I have been reading Aleister Crowley’s Tunisian Diaries for the last week or so before passing off to sleep. It is worthwhile to get this raw, uncensored look into Crowley’s daily life and work. The Tunisian Diaries document the period in 1923 right after Crowley was kicked out of Italy by Mussolini. As such, they document a period of deep self-doubt, as one of his major ventures — the Abbey of Thelema — just went up in flames. The dairies also provide a candid portrait of a Crowley dealing with his heroin addiction.
For whatever reason, reading over this has me thinking about outlining a class on 20th century mysticism. It strikes me that, contrary to our assumptions, the 20th century is crawling with mystics. Part of this is that a literature starts appearing that provides a more general phenomenological description of mystical states and a cultural language arises that allows people to understand mysticism as a normal, if intensive, part of human spirituality. There also seems to be a sort of democratization of mysticism, as a plurality of techniques, from yoga to drugs, appear to provide people with access to mystical states. I’m convinced that a study of 20th century mysticism, even just in the English-speaking world, would produce an argument for the idea that it was a century of mysticism.
I’m not sure what such a class would look like yet. The easy approach would be to isolate a few cases, trying to bring a diversity of approaches and perspectives, but providing a depth engagement with particular mystics. At the same time, I don’t think such an analysis would be complete without a real assessment of the influence of the writing on mysticism, and the “culture” around mysticism in the 20th century — movies, music, practical handbooks, organizations, etc.