Review: Satanism, Magic, and Mysticism in Fin-de-siecle France

ΝΒ. As this review is now widely quoted around the internet, would readers and those linking here please do me the courtesy of not misrepresenting me. I am neither a “Peladan fan-girl,” (seen on Goodreads), nor an aficionado of the “Western Mystery Tradition” (there is no such thing, by the way). When it comes to academic matters and book reviews, I am a scholar of culture, and have earned my spurs the traditional way. If you want to quote me, it’s “Dr Sasha Chaitow, historian of culture.” Thank you.
The recent book Satanism, Magic and Mysticism in Fin-de-siècle France, by Robert Ziegler, professor of French Language and Literature at Montana Tech university, claims to “examin[e] the cultural determinants accounting for the flourishing of the supernatural [and] the emergence in France of the mystic, the Magus, and the malefactor” (back matter).

Not only does this sound like a promising offering to the field of French studies, but it also appears to be a valuable English-language exploration of the French occult revival in relation to broader cultural currents. I ordered the book with a mixture of excitement and trepidation; having ascertained from the preview that there might be considerable crossover with my doctoral research into Péladan’s work, but also hoping for a perspective that might go beyond the narrow confines of esoteric petits-histoires. While my concerns regarding potential overlap with my own research were assuaged, unfortunately I was in for an unpleasant surprise.

The book uses the work of J.-K. Huysmans as a narrative guide, and begins with a brief introduction outlining the growing disillusionment with the materialism and decadence of contemporary society. The author states that  ‘following J.-K. Huysmans in his migration through the rarefied, sometimes infernal precincts of fin-de-siecle supernaturalism, this volume begins by touring the devil’s lair, then visits the austere chamber of the Magus, and finally climbs to the celestial plane of miracles and mysticism’ , claiming an impetus engendered by ‘an age in which both faith and art had been robbed of majesty by science.’ (p.12)

The first chapter, The Satanist, is a fair introduction to the French occult milieu of the time, with a reasonably accurate outline of the perspectives of Péladan, Papus, and de Guaita on the question of the existence of the devil, using their writings to illustrate that despite the best claims of “Dr. Bataille” (Charles Hacks), the devil of the 19th century is little more than an imaginary figure reanimated by ‘Decadent’ artists and writers. In spite of his close and insightful reading of the main French occultists’ perspectives on this question, and the highly informative exposition of the evolution of perspectives on devil worship of the time,  the author makes a key error in classifying Péladan, Papus, and de Guaita as Decadents given that their whole philosophy (despite their differences of opinion and ideology) was founded on the desire to institute order out of chaos, as is evidenced not only by their (voluminous) writings, but by the very content of their philosophy and their own statements, from Péladan’s motto “Ideal, Hierarchy, Tradition,” to Papus’ and de Guaita’s staunch support of Saint-Yves d’Alveydre’s synarchic philosophy. Several other statements confuse the matter further:

“Materialism, skepticism, immorality, unbelief… lead Guaita to idealize the naiveté of past centuries…An unusual feature of the fin-de-siecle, this overlapping of fantasy and esotericism shows the Decadents’ competing interest in occult sciences and folklore. The romanticizing of childhood, the privileging of imagination over knowledge, pervades the fin de siecle and explains the Decadent nostalgia for the past” (p. 29).

 Ziegler gives no sources for this unfounded oversimplification, and his explanation rests on examples of the use of medieval and childhood motifs in the books of a handful of authors and a citation from Marcel Schwob’s Book of Monelle (1894). Nowhere is there reference to the phenomenon of the medieval revival in fin-de-siecle French culture, the sociopolitical upheaval and the quest for cultural identity underpinning  the conflict between legitimist supporters of the ancien regime and republican modernists, history and this new age of reason.  Nowhere are there references to the vast legacy of Romanticism and its own complex evolution in relation to esotericism, nor, most surprisingly for a book on the French Occult Revival, is there any reference to the cultural current termed Illuminism, defined as

“a complex intellectual and spiritual movement…an integral part of modern Western esotericism in Europe… a faith that would combine reason and mystical élan, they bore witness to a cultural crisis and the attempt to solve it.” (Christine Bergé,  Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism, p. 600).

