Friday, August 11, 2006

Occult and hermetic trends

"Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practiced at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed." -- Eliphas Lėvi


The term occult is controversial. It conjures up a tawrdy realm of séances, table turning, spirit-rappings, and ectoplasmic voices. These occurrences seem to have been staged to exploit the gullibility of those attracted to them. Ominously, devotion to such practices requires a rejection of the scientific worldview, offering instead a return to a world of credulity, superstition, and irrationalism from which, one might have thought, humanity had emerged long ago. Such, at any rate, is the view of those at odds with the occult.

It may reflect the conventional wisdom, but this view is too narrow and censorious, as it obscures important aspects of cultural history, Further consideration of the matter counsels the abandonment of the term “occultism,” with its overtones of spiritualist charlatanism and manipulation of the credulous. It is preferable to speak instead of hermeticism, an umbrella term for a variety of approaches including alchemy, astrology, Christian mysticism, the Kabbalah, “magick,” Rosicrucianism, and Satanism.

These topics are quite diverse, stemming from several sources. Why did they gain new popularity in the Symbolist era? The nineteenth century saw a crisis of traditional religion. At the same time many refused to give up a nonmaterialist worldview. Long marginalized by historians of science, their importance of these themes has recently become recognized, thanks to the work of Frances Yates, D. P. Walker and other scholars.

A central focus, amounting to a kind of clearing house of these ideas in early modern Europe, was the legendary Hermes Trismegistus, the Thrice Great Hermes. Both Thoth and Hermes were gods of writing and of magic in their respective cultures, Egyptian and Greek. Thus the Greek god of interpretive communication was combined with the Egyptian god of wisdom as a patron of astrology and alchemy. In addition, both gods were psychopomps, guiding souls to the afterlife.

The Hermetic literature added to the Egyptian concerns with conjuring spirits and animating statues that inform the oldest texts, Hellenistic writings of Greco-Babylonian astrology and the newly developed practice of alchemy. In a parallel tradition, Hermetic philosophy rationalized and systematized religious cult practices and offered the adept a method of personal ascension from the constraints of physical being, which has led to confusion of Hermeticism with Gnosticism, which was developing contemporaneously.

As a divine fountain of wisdom, Hermes Trismegistus was credited with tens of thousands of writings, of immense antiquity and high standing. Plato's Timaeus and Critias state that in the temple of Neith at Sais, there were secret halls containing historical records which had been kept for 9,000 years. Clement of Alexandria was under the impression that the Egyptians had forty-two sacred writings by Hermes, encapsulating all the training of Egyptian priests. Siegfried Morenz has suggested. "The reference to Thoth's authorship...is based on ancient tradition; the figure forty-two probably stems from the number of Egyptian nomes, and thus conveys the notion of completeness." The Neo-Platonic writers took up Clement's "forty-two essential texts".

The so-called "Hermetic literature", the Hermetica, is a category of papyri containing spells and induction procedures. In the dialogue called the Asclepius (after the Greek god of healing) the art of imprisoning the souls of demons or of angels in statues with the help of herbs, gems and odors, is described, such that the statue could speak and prophesy. In other papyri, there are other recipes for constructing such images and animating them, such as when images are to be hollow so as to enclose a magic name inscribed on gold leaf.

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus known as the Hermetica enjoyed great credit and were popular among alchemists. The "hermetic tradition" therefore refers to alchemy, magic, astrology and related subjects. The texts are usually distinguished in two categories the "philosophical" and "technical" hermetica. The former deals mainly with issues of philosophy, and the latter with magic, potions and alchemy. Among other things there are spells to magically protect objects, hence the origin of the term "hermetically sealed."

The texts that were traditionally written at the dawn of time, the classical scholar Isaac Casaubon in De Rebus sacris et ecclesiaticis exercitiones XVI (1614) showed, by the character of the Greek, to be more recent: most of the "philosophical" Corpus Hermeticum can be dated to around 300 CE, long after their purported date of composition.

The figure of Hermes Trismegistus incarnates the idea of the sage or magus, an individual of transcendental gifts. Modern scholars have noted a similarity with the Inner Asian model of the shaman, a person with special powers who can communicate with the unseen world. It has been suggested that the figure of Mallarmė whose gnomic sayings and verse constituted a kind of summa of literary symbolism, enhoyed that status of a sage or shaman among his followers.

