Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century

Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century

by Joshua Gunn

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A broadly interdisciplinary study of the pervasive secrecy in America cultural, political, and religious discourse.

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A broadly interdisciplinary study of the pervasive secrecy in America cultural, political, and religious discourse.

Editorial Reviews

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"Gunn has crafted an exceptionally fine book exploring discourse that hides, disguises, and occludes. He shows how central such discourse is in the world we live in. The book's linkage of 19th-century occult texts with the impenetrable books of today's fasionable postmodern gurus is especially valuable. Scholars across the academy will find that the book is indispensable."—Barry Brummett, author of Rhetorical Dimensions of Popular Culture

"Gunn's work is a comprehensive examination of society's hierarchies of mystery and elitism—a subject that has been largely ignored by rhetorical scholars—and Gunn tackles it with erudition, insight, and most importantly, humor. Modern Occult Rhetoric is original, provocative, extremely well written, and throughtfully argued."—Mark McPhail, author of Zen in the Art of Rhetoric

“Gunn’s case studies show how modern occult rhetoric matters, because it illustrates how difficult language is used to divide and unite readers, and how we ‘cannot help but play the game of secrecy, even in our contemporary age of abject publicity.’ [The] book deserves to be read and reread as a pathbreaking work not only within the specialized research of esoteric/occult studies, but in rhetorical theory and media studies also.”—Quarterly Journal of Speech

Product Details

University of Alabama Press
Publication date:
Albma Rhetoric Cult & Soc Crit Series
Edition description:
1st Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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Modern Occult Rhetoric

Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century


Copyright © 2005 The University of Alabama Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8173-1466-8

Chapter One

What Is the Occult?

Behind the veil of all the hieratic and mystical allegories of ancient doctrines, behind the darkness and strange ordeals of all initiations, under the seal of all sacred writings, in the ruins of Nineveh or Thebes, on the crumbling stones of old temples and on the blackened visage of the Assyrian or Egyptian sphinx, in the monstrous or marvelous paintings which interpret to the faithful of India the inspired pages of the Vedas, in the cryptic emblems of our old books on alchemy, in the ceremonies practiced at reception by all secret societies, there are found indications of a doctrine which is everywhere the same and everywhere carefully concealed.

-Eliphas Lévi, Transcendental Magic

Thus begins Magus Eliphas Lévi's influential 1856 treatise on transcendental magic, which recounts in evocative language the ubiquitous precept of the whole of occultism: the occult concerns secrets. Although the Frenchman claimed to be a devout Catholic (he even studied for the priesthood in his youth under the not-so-secret name Alphonse Louis Constant), his liberal views, his inability to maintain a vow of chastity, and his interest in the secrets of magic eventually led to his expulsion from seminary. After he left the Roman Catholic Church, Lévi supported himself by writing books about secrets and by soliciting a number of well-heeled secret-keepers, anxious to secure his confidence-and livelihood.

In many ways Lévi's writings on magic mark the beginning of "modern occultism," a moment in the occult tradition that is characterized by a popular interest enabled by media technologies of mass production, as well as a general withering of the influence of religious prohibitions against the practice and study of magic. Many scholars of the occult locate the nineteenth-century revival of popular interest in magic and mysticism with the publication of Lévi's occult books, such as The Dogma and Ritual of High Magic, The History of Magic, and The Key of Great Mysteries. What was significant about these books, and what many a curious reader undoubtedly found attractive, was Lévi's vivid writing style. As Elizabeth Butler notes, Lévi's books "belong more truly to literature than to the science of the occult," for his poetic talents helped him to transform relatively dry books on the subject "into something both radiant and sinister, satanic and sublime," converting descriptions of ritual into something akin to a "sensational novel." Whereas Lévi's lesser-known predecessor Francis Barrett describes the study of the Kabbalah as merely the opening of "many and the chiefest mysteries and secrets of ceremonial magic," Lévi describes the art of the Kabbalist as that which concerns the most "astonishing formulae" in the service of "The Mother of God," within whom the Kabbalist realizes "all that is divine in the dreams of innocence, all that is adorable in the sacred enthusiasm of every maternal heart." Whereas the father of Renaissance Hermeticism, Henry Cornelius Agrippa of Nettesheim, describes astral travel as a product of "vehement imagination, or speculation altogether abstracted from the body," Lévi describes the phenomenon as the detachment of the "astral body by which our soul communicates with our organs," which is achieved dramatically by commanding "the material body [to] 'Sleep!' and ... the sidereal body [to] 'Dream!' Thereupon," continues Lévi, "the aspect of the visible things changes, as in hashish-visions."

