The Socialist Roots of Occultism

Marx satan

Caution: This illustration is highly misleading. (Image by Ross Wolfe, The Charnel-House blog)

We’ve grown accustomed to exciting titles that announce “the occult roots” of anything from Nazism to electronic music. While there’s certainly a lot of attention-grabbing hyperbole in such claims, it is true that much of the vaguely deviant, oppositional, and radical segments of Western culture has a touch of the occult – for reasons we are starting to understand quite well (tag: cultic milieu, occulture, rejected/stigmatized knowledge).

But what about the roots of modern occultism itself? In the (educated) popular imagination, occultism is generally considered an atavistic phenomenon, an anomalous and anachronistic flowering of irrationalism belonging to a bygone age. Some scholarship has continued in this vein, whether we think of the brand of intellectual historians that get embarrassed by its rational and scientific deficiency, or left-leaning, progressive academics who, like Adorno, see only a reactionary tendency that must eventually lead to a mysticized political irrationalism of the kind erupting in Germany in the 1930s.

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Why fear the history of science? A brief response to Don Wiebe

The Problem of Disenchantment: Scientific Naturalism and Esoteric Discourse, 1900-1939 (Brill, 2014)I am more used to being labelled a “scientistic reductionist” than an “anti-science relativist”. While neither is particularly accurate, I was certainly surprised to see Don Wiebe review my book, The Problem of Disenchantment, as a “full-scale attack on modern Western science” (p. 1). Ironically, the review (published online in the journal Religion) appears side by side with an article of mine [free postprint here] that argues for consilience between the humanities and the sciences, so readers are likely to walk away a bit puzzled.

Since the charge of anti-science is a serious one, however, and since it comes from a well-respected scholar whose ardent support for a scientific and secular study of religion I have, in fact, admired since my undergraduate days, it seems necessary to take a moment to clarify some crucial issues that appear to get mixed up in the review.

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“Materialization: Occult Research on the Soul” – an esoteric lecture with Andreas Kilcher at UCSB

Kilcher lecture

This summer, the President of ESSWE, Andreas Kilcher, has been located at Stanford University. With me being based at UC Santa Barbara, we found a great opportunity to arrange a small esotericism event at the UCSB Religious Studies Department and the Religion, Experience and Mind Lab group that I am working with. So if you are in the area, consider this event on August 6th: Andreas Kilcher lectures on “Materialization: Occult Research on the Soul”. Scroll down for the abstract (or download the flyer here):

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Books from the Esoteric Brat Pack

As a member of what’s been called the “brat pack” of esotericism scholars I am proud to note that a considerable number of us are appearing on the scene this year with monographs based on PhD dissertations. The brat pack presumably consists of a group of (then) students and emerging scholars who were around at the time of ESSWE 1 in 2007, and who have frequently been seen together at conferences since. While some of us have teamed up for joint gigs in the past (think The Devil’s Party or Contemporary Esotericism, and the conferences that went with both of these),  it looks like 2014 is the big year for solo work. I know of at least four titles either published or forthcoming in 2014 by (for the most part) recent PhDs working in the field of Western esotericism. There may be other publication plans I am not aware of (please leave a note!). Here’s a chronological list of the knowns.

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Comparison and the Study of Esotericism

Gordan Djurdjevic, India and the Occult (Palgrave, 2014)

Gordan Djurdjevic, India and the Occult (Palgrave, 2014)

A few weeks ago, Correspondences 2.1 appeared, featuring my article  “Beyond the West: Towards a New Comparativism in the Study of Esotericism”. I focus on the role of comparative methods in the field of esotericism, a subject that has been fraught with controversy due to excessive misuses of such methods in the past. The core of my argument is that we need to lift the more general ban on comparativism that has largely been in effect, and start developing new and responsible ways of opening up the field to both cross-cultural and other sorts of comparative research. I analyse the scholarly background, the current situation, and offer concrete suggestions – including a typology of different sorts of comparative research that might be undertaken, and for what reasons.

