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De Occulta Philosophia

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macroanthropos tree of lifeAs you might have guessed by now (see here), I’ve always been fascinated by the strange, the unusual, and the bizarre. During my teenage years I went to an orthodontist in midtown Manhattan and as a reward for enduring the pain, I’d visit the Marboro bookshop a few yards down the block. For those of you younger than I am, Marboro specialized in remainders, publishers’ overstock with substantial markdowns. And almost always on the remainder tables were titles published by Lyle Stuart’s University Books, reprints of long-out-of-print occult titles: A.E. Waite on ceremonial magic, tarot, Rosicrucianism, and the Holy Grail; Montague Summers on vampires; Frank Podmore and F.W. H. Myers on spiritualism; Theodore Besterman on crystals, κτλ.  When, as a college freshman, I discovered Samuel Weiser’s bookshop south of Union Square, I was hooked.

My interest in all this was never practical (well, hardly ever). I had (and have) no belief in the efficacy of the occult arts. But I became increasingly fascinated with the history of occult groups and practices, the impact or non-impact of occult ideas on politics, philosophy, literature and art, the lives of occult practitioners from Dr. John Dee to Aleister Crowley, and the system(s) of correspondences that esotericists use to understand the putative connections between the inner and outer, human and natural  worlds—microcosm and macrocosm—together. 

Occultism has always been a stew of obsolete (scientists say discredited) sciences and philosophies with a long pedigree (/Hermeticism, gnosticism, astrology, geomancy, alchemy, practical and theoretical Kabbalah, scrying, theurgy, and their like), fairly recent additions: Rosicrucianism (a post-Reformation invention) the occult Tarot (a post-Enlightenment production), Freemasonry, spiritualism, and a variety of oriental systems and practices such as yoga (tantric and otherwise). In its present form, it was cooked up mostly in the nineteenth century, by a former seminarian who went by the name of Eliphas Levi (nothing more kabbalistically impressive than a Hebrew name), a Russian-American-Indian-English adventuress named Helena Blavatsky, and Samuel Liddell Macgregor Mathers, a Scots pseudo-aristocrat and psychopomp of the Order of the Golden Dawn. And its capacious arms have opened to welcome extraterrestrials, ancient and otherwise, pyramidology, pseudophysics alternative archaeology, Jungian psychology (which many would say was occult to begin with) and a wide selection of conspiracy theories. All of it, you might say is dross, but it does contain some wonderfully imaginative (and even beautiful) nuggets.

What have I gotten out of all this? Well, not much (my wife would say nothing) that’s of any real use; maybe a certain sensitivity to real or factitious connections But it continues to fascinate (that’s an occult word) me, and I continue to read about it. And in our digital world there’s a lot to read. And a lot to write about, even by a cynical unbeliever. It poses some very interesting questions: Why does its popularity wax and wane from one period to another? Why is do self-professed agnostics and atheists believe parts of it? How has it influenced the development of mainstream philosophy and literature? Why do so many people invest so much time and money in pursuing it?  If you’ve got answers to any of these questions, please let me know.


Written by hans castorp

August 17, 2013 at 12:36 pm

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