Popular Occulture and Spiritualist Studies: 10 suggestions…

Marc Demarest, Director of the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals (IAPSOP)

Last year, at a workshop sponsored by the Popular Occulture in Britain project, I gave a short talk on the ways in which some of the Twilight Mages – an extended network of commercially-minded occultists operating in the US and the UK at the end of the nineteenth century – used modern direct-mail marketing techniques and astute social engineering to sell occult lessons and device, by mail, to hundreds of thousands of people across the globe making the mages themselves in many cases fabulously wealthy in the process.

At the end of that talk, I scattered a few seeds, inviting the audience to look into a couple of the Twilight Mages whose life and work I adore, but who didn’t make it into the material of my talk. Who, after all, wouldn’t be interested in digging into the (honestly, fascinating) life and work of Professor X. O. Zazra, or O Hashnu Hara?

Digital resources like the International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals (IAPSOP) archive are seed generators, and seed germinators. For perhaps the first time, it’s possible for an ordinarily-resourced historian of the occult to reconstruct, month by month and sometimes day by day, the trajectory of a person, an institution, a practice or an idea, against the background of the larger movement. For those of us who have done so, that power – a power of recovery, and of clarity – is intensely gratifying. Big data, as it were, allows for specific, precise microhistory. That kind of ground truth feels, in this precarious time, wonderfully solid, and makes for a potent antidote to untethered theorizing.

But our unprecedented collective access to the materiel of Spiritualism, increasingly in digital form, reveals much – much too much – that the synoptic histories of the movement on which we have all been raised and trained chose either to elide, or ignore. One stumbles, for example, upon the truly marvelous Captain Frederick J. Wilson, the father of Comprehensionism (surely, the most incomprehensible system of thought I’ve ever encountered) demonstrating his Science via multi-colored wall charts at the margins of a Spiritualist soiree in Dalston in 1876, sees before one wholly unploughed fields, and… passes them by, with a sigh and a wave of the hand.

I am not sure what the opposite of belatedness is, but I feel it, regularly. There is much – much too much – unsurveyed, unploughed, untended land in occult studies. Much too much yet to be done.

Some years ago, I began keeping a record of alluring paths-not-taken, in a delusive effort to convince myself that — honestly, some day, promise — I would get back to Frederick J. Wilson, or to the London instrument makers who crafted scrying crystals for Victorian matrons, or to Frederick Tennyson’s passion for astro-Masonry. Delusive, for certain – each year, the list grows longer, and the paths I have chosen to walk similarly recede, into the distance. Much too much yet to be done.

For the possible benefit of others who are looking for a path-not-taken in the study of Anglo-American Spiritualism, in order to walk ahead, or walk alone, here are a few general topics, in no particular order, synthesized from my long, delusive list. Unsurprisingly, most of these topical areas are closely related to the rich, diverse cross-border traffic at the open boundaries between the occult (in the broadest sense of that term) and popular culture, throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

1. The problem of the first decade: in both the United States and the United Kingdom, the first decade of the movement’s history (1848-1858 in the US, and 1852-1860 in the UK) are, as yet, poorly documented and poorly understood. We do not, for example, understand the role that prior occult art – particularly folkways and folk practices – played in the development of Spiritualism in the United States, or the ways in which the core practices of the movement (the rapping séance, and early automatism) spread in the US. Nor do we understand how, in the UK, upwellings of the Spiritualist impulse in three separate areas – Keighley, Nottingham and London – by three dissimilar forces (Shakerism, folk occultism and Spiritualism proper) combined with mesmeric practices like table-turning, and a trickle of appearances by American practitioners to produce, by 1860, a national phenomenon. And, importantly, we do not really understand how the secular culture perceived the initial upwellings of Spiritualism, in its midst – no one has undertaken a comprehensive reception study, in either the US or the UK, as far as I know.

2.The institutional history of the movement: we seem to have permitted the apparently self-evident notion that Spiritualism was anti-organizational and anti-institutional to become a kind of bar against the study of the (literally) thousands of ephemeral and long-lived institutions formed by Spiritualists, some of which – the British National Association of Spiritualists, for instance – were highly impactful. Little to no work has been done, as far as I can see, on the history of these institutions and the foment and ferment associated with their formation, operation and decline. Spiritualists were, as a group, great formers but indifferent operators, and their organizational triumphs and disasters remain to be chronicled and analyzed.

3. The commerce between Spiritualism and other divergent social practices, particularly vegetarianism, temperance, physical fitness, anti-vivisection-ism, anti-vaccination-ism and dress reform. Spiritualism’s passion for reform was uncontainable, and that passion expressed itself in the penetration of nearly every reform movement of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by motivated individuals who embraced the Spiritualist hypothesis. These divergent social practices have their histories and their historians, it is true – but few of them seem to be interested in exposing the extent to which the energy and organizational smarts of their movements depend on Spiritualism’s doctrines and fundamental optimism, and on Spiritualists, spreading the gospel of progress.



4. Spiritualism and stage magic. Spiritualism is bound up with stage magic, from its inception. Traveling magicians – and their close cousins, the traveling mesmerists and electrobiologists – prepared a massive rural audiences to receive Spiritualism as a set of phenomena; Spiritualist mediums became magicians, and magicians became (occasionally) mediums; stage magicians from the early 1850s onward made a strident kind of war on Spiritualism, and in so doing promoted it; stage magicians in the 1870s and 1880s assisted Science in (as Science thought) debunking Spiritualism. In my estimation, this field is almost entirely unploughed, by historians of stage magic and by historians of Anglo-American Spiritualism.

5. The demographics of Anglo-American Spiritualism. The recovery of so much of the periodical record of the first half-century of the movement has provided us with lists of people – literally hundreds of thousands of individuals – that ought to allow us to cease generalizing about the demographics of Spiritualism, and begin discovering – as I think we will – that the sociocultural groups from which Spiritualism drew adherents are more complex than we, today, imagine. I doubt we will ever be able to support or counter the outrageous demographic assertions of the early Spiritualists – that there were as many as 11 million committed Spiritualists in the Anglo-American world circa 1860 — but we should be able to dig into, and quantify, many interesting features of the Spiritualist demographic – including, for instance, the oft-observed fact that Spiritualism seems, in the nineteenth century, to be over-freighted with lawyers.

