Scratched on Black

On Bunting and Apophasis by Jeff Miller

It was not so,
scratched on black by God knows who,
by God, by God knows who.

- Bunting, Villon

In an interview published in 1977 the English poet Basil Bunting defined mysticism (via his definition of Quakerism) as that which “doesn't put forward any logical justification whatever, only the justi-fication of experience.” (Burton, 391) In a lecture on Wordsworth at Newcastle University sometime in 1969-70, Bunting addressed mysticism proper, when he noted, “As for mysticism, whenever that word turns up those who use it can find support in anything or nothing. It is by definition an unreasonable belief. There is no arguing about it. You like what Plotinus tells you, or you don't: there is no room for evidence, and hardly any for discussion.” (Burton, 394)

Richard Burton--in his otherwise fun and excellent biography of Bunting, A Strong Song Tows Us--understands each of these statements to be evidence of Bunting's ultimate rejection of God, mysticism, Quakerism, etc. Just prior to the second of the two quotes above, he says, “Mysticism is worse than religion. In his lecture on Wordsworth [...] he ridiculed the concept”. Ironically, the quote in question comes from the collection of Newcastle lectures edited by Peter Makin, Basil Bunting on Poetry. In a note to this same quote, Makin remarks, “In light of the fact that elsewhere mysticism, far from being dismissed by Bunting, is the only form of religion he approves of (B:SV, 202-10), these remarks should be construed with care.”i (Makin, 200) Looking closely, if one reads the quote from Bunting without Burton's introduction, there is nothing necessarily ridiculing about it. It's a fairly nuanced couple of sentences, which can be taken in one (or all) of these ways:

1. As a semantic critique of the term mysticism, and the various unwieldy, even contradictory, meanings it can contain;

2. As a critique of “mystics” who take advantage of the looseness of the term, and the various systems often meant by it, to justify anything (or nothing) they wish to believe;

3. With the reference to Plotinus in mind: as a critique of the various “mystical” cosmological theories one can believe. Indeed, he criticised, “Hierarchy and order, the virtues of the neo-Platonic quasi-religion, were prime virtues to Yeats, Pound, and Eliot. They are not virtues to me, only expedients that chafe almost as vilely as the crimes they try to restrain.”ii

However, when we pair the second quote of Bunting's with the first its easy to see that Bunting values a mysticism of experience without logical justification, and that the issue with “mysticism”, by implication, is any attempt to rationalize or justify such an experience. In this occasional rejection of “mysticism” and, as we will see below, “God”, and in the seemingly contradictory statements that look to be bouncing him between belief and disbelief, Bunting is actually practicing--perhaps unconsciously, perhaps not--apophasis, unsaying.

In his book The Mystical Languages of Unsaying, Michael A. Sells defines apophasis as “a discourse in which any single proposition is acknowledged as falsifying, as reifying. It is a discourse of double propositions, in which meaning is generated through the tension between the saying and the unsaying.” He continues,

[A]pophasis has been viewed as religious and as anti-religious; as theistic, pantheistic, and atheistic; as pious and libertine; as orthodox and heretical. At its most intense, apophatic language has as a subject neither divine nor human, neither self nor other. It can be read as a relentless critique of religious traditions or as a realization of the deeper wisdom within such traditions. It can be read as grounded in the intimate specificities of particular traditions or as opening onto intercultural and inter-religious conversation.

And concludes, apophatically, “These possibibities may not be mutually exclusive.” (Sells, 12-13) It could also go without saying that all of the initial descriptors that open this quote would seem to, and have, fit nicely onto Bunting and his work.

Within the framework of the Quaker tradition specifically, apophasis is understood to be at the heart of Quakerism. According to Quaker theologian Lloyd Lee Wilson, “Classic Quaker spirituality is apophatic”iii. Pink Dandelion, in describing the problematics of systematic theology in the Liberal Quaker traditioniv, points out that for these Quakers, “God, or 'God', is real but statements about God are not facts about God but interpretations of the experience of God” (Dandelion, pg. 78). From the apophatic perspective, and for Quakers particularly, it is the experience of God that is important, not whether or not you call it “God”, or how you define “God.”

