The Lost Magic of the Belle Époque
Inner Traditions • Bear & Company
October 30, 2016
nonfiction – history – occult
So far, there has not been much effort in putting together all the information available on the explosion of occult movements in Paris from roughly 1870 to 1914. For this reason, Occult Paris: The Lost Magic of the Belle-Époque aims at filling “the gap in cultural knowledge that ignorance and materialistic hostility to the category of the spiritual has created” (p.xii).
Tobias Churton’s goal is indeed to help us rediscover the richness of the Hermetic movements of the time, mostly in Paris, and also a bit in the Languedoc region where it eventually extended to. These schools of thought were nothing original per se, if you consider the multitude of esoteric movements that sprung throughout French history (cf. for instance the Cathars).
Bu this era in Paris abounded indeed in a great variety of independent intellects filled with vast knowledge, scientists, and mostly authors, poets, painters, and musicians, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, Debussy, Satie, Michelet, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Mallarmé, and Huysmans.
Having lived 13 years at the place where the latter eventually converted to Catholicism, I was particularly interested about what was said on him.
Many of these people got connected through Bailly’s bookshop, la Librairie de l’Art Indépendant. Churton’s book is rich with very detailed information on all of them.
The author is adamant about the fact that art history was actually here a spiritual revolution. Many so called Impressionist painters of the time should more correctly be called Symbolists, with their art referring to something beyond the domain of the visible.
Considering the social context (excellently presented in the book) is crucial to really understand the reason for their appearance at that time and to identify what was really at stake in their arts:
the artists’ aspiration to spiritual life was part of a reaction to the new, scientific, and materialistic theories and development and the demolition of the past through the modernization of Paris (cf. Haussmann’s work, under Napoleon III – 1808-1873).
The author tends to focus mostly on their reaction to positivism and materialism. It would be more accurate to say that the Decadents were more broadly aesthetically driven to react to their tumultuous and unstable times, where landmarks were getting lost. Remember indeed that the 19th century in France was quite chaotic, with two empires, two monarchies, and three republics. It was a time of cultural, social, and political crisis.
this occult enthusiasm was a common thread throughout Europe, “as materialism encroached further in the wake of mass production and mechanized warfare amid the unnerving consequences of Darwinian evolution theory and geology’s explosion of the biblical time frame” (p.164)
they set themselves against the superficial aspects of their age, and nostalgic for times lost, they desired to trace a way through the ugliness of their times.
These people were all concerned with the synthesis of the arts of word, painting, music, and drama (like Wagner, whom many revered), and how art had the power of connecting visible and invisible worlds. For them, the artist was an initiate, a visionary, a prophet.
Hence, they considered Paris a center of gnosis.
Personally, when I hear the word ‘occult’, I tend to think and worry that a lot of black magic is at stake. There were indeed some members practicing seances and the like, especially near the end of that period, with the arrival of British and American occultists who introduced or revived more ceremonial, magic and unchristian cults – such as the cult of Isis).
But most of the book is about white Magic. We are mostly dealing with a kind of “esoteric Christianity” that aimed at transcending the world’s gross material grip (with echos from the Cathar message). This is about a search for mysticism, for inner knowledge. Inspired by past spiritual guides (e.g. Giordano Bruno, Hermes Trismegistus), they were seeking a primordial tradition of knowledge, an enchantment, a way to the depths, to mystery and meaning, to gnosis, through symbolism and art.
Because we are here in the presence of “a Hermetic spiritual movement dedicated not to theological or exclusively philosophical doctrines, but to the transformative power of the arts of the imagination” (p.42)
Churton explains how most of these artists were led to abstract art, for the sake of The Ideals.
The belonging to these groups could actually be very practical in form, with some fraternities even involving medical care freely offered, and the organization of yearly art exhibits (salons), periodicals, and lectures, for the sake of education. These salons’ aim was to “insufflate theocratic essence into contemporary art”, to oppose the materialism represented by the erection of an iron tower much opposed by many writers and artists of the time.
Churton’s work shows the multiplicity and variety of schools, with different perspectives, goals, and practices. Some had connections with Kabbalistic (cf. use of numerology and the golden section in La Mer and other works by Debussy) and Masonic Orders. But they all had in common a denial of positivist materialism.
Some actually even aspired to reconcile faith and science.
Several groups were born by members splitting from other groups.
Some tried to reconcile and synthesize several movements in one, such as Papus, who founded the Order of Martinists, still in existence today, in one form or another.
To go further, many central figures presented here were actually closely connected with Roman Catholicism – former seminarians, even former priests. Joséphin Péladan was a Catholic apologist. Gérard d’Encausse (Papus)’s dream was actually to reconcile Roman Catholicism with these movements. And several of these people eventually converted back, though all the movements and their periodicals ended up condemned by the Church.
The author tackles the topic of the legacy of these movements, which disappeared for the most part in the horror of WWI.