6. The business of Spiritualism. I spend enough of my own time in this area to be sure that the work here is decades away from being done. As a means of getting one’s living, Spiritualism was precarious, risky and in some cases highly rewarding, and the search for viable business models by Spiritualists who wished to earn as well as practice, is almost entirely untouched by historiography that has, to date, focused either on specific individuals – usually mediums – or on broad-outline synopses.


7. Spiritualism and the Law. While much time, relatively speaking, has been spent looking at the more famous court cases involving Spiritualists – Lyon v. Home, the Slade trial – little or no time has been spent investigating the broader legal contexts within which Spiritualism operated, including the laws governing inheritance, banking and currency controls, securities, lunacy, the use of the mails, immigration, identity, freedom of speech, and so forth. What work has been done in this area, has been done by legal historians, and feminist scholars, whose focused inquiries often fail to illuminate the ways in which the occult generally and Spiritualism specifically are both the adversary, and the suitor, of the Law, in the nineteenth century.

8. Spiritualism and medical practice. Spiritualism was, from its inception, a healing discipline, as mesmeric clairvoyance had been before Spiritualism’s irruption. Spiritualists sought to become physicians, to craft and sell proprietary medicines, to distribute mind-altering substances and medical devices, to found schools of medicine, to evade and to shape medical licensure laws, and in general to turn the spirits to the task of remediating the physiological and psychological effects of modernity. Medicine validated social worth, provided – notionally, at least – a more stable income than mediumship or lecturing, but also delivered, in some senses, on an old promise of the occult: the power to heal. Closely related to this, I think, is the deep interest among

Spiritualists at the end of the nineteenth century in the complexities of procreation: sexual practice, heredity, pre-natal influences, childhood education, and so forth.

9. The social network of Anglo-American Spiritualism. When Maria Hayden arrived in England in 1852 to spread Spiritualism’s practices and beliefs, she found herself immediately embraced and shepherded by an already-existing network of acquaintance, valorization and promotion, from which she (and her husband, a life-long marketeer) benefitted greatly. Less than a year later, Alfred E. Hardinge – my candidate for the title of first native English medium – was reading the works of American automatic writers, days after those works were published in New York. A novel practice – form materialization – could, and did, spread from a small community in New York to central London in a matter of weeks. How did this network operate? How is it that Anglo-American Spiritualism, from Newcastle to New Orleans to New South Wales, is from the 1860s onward so remarkably uniform, and so effectively transmissive of news and novel practices?

10. Spiritualism and literature. Novels, poems, plays – Spiritualism borrowed from mainstream culture (venerating Burns, Felicia Hemans and the Spasmodics, while providing harbors for the likes of AE and Yeats) and itself aspired to high art, no less than any other divergent social discourse of the early modern era. As often as not, when a medium was controlled by the Famous Dead, that control was: a litterateur. Some enterprising scholars are working in this rich vein already, but folks inclined to literary studies will find there is much basic work to be done surveying and mapping the literature (proper) of Spiritualism and its authors, as well as recovering the surprisingly rich reception history of that literature. Bibliographically-minded folks will find textual curiosities aplenty, shelves’ worth of uncollected stories and novels, and variant editions of texts that wait, uncollated and unannotated, for good editors.

Beyond topic areas like those on this list, there remains several hundred lifetimes’ worth of what I think of as donkey-work: the (for me, intensely pleasurable) business of building the basic factual foundations of the discipline on which others will erect their superstructures. We are not, as so many other disciplines are, blessed with well-researched, accurate and largely-complete timelines, biographical dictionaries and gazetteers, covering off the lives and doings of the thousands of characters who move on and off the many stages of the moveable Lollapalooza that was Anglo-American Spiritualism between 1850 and 1920. We don’t have standard survey course syllabi, or the texts to deliver such courses. It’s unlikely, come to that, that a dozen of us could agree on what such syllabi should contain. And we don’t, as yet, have an agreed-upon canon of primary texts.

How exciting.

There is room in the Fields of the Spirits for many, many amateurs and professionals to develop competencies, experience the thrills of discovery and insight, and collaborate with like-minded peers.

At a time in the life of the world when (often outlandish) systems of belief are everywhere ascendant, I observe: my, how green these fields are.

All images taken from the IAPSOP archives.

‘The Occult and Popular Social Movements’, June 29 2018, University of Glasgow

Programme for Glasgow workshop, ‘The Occult and Popular Social Movements’, June 29 2018

9.00 Registration (Lobby of 4 University Gardens)

9.30-11 Panel 1: Occult Feminisms

“Eco-Feminism and the Neo-Pagan Movement”
Dennis Denisoff (University of Tulsa)

Dennis Denisoff is the McFarlin Endowed Chair of English at the University of Tulsa. He is the author of Sexual Visuality from Literature to Film, co-editor of Perennial Decay: On the Aesthetics and Politics of Decadence, and editor of The Decadent and Occult Works of Arthur Machen. His talk is part of his work for his forthcoming book, tentatively entitled Pagan Ecology in British Literature and Culture: 1860-1920.

“Lucifer the Liberator: Satanism as a Feminist Strategy in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes (1926)”
Per Faxneld (Södertörn University)

Per Faxneld is senior lecturer in Study of Religions at Södertörn University, Stockholm. In 2014, he obtained his PhD in History of Religions at Stockholm University, with a thesis (Satanic Feminism: Lucifer as the Liberator of Woman in Nineteenth-Century Culture) that was subsequently awarded the Donner Institute Prize for Excellent Research into Religion (and republished by Oxford University Press in 2017). He has written extensively on esotericism in exhibition catalogues, academic journals and books issued by for example Palgrave Macmillan, Yale University Press, Routledge, Equinox, Ashgate, Acumen and Brill . A co-organiser of 10 international conferences, Faxneld has also presented papers at more than 30 such events. Most of his writing has focused on nineteenth-century esotericism, in particular the relationship between literature, visual art, politics and esotericism during this period.

