you so much, Mimi, and indeed we do have time for Q&A. You were very disciplined with this remarkable group of women. I have a feeling you could have opened up their lives to us. Once I saw that chaise lounge portrait, I knew there were thousands of stories that you could be telling us.
I do want to ask you if I could, Mimi, while people are thinking and typing a little bit, if you could give us one very brief story or anecdote that would take us into the experience of ecstatic scholarship, the joy that one of these figures, perhaps Weston, whom you have gone so deeply into, just that would give us a visceral sense of what made scholarship so joyous to them, and how did they experience that.
Yeah, well, Weston is actually hard because we have so little of her personal writings. We don't have the same autobiographical content that we do with Harrison or Murray, but one thing we do get that very explicitly in some Harrison's more autobiographical writing is a sense of the way she experienced her scholarly work as closest to what she knew of religious feelings. So sometimes she would have a conver-- what she would call a conversion experience, in coming to a new theory. But even in Weston's scholarly writing, we do sometimes get this sense of when she's describing a hypothesis and then she presents evidence that seems to confirm that hypothesis, there are these little eruptions in the text where there's an exclamation point or just a tone that is not the dry, scholarly tone, but really on the page is this moment of excitement and this real-- Lorde, in her uses of the erotic terms, a certain kind of erotic satisfaction in the confirmation of a hypothesis. The coming of together of evidence and a theory, or what these scholars sometimes call the bridging of gulfs between apparently far-flung pieces of evidence.
And this is something that scholars of religion have sometimes theorized as sort of a mystical practice, how comparative methodology and the bringing and joining together of disparate things can act like mysticism. And we really see that in the way they describe the coming together of their evidence.
Well, it's so fascinating to think of a trajectory leading from these scholars to some of the more formative and recent feminist scholars.
I'm going to read a question from Adin Lears, who says, I would love to hear you talk about how this research on women, femininity, and occult spirituality resonates with or even leads into the rising fascination with new age spirituality-- astrology, tarot, but also yoga, meditation, et cetera. What is it about the way we live today that makes people so interested in such marginalized religious beliefs and practices? And he extends the question, but I'm going to let you answer here.
Yeah, thank you, Adin. So, I think one thing is that we can see how these-- an interest in these so-called alternative, or sometimes subjugated knowledges, rejected knowledges, can feel like a way of doing a kind of critique of mainstream prestige, knowledge. So I know-- I perhaps have seen you or other interlocutors bring up the example of queer astrology, in that tradition of a critique of mainstream psychotherapy. It used to-- and in some cases still does-- pathologize queerness.
So I think in some ways it's a real form of critique, but I think you also raise the interesting point about how this also ties to and overlaps with conspiracy theorizing. You often get that there's conspiracy forms and some interest in some of these new age discourses. And I think we do see some of those functions here too. So it's a way of-- I've heard of conspiracy theorizing referred to as a form of rational enchantment, a way of finding a satisfaction in the coherence of things with a sense that you're being a rational thinker too, still a modern person.
Thank you. The next question comes from my colleague Dan McKanan, who asks, do you see these women as fully immersed in the milieu of theosophy and occult revival, or does their degree of scholarly engagement set them apart? I ask in part because I've wondered the same thing about the circle of theosophists who founded, oh, excuse me, who funded Harvard's Center for the Study of World Religions.
From where I am speaking, so I'm feeling very infused with that. So it actually varies to a degree. So I would say that, to some degree, all these women are engaging with theosophical theories and the sort of theosophical influence on early comparative religion, which is already sort of in play by the end of the 19th century. But Weston's the only one with anything close to a sort of theosophical affiliation, and in her case it's still made through disavowal. So she claims that she is not an occult initiate, but she has friends who are. And they're like her native informants. So she'll quote Yeats on modern magic, as a friend who informed her about what modern magicians are practicing today,
And she was a part in publishing The Quest Society's journal, and this was a society founded by a former prominent theosophist G.R.S. Mead, who had been secretary to Blavatsky, the founder theosophy, and in line to become president. But he left founded The Quest Society instead as something that was sort of separate from theosophy, but arguably in a way that was more theosophical than the theosophists because we're less indebted to dogma and creeds. They become too dogmatic-- we're going beyond.
Thank you. Lee Bellman asks, he says, I love your list of writers influenced by these thinkers at the end. I wonder what you might do with the troublesome figure of Camille Paglia.
Oh, thank you, Lee. Yeah, so, Camille Paglia has also-- should be on that list, as sort of a scholarly literary writer, who's also a part of the reception of these thinkers in second wave feminism, arguably. She is a great champion of Jane Harrison, and kind of like Mary Daly, has become a sort of controversial figure in histories of feminism. And so for me, I think it's telling that the more visible reception of Harrison and some of her peers and figures like Daly and Paglia-- who herself sometimes comes in for criticism for being too amateurish or somehow not scholarly rigorous enough-- become another part of the way, there's this sort of gender bad enchantment and bad religion that gets deployed to keep these figures from being a part of a recognizable intellectual history, even though they're clearly there. They keep getting marginalized in sort of similar ways.
