Vulnerability in Art and Mysticism: Does the Loser Take it All?

By Sander Vloebergs

Vulnerability is an intrinsic characteristic of human existence. Our lives relentlessly lead towards the one inevitable fact, namely that we are going to die. The extent to which we embrace this fact - our deaths and our vulnerable existence, is our own choice. Opening up to the wounds of existence unlocks the enchanting mysteries of life, while the defense against these hostile forces supposes an indifference that can result in anhedonia and a feeling of being powerless. Vulnerability - surprisingly - seems inversely proportional to pain and defeat. How is that - when it comes to the essence of existence : the loser takes it all? What do the mystic and the artist have to teach us about this peculiar paradox? 

Pain and existential paralysis

Johan Vetlesen expresses sharp criticism against contemporary western culture in his book The philosophy of pain (2009). He addresses the absence of vulnerability and pain, of their meaning and symbols and proposes an existential openness and an existential gratitude as antidote for our culture’s paralysis. Our culture is paralyzed and bored, it lacks meaning, "nothing means anything and nothing meaningful takes place". That is why we are in desperate need for kicks and excitement, to break our everyday routine, to get the adrenaline pumping. Violence and the transmission of pain is one way to 'truly live free'.

Vetlesen's anwser is that our culture fails in its task to give all members of society good symbolic-linguistic resources for dealing with basic human emotions and existential challenges. He says:

It is a question of a lack of practice – biographically as well as symbolically, physically as well as mentally – in looking such fundamental conditions as dependence, vulnerability and mortality in the eye, i.e. the characteristics of existence one has not been in contact with for a long while (right up until the acute crisis, perhaps) and has not needed to have an attitude towards.

This existential and symbolic vacuum influences my artistic and theological perspective. This vacuum, the question for meaning, is one of the main challenges for our contemporary culture although the challenge rarely appears to the surface so explicitly. How do we beat this existential - inner and outer - paralysis? Artists and mystics could be useful contributors to this discussion, because they are trained in this exercise of tightrope walking, balancing on the edge between contemplation and action. Both seek out the existential void, the eternal abyss, the well of inspiration, the source of action.


Vetlesen's analysis of the pitfalls of our contemporary culture points towards the experience of anxiety and our way of dealing with it. He refers to Heidegger to show that anxiety does not have to be a negative emotion. Anxiety is understood as something that - more than anything else - rouses the individual to take responsibility for and in his own life. It demands humans to actively look for meaning, although this demand can not always be fulfilled. Sometimes the paralyzing effect is greater than the rousing effect. "There are many ways out of the darkness of anxiety", he says. "But to find them and have enough strength to set out on them, a person needs allies – allies in both a physical and symbolic sense. For anxiety does not itself provide the resources required for leaving it behind". (p. 65)

According to Vetlesen, art is an excellent supplier of allies. It gives "the chance to create images, put words to, give form to the otherwise unbearable inner pressure".

This pressure hurts so much and creates such inner tension that it will turn inwards as self-destruction or outwards as destruction aimed at others if it is not released in some third way – as words or sounds, images or representations about what hurts and creates pain, thus making its underlying sources into something I can relate to as a symbol-using and commutative – i.e. social – being. (p. 88)
To watch a film, play or dance can give rise to the same experience, that of entering an artistically created human universe, a space one can enter in order to dwell on as well as marvel at the depths of the human repertoire, at who and what we are, for better or for worse. (p.91)

The philosopher George Bataille praises the experience of anxiety while he worships the horrors of the existential void, the abyss that paralyses. According to him there is only one answer to the vulnerability of human existence:

Trembling. To remain immobile, standing, in a solitary darkness, in an attitude without the gesture of a supplicant: supplication, but without gesture and above all without hope. Lost and pleading, blind, half dead. Like Job on the dung heap, in the darkness of night, but imagining nothing – defenseless, knowing that all is lost". (Bataille, p. 35)

With this statement Bataille critics the artist and the mystic who find consolation in their visions. As long as they hold on to images and divine pleasures, they have not reached the darkness that lurks inside. But this is a one sided view on mysticism and art that should be expounded or modified if we are to understand the complex relation between action and contemplation. Bataille believes (his new)mysticism is about absolute contemplation, of letting go of the illusion of existence and fall into the depths of despair, only to slumber in anxiety. Both Jacques Maritain (philosopher of art) and Hadewijch (artist and mystic) propose another relation to the abyss and the vulnerability of existence.


Maritain imagines that the artistic process is some kind of sacrifice of the human Self. In order to reach the source of poetic inspiration, the artist has to tear down his ego, his bonds with his environment and the images and symbols that he knows, in order to recreate matter and create art. This experience could be described as an experience of anxiety. Bataille searches his (absence of) salvation in the loneliness of the mystical experience of complete nothingness while Maritain proposes to meditate on and contemplate through the material, in order to act in the material realm. Poetic activity is an act of dying and resurrecting in a sacred and artistic body. These are the words of Maritain:

[Poetic activity] engages the human Self in its deepest recesses, but in no way for the sake of the ego. The very engagement of the artist’s Self in poetic activity, and the very revelation of the artist’s Self in his work, together with the revelation of some particular meaning he has obscurely grasped in things, are for the sake of the work. The creative Self is both revealing itself and sacrificing itself, because it is given; it is drawn out of itself in that sort of ecstasy which is creation, it dies to itself in order to live in the work (however humbly and defenselessly). (Maritain, p. 143-144)

The mystic Hadewijch also refers to the process of dying and resurrecting, the act of human sacrifice and the transformation of deification. Hadewijch stresses (even more than Maritain) that the mystic lives in the world and not in a divinized ecstatic state. Hadewijch's pain and agony, her anxiety for the terrors of divine Love keep her very well aware of her embodied existence, in exile far away of her beloved. 


Vulnerability assumes two entities, the one who is capable of being wounded and the one who is willing to wound. Maritain believes there is a kind of spiritual communication at the level of the human intellect, although he does not believe in a divine intervention. Nevertheless, he stresses the passivity of the artist and his receptiveness towards the experiences of life which wound and heal. In his journey towards the essence of materiality he or she suffers great losses. As Maritain says:

One would say that the shock of suffering and vision breaks down, one after another, the living sensitive partitions behind which his identity is hiding. He is harassed, he is tracked down, he is destroyed. Woe to him if in retiring into himself he finds a heaven devastated, inaccessible; he can do nothing then but sink into his hell. (Maritain, p. 140)

The passive tenses suggest that there is an entity that consumes the human sacrifice. Hadewijch describes her experience with the same expressions, calling Love (God) destructive and abusive. She even gives it the name Hell, the highest name. The mystic - the perfect lover - learns how to conquer the divine abyss, namely by loving it. Love is the key to the riddle we encountered in the beginning of this blog. By being conquered by Love, the brave lover conquers love Herself. Love demands the sacrifice of the lover, only because the beloved gives himself as well. Both lovers share in a mutual kenotic experience, a flirt at the edges of death itself where the wound becomes a heaven on earth, a sacramental sign of divine Love.

"How they who love can shudder when they know themselves thus lost in love! They are conquered so that they may conquer that unconquerable greatness, and this at all times causes them to begin that life in new death". (Hadewijch, Poem 14)