11-11.15 Coffee

11.15-12.45 Panel 2: The Occulture of War

“Occultists’ Engagement with the First World War: Theosophy, Thought Power, and War Tactics”
Owen Davies (University of Hertfordshire)

Owen Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire. Much of his work concerns the belief in witchcraft, magic, ghosts, and popular medicine. He also has interests in heritage and public history. He is currently a Co-Investigator for the AHRC Everyday Lives in War Engagement Centre, and on the Leverhulme Trust funded project, ‘Emotions, Identity, and the Supernatural, 1300–1900’. His most recent works are the Oxford Illustrated History of Witchcraft and Magic (2017), and the Wellcome Trust-funded Open Access book with Francesca Matteoni, Executing Magic in the Modern Era: Criminal Bodies and the Gallows in Popular Medicine (2017). His book on supernatural beliefs during the First World War will be published by Oxford University Press later this year.

“Aleister Crowley and Political Propaganda”
Henrik Bogdan (University of Gothenburg)

Henrik Bogdan is Professor in History of Religions at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden. He is the author of Western Esotericism and Rituals of Initiation (State University of New York Press, 2007), editor of Brother Curwen: Brother Crowley: A Correspondence (Teitan Press, 2010), and co-editor of Aleister Crowley and Western Esotericism (Oxford University Press, 2012); Occultism in a Global Perspective (Acumen/Routledge, 2013); Sexuality and New Religious Movements (Palgrave, 2014); Handbook on Freemasonry (Brill, 2014), Western Esotericism in Scandinavia (Brill, 2016). He is the editor of ‘Oxford Studies in Western Esotericism’, co-editor of ‘Palgrave Studies in New Religions and Alternative Spiritualities’, and the Secretary of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE).

12.45-1.45 Lunch

1.45-3.15 Panel 3: The Medium is the Message: Occult Communication and Language Reform

“Deceitful Media and Deceitful Mediums”
Simone Natale (Loughborough University)

Simone Natale is a Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at Loughborough University. He is the author of Supernatural Entertainments: Victorian Spiritualism and the Rise of Modern Media Culture (2016, reprinted as paperback in 2017), and the co-editor with Nicoletta Leonardi of Photography and Other Media in the Nineteenth Century (2018), both published by the Penn State University Press.

“From ‘Word Magic’ to Basic English: Language Reform and Magical Thinking in the Interwar Period”
Leigh Wilson (University of Westminster)

Leigh Wilson is Reader in Modern Literature at the University of Westminster. She is the author of Modernism and Magic: Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult (EUP, 2013; paperback 2015) and co-editor of The Edinburgh Critical Edition of the Selected Writing of Andrew Lang (2 vols, EUP, 2015).

3.30- 4.30 Visit to the Alchemical and Occult Collections at the University of Glasgow Special Collections.
Please note: There will be a separate sign up for the Special Collections visit as spaces are limited.

5.00 -6.30 Closing Reception and Reading with Lorna Gibb, author of
A Ghost’s Story (http://grantabooks.com/a-ghosts-story)

Glasgow Theosophical Society, 17 Queens Crescent, Glasgow, G4 9BL

Lorna Gibb was born in Belshill, North Lanarkshire, Scotland. She worked as a dancer in her teens before going to London and Edinburgh Universities. She has had a variety of jobs both within and outside academia, and in several countries including Qatar, Italy and France. She published her first biography Lady Hester (Faber) in 2005 and a biography of Dame Rebecca West, West’s World in 2013 (Pan Macmillan). Her debut novel A Ghost’s Story was published by Granta in Nov 2015 and Childless Voices, part memoir, part cultural exploration will also be published by them early next year. Lorna now lives in Greater London with her husband and three rescue cats and works as a part time Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing as Middlesex University as well as writing books.

As Above, So Below – Anxiety, Uncertainty and Spirituality in the Modern World

Michelle Foot


James Lee Byars, The Diamond Floor, 1995. (Photograph of 2017 installation).

The recent exhibition at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Dublin, entitled As Above, So Below: Portals, Visions, Spirits & Mystics explored evolving and changing ideas of spirituality through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The exhibition promoted contemplation on the wider engagement with the outside world and how spirituality endures in our everyday lives.

The exhibition was organised into four sections: Portals, Below, Above and Beyond. ‘Portals’ explored concepts of connecting with other worlds and the gateways to those realms. ‘Below’ focused on the occult, where the influence of Aleister Crowley seemed to linger omnipresent throughout. ‘Above’ displayed works of artists who express ideas of transcendence.  Finally, ‘Beyond’ showed works which challenge the ideas of spirituality and what lies beyond death.

Recently there have been a number of exhibitions that focus on themes of spirituality and mysticism. These include the exhibitions on artist-mediums Hilma af Klint at the Serpentine Gallery and Georgiana Houghton at the Courtauld Gallery both in London in 2016; Beyond the Stars – The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky at the Musée d’Orsay, Occulture: The Dark Arts at City Gallery Wellington and Mystical Symbolism: The Salon de la Rose+Croix in Paris, 1892 – 1897 at the Guggenheim in 2017; and the earlier Encyclopaedia of Everything at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Today the renewed interest in the spiritual and mystical seems to parallel the nineteenth and twentieth-century interests in Spiritualism, mysticism, and the occult in an age of anxiety and uncertainty.

Hilma af Klint, Altarpiece No 1 Group X Series, 1915. Hilma af Klint Foundation, Sweden. (Photograph of 2017 installation)

The exhibition catalogue tells us that the departure point for As Above, So Below is 1907 and the earliest works in the exhibition focused on Hilma af Klint, Annie Beasant, František Kupka and Wassily Kandinsky. Yet the works by these individuals were informed by the momentum of spiritual and theosophical ideas emerging from the nineteenth century.