In the same section in which Burton misunderstands Bunting's claims about mysticism, he attempts to claim Bunting for atheism, noting that Bunting “described himself as one 'who believes in nothing' because he can't, not because there are no pleasing or even useful beliefs to choose from'.” (Burton, 392-393) This, however, avoids Bunting's several nuanced claims about God, even though he quotes them himself:

The Middle Ages distorted God, making a God who cared only for humans. [...] If the word 'God' is to have any use it must include everything. (Burton, 392)


Call it God, call it the universe, we all know of it, extended far beyond our telescopes or even inferences, detailed more minutely that our physicists can grope, is less than the histology of a single cell might be to a man's body, or to his conduct. The day's incidents hide our ignorance from us; yet we know it, beneath our routine. In silence, having swept dust and litter from our minds, we can detect the pulse of God's blood in our veins, more persuasive than words, more demonstrative than a diagram. (Burton, 363)

And, most critically, in describing the value of Quakerism, of experiential mysticism, Bunting said,

I think what the real essence of the Quaker business is exactly what it was at the beginning: if you sit in silence, if you empty your head of all the things you usually waste your brain thinking about, there is some faint hope that something, no doubt out of the unconscious or where you will, will appear -- just as George Fox would have called it, the voice of God; and that will bring you, if not nearer God, at any rate nearer your own built-in certainties. (Burton, 394)

Returning to Bunting's description of himself as one “who believes in nothing”, particularly in the light of the preceding discussion, it behooves us to remember that Christian theologians like John Scotus and Meister Eckhart defined God as “no-thing” (Sells, Chapters 2 and 6). The great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna described ultimate reality as sunyata--emptiness, an emptiness that is empty of emptiness, ad infinitium.v The Chinese classic Daodejing famously tells us that “the Dao that can be told of is not the eternal Dao”.vi And the great Confucian thinker Zhu Xi--following the lead of another Confucian thinker, Zhou Dunyi--spoke of the apophatic, Nonpolar (Wuji) aspect of the Supreme Pole (Taiji); taiji being the summa of knowable (even if currently unknown) existence.vii Add to this list Islamic thinkers such as Ibn 'Arabi, Jewish mystics like Abulafia, even Plotinus himself (see Sells, Chapter 1), and we find Bunting in interesting company as an admited practicioner of a “mystical” process who “believes in nothing”.

But to carry it a bit further, Anthony Nava, in his discussion of Simone Weil's mystical thinking, remarks,

Men exercise their imaginations in order to stop up the holes through which grace might pass, and for this purpose, and at the cost of a lie, they make for themselves idols...” One of these idols can be religions. “Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith: in this sense atheism is a purification.” [...] This stage in the mystical life is one of nonbelief, says Weil. It is a negation of all attempts to understand God by particular experiences or ideas. “In trying to do so it either labels something else with the name of God, and that is idolatry, or else its belief in God remains abstract and verbal. (Nava, pg. 54)


Attention has limits insofar as God can not be reduced to a mere conceptual object of theoretical, aesthetical, or ethical attention. “Cases of true contradictories: God exists. God doesn't exist. Where lies the problem? No uncertainty whatsoever. I am absolutely certain that there is a God, in the sense that I am absolutely certain that my love is not illusory. I am absolutely certain that there is not a God, in the sense that I am absolutely certain that there is nothing real which bears a resemblance to what I am able to conceive when I pronounce the name....” [...] God is a “nothingness” that is “without name or form.” Insofar as God is nothingness, knowledge of God is given to humanity only through contact with God. (Nava, pg. 71)

