Reinventing the Renaissance Occult in Modern and Postmodern Culture
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, 14 November 2009
review by Dr. Leo Ruickbie
Five hundred years ago the occult – what we think of as ‘the occult’ – was taught in university and practised by many of the foremost personalities of the age. Still it was persecuted. Dangerous. Between the Church and the deep blue sea: Scylla and Charybdis. It was the high point of ‘the occult’ and also its low point. To some it promised to reveal the secrets of the universe, to others it automatically meant a pact with the Devil and damnation. Such contrasts have thrown long shadows that still play across the present.
One storm tossed Saturday in November 2009, scholars braved the gales to discuss ‘Reinventing the Renaissance Occult in Modern and Postmodern Culture’ at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. Brought together by Sarah Annes Brown, Professor of English Literature at Anglia Ruskin, the speakers explored a diverse range of subjects from apocryphal exegesis to continental philosophy to film studies. Conference themes sought to examine how the occultists of the Renaissance, at once remote and unexpectedly current, can now offer us refuge from debilitating scepticism and throw insight on modern arcana such as quantum mechanics and the wilds of theoretical physics, and whether the popularity of the occult today is a desire to return to more enchanted times, away from the rationalism of the Enlightenment.
Professor Brown stepped in to replace the first two speakers, who had inexplicably mislaid themselves, to tell us about some modern responses to magic in Shakespeare with ‘Shaping Fantasies’. The magic of words in the mouth of the vates, the poet-prophet, poet-shaman, taken from the Bard and recast in Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series (1989-1996), Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies (1992) and Gareth Robert’s Doctor Who episode ‘The Shakespeare Code’ (2007) as creative, magical acts, invoking new worlds. Gaiman in particular was singled out as forging a new mythology – Sandman and Morpheus – taking creative inspiration from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that led back to the dynamics between Shakespeare and Marlowe. Gaiman’s character Dream meets Shakespeare who exclaims to Marlowe, ‘I’d bargain, like your Faustus, for that boon’, casting him in the Faustian position to Gaiman’s Dream as Mephistopheles. Brown framed the page as a door into other worlds, into Fairyland, providing fictions more enduring than fact, notwithstanding their imaginary foundations.
Ewan Fernie, Professor of Shakespeare Studies at The Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham, talked about ‘The Possessed’ as a radicalised deconstruction of religious meaning where sex and spirituality played devil and divine in art and experience. Possession itself was cast as a radical receptivity that invited ‘rape by God’ as ‘the mark of true religion’. For Fernie, the Christian saviour was a ‘self-prostituting Christ’ and his followers, indeed, ‘religious people’ in general, were ‘at least vaguely obscene’. The apparent gulf between God and the Devil closes as the two are reinterpreted as rival suitors, even lovers, in Fernie’s reading of John Donne’s ‘Holy Sonnets’ (XIV): ‘Your force, to breake, blows, burn and make me new […] I love you […] you ravish me’. Evidential perversions were cited in the madness of Daniel Paul Schreber, self-defined as a religious experience, whose Memoirs became influential through Sigmund Freud’s characteristic analysis, although later contested most notably by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Schreber’s imagined role as God’s wife, even God’s God, postulates a new theology of sex, according to Fernie, drawing upon such wide sources as Goethe’s Faust, among other things.
György Szönyi, then Leverhulme Visiting Professor at Anglia Ruskin, introduced us to the remarkable religion of Edward Vaughan Kenealy based upon his interpretation of the equally remarkable Book of Enoch. Known in three pseudepigraphical and apocryphal versions – the earliest Ethiopic Apocalypse, the Slavonic and the later Hebrew texts – the Book of Enoch and the role of the Prophet Enoch has been an influence from the Renaissance Enochian magic of John Dee through Crowley and the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) to the New Age. Kenealy is chiefly remembered today for his part in the Tichborne claimant legal case in the 1870s, but Professor Szönyi concentrated on his religious work – The Book of God: The Apocalypse of Adam-Oandes, Enoch: The Second Messenger of God, Fo: The Third Messenger of God and others – as a bridge of representations from earlier uses of Enoch to modern revisionings in Margaret Barker’s The Lost Prophet (1988), Indus Khamit Kush’s Enoch the Ethiopian (2000) and Christopher Knight and Robert Lomas’s Uriel’s Machine (2001).
Urszula Szulakowska, University of Leeds, discussed ‘Art and the Esoteric Tradition in Australia’ showing how occult imagery in art could be deployed for polemical effect and political engagement. In particular, several key female artists from Eastern Europe and Latin America, as well as Australia, have reworked traditional alchemical and occult imagery in accordance with feminist agendas to create new and radical modalities of representation. One aspect of her argument proposed that the ‘superhuman image’ of the Renaissance magician had become transferred to the artist. The artist in modern society then fills the ‘existentialist void’ left by secularisation. She made many additional interesting observations, such as the witches’ flying ointment as a negative image of the philosopher’s stone.
