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Nomad Thought: Using Gregory of Nyssa and Deleuze and Guattari to Deterritorialize Mysticism

Department of International Studies, American University of Sharjah, Sharjah 26666, United Arab Emirates
Religions 2022, 13(10), 882;
Submission received: 22 August 2022 / Revised: 15 September 2022 / Accepted: 16 September 2022 / Published: 21 September 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue The Philosophy of Mystical Experience)


This article compares the mysticism of 4th-century Church Father Gregory of Nyssa to the nomadology of 20th century philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. In their book A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari returned to the figure of the nomad in order to free multiplicities from the “despotic unity” of modern Enlightenment thought. Though Deleuze and Guattari compare this nomadology to spiritual journeys, they claim that their nomad, unlike the mystic, resists a center, a homecoming, a destination. Yet Gregory of Nyssa, writing before the Church itself became a hegemonic power that would confine truth to a single reified code, described the Christian as a wandering nomad, for whom the path itself is the goal. Contrary to the static vision that would be developed in the onto-theological tradition that would lead Western metaphysics to interpret mysticism as the private experience of union with the divine, Gregory of Nyssa proposes a communal movement “from beginning to beginning” with no end, and no union in sight. By placing the postmodern secular nomad alongside the premodern Christian nomad, this article will draw on similarities between the two in order to accentuate the contemporary relevance of Gregory of Nyssa’s vision of mysticism.

1. Introduction

“And he who climbs never stops, but goes from beginning to beginning, by means of beginnings that never cease.”
(Gregory of Nyssa)
“The temptation is stagnation. Where God is revolutionary, the devil appears immobile.”
Our understanding of mysticism has been largely shaped by perennialist philosophers’ attempts to construe mysticism as an inner experience of union with the divine. Such an ineffable experience, we are told, highlights the nature of the divine as something that can be experienced privately by a soul substance. Such an interiority necessitating a philosophy of the subject as autonomous soul substance can perhaps be traced to Augustine. Such an experience of mysticism as a private experience of jouissance has normalized mysticism as standing somehow apart from Christian ethics and community building, at least in Western culture. However, mysticism in the early Church must not be confused with what that term has come to mean in the West. In this article, I would like to return to the origins of Christian mysticism in the figure of Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century saint and Catholic Bishop of Nyssa, in Cappadocia, to show that mysticism, at its source in the Eastern tradition, actually meant precisely the opposite of such an inner experience. Rather than an inner experience of union, mysticism as epektasis meant dispossession, a wandering outside the self, following the traces of a God that could never be reached and never be experienced. In such an understanding, the errancy of the nomad is celebrated as the path of the mystic, who leaves behind him both home and destination, both experience and knowledge of God. By following the immanent traces of goodness that God leaves behind him, the mystic strives to open his heart to others in acts of kindness, understood as the only way to draw closer to God. Only the dispossession of the self allows for this communal focus to come to the fore, a message that we would do well to heed in our age of reinforcing sectarian identities.
After detailing Gregory’s mystical vision, this article will then compare it with the nomadology of postmodern philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, in order to highlight the contemporary relevance of such a mystical understanding. Gregory of Nyssa, a mystic who believes in a transcendent reality, and Deleuze and Guattari, 20th century atheist philosophers of the immanent, present a far greater contrast than they do a resemblance. Yet in this article I will set out to show that these thinkers, separated by time and metaphysics, share a similar nomadology, where this term is meant to indicate a deontological, non-teleological understanding of identity as movement and desire. Deleuze and Guattari believe that such a nomadology constitutes a “war machine,” a form of resistance against the State apparatus, and the sedentarization that it requires in order to enforce a totalizing world order. Such a State apparatus has been the model for Western thought and its internalization of the “order of the world” rooted in “the republic of spirits, the tribunal of reason, the functionaries of thought, man as legislator and subject” (Mille Plateaux, 35).1 Such a “rooting” of man in a social hierarchy linked to State power and normativization can only be fought from a radical Outside that resists roots in a constant rhizomatic and nomadic movement. Such an uprooted and nomad identity coming from both a transcendent and an immanent position will shed light on how a certain disontological God and a certain rhizomatic universe may share far more than first meets the eye.
I will focus in this paper on three similarities between these two worldviews:
  • What Deleuze and Guattari call deterritorialization, or a relation to identity that replaces final destinations and belonging with a nomadic wandering in intensity that continually progresses without ever arriving at a telos, will be compared to what Gregory of Nyssa calls epektasis, which similarly has no end.
  • The nature of desire as excess rather than lack will be shown to be intrinsic to both theories. In both systems, desire sets the identity of the nomad in movement, and it is this movement or constant becoming that replaces a stagnant ontological identity.
  • The nature of the absolute will be clarified, which in both cases is freed from a center, a belonging, a telos, and instead comes to signify the alterity of the unknown. In both systems, the nature of this absolute entails an action against containment, an ethics that addresses the Outside and the Other.
Finally, in my conclusion, I will question the relevance of Deleuze and Guattari’s war machine as a means of resistance the nomad can use to fight against stagnation, and ask whether Gregory of Nyssa cannot give us a “peace machine” in its place, that could replace violent and dogmatic resistance over and against the State, with an ethical resistance that might reduce the need for identification with unicity (whether with God, the self or the human other) and thus the need for war.

