Last May, the New Republic carried an informative article about how contemporary exponents of Cabala, a school of Jewish mysticism dating from the Middle Ages (if not earlier), have shaped the minds (such as they are) of such celebrities as Mick Jagger, Britney Spears, Demi Moore, and Madonna.  The Material Girl herself was quoted from an interview she had given the year before as telling Dateline NBC that she was “a Kabbala-ist” and expounding on the analogies between Cabala and punk rock.  Both, she maintained, are ways of “thinking outside the box.”

Alex Owen’s new monograph on the rise of occultism in late-19th-century Britain does not focus on Cabala, though the cabalistic tradition plays quite a large part in what she is talking about.  Her main interest is in how “occultism” reflects and has helped shape modern culture and what both “occultism” and “modern culture” mean, but that is not necessarily the interest that most readers will take in her well-researched but sometimes-murky book.

The sudden obsession of a number of perfectly ordinary middle-class Victorians with the most esoteric and bizarre lore of ancient and Renaissance magic and with the reality of what most people would call supernatural phenomena could be dismissed as simply an aberration; the truth is, however, that occultism in the late Victorian era, both in Great Britain and on the Continent, attracted an awful lot of people, and by no means were all of them ordinary.  The main organizational vehicle for the occult resurgence in Great Britain was a society known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, founded in London in 1888 by three gentlemen who had steeped themselves in the study and practice of magic.  They soon attracted dozens of others, including the young W.B. Yeats; a woman named Florence Farr, who was later the mistress of George Bernard Shaw (and probably of Yeats, too) and who became a famous actress and also a major influence on the British theater; Constance Wilde, wife of the infamous Oscar (who had enough sense to stay away from the group); a well-known author of popular children’s books who wrote under the pseudonym E. Nesbit but was really Edith Bland, wife of the Fabian Society’s Hubert Bland; Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, two major British fantasy writers of the era; and a number of others.  The Golden Dawn nearly recruited Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who pursued outside its ranks his own lifelong interest in spiritualism, psychic research, and even the existence of fairies.  Moreover, one of the main founders of the group and its official head was an odd character named S.L. MacGregor Mathers, who married the sister of the French philosopher of vitalism, Henri Bergson.  Bergson himself had no interest in the occult, but, as Owen shows, his philosophy paralleled in several respects the worldview the occultists peddled.

Some scientists also showed an interest in such matters.  Alfred Russel Wallace, who formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection around the same time Charles Darwin did, was a firm believer in spiritualism, a movement that antedated occultism as Owen defines it and was essentially a modern form of necromancy, the art and science of raising the spirits of the dead.  George John Romanes, a major physiologist of the period, was also a student of spiritualism.  The Society for Psychic Research was founded just six years before the Golden Dawn by Henry Sidgwick (“one of the foremost philosophers of the nineteenth century,” as Owen calls him) and included astronomer Balfour Stewart, the mathematician and logician Charles Dodgson (better known as “Lewis Carroll,” author of Alice in Wonderland), folklorist Andrew Lang, future prime minister Arthur Balfour, and others.  William Crookes, a major chemist who discovered the element thallium and received a knighthood (and a member of the Golden Dawn), was also a student of spiritualism or “psychic research” for many years until renouncing it, as were Francis Galton, founder of eugenics, discoverer of fingerprints, and a pioneer of statistics, and distinguished  physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, “a leader of the new spiritualist revival.”  Interest and belief in “the occult” was thus far more than a marginal phenomenon, and those who shared it amounted to far more than a fringe movement of social misfits and intellectual cripples.  Occultism constituted a major, if not exactly mainstream, influence on the era.

Owen argues that interest in the occult was in part the result of the scientific challenge to traditional religious beliefs that became popularly known and accepted in the course of the 19th century, as well as a reaction to that challenge.  Essentially, many Victorians wanted and needed a belief in something more than the dry materialism and rationalism that science offered them, the “disenchantment of the world” that Max Weber saw in the rise of Protestantism, rationalism, science, and capitalism.  The occult gave them such a vision.  If science and “progress” purported to have discredited orthodox religion, then ancient mysteries, suppressed heresies, strange phenomena, and forbidden practices seemed to point up (or down) an alternative road to truth.