Sophia Wellbeloved, co-founder of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Western Esotericism, explored the occult project of overcoming death in ‘The Conquest of Time in the Writings of G.I. Gurdjieff’. She began with a biographical summary, casting Gurdjieff as a multi-faceted ‘guru, magus, hypnotist, musician, teacher of dancing, writer’. Gurdjieff’s teachings revolved around the key concept that we are all asleep and his task consequently was to awaken humankind. According to Wellbeloved, the conquest of time is represented in Gurdjieff’s esoteric cosmological concept of the Ray of Creation with a Law of Seven planetary categories correlated to the musical scale and his Law of Three based on movement. According to his teachings, the initiate seeks to move backwards against time, ascending planetary/musical levels of creation to attain greater freedom and eventual immortality.
Leo Ruickbie, in ‘Dealing with the Devil: The Faustian Pact in Magical Culture’, traced the development of the Devil-pact from legendary device, through polemical rhetoric to magical procedure. Beginning with the classical representation of the pact in the legend of Faustus, his historical unpicking of the textual creation of the pact-maker revealed a Renaissance humanist-occultist unknown to have made any sort of pact with spiritual powers. However, the pact was deployed as a rhetorical motif in the Teufelspolemik of the sixteenth century that inevitably saw the magician damned as a diabolist in emerging Protestant discourse. This had the unintended consequence of casting pact-making as a possible magical strategy and created a supporting grimoire tradition that was recovered in the modern era, subverting previous polemical uses as an authentic procedure. This reinvention of the Renaissance occult was simultaneously a reinvention of the Renaissance anti-occult.
Monika Smialkowska, Northumbria University, examined contrasting positions in ‘Magicians and Scientists: David Calcutt’s Prospero’s Island and Elizabeth Nunez’ Prospero’s Daughter’. Calcutt’s play Prospero’s Island is an alternative version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, blending high drama and slapstick, in which the witch Sycorax teaches Prospero the magic arts, posing ‘the female principle’ against the male magician. Elizabeth Nunez’ Prospero’s Daughter sets The Tempest in the early 1960s on a former leper colony off the coast of Trinidad in a post-colonial revision of British imperialism. According to Smialkowska, both works seek to challenge our understandings of science and magic.
Patricia MacCormack, Anglia Ruskin University, explored the convergences between modern occultism and aesthetical and ethical theorisation, especially, in recent academic philosophy in ‘Occultism and Continental Philosophy: From Solomon through Spare to Serres’. She saw two currents of British occultism – the later OTO and Chaos Magick – as a ‘bridging point’ between the Renaissance magic of the Solomonic grimoires, John Dee and others, and modern philosophy. The magician-artist Austin Osman Spare, whose sigilisation technique stands as the axis of Chaos Magick, she argued, brought art and physics together – as ‘thought as event’ and ‘imagination as knowledge’ – in a creative catalysation of new ethical possibilities in sympathy with the work of Leibniz and Nietzsche, and the post-structuralists Serres, Deleuze and Guattari. Deleuze and Guattari in particular provided the conceptualisation of philosophers as sorcerers and epistemology as demonology that made the connections between the different and divided worlds of modern occultism and high-brow philosophising realisable in a theoretical discourse of art-physics-magick harmonised in a philosophical whole.
Mark Goodall, University of Bradford, in ‘L’Occhio Selvaggio: Towards an Occult Film Studies’ challenged film studies as entrenched and stagnant with a reading of its potentialities as an occult subject taking the experience of film as a religious one further into the esoteric. He argued that cinema mirrors esoteric symbolism using Epstein’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and David Lynch’s Premonitions Following an Evil Deed (1995) as examples of filmic occultism, comparing the avant-garde film to alchemy in its transformative intent and possibilities.
Rowlie Wymer, Professor of English Literature, Anglia Ruskin University, discussed ‘Science, Religion and Magic in James Blish’s “After Such Knowledge” Sequence’. The American fantasy and science-fiction writer James Blish wrote four books in the sequence: A Case of Conscience (1953, 1958), Doctor Mirabilis (1964), Black Easter (1968), and The Day After Judgement (1971), collected together as After Such Knowledge (1991). Using historical magical texts to lend authenticity to his storytelling, Blish’s writing was characterised by Wymer as ‘parables of dangerous knowledge’. One of Wymer’s main arguments was that these novels, working on multiple levels, problematise the concept of literary genre and the epistemological barriers between science, religion and magic.
Marina Warner, currently a professor at the University of Essex, as well as holding several Visiting Professorships, concluded with a reading from her book Phantasmagoria: Spirit Vision, Metaphors, and Media (2006). Her work has explored myth and fairytale, from the Virgin Mary to the Arabian Nights, often attempting revisionings that give them contemporary significance. She chose a passage from the final chapter, following the black seam of apocalypse from the Book of Revelation to the photographic revelations of Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as the ultimate modern phantasmagoria.
The conference showed the diverse ways in which the Renaissance occult continues to reverberate through both academic and non-academic discourses and praxes. The role of Shakespeare was particularly apparent, continuing to influence a wide range of media, especially through A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. The imaginary construct of Faust/us also featured in the papers given by Professors Brown and Fernie, as well as that of Ruickbie, showing how through Marlowe and Goethe his place is cemented as the quintessential Renaissance magician, notwithstanding the complicated and conflicting mosaic that constitutes that image. The event was a truly inter-disciplinary conference, which saw the sharing of many new and interesting ideas.