The nineteenth century was a period of great change and rapid new developments in almost every sphere of life, from advances in medicine, technology and science to population growth and migration. This caused much uncertainty during the period as traditions and norms were challenged in ever-shifting situations. God died in the nineteenth century, at least according to Nietzsche. Consider, for example, the theories of evolution presented by naturalists and biologists such as Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Evolutionary theories undermined an old worldview and challenged orthodox religious beliefs. The Origins of Species caused much of its readership to become anxious about their biological identities and uncertain about their faith. How could these new scientific ideas be reconciled with Christian beliefs? Modern Spiritualism claimed to have the answer: the central belief that the human spirit survives death and continues to live an afterlife maintained a traditional tenet of conventional religion, but the claim that these spirits were accessible to mortals in séances was an exciting new prospect. The spirits which allegedly returned through the Veil (the threshold between life and death) told mediums that they continued their spiritual evolution in the spirit world, appropriating Alfred Russel Wallace’s evolutionary theories in particular. Spiritualists invited scientists to attend their séances in the hope that the investigators would verify the spirit phenomena and confirm that Spiritualist beliefs were a matter of scientifically proven fact. This was the reason why the Spiritualist movement took ‘Modern’ as its prefix, to show it was relevant for a changed modern world, combining spiritual beliefs with new science, and addressing the uncertainty and anxiety of the age.

Fin de siècle anxiety increased as the nineteenth century approached its end. Entering a new period has often caused a fear of the unknown. Mystics and prophets have always foretold bad things will happen in the next century. As the nineteenth century gave way to the twentieth, imperial expansion and political tensions grew in a world already subject to attacks from radicals and extremists in a manner that would appear similar to present-day terrorism. On 12 February 1894, an orchestral performance at the Café Terminus at the Gare Saint-Lazare was bombed by a French anarchist. More recently, on 13 November 2015, daesh attacked a concert at the Bataclan Theatre and on 22 May 2017 a suicide bomber targeted the Manchester Arena. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was perceived by many to be a terrorist attack against the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which had far reaching consequences as it put into motion the events that led to the First World War.

Nineteenth-century anxiety at the turn of the century was not misplaced, and in a sense it was prophetic of the two world wars which followed. For some, the First World War was supposed to be a cleansing, a great battle between good and evil forces, and when the good triumphed victorious humankind would be delivered from moral and material decadence. Kandinsky believed a spiritual war was also taking place on another plane – as above, so below – and this was what he depicted in his art. During both the First and Second World Wars, fear for loved-ones’ well-being and widespread bereavement saw people turn to various forms of mysticism and the occult for comfort and in order to comprehend the violence and death toll.

Steve McQueen, Running Thunder, 2007, 16mm colour film. (Photograph of 2017 installation)

Running Thunder (2007), a video projection by Steve McQueen in the As Above, So Below exhibition, was the piece which perhaps most directly asked us to confront death or the balance between life and death. A horse lies still facing the viewer and is surrounded by grass blades and meadow flowers moving in a breeze. The horse’s chest barely seems to move, if at all, it is uncertain whether or not it breathes. A fly circles the animal before finally crawling over the horse’s open eyeball, it does not flinch. The tension created by our psychological association of motion with horse-racing and the title of the work is jarred by the contrast of such stillness in the body of the horse. It is a still life, nature morte. At 11 minutes and 41 seconds long, this piece feels timeless. It could depict an equine casualty from the Somme or it could be a horse laying in a field today, yet it conveys a sense of dread which transcends time altogether.

Current affairs always seem to move faster than the summary of past events recorded in a history book. Today the global political landscape speaks of similar shifting uncertainties: an unpredictable President of the United States, the unknown relationship regarding the UK’s future with the rest of Europe during on-going Brexit negotiations, meanwhile populism continues to be cited as the source of change behind more radical political agendas. The Tories’ deal with one of Northern Ireland’s parties flagged up warnings about the possible impact on 20 year-long peace negotiations, and a hard Brexit questions the possibility of a hard border in Ireland. Countries flexing their muscles in recent years, such as North Korea, the US and Russia, have at times reminded us of pivotal events prior to the two world wars. Meanwhile the European Union tries to gather itself together as it looks back at the weakening of the League of Nations before the Second World War with an understanding of the consequences. As thousands of Syrians and Iraqis flee worn-torn territories an on-going refugee crisis continues to frustrate far-right groups who promote nationalism under perceived threats of losing a native national identity during mass immigrations. The record heat wave in June prompted headlines that cited climate change as the cause, and while we continue to battle our addiction to fossil fuels the American government pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Those sensitive to environmental issues wonder how long the planet has left. The world is full of noisy and busy change, while a quiet unknown is ever-present on the horizon.

Buce Nauman, Natural Light, Blue Light Room, 1971. (Photograph of 2017 installation)

The twists and turns in the events of the political landscape can be disorientating and add to our sense of uncertainty about the future. This is perhaps best reflected by Bruce Nauman’s architectural installation Natural Light, Blue Light Room (1971) in the Below chapter of the IMMA exhibition. It is an intentionally confusing space, mixing both natural daylight and a blue artificial neon glow. The stimulation caused by two different light sources impacts the psychological state of the viewer. Nauman said of this environment, “The idea was that it would be hard to know what to focus on and even if you did, it would be hard to focus.” The shifting light outside is in a constant state of change but the consistent, unchanging blue light may be taken as a metaphor for the constant spiritual undercurrent amid turbulent secular events. Previously in 1967, Nauman suggested, “The true artist helps the world by revealing mystic truths”.

The world is constantly changing and the exhibition in Dublin asked visitors to contemplate the spiritual responses to these changes, to view and meditate on the art, to make sense of our now so-called ‘post-truth’ world.

Mysticism, the spiritual and the occult have the power to represent the Other. Sometimes it is about escapism, searching for something other than what has become our everyday norm; sometimes it is about seeking change, looking for an alternative path; sometimes it is about finding comfort.

František Kupka, Le Rêve (The Dream), 1909. Kunstmuseum Bochum, Germany.

Kupka’s oil painting, Le Rēve or The Dream (1909), included in the exhibition, shows two figures laying down among tonal shadows at the bottom right corner of the canvas. Their dream or astral projection sees their disembodied spirits surrounded by a yellow aura, levitating in a colourful embrace far above their sleeping bodies. It is an image of a momentary escape from the material world to engage with the spiritual.