2. Epektasis/Deterritorialization

In his questing after an unknowable and unreachable God, the fourth-century saint Gregory of Nyssa gives us a very ancient understanding of the self in its relation to alterity that is at the same time extraordinarily contemporary. The Life of Moses (Gregory of Nyssa 1978) was written in the 390’s during a phase of Gregory’s work that is marked by what we can call a mystical turn. Though Cardinal Jean Danielou has called Gregory “the founder of mysticism properly said” (1944, p. 292)2, the created and the uncreated are separated by an unbridgeable gulf in Gregory’s system, and there can thus be no “mystical union” or even contact between man and God. Rather than union, the soul can come to resemble God by imitating His infinite goodness by means of epektasis or eternal progress. Kevin Corrigan (1994) comments as follows:
It is surely not correct to see this experience of being drawn out of oneself (paradoxically into oneself) of ektasy or epektasy as a denial of the possibility of mysticism. It is rather an exploration of the nature of the soul’s experience in which its spiritual movement out of the narrow limits of itself into the uncircumscribed reality of God is also a coming into its own true nature…
(1994, p. 33)
This moral and communal emphasis of Gregory’s mysticism undermines those interpretations of mysticism that reduce it to individual experience and founds the sine qua non characteristic of the mystical path in the Orthodox Church, which is accepting Christ as a path of ethical action.3 In this sense, Gregory’s text defines mysticism not as a vision or an experience, but as an ethics in action. Indeed, Michel De Certeau sees the central traits of departure and community practice as “the defining characteristics of the religious life”. 4 Gregory explains as follows:
So Moses, who eagerly seeks to behold God, is now taught how he can behold Him: to follow God wherever he might lead is to behold God. His passing by signifies his guiding the one who follows, for someone who does not know the way cannot complete his journey safely in any other way than by following behind his guide. He who leads, then, by his guidance shows the way to the one following. He who follows will not turn aside from the right way if he always keeps the back of his leader in view.
(The Life of Moses 1978, p. 119)
Gregory’s apophatic vision interprets the claim that we were made in the image of an infinite God to mean that we must strive infinitely to increase our virtue, a journey that is as endless as God.
But in the case of virtue we have learned from the Apostle that its one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit. For the divine Apostle, great and lofty in understanding, ever running the course of virtue, never ceased straining toward those things that are still to come.
(1978, p. 30)5
This endless seeking entails a departure from a fixed and static understanding of the self for a constant wandering, putting the mystic under the sign of what Silesius would later call the wandersmann. To Origen’s Platonic notion of “static unity”6, Gregory will respond with his central notion of epektasis or “eternal progress”, a movement toward God that can never come to rest. If it must nonetheless be understood as a development of the Neoplatonic procession seen by Philo and Origen as a succession of steps, in Gregory there is no longer an arrival, the perfect life is never complete, the “pilgrim’s progress” becomes an endless journey. Such an understanding entails the courage to replace God as goal and guarantee with an ethics that can never find completion, and it is these ethical actions that constitute the steps on our pilgrimage toward a God we will never reach, and never know.
It is only the kenotic giving up of what one has understood that testifies to the vibrancy of the spiritual life. Each step, as it were, annuls the one that preceded it, revealing it to be relative and incomplete. The mystic must remain ever on the road, repeating with each step the gesture of departure. In one of Gregory’s most striking passages from his Commentary on the Song of Songs, which we have cited as an epigraph, he says: “And he who climbs never stops, but goes from beginning to beginning, by means of beginnings that never cease” (XLIV, 941 A, cited in Danielou 1944, p. 319). Jean Danielou comments on this repeated beginning in the terms of modern physics:
[D]uring the eternity of centuries, souls, like the stellar universes of modern physics, will plunge with growing force into the infinite depths of the divine shadow, without ever finding a frontier to his limitless spaces. But each progress is nothing other than a point of departure, such that the soul is always experiencing a beginning. For the soul, God is a reality always absolutely new and it thus lives in a state of wonder, of ecstatic stupor that is constantly renewed. This is Gregory’s most deep and moving message, these eternal “beginnings” that are the lot of souls that rise.
That is, each object must be transcended, “he is not here, it is not that”, yet the goal is to understand that in this life there can be no fixed goal, no stable ousia, no union, only seeking, only desire. The infinity of the created draws near to that of its creator only in the infinity of its becoming, of its pilgrim’s progress.
Though medieval Catholic theology has brought ousia and knowledge of God into our mainstream understanding of man’s relation to God, it is important to recall the central place of errancy in the Christian tradition from its source in the life of Jesus Christ, and its many sources in Judaism. Though errancy has a central place in the Torah,7 in the myth of Adam and Eve’s exile, Abraham’s wandering through the wilderness, and Moses’ exodus, there is a sense of homecoming, of return, that keep such examples from representing an ateleological nomadology properly speaking. However, we do find an example of errancy in the substitution of the land of milk and honey for the milk and honey of the Torah scroll expressed in Psalm 119, where we find the identification with a fixed place, a home, replaced with a way, an ethical path to be followed. Here the ethical commandments are themselves the path, the way to live life rather than a goal. The goal then is not a foundation, a center, or a telos, for the Jew lives “as an alien in the land”; rather the goal of moral conduct is never fully accomplished or realized along the path of life, for though he “hates every false way” the seeker constantly goes astray “like a lost sheep”:
Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord…
With my whole heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments…
I live as an alien in the land; do not hide your commandments from me…
Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it…
Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you…
I shall walk at liberty, for I have sought your precepts…
Your statutes have been my songs wherever I make my home…
When I think of your ways, I turn my feet to your decrees;
I hurry and do not delay to keep your commandments…
Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path…
Truly I direct my steps by all your precepts; I hate every false way…
I have gone astray like a lost sheep;
seek out your servant, for I do not forget your commandments.