Both Lodge and Doyle had personal reasons for wanting to believe in the supernatural and dabbling in spiritualist experiments, since both had lost sons in World War I, and Doyle, a brother as well; indeed, their involvement in spiritualism intensified after the war.  But interest in psychic research, as distinguished from the more religious movement of spiritualism, was, in many respects, a perfectly normal branch of science that ultimately failed to establish itself because what it sought to study did not really exist.  Although there are clear and obvious connections between communication with the dead and the practice of outright magic, there is also a major difference.  The Golden Dawn and similar groups were not really interested in science, although, as Owen argues, the occultists typically couched their arguments and claims in scientific terms and frameworks.  What the occultists were interested in was power—not political power precisely (though some played with that, too) but cosmic power.

Candidates for membership in the Golden Dawn were carefully screened, but, within the order, there was a “Second Order” hidden from the general membership, “a secret elite within a secret elite.”  “Magic as it was understood in the Second Order,” writes Owen,

was based on the belief that an Adept can use a series of revered and ancient techniques in conjunction with a knowledge of correspondences in order to converse with those worlds beyond our own and gain control over the invisible forces of the universe,

and “the great goal of the magical enterprise” was “the reconciliation of the human and divine.”  In other words, what magic ultimately seeks to do is to transform man—or at least some men—into God.

Candidates for the Second Order were required to take an oath obliging them to devote themselves to the achievement of the “Great Work,” to “purify and exalt my Spiritual Nature so that with the Divine Aid I may at length attain to be more than human.”  What that meant, says Owen, is that magic in the Second Order “was centrally involved in bringing the magician into direct communication with God and thus (although possibly only momentarily) to a state of almost supernatural semidivinity.”

Similarly, alchemy, also revived in the course of the occult renaissance, was directed toward “the ‘spiritual’ rising of the individual to a divine state.”  While the vulgar understanding of alchemy is that it seeks to transmute lead into gold, the “transmutation” is more accurately understood as a metaphor for turning the dull metal of human nature into divinity.  The Cabala itself entertained the same project, and the First Order of the Golden Dawn (“the Golden Dawn in the Outer,” as it was called) steeped itself primarily in cabalistic lore.  Only in the Second Order, once the initiates had been thoroughly indoctrinated in the pantheistic mysticism that the Cabala conveys, was this arcane gibberish applied to the “Great Work” of creating “the Perfect Man.”

Sooner or later (usually sooner) this kind of stuff involves sex.  Unlike the Freemasons, with whom the founders of the Golden Dawn were closely connected, the order admitted women, and Owen suggests that, although several of its leaders claimed to observe chastity, “sex magic” may have been secretly practiced by some.  One member who certainly did so was the man who became by far the most notorious practitioner of occultism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Aleister Crowley, who was also a member of the Golden Dawn and whose scandalous conduct helped break the organization up.

Owen offers a detailed account of an outré ritual in the Algerian desert that Crowley carried out in 1909 with his protégé Victor Neuburg, another occultist, with whom Crowley maintained a lurid sadomasochistic homosexual relationship.  The purpose of the ritual was to invoke the demon “Choronzon” and to “cross the Abyss”—that is, to make himself something rather close to God, or what Crowley conceived to be God.  Owen, unlike some who tend to whitewash Crowley, leaves little doubt as to who or what that conception was.  “Crowley,” she writes,

seems to have made an early identification with Satan and a further connection between Satan and sexuality.  This was ultimately to be worked out in the Magick [as Crowley insisted on spelling the term] of his adult years.

Owen is less concerned with the exposure and documentation of what the British occultists did and believed than with using Victorian occultism to reformulate our understanding of modernity and its relationship to the secular; since she analyzes this mainly in the convoluted jargon of the Frankfurt School, it is not always very clear what she is talking about.  As interesting as that effort might be, or might have been, in the absence of her argot, what is more intriguing is what she suggests about the impact of late-19th-century occultism on the mind of the ensuing century.

