The Occult Underground
The Occult Establishment

by James Webb

This is a book report on The Occult Underground and The Occult Establishment, by James Webb, published by Open Court. The two books are social histories of occultism, covering the 19th and 20th centuries respectively.

More exactly, The Occult Underground covers the "period of great uncertainty extending roughly from the downfall of Napoleon to the outbreak of World War One" (1815-1914), while The Occult Establishment covers the period from the end of World War One to the date of writing (1918-1974). I think it would be great if Webb came up with a third work, probably shorter, on the New Age Movement, but he might consider that it was too recent to be examined by an historian.

The books are not, of course, just chronicles. Webb calls them "an attempt to show how the occult revival can be used as a key to a crisis which we have still not resolved, and how the occult relates to the better-lit regions of society."

The crisis Webb refers to is one he calls "the crisis of consciousness." Others might call it an "existential crisis" or something of the sort. He refers to the way the democratic, scientific, and industrial revolutions combined to increase the power of individuals and nations while simultaneously destroying the social, religious, and political structures that provided orientation in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Those centuries have been called the Age of Reason; Webb calls the 19th and 20th centuries the "Age of the Irrational," and first published "Occult Underground" under the title "The Flight from Reason." This marks a negative tone in his approach to the occult, and I'm sure he is not a Believer, but he is not a debunker, either. His "Reason" (capital R) is not sanity or formal logic, but the received wisdom of the dominant social institutions, of the Establishment, the Powers That Be. (Webb often uses both those terms, and coins the antiquarian variant, the Powers That Were.)

Conversely, Webb defines the occult as "rejected knowledge," systems of thought and doctrine cast aside by the Establishment for whatever reason. Thus Webb's occult includes Theosophy, Spiritualism, and ceremonial magic, but also pseudo-sciences and fringey religions. (I feel the books somewhat neglect pseudo-science.) These things often overlap in membership with off-beat social movements like the Fabians, the New England Transcendental- ists, and the Parisian Bohemians of the 1890s.

That, in fact, is Webb's point. The occult community is simply the intelligensia of the Underground, the Anti-Establishment, Counter-Culture, whatever it is called or calls itself in a given age. Studying their history is valuable, says Webb, not only for its intrinsic interest, but as a window on those revolutionaries who, from time to time, disturb, modify, or replace chunks of the Establishment.

Here is a short outline of The Occult Underground, based on the table of contents:

Introduction: The Flight From Reason

This contains the thesis statement and defintions of "private" terms I have outlined above. It also contains hedges. Webb knows full well, for instance, that the "Age of Reason" had weird ideas and superstitions, and the "Age of the Irrational" had plenty of logic and scientolatry.

Chapter 1: The Necromancers

This describes the origins of mediumship and interest in spiritualism, including Spiritualism proper and the career of the famous/notorious Fox sisters; the Swedenborg Church; and the Society of Psychical Research.

Chapter 2: Babel

This describes the interest, attractions, repulsions, and confusions in the West that resulted from exposure to Hinduism, Buddhism, and other high religions of the East. It examines the considerable role of oriental thought in western occultism; the origins of Baha'i; and the Parliament of Religions at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where the interest and confusion were particularly evident.

Chapter 3: The Masters and the Messiah

This is concerned with the origins of Theosophy, a major force in 19th- and 20th-century occultism. It gives a delightful precis of the colorful (to say the least) career of Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, and of other Theosophical notables, such as Annie Besant (successor to Blavatsky), Rev. C. W. Leadbeater (famous for observations of auras and "thought-forms"), Rudolf Steiner (one-time Theosophist and founder of the rival sect of Anthroposophy), and Krishnamurti (an Indian chosen as a child by Besant as the incarnation of Maitreya, the next Buddha, which position he later publically renounced).

Chapter 4: The Lord's Anointed

This chapter describes the interactions between Christianity and occultism – other than simple emnity. This includes the millenialist groups like the Millerites and their successors, Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses; the Mormons; the Christian Scientists; a small Counter- Reformation Part II in extremist Anglo-Catholic circles; and the vision-laden, conspiracy-hunting, semi-Catholic sect of the French Vintrasians. Much of the American activity started up in the "burned-over region," an area of upper New York state once famous for traveling revivalists. Please note that most of these Christian "occultisms" do not entail spell-casting or seances. This illustrates Webb's wider use of the term "occult" as "rejected knowledge" – in this case, rejected revelations or doctrines.