Illuminism is that cultural current out of which the French occult revival can broadly be said to have emerged as a result of the myriad political, social and cultural conflicts arising out of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment. A key source is the seminal work of Auguste Viatte : Les Sources occultes du romantisme: Illuminisme-Theosophie, first published in 1927, remaining in print to this day, and both Antoine Faivre, Arthur McCalla, and Jean-Pierre Laurant have produced detailed works on the subject. Quite how one can profess to explore the “cultural determinants” of the French Occult Revival without any of these authors being referenced, nor any familiarity with their work being displayed, is something of a mystery.

The first of several serious misuses of terminology also appears in the first chapter, where Luciferians and Satanists are presented as one and the same thing (pp. 33, 41, also 50). Although it becomes apparent from the context of the discussion  that Ziegler’s narrative is presenting Huysmans’ perspective, the error is that of the author, not Huysmans, since the terms are clearly being used as synonyms:

“Huysmans’ successful entrée into the forbidden world of nineteenth century Satanism had earned him the fame and money he deprecated…And despite the invisible enchantments exchanged between the warring factions, both regarded Luciferianism and the sacrilegious acts it authorized as less dangerous than science that discounted the devil’s existence altogether.” (pp. 33-4).

Chapter 2, The Hoaxer, deals with the Taxil scandal,  Huysmans’ support of it, and the Bataille hoax. Despite ending with a particularly insightful observation regarding the success of these hoaxes, this chapter too, is problematic. The only attempt at explaining the reasons for the success of the Taxil hoax and the “prejudices it played to” (p. 51) rests on a single article by Eugen Weber, ‘Religion and Superstition in Nineteenth Century France,’ (1988) and a further definition at the end. The initial argument comprises one paragraph concluding that the conflicts between Catholicism on the one hand, and Positivism and the utopian socialist character of occultism on the other, led “Catholics [to view] their left-wing counterparts as practitioners of black magic.”  This, alongside “fashionable themes of eschatological thought” (p. 51), and “special magic” performed “when [the hoax] ventures into the supernatural (p. 73) were apparently  sufficient reasons for the Taxil and Bataille hoaxes to take root.

Chapter 3, The Mage, is devoted by and large to Péladan, presented as an archetypal mage on the basis of his book Comment on Devient Mage. It begins with an explanation of some of the historical background that enabled the efflorescence of occultism at this time in history, but once again, is sorely oversimplified and in places, poorly expressed: “Recourse by artists to ancient occult teachings was also motivated by the liberalization of institutions and enactment of democratic laws.” (p. 74).

One might say that it was “enabled”, or “encouraged,” or perhaps “facilitated”, but it was most certainly not motivated by these factors – again, the lack of  reference to Illuminism, or to the Counter- Enlightenment dynamics leads to erroneous and incomplete conclusions. This whole chapter is woefully problematic as the author has misread Péladan’s intentions, grouped him alongside ideologically opposing individuals by virtue of their common occult interests, and misused esoteric terminology completely arbitrarily. On page 76, in an attempt to present Péladan’s political perspectives, we read:

“the Decadents viewed with scorn the agitations of the masses. Despising the collectivity – reviling the ochlocratic expression of its will- the Decadents recoiled from social action with a moue of contemptuous disgust…. endorsing a theocracy structured by divine principles, administered by a priesthood of illuminati like themselves…” (p. 76).

 As already noted, Péladan did not belong to the Decadent genre, and decried it quite forcefully in many of his writings. He used the term “l’art ochlocratique” to denigrate naturalist and realist art, and Papus and de Guaita were indeed supportive of synarchist ideals. But Péladan was not, and his aversion to such political ideals was one of the key reasons for his (very public) quarrel with his erstwhile companions. Nor did he eschew social action – all of his work, and especially the Salons de Rose+Croix were geared towards the masses, an intent that he spelled out again and again in many of his works – and which Ziegler in fact acknowledges towards the end of the same chapter. Péladan may have believed in social hierarchy, but he also believed that it was possible for both men and women to awaken to their inner spiritual potential, and his work with the Salons as well as the intentionality behind his novels attests to this.