Toward the beginning of her book, she remarks that most of the occultists she is writing about and the organizations they founded have long been forgotten.  That is true, but the reason is not that they were unimportant; rather, they tended to dissolve and vanish as their teachings entered the mental bloodstream of the 20th century.  She shows, for example, that a good many of the occultists and their adherents were involved in the Fabian Society and similar socialist projects.

This combination of socialism and heterodox spirituality was equally evident in organizations like the “mystical” Theosophical Society and the largely socialist Fellowship of the New Life, the precursor of the Fabian Society. . . .  It was considered perfectly feasible at the turn of the century to adhere to a communitarian vision and socialist principles while espousing a belief in an unseen spirit world, a cosmic mind, and eastern religion, and many did.  This potent mix remained a feature of both progressive thought and “mysticism” into the 1900s.

One of the most influential figures was Annie Besant, who took over the Theosophical Society—the other major occultist group of the era—after the death of its founder, Madame Helena Blavatsky, and who was also an activist in the Fabians and later in the Indian nationalist movement.  Besant had made her reputation by leading a famous strike of London match girls in 1887 with the help of journalist W.T. Stead, editor of the radical Pall Mall Gazette; Stead himself, an intimate for some years of Cecil Rhodes and “an ardent spiritualist,” later founded his own spiritualist magazine, Borderland, to explore life after death.  Alfred Richard Orage was another Fabian who was a member of the Theosophical Society and edited the New Age, “one of the most avant-garde journals of the early twentieth century.”

Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung (as well as William James) were deeply interested in “psychic research”; Freud once remarked that “If I had my life to live over again I should devote myself to psychical research rather than to psychoanalysis.”  (Given that the latter is probably even more of a dead end than the former, he might have done better.)  Jung, like Crowley, had an experience with a “demon” that manifested itself to him as the result of a magical ritual; he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the psychology of occult phenomena and “immersed himself in a study of Gnosticism and Hermeticism that owed a great deal to the work of the Theosophist G.R.S. Mead,” Madame Blavatsky’s former private secretary.  Owen calls attention to the connections between psychoanalysis and occultism.

In Britain after the war an interest in the occult and psychoanalysis often went hand in hand, and some of those who had been involved with social issues and occultism over a decade earlier were among the earliest Freudian enthusiasts. . . . Theosophists (and other occultists like Aleister Crowley) tended to think that Freud had “discovered” nothing that had not been known for centuries by occultists and teachers in the East, but this interest in the relationship between spirituality and consciousness nevertheless created a revitalized climate of esoteric inquiry.

Figures such as Freud and Jung, Bergson and James, as well as the Fabians and others, were often deeply influenced by, or even immersed in, a worldview that was essentially drawn from the Gnostic, cabalistic, and Hermetic traditions the occultists regurgitated.  Thanks to their influence, what is essentially an occultist worldview came to permeate much of the Western mind in the last century.  Why should it be surprising that so many people today spout it still, and that so many of its claims and promises have become the commonly, though unconsciously, held assumptions of modern life?

Whittaker Chambers writes in the Preface to Witness that communism was not an invention of the 20th century but, in fact, is “man’s second oldest faith.  Its promise was whispered in the first days of the Creation under the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: ‘ye shall be as gods.’”  It is precisely the same promise that magic—the alchemy, the Cabala, and the demon-raising of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley—tried to fulfill.  It is no accident that so many Fabians were connected to it; their vision of a planned and closely regulated utopia ruled by an elite armed with its own secret knowledge is largely a secularized version of what the magicians of the Golden Dawn fantasized about.  Orthodox Christians will find the vision of man-made-god blasphemous and abhorrent, as well as profoundly evil in itself, regardless of how many fancy rituals and soupy formulas dress it up.  Aside from its theological import, however, the vision also supposes that human beings can ignore, transcend, and violate the laws of nature (including those that govern their own nature) and build their New Jerusalem as they fancy.  The New Jerusalem that the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and similar cults tried to construct with their fake magic failed, as did that of their secularized heirs in Moscow, Beijing, and Washington.  No doubt Madonna and her outside-the-box “Kabbala-istic” buddies think they will do better in the future.


[The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, by Alex Owen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) 355 pp., $30.00]