Ostensibly, the figure of Hermes Trismegistus takes us back to ancient Egypt, traditionally a land of inscrutable wisdom. During the nineteenth-century archaeological discoveries widened the field to Western Asia, including the lands of Assyria and Sumeria. Joséphin Péladan, a prolific writer of fiction, adopted the pseudo-Babylonian title of “Sâr.” Péladan has a place in the history of art thanks to his leadership of the Rose + Croix group. Towards the end of the century another group of artists adopted a Hebrew name, the Nabis or “prophets.”

A certain fashionable interest in the more mystical side of Judaism was evident, as seen in an eccentric French writer. Eliphas Lévi, born Alphonse Louis Constant (1810-1875), was a French occult author and magician. "Eliphas Lévi," the name under which he published his books, represents his attempt to translate or transliterate his given names "Alphonse Louis" into Hebrew.

The son of a shoemaker in Paris, Lévi attended a seminary aiming to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. While at the seminary he fell in love, and left without being ordained. He published a number of minor religious works: Des Moeurs et des doctrines du rationalisme en France (1839) was a tract reflecting the cultural stream of the Counter-Enlightenment. La Mère de Dieu (1844) followed and, after leaving the seminary, two radical tracts, L'Evangile du peuple (1840), and Le Testament de la liberté (1848), led to two brief prison sentences.

In 1854 Lévi visited England, where he met the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, who was interested in Rosicrucianism as a literary theme and was the president of a minor Rosicrucian order. With Bulwer-Lytton, Lévi conceived the notion of writing a treatise on magic. This appeared in 1855 under the title Dogme et rituel de la haute magie, and was translated into English by Arthur Edward Waite as Transcendental Magic,Iits Doctrine and Ritual.

Lévi's version of magic achieved great renown, especially after his death. The Spiritualism fad popular on both sides of the Atlantic contributed to his success. His magical teachings were free from obvious crudity, even if they remained rather murky. To his credit he had nothing to sell, and did not pretend to be the initiate of some ancient secret society. He incorporated the Tarot cards into his magical system, and as a result the Tarot has been an important part of the paraphernalia of Western magicians. He had a deep impact on the magic of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and later Aleister Crowley, and it was largely through this impact that Lévi is remembered as one of the key founders of the twentieth-century revival of magic.

Levi was not deeply versed in Judaism, and may not even have known Hebrew. Still Judaic matters were “in the air” during his lifetime. This interest served to popularize the Kabbalah, transmitted in part by a Christian adaptation of the Renaissance, known as the Cabbala. The remarkable discoveries of modern scholars regarding this fascinating field were not yet available, so that would-be adepts had only a sketchy idea of the actual teachings of the Kabbalah.

We note here a few of the findings. According to the traditional teachings known as the Midrash, God created the universe with "Ten utterances" or "Ten qualities." When read by later generations of Kabbalists, the Torah's description of the creation in the Book of Genesis reveals mysteries about the godhead itself, the true nature of Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life, as well as the interaction of these supernal entities with the Serpent which leads to disaster when they eat the forbidden fruit, as recorded in Genesis 2.

Jewish mystical traditions always appeal to an argument of authority based on antiquity. As a result, virtually all works pseudepigraghically claim or are ascribed ancient authorship. For example, the angel Raziel according to the kabbalists, transmitted Sefer Raziel HaMalach (an astro-magical text partly based on a magical manual of late antiquity, Sefer ha-Razim) to Adam (after being evicted). Another famous work, the Sefer Yetzirah, supposedly dates back to the patriarch Abraham. According to Apocalyptic literature, esoteric knowledge, such as magic, divination, and astrology, was transmitted to human beings in the mythic past by the two angels, Aza and Azaz'el (in other places, Azaz'el and Uzaz'el) who “fell” from heaven (see Genesis 6:4).

Despite many ingenious conjectures, it seems clear that the Kabbalah as we know it emerged only in the twelfth century CE with the publication of the Bahir. Gershom Scholem, the leading scholar of Kabbalah in the twentieth Century, regarded the sefirot as a theosophical doctrine that emerged out of Jewish late-antique word-mythology (as exemplified in Sefer Yetzirah) and the angelic-palace mysticism found in Hekalot literature, the whole being fused to the Neo-Platonic notion of creation through progressive divine emanations.