Being spiritual can mean many different things for different people, and the exhibition explored this. What is certain is that the artworks chosen by the curators questioned different forms of engagement and encounters with the spiritual, including the agnostic and sceptical. Art has the ability to hold a mirror up to us and helps to create a narrative which makes sense of the chaos we often find in the world around us. It can give us a focus to block out the sounds of riots, explosions and shouting politicians. Art can slow us down and channel our minds on reflection and contemplation. The exhibition asked the question about what spirituality means for us today. The curators drew upon Susan Sontag’s quote: “Every era has to reinvent the project of ‘spirituality’ for itself.”

David Beattie, The Impossibility of an Island, 2016. (Photograph of 2017 installation)

Amongst all the loud anxiety and uncertainty of the twenty-first century, perhaps the most interesting but understated installation in the exhibition was David Beattie’s The Impossibility Of An Island (2016), placed on the threshold between the Above and Beyond sections. A cymbal hangs from a thin wire and slowly moves to occasionally touch an adjacent stone, sending soft ripples of reverberation on the sound waves. This is a quiet and almost still artwork. At first the background noise of other installations drowned out the sound of the cymbal and irritated the viewer’s appreciation of this piece, but perhaps this was an intentional curatorial decision. Around the corner the drums, trumpets and xylophones of the Propeller Group’s documentary film of funeral rituals in Vietnam blasted across the gallery space, the sound of chanting came from another installation in the opposite direction. Yet quietly, rhythmically and faint, the cymbal chimed as it occasionally touched the stone, as though a spiritual otherworld attempted to make contact and the visitor need only heed and hear it. The vivid contrast between these sounds asked a simple question: how do we appreciate the spiritual during our busy, turbulent lives?

As Above, So Below: an engaging exhibition which ran from 13 April to 27 August 2017, asked the visitor to appreciate the spiritual, to reflect on the artworks and contemplate the state of an uncertain world.

Dr Michelle Foot is an art historian with research interests in Modern Spiritualism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

CFP: Seeing and Hearing the “Beyond”

Seeing and Hearing the ‘Beyond’: Art, Music and Mysticism in the Long Nineteenth Century, Association for Art History annual conference

Dates: 5th – 7th April 2018

Location: Courtauld Institute of Art and King’s College London

This interdisciplinary session will explore the dialogue between art and music in addressing the subject of mysticism in the long nineteenth century (1789 – 1918). To counteract the positivist current that gained momentum during the period, artistic circles gravitated towards mystical means that initiated the beholder and listener into truths that transcended the world of external appearances. The session seeks to gauge the scope of different interpretations of mysticism and to illuminate how an exchange between art and music may unveil an underlying stream of metaphysical, supernatural, and spiritual ideas over the course of the century.

The multiple facets of mysticism manifested across a diverse range of styles, aesthetics, and movements. As esotericism saturated America, Europe and Britain, the Romantics and Symbolists responded to mystical beliefs expressed in Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, Theosophy and Occultism while drawing on exposures to Eastern religions. Re- interpretations of pagan mysticism prompted the rediscovery of Folkloric primitivism. Meanwhile, Catholic and evangelical revivals alongside renewed interest in Medievalism revitalised Christian themes. In practice, the proliferation of occult revivals at the fin-de-siècle permeated the thematic programmes of artists and composers. Wagner’s operas underscored the link between music, myth, and mysticism through the synthesis of the arts: the Gesamtkunstwerk. Subsequently, Syncretism in mystical philosophies was paralleled by formal correspondences in the visual arts, especially in their “rhythmical” qualities. Synesthesia would instigate the development of abstraction.

This session invites submissions that extend on these ideas by investigating how the interconnectedness between art and music was able to evoke and be inspired by mysticism. Papers drawn from other periods that examine the origins and newer forms of mystical appropriations will be considered, and those which incorporate perspectives across the spectrum of visual culture and musicology are particularly welcome.

 Session Convenors:

  • Dr. Michelle Foot, University of Edinburgh – History of Art (Scotland) mfoot@exseed.ed.ac.uk
  • Dr. Corrinne Chong, Independent Researcher – History of Art, Word and Music Studies (Canada) corrinnecareens@gmail.com

Proposals responding to the session abstract should be emailed direct to both the session convenors. Please provide a title and abstract (250 words maximum) for a 25-minute paper, your name and institutional affiliation (if any).

Deadline for submission is 6th November 2017

For more information about the conference please see the event website.

Occulture in the Harry Price Library, Senate House Library

Tansy Barton

The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature was donated to the University of London in 1937 by the eponymous psychical investigator, amateur conjurer and ghost hunter.   Price was a lifelong collector, and the Library served as a research resource for his National Laboratory of Psychical research, where students of the occult would not only find vast resources on false phenomena and charlatanism, but also the tools to recognise and possibly prove genuine manifestations of the supernatural, assisting them to “separate the few grains of wheat from the vast amounts of chaff in which they are almost lost.” The subject coverage of the Library is necessarily broad, taking in spiritualism, magic, conjuring, esotericism and unorthodox beliefs, the supernatural and unexplained phenomena among many others subjects.

Price was collecting throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and the collection’s book and periodical holdings for this period are particularly rich.  Occult themes are reflected in publications of the Theosophical Society from India and London including many of the works of Helena Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and A.P. Sinnet and anti-theosophical tracts.  There are editions of the works of occultists including S.L. Macgregor Mathers, Eliphas Levi, and, of course, Alistair Crowley, as well as many other occult figures, movements and organisations such as the Golden Dawn and Thelema.

Perhaps one of the library’s greatest strengths is the periodical holdings. The growth in journal publication in the late nineteenth century is reflected in long runs of several specialist titles, such as the Journal and Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research and the  Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Light: a journal devoted to the highest interests of humanity, both here and hereafter from 1881, The Equinox: the official organ of the Astrum Argentum for 1909-1913, The Occult Review, which ran under variant titles from 1905 to 1951, and Lucifer, later entitled Theosophical Review, jointly edited at one time by Helena Blavatsky and Annie Besant, for the years 1891-95, 1898-1903.  Non-English language journals are also well represented including Tijdschrift voor Parapsychologie from 1928, Luce e Ombra, later entitled La Ricerca Psichica from 1923, and Ling-hsueh ts’ung-chih a monthly magazine of Chinese occult sciences for 1918-19.

