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Alison Butler. Victorian Occultism and the Making of Modern Magic: Invoking Tradition. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-230-22339-4. Price: US$80/₤55

  • Gauri Viswanathan

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  • Gauri Viswanathan
    Columbia University

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The notable work of Alex Owen, Alison Winter, and Corinna Treitel has contributed to a remapping of nineteenth-century intellectual and cultural history by documenting the dramatic spike in interest in occult matters by groups ranging from elite intellectuals and artists to working-class radicals and activists. Far from seeing science and occultism as polar opposites, Alex Owen’s seminal book The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (2004) detached occultism from its associations with archaic, discarded practices and re-examined its role in facilitating modern conceptions of selfhood. Owen’s work is highly suggestive for literary scholars in its illuminating perspective on occultism as a magical practice that depends on modes of fictionalizing to create its unique effects. Occultism’s refashioning of the imagination as the means by which higher levels of reality can be apprehended, as well as a resource through which individuals are able to tap into vital life forces, blunted the edges of occultism’s negative connotations as a purveyor of malign practices.

A casualty of the shift toward enchanted modernity is the downgrading of ritual magic in occult practices and an overall de-emphasis on the place of magic in Victorian occultism. Alison Butler takes issue with Owen’s focus on modernity and returns Victorian occultism back to older traditions of magic which, she argues, are reworked to accommodate contemporary needs. This is not to say that Butler does not build on the work of her predecessors. Indeed she shares common ground with her fellow historians in reading Victorian occultism as an active shaper of institutional and literary culture, ranging from the secretive but influential Order of the Golden Dawn to more obscure groups that cobbled together an unwieldy mix of Hermeticism, Rosicrucianism, and Freemasonry, all claiming to be inspired by Egyptian magic. Butler extends Owen’s insights about occultism’s role in developing modern conceptions of selfhood into a lengthy discussion of the Order of the Golden Dawn, which, she argues, refashioned earlier traditions of magic to highlight the power of individual will and creativity. The magus as manipulator of others is replaced by a do-it-yourself model of individuality whose aim is self-mastery and self-understanding.

Butler’s account of the Golden Dawn’s philosophy is consistent with Owen’s reading of Victorian occult movements as vitally concerned with developing technologies to attain the higher self. In expressing the modern desire for self-realization, the Golden Dawn’s rituals, while steeped in older forms of Western magic, provided the foundation for the notion of the modern enchanted self (15). It was thus no accident that the Golden Dawn attracted some of the greatest poets and artists of the time, including W. B. Yeats, who creatively used the Order’s highly elaborate repertoire of symbols to map out various stages of psychic development.

But unlike Owen, Butler sees the Golden Dawn as transforming, not discarding, older traditions of magic, which the Order mined to provide the motivation for different ritual practices. These practices are then translated into complex symbolic systems, which subsequently find their way into the forms and structures of literary modernism. Butler’s book focuses on the Golden Dawn to draw out this complex argument, an emphasis that is at once the book’s strength and weakness. The strength lies in the fact that her meticulous research into the institutional history, library collections of Golden Dawn members, and intellectual biographies of founding figures fleshes out a comprehensive account of the movement, adding valuable detail to the existing scholarship. The book is weakened, however, by its single-minded focus on the Golden Dawn which minimizes the importance of other groups in Victorian occultism--for example, the Theosophical Society--which conjoined social causes like vegetarianism, antivivisection, and agricultural cooperatives to an internationalist political order based on spiritual principles. The evolutionary schemata the Theosophical Society drew upon, as well as the crucial role played by intermediary figures like the mahatmas, gave the Society a markedly different trajectory from that of the Golden Dawn. Since much the same can be said about other strands of Victorian occultism, there is a limit to how much can be extrapolated from Butler’s account to characterize the topic as a whole. As a study of the Order of the Golden Dawn, the book is indispensable reading for one of the least understood but highly influential esoteric societies of the Victorian era..