Sefer Bahir and another work entitled the Treatise of the Left Emanation, probably composed in Spain by Isaac ben Isaac ha-Cohen, laid the groundwork for the composition of Sefer Zohar, written by Moses de Leon and his mystical circle at the end of the thirteenth century. The Zohar proved to be the first truly "popular" work of Kabbalah, and the most influential. From the thirteenth century onward Kabbalah began to be widely disseminated and it branched out into an extensive literature. Today, even Madonna and other celebrities have embraced this tradition, though one must be skeptical about the depth of their immersion. In fact, this is the point: it is not necessary to be thoroughly versed in such traditions to be influenced by them.

We pass from the sublime to the erotic in turning to the figure of Salome—also known as Herodias--the Jewish princess who, according to legend, demanded the head of John the Baptist. She was evoked by literary figures from Gustave Flaubert to Oscar Wilde, and depicted by artists as part of their overall fascination with the femme fatale theme. Among the most intriguing of the visual works are the prints devised by Aubrey Beardsley, which combine a provocative atmosphere of decadence with a linear patterning that approaches abstraction.

The later nineteenth century saw a renewed interest in Christian mysticism. Particularly revealing is the trajectory of Joris-Karl Huysmans, from skeptical materialism, through decadentism and satanism, to conversion to Catholicism. On the scholarly side, these interests bore fruit in Emile Male’s landmark art-historical volumes on church symbolism, beginning in 1898. In the literary sphere, a manifestation of mystical interest is the translation of the treatise of Rysbroeck by Maurice Maeterlinck.

We turn now to another aspect of mystical Christianity. The Rosicrucian Order is a legendary and secretive Order publicly documented in the early seventeenth century, although evidences in literature and monuments, thought to be associated to this Order, may be found since the early fourteenth century. It is commonly linked with the symbol of the Rose Cross, which is also found in certain rituals beyond "Craft" or "Blue Lodge" Freemasonry. The Rosicrucian Order is viewed among earlier and many modern Rosicrucianists as an inner worlds Order, comprised of great Adepts. When compared to human beings, the consciousness of these Adepts is said to be like that of demi-gods. This "College of Invisibles" is regarded as the source that sustained the development of the Rosicrucian movement.

In this environment the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and the teachings of Franz Mesmer (1734-1815) provided an example for those seeking direct personal knowledge of the afterlife. Swedenborg, who in trance states would commune with spirits, described in his voluminous writings the structure of the spirit world. Two features of his view particularly resonated with the early Spiritualists: first, that there is not a single Hell and a single Heaven, but rather a series of spheres through which a spirit progresses as it develops; second, that spirits mediate between God and humans, so that human direct contact with the divine is through the spirits of deceased humans.

Mesmer did not contribute religious beliefs, but he created a technique, later known as hypnotism, that could induce trances and cause subjects to report contact with spiritual beings. There was a great deal of showmanship in Mesmerism, and the practitioners who lectured in mid-nineteenth century America sought to entertain audiences as well as demonstrate a method for personal contact with the divine. One can see the excitement experienced by onlookers as the Mesmerist induces a trance in a work by Swedish painter Richard Bergh of 1887.

By the nineteenth century it might be thought that alchemy had long since been vanquished by the science of chemistry. However, as late as the 1890s, during his Parisian period, August Strindberg conducted actual experiments in the transmutation of metals. Earlier, the poet Arthur Rimbaud had coined a potent metaphor for his poetry, describing it as “l’alchémie du verbe.”

Of special appeal to the Symbolists was the correspondence theory traceable to Swedenborg and championed in France by Balzac and Baudelaire. According to this view everything in the visible world corresponds to something in the unseen world. Alternatively, things in the visible world may be linked to other things, remote in place and kind, for which they have an affinity. Thus the correspondence theory encourages the seeker to look for connections that may not be obvious.

As Henri Dorra has shown Baudelaire also drew upon ideas of Pierre Leroux and the German philologist Friedrich Creutzer. There is also a connection with the idea of analogy championed by the utopian socialist Charles Fourier. However, Lynn Wilkinson has shown that Baudelaire’s 1857 poem was preceded by an earlier one, also on Correspondences, by Eliphas Lėvi.

As noted at the outset, one must be wary of attributing too much significance to the more lurid aspects of Spiritualism. We must make some mention of the facts.