Chapter 5: Visions of Heaven and Hell

This chapter describes the role of occultism in the artistic community, focusing on "Bohemia" in late 19th-century Paris. This is a particularly juicy chapter, full of colorful characters. Webb divides the artists, particularly the authors, into two camps – aesthetes and poetes maudites ("accursed poets," their own phrase). Both reacted against the naturalism of Established art. Aesthetes searched for an ideal beauty beyond the limits of nature. Poetes maudites sought to plumb the depths of experience in their search for wisdom, and I do mean depths. (They produced scandalous novels about depravity, like "La Bas" by the Abbe Boullan.) One of the leading aesthetes was Josephin Peladan, who proclaimed himself "Sar Merodach," and a sort of archbishop of an order of Catholic mage-artists (founded by himself). Accursed poets include J. K. Huysmans and (I think) Baudelaire.

Chapter 6: Secret Traditions

This chapter is much more generally historical than the rest of the book. It examines the ancient sources that contributed to "the Tradition," by which Webb means the body of lore that occultists largely draw on. These include Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Hermetism, and the mystery religions. While not wanting to push the idea too far, Webb assigns Plato as the patron saint of the occultists, versus Aristotle as the patron saint of the Establishment intelligensia. Stirring up and confusing this semi-coherent body of ancient lore is a large dollop of rejected science that started accumulating back in the 18th century.

Chapter 7: An Anatomy of Souls

This chapter examines the opening moves of the occultic revival in the 19th century. It seems to start with the partition of Poland and the scattering of Polish refugees all over Europe. Some of these refugees appear to have been occultists, and brought the Traditions (as outlined in the previous chapter) to France, where French occultists had been subsisting on Mesmerism and second-hand Hinduism. The chapter also describes the career of Eliphas Levi, a founding father of modern occultism.

Chapter 8: The Spiritual in Politics

This follows closely on the theme of the previous chapter. The occultist accompaniment to liberal protests over the treatment of Poland went on amid grandiose political fevering about Poland being a "Christ-nation" crucified for the sins of other nations, and the second coming of Napoleon. Others put up France up as the "Christ-nation," crucified at Waterloo. Seers claimed that Louis XVII had not died as a child in the Terror, but (rather like Anastasia and Elvis) was still around; pretenders, of course, were plentiful and colorful. More immediately interesting, Webb claims that the Irish sense of national identity was created by W. B. Yeats, James Morgan Pryse, and other poetic occultists. He compares this to a less successful attempt to promote Scottish home rule.

Chapter 9: The Two Realities

In this summing-up chapter, Webb points out the natural affinity occultism has for other anti-Establishment and revolutionary movements. One such companion is that flavor of nationalism that sees the Nation as a metaphysical being greater and realer than the individuals in its population. Another natural ally is any ideology held with the force of a religion. The common denominator to all such things is an idealist temper, subordinating the material world to an immaterial scheme, whether that scheme be magical, biological, or social. This is a theme he will enlarge on in the next book.

Here is a short outline of The Occult Establishment, based on the table of contents and the abstracts at the head of each chapter:

Introduction: The Struggle for the Irrational

Abstract: The Flight from Reason – The Occult as Rejected Knowledge – Secular Religions – The First World War and the Failure of Rationalism – The Occult and "Illuminated Politics" – The Consistency of the Irrational

In this chapter, Webb once more defines his own uses of terms such as "reason" (conventional wisdom and concensus reality), "occult" (unconventional wisdom) and "illuminated politics" (politics influenced or motivated by occult theories). He remarks that, while the occult movements of the 19th century were predominantly religious, those of the 20th are predominantly ethical and social.

Chapter 1: Ginungagapp [The primal void in Norse mythology.]

Abstract: A Neurasthenic Society – Occultism in the Twenties – Irrationalist Currents in Central Europe – The Progressive Underground and Occultism – The Occultism of Prague and Vienna – The Munich Cosmics – Communes and Colonies – Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy

This chapter surveys the social situation in Europe just after World War I, which Webb sees as "without form and void" in many ways, confused and lacking in direction. Occult and social-reform movements begin to overlap in membership, and in their ideas. Post-war German occultism was "invaded" and dominated by the Parisian Symbolists and the English Theosophists. The chapter gives capsule histories of several occult societies and utopian movements, including the O.T.O. and the ominous beginnings of racial mysticism. It includes the occult-related careers of interesting figures such as Gustav Meyrink, Freidrich Eckstein, and Rudolf Steiner.

