Have been thinking a bit about Deleuze and considering the ways in which he is to be read as a practicioner of esotericism. I believe this can be glimpsed in at least two ways. One is the pride of place he gives to the "Christ of philosophy," Spinoza. Indeed this way of talking about Spinoza is already quite divergent from the way that the academicians do (but then, so is the way he talks about magma or blood or Kafka). Of course the great champion of the "esotericist" reading of Spinoza is Leo Strauss. Though at first I was inclined to doubt that Deleuze was influenced by Strauss, I'm beginning to reconsider -- Deleuze was profoundly sensitive to all sorts of "minority reports" among his contemporaries (he is one of the only philosophers to mention Souriau at all). I don't know of any evidence that he read Strauss, but I am not, by a long shot, a Deleuze scholar. In any case, someone really should do a book on Strauss and Deleuze vis-a-vis Spinoza.
Deleuze is very attentive to how carefully Spinoza plays his cards. Consider, e.g., his remarks in a lecture:
Spinoza didn't entitle his book "Ontology," he's too shrewd for that, he entitles it Ethics. Which is a way of saying that, whatever the importance of my speculative propositions may be, you can only judge them at the level of the ethics that they envelope or imply.Of course, none of this means that Deleuze's reading of Spinoza's esotericism is correct -- simply that he was aware of it.
The second thread in an esotericist reading of Deleuze is the fact that he seems to draw, from beginning to end, upon an underground stream of expressly "esoteric" work. This is not just the fear-of-persecution esotericism (as in Strauss), but philosophy as initiation. This material has begun to be unpacked by Christian Kerslake (see his two books on Deleuze, or chapter 9 of this collection on Deleuze's precursors), and by Joshua Ramey (The Hermetic Deleuze). This work seems to me somewhat similar to Verene's reading of the Phenomenology of Spirit in Hegel's Recollection or Cyril O'Regan's enormous project (who also follows Voegelin -- albeit somewhat critically, refining the point). (His book on Hegel here.) This work by Kerslake and Ramey is some of the only secondary material I have read so far which has both deepened my understanding of Deleuze and helped me think about philosophy per se. (There is a very fine set of exchanges (here, in reverse chronological order) about Ramey's book at An Und Fur Sich, for starters; see also, for a dissenting view, Adrian Romero Farias' post at schizosophy, which, among other objections, takes exception to some Derridiean moves at the outset of Ramey's reading.)
There are a number of places in Deleuze's work where this esotericism seems to me to be expressly referenced. Deleuze and Guattari seem to make a revelatory gesture in What is Philosophy?, when they act as if here they will say outright what has been hitherto between the lines. But as lucid as this book is, I think it is fair to say it reveals by re-veiling. In the essay on Meliville's "Bartleby," Deleuze plays on the Melvilliean-Borgesian notion that "a great book is always the inverse of another book that could only be written in the soul, with silence and blood."* In his "Letter to a Harsh Critic" Deleuze also announces his deployment of decoys and misleading appearances, but this does not have the effect of showing his hand, only of showing that he is hiding it:
What do you know of me, given that I believe in secrecy, that is, in the power of falsity, rather than in representing things in a way that manifests a lamentable faith in accuracy and truth? ...I make my inner journeys that I can only measure by my emotions, and express very obliquely and circuitously in what I write. ... why shouldn't I invent some way, however fantastic and contrived, of talking about something, without someone having to ask whether I'm qualified to talk like that? (Negotiations, p 11)Probably second only to Spinoza in Deleuze's pantheon is Nietzsche (who of course was startled by discovering his own precursor -- "And what a precursor!", he exclaimed -- in Spinoza). One pretty easily recognizes a Nietzschean energy ("why not, after all, untruth?") in this outburst of Deleuze's. And since Nietzsche's great (if not always remarked) antagonist is Socrates, who insisted that Protagoras or Ion had no business speaking of military leadership or ship-building or medicine since they had no expertise, one can see here too Deleuze's inversion of the Platonic project. But if, as I contend, there is always at least as much going on in Plato between the lines as there is in the overt argument, this inversion, too, might be misleading.
A great deal has been made of Deleuze's refusal of the general or universal concept of "Life," in preference of his famous insistence on the Zukofskyan indefinite article: "a life." But what if the relation between Life and a life were itself a matter of secrecy?
* C.f. Melville, Pierre, or, the Ambiguities, ch.4:
That which now absorbs the time and the life of Pierre, is not the book, but the primitive elementalizing of the strange stuff, which in the act of attempting that book, have upheaved and upgushed in his soul. Two books are being writ; of which the world shall only see one, and that the bungled one. The larger book, and the infinitely better, is for Pierre’s own private shelf. That it is, whose unfathomable cravings drink his blood; the other only demands his ink. But circumstances have so decreed, that the one can not be composed on the paper, but only as the other is writ down in his soul.