The book convincingly restores the enhanced place of magical interests in Victorian occultism, as demonstrated in the institutional history of the Golden Dawn. While Butler’s definition of magic as “a particular way in which an individual interprets and participates in existence” is too imprecise to be helpful (xii), her interest in magic based in texts, rather than in druid and pagan materials, permits her to engage in a close study of magic’s associations with the elite classes in Victorian Britain and to establish the links between literacy and the practice of ceremonial magic. The textual history of magic is an important part of the author’s story, for eminent Victorian esotericists William Wescott and MacGregor Mathers rediscovered magic in libraries and selectively developed their own archive of magic that became the basis for recombinations of different magical traditions preserved in ancient, long-forgotten texts. Wescott and Mathers made a virtue of reinvention, using kabala’s mystical sign system as a template for thinking about language in its most concentrated, singularly reduced form.

Indeed, magic is better understood in the transformations it undergoes from one era to the next than in any specific attributes or practices that can be captured by definitions. One of the key achievements of Butler’s book is an illumination of magic’s reinvention and adaptation over time, some periods of history revealing more obviously than others the melding of disparate texts on magic to create new magical practices that still retain continuity with the old. The Renaissance is one such seminal period which saw a synthesis of magical traditions from various sources, creating an “an eclectic jumble of esoteric systems of thought” whose discovery by scholars put Christianity in conversation with strands of its history that it had hitherto ignored or suppressed (18). Among the most important of these strands are Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism, which receive considerable attention in the book for the part they play in constructing an elaborate language requiring privileged access to deep-rooted modes of symbolic thought. Renaissance humanists joined questions about salvation, sin, and suffering raised by Christianity to those asked by intellectual traditions that stretched back to Plato. Humanists discovered that, while the unknowability of God remained a constant in religious thought, the limits of human comprehension could be mitigated by the individual’s turn to symbols (as in cabala) that evoked the power of spirits and angels, who were more accessible than God. Magic is thus a technology of mitigation and mediation, not manipulation. “In this way, magic satisfies the religious needs of those who seek such solace, yet who also desire a more active role and more responsibility in their belief” (26).

Butler’s historical research allows for a fresh understanding of magic’s religious motivations in the knowledge of God. John Dee, the Renaissance humanist whose expertise in ciphers made him a master of espionage, presided over the search for the angelic and divine language of creation in an effort to establish a universal religion. That the Renaissance humanist devoted to the most concentrated forms of language and symbols becomes in essence a magus reveals the complicity between magic and rational comprehension of the divine. The Golden Dawn’s greatest alumnus, W.B. Yeats, turned this understanding into a source of poetic inspiration: highlighting the occultist’s imagination served to show that the magus, far from being a passive medium, was in control of—and indeed actively shaped—the visions generated by magical practices. Absorbing a key notion of the Golden Dawn, Yeats believed that memories are not isolated but instead are parts of one great memory that can be evoked by symbols.

The Renaissance is important for Butler’s narrative about the emergence of the Order of the Golden Dawn, which incorporated Dee’s Enochian language and system of magic (as made available through his diaries) into its philosophy and ritual practices. To a large extent, Butler builds on the seminal insights of Frances Yates writing on Rosicrucianism and occultism in the Elizabethan period. Butler’s research reveals that Victorian occultism was not only complementary to Renaissance occultism but also transformative because of the ways that Victorian occultists freely borrowed earlier features while adding elements of their own, thus creating an enticing new product. The humanist-as-magus model drawn from the Renaissance allowed for a new emphasis on the imagination and creativity of individual members. While Victorian occultism inherited the Neoplatonic idea of theurgy as the possession of the individual by divinity, it totally transformed the meaning of theurgy to signify greater control by the Victorian magician. Mediumship is a novel adaptation of theurgy to emerging Victorian technologies to render the individual thus possessed to direct the flow of visionary experiences by means of the imagination. In breaking away from the determinism of earlier theurgic traditions, while incorporating the body as a vehicle for divine apprehension, Victorian occultism’s belief in the progressive development of individuals towards higher states of self-realization merged with current secular philosophies highlighting the agency of individuals to better themselves.

Among Butler’s most useful insights is the notion that Victorian magic compensated for the failure of Christianity and scientific materialism to value the subjective experiences of individuals. Drawing upon scientific naturalism as its ostensible frame of reference but going far beyond it, magic turned to the natural world to find therein the principles of mystery and spirituality conventionally associated with religion in a pre-disenchanted world. Butler insightfully relocates Victorian magic in an enchanted worldview that exposed the hollowness of deterministic science and dogmatic religion for their inability to give individuals a sense of agency or control.