On the art level, their legacy can be detected in surrealism, dadaism, and l’Art Nouveau, and cultural movements in the 1960s.
Under the aspect of Synarchy, they may also have a puzzling political legacy. Without completely taking position, the author exposes some ideas suggesting connections between these movements and the creation and running of the European Union.
Some passages are written in a beautiful quasi poetic style that fits very well with the content of the book. Chapter 8 opens with a neat description of Paris.
The great explanations of Satie’s music (especially his Gymnopédies and Gnossiennes) helped me to rediscover and appreciate this unique musician.
On the negative side, the book is extremely detailed, sometimes too much (for instance on the Golden section). Though I have to admit some details do help to measure the importance of the movement the author he is talking about.
The book seems to be extremely researched, but some inaccuracies did make me sometimes question the veracity of the information provided. For instance:
inaccurate translations (e.g., salut translated as salute in a context where salvation made much more sense)
Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) presented as the founder of the Cistercian Order (p.265), like in too many uninformed sources. The Cistercian Order was actually founded in 1098 (poor Bernard would have been only 8!) by Robert, Alberic and Stephen, three Benedictine monks (see my classes on the topic, in French)
Hugh “of the Pagans” (p. 268). Hugues’ (?- ca. 1136) name has indeed embraced many different forms. And the modern word “païen” does mean pagan. But scholars agree that the old French form of paien or payen is actually a variation of the name of his village Payns! Payns still exists today, a small place with less than 2,000 inhabitants, 9 miles north of Troyes, in the Champagne region.
Saint “Pachom” presented as the first monk (on p.370). Actually, the common scholarly usage of his name in English is Pachomius. He is known for organizing the first monastery and writing a rule for his monks, but there were many hermit monks before him, Saint Anthony begin the one traditionally considered the first.
I happen to be French. The fact of being a former Cistercian, having lived in Champagne, with relatives in Payns, and having written classes on the history of monasticism, made me sensitive to all of these points above mentioned.
Bearing these inaccuracies in mind, I can only be puzzled by passages concerning the relationship between Philippe Nizier Vachod, a French occultist from Lyon, and Tsar Nicolas II’s family. Vachod ended up expelled from Russia and his absence made room for Rasputin’s influence on the royal family.
It is said that before WWI, “Papus wrote a series of articles for a major French newspaper revealing the intrigues that were already brewing at the court against Nicholas II and the tsarina” (p.438). Not much attention was paid to them.
But, could really Tsar Nicolas II have been initiated in Martinism, as is claimed here, when the royal family is now recognized as Russian Orthodox martyrs for their faith? And if this is indeed true, I think it would have been most interesting to mention this double belonging of the tsar to an occult movement AND to the Christian religion.
Time to have a serious discussion with my coreligionists!
Also, another book on a related topic I happen to be reading right now (review coming soon) attracted my attention to the incomplete information given here on the theme of sexuality. Churton often mentions androgyny, an element presented as a common characteristic in these works of art, for instance. But Péladan, a major actor in the occult movements of the time, did not embrace this notion with enthusiasm. It would have been honest to mention Péladan’s very strong stance against women. For him, Paris is a den of corruption. And in his treatise on femininity, he asserts that “periods of decadence display an inversion of sex roles, and degenerate bloodlines are full of women doctors and women artists.” Not a very enthusiastic way of praising androgyny or related themes.
The book comprises multiple gorgeous black and white portraits of all the main people referred to, as well as some color plates at the center of the book, art illustrations and pictures of places in Paris important back then in relation to the topic, and shown as they now look today.
If the legacy seems altogether scant, the author believes that Occult Paris has not said its last word. Taking into consideration the rampant materialism and over-consumerism of our time, and seeing countercultural movements such as minimalism develop here and there, some with real spiritual depth to them, I tend to agree with the author.
More than ever today, it is urgent to go back to our deep roots, to reflect on the why of God’s creation, on what He has in store for us today, and focus on our relationship with Him, “the lover of mankind”, as we so often sing in Christian Orthodoxy.
But to use our eyes to see and our ears to hear, we first need to de-slave ourselves from the ravages of superficiality and materialistic possessions, and stop fretting about dramas the media feed us with on a daily basis. Ultimately, God has the last word.
VERDICT: Sometimes overly detailed and possibly offering inaccurate or partial information, Occult Paris remains a note-worthy exploration of the multiplicity of occult movements in Paris during the Belle Époque, with a focus on their relationship with the artistic world.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
is Britain’s leading scholar
of Western Esotericism,
a world authority on Gnosticism,
Hermeticism, and Rosicrucianism.
An Honorary Fellow of Exeter University,
where he is a faculty lecturer,
he holds a master’s degree in Theology
from Brasenose College, Oxford,
and is the author of many books,
including Gnostic Philosophy and
Aleister Crowley: The Beast in Berlin.
He lives in England.
Visit his website.
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