(Psalm 119)
In the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John, this wandering becomes the mark or sign by which to recognize the spiritual and set it apart from the material: “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The physical absence of Christ perpetuates this mystical movement of errancy. Setting out to retrace the steps of Christ, the mystic finds in the clues of his passing the rhythm of an affiliation. If Christ is the path, in an echo of Psalm 119 that we find in the Gospel of John (14:6), following this path entails an ethical prerogative, such that the thirst for the absolute, though never quenched, is satisfied in each gesture that draws man closer to his example. We could thus call Gregory’s mysticism proto-Christian, in its return to the life of Jesus and the Exodus and exile of the Jewish people.
Deleuze and Guattari use the term deterritorialization to convey the errancy of the postmodern nomad in terms quite similar to Gregory of Nyssa’s Epektasis. By deterritorialization, they mean the path between two points, which itself becomes the goal. Though the nomad follows traditional trajectories and goes from one place to another, the meaning is displaced from the point of departure or arrival to the movement of the between, the journey, or what they call the intermezzo. They write:
The nomad has a territory, he follows habitual paths (trajets), he goes from one place to another, he does not ignore places (a water hole, habitation, assembly point, etc.). … even if points determine trajectories, they are strictly subordinated to the trajectories they determine, which is the opposite of what happens to the sedentary person (le sédentaire). The water hole is only there to be left, and every point is a relay and exists only as relay. A trajectory is always between two points, but the between has taken on all of the consistency, and enjoys an autonomy as a proper direction. The life of the nomad is intermezzo. Even the elements of his habitat are conceived in function of the trajectory which continuously mobilizes them.
(Mille Plateaux, 471)
Philosopher Brian Massumi describes this nomad departure as a departure from identity, leaving a closed molar identity behind in order to desire the future of myriad potentials, which replace the stasis of being for an eternal becoming. The future is becoming what you are not already, someone who cannot be predicted, planned or counted on, someone who will be only when you are no longer, a process that is never complete, an epektasis or endless journey.
Come out. Throw off your camouflage as soon as you can and still survive. What one comes out of is identity. What one comes into is greater transformational potential. To achieve the goal that has no end means ceasing to seem to be what you are in order to become what you cannot be: supermolecular forever. The goal is a limit approached, never reached. Coming out is never complete. What is important is the process: desire for the future.
The goal is the path itself, and the nomad’s identity is neither a cogito, nor an ousia, but rather a reaching for the next sign, an intermezzo between two watering holes, a desire to escape boundaries and labels for the freedom of the stranger, the migrant, the alien, the outsider. Rather than identifying with a static ego, for both Deleuze, Guattari and Gregory, identity is sacrificed for the intensification of desire that comes with an endless, and infinite seeking after an absolute that can never be reached. Deterritorialization and Epektasis both convey the self as a constant becoming, an endless endeavor requiring the sacrifice of certainty and of homecoming, for the nomadic wandering that allows for continual growth.

3. Desire

Written as a response to a request for an exposition of the perfect life, Gregory’s Life of Moses is marked from the start by the impossible, for he states that it is impossible to attain perfection precisely because perfection is limitless. It can be contained by no boundaries. “It is therefore undoubtedly impossible to attain perfection, since, as I have said, perfection is not marked off by limits: the one limit of virtue is the absence of a limit. How then would one arrive at the sought-for boundary when he can find no boundary?” (The Life of Moses: 31). His text, then, is, and must be, an unfinished project. As man hopes to partake in God’s perfection, which for Gregory is nothing other than his Goodness, his desire likewise must be unlimited. Since God is Good and Perfect, and since these attributes can only be limited by their opposite, i.e. evil and imperfection, which of course cannot be part of Divine nature, God is therefore limitless: “Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire participation in it, and since this good has no limit, the participant’s desire, itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless” (The Life of Moses: 31). Though the mystic desires something absent, it is precisely because it can never be made present that the seeking, the desire, endures.
Yet by describing man’s desire as an unquenchable thirst, Gregory in no way intends by this a desire as lack, for he clearly differentiates between desire for things and desire for God. Desire for things is precisely desire as lack in that in this case desire is displaced from object to object, leaving the subject continually empty again, continually longing for something new.
For if he who fills his desire in one of the things which he pursues should then incline his desire to something else, he finds himself empty again in that regard. And if he should fill himself on this, he becomes empty and a vacant container once more for something else. And we never stop doing this until we depart from this material life.
(The Life of Moses: 68)
Desire for God, on the other hand, is a desire of excess, for Goodness, because it is infinite, fills man up yet leaves him “straining ahead for what is still to come”. A trip in intensity, to borrow Deleuze’s term, desire for the Good can thus only increase through its exertion in a limitless ascent to God. “And although lifted up through such lofty experiences, he is still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for that with which he constantly filled himself to capacity, and he asks to attain as if he had never partaken…” (The Life of Moses:115)8 This same idea is expressed in Gregory’s Commentary on the Song of Songs:
But the veil of her grief is removed when she learns that the true satisfaction of her desire consists in constantly going on with her quest and never ceasing in her ascent, seeing that every fulfillment of her desire continually generates further desire for the Transcendent.
Michel De Certeau captures this meaning well when he writes: “Desire creates an excess. [The mystic] exceeds, passes and loses all place. He must go further, elsewhere. He lives nowhere” (Michel De Certeau 1982, p. 410).
It is this confusion between desire as lack and desire as excess that explains the trouble many readers have with Gregory of Nyssa’s mystical legacy. Hans von Balthasar gives us an excellent example of this misunderstanding, when he writes of his emotional response to Gregory’s system as providing little spiritual consolation for the believer. Himself a believing Catholic, Hans von Balthasar finds the extremity of Gregory’s position difficult to accept. It inspires sadness in him, or, as he puts it, he is unsatisfied with Gregory’s infinite unsatisfaction:
But must we not then say that there is a secret and unavowed sadness in this desire? […] There is a sadness for the creature who knows that he will never see God as he is in himself… But if this eternal desire is the supreme jouissance to which a creature can have access, is there not something that leaves us unsatisfied in this metaphysics of becoming? […] How strange: we are unsatisfied with this metaphysics that establishes as an absolute that which is most radical within us: dissatisfaction.