Chapter 2: Eden's Folk

Abstract: The Disease of Civilization – The English Youth Movements – Back to the Land – The Merrie England of the Guilds – Christian Utopias – The Youth Movements and Social Relevance – Social Credit – The Illuminates and Facism – The Illuminates and Anti-Semitism

This chapter focuses particularly on the social and utopian movements that flourished between the world wars. Many were British; most are now extinct. They were typically anti-materialist (in most senses of "materialism") and anti-individualistic. The Boy Scouts originated as one of the English Youth Movements, but not a very occult one; however, less conventional alternatives also arose, like the "Kibbo-Kift." Many of these youth-movements had religious elements; some put their young members through a recapitulation of human history, from stone age to civilization; some had eugenic themes; many were elitist in one way or another. They quarreled and schismed a great deal. They interlaced with the romantic agrarian movements that sought the supposed "good old days" of small self-sufficient pre-industrial villages; these included assorted craft guilds inspired by William Morris. The Christian utopians included notable writers such as Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. "Social Credit" was a scheme whereby people were to be recompensed by the government for the utility of the jobs to the nation, if this was not properly represented by the market. (E.g. sewage workers would get a big "social credit" bonus because their job is so necessary.) The occult connection to all this is more an overlap of membership than of ideas.

Chapter 3: Wise Men from the East

Abstract: Slav Mysticism and the West – The Russian Religious Revival – Symbolism and Decadence – The Occult Revival in Russia – Magicians at Court – The Emigration of the Mystics – Slav Gurus in Western Europe – Their Association with the Underground – Types of Russian Illuminated Politics

This chapter describes the occult scene in tsarist Russia. The Russian religious revival included bizarre sects and schisms of the Orthodox Church: Raskolniki, Stranniki, Khlysty, and Skoptsy. It details the career of Mme. Blavatsky and later Theosophists in Russia, and their schismatics, the Anthroposophists. It sketches the careers of Soloviev, M. Philippe, Rasputin, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Keyserling, and Lutoslawski. Many of these folk and their followers fled west when the Revolution came. Webb attributes Russian occultists with popularizing the notions of the world as organism, imminent apocalypse, and the hatred of materialism.

Chapter 4: The Conspiracy against the World

Abstract: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – The Occult, anti-Semitism and Conspiracy Theories – The Theosophical Society and the Plots of Jews and Jesuits – The "Secret of the Jews" and its Occult Sources – The Protocols and the Rival Gurus – The Illuminated Nature of Russian anti-Semitism – The Supernatural and the Myth of the Ipatyev House – Illuminated anti-Semitism comes West

This and the following chapter are the darkest in the book. The Protocols are a document forged around the time of the Dreyfus scandal, purporting to be a "leak" from the files of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy. There were and are many different conspiracy theories, but Jews are one of their favorite targets (along with Masons and Jesuits), because they are simultaneously ethnic but international, arousing suspicion in some ardent nationalists. Conspiracy theorists overlap a lot with occultists because, according to Webb, both spheres of interest invite fanaticism and a binary, black/white mode of judgement; also, both conspiratism and occultism are, in Webb's view, responses to insecurity. However, sometimes the connection is inverted; many conspiratists are fervent ex-occultic anti-occultists. This chapter examines the weird career of Yulianna Glinka, Theosophist and amateur spy. It also touches on Mme. Blavatsky, her theories on the evolutions of races, and her "Jesuit conspiracy", and the Theosophical anti-Semitic book The Hebrew Talisman. In Russia, all this connected to the Orthodox Church and the tsar's court, where different occultic lobbies accused one another of Zionism.

Chapter 5: The Magi of the North

Abstract: The Underground in Power – "voelkisch" Occultism – The Mystic Dietrich Eckart – The Spirituality of Gottfried Feder – Alfred Rosenberg and Russian anti-Semitism – Rudolf von Sebottendorff and the Thule Bund – Adolf Hitler and "voelkisch" Occultism – The Ludendorffs and the Conspiracy Theory – The Fate of the Mystics after the Machtergreifung – Rosenberg's Aryan Atlantis – Himmler's Occult Fantasies – The Deutsches Ahnenerbe – Hitler and Hoerbiger – Other Realities and the Divine Sanction

"Nazi Germany present the unique spectacle of the partial transformation of the Underground of rejected knowledge into an Establishment." That is the first sentence and theme of this chapter. The "voelkisch" (or "folkish") occultism mentioned in the abstract deals with the general idea that whole peoples have racial or national spirits beyond (and, in a facist view, more important than) their individual ones. The chapter describes Adolf Lanz and his "Ariosophy," an Aryan edition of Theosophy. Eckart receives a biographical sketch – a gnostic ex-monk who hated Jews and Anthroposophists. Other interesting characters are Baron Reichenbach with his theory of "historionomy" and Hanns Hoerbiger, who preached that the moon and all planets but Earth were made of ice and the stars of hot metal. All these people and ideas form part of the fabric from which Hitler wove his horrid tapestry.