The reason for writing this post is not just to pique your interest in this article, however, but rather to point out that there is a broader discussion mounting at the moment. In religious studies generally, the debate is opened up again now with Jeffrey Kripal’s recent text  book, Comparing Religions (Wiley, 2013), and in my article I cite a growing literature in esotericism studies that move in this direction. It was however nice to receive another addition in the mail last week, Gordan Djurdjevic’s India and the Occult: The Influence of South Asian Spirituality on Modern Western Occultism (Palgrave, 2014). Leafing through it this afternoon inspired this post, because I realize that Djurdjevic makes a sort of contribution that should have been included in my discussion had it been available half a year ago. So here are some quick thoughts, relating our comparativist projects.

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Theosophical Appropriations – videos from a workshop

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INASWE workshop on Theosophy, kabbalah, Western esotericism, and appropriations of traditions

The INASWE [Israeli Network for the Academic Study of Western Esotericism] has done it again. Videos from a workshop held last December on the theme of “Theosophical Appropriations: Kabbalah, Western Esotericism, and the Transformation of Traditions” are now online, and they show an impressive number of great scholars talking about intriguing aspects of modern esotericism, angled through the Theosophical current one way or another. The conveners Julie Chajes and Boaz Huss have done a great job putting together this group. One of the nice aspects of this collection is the global scope, giving a panoramic view of Theosophical groups across a number of different countries.

As in previous years, it is wonderful that all of this is made available online. So go and watch Karl Baier talk about how the chakras were introduced into Theosophy, John Patrick Deveney lecture on Theosophy as Lesenmysterium, Moshe Idel pontificate on Theosophy and Kabbalah in Romania, Massimo Introvigne entertain on the topic of Canadian Theosophy, and let Marco Pasi enlighten you on the role of the Theosophical movement in Italian esoteric milieus. And much, much more.

Gnosis & Alterations of Consciousness: ESSWE Thesis Workshop

Flammarion woodcut altered

Time for Thesis Workshop in Amsterdam: “Gnosis & Alterations of Consciousness”

It’s an odd-numbered year, and it’s spring (sort of, some places). And it’s soon time for a new ESSWE Thesis Workshop in Amsterdam, the third one in the line (after this and this). In years when there is no ESSWE conference, these open workshops designed for MA and PhD candidates who are involved with some independent research and thesis writing in the field of esotericism, are organised in conjunction with the annual ESSWE board meeting. We’ve had one on alchemy in 2010, and one on magic in 2012. This year’s workshop has just been announced: the topic is “Gnosis and Alterations of Consciousness”, the date is May 10 (a Saturday), and the place, as previous years, is Amsterdam. It is also completely free (although you should contact the HHP secretary to book a place – see the official call for details). A great excuse for spending a May weekend in Amsterdam!

 

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New Webinar: Marco Pasi on Gustav Meyrink & His Esoteric Novels

The latest in a long series of webinars created by the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica and the Centre for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents in Amsterdam has just been released. This time Marco Pasi talks about the Austrian author Gustav Meyrink (/Meyer), arguably the most important contributor to early 20th century esoteric fiction. The relation between modern esotericism and fiction is one of Pasi’s specialties (check out his work on Fernando Pessoa), and as he tells in this webinar, he’s also been a Meyrink fan since his late teens. For a solid contextualisation of Meyrink’s work, and the influence of his work (including quite a few personal anecdotes), do check out this video.

You might also want to check out the introductory interview with Marco, introducing his new contributions to the Infinite Fire Webinar series.

 

 

 

Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 3

[The third and final part of my review of Otto and Stausberg’s Defining Magic. This part discusses the five final essays of the book, all of which are new contributions written by contemporary scholars of “magic”. Follow hyperlinks to read part one (focusing on the selection of texts) and part two (focusing on the editors’ introduction) of the review.]

Defining Magic cover Stausberg Otto

3. Contemporary voices

That we need a systematic approach along the lines of what Stausberg and Otto suggest (or alternatively along the lines of building blocks) is confirmed by looking at the five contemporary pieces representing the current state of the debate. The five authors represent anything but a consensus. Through a broader framework of “patterns of magicity” we might nevertheless be able to put them in a fruitful dialogue.

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Patterns of Magicity: A review of Defining Magic: A Reader (eds. Otto & Stausberg; Equinox, 2013) – part 2

[This is the second part of my longish review of Otto and Stausberg’s Defining Magic: A Reader. This part focuses on the introductory chapter. For part one of the review, focusing on the selection of texts, please go here.]

Magicians?

Magicians?

Patterns of Magicity: A Review of Defining Magic (part 2)

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