As well as specialist titles, the pamphlets, cuttings and offprints in the collection give a snap shot of the coverage of occult subjects in the mainstream press, with the catalogue records of the Harry Price Library functioning as an accidental index to articles from a wide range of nineteenth and early twentieth-century periodicals.  Some examples from the pamphlet collection include an early article on the occult sciences in the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge’s Penny Magazine from 1841, A.P. Sinnet’s ‘The progress of occult research’ in the National Review, July, 1906, and the occult number of the German illustrated newspaper Die Woche from 1932.

In addition to the Library, SHL also holds Price’s archives including his correspondence, case files of many of his major investigations, cuttings and scrapbooks and artefacts and manuscripts. Among some of the occult curiosities in the archive are paintings by J.F.C. Fuller, accounts of Price’s own experiment in black magic, the The Bloksberg Tryst, and a nineteenth century illustrated manuscript of Ebenezer Sibly’s ‘Clavis resero arcana mysteria Rabbi Solomonis’ with three other magical texts.

Both the Library and Archive are catalogued on SHL’s online catalogues, and information on related collections can be found here.

Tansy Barton is the Manuscript and Print Studies specialist at the Senate House Library, University of London.

Images from the Harry Price Library, Senate House Library, University of London

New Resources for Theosophical Research

Leslie Price

In popular occulture, the Theosophical Society formed in 1875 has had a diffuse influence comparable to Modern Spiritualism. Scholars have long used Theosophical archives. Arthur Nethercot, for example, spent many weeks in the TS headquarters archives at Adyar, India, in writing his 2 volume biography of Annie Besant. (On September 30 and October 1st  2017, there is a London conference on Annie Besant research; for details please email me.) Greg Tillett, with the support of international TS president John Coats, similarly studied at Adyar the controversial Theosophical clairvoyant C.W. Leadbeater for “The Elder Brother” (1982). For Dr Tillett’s current work, see his blog.

Joy Dixon examined the archives of the Theosophical Society in England (TSE) for her groundbreaking “Divine Feminine; Theosophy and Feminism in England” (2001). These examples could be multiplied.

Institutional developments have also encouraged scholarship. The journal “Theosophical History”, founded in 1985, and its associated occasional papers have provided a focus, and the TSE has hosted a series of Theosophical History conferences in London , the latest in 2016. There is a natural interface with the Association for the Study of Esotericism, and with the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism.

Nevertheless, there remain serious problems in gaining access to material. For some years, the Adyar archives have not provided a safe and dependable service even to Theosophists, but the location has now been cleared of chemicals, and a new purpose-built building is planned.   The T.S. in America, based at Wheaton, in contrast provides an archival service of international quality. But the archives of the T.S. Pasadena, which include papers from the T.S. foundation in 1875, are currently closed because of staff shortage.

Whereas archives relating to the Golden Dawn are now mostly available, the esoteric school of the Adyar T.S. founded at the same time, gives no access to scholars.

To quote a 2013 new item from the journal “Theosophy Forward”:

“On Oct 21 2007, a fire near San Diego destroyed the stock, library and archives of Point Loma Publications. (Fortunately, much of the archives had already been copied by Alexandria West.) A year or two later, heavy rain came through the roof of a London library. It stopped one floor short of the bookcase containing Madame Blavatsky’s own copy of “Spiritual Scientist” with her handwritten comments about the medium D.D. Home. Less fortunate were the birth records of Dr Eric Dingwall (biographer of Home) which had already been eaten by termites in Ceylon. Meanwhile, peacefully hundreds of Theosophical pamphlets rested in lodge bookcases in five continents. In silence their modern paper began to disintegrate, and their staples rotted.”

In 2013, a “Friends of Theosophical Archives” was formed, not limited to any Theosophical body, to raise awareness of these problems and encourage solutions.  Edited by Erica Georgiades in Greece, its newsletter has become indispensable reading for news of esoteric archives.

Digitisation is naturally having major impact on archives. The International Association for the Preservation of Spiritualist and Occult Periodicals, founded by Marc Demarest and his team, has already made available thousands of pages of relevant source material, including several hundred books. There is a useful Theosophy Wiki established by TS Wheaton, and  utilising especially the papers of Boris De Zirkoff, editor of the Collected Writings edition of Madame Blavatsky.

Among facebook pages which regularly announce new archival finds, are those of the “Friends of Theosophical Archives” and of the” Theosophical Society in London.”

In 2014, Tim Boyd, who was already president of the TS in America, assumed office as international president of the Adyar-based Theosophical Society, and has pursued a more open policy, encouraging scholars.  It is fitting that the Popular Occulture project was announced at the TH conference at the Theosophical Society in London in September 2016.

Leslie Price is associate editor of the journal “Theosophical History”.

The Worlds of Florence Farr 1860-1917

Jane Spirit

It is more than ten years since I had my first encounter with Florence Farr. At the time I was compiling a volume which brought together recollections and insights into the life of Oscar Wilde offered by contemporaries and which was published by Pickering and Chatto in 2006.The process of selection for my volume was inevitably both a frustrating and rewarding one, given the wealth of materials available. I was particularly interested in Arthur Fish’s account of his time as sub-editor of the renamed Woman’s World under Wilde’s editorship from 1887 to1891. Whilst Fish recalled Wilde’s increasing disinterest in his editorial responsibilities, he also acknowledged in the 1913 Harper’s Weekly piece that his ‘editor secured a brilliant company of contributors which included the leaders of feminine thought and influence in every branch of work.’

Amongst the female contributors listed by Fish were spiritualists Margaret Mansfield (1827-1892) and Anna Kingsford (1846-1888) and contemporary theatre directors and managers, Marie Bancroft (1839-1921) and Janey Campbell (1845-1923) and Marie Bancroft as well as artists and craftswomen, political activists, academics and commentators on contemporary culture. Study of these women and of Wilde’s wide circle of acquaintances led to me to Florence Farr as producer of the first English production of Wilde’s Salomé in 1905 and on to an appreciation of the breadth of her creative, intellectual and spiritual interests.

