The following article was published in N-SPHERE November 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.

The passionate portrait of a living nature organically linked between all of its elements and the anatomia essentialis defended by Paracelsus, seduced our wretched Mary Shelley’s child, in the same way of many other real scientists during the century. And we already shall know the mainstream idea which lies underneath: the restless quest of the ens spirituale within living matter, or more precisely, a sort of medicine science entirely based in van Helmont’s concept of archeus influus, the unifying principle latent in all organic form of life. In short, the triumph of Prometheus’ search in the pursuit of the divine fire; the principle which rule the creation of life in base of dead matter, using in that difficult chore the procedures of the alchemists, as Paracelsus did in regards to the perturbing figure of the homunculus. Briefly, doctor Frankenstein tried “to read in the book of Nature with the eyes of the spirit”, following his master’s maxim.

And naturally we have arrived in this flowing argumentation to the Alchemy. Obviously this is not the adequate place to undertake any rigorous approach to the historical background of this phenomenon, but it’s an unavoidable task to make a halt and explain slightly its relation with very well-known writers of the period like Goethe (Faust I and Faust II 1808-1832), M. R. James (Casting the runes, 1911), Gustav Meyrink (Der Golem, 1915), E. G. Bulwer-Lytton (Zanoni, 1842), or even H. P. Lovecraft (with the short tale The Alchemist, 1908). Certainly, in many ways the Goethe’s approach to the alchemy was merely a poetic attempt to introduce his passionate readings of Paracelsus, Basilius Valentinus, Georg von Welling and Anton Joseph Kirchweger in his writings; but probably we ought to focus our attention on his most renowned character Faust, in order to explain his philosophical obsessions and literary intentions. Undoubtedly, his unfortunate character yearns for a divine and hidden science; he got to meet all human knowledge and now is craving to go beyond. The scholastic measures seem short for our hero, but the magic and alchemical rituals fit perfectly for his very new purpose. Certainly the same hope and desire identified in regards to the ancient practitioners of magical mysticism or late antiquity’s alchemists, both representative of the spirit of those wises who yearn for a new “science of occult virtues”, useful to unveil the secrets of Nature, as Festugière noticed in his Révélation [v]. Unequivocally, the main difference stems from the mephistophelian nature of the pact between the evil forces and our unruly character, either Faust or Melmoth.

Regarding to the alchemical and magical topics dealt in this and other nineteenth and early twentieth opuses (the panacea and the elixir of eternal life, the homunculus and the golem, the rebis, and finally the lapis philosophorum), is notorious for a historian their ignorance and their marvelous poetic license. Anyway, we should take account of the theosophical, pietist and spiritual influences of such alchemical conceptions, in the new theoretical sense given by celebrated opuses like the Amphiteatrum sapientiae aeternae solius verae (1595) of Heinrich Khunrath (1560-1605), or in the Opus mago-cabbalisticum et theosophicum (1735), by Welling (1655-1727), cited above as a great inspiration for Goethe’s Faust. Overall, those new spiritual or theosophical alchemists gave more importance to the salvation in Christian terms, rather than any sort of greasy alchemical task, and this new “alchemy” suits perfectly with their literary purposes and religious anxiety, as well as for the intentions of French occultists like Gerard Encausse (Papus), Eliphas Lévi or Stanislas de Guaita, who widely comment the Amphiteatrum. It’s beyond doubt that this murky and metaphysical concept of the occult sciences was a strong literary inspiration for many writers and artists during the analyzed period, and such insane lucubrations became an excellent argument at the time to recreate many unforgettable horrified and oppressive atmospheres.

And continuing with the relationship between the nineteenth literature and modern science, inevitable we have flowed into those wide-spread incipient pseudo-scientific currents like the Mesmerism and the Spiritualism, which had a tremendous influence in the literary panorama of the period. Anyhow, once again we should not forget that the problem of death, the spiritual world, the apparitions, specters and ghosts, have leaded a great part of the spilt ink and not necessarily regarding the occultist literature, despite of the disdain of many renowned occultists towards the Spiritualism movement. In any case, the ghost topic was widely treated by many writers and occultists during that period, occasionally as a mere diversion but sometimes as a meditate way of express a firm belief in a transcendent reality.