Balthasar’s comment brings to light the difficulty of the apophatic path, and the force of the temptation to stop the journey and claim a relation to God as full presence, in which desire can be satiated and God can be seen “as He is in Himself”. Balthasar feels sadness in accepting human nature as incomplete and human achievement as never definitive, though he understands that this completion would entail the loss of God. Yet Gregory addresses this sadness directly, describing it merely as a passing emotion that must be transcended, for this endless desire is itself the sign of God’s infinite nature. Continually testifying to the signs of God’s passage in acts of goodness here on earth, the short journey of this life should be filled with wonder and beauty, rather than sadness. Rather than being inspired by lack, desire is inspired by beauty and thanksgiving, and thus becomes love:
… seeking the one she does not find, [the soul] is struck and wounded somehow with the despair of not obtaining what she desires. But this veil of sadness is taken away when she learns that true possession of the one she loves is to never cease desiring Him. When in this way the veil of despair has been lifted and she sees the infinite and limitless beauty of her loved one manifesting itself ever more grandly throughout the eternal eons, she is enflamed with a stronger desire and she makes known her heart’s disposition by saying that she has received God’s chosen arrow within and her heart has been pierced by the point of faith and she is mortally wounded by Love.
(Commentary on the Song of Songs, XLIV, 1037 C, quoted in Danielou 1944, p. 308)
For Deleuze and Guattari, the movement of the nomad is also inspired by desire, and as in Gregory’s theory, this desire is desire as excess rather than lack. Desire is intrinsic to the immanent frame of what they call bodies without organs, and is betrayed when understood as lack, as a pleasure that might exhaust it, or as an impossible ideal. Deleuze and Guattari name the figures of authority who misinterpret desire in these three ways priests, who divert this desire that cannot be channeled by the centralized state into three sins that can be controlled and exorcized: castration, masturbation and fantasy. Turning to the North, the priest names desire as lack castration, a lack that can never find satisfaction because it finds itself lacking. Turning to the South, the priest names desire as the pleasure of masturbation. For these people, desire can be alleviated and relieved, for pleasure can sedate and interrupt desire, at least for a while. Finally, turning to the East, the priest names the third sacrifice, desire as impossible fantasy. Here, “jouissance is impossible, but this impossible jouissance is inscribed in desire. For this is the Ideal, in its very impossibility” (Mille Plateaux, 191). It is this third betrayal that could be confused with Gregorian desire, if God were to be interpreted as an impossible ideal that replaces reality with a fantasy. But Gregory is adamant that the desire of the mystic is filled each time he acts righteously, while at the same time longing for more goodness. It is the reality of ethical actions that inspires desire for more, not an impossible fantasy. In this sense, Gregory’s desire corresponds to that defended by Deleuze and Guattari, when they claim that true desire is of course hiding in the “rediscovered or deterritorialized” West, where the priest did not look, thinking it to be unoccupied by men (Mille Plateaux, 191).
As an immanent joy, desire is not to be betrayed by lack, by pleasure as a discharge of desire, or by impossibility. In this sense, desire is filled with the joy of itself, a joy that cannot be reduced to pleasure because it is itself the very source of pleasure, an infinite source that cannot be satisfied by finite things. Deleuze and Guattari write:
There is an immanent joy to desire, as though it were filled with itself and its contemplations, which implies no lack, no impossibility, and cannot be measured by pleasure either, since it is this joy which distributes intensities of pleasure stops them from being penetrated by anguish, by shame, or by guilt.
(Mille Plateaux, 192)
Pleasure does not limit, contain or measure desire, which is infinite, because if we were to measure desire by the pleasures it enabled, we would end up resorting to three problematic ontologies. Such a wrong understanding of desire would be founded in the self as lack, constantly seeking to fill itself with objects of desire (this would be the problem of Freud), or else pleasure would depend upon a transcendent figure that would somehow be more true, more valuable, than the immanent frame of reality. This is a religious critique of course, but it does not apply to Gregory’s mysticism, for whom the transcendent dimension can be neither reached nor known. Finally, Deleuze and Guattari warn against understanding pleasure as limited by the exteriority of the world, a reductionist materialism that ignores phenomenological relationality. They write:
All is permitted: what really matters, is that pleasure be the immanent flux of desire itself, instead of a measure that would interrupt it, or make it depend upon three ghosts: inner lack, superior transcendence, apparent exteriority. If desire does not have pleasure as the norm, it is not in the name of a lack that would be impossible to fill, but because of its positivity, that is to say because of the plane of consistence that it traces during its process.
(Mille Plateaux, 194)
The positivity of desire is joy, not pleasure, and the flux of this joy is immanent and infinite in the lived world of beings, in their actions and their ability to allow for constant becoming, constant change, constant possibility, instead of stasis and the control that it instantiates. Both Deleuze and Guattari and Gregory posit desire as the means to escape from this stasis, and they both understand the nomad freedom that ensues from this escape as the Good.