It was Farr, for example, who in 1891 played the part of Rebecca in the first English performance of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and who influenced the work of George Bernard Shaw and of W.B. Yeats with whom she collaborated in producing a ‘new art’ of speaking verse to music. This she termed the ‘bardic art’ in her 1909 pamphlet Music and Speech which she dedicated to Yeats and to Arnold Dolmetcsch who had created for her the ‘psaltery’ she played during performances. Alongside theatre direction and performances, Farr wrote about and practiced her esoteric interests. She, Annie Horniman and Yeats were all initiated into the Golden Dawn during 1890. Farr reached high office in the Order before resigning in 1902 and joining the Theosophical Society.

In 2013 I was fortunate enough to be able to include Farr’s 1894 fictional ‘Wildean’ satirical work, The Dancing Faun, in the second volume of another Pickering and Chatto book, The Women Aesthetes: British Writers 1870-1900 co-authored with Sue Asbee from the Open University and Mary Joannou and Claire Nicholson from Anglia Ruskin University. I became in turn fascinated by the theatrical references and themes of the novella and intrigued by its lack of overt esoteric references, given that in1893 when Florence was writing it she was preparing a lecture to the second order of the Golden Dawn on “Secrecy and Hermetic Love’. In the following year her commentary on the text A short enquiry concerning the hermetic art was published as well as the finished novel, the latter forming the second volume in John Lane’s ‘Keynotes’ series.

I was curious also about her decision to embark on an entirely new phase of life, leaving both the world of Edwardian theatre and of occult London to sail to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1912 and to become principal of its first school for girls, Ramathan College. In doing so she was of course following in the footsteps of Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott whose time in Sri Lanka in1880 had led to the building of schools by the Buddhist Theosophical Society. Farr effectively reinvented herself as an educationalist and a translator of Tamil poetry into English and she was never to return to England.

Late In 2015, Sue Asbee and I found ourselves discussing Florence Farr over a coffee and identifying what we felt was the need for a re-consideration of Farr’s life, work and legacy. Our discussion was the impetus to organise a one day interdisciplinary conference to mark the centenary of Farr’s death and to encourage a rich and wide ranging discussion of Farr’s contribution to drama, fiction, poetry, music, theosophy, Feminism and education from the 1880s to the 1910s.

We are looking forward to welcoming both Patricia Pulham and Stephen Regan as our  key note speakers at the event in Cambridge on April 29th, speaking respectively on ‘Florence Farr: New Womanism and the Occult’ and on ‘The Trembling of the Veil: Florence Farr and W.B. Yeats’.

Places at the conference are free, but registrations must be made by February 21st. The call for papers deadline is also February 21st.

For further information see www.florencefarr2017.wordpress.com or e-mail Jane directly at jane.spirit@open.ac.uk.


Lord Dunsany, Aleister Crowley, and the Occult Revival

Nicholas Daly

I suppose I came to this project through the Popular as much as the Occulture side of it. For a while I have wanted to write something about Lord Dunsany’s work as a playwright.  These days he is largely remembered for his short stories and novels, especially for his work in what we would now call fantasy, and his influence of such different writers as H.P. Lovecraft and Ursula K. Le Guin.   But years ago I read a passing reference to the fact that at one point in the 1910s he had five plays running simultaneously in New York.  This seemed hard to believe, but if only partly true it suggested an extraordinary level of popularity for work that is now largely forgotten.  When I learned that Christine and Andrew were developing a project on Popular Occulture I thought that this might the time to do some actual research on these plays, and to explore their possible resonances with the occult revival.

The more you look at Dunsany’s biography the more it would be surprising if his work did not have some connection to the occult, since he was friendly with the theosophist, writer and painter George Russell, who worked for his uncle, Horace Plunkett; he wrote his first play under the aegis of W.B. Yeats, a former member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, and still in that period involved in Stella Matutina; and his plays were directly influenced by Symbolism, which as Daniel Gerould and Edmund Lingan have described was itself a movement with strong affinities with the occult revival. The first of his plays is a short piece about karma, a concept that Dunsany probably borrowed (in a distorted form) from Madame Blavatsky. The Glittering Gate (1909) introduces us to two post-mortem criminals in an abstract space before an enormous door – the gate of heaven.  The pair seem to be condemned for all eternity to do exactly what they did in life.  Subsequent pieces explore a fascination with the East, with curses and luck, and with the direct intervention of the Gods in human affairs.  Perhaps the most interesting of the plays is The Gods of the Mountain (1911), which may have been influenced by the Great Beast himself, Aleister Crowley.  Crowley had corresponded with Dunsany about the latter’s fiction, and in 1909 had solicited from him a poem, “The Sphinx at Giza,” for his occult magazine, The Equinox.  Another former Golden Dawn member (and enemy of Yeats), Crowley had developed his own ideas about ceremonial magic — or Magick, as he termed it, but was also interested in the theatre.  In October of 1910 Crowley had staged the first in a series of recreations of the rites of Eleusis, at the Caxton Hall, in effect bringing his Thelemic ceremonial magick to the paying public.  Wearing gowns marked with mystical symbols, and carrying ceremonial swords, a group of men and women acted out Crowley’s The Rite of Saturn, to a violin accompaniment by Leila Waddell.  Crowley felt that he was outdoing the Symbolists in going straight to the occult material, noting that “nothing of Maeterlinck’s ever produced so overpowering an oppression as this invocation of the dark spirit of Time”.  It is very tempting to speculate that Dunsany was one of the select band who went to see Crowley’s performances, and that he drew upon it for his next play; certainly something seems to have taken his work in a new direction.  His The Gods of the Mountain opened at the Haymarket Theatre on June 1, 1911, and it is strikingly different from the earlier Glittering Gate in terms of its Orientalist setting, the stately pacing of the action, and the incantatory speech rhythms.  The most striking thing about it is that the Gods of the title actually appear on stage, as if summoned up by rite.  While Crowley’s actual Rites attracted a good deal of hostile press (“flappers in queer garments” was one reviewer’s estimate), Dunsany’s particular theatre of magic received favourable reviews, and attracted good audiences.

