Times Review: The Place Of Enchantment

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The following review by Marina Warner of The Place Of Enchantment by Alex Owen appeared in The Times on Saturday (UK, 19 June 2004).

The book includes a chapter on Crowley and the review included a photograph…

Owen has overlooked the chief places where the enchantments of modernity make themselves felt in all their complexity, says Marina Warner.

Astral flights from reason
THE PLACE OF ENCHANTMENT: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern
By Alex Owen
Chicago, £21; 384pp
ISBN 0 226 642011

Around the time that Frederick Horniman, Victorian tea merchant, MP, and collector of African art and ethnography, was donating a considerable property in South London to the public for a public park and museum, the writer H G Wells imagined the Martians landing in the suburbs to the west of the Horniman Museum; in Wells’s ever-popular The War of the Worlds the extraterrestrials’ cylinders open and release deadly Martian fighting craft that devastate the complacent and prosperous society of late Victorian England. There was a tremendous craze for Mars and Martians at the time, as Alex Owen notes in her exploration of the occult and the making of modern society. The Place of Enchantment joins a growing number of books by historians and critics which argue for the central role paranormal and occult studies paradoxically played in mainstream social developments.

The Martian moment was fuelled, for example, by psychic time travelling, in particular by the spectacular reports brought back by “Hélène Smith”, a Swiss shop assistant and medium, who had unfolded her adventures as an Indian princess and a Martian overlord to an eminent Zurich psychiatrist, Theodore Flournoy, who turned them into a bestseller. Meanwhile, Horniman’s daughter Annie was drawing liberally on her large private fortune to fund apprentice mages and their masters in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the secret society for magical wisdom which was founded in London in l888.

There were many reasons for questing in these new territories, but Owen rightly sets aside religious confusion in the wake of Darwinism as a principal cause, and stresses instead a thirst for knowledge and a desire for human expansion. The occult was science, at least for many of its followers. Magic and self-help, esoteric consciousness and medicine, were not so easy to keep apart in the upheavals of turn-of-the-century Britain. H G Wells typifies the contradictions Owen is describing: he was a self-proclaimed modern, an enthusiast for machines and science, for rationality and progressive dynamism, an agnostic utterly impatient with hocus-pocus. Yet his richly fantastical ideas about divided selves, multiple dimensions, invisibility, and indeed time travel, resonate with occult ideas then in circulation. Wells pooh-poohed credulity, but occultists refused to accept the label. This new ambiguity about unexplained phenomena excited much rethinking about the activity and scope of the human mind.

Owen struggles to maintain distinctions between wisdom and faith, between magic and the occult, between esoteric mental discipline and religion. Modern magicians prided themselves on their scientific, empirical objectivity: Madame Blavatsky, prophet of theosophy and communicator with invisible intelligences, stoutly maintained that “‘spirit’ is a misleading word … the theosophist believes … All living things act in and through a material basis… But … that matter exists in states other than those at present known to science”. These adepts were not believers in a metaphysical sense, and this, in Owen’s view, is quintessentially modern. The matter with which modern occultists were chiefly concerned was the self, and their practices became principally a form of mental self-enhancement, strongly influenced by Indian mystical techniques, and the evident begetter of consciousness-raising in various therapies today.

The Darkened Room, Owen’s last book, was a pioneering study of photographing ghosts and discussed its relationship to the emerging women’s emancipation movements. The occult was also a career option for the Victorian woman. Owen stresses the role that women such as Annie Horniman, the actress Florence Farr, and Moina Bergson, sister of the philosopher Henri Bergson, played in various groups. Annie Besant defected to the Theosophical Society from socialist politics and the “divine Anna” Kingsford, a charismatic Christian, a medical doctor, a campaigning vegetarian and anti-vivisectionist, combined her beliefs with theosophy and became president of their London lodge in l883. After her sudden, early death five years later, her writings were translated all over Europe, spreading the view that Jesus was a “Great Initiate” of Egyptian mysteries.

Annie Horniman supported for several decades Samuel Mathers, the founder and Chief of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Mathers and Horniman have been somewhat eclipsed in the fame of the order by its most famous votary, the poet W B Yeats, whose Abbey Theatre in Dublin Annie also backed. Like a character in a turn-of-the-century adventure yarn by Alexandre Dumas or Baroness Orczy, Mathers maintained that he was a French count, descendant of an exiled Jacobite, and his elaborate rituals echo intricate court etiquette and ceremony. Feelings ran high, loyalties were tested, factions split off and brought new orders into being. At one point, the 25-year-old Aleister Crowley was dispatched to do Mathers’s bidding. As Roy Foster tells the story in his biography of Yeats, Crowley in “full Highland dress and sporting a mask of Osiris” seized possession of the Second Order’s meeting rooms, but was seen off by Yeats and another adept “known for his boxing skills”.

Such happy moments are few, however, in this book. Owen has a serious argument which she makes a little too insistently, in clotted prose, without enough corroborative history or sufficiently persuasive cast. The most earnest advocacy cannot parlay her rum crew of would-be mystagogues in middle-class Britain into impressive Modernist seers. As the book develops, its main focus becomes the story of changing ideas about the human subject, the self, and consciousness: the territory of Freud and Jung, as well as of a host of other investigators at the turn of the century who plunged into the depths of the psyche and its complications.

Magic came into this inquiry, though Freud at least fought shy of this implication. Dreams are central to divination, and the new therapies and ceremonies involved performative rituals and processes: hypnosis, drugs, hierarchical relations between celebrant and votary. Somehow, one feels sympathy welling up for spiritualists because many convinced séance participants, such as the scientist Oliver Lodge, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the writer Rosamond Lehmann, were grieving for their lost children. But it is hard to feel for Mathers or Crowley, who were magicians undergoing weird austerities and excesses invented by themselves in order to achieve mastery and perfect the “magical will”.

The most fascinating and complex figure is Frederic Myers, the philosopher founder of the Society for Psychical Research. Myers coined the term “telepathy” and defined the “subliminal self”. His turbulent and passionate life story and highly complicated character do not capture Owen’s attention. By contrast, Crowley, the self-styled “Beast 666”, the most decadent, marginal and extreme experimenter among fin-de-siècle dabblers, inspires a whole chapter.

Mesmerised by astral flight, by magisters templi, and by the self-aggrandising orgies of Crowley, Owen forces the argument when it comes to magic and magi who were more oddball adventurers adrift in modernity than its movers and shakers. Occult questors in Edwardian England were intrinsically backward-looking, hierarchical, exclusive and authoritarian, and nothing Owen writes can prevent their tedium telling on the reader. It is a pity that she has defected from social history and politics and been captured by the history of thought, for she risks disappearing into a thick psychosocio-philosophical fog.

Magical thought permeated ideas about consciousness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and found a voice in the fiction of James, Woolf and Joyce; the wireless and the cinema brought into being the “desert of the real” when image and event are uncoupled, and disembodied presences surround us daily. But these “haunted media” of modern technologies aren’t the wands and pentacles and cloaks of Crowley and Co. By confining herself to magical tracts, Owen has overlooked the chief places where the enchantments of modernity make themselves felt in all their complexity.

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