Arthur has developed an interest in Nagarjuna’s philosophy recently, and we’ve been trading emails on that and related subjects. Here’s an excerpt from his side of the conversation:

I ordered Batchelor’s book, it sounded so interesting. Plus it cost a penny plus shipping. Wisdom on the cheap is still wisdom, right? I also read the article in Aeon: fascinating, as much for the comments as for the article. One comment puts it succinctly: the Buddha was not interested in ontology. Nagarjuna wrote reams of prose and verse explaining exactly why. He effed the ineffable, which perhaps he shouldn’t oughta, but he did, so there it is. REM: “Oh no, I’ve said too much, I haven’t said enough.”

Ludwig Wittgenstein claimed that many things can be shown but not said, and wrote a whole book (the Tractatus), explaining what and why. Martin Heidegger made himself famous by asking what Being is, and then spent much of the rest of his life explaining why you can’t even ask this question. Call it mysticism if you want; the label has little enough meaning. But whatever you call it, it is rife in great philosophy – Eastern and Western.

“Mysticism” is an unfortunate word, because it implies obscurantism: let things remain a mystery. If you have to ask what it means, you’ll never know what it means.

Here’s what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about it (actually, them, since there are two distinct but eminently punnable words that are spelled the same but are not the same):

early 14c., in a theological sense, “religious truth via divine revelation, hidden spiritual significance, mystical truth,” from Anglo-French *misterie, Old French mistere “secret, mystery, hidden meaning” (Modern French mystère), from Latin mysterium “secret rite, secret worship; a secret thing,” from Greek mysterion (usually in plural mysteria) “secret rite or doctrine,” from mystes “one who has been initiated,” from myein “to close, shut” (see mute (adj.)); perhaps referring to the lips (in secrecy) or to the eyes (only initiates were allowed to see the sacred rites).

“handicraft, trade, art” (archaic), late 14c., from Medieval Latin misterium, alteration of Latin ministerium “service, occupation, office, ministry” (see ministry), influenced in form by Medieval Latin mysterium (see mystery (n.1)) and in sense by maistrie “mastery.” Now only in mystery play, in reference to the medieval performances, which often were staged by members of craft guilds. The two senses of mystery formed a common pun in (secular) Tudor theater.

The operative sense is “mute.” Zip it. Stow it. Whistleblowers beware. No journalists or photographers allowed. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent–or else.

Initiates into the highest levels of the Eleusinian cult were called “mystai.” Athenians could be and were executed for publicly divulging details about the cult’s doings. Even Aeschylus was put on trial for running his mouth about the Mysteries in one of his plays. (He was acquitted: or was he? Like the Mafia, the Athenian archons just bided their time, till one day: pow! A tortoise just happens to fall from the sky and lands precisely on his head. Yeah, right.)

The second “Mystery” is unrelated etymologically but leads irresistibly to puns because the meanings dovetail: Mysteries were guilds, guilds had initiation rites and killed members who betrayed their secrets… Sounds a bit like the NSA/CIA/cronyism complex.

In other words, the NSA is a Mystery Cult. Dick Cheney, the arch-crony, is the ultimate Mystic. 

I responded:

I’m currently reading Philipp Blom’s The Vertigo Years, where he writes:

The multilingual philosopher Fritz Mauthner (1849-1923) knew about the impossibilities of literal translations between languages and became fundamentally suspicious of what could and could not be said with words. Mauthner analyzed the ability of language to transport definite meaning, after having noticed that concepts and their connotations were subtly different in every language he would use. Experience is unique and immediate, and the very moment it receives a name it loses those crucial qualities, Mauthner contended, and in his Contributions to a Critique of Language, 1901-03, it took him three hefty volumes to explain that language was unable to convey thought content — one of the more paradoxical achievements of Western philosophy. Mauthner’s philosophical project culminated in an all-embracing but godless mysticism.

Of course, there wasn’t anything peculiarly Teutonic about this tendency toward logorrheic reticence, as Po Chu-i famously snarked about Lao Tzu:

“Those who speak know nothing;
Those who know are silent.”
Those words, I am told,
Were spoken by Lao Tzu.
If we are to believe that Lao Tzu
Was himself one who knew,
How comes it that he wrote a book
Of five thousand words?