The following article was published in N-SPHERE October 2011 issue.


:: Literature and Occultism in the Victorian Era ::

Editor’s Note. The following is a two-part feature, spanning over the October 2011 and November 2011 Clockwork Showcases.

In this brief essay about the problematic and striking relationship between the particular and curious philosophy often called occultisme and the literature inscribed in this dilated period of English History (1837-1901), normally associated to her most powerful sovereign, the Queen Victoria, firstly we should take account of the complexity and depth of such relation through the ages. Certainly, it’s rather known that our contemporary sense of the concept of “occult” necessarily has no relation with the Ancient or Modern uses of that term. Regardless of this fact, obviously it has not been significant changes within human inner condition from the Ancient Mediterranean World to our current days, and their preoccupations and weaknesses are in great part similar to ours, which implies that the astonishing references on occult phenomena including, verbi gratia, in the Ancient “novel” Metamorphoses of Apuleius and the nineteenth ghost stories by E. F. Benson, are more closer in essence than we are willing to affirm as historians. Surely we can conceive those similarities almost as an exercise of Anthropology, but it’s more than this: something in our hidden nature claims for emerge and give sense to the non-sense using “irrational” or “magical” methods and arguments, and sometimes the writers’ speech is directed with the intention of explain or unveil those mysteries, but most times their purpose is to veil or hide those supposed symbols which lies beneath the written pages.

Obviously, the common and scientific conceptions of “supernatural” or “irrational” have suffered many changes through its long journey across the centuries and the authors, but undoubtedly the psychological mechanism which encourages them stills intact, at least in our Western Civilization. On the other hand, we have chosen the nineteenth century’s approach on the matter precisely because of the fine and inquisitive perspective supported by the wide range of writers, occultists, philosophers and scientists who dealt with the Esoteric matter in that period.

And first of all, we’re obeying to define what we understand when we apply the term “Occultism” to these nineteenth currents of thought and literary masterpieces, because its definition is in most cases vague and mistakenly assimilable to related concepts such esoterism and hermetism. In fact, we ought to delimit this term to those opuses inspired in a pristine hermetic tradition, which appeared for the first time in our century, and invariably based in a confuse joint of philosophies mainly inherited from the eighteenth theosophists. Naturally, our “occultists” tried hard to support their authority in more noble and ancient sources, but honestly their approach to the previous authors normally involved in the so called Western Esotericism was derisory in most cases. In short, the Occultism is an obscure philosophy which claims to be a “new” way to face the physical reality and a resource capable to unveil the spiritual dimension. In some cases, this new approach was positioned against the Christian churches and the modern parameters of the society and the positive science, but it does not work in the same manner in all cases, as we will see. Anyway, it’s suggestive the opinion of Nelly Emont when she alluded to une crise [z]  performed during the latter years of the nineteenth century to explain the apparition in stage of these occultist currents.

At first glance, we can observe in the occultist literature of the period, some tendencies at the time to tackle the esoteric phenomena, and surely will be useful the accurate appreciation of the erudite and Victorian writer M. R. James, who warned us about the risk of ruin a good ghost story using the technical jargon constructed by the occultists; in other words, if our purpose is to perform an optimal climax for the terror, we should occult the mechanism which support the fiction, trying to avoid any sort of murky and esoteric lucubration. Certainly, we agree with Dr. James in regards to the horror genre, but during our period we can identify many other incursions in the esoteric phenomenon, and aimed by different mottos. Fully inscribed in the nineteenth occult currents of thought, we find the work and philosophical backgrounds of some writers like A. Blackwood, G. Meyrink, H. Jennings, C. Flammarion, A. Machen, C. Maturin, Bulwer-Lytton, A. Conan Doyle, H. de Balzac or B. Stoker. Likewise, those personalities found egregious precedents in German quills like Goethe and Novalis, or in the magnificent visionary creation of William Blake. In addition, there’s a large list of writers integrated in the supernatural horror tales, gothic, symbolist and ghost stories, and other related fiction genres which merely catch a glimpse of the occult, with no other intention but to create an atmosphere of horror, mystery or restlessness. Finally we will mention some writers inscribed in non-related literary genres who deal with the occult obliquely.