Spiritualists fix March 31, 1848 as the beginning of their movement. On that date, Kate and Margaret Fox, of Hydesville, New York, reported that they had made contact with the spirit of a murdered pedlar. The spirit communicated through audible rapping noises, rather than simply appearing to a person in a trance. This seeming evidence of the senses appealed to practical Americans, and the Fox sisters became an overnight sensation. Demonstrations of mediumship (séances and automatic writing, for example) proved to be a profitable venture, and soon became popular forms of entertainment and spiritual catharsis. The Foxes were to earn a living this way and others would follow their lead.

Seeing is believing, as the adage goes. Some were convinced that photography had produced proof of the existence of the spirits. Spirit photography, popular during the nineteenth century, got its start in 1862 when the American William Mumler made the first spirit photograph. The premise of spirit photography was that departed spirits could imprint their images on pictures. The spirits appeared as faint, ghostly images floating besides the living subjects.

Later spirit photography flourished in Europe. However, the spirit photographs were easily shown to be the result of manipulative techniques. As a recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum showed, they have considerable historical interest.

A parallel development, which did not claim to provide scientific evidence was the minor Victorian movement that produced Fairy Pictures. Some contemporary artists cultivate this vein today.

Overall, the appeal of Spiritualism was strong. First and foremost, the movement appealed to those grieving the death of a loved one: the resurgence of interest in Spiritualism during and after the first World War was a direct response to the massive number of casualties. Yet the movement also appealed strongly to reformers, who found that the spirits were in favor of such causes du jour as equal rights

Surprisingly enough, the movement also appealed to those who had a materialist orientation and had rejected religion. The influential socialist and atheist Robert Owen embraced religion following his experiences in Spiritualist circles. Many scientific men who bothered to investigate the phenomena also ended up being converted. These include the chemist William Crookes, the evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), and the physician and author Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), creator of Sherlock Holmes.

Religions other than Christianity have also influenced Spiritualism. Animist faiths, with a tradition of shamanism, are obviously similar, and in the first decades of Spiritualism many mediums claimed contact with American Indian spirit guides, in an apparent acknowledgment of these similarities. Unlike animists, however, spiritualists tend to speak only of the spirits of dead humans, and do not espouse a belief in spirits of trees, springs, or other natural features. Already by the late nineteenth century Spiritualism had become increasingly syncretic, a natural development in a movement without central authority or dogma. In its most syncretic form, Spiritualism is not readily distinguishable from the similarly syncretic New Age movement, and like the New Age movement draws heavily from shamanism and embraces the idea of reincarnation.

Advances in scholarship made available a greater knowledge of Buddhism and Hinduism. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer claimed to be a Buddhist, and in this he was widely influential. Hindu doctrines of reincarnation also had their appeal.

These influences contributed to the emergence of a movement known as Theosophy. This was a religious and philosophical system founded by the Russian Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891), who was both adventuress and seer, in New York in 1875, together with Henry Steele Olcott. Blavatsky was a world traveler who eventually settled in India where, with Olcott, she established the headquarters of the Society. She claimed numerous psychic and spiritualist powers and incorporated them in a blend of Eastern religions including Buddhism and Hinduism. These became the basic pillars of the Theosophical movement.

Upon Blavatsky's death in 1891, several Theosophical societies emerged following a schism in 1895. Annie Besant became leader of the society based in Adyar India, while William Quan Judge split off the American Section of the Theosophical Society in New York which later moved to Point Loma, Covina, and Pasadena, California under a series of leaders: Katherine Tingley, Godfrey de Puruker, Colonel Conger, James A. Long, and Grace F. Knoche.

Rudolf Steiner created a successful branch in Germany. He became even more famous for his ideas about education, resulting in an international network of "Steiner Schools." He was expelled from the Theosophical Society after he refused members of the Order of the Star of the East membership of the German Section. After the death of William Quan Judge, another society, the United Lodge of Theosophists, emerged, recognizing no leader after Judge; it is now based in Los Angeles, California.

Apart from her delvings into ancient Egyptian monuments, Blavatsky had little interest in art, but Theosophy attained an aesthetic dimension through the work of the movement's second generation. The illustrations of Thought-Forms, a small book published by Annie Besant and Charles Webster Leadbeater in 1901, present diagrams that purport to show auras and mental states. In their abstract color arrangements, the plates of this book forecast the formal explorations of abstract art for its own sake that were to begin a decade later.

