Effacing the Self

Mysticism and the Modern Subject

By Marc De Kesel

Subjects: Mysticism, Spirituality, Theology, Philosophy Of Religion, History Of Religion
Series: SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Hardcover : 9781438494142, 292 pages, August 2023
Paperback : 9781438494159, 292 pages, February 2024

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations

Fénelonian Promenades

1. Love’s Intimate Violence: Selfless Love in Fénelon and Malebranche (and Robespierre)

2. Selfless: Eckhart, Fénelon and the Modern Subject

3. Love Thy Neighbor Purely: Mysticism and Politics in Fénelon

4. Nothing Writes: On Madame Guyon

The Mystical (of the) Self

5. The Power to Say I: On Simone Weil

6. Contra‑Religious Religion: The Mystical Experience of a Modern Protestant Minister

7. The Path of Mercy Means Simply that You Abandon Self: On a Novel by Shūsaku Endō

8. As a Drop in the Ocean: Michel de Certeau’s Selfless Christianity

Mysticism in a Modern World

9. Down with Religion, Long Live Mysticism: Reflections on Spirituality’s Popularity

10. Selflessly Powerful: On Pseudo‑Dionysius, Agamben, and Lefort

11. Selflessness and Science: On Mysticism, Materialism, and Psychoanalysis


Argues that self and selflessness are aspects of the same insoluble problem at the very heart of modernity.


In spirituality and mysticism, many seek a counterbalance to the strong emphasis on the self that modernity demands of us: We desire a fixed self on the one hand and are fascinated by selflessness on the other. But is our fascination with selflessness not a ruse to make that self of ours even stronger? And is that self-critical question not the kernel of even traditional mysticism? Marc De Kesel investigates some dark rooms of the mystical tradition to clarify this. This is a book for all who want to free themselves from the conceptual frameworks and rigid dogmas of late-modern religiosity.

The first part of the volume deals directly with early modern Christian mysticism, and more specifically with the French spiritualité and discussions centered around the problem of what it means to love God in a pure, radically unselfish way. The second part explores the paradoxical dialectics between self and selflessness in relation to the way Christian religion deals with its own identity. If Christian love is selfless, why has Christianity in the end not given up its own self, its own identity? The third and last part of the volume discusses the dialectics between self and selflessness in three other domains: popular spirituality, politics, and modern science. It makes clear that "selflessness" is not limited to mysticism but is both a fascination and a problem/paradox for modernity in many fields.

Marc De Kesel is Professor of Theology, Modernity, and Mysticism at Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. He is the author of Eros and Ethics: Reading Jacques Lacan's Seminar VII, also published by SUNY Press.


"Effacing the Self examines the paradox and implications of mystical self-effacement for a modern context, bridging disciplinary divides by bringing diverse thinkers into conversation. The contemporary relevance is particularly clear in the way De Kesel considers political implications, at times stating these explicitly and other times simply gesturing toward them. His close attention to the texts—from journals and notebooks to letters and a scene from a novel—is particularly illuminating. De Kesel offers detailed interpretations of crucial passages, clearly demonstrating what is at stake at each turn, and drawing the reader in by articulating key questions throughout his investigation, inviting us to continue to wrestle with the paradox of the mystical self." — Reading Religion