4. The Outside: Ethics as Absolute Alterity

To go “from beginning to beginning”, one must leave not only sin, but even the self behind. This ekstasis entails continually going out of the self not only by transcending objectifications and appropriations but also by transcending a fixed identity (I am this, I am that), which might pervert continual progress in goodness, the self as becoming for a self that is and has nothing further to seek. This movement is that of the growth of the soul, allowing it to perfect itself in goodness and thereby come to resemble God. Gregorian scholar Roger Leys sees this self-transcendence as the key to understanding Gregorian spirituality. He writes: “The Gregorian conception of the spiritual life: unlimited transcendence of self in the always more ardent seeking after an inaccessible God” (Leys 1951, p. 35). In this sense, the path demands what Balthasar has called “self-negation”, a negation of knowledge as teoria or logos in order to access an apophatic unknowing because “that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility” (The Life of Moses: 94).9 Gregory writes:
For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness…
When therefore, Moses grew in knowledge, he declared that he had seen God in the darkness, that is, that he had then come to know that what is divine is beyond all knowledge and comprehension, for the text says, Moses approached the dark cloud where God was. What God? He who made darkness his hiding place.
(The Life of Moses: 94–95)
The more the mystic resembles God, the less he resembles himself10, for the ekstasis or dispossession of self, in imitation of Christ’s kenosis, is what enables the mystic to act for the benefit of others. This ethical action, finally, is Gregory’s mystical testimony, and he holds it to be the true meaning of following God. Danielou comments as follows: “The soul must always leave itself and must one day discover that it is the very law of its being, precisely in love, to be in relation to someone other than itself” (Danielou 1944, p. 276).
It is this movement with no return, this denial of the ultimacy of theoria in which the mystic wanders away from him or herself, that must be understood as a primeval ekstasis.11 For the seeker, this ecstasy is another way of understanding the continual movement of desire. Ekstasis, which literally means stepping out of a normal state or place, and was used figuratively in the senses of alienation, unreason, the tranquil elsewhere of sleep, or transport,12 becomes epektasis precisely when it is set in continual motion, when it becomes perpetual advancement. As such, it is a permanent attitude of the seeker, not of course in a static sense, but in the sense that the ek-, the departure, must be repeated again and again at each step along the way. It is in this light that we must understand the words of Michel De Certeau when he writes: “My only name is that which makes you leave. The first formula of the spiritual is nothing other than the decision to leave” (1982, p. 243).
What is more, this ethical action, when perfected, is accomplished by the divine Other, for ekstasis as sense of transport, for Gregory, means the expulsion of the self in order to become an instrument, a vehicle for the divine will, because as we have seen, for Gregory there can be no union between the mortal and the immortal, the absence of the one is required for the presence of the other: “The spirit (nous) that is within us leaves upon the approach of the divine Spirit… It is not permitted in effect, for what is mortal to cohabit with what is immortal” (cited in Danielou 1944, p. 278 (source not given)).13 The mystical path is thus not a solitary climb but rather apostolic in that it is an endeavor for the good of all. As Danielou writes, “the apostle is full of contemplative graces only in order to communicate them” (Danielou 1944, p. 328). It is this, finally, that marks Moses’ covenant with God for Gregory: “The best proof that Moses realized all possible perfection lies in the fact that he chose rather to perish with all than to be saved alone, and that he supplicated the divinity for those who had sinned” (Commentary on the Song of Songs, XLIV, 429C, cited in Danielou 1944, p. 329).
For Michel De Certeau, it is others who point out our shortcomings and encourage our progress in goodness, helping us to understand the true meaning of epektasis as going beyond, as progress. Each mystical position across the ages, he writes:
ceases to be true if, within itself, it does not lead to its own overcoming, and this overcoming is always indicated by an encounter and a contestation, be it, modest but essential, that of a relation to a “spiritual father” and to brothers… Negation thus becomes the norm of “progress”, and also the form of “discourse” of the greatest mystics, Gregory of Nyssa, Meister Eckhart or John of the Cross.
Giving up the consolation of certainties and of a static sense of identity leads the mystic to live an immanent life under the sign of Christ’s kenosis, his abandoning of heaven to wander on earth, risking ridicule, loneliness and death for his voluntary errancy. For Michel De Certeau, this errancy constitutes a path of freedom that he sees as founding the mystical way of life, defined as a position of resistance against all containment, all stasis, all rigid immobility. Whether trodden on foot or traced with pen or brush, these repeated beginnings disrupt the stagnancy of a dogmatic understanding. The call to travel onward keeps the mystic away from ontology (becoming is privileged over being) and cartography (the itinerary cannot be traced in advance), wandering on toward an unknown and unknowable expectation.
Yet the danger remains of fixating this progress at a particular stage and thus forcing the mystical movement to a halt, transforming the movement of errancy into a static form that can be objectified, comprehended, and worshipped as an idol. The danger then, is that of transforming understanding into a closed system, whether it be mapping the mystical itinerary on land or in a text. When understanding becomes univocal, singular, it will immediately transmute the mystical gold into the base metal of a tool used to place one perspective, one system above all the others, to make use of a pathway to get somewhere, to reinscribe a telos into what is a deontological process or practice15, or to make, in the words of Michel De Certeau, “a spiritual “object” out of what was a movement”.16 If they are not followed but are fossilized, these traces can map an itinerary but have lost sight of the way to follow it, the practice of mystical errancy. The problem, in Michel De Certeau’s words,
[c]onsists in bringing this movement to a halt, in believing that it has become useless or dangerous, in trying to hold onto one of these indispensable “passages” and take it alone for the truth for which it is but a sign. It refuses to others the right to signify something during an evolution or a tension… The temptation is stagnation. Where God is revolutionary, the devil appears immobile.17
Deleuze and Guattari are famous for undermining modern subjectivity in similar ways. It is the territory of a State, “state apparatuses of identity” (p. 398), that encode identity in static cages that can be controlled. Law is the structure by means of which identity can be encoded and formatted, and thus the legislator, for Deleuze and Guattari, is the creator of subjectivity, laying “claim to the role of Cogitatio universalis as the thought of the Law” (p. 415). As with Gregory, the means of escaping such control entails escaping from a stagnant conception of subjectivity and becoming the other. Deleuze and Guattari call this possibility of being more than one schizoanalysis, which is thus a means of freeing the subject from the unity of totalitarian control, of breaking out of “the regime of subjectification” (141) in order to free desire from commodification and the constraints of the law. “The self is only a threshold, a door, a becoming between two multiplicities” (275).
