Alex Owen. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004. xiv + 355 pp.
Reviewed by Peter Stansky (Department of History, Stanford University)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2008)
Alex Owen has written two important books in British intellectual history: the first, The Darkened Room: Women, Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England (1989), and the present text, recently issued in paperback. As with the pioneering work of Janet Oppenheim, The Other World: Spiritualism and Psychical Research in England (1985), Owen is quite rightly taking seriously the interests and activities of various individuals who might too easily be dismissed as faddists who have little to tell us about the making of the modern world. Indeed, her argument is quite the contrary. She contends that these figures fit into the modern definitions of consciousness and unconsciousness, rationality and irrationality, enchantment and disenchantment, and Max Weber and Sigmund Freud, as firmly as the canonical figures discussed by H. Stuart Hughes in his Consciousness and Society (1958). Her concluding chapter, in fact, outlines her argument with Hughes, by means of her disagreement with his disparagement of Carl Jung. In effect, she wishes to broaden considerably what one might consider the standard rational approach to irrationality. Owen argues powerfully in favor of taking seriously the developments in occultism in Britain from the period 1880-1914.
What is deeply impressive is her presentation of multiple aspects of occultism in a totally straightforward way. She begins the book, one might think to a degree provocatively, with a discussion of two Victorians traveling to a planet. In the course of this study, there is a fair amount of "astral travel." At a later point, she states that these travelers may not believe that such travel is literarily true, but in a sense, she is admirably agnostic about such events. It is quite fascinating, and somewhat confusing, to be told so much about the different levels of the various occult organizations of the time as well as the exotic names taken by the major figures involved. To a degree, but not as much as one might have wished, Owen describes what these figures were actually up to. More frustrating, it is not totally clear what these members of the British middle classes wished to achieve through their occult practices. As Jose Harris has pointed out in Private Live, Public Spirit: A Social History of Britain 1870-1914 (1993), contrary to the common assumption that the late nineteenth century was a growing age of secularism, it was, in fact, a period of intense religiosity, characterized by many seekers after faith who were frequently sympathetic to non-orthodox approaches. The beliefs of occultism are, after all, not that different from those held by many religions, but what Owen does not make sufficiently apparent is what all this occult activity (the rituals, examinations, gatherings, and so forth) actually aids--salvation, enlightenment, happiness, or a better understanding of this world or the next?
Present in this book are a wonderfully rich cast of characters. It is splendid to have them rescued from the past. But unfortunately, with the exception of the already well-known W. B. Yeats, they remain rather minor figures. It is not clear that their contributions to the course of modern thought have been illegitimately neglected. Owen does not provide a very good sense of how many were actually involved, or how large were the various groups, of which the most important is the Hermatic Order of the Golden Dawn. More familiar, and discussed with intelligence, is the Theosophical Society and Madame Blavatsky's and Annie Besant's involvement in it. Both men and women are important in the story, but more compelling are the roles played by women, most particularly, the actress Florence Farr, Anna Kingsford, Annie Horniman, and Henri Bergson's sister, Moina MacGregor Mathers, who with her husband took an almost dictatorial role in the British occult movement from their base in Paris. (One wishes Owen had provided more information about Horniman's father, the great collector and builder of the Horniman Museum, with wonderful collections and a magnificent building, which is, along with the Whitechapel gallery, the finest art nouveau structure in London. But he is not part of the occult story, beyond providing his daughter with funds.)
Owen could have discussed more thoroughly the "Britishness" of this movement, its perhaps improbable combination of the intense respectability of British middle-class life with the exoticism of the occult organization, its various levels, the fanciful names people took to represent their occult beings, and the rituals. Having branches of the Hermatic Order in such places as Bradford and Weston-super-Mare almost seems to be a contradiction in terms as does the fact that astral journeys took place at addresses so plebian as 36 Blythe Road in London. Respectability could happily coexist with profound eccentricity, in the British style. Owen brings the story beyond 1914 in her discussion of the "great beast 666," Aleister Crowley, raised in an extremely strict Protestant sect, rich because his father was a brewer, and then a devotee of black magic and sexual excess. Individuals, most notably Victor Neuburg, his "chela," (p. 186) the name for a novice initiate of the Magical Order of the Silver Star, would submit to his punishing rules and regulations. For the post-1914 period, there is some consideration of the activities of P. D. Ouspensky and G. I. Gurdjieff, also stern taskmasters, who had limited involvement with the British scene.
This is a fascinating study, although at times its prose, fully employing current fashionable terms of intellectual discourse, is somewhat hard going. On the whole, it succeeds in making its point that British occultism is a significant part of the intellectual history of modernity.
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Peter Stansky. Review of Alex Owen, The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern and
Owen, Alex, The Place of Enchantment.
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