8 Female Mystics in Literature
Amina Cain recommends novels about characters who find transcendence
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I have long been interested in mysticism, and in the mystic, who resides as much in an ethereal world as a material one. In a way of life bound to societal expectations and heavily invested in logic, that there are those who dedicate themselves to what lies beyond that—transcendence and surrender to the ineffable—is comforting. I’m drawn also to the idea of religious ecstasy, and though I myself am not religious, I think I have experienced a hint of what it must feel like in chanting and meditation, and understand how one might place it above all else.
Art too has the ability to transport us. In my novel Indelicacy, the narrator, Vitória, experiences a kind of rapture, and maybe even transcendence, while being in the presence of and looking at art, as well as listening to music and watching dance. It is then that she joins with something larger than herself, but remains very much in tune with her own self. It is her form of contemplation and study.
Here is a list of female characters in literature that seem to exist within, or approach, self-surrender, negative capability, euphoria, or transcendence. Though not religious mystics, necessarily, they share something with that figure all the same, deeply absorbed into something beyond them. I love these characters and these books, and find within them signs of how to live.
The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, translated by Benjamin Moser
When those in poverty are depicted in literature, it is often through pity and a sense of lack. In the hands of Lispector, the reader is given something more. A portrait of a poor young woman in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil who is unloved and trodden upon, still Macabéa glows from within, connected to the secret currents of life.
The Lady and the Little Fox Fur by Violette Leduc, translated by Derek Coltman
This is the story of an elderly woman living in an attic who roams the streets of Paris in search of food and human connection. She finds kinship instead in objects, notably an old fox fur she finds in the trash. In the novel, there is a great awareness of pleasure and delight, as Leduc’s “lady” transforms her world through her warm and vivid imagination.
Ban en Banlieue by Bhanu Kapil
At once a book about an unwritten novel and a series of performance notes for an “auto-sacrifice,” Ban en Banlieue shows me what radical presence looks like. Ban is an absolute witness to the violence that has been done to brown and female bodies, from the race riots in London in 1979 when Blair Peach was killed, to the young woman from New Delhi who was gang raped and beaten to death on a bus in 2012. I’ve never read a book before that holds space in such a loving way, almost outside of time.
The Obscene Madame D by Hilda Hilst, translated by Nathanaël in collaboration with Rachel Gontijo Araujo
In this surreal novel, a sixty-year-old woman decides to live under the recess of her stairs after she has a revelation. Madame D is a philosopher extraordinaire of the crudest kind, and this catapults her into another category of living altogether. Her mysticism comes not from a purity of thought, but from excess.
Call Me Zebra by Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi
After her father dies, Zebra sets off alone from New York to Barcelona to retrace the steps they took together when she was a child. Opinionated, funny, and whip smart, with the soul of an artist, Zebra reminds me of what living can look like when we are connected to our deepest selves.
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
Margaret Cavendish was a real person, of course, a duchess from the 17th century who was also an important writer and thinker, penning one of the first science fiction novels in history, The Blazing World, and I am certain she was a mystic. In Dutton’s fictional portrait, which spans her childhood up until her death, we get to see how the eccentricities of Cavendish (both in her writing and life) might have played out against the normalcy and conservatism of England at that time.
The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas, translated by Elizabeth Rokkan
In The Ice Palace we meet two young mystics, Siss and Unn, who form a deep, almost unsettling, bond before one of them disappears. In this way, it is their friendship, perhaps, that serves as the true source of mysticism in the book, as well as their separate explorations of the ice palace.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Eliot’s epic novel of life in a fictitious town in Central England features one of my favorite characters in literature, Dorothea, and I’ve always thought of her as having the qualities of a mystic. Though she is very much grounded in the world, she also seems to float above it. I love her devotion to religion, and her unchanging desire for contemplation and study.