"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Monday, August 1, 2022

Reading notes: Introduction to The Dedalus Occult Reader: The Garden of Hermetic Dreams by Gary Lachman (2004)

Below are some underlinings from the introduction to The Dedalus Occult Reader: The Garden of Hermetic Dreams by Gary Lachman (2004).


[....] Human consciousness seems to be programmed with a fundamental dissatisfaction with the world as given, with the 'facts' of life. We are not content with the 'triviality of everydayness', as the philosopher Heidegger put it.

[....] human beings feel an instinctive yearning for some kind of 'beyond', for something more, a reluctance to fully abandon some form of belief in magic which, ultimately, means a belief in human freedom. One form this resistance to complete explanation has taken is occultism.

[....] these and other beliefs are attractive because they elude the obsessive urge for explanation.

[....] not solely a testament to weak minds and wishful thinking.

[....] popular occultism is a raw, unsophisticated expression of a deep, universal need.

[....] The hunger for something more that dubious gurus exploit is a valid hunger; what is unfortunate is that many lack discrimination, and satisfy their spiritual appetite with the equivalent of junk food.

[....] Along with the occultism of fortune-tellers and love potions, there is a more demanding form, a tradition of occult thought of which the popular variant is only a recent offshoot. This more sophisticated form of occultism is at bottom a literary tradition, a genre and a canon of works. Like the potential for transcendence inherent in language itself – its ability to speak 'otherwise' and 'change' reality – sophisticated occultism is about the power of words, the efficacy of language and writing….

[....] Kabbalah, on which nearly all of modern occultism is based, is fundamentally about the magical powers of letters.

[....] it was after Newton unveiled the clockwork universe, set in motion by a Deus Abscondus, that the occult lost its status. The laws of inertia required only a single push; after that the heavens rained angels, spirits, celestial powers, until today what is left is a vast but meaningless space, brought into existence by sheer chance, and tenanted by blind balls of rock or gas, on one of which reside the accidental arrangement of atoms we call the human race.

[....] It was precisely the emphasis on human strength, will and purpose as opposed to that of the gods, that led to the rise of the great magicians.

[....] the new scientific world-view didn't win over everyone. A sensitive minority was troubled by its rise, and by the loss o. meaning its growing success ensured. The dogma and authority of the church had been undercut, but the cost was high. Mankind was free, but, as was becoming increasingly clear, the universe itself was pointless.

[....] It was at this point – the late eighteenth century – that occultism as we know it began.

[....] the key fact for occultism as we know it, is that it is an alternative to scientific thought. The occult was abandoned by the architects of the Age of Reason, but it was not forgotten, and in the years that followed, it became a kind of reservoir of rejected knowledge, available to the artists, poets, writers, philosophers and musicians who were dissatisfied with the new, Newtonian dispensation.

[....] the majority of writings collected here are not by authors generally considered supernatural or occult.

[....] An anthology of occult writings by occultists might be interesting, but it wouldn't tell us anything we didn't know. My aim in bringing together these disparate works is to show that far from the marginal phenomenon we generally think it is, occultism had a powerful impact on much of mainstream western culture….

[....] What we know as the New Age is in many ways a kind of domesticated occultism. Alternative health stores, yoga centres, head shops and metaphysical bookshops appear on many high streets; what was one time radical and hard to find is now blended in with corner shops and newsagents. Likewise, much of the threatening aspect of occultism has found a home in Goth, death rock and other forms of pop music. In many ways, occultism today is but one of a variety of alternative life styles and sub-cultures….

[The occult offers] freedom and meaning, lacking in more conventional modes of thought.

[....] 'extraverted' occultism…. retreated from the outer world after the collapse of the Revolution into the Terror. The new world that the political forms of occultism hoped to create was now sought for within. Romantic occultism was about the exploration of the psyche, the voyage into the vast recesses of 'inner space'.

[....] Goethe, with one foot in the classical world, was strong enough to survive the buffetings of the unconscious, as well as the inevitable let down of being returned to the dull, prosaic world, after a brief tenure in ecstasy. Others, however, were not so resistant. Of the Romantic occultists offered here – E. T. A. Hoffmann, Balzac, Villiers de l'Isle Adam, Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Gérard de Nerval – four died young, casualties of their attempts to actualize their 'godhood'; one, Nerval, by his own hand, after repeated interments in asylums.

[....] This need to 'go beyond'– the family motto of Villiers – led to a fascination with what today is called 'transgression', examples of which are found in the Satanic occultism of J.K. Huysmans and Valery Briusov, two writers firmly associated with the decadent and Symbolist schools of literature. In many ways, the history of literary occultism is the history of Symbolism, for it is with Swedenborg's doctrine of symbolic correspondence – encapsulated in Baudelaire's seminal poem "Correspondences"– that the literary search for a 'higher world' begins its paradoxical descent into decadence and the fin de siècle….

[....] the early Romantics tried to bridge the gap between the two – the challenge most effectively portrayed in Hoffmann's "The Golden Flower Pot"– later epigone opted for a complete rejection of the everyday in favour of the strange and, ultimately, unwholesome.

[Decadent fin de siècle]: hallucinatory states of consciousness and a paralyzing sense of impending doom….

[....] With philosophers like Nietzsche and Henri Bergson, writers like Bernard Shaw, and occultists like Madame Blavatsky, the figures making up what we might call the 'positive' fin de siècle looked forward to the near future, when the gap between this world and the higher one would be bridged. The selections from H.G. Wells, Algernon Blackwood and Lord Dunsany all deal with this theme. Wells, a proponent of science, was in no way an occultist, but the scientific ideas he treated were often the same ones as many occultists were exploring; a good example of this is Algernon Blackwood's "A Victim of Higher Space."

[....] 'scientific' fin de siècle ('higher space', advanced races, the superman)....

[....] typically English approach to the occult: level-headed, sceptical but sympathetic, and less prone to the excesses of their continental counterparts.

[Types of fin de siècle fiction included in The Dedalus Occult Reader: The Garden of Hermetic Dreams]: oriental, initiatory, 'psychotic', decadent…

[....] by the late eighteenth century, occultism had formed into a more or less coherent philosophy, with a canon of recurring themes and ideas.

[....] The central theme of occult literature is the contrast between 'this' world and the 'other'.

[....] The reader, caught up in Hoffmann's glittering tale, is initiated into the problem and must decide whether the realms of poetry and magic – those rare moments of affirmation and meaning – are 'real', or merely entertaining diversions from the proper and dreary business of getting on in life….

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