In this same chapter we read: “This is the paradox of fin-de-siecle white magic: the need to reconcile the flamboyance and exhibitionism of the Magus – a self-dramatizing personage like Sar Péladan – with the impenetrable hermeticism of the doctrine he espoused” (p.77). Further on he uses the terms “occultism” and “hermeticism” interchangeably, confuses Kabbalistic study with occultism in general, and then he goes on to use alchemy as an analogy for Péladan’s work, stating that “Péladan’s language…reconcil[es] New Testament doctrine with the highest aims of alchemy” (p. 78). Yet, not only did Péladan decry magic, but Ziegler has in fact identified this very point early in Chapter 1 (p. 20) – thus apparently contradicting himself.

Furthermore, there is no direct hermetic nor alchemical influence in Péladan’s work. His influences derive from a combination of the work of Fabre d’Olivet, his reading of Classical philosophy, his study of world mythology, Catholic mysticism, and study of the Zohar (alongside rabbis, and not in the form of Christian Cabala). Hence,  to say that for Péladan “Study of the Kabbalah focuses on identifying Creation’s building blocks” with nary a mention of what Kabbalah actually is (or which branch he is referring to), is once again, a serious failing in a book of this nature. Ziegler goes on to identify four “paradoxes” of the occultists, which rest on an unknown rationale, and are as inaccurate as they are arbitrary: “…[M]any paradoxes characterizing turn-of-the-century occultism: (1) the incompatibility of the Magus’ reclusiveness and secresy and the self-dramatizing ostentation of a “mystic impresario” like Péladan; (2) the occultists’ condemnation of materialism and rationalism and their interest in reintegrating the physical and metaphysical; (3) the self-exalting superiority of the Magus and his recognition of the value of service and instruction; (4) the wish to reconcile magic as an art objectified as works and the primary goal of the Magus to effect his rebirth on a higher plane” (p. 79).

No citations, references, or evidence of any kind are provided for these conclusions, and those elements that are recognizable as stemming from Péladan’s work, are clearly misread and/or misinterpreted. The very term “The Magus” is not given a satisfactory definition, nor are the conclusions attributed to “the occultists”, such as they may be. While later in the chapter some attempt is made to effect a closer reading of some of Péladan’s perspectives, they are presented out of context, interpreted through completely arbitrary definitions, and perpetuate mistaken interpretations.

The work of Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985) that Ziegler uses to attempt an interpretation of Péladan’s references to the troubadour tradition (p. 111) is completely inappropriate. Though de Rougemont’s work is significant, he was working later than Péladan and was therefore was aware of information that Péladan would not have been privy to. In addition, the focus is entirely different- Péladan’s own perspective stems from his own interests in Catharism alongside growing nationalist sentiments and longstanding traditionalism with roots in his family background and origins.

The author then concludes  that:

 “Péladan had initially adopted a brand of Rosicrucianism indebted to Eliphas Lévi…. However for numerous reasons including his friends’ distaste for the Sar’s flamboyance and the exchange of spells between Huysmans and Boullan, Péladan had turned away from the secrecy of esotericism and had sought instead to harness creative work to a campaign of Catholic reform” (p. 113)

This whole statement, citing the work of  Ingeborg Kohn, “The Mystic Impresario: Joséphin Péladan, Founder of Le Salon de la Rose+Croix” Secret Texts: The Literature of Secret Societies is disastrously, utterly wrong.Some elements of  Péladan’s metaphysical philosophy do indeed show some influence derived from Eliphas Levi, but his Rosicrucian lineage is entirely unrelated. Péladan was initiated into Rosicrucianism by his brother, belonging to a lineage that had nothing whatsoever to do with Eliphas Lévi, and his whole occult philosophy stemmed from his unorthodox upbringing, his close reading of Fabre d’Olivet, and aforementioned influences stemming from his father’s enduring interest in world mythology and Catholic mysticism.