Given Lévi's creative and literary talents, it is not surprising that the imagination plays an important role in his descriptions of the conduct of transcendental magic. The imagination, Lévi says, "is only the soul's inherent faculty of assimilating ... images and reflections contained in the living light." Yet it is an extremely important capacity for the adept, whose imagination is "diaphanous, whilst that of the crowd is opaque." It is through the imagination that visionary magicians "place themselves in communication with all worlds" or dimensions of reality. The imagination is a place within which "demons and spirits can be beheld really and in truth." Like Barrett, from whom Lévi took many ideas (and, by extension, Agrippa, whom Barrett plagiarized), Lévi emphasizes the importance of imagining magical symbols in the creation and use of talismans and sigils (circles that contain magical formulae), as well as the significant role mental images play in divination and necromancy. Lévi was fond of sprinkling his books with numerous illustrations and magically "charged" symbols. In fact, the imagined deity Lévi created to reside over the magical arts, the Sabbatic Goat, has long eclipsed Lévi's fame as the magus who invented it (see fig. 2).

Lévi's florid style and imaginative embellishments are the bane of many students of occultism, however, for it is commonly argued that his style was a romantic handicap and contributed to distortions of ritual and doctrine. A number of commentators argue that many of the rituals that Lévi "revealed" in his writings contained new elements not to be found in the ancient grimoires (spell books) on which he claimed they were based. For example, Lévi's English translator and popularizer, Arthur Edward Waite, says that "as a philosophical survey" Lévi's The History of Magic "is admirable" and an example of "literary excellence ... but it swarms with historical inaccuracies." Although it is an accomplished work, Waite insists, it was in no way an "erudite performance, nor do I think that the writer ever concerned himself with any real reading of the authority whom he cites." Worse, Waite argues that many of Lévi's rituals would offend one of the most celebrated magicians in occult history, the mythic King Solomon, who would "turn in his grave" if he read Lévi's books! "Whilst keeping some of the more questionable paraphernalia to witness against the rituals," writes Waite, Lévi "has added much more gruesome ones, and inverted the solemn religious purifications, both spiritual and material, into diabolical parodies." As is the case with any artist, writer, or scholar who elevates cherished subcultural forms to a space of widespread recognition-that is, as is the case with any popularizer-charges of treachery, distortion, disloyalty, inauthenticity, or inaccuracy are inevitable. "Levi's books do not inspire confidence," argues Colin Wilson, a novelist and student of occultism, "for what he is claiming is, unfortunately a lie." His genius consisted of a "highly romantic imagination," continues Wilson, "and little else." Whether or not one agrees with Wilson's assessment of Lévi's genius, his characterization of the writer as a imaginative romantic-and therefore a dubious authority-reflects a common tension in occult works. The legitimacy of an occultist's authority to proclaim supernatural truths or to reveal centuries-old secrets is always questioned by would-be occult-Luthers, staking out their own territory of magical expertise and making their own astral stakes. From this vantage the history of occult discourse is a centuries-long battle of self-proclaimed magi over the best secrets.