This schizoanalysis is what Deleuze and Guattari call “the war machine”, a form of guerrilla warfare against the unicity of the status quo: “Learning to undo things, and to undo oneself, is proper to the war machine: the ‘not-doing’ of the warrior, the undoing of the subject” (Mille Plateaux, 442). This undoing requires the self to identify with difference in order to realize its potential of being more than one, a multiplicity that is necessary in order to instantiate a “line of flight”, to keep nomadic movement going: “Becoming and multiplicity are the same thing” (275). Instead of containment and static identity, they call for us to keep moving, keep desiring to become what we are not: “Let’s go further still, […], we haven’t sufficiently dismantled our self”. This nomad thought requires a relationship to the absolute outside, the absolutely other, in order to escape the stasis of the self-same and wander in the alterity of radical difference. Massumi explains: “‘Nomad thought’ does not immure itself in the edifice of an ordered interiority; it moves freely in an element of exteriority. It does not repose on identity; it rides difference” (Brian Massumi 1988, pp. ix–xii).
Similarly to Gregory of Nyssa, when one follows a line of flight, one becomes capable of loving, not in order to identify and appropriate, but a blind love of the outside, and the outsider, in her radical difference. This loving is a choice, a choice to keep moving forward, to keep deterritorializing, so that loving can exist selflessly, without the reification of the ego. Such selfless love is an openness to encountering others along the path, and respecting their alterity, without needing to reduce them to unicity or totality, without making them mine. Deleuze and Guattari write:
I am now no more than a line. I have become capable of loving, not with an abstract, universal love, but a love I shall choose, and that shall choose me, blindly, my double, just as selfless as I.
(MP, 220)

5. Conclusions: The Peace Machine

Believing in an unknown God that is not reassuring, that does not confirm your identity in terms of the self-same, that does not represent your own identity, nor make you a representation of itself, such a belief is possible. Gregory of Nyssa illustrates it for us. It is this outside that inspires a desire that does not seek to return home, that does not seek to achieve an end, reach a goal or accomplish a finite task. Because the Outside is infinite for Gregory, our potential opening to it is also infinite, and thus so is our desire to be continually opened up and put into relation with both the radical alterity of the divine, and that of the human other.
Similarly to Gregory, Deleuze has faith (the word is his own) in the transcendental, the alterity of the world, in the potential of a world we have not yet thought, a world we may never think or know. This otherness, for Deleuze, is in this world, not in another world. The outside (le dehors) is an immanent category in Deleuze, something that we may discover in this world, of this world. Such a peak experience is non-representational, and is revealed by means of non-transitive desire. It is the very condition of immanence, of a world that inspires our desire to leave the near and the known to enter the unknown, the outside of the immanent world that is always other, that others us and allows us to be multiple and to enter infinite possibilities of interaction with others, and even, of revelation.
Deleuze and Guattari admit that such a relationship to the Outside, to an Absolute, is a characteristic of religion, but they claim that religion revolves around God as fixed center, an englobing horizon or sacred canopy “which rejects the obscure nomos” (475). By converting the Absolute, religion functions to strengthen the State apparatus, and even to develop it into a universal and “absolute imperium” (475). Yet they nonetheless acknowledge the mystical nomad wandering by their side. The mystical nomad for whom the absolute cannot be differentiated from a location without limits, without center, and without horizon. Such “vagabond” mystics relate to the absolute in a “singularly atheist manner” they claim, and were bound to be identified with impiety by established religions, which cannot be understood apart from an ideal of sedentarization and an imperial legal State:
Indeed, these religions weren’t separable from a firm and constant orientation, an imperial state of law, even and especially when an actual State was lacking; they encouraged an ideal of sedentarization, and addressed themselves to migrant populations rather than nomad ones.
(Mille Plateaux, 476)
After stating this opposition between nomadic and sedentary religious orientations, Deleuze and Guattari make an important concession, noting that monotheistic religion is ambivalent and capable of mutations and particular adaptations. They have in mind Holy War, where religion itself becomes a “war machine” that can mobilize itself against its own State:
Notwithstanding this, when religion is constituted as a war machine, it mobilizes and liberates a formidable charge of nomadism and deterritorialization, it doubles the migrant with a nomad who accompanies him, or with a potential nomad that he is in the midst of becoming, such as to contrast the State-form with his dream of an absolute state.
(Mille Plateaux, 477)
There are of course many chilling examples of such religious war machines manifesting violent resistance to State Power. Members of such groups have given up any stable sense of identity rooted in Nation-State boundaries, and are fighting for what can be understood as a freedom from the norms and rooted hierarchies of the Nation-State in favor of the absolute law of God (Shari’a). Yet such a goal betrays the rhizomatic structure of their nomadic struggle, and indeed, reveals the dangers of allying nomad desire to a machine of war.