This vitally important aspect of apophasis is the necessary refusal to say anything definite about God, even to oneself. In this case, sometimes an apophatic practitioner will, when trying to speak or think about God, place the word into quotation marks. Another option is marking out one's euphamism whenever one writes it, as Heidegger did with “Dasein”, Being.viii However, these are just strategies for attempting to say the unsayable without denying unsayability. While helpful, they of course can not be ultimately satisfying. Sells explicates this nicely,

[Apophasis] begins with the aporia--the unresolovable delimma--of transcendence. The transcendent must be beyond names, ineffable. In order to claim that the transcendent is beyond names, however, I must give it a name “the transcendent.” Any statement of ineffability, “X is beyond names,” generates the aporia that the subject of the statement must be named (as X) in order for us to affirm that it is beyond names. (Sells, 1-2)

Sells goes one to list three possible responses to this problem: 1) silence, 2) a theological explication of what ways the transcendent is beyond names and what ways it is not, and 3) a refusal to solve the problem and accepting that it need not be solved. This last having a long pedigree in English language poetry, famously named “negative capability” by Keats.ix

In this context Yeats' observations about the younger Bunting are interesting,

A poet who's free verse I have admired rejects God and every kind of unity, calls the ultimate reality anarchy, means by that word something which for lack of metaphysical knowledge he cannot define. (Burton, 393)

Or perhaps he would not define it. Indeed, Bunting's later statements on the subject would indicate that he accepted as the solution a combination of the first and third positions, while rejecting the second. He clearly preferred silence, as his statements quoted above demonstrate. In his contradictory statements about “mysticism” and “God”, he indicates an acceptance of the issue as ultimately unsolvable. When forced to say something, however, he ossilated between describing it as “nothing” or professing a Spinozean “pantheism”:

Amongst philosophers I have most sympathy [...] with Spinoza, who saw all things as God[.]

To which he was quick to add, “though not with his wish to demonstrate that logically” (Burton, 362-363).

So, again,

It was not so,
scratched on black by God knows who,
by God, by God knows who.


i “B:SV” refers to Makin's own Bunting: The Shaping of His Verse

ii Sells, pg 6-7, says, "In nonapophatic uses of the emanation metaphor, a defined and stable hierarchy is constructed." After discussing how the practice of apophasis necessarily dismantles such a stable hierarchy --remarking, "The result [of apophasis] is an open-ended dynamic that strains against its own reifications and ontologies--a language of disontology."--he continues, "[T]he hierarchical levels of being that are posited are unsaid from within. That which is utterly 'beyond' is revealed or reveals itself as most intimately 'within': within the 'just act', however humble (Eckhart), within the basic acts of perception (Ibn 'Arabi), within the act of interpreting torah or fulfilling the mitzvah (Moses de Leon), or within the act of love (Marguerite Porete)." Not only does the apophatic act of tearing down the hierarchies clearly appeal to Bunting, but so does, it's easy to argue, the recognition of the “transcendent” in any of these particular actions.

iii Lloyd Lee Wilson, “Wrestling with Our Faith Tradition”,, retrieved 11.12.2015, pg. 7

iv The Liberal Quaker tradition is dominant in England (Dandelion, pg. 65), and is certainly the Quaker tradition Bunting would have known.

v See The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, translated by Jay L. Garfield, Oxford University Press, 1995

vi See A Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy, by Wing-Tsit Chan, Princeton University Press, 1969 chapter 7

vii See A Sourcebook of Chinese Philosophy, the chapters 28 and 34

viii See Martin Heidegger, The Question of Being, Rowman and Littlefield, 1958

ix See Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”, in Collected Prose, University of California Press, 1997


Basil Bunting, Complete Poems, New Directions, 2003

Richard Burton, A Strong Song Tows Us, Prospecta Press, 2013

Pink Dandelion, The Quakers: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2008

Peter Makin, Bunting on Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003

Anthony Nava, The Mystical and Prophetic Thought of Simone Weil and Gustavo Gutirrez: Reflections on the Hiddenness and Mystery of God, State University of New York Press, 2001

Michael Sells, The Mystical Languages of Unsaying, University of Chicago Press, 1991