The criticisms of Lévi's writings have a lot to do with the suspicion that he was trying to secure fame, perhaps even turn a buck, by sensationalizing occultism and thus distorting the "true" art. During the time Lévi was writing, many of the practices that were considered occult, such as fortune-telling, astrology, spiritualism, and demonology, were sources of entertainment for the literate public. Today this condition is most certainly the case, as scholarly or "learned" versions of occultism are increasingly obscured by the entertaining and imaginary aspects of the tradition. Lévi's Sabbatic Goat, for example, makes frequent appearances on book covers, film posters, record albums, and news programs, while the book from which it is taken is far from a best-seller. In just about every city in the United States one can find an expert in palmistry by looking for that familiar large, outstretched neon hand in a storefront window. While occultism during Lévi's time concerned fetishized books of secrets, today it denotes a large reservoir of cultural imagery and language (often in Latinate form for good effect) that is plumbed for horror movie film plots and television dramas about benevolent soothsayers. Darker variations of contemporary occultism speak to the conjuring of demons at heavy-metal concerts or devil-worshiping youth sacrificing small animals on tombstones. Compared to occultism in the nineteenth century, contemporary occultism seems to reflect a collective imagination unbound: it comprises countless images, texts, films, even sounds, moving about in a swirling mass. What was once Lévi's imaginary and entertaining art of secret knowledge has become a diffuse body of representations that mean different things to different people, depending on the medium and the social or historical context.

So how, then, do we understand occultism as a whole? As I suggested in the introduction, we can split occultism into two separate categories. The larger, overarching category, the occultic, refers to a theological form that underlies a larger reservoir of texts, images, symbols, myths, and so on. The original expression of the occultic was the occult, the smaller category, which is represented by Lévi's work. Briefly, the conceptual hierarchy I set before the reader in the introduction is as follows: the rhetoric of religion concerns the mismatch between language and an ineffable referent. Any discourse that features this mismatch betokens a "theological form." One kind of theological form is the occultic, which manifests itself in any discourse that, first, discriminates among groups of people on the basis of difficult or strange representation, and second, suggests that its representational strategies are better routes to some incommunicable human experience or more primal reality. By understanding the occult as one of many expressions of the more abstract category of the occultic, we can stabilize the occultic as a social form that is composed of the repetition of relatively stable features. To make the task of describing the occultic easier, however, for most of this study I focus on one side of the continuum, the occult side, since it is much easier to discern. Once we are able to contend with the specificity of the historical occult, it will then be easier to see what elements are retained as the category balloons into the occultic at the end of the twentieth century.

Below, I describe the specificity of the traditional occult in two ways. First, we can characterize the occult as a historically contextualized discourse inclusive of a story of its origin. Like the story of Islam, the Wankel rotary engine, or the introduction of corn to the early "American" diet, people have tended to discuss occultism as an object of historical evolution. Whether or not the story is truthful or fanciful is irrelevant, because I am concerned with the way scholars and occultists tend to describe the occult as something that distinguishes it from other discourses-that is, with its rhetoric, not its truth. Second, occult rhetoric can be characterized as a genre, an expression of form, which has a particular pattern that is repeated in multiple occult texts (not the whole, but the bulk). So far I have isolated difficult language as a key "generic" feature of occult content, but I have yet to describe how this content is organized or advanced formally in texts. In order to establish a baseline understanding of the historical occult that can been built on and problematized in succeeding chapters, it is helpful at this point to characterize the specificity of the occult in these two ways.

The Traditional Origin Narrative of the Occult

The "traditional origin narrative" of the occult refers to the common story occult historians and practitioners tend to tell about its origins. I use the term "origin narrative" rather than "history" quite deliberately for two reasons. First, the origin narrative often told by occultists is fanciful and often inaccurate according to even the most relative of documentary standards. Second, although the cursory narrative I provide below is easily documented, the fact remains that any history is shot through with contemporary schemes of coherence. As Ludwig Wittgenstein observed of notions of progressive history, when "we think of the world's future, we always mean the destination it will reach if it keeps going in the direction we can see it going now; it does not occur to us that its path is not a straight line but a curve, constantly changing direction." In other words, history as it is commonly conceived consists of an imposition of pattern only discernible in retrospect, and wed to a common, Hegelian notion of historical progress, the pattern can too easily overwhelm contingency. Acknowledging the contingency of historical narratives with "origin narrative" emphasizes the rhetorically adaptive function of historiography.