But please note that Webb specifically denies that Hitler and the other leading Nazis were primarily occultists, though they clearly had occultic interests. It is also worth noting that only those occultists who contributed to the Nazi fabric were tolerated – e.g. Hoerbiger with his cosmic ice. All the others – Theosophists, Anthroposophists, even Ariosophists, plus Spiritualists, astrologers, and all the others – were rounded up along with Jews, gays, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah's Witnesses, and sent to the camps.

REVIEWER'S NOTE: Webb does not remark on it, but I think one of the striking changes in occultism since World War Two is the shift away from "voelkisch" theories and to extremely individualist or universalist ones.

Chapter 6: The Hermetic Academy

Abstract: The Discovery of the Unconscious – Freud and the Occultists – The Status of Hypnotism – The Eccentricities of Wilhelm Fliess – Psychoanalysis and Psychical research – Freud as Secularizer of the Occult – The Occult Experiences of Jung – Basilides the Gnostic – The Analysis of Kristine Mann– The Eranos Conferences – J. W. Hauer and the Nordic Faith Movement – Spiritual Progress and Education – The Occult and the New Educational Fellowship

This chapter, on a much happier theme, discusses the influence of "rejected knowledge" on the academic establishment. As the abstract shows, it deals almost wholly with psychology, but Webb credits Einstein's relativity theories with shaking the old Establishment world view enough to soften up the academic establishment. Webb remarks on the love/hate attitude of occultists toward science – on the one hand, the Establishment rival that has rejected them, on the other, the "in-crowd" they often seek to join. The chapter examines Freud's early and late interests in psychical research and, in the middle, his very careful distancing of himself and his psychoanalytic theories from anything occult, in order to gain scientific respectability. Jung, on the other hand, accepted psychic phenomena as a matter of course, which was part of the wedge driven between him and Freud. Jung's occult connections are many and complex.

Chapter 7: The Great Liberation

Abstract: Liberation and Society – Modern Art and the Occult revival – America imports Bohemia – Drugs and the Occult – Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey – Underground Occultism – Haight-Ashbury and the Hippies – New Forms of Illuminated Politics – Reich, Marcuse, and Metaphysica Liberation – R. D. Laing and the Dialectics of Liberation

This chapter, as the abstract shows, brings us nearly up to the present and deals with the '60s and '70s. This phase brought the gnostic theme of liberation from the world into "illuminated politics." Originally, this was escape from matter; politically, it became escape from the Establishment or the non-visionary, non-hallucinogenic state of consciousness. The occult is linked to modern art by the quasi-sacred role given the artist, who leads the viewer beyond the mundane. The drugs mentioned in the abstract are, of course, mind-altering, starting with ether in the 19th century, but principally discussing LSD. The new forms of illuminated politics are not only in the issues but in the methods – be-ins, happenings, protests, and myth-based media-manipulation. This trip down memory lane include Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts, Reich's "orgone," the Yippies, and Leary's sacramental views on LSD.

Chapter 8: A Grammar of Unreason

Abstract: Rationalists and Irrationalists – The Private Worlds of Occultists and Illuminated Politicians – Writers and Readers of Fantastic Literature – The Nature of Imaginary Worlds – Their Connections with the Occult – Flying Saucers – The Search for Otherness and the Creative Imagination – Conclusion

This chapter is an odd blend of summary statement and brief survey of fantastic literature for the period. Webb sees three massive crises of confidence in the history of the West: one in the centuries around the life of Christ, another in the Renaissance/Reformation period, and the current one, starting in the 19th century. The middle crisis ended by producing the conventions he has been calling "Reason" – a concentration of attention and technique on the problems of everyday survival and convenience; it is sucessful but insufficient to human needs.

To me, the most interesting part of the chapter is his exploration of the overlap between occultism and fantastic literature. He notes the use of occult themes in fantasy and SF, and their more historical overlap in the origins of UFOlogy and Scientology. Though why Webb picks on fantastic literature to plumb the nature of occult psychology (rather than any of the other places it crops up) I do not understand.

He ends the book by noting the common urge to find "otherness" in both occult efforts and fantastic art – to discover it, or to invent or feign it. Both spring from the creative urge, which is both necessary and perilous.

"They have been ringing in the age of Aquarius since the last century. It may never come, but it is essential to keep ringing; for without that distant angelus life would be a sad and dreary place. The hope for something better, something different; the prodding, nudging, shoving force that irritates man to change by inducing visions of a reality other than that of the present: this might – in the imagination of this writer at least – be the explanation of all art, all religion, all philosophy. ... This is no place to pronounce on the personal quests of the occultists. The impression remains that most become trapped in their private worlds and produce sadly little evidence of the power of imagination. There are too many attempts to destroy reason rather than extend it. ... Unreason exists to be made reasonable, and reason to be extended by the discovery of possibilities initially outside its comprehension."

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2011