If Deleuze and Guattari are correct to differentiate between sedentary and nomadic forms of religiosity, one can wonder if the war machine that they develop can ever truly be identified with the mystical love and the nomadic multiplicity that they celebrate. If we look at history, the conquests of nomadic peoples led in each case to a replacement of nomadic wandering for sedentary state formation, legal individualization and control. Though they mention that this war can be a form of resistance that is as subtle as a file, they describe the history of nomadic peoples at war (Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, Crusades, Jihad) rather than choosing peaceful hunter-gatherer nomads, seemingly conflating their nomadology with violent forms of resistance and expansion. It seems to me that though religions have a considerable share of the violence of history, they also, and at the same time, have provided us with ethical prerogatives for transforming ourselves and opening ourselves up to alterity. It is this focus in the work of Gregory of Nyssa that merits our attention, as it develops a nomadology that is less interested in resistance, and more interested in deconstructing forms of deterritorialization that territorialize the other (conquest) in favor of a deteritorialization willing to sacrifice all territory, all subjectivity that might need to be defended, over and against the other.
Though Deleuze and Guattari concede in a parenthesis the nomadic element of spiritual journeys, which share a nomadic relation to the absolute understood as movement or speed (Mille Plateaux, 473), their examples of nomadic religiosity focus on religious violence, particularly that of the Crusades and Islamic Jihad. Though monotheistic religions have often functioned as “war machines” to both enforce and destabilize State power, the spiritual nomad cannot be reduced to this violent strategy. Rather, mystical nomadology might be far more essential to Christian non-violent ethics than Deleuze and Guattari acknowledge. Such a mystical ethics, which I will here call a “peace machine”, will be shown to provide a needed alternative to Deleuze and Guattari’s martial theory.
Notwithstanding their celebration of the war machine, I believe that Deleuze and Guattari are in fundamental agreement with Gregory of Nyssa. Rather than calling for such nomadic violence, their writing is itself a form of nomadic resistance “subtle as a file”, and thus a form of mystical resistance. Rather than allowing themselves to be used as a pawn in the hands of sedentary and static being, their writing stems from a radical Outside that resists roots in a constant rhizomatic and nomadic movement, calling into being a subject who has nothing to prove, and nothing to lose. Such a subject, as Deleuze himself notes, has learned the lesson of Melville’s Bartleby, and can, in the face of appropriation and conquest, instead of violence, simply reply “I would rather not”.
I would like to conclude this article with a short exposition of Deleuze’s text on Bartleby, entitled “Bartleby, or the Formula” in order to differentiate Deleuze and Guattari’s nomadology from the “war machine” as expressed in violence and draw it into alliance with Gregory’s “peace machine”. Indeed, I would like to go so far as to consider Bartleby a postmodern mystic, not of an inner experience of union, but of Gregorian expropriation and nomadic dissociation. In this text, Deleuze celebrates Bartleby’s phrase “I would rather not” as “outlandish and deterritorialized”.18 Such language is able to do just what Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy attempts to do, to “sweep up language in its entirety, sending it into flight, pushing it to its very limit, in order to discover its outside”. This outside is available only to those who leave static social identities behind, even that of the revolutionary, of the fighter. Bartleby is neither a fighter nor a revolutionary; rather, in stating “I would rather not” he becomes a hero, or, we might go so far as to claim, a mystic, “a pure outsider, to whom no social position can be attributed”. It is only by not belonging that Bartleby becomes a hero, and only by discovering the outside of language that he becomes individuated by this very outside.
Thus, “it is not because he belongs to a nation or because he is a proprietor or shareholder” that Bartleby is worthy of trust of his fellow men, but only “when he has lost those characteristics that constitute his “violence,” his “idiocy,” his “villainy”. It is not the violence of conquest, of assimilation, that constitutes an ethics for human flourishing, but rather the “originality” that each man can enunciate “like a ritornello at the limit of language,” once he has embarked upon the open road “(or the open sea)” leading a life “without seeking salvation, when it embarks upon its incarnate voyage, without any particular aim, and then encounters other voyagers”. The nomad writer then, is not alone, for in his failure to stay put, and thus to belong he remains: “the bearer of a collective enunciation which no longer forms part of literary history and preserves the right of a people to come, or of a human becoming. A schizophrenic vocation”.
For Deleuze and Guattari, the vocation of the thinker, of the writer, is to join this collective ritornello that allows for infinite enunciations of human becoming, infinite potential realizations of a sharing that is fraternal not because of similitude, but because of the joy in allowing others to freely enunciate that “they would rather not” belong to violent cultures of appropriation, commodification and false linguistic etiquette. For this reason, Bartleby, like Deleuze and Guattari, and like Gregory himself, is a “doctor”, a “Medicine Man, the new Christ or the brother to us all”, a postmodern mystic, and example of resistance for us all. In this sense, rather than a “war machine”, Deleuze and Guattari’s work might be better interpreted in line with Gregory’s “peace machine”, for the power of epektasis, nomadic enunciation, is best expressed when we act as brothers to all, for such enunciations can be continually performed, and can therefore continually increase our mystical joy.


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All citations are from the French edition of Mille Plateaux and all translations are my own. (Deleuze and Guattari 1980).
For a view which opposes Danielou and sees Gregory as adding nothing new to the mysticism of Origen, see Gregor von Nyssa als Mystiker by (M. W. Volker 1955). For a compromise position between the two, see (Henri Crouzel 1957, p. 33).
In the Orthodox Church, mustikos meant both hidden and mysterious, and alluded to the “mystery” surrounding the Eucharistic Prayer. For a full history of the uses of the word mystical, see the study by Louis Bouyer (1949), “Mystique: Essai sur l’histoire d’un mot” (in Le supplément de la vie spirituelle, 3, 15 mai 1949). This incorporation that is a transubstantiation necessitates forms of perception that can trace the transformation of the visible into the invisible and the invisible into the visible. This mystical vision was not the exclusive property of saints and ascetics, but rather was available to everyone. It was applied, according to John Meyendorff, “to forms of perception related to the Christian ‘mystery,’ the text of the Eucharistic Prayer… Whereas saints possess this ‘mystical’ perception in an eminent way because they have attuned themselves to the gift of grace, all Christians are equally the recipients of the grace itself and are therefore called, by imitating the saints, to acquire and develop the ‘mystical knowledge’” (John Meyendorff 1978, pp. xi, xii).