Despite the evidence of that source, one may still ask what has all this to do with art? We can approach an answer by noting that modern art has often been driven by a sense of extending boundaries, of transgression and the resulting "shock of the new." Encountering resistance at first, these advances eventually achieve acceptance, and may even become old hat--the conventional wisdom against which the next generation will react. Yet this familiarization process has not yet fully embraced one aspect of modern art that intellectuals find scandalous and unacceptable, the occult inspiration of many modern artists, especially those who lean to abstraction. Recognition of such inspiration seems to violate two cherished articles of faith at once: that modern art is politically progressive and that it is allied with the secular world view of modern science. Research has indisputably established, however, that hermetic religious ideas, even occult ones, enjoyed the adhesion of many major modern artists.

Many influences, including a formative experience with the folk art of Siberian tribespeople, contributed to the formation of the art of Vassily Kandinsky. However, during the formative years (ca. 1905-13) when the breakthrough to abstraction occurred, Kandinsky was involved with Theosophy, as well as with its offshoot, the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner. Kandinsky believed that the spiritual art he was creating had a prophetic dimension, it pointed to a New Age of harmony that would sweep away the crass materialism that he detested. His contemporary Piet Mondrian, who experienced a "nostalgia for the universal," also believed in the emergence of a new art. An important part of the shaping of Mondrian's consciousness was his membership in the Dutch branch of Theosophy.

In Russia Kazimir Malevich adopted the doctrine of the fourth dimension, as championed by P. D. Ouspensky. Originally the concept of the fourth dimension did not have to do with time--this is a later interpretation--but with advance to a higher level of reality. Thus Malevich also broke through to nonobjectivity with the help of an occult, parascientific theory.

Even at the Bauhaus, ostensibly a citadel of rational application of aesthetic principles to the needs of industrial society, the occult played a major formative role through the ideas of Johannes Itten, who devised the Vorkurs, or foundation course that was the prerequisite for all further study at the institution.

After World War I occult ideas played an important role in Hilla Rebay's championing of nonobjective art in New York. The impress of occult influences, and those of oriental religions (important especially after World War II), can found in many modern artists.

Some have felt that the psychological ideas of Carl Gustav Jung, which trace a preference for certain forms (including geometrical ones) to the collective unconscious, represent a form of occult thinking.

When in 1947 T. H. Robsjohn-Gittings exposed the importance of the occult, admittedly with a hostile slant, in Mona Lisa's Moustache: A Dissection of Modern Art, he was first denounced and then ignored. Finally, in 1975, a comprehensive exhibition highlighting these currents was mounted by the Los Angeles County Museum. Despite the uncontrovertible evidence concentrated at this overdue manifestation, most historians of abstract art prefer to minimize this major theme. This reticence reflects the continuing faith that modern art, indisputably progressive, must always be secular and scientific.

The question remains open of just how the occult functioned as a midwife to the creation of abstraction. Was it central and organic, or external and temporary? The answer probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. Perhaps one might agree that it assumed the function of a benign enabler, a kind of talisman, that encouraged the artists to venture onto uncharted paths that might otherwise have remained unexplored. Some would put the matter more harshly, in terms of Henrik Ibsen's "life-lie," a fiction that allows creation to take place.

Opinions will differ on the logical status of occult theories--their "objective truth." I myself remain a skeptic. Apart from those who doubt their scientific character, occult ideas have also been charged with being politically retrograde. But fair is fair. One thing is clear, and that is that understanding of the origins of abstract art will not be enhanced by covering up this component because it is deemed "politically incorrect."

REFERENCES. Bruce F. Campbell, Ancient Wisdom Revealed: A History of the Theosophical Movement, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980; Maria Carlson, "No Religion Higher Than Truth": A History of the Theosophical Movement in Russia, 1875-1922, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993; Linda Dalrymple Henderson, The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidean Geometry in Modern Art, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986; Roger Lipsey, An Art of Our Own: The Spiritual in Twentieth Century Art, Boston: Shambala, 1988 (survey); Los Angeles County Museum, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985, New York: Abbeville, 1985; Ingrid Merkel and Allen G Debus, eds., Hermeticism and the Renaissance: intellectual history and the occult in early modern Europe, Washington, D.C., 1988; Sixten Ringbom, "Art in 'The Epoch of the Great Spiritual': Occult Elements in the Early Theory of Abstract Painting," Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 24 (1966), 386-418; idem, The Sounding Cosmos: A Study in the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting, Abo: Abo Akademi, 1970.


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