For instance, we discover in the sarcastic genius of Guy de Maupassant, a great interest in the animal magnetism and in the hidden and invisible creatures who prowling out of sight (Le Horla, 1887), as well as physiological conceptions defended by pseudo-scientists like Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741-1801) and Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), the introducers of a suggestive way to describe the human nature through the face’s features, extensively used by writers like Charlotte Brontë (The Professor, 1857), or Balzac again in his Physiologie du marriage (1829). It’s also remarkable the influence of mysterious phenomena like the magnetism and the hypnotism again in the case of Balzac and his novel Ursule Miroüet (1841), or Maurice Maeterlinck and his Le Grand Secret (1927). And finally it was a physician, James Braid (1795-1860), who following the Mesmer’s teachings introduced the concept of hypnosis in the equation, giving to Poe the chance of write one of the most frightening horror tales ever: The facts in the case of M. Valdemar (1845).

Yet it was by the hand of the occultist writer Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), when in our opinion the nineteenth occultism got its zenith. And probably his novel Zanoni is the most comprehensive masterpiece conceived by the occultists during that period, and there’re many reasons to support this assert. Firstly because of the close relationship of his author with other renowned occultists, his membership in the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (SRIA), and the evident encyclopedic knowledge demonstrated in this and other occult tales like The Haunted and the Haunters (1857), A Strange Story (1862) or Vril, the Power of the Coming Race (1871). The author of those passionate tales reveals a thorough interest in the so called hermetic sciences, beside the influence of an animal magnetism assimilated to the ancient astromagical energeia. Particularly in Zanoni [u], we assist in the fourth book, signified called The Dweller of the Threshold, to an initiation path in the extraordinary secrets of the Rosicrucians, the oldest and most powerful hermetic order:

“that there were no mystic and solemn unions of men seeking the same end through the same means before the Arabians of Damus, in 1378, taught to a wandering German the secrets which founded the Institution of the Rosicrucians? I allow, however, that the Rosicrucians formed a sect descended from the greater and earlier school. They were wiser than the Alchemists,—their masters are wiser than they” (Book IV, chapter II).

Zanoni and Mejnour, both extraordinary characters adorned with the aureole of the occult sanctity, defenders of the eternal secrets of Nature; the first one entirely devoted to the beauty and brightness of the “sublunar world”, and the second to the melancholy of the heavens above. Undoubtedly, Zanoni is one of the best exponents of the occult conception within the esoteric currents of thought. And for our purposes, it’s important to remark -and relatively unknown- the fact that apparently Lévi traveled to England in order to perform a theurgic ritual through the mediation of Lord Lytton, a ritual in which Apollonius of Tyana -the ancient wise registered by the Greek historian Philostratus-, appeared and revealed some cabbalistic truths to our French occultist, or at least that’s what he affirmed in his Dogma et Rituel de la Haute Magie, and Butler reflected such amusing and novelistic episode in his famous Ritual Magic under the title: “Apollonius of Tyana in London”.

As a conclusion, we would like to call your attention on the fact that many of the protagonists of those literary works, either heroes or antiheroes, and counterpart or not of their gloomy creators, have showed a wild tendency to go beyond human possibilities, directly through the inner places of matter, spirit and au-delà worlds. In short, this inclination for the irrational and obscure side of human and divine essences that we effortlessly find in those occult writers, is the scion of a contradictory epoch full of splendorous décadence and rage. A bastard child inclined to kill his holy fathers and the deformed and malevolent image reflected in the mirror of Léon Spilliaert and Dr. Jekyll’s failed experiment. An insane introspective eager to dismantle the very hidden nature of things, and a disorganized attack against the orthodoxy. It was the Nietzsche and Schiele’s defense of the all-mighty matter against the frayed consciousness, and the piteous journey of the doomed across the forgotten rivers of the Hades.

Further reading:

[v] FESTUGIÈRE, A.-J., La révélation d’Hermès Trismégiste, París: Les Belles Lettres. Vol. I. L’astrologie et les sciences occultes, Paris : Les Belles Lettres, 1986, p. 41.

[u] Azogue Journal

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Photo | William Blake. 1794. Book of Urizen

by Iván Elvira

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