Dunsany’s subsequent work enjoyed considerable international popularity, and some of the short pieces became staples of amateur dramatic performance.  His story is just one that suggests that while we know a good deal about the links between the esoteric world and such modernists as Yeats, we have barely touched on the ways in which popular culture absorbed and transformed the energies of the occult revival.

Cursed by the Press: Night of the Demon at Explorathon 2016

Popular Occulture in Britain recently participated in Explorathon Scotland 2016, part of the European Researchers Night festival funded by the European Commission and held in over 250 cities across the continent. For our contribution, we ran a screening of Jacques Tourner’s classic British horror film Night of the Demon, followed by a Q & A with myself and Dr David Rolinson, Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Stirling. We were delighted to have a sold-out crowd of 150 attendees who engaged in a lively and fascinating discussion about the mutual influences between horror film and the occult in Tourneur’s riveting screen adaptation of M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes” (1911).

Although produced ten years after the 1947 end date of our project, Tourneur’s film is nonetheless a perfect fit for the themes we hope to explore through it over the next two years. No other British film better documents the extent, and in its vision, dangerous consequences, of the entrance of occult ideas into the popular press of the early twentieth century. Fans of the original story will know that it about something with which James as a Cambridge provost would have been all too familiar, namely a petty academic dispute. Karswell, a reclusive self-taught occultist who has “invented a new religion for himself,” has his proposal for a paper on “The Truth of Alchemy’ rejected by the organizers of a scholarly conference. Intriguingly, it is neither the dangerousness of its content or the depravity of its author that leads to the submission’s snub; on the contrary, Karswell, we are told, is simply an atrocious writer whose book on The History of Witchcraft is full of “split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise.” This stipulation makes me think that James may have based Karswell not on Aleister Crowley, as is often supposed, but on A.E. Waite, a practicing occultist and historian of esotericism well-known in this period for the turgidity of his prose style.

What is interesting here is that Karswell is positioned as an outsider not because he dabbles in occult science, but because he hasn’t been to the right schools or acquired the correct cultural capital through which to approach this subject. Rebuffed, he does what many disgruntled scholars have done: he takes revenge. Karswell tracks down his anonymous referee Edward Dunning—an easy task, as Dunning is “the only man in England who knows anything about these things—, accosts him in the British Museum Reading Room, and slips into his papers a runic inscription that will summon a demon to destroy him if he doesn’t manage to surreptitiously return the parchment. After much hijinks, Dunning finally succeeds in getting Karswell to take the runes and call down the demon on himself. Revenge, it seems,  doesn’t pay after all.

When screenwriter Charles Bennett came to adapt the story in the mid-1950s, the occultural landscape radically transformed, and these changes are reflected in the controversial script he produced with Hal Chester and Cy Enfield. Far from being a fringe enterprise with only a single British expert, the occult and its associated phenomena are the subject of a major international Convention on Paranormal Psychology whose delegates, like the Irish Mark O’Brien and the Indian Mr Kumar, have come from all over the world to discuss topics such as “Mindreading, Fortune Telling, Spirits, and Zombies.” James’s bachelor-scholar Dunning is transformed into the debunking psychologist John Holden, here to complete the exposé on Karswell that his recently, and suspiciously, killed colleague Harrington initiated.  This, for me, is the most fascinating difference between the two texts: where James’s Karswell is a popularizer who literally raises hell when he doesn’t get the notice he seeks, Tourneur’s is a fugitive from the press who desperately wants to re-esotericize an enterprise that has received too much public attention, and which he can no longer control. “No more newspapers,” he tells Harrington minutes before the latter falls prey to the fire demon. “All I want is privacy for myself and my followers.” Karswell is transformed here into a celebrity victim of the tabloid press who turns the runes on Harrington only because the American wants to write about his activities in the popular media. Cursed by the press, Karswell returns the favour by slipping the runes into his rival’s papers, a gesture no more ultimately successful than that of his Jamesian predecessor. The circulation of paper can be an occult process in more ways than one. The demon comes for him in the end in all its tacky cinematic glory, breathing fire and ripping him to pieces on the tracks at Clapham Junction train station.

There is much, much more to say about this compelling and often campy film and its implications for British occulture. But perhaps I might best end here by addressing its contentious decision to materialize—and materialize in a provocatively sensational, lurid, and cheap manner—a monster that was only ever suggested in the James story. Much of the criticism of the movie, then and since, has attacked this decision for ruining the suspense and integrity of James’s original; Tourneur himself claimed that this addition transformed “a major movie down to the level of crap.”[i] While I don’t myself have a firm position on this debate, I am fascinated by the way in which it reproduces some of the elite criticisms that have been levelled against both horror film and occult popularizers since the late nineteenth century: namely, that they make explicit that which only has value—aesthetic, intellectual, or spiritual—when left unspoken or seen, limited to a restricted body of readers or viewers who can understand what mass cultural audiences supposedly cannot.  What happens when that which should be hidden comes into over-explicit view? Does the occult encounter with popular culture ultimately diminish both, or produce new and more compelling forms of enchantment both onscreen and off? These are the questions we’re hoping to explore over the two-year period of our project, and we hope you’ll join the conversation with us both here and at our workshops!

Professor Christine Ferguson, University of Stirling

[i]           Quoted in Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby, “Viewing Notes,” in Jacques Tourner (Director) (1957) Night of the Demon. Mediumrare Entertainment, 2010.

Registration: The Occult in Popular Fiction and Entertainments Workshop, Dublin, 25 Nov. 2016

Registration is now open for our first workshop, ‘The Occult in Popular Fiction and Entertainments’, which will be held in Dublin on Friday 25th November 2016.

This is the first of three themed workshops on the influence of occult beliefs, themes, and figures on British popular culture between 1875-1947. The workshop is led by Prof. Nick Daly (UCD), and concentrates on the occult in popular fiction and entertainments. All are welcome, but spaces are limited. To register, and view the full programme for the day, visit our Eventbrite site.

If you have any specific dietary or access requirements, or general queries, please email the team at popocculture@stir.ac.uk.