n her review essay of Alex Owen's Place of Enchantment, Dinah Birch admits that "with its secret societies, portentous mysticism, supposedly magical rites and invented traditions, occultism looks like self-indulgent posturing." Nonetheless, one cannot simply dismiss occultism, in part because so many important artists, writers, and scientists found it compelling; these include W.B.Yeats, Ezra Pound, Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Sigmund Freud, who declared in a letter written in 1921, "If I had my life to live over again, I should devote my life to psychical research rather than psychoanalysis."
According to Birch, occultism characteristically insisted on "the substantial actuality of mental process" and "on symbols as a key to insight." Although to some extent, late-Victorian loss of faith in traditional forms of Christianity stimulated the rise of occultism, its practitioners often believed they had not exchanged one form of supernaturalism for another. "Devotees of the occult," in fact,
>maintained that they were not immersed in alternative versions of the supernatural. Like scientists -- indeed, some were scientists -- they were enlarging the boundaries of the natural, so that spiritual experience could be assimilated into the newly secularized mind. The Theosophical Society, headed by the charismatic Madame Blavatsky, had no truck with the ritual magic of the Order of the Golden Dawn, but it too denied any entanglement with the marvellous. . . . Occult practice was founded on the discipline and examined consciousness, and in that respect it was related to the psychological and psychoanalytical sciences of the time. With their careful scrutiny of dreams and symbols, and their recognition that mental energies could be other than rational, occult explorations had much in common with innovations in psychology.
The movement's emphasis upon "exercise of the will" distinguished magic and the occult of the 1880s and '90s from mid-century spiritualism, which featured passive, often female, mediums. Annie Besant, Madame Blavatsky, and Anna Kingsford, and other women prominent in occultism gained status not possible in conventional religion, but the "darker side" of occultism also involved sexual exploitation, for as Birch explains, "the theatrically wilful naughtiness that was, for some, part of the attraction could slide into destructive habits. Sex magic acquired a popularity that was hard to control, and here the secrecy of magical orders could become a baleful mask for exploitation."
Birch, Dinah. "Gripped by Beasts" Times Literary Supplement (August 6, 2004), p. 22.
Owen, Alex. The Darkened Room: Women, Power, and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England. London: Virago, 1989; U. of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
_____. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. U. of Chicago Press, 2003.
Last modified 17 August 2004