However hypocritical the move, Waite's attacks on Lévi's history of occultism testify to the general untrustworthiness of occult origin narratives. In part, the inaccuracies and fictions of the occult tradition are a consequence of the marginalization of occult practice, which has effectively shielded occult scholarship from academic proprieties and standards of accuracy and fidelity. What is important about a general understanding of the history of occultism is not, then, its accuracy or fidelity to past fact. Rather, the origin narrative told by scholars and students of the occult is simply an important part of its specificity as a discourse. This origin narrative of occultism is a crucial part of the meaning of occultism in particular because it provides an explanation for the widespread characterization of the occult as being opposed to science on the one hand and to religion on the other.

In general, the occult as the study of secrets and the practice of magic and mysticism has moved through four periods of history, breaking the surface of popular consciousness in times of general prosperity and retreating from popular notice during times of hardship or widespread misfortune: the medieval era, the Renaissance, the Reformation and Enlightenment, and modernity. As a secret practice, occultism cohered as a distinct discourse during the decline of the Holy Roman Empire, existing largely underground because its practices were illegal. By the arrival of the Renaissance in Europe, however, the occult emerged as natural science and was celebrated by a number of respected humanist intellectuals. It was forced underground again, however, during the Reformation and the ascent of mechanical, physicalist philosophy, which reached its peak in the Enlightenment period. Finally, the occult resurfaced again in the mid- to late nineteenth century, first in France and later in English-speaking countries, as a mysterious and entertaining curiosity for the literate public.

The Medieval Era

Most occult origin narratives begin with a definition of terms, often from an authoritative and fetishized source like the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines the occult as that which is "hidden (from sight)" or that which is concealed. Because of the Western tradition of associating knowledge with light (e.g., as evinced in the term "enlightenment"), it makes sense that the older, ocular term was eventually used to describe medieval sciences that were thought to disclose the hidden secrets of nature, namely, alchemy and astrology. But "occultism" can also be said to involve secrets in the sense that many of the practices assembled under its name were forbidden by authorities and had to take place "in secret." The occult as the secret study of secrets, then, did not exist until there was a need for secrecy. For this reason many origin narratives found in encyclopedias and similar introductory sources are misleading because they begin with the practice of magic in general, erroneously locating origins in practices like shamanism.

Of course, the idea of magic as the use of supernatural forces to do something secular has been around since antiquity, but magic did not become occult, at least in the Western world, until the Romans adopted Christianity as the official religion and began persecuting those who held alternative beliefs-including those who studied magic. In light of this important qualification, occultism did not emerge until the medieval period-at the very earliest the fourth century of the common era, when the practice of magic became a capital offense. During the crumbling of the Roman Empire, Augustine's screed against magic and sorcery in his extremely influential tome City of God echoed the tenor of popular sentiment:

Why should I not cite public opinion itself as a witness against those magic arts in which certain most wretched and ungodly men love to glory? For if they are the works of divine beings worthy of worship, why are such arts so gravely punished by the severity of the law? Was it the Christians, perhaps, who enacted the laws by which magic arts are punished? With what other meaning, then, save that these sorceries are beyond doubt pernicious to the human race, did that most illustrious of poets [Virgil] say: "I swear, beloved sister, by the gods, by you, and by your sweet head, that I have recourse to magic arts only against my will?" ... All the wonders of the sorcerers ... are accomplished by means of the teaching and works of demons.


Excerpted from Modern Occult Rhetoric by JOSHUA GUNN Copyright © 2005 by The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission.
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