“In its particularity, religious life includes, I believe, two complementary elements. On the one hand, it is a gesture; on the other it is a place. The gesture is that of leaving, and we are never through with it. The place is a community practice, an active sharing, the instauration of a ‘doing together,’ and this as well must be begun ever anew”. (Michel De Certeau 1987, p. 26).
Gregory is citing from Saint Paul’s letter to the Phillipians, 3:12: “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal…”
Origen’s position however, should not be overstated. In his Homelies on Numbers 17: 4, for instance, he writes of infinity in a manner that is strikingly similar to that of Gregory: “Those who devote themselves to the pursuit of wisdom and knowledge have no end to their labours. How could there be an end, a limit, where the wisdom of God is concerned? The nearer someone comes to that wisdom, the deeper he finds it to be; and the more he probes into its depths, the more he sees that he will never be able to understand it or express it in words… Travellers, then, on the road to God’s wisdom find that the further they go, the more the road opens out, until it stretches to infinity.” (Cited in Kallistos Ware 1985, p. 402).
It is interesting to note that the body of the law in Hebrew, Halakha, is from the verb halakh, to go. In the early Church, Christianity was called the “Way” (ὁ ὁδός—cf. Acts 22.4). In Arabic as well, the law, Shari’a, means the path.
And again at 226: “Made to desire and not to abandon the transcendent height by the things already attained, it makes its way upward without ceasing, ever through its prior accomplishments renewing its intensity for the flight. Activity directed toward virtue causes its capacity to grow through exertion; this kind of activity alone does not slacken its intensity by the effort, but increases it”. And at 239: “This truly is the vision of God: never to be satisfied in the desire to see him. But one must always, by looking at what he can see, rekindle his desire to see more. Thus, no limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied”. Cited on pp. 113–16.
This Learned Ignorance before the letter must certainly have been an inspiration to Nicolas of Cusa so many centuries later. This influence is noted by Roger Leys, who sees Gregory as anticipating Cusa’s docta ignorantia in his understanding of God as limitless and indeterminate (see in particular 1951, p. 31).
There is a doubling of the self at work here in that ekstasis entails leaving a limited and static nature behind in order to discover an unlimited nature in God.
Andrew Louth, in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, explains as follows: “This is what Gregory means by ecstasy: the intense experience of longing, desire, and love of which epektasis—following after God—is the fruit. Desire for God is continually satisfied and yet never satisfied, for the satisfaction of the desire leads to an even greater desire for God. The soul continually reaches out after God. There is no final vision, for the soul’s experience in the darkness is not—cannot be—theoria, for there is no possibility of sight in this darkness. God’s presence cannot be seen or comprehended, but only felt and accepted. This denial of the ultimacy of theoria, of contemplation, is what marks Gregory off most sharply from Origen and Evagrius. The Platonic doctrine of contemplation is left behind; it is beyond theoria, in the darkness of unknowing, that the soul penetrates more and more deeply into the knowledge and presence of God through love” (Louth 1981, pp. 96–97).
For a full history of the word’s usage, both prior to Gregory and in his entire corpus, see (Danielou 1944, pp. 274–90). He summarizes Gregory’s position as follows on page 280: “We will see that Gregory’s interpretation manifests a return to a conception of ecstasy as an exit from the self under the influence of a foreign reality…”.
This sounds quite similar to Meister Eckhart’s conception of mystical union.
Though Gregory’s sister was a well-known saint, his universe, as well as that of his commentators, seems to be a very masculine one indeed.
I use this term in the Kantian sense, as opposed to the teleological.
Referring to the Russian orthodox tradition, which has kept the movement of Gregory of Nyssa alive in the form of “the mystical vagabond” (even through the persecution of the communist regime), Michel Evdokimov writes:
“The mystic vagabond stays out of the way of political, economic or social power, he escapes them, his deambulation is a refusal to be identified with such a regime, with such an ideology… In the case of the “fools for Christ” [“fols en Christ”], the folly is personalized or even sacralized, reflecting back to society an image of itself that haunts it, that it welcomes and shuns, sometimes unrelentingly, without ever getting free of it. It is not surprising, in consequence, to find these characters hunted down in totalitarian systems, where they are charged with insanity without any other form of process…” (Michel Evdokimov 2004, p. 194).
“Elle consiste à freiner ce mouvement, à le croire devenu inutile ou dangereux, à vouloir fixer l’un de ces “passages” indispensables et à le prendre lui seul pour la vérité dont il n’est qu’un signe. Elle refuse à d’autres le droit de signifier quelque chose au cours d’une évolution ou d’une tension… La tentation est fixation. Là où Dieu est révolutionnaire, le diable apparaît fixiste”. (Michel De Certeau 1987, p. 60). In another work, Michel De Certeau similarly writes: “Of course, the processes of making one’s way [cheminer] can be reported on urban maps in such a way as to transcribe the traces (here dense, here very light) and the trajectories (passing this way and not that way). But these full or disconnected curves refer, like words, only to the absence of what has passed. The plotting of an itinerary loses what took place: the very act of passing.” (Michel De Certeau 1990, p. 147).
18 (accessed on 5 July 2022). All following citations are from this text, which does not have page numbers. This text is taken from (Deleuze 1997, pp. 68–90).


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