De-masking the occult tradition
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL BURLEIGH
The Sunday Times
January 08, 2006
THE OCCULT TRADITION: From the Renaissance to the Present Day
The critic Theodor Adorno once wrote that the defining characteristic of occultism was “the readiness to relate the unrelated”, rather like drawing a line of your own invention through several dots on a puzzle rather than following the numbers to draw a face. That is almost the mission statement of David Katz’s concise, erudite and often comic book: to restore a vast and coherent body of occult knowledge from the condescension of modern science or the demotic residue epitomised by the astrologer Russell Grant.
Katz covers much more than the past 500 years that he announces as his chosen period. His story begins with ancient Greece and ends with American Protestant fundamentalists planning their lives around the “Rapture”, when they will be beamed elsewhere for seven years, while the Beast busies himself with the unregenerate many. Plato believed that the universe was alive and that the world is a shadow of an ideal reality.
Neo-Platonist philosophers and the early Christian Gnostics developed these ideas. A neo-Platonist magus, or adept, could detect the hidden (or occult) properties in seemingly prosaic plants or animals, so as to redirect the “energy” in the heart of a lion to foster human fortitude; the elite Gnostics employed mystical contemplation to free the divine spark left in some people by the Higher God, while the majority made do with the botched bodies created by an evil lesser deity.
However, since the occult resembles a Russian doll, it was soon believed that Plato himself was but a conduit for a more venerable wisdom. This hailed from Egypt, which, until the relatively modern fascination with India, was regarded as the repository of truths hidden in pyramids and hieroglyphs. This belief is called Hermeticism — after the mythical Hermes Trismegistus. He was supposed to be a contemporary of Moses, an Egyptian priest, who translated the wisdom of ancient Egypt into Greek.
In fact, the relevant texts were written in about AD200, and passed off as ancient, a fact that did not curtail the enthusiasm of many Renaissance scholars for hermeticism, once a Macedonian monk turned up in Florence in 1463 bearing a selection of these writings. The translation of the entire works of Plato was put on hold so that Cosimo de’Medici could devour these occult texts.
As Katz argues, the Renaissance avatars of modern western culture inhabited a rich spiritual world to which alchemy, astrology, magic and the mysticism of the Jewish cabbala were as integral as what we might understand by science. By about 1600, the essentials of occultism were fixed, namely that the ancients possessed ultimate wisdom, and all one had to do to access this — so as to control things — was crack the hidden code.
The dividing line between occult beliefs, “religion” and “science” was diaphanous, for such august figures as Isaac Newton were obsessed with the idea that the divine architect had left hidden clues to the structure of the universe within the Bible’s descriptions of the Temple of Solomon. He devoted enormous energy to understanding the Apocalypse.
Belief in esoteric wisdom spawned esoteric societies, real or imaginary. Many people tried to join the Rosicrucian Order after its existence was rumoured, but they were destined for disappointment, since it never actually existed before being founded in the 19th century. Others transformed unremarkable medieval lodges for itinerant building workers into the equivalent of gentlemen’s clubs, where symbols derived from the building trades, such as trowels and levels, jostled with secrets allegedly brought to Scotland by the Knights Templar. When Bavarian freemasonry was itself infiltrated by a group called the Illuminati, powerful people, as well as the Catholic church, began to interpret such important events as the French revolution as the product of Masonic conspiracies. Ironically, the imaginary malign force behind the revolution became a reality in the form of the various secret societies of Napoleonic and Restoration Europe, not to speak of those progenitors of modern communism — Gracchus Babeuf and Filippo Buonarroti, the world’s first professional revolutionaries.
With his characteristically light touch, Katz outlines the main 18th- and 19th-century manifestations of the occult tradition. “Science” aided rather than impeded the rise of such things as spiritualism. The phonograph, transoceanic cables, camera and telephone actively fostered the belief that it was possible to communicate with and record the voices of the dead. After all, what was that crackling on the phone line? If occultism was rarely incompatible with high scientific endeavour, nor was it wholly divorced from religion.
The gloomy Emanuel Swedenborg, whose followers founded a sect, thought he could pass between the life to come and the present, transmigrations that enabled him to decode the “real” meaning of the Bible to which he added a book or two. In America, an angel gave Joseph Smith the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, and four years later a pair of magic spectacles enabling him to decode them, the miracle that underpins the Church of the Latter Day Saints in modern Utah.
With interest in Indian mythology stimulated by Max Müller, the Oxford anthropologist, Madame Blavatsky founded Theosophy as a means of communicating eastern mysteries to the western world, although ironically, it largely became a vehicle of Hindu nationalist self-assertion. Katz is amusing about Ernest Jones’s attempts to contain Freud’s occult enthusiasms lest these queer the scientific pretensions of psychoanalysis.
Katz brings his story up to date by treating the “dispensationalist” fundamentalist strain within American Protestantism as a branch of occultism. Although these people predicate a dire fate for Jews who have not converted to Christianity before the Second Coming, they are among Israel’s keenest supporters since, without it, the battle of Armageddon and the thousand-year reign of Christ lack scriptural location. What began in the rarefied world of Renaissance courts has become integral to the creed of 50m people in the world’s most modern nation.
In 1882, the formation of The Society for Psychical Research brought together eminent scientists and thinkers with the aim of investigating the occult. A key element of its work was the attempt to prove a pillar of Victorian religion, the reality of life after death. Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge, was a keen member of the group. John Maynard Keynes said of Sidgwick, “He never did anything but wonder whether Christianity was true, and prove that it wasn’t and hope that it was.” Others associated with the Society were Gladstone, Tennyson, Ruskin, Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain.
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