Occultism and Modernity

  • Alex Owen. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Corinna Treitel. A Science for the Soul: Occultism and the Genesis of the German Modern. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.
These two books are part of a trend to see the rise of occultism and spiritualism not as a regression to some `primitive' past, but as part of the response to the rise of the modern post-Christian world.

Alex Owen takes as her examples the occult movement in Britain from the rise of the Theosophical Society to the dominance of Alastair Crowley. This narrow emphasis on occultist groups, rather than say, mesmerism and Spiritualism somewhat weakens her case. Though Theosophy shared to some degree spiritualism's usurpation of scientific language and at least partially, its vision of human brotherhood (though with rather too much emphasis on the 'Aryan' for modern ears), the Golden Dawn and its successors were much more avowedly reactionary. Alex Owen rather underplays this side of English occultism, for example she doesn't comment on how the GD's founder, Samuel 'MacGregor' Mathers was involved in neo Jacobite politics.

It is perhaps in these movements' attractions to the emancipated 'New Woman' that they most appear modern, and Owen provides several biographies which illustrate this point, most notably of Annie Besant, and, of course, of HPB herself. However, being a New Woman didn't always translate into a concern for the social emancipation of other people, especially the working class, and even the once progressive Besant, by far and away the most sympathetic of the characters in this book, turned to theosophy as turning away from her earlier atheism and socialism. In her later years she was to turn a blind eye to the activities of the paedophile Charles Leadbetter. At least Crowley usually took his partners from more or less consulting adults.

The occult in Germany has had a bad press, with sensationalist books claiming the Nazis had occult roots, or that Hitler was a black magician. Much of this started with Dawn of Magic co-written by the French radical rightist Louis Pauwels, and the semi-mysterious Jacques Bergier. Much of this, as Treitel points out, tends to distance the Nazis from the mainstream of Western thought. In reality their exterminatory fantasies were far from unique to Germany. If Germany had won the First World War, a defeated Britain, having lost her colonies and forced to pay crippling reparations, might have produced her own monstrous tyrant - one Herbert George Wells, perhaps?

In tracing the rise of occultism and spiritualism in Germany from the Empire to the Nazis, Treitel points out that as many of these groups espoused 'progressive' causes of human solidarity, and 'occult' groups were persecuted by the Nazis as a consequence of this. Her study perhaps makes the links with modernity clearly than Owen's. The German spiritualists recruited from those dissatisfied with the traditional Lutheran church, which was seen as supporting the reactionary official state, against the rising liberal commercial and intellectual bourgeoisie. It also attracted those, such as Karl F. Zollner, the antisemitic and anti-liberal physicist who became notorious for his experiments with the fake medium 'Doctor' Henry Slade. Imperial Germany developed both a wide range of disparate occult, spiritualist and 'psychical research' societies, and a vigorous `skeptical' counter-movement. The row between these two groups cumulated in the trial of the (fake) medium Anna Rothe.

In the Weimar period interest in the occult continued, as did the quasi-scientific psychical research of men like Von Notzing. One of the main 'occult' interests of this period was dowsing and some of the writers in this field clearly anticipated later ideas about earth energies, telluric fields and the like and to have developed a sort of home grown feng shui.

Reading these books makes one wonder what historians of 50 to 100 years time will make of the visions and beliefs of our own period, and what they will tell them about our own societies. -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 86, November 2004.

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