Reviewed by Alison Falby (Department of History, Trent University)
Published on H-Albion (May, 2006)
Modernity and the Resurgence of Magic
Alex Owen's work is already familiar to historians of science, religion, women and the Victorian era. Her recent book should make her work familiar to a wider audience as it addresses all scholars of modern ideas and culture. In her readable and influential first book, The Darkened Room (1989), she shed light on a subject that had previously received short historiographical shrift: female spiritualism. Owen argued that the public spiritual authority of female mediums in the late Victorian era reflected a negotiation of gender stereotypes, challenging the then-conventional characterization of gender in this period as divided into "separate spheres." Towards the end of the book, she noted that mediumship prefigured psychoanalytic theory "by displacing consciousness as the guarantee of identity". This remark prefigured the issues of her second more densely theorized book, The Place of Enchantment (2004), in which she takes modern ideas of consciousness and selfhood as her subject, with fin-de-siecle occultism as her lens.
Owen begins the book with a story about "two respectable Victorians" who met in London in September 1898 "for the express purpose of travelling to the planets" (p. 1). As one journeys through The Place of Enchantment, it becomes apparent that this anecdote is allegorical on at least three levels: one, for the Victorians themselves, whose astral travels represented the exploration of the deepest realms of selfhood; two, for modern culture itself, to which Owen assigns occultism a central place; and three, for Owen's own narrative, which takes her readers on something of a mind-altering trip. This triple allegory highlights the literary artistry also evident in the book's title and structure. The title, The Place of Enchantment, evokes the otherworldly mental space of Owen's subject and conveys her revision of Max Weber's picture of modernity as a process of disenchantment. The varying narrative structures of the book's different chapters mirror the fragmentation of modern culture itself. It is no wonder that this book was, as Owen acknowledges, long in the making.
What constitutes "the modern"? This question lies at the heart of Owen's investigation. Weber argued that the modern is inherently secular, as the modern intellectual process made it impossible for people to believe anything that could not be rationalized, particularly traditional religious ideas regarding unseen spiritual forces. Weber's argument forms the foundation of the secularization thesis: the notion of the modern as inherently secular or scientific. More recently, Michel Foucault and others have presented the psychologized self as central to modern culture. This psychologized or subjective self lacks a soul and is multiple or fragmented, but is not irrational. Rather, it is based on a larger conception of rationality that recognizes reason's limits (pp. 115-116). Although postmodern theorists like Foucault have critiqued universalist notions of rationality, they have not made the leap to critique universalist notions of secularization, despite the conventional pairing of the two. Owen makes this leap, arguing convincingly that the modern self is subjective but not necessarily secular.
Occultism is central to Owen's revision of the secularization thesis in general and secular notions of the modern psychologized self in particular. Around the time that Weber was writing, occultism and other mystical movements became increasingly popular, particularly among the middle classes, the ground having been prepared by spiritualism. Where both spiritualism and occultism operated on the premise of an unseen reality, occultism taught that this reality was unified, or mystical, and outlined practices to access it drawn from ancient wisdom traditions. Owen notes that fin-de-siecle occultism, if discussed at all, is commonly seen as a reaction to modernity. This view is usually deduced from occultism's rejection of a scientific materialism that wouldn't allow for a spiritual element within human consciousness or indeed the universe itself. But just because occultists rejected scientific materialism doesn't mean they rejected science or rationalism as a whole. Rather, they used instrumental rationality to interrogate conventional notions of selfhood, recognize the limits of individual rationality, and arrive at the multi-layered or subjective self more familiar to us in Freud's secular variant: the Ego, Id and Superego. Unlike Freud, the occultists allowed for a spiritual element connecting different selves, a notion further developed by Jung as the collective unconscious (p. 183) and picked up by moderns like Yeats and Kandinsky. Thus occultism embraced much that lay at the heart of modern culture and helped shape its core concern of subjectivity.
The book's structure reflects the ambiguity of the modern self. How does one tell a story whose central character, the subjective self, constantly changes? One tells multiple stories. And so, while Owen traces the occultist preoccupation with subjectivity through Magical Diaries and records throughout the book, she uses different historical approaches, albeit overlapping ones, in different chapters. This variegated structure is brilliant in conception but it can be disconcerting to read. This reader found The Place of Enchantment best visited one chapter at a time.
Owen begins with a cultural history of the occult at the fin-de-siecle in chapter 1, and moves onto a social history of modern magic in chapter 2. Here she focuses mainly on the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, known to many from W.B. Yeats' involvement. In chapter 3, she discusses occultism in the context of gender history, and in chapter 4 she outlines an intellectual history of occult notions of subjectivity, relating them to contemporaneous developments in psychology. She uses literary theory to analyze the role of the imagined unconscious in occultism and artistic and literary modernism in chapter 5. She devotes chapter 6, originally published in the Journal of British Studies, to a micro-history of Aleister Crowley, the so-called "wickedest man in the world" to whose infamy much of occultism's bad rap can be assigned. Owen focuses on his 1909 magical ceremonies in the Algerian desert and shows that his excesses, while exceptional, arose from the same desire at the heart of most modern occult activities: to explore the different layers of selfhood. In chapter 7, she briefly describes how the "new psychology" supplanted occultism after the First World War, and then uses chapter 8 to explore the theoretical implications of "a culture of enchantment for the modern period" (p. 237).
Some readers, inevitably, will find fault with the elitist subject matter of this book. Owen makes no apology, nor should she, for her middle- and upper-middle-class subjects who helped shape the modern culture that still holds great stock today. She acknowledges that the perceived threat of mass culture and the changing social order played a role in the middle classes' occultist turn. Nonetheless, she argues, to emphasize these influences above all others "ignores the importance of the spiritualist progressive platform and radically misunderstands the extent to which an interest in the occult was bound up with the new 'social consciousness' at the end of the century" (p. 26). In any case, as Owen notes, there already exist several good analyses of the relationship between occultism and social change (p. 263, n. 29).
The Place of Enchantment is a rich, multilayered book. It is also a stimulating book, for it challenges both secular notions of modern selfhood and traditional notions of how history ought to be told. The artistry of the book's structure helps convey its stories while also, in some ways, obscuring them. While the sojourns of Owen's subjects, interplanetary and otherwise, are fascinating, and her revisionist picture of modern culture is compelling, this reader was left with some questions about the attraction of occultist magic and ritual. Owen argues convincingly for the modernity of occultism's ideas. But what about its ceremonial practices and ritual pageantry? She hints at the function of ritual performance in chapters 3 and 6, but could have said more about its relationship to costume and the subjective self.
Like all important books, The Place of Enchantment opens up many new areas of inquiry, particularly in regards to the legacy of the Enlightenment. Owen points to some of these areas in her final chapter. She notes that although occultist subjectivity contradicts the picture of modernity painted by the Frankfurt School, which blamed unreflective Enlightenment rationality for the ills of twentieth-century European society (pp. 241-242), the Frankfurt school was right in a way. Although occultists weren't as unreflective as Adorno and company claimed moderns to be, they still failed to "to recognize the relativism of [their] own self-reflexivity" (p. 248). "In so doing," she writes, "occultism, and especially practical occultism, took an Enlightenment imperative to know and thus control the natural world to new heights" (p. 248). The implicit message is that much twentieth-century culture remained indebted to Enlightenment rationality in ways that historians and critics like Owen are only beginning to understand.
. Alex Owen, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) p. 204.
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