Péladan did not “turn away from the secrecy of esotericism” (neither term is defined or qualified), but developed a complex philosophy and retained “private” disciples alongside his public teachings. His views on Catholic reform were underpinned by his attempts to reconcile occultism and Catholicism, while ensuring that artists, intellectuals, and “common folk” would all be able to partake of esoteric gnosis, each according to their ability.

His conflict with Papus and de Guaita (the War of the Roses) is well documented and occurred due to ideological divisions, as Péladan himself explained, and he “toned down” his flamboyance after a deeply painful realization near the end of his life. I have highlighted all these points in brief presentations on this topic and will be documenting them extensively in my thesis, but the source material on which they rest is readily available and easily accessible.

The rest of the chapter continues to draw un-referenced conclusions and to present impressions of Péladan’s work and intentionality peppered with further errors of the same sort. Chapters 4 and 5, respectively entitled The Mystic and The Miracle-Worker, move on to cover Eugene Vintras’ Gnostic order (dubbed a “bizarre heretical cult”, p. 116) and Huysmans’ new-found rapture with Catholic prophecy and miracles. In the conclusion of the book, the author surmises that the whole result of the occult revival was to do away with the secrecy that had hitherto obscured occult work, in a

“rejection of the inwardness of mystic thinking. [The new century] marked an end of the occult tendency toward exclusivity and secrecy; assignment of numerological values to the Arcana of the Tarot, enclosure of spagyrical science in impenetrable symbols. The etiolated recluse had been dragged out…into the violent sacred sun.” (p. 208).

Far from shedding light onto this period from an interdisciplinary perspective, and despite containing interesting elements, the book misinforms the reader on a number of counts, tossing around terms such as magic, hermeticism, occultism, mysticism, alchemy like so many synonyms, and omitting any reference to standard secondary sources on this subject. This in itself might be forgiven were we referring to obscure or antiquated works; but to write of French fin-de-siècle esotericism without so much as a nod towards Christopher McIntosh’s Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival, James Webb’s The Occult Underground, or Jean-Pierre Laurent’s L’ésotérisme chrétien en France au XIX° siècle (or any other standard academic works on the topic) is a shocking example of a lack of due diligence, as is the lack of references overall.  Unfortunately, the result is a book that instead of illuminating its topic, obscures it further, perpetuating clear misconceptions with regard to the character and content of French 19th century occultism.

As such, this is one clear reason for which the continuing development of the field of Western Esotericism, despite ongoing discussions and debates regarding methodology and definitions, is absolutely vital. The fact that a book with this degree of factual error  should be published by an academic press within a series entitled Historical Studies in Witchcraft and Magic is a striking example of why further interdisciplinary collaboration is deeply necessary if such misconceptions – at the highest levels of academic authorship and publishing – are to be done away with.

Polemical and forceful though my tone may be in this critique, this is not meant as an attack on the author. Rather, it is meant to highlight, as strongly as possible, the necessity of a wider awareness of the scholarly literature springing from the field of Western Esotericism. I have no doubt whatsoever that Professor Ziegler is an accomplished and erudite scholar, and that the omissions that I have drawn attention to here are more a result of a lack of awareness of what is admittedly, a young field, than any remissness on his part. Nonetheless, the result is a perpetuation of misperceptions, forming a striking example of the effect of the consignment of Western Esoteric thought to the “dustbin of history”, a historical trend eloquently traced and explained by Prof. Wouter Hanegraaff in his recent book Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. This is the reason for my forceful tone: for as long as esotericism continues to be perceived as rejected knowledge, accounts such as Ziegler’s will continue to communicate half-histories, and for as long as that occurs, esotericism will remain rejected knowledge in a vicious circle of misperceptions. And this, at least to my mind, is perhaps the most important point of all.