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Literature

While I'm not a scholar of literature, I have always felt drawn to powerful writers. It seems to me that the elusive quality to which we may refer as "poeticity" (and which can be found both in poetry and prose) is of particular importance to texts and traditions that place a strong emphasis on the limitations of reasonable discourse and often speak about some kind of "gnosis" (direct experiential knowledge) that goes beyond logical demonstration. Philosophers like Kant and Wittgenstein have been trying to define the exact boundaries of the rather narrow domain in which reason can truly speak with authority, implying that beyond those boundaries lies, in Kant's words, an "unlimited country" where logic and rationality are weakened or lose their power entirely. Kant tried to discredit it as the "paradise of the phantasizers" where fools or crazy people (his target was Swedenborg) were at liberty to build their castles out of thin air; but it did not take long for writers and philosophers after him to realise that precisely this boundless domain of "rejected knowledge" beyond the proud walls of the Citadel of Reason was the natural homeland of poets and storytellers! Moreover, Kant himself discovered to his dismay (and then tried to cover up this discovery) that the human faculty of imagination cannot be kept outside of those walls at all, because the mental operations by which we may find knowledge are not even able to function without our imagination. To me, this necessary presence of the non-rational within the domain of reason means that literature has a crucial role to play in our attempts to understand the world. It also means that there is not just a natural affinity but probably even a direct connection between literary poeticity and the special kind of knowledge often referred to as gnosis

Already for Plato in the Phaedrus, poetry stood out for its ability to induce a state of divine manía through which the mind could establish contact with the divine - or in modern terminology, it was one of the chief means of inducing alterations of consciousness. As for powerful literary prose, it has a unique ability to take our imagination to different worlds than the one in which we physically find ourselves, allowing our minds unlimited access to other realities. It seems to me that this remarkable power of storytelling is absolutely crucial to how religion works in general, and certainly to the attractiveness of many if not most of the traditions that we study under the rubric of Western esotericism. People may get convinced about the reality of other worlds or realities ("esoteric" dimensions "hidden" from the mind under normal conditions) perhaps because they had impressive visionary experiences under altered conditions; but they may also get convinced because powerful stories carried their imagination to other realities than those of our world of four-dimensional time and space.

Speaking just for myself, I certainly love traveling in my mind to other places and other times - this is the core business of historians as I see it, and of course it is what all readers of literature do as well. It is true that the former attempt to travel to realities that once upon a time were real, while the latter learn about people and events that never existed physically in the world out there; but it's also true that both types of travel take place in our minds or our imaginations and nowhere else. Historians tell stories that aspire to being true, while prose writers tell stories that may claim to be "true" as well - just not in a factual manner but by teaching us different things about the world and ourselves. In this sense, both history and literature for me are concerned with knowledge and understanding.