THE OCCULT REVIVAL, MYTH OR REALITY?
The Theosophical Society in England (http://www.theosoc.org.uk ) is holding a two-day international conference on The Occult Revival at the TSE Headquarters at 50 Gloucester Place, London W1U 8EA on Saturday and Sunday, 29 and 30 September 2018. The Occult Revival is a term used by scholars to refer to the growth of movements, like Theosophy, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth Centuries.
Papers may deal with any individual or group associated the Revival, or with methodological issues, such as the scope of the Revival, or indeed its reality. The Joint Chairs of the conference are Dr Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière of the Sorbonne, and Professor Christine Ferguson of Stirling University.
Those who wish to submit a paper on any aspect of the subject should send a summary of not more than 200 words by 1 June 2018 to Mr Leslie Price, secretary of the Programme Committee, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Speakers will normally have 30 minutes including questions.
Conference participants will be responsible for their own travel, meals and accommodation. Those presenting papers will be exempt from registration fees. If you wish to register for the conference, or to be kept informed of the programme, please contact The Theosophical Society in England (email@example.com).
Dr Muriel Pécastaing-Boissière, co- chair of the Conference writes:
“For some years, Dr Robert Gilbert, a respected authority on the Golden Dawn, Masonic history, and similar topics, has been expressing doubts that there was an occult revival in the late nineteenth Century — as, for instance, in this paper given to a Swedenborgian audience.
Nevertheless, the concept of the occult revival is a familiar one to scholars of Western esotericism, and is a convenient umbrella for a wide range of studies in early modern movements, including Theosophy. Among academics and other researchers into the history of the occult, Dr Gilbert’s viewpoint is a minority one— but it deserves serious consideration.
First of all, when it comes to popular interest or belief in the occult, there might have been more continuities than generally estimated, and consequently some class and culture bias at work when speaking of a “revival”. We may here refer to folk beliefs and practices that had actually never disappeared and were only “revived” when studied, taken up or reinterpreted by middle- and upper-classes esotericists (age-old belief in ghosts / spiritualism; so-called superstitious folk rituals / the magical revival, etc. ). Dr Gilbert himself may express some class bias when he concludes in the paper quoted above: “… occultism, in all its aspects, was a minority activity in the nineteenth century”. His and many other attempts at definitions of late-nineteenth Century occultism may be considered to be too narrow and intellectual, not taking into account its popular expressions, so that it might be argued that the “revival” occurred among an educated minority only, since the occult had never disappeared from popular culture.
This is the point made by Alison Butler in “Magical Beginnings: The Intellectual Origins of the Victorian Occult Revival” (Limina, vol. 9, 2003), a paper that “examines the origins of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn through an analysis of the intellectual environment of the nineteenth century as well as through the identification of the presence and influence of a continuous magical tradition.” She explains: “Despite the apparent dominance of science and materialism in mainstream thought in the nineteenth century, there was a persistence of magical belief that was expressed in forms of popular magic such as astrology, magical cures, and a variety of methods of divination.”
However, Butler also argues that “Evolutionism, rationalism and scientific methodology all worked their way into this occult system of thought, creating a new kind of occultism. ” (my italics). So, to Butler, occultism was not so much revived as transformed by the context of late-nineteenth Century Britain.
In the abstract to her 2007 PhD dissertation on “Magical Revival: Occultism and the Culture of Regeneration in Britain, c. 1880-1929,” Jennifer Walters, from the University of Stirling, argues : “Magical Revival denotes a period in the history of occultism, and the cultural history of Britain, during which an upsurge in interest in occult and magical ideas is marked by the emergence of newly-formed societies dedicated to the exploration of the occult, and into its bearing on life. Organisations discussed are the Theosophical Society, the Golden Dawn, and the less well known Astrum Argentum.” (https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/1893/323/1/Thesis.pdf).
This here, is a strong argument in favour of the revival hypothesis, considering how culturally influential these societies turned out to be, in spite of their social and intellectual rather narrow direct appeal.
Prof Marco Pasi made the same point when he reacted Dr Gilbert’s thesis in 2009 : “such groups did not exist before. […] This has of course some cultural significance, and means that something happened at that moment when they came to light for the first time.” More recently, Prof Pasi also commented on the “relative increases or decreases of public interest in esoteric subjects.” He explained : “if we take a broad historical perspective, I see a decrease of visibility of esotericism after the French Revolution and during the post-1815 Restauration, until the mid-19th century. This is when spiritualism comes into life and E. Lévi begins to publish his “occult” works in France. This is the starting point of a new interest in occult subjects which becomes quite significant by the end of the century. It is in this sense a “revival” if compared to earlier historical periods when such subjects had been just as fashionable. “
So we think the question of the late-nineteenth century occult revival offers ground for fertile debates, either on the validity of this historical concept itself, or — at least — on its definition and potential limits. We are also aware of much detailed research in progress into individual personalities and movements, of which we hope to learn more, that may change the picture. Dr Gilbert has indicated that, subject to the views of the Programme Committee, he is ready to come and defend his interpretation.