We seem to have a lot of people who want to ask about how a specific author fits into this constellation that you have drawn for us, so another figure that there's a question about from Suzanne, is one that I'm not familiar with. She asks about the interest in Harrison as a Bloomsbury figure in Wade's Square Haunting.
In Wade's Square Haunting. I'm not sure if I'm quite getting that, but I'm getting the Bloomsbury Group of Virginia Woolf and these sort of the bohemian like artists and literary figures, Forster, the Stracheys, and all of them. And so, Harrison and Woolf knew each other. Woolf talks about going to see Harrison in Paris, and her, quote unquote, "Sapphic flat." We haven't even gotten to the queerness of these figures. And Harrison publishes with the Hogarth Press, so she's sort of on the margins of the Bloomsbury group. Certainly knew a lot of the same people and had a lot of the same sympathies.
Ah, thank you. Francesca's Wade square. Thank you, Kelly. Five Writers in London Between the War. I have to read this. I don't know it. So I'll look that up. Thank you, Suzanne, and thank you, Kelly.
And now we have a question from Joy Dixon, the scholar of feminism and theosophy. Welcome, Joy. It's great to have you here from across the pond. Joy is interested in the relationship between these three writers and Frazier. Frazier himself saw his project as a secular one, but he was clearly read ecstatically. These writers seem to have a complicated relationship to their readers, simultaneously wanting and not wanting to be read ecstatically. Could you comment more on that ambivalence?
Yeah, I think that's exactly right, that Frazier sort of disavowed ecstatic readings of his work. It was very much a rationalist critique of Christianity that he delighted in. And you get echoes of that rationalist critique, particularly in Harrison and Murray, who considered themselves rationalists. Harrison referred to herself as an old rat, but they were more open-- and Harrison explicitly so-- to this sort of value of religion, as what Harrison sometimes termed an impulse that persisted, and that persisted even in the vehicle of scholarship, in a way that Frazier would have nothing to do with. And I think this does go back to their slightly divergent theories of religion, that religion for Frazier emerges as an originary error, like a bad hypothesis. Whereas for Harrison, Weston, and Murray, religion has an origin in affect. And not like bad rationality, but just again some other way of sort of being and feeling and even thinking. And I think that, for them, allows them to have a bit more ambivalence in their scholarship and in the way that they were read and received.
Fascinating. We have a really interesting question from Sebastian Lecourt, which I'm glad is not being posed to me, and I'll leave it up to you how-- whether you want to go into this or perhaps ask Sebastian to reflect on it. Sebastian asks, what do you see as the obstacles to recovering ecstatic inquiry in religious studies today. My own sense looking at religious studies from the perspective of an English department is that religious studies remains quite keen on stressing its secular scientific character and distinguishing itself both from 20th century humanistic perennialism and 19th century liberal ecumenical theology. How are the politics of recovering ecstatic or experiential knowledge different in religious studies than in literary studies?
So, that's a question I would very much like to hear more of my colleagues here talk about. So, that is really beautifully worded, Sebastian. I think that one thing I'm seeing here at the Divinity School is a real interest from my religious studies colleagues in recovering what Charles Stang sometimes calls the support-- or evoking a sort of seance of these voices from the margins of religious studies, such as the theosophists. Excuse me.
As Dan mentioned, the Center for the Study of World Religions here at Harvard Divinity School, where I am speaking from, was founded by a bequest from a woman who had been part of a theosophical society in New York. And religious studies here seems increasingly interested in figuring out these links and how maybe there could be these sort of genealogies of mystical thinking and writing and practice that connect sort of scholarly work to more pastoral work and scholarly work today. And I'm really excited to see that.
But I do think that's a change maybe from a variety of fields just a short time ago where this stuff was written about and spoken about with more embarrassment. So I think where there's been such a rich production of scholarship on these areas for the past 20 years especially, and some before that, Ann Braude, that has sort of made people less embarrassed and given people the platform to ask these questions and pursue them more thoroughly. So I think there's real hope for critical recoveries of these kind of traditions now.
That's a wonderful closing comment to a really stimulating talk. We have come to the end of our time. I'm sorry we didn't get to every single question, but we got to most of them. I hope that what we are seeing in response to Sebastian's question is a real maturation of the field of religious studies getting over the embarrassments that-- many kinds of embarrassment that have plagued scholars, both of their own religion and of the religions of others. And Mimi's work is certainly helping us complicate that picture and get into a deeper level of analysis.
So thank-- please join me in thanking Mimi for a wonderful paper. I know she can't hear our applause, but I hope you can imagine it. And thank you all for joining us and for spending this time with the Women's Studies and Religion Program. We look forward to seeing you next month when we'll have a chance to hear about music in-- women musicians in Iran. And thank you so much for joining us.