But before to achieve a recount of those occult writers inscribed in this passionate era, we should come a halt and highlight which are the main features attached to the literature inscribed in our century, some of them parallel to the Faivre’s mainstream considerations affirmed in his renowned Accès de l’ésotérisme occidental, but in this case exclusively concerned to our period. In other words, we do consider this lavish amount or scientific literature as gifted by the following characteristics: Firstly, the exaltation of the so called “living nature”; secondly, the reconstruction of a holistic and esoteric conception of the religious experience; thirdly, the nostalgic attempt to recover a pre-scientific visions of the universe; and finally and fourthly, the rise of the Occultism as an established current of thought, along with other related currents such Spiritualism or Mesmerism. Certainly, and through the vision of these nineteenth hermetists, the modern science has failed at the time to comprehend the veritable essence of the cosmos, since it was considered as a dead, hazardous and nonsensical mechanism. And precisely was the astronomer Camille Flammarion (1842-1925) the champion of this beautiful consideration in the philosophical part of his opus Les Merveilles célestes: lectures du soir [y]:

“La philosophie doit aller plus loin. Elle ne doit pas se borner à voir sous une forme plus ou moins distincte le grand corps de la nature ; mais, étendant la main, il doit sentir sous l’enveloppe matérielle la vie qui circule à grands flots. L’empire de Dieu n’est pas l’empire de la mort : c’est l’empire de la vie”.

And that’s the reason why a universe ruled by spiritual forces and beings was so attractive for those nineteenth minds, linking in this sense directly with the so called “magical thought”. In addition to this important feature, we easily identify a tendency of those new esoteric speculators to reinterpret the religious experience using heterodox and romantic terminology, and the exaltation of the artistic and spiritual dimension of Christian religion supported by Chateubriand, or the mystical experience constructed in Novalis or Blake’s opuses, or vaguely in the case of Sade, Baudelaire, Lautréamont or Rimbaud’s pagan and savage dimension in the pursuit of épater le bourgeois, bear out such theory. Even recent works have tried to elucidate the esoteric elements which inspired the background of writers like Balzac, inscribed a priori in the Realism [x].

Whatsoever, we should reevaluate the importance of the occult and mystical fashions which crawling in our period, and great Spanish novels such La Regenta (1884-85) and Fortunata y Jacinta (1886-87), by L. A. Clarín and B. P. Galdós respectively, bear testimony of that peculiar intellectual milieu which wandered in Europe. Moreover, the well-known philosophical assimilation between God and His Creation, frequently named with the terms of immanentism, pantheism or deism, found important defenders in literary lost characters and antiheroes like Fernando Ossorio (Camino de perfección, 1902), obviously against the catholic dogmas. On the other hand, is notorious the case of Jakob Böhme (ca.1575-1624) and Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and their literary influence in gloomy, thoughtful and tortured characters like Roderick Usher (The Fall of House Usher, 1839), Gottfried Wolfgang (The adventure of the German student), and even in the out of period Harry Haller (Der Steppenwolf, 1927); and precisely such evocative, lonely and bizarre human conditions was extremely useful for Edgar Allan Poe to recreate the distinctive awe atmosphere which lies in great part of his masterpieces, and certainly in the very remote entrails of modern men.

Nevertheless, and accordingly with the clever perspective supported by W. Hanegraaff [w], we must try to avoid the wide-spread tendency of devaluate those occultist elements, focusing our attention on the irrational and conservative objectives and tenets which hypothetically aim these heterodox currents of thought. On the contrary, in many ways these esoteric conceptions have encouraged the birth of modern world in scientific terms. As a literary paradigm of such assumption, we can find in the immortal opus Frankenstein (1818) some references to the youthful flirtings of our Dr. Frankenstein with the old and dusty books written by Agrippa von Nettesheim (1486-1535), Albertus Magnus (ca.1200-1280) and Paracelsus (ca.1493-1541), which bear witness to the inclination of modern scientists to the so called “natural philosophers” from the Renaissance, in their pursuit to conceive a panvitalist vision of the whole universe and the rise of a scienza nuova.

Further reading:
[z] EMONT, N., “Thèmes du fantastique et de l’occultisme en France à la fin du XIXe siècle”, in La littérature fantastique: colloque de Cérisy, Paris: A. Michel, 1991, pp. 137-156.
[y] FLAMMARION, C., Les merveilles célestes: lectures du soir, Paris: Hachette, 1872, p. 346.
[x] LOZANO SAMPEDRO, M. T., dissertation: El esoterismo en la obra de Balzac, Salamanca, 1990.
[w] Azogue Journal
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Photo | Unknown Author. 1831. Frankenstein , Book Illustration

by Iván Elvira

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