4 November 2017


Nadia Choucha, Surrealism and the Occult: Shamanism, Magic, Alchemy and the Birth of an Artistic Movement. Mandrake of Oxford. 2nd rev. edition, 2016.

John Bramble, Modernism and the Occult. Palgrave MacMillan. 2015

Although similarly titled and published near-simultaneously, these books aren’t two of a series (although Bramble’s is part of one on modernism). While there’s some common ground – Choucha’s study being of a subset of the wider subject covered by Bramble – they are very different in style and approach (and approachability).
Surrealism and the Occult is a re-issue from 1991. In it, art historian Nadia Choucha sets out, in her words, to ‘demonstrate that surrealism was the twentieth-century development of a nineteenth-century tradition in art and poetry that was heavily indebted to the occult revival of the period.’ She succeeds admirably.

Choucha opens with outlines of the origins and development of surrealism and its forerunner symbolism, and of the basic principles of occult thought, that are models of clear exposition of such arcane (in both senses) subjects.

She then relates the story of their intertwined relationship, beginning with the Parisian occult revival of the late nineteenth century and its influence on symbolist art, literature and poetry, examining such fascinating figures as J.K. Huysmans, Gustav Moreau, the illustrator Félicien Rops, and groups and movements such as Peladan’s Salon de la Rose+Croix, the peculiarly French tradition of Catholic occultism, and the late-nineteenth century upsurge in Satanism as ‘a means of protest of society, especially the taboos of sex, death, and religion’.

The development of symbolism into surrealism, and the influence of occult theories on surrealists, is then traced. Choucha explains how the desire to resolve dreams and reality into an ‘absolute reality’, begun by the Dadaists just before the First World War, was the result of an ‘impulse towards the inner subjective experience, combined with the search for the “marvelous” in the external world and a disregard for conventional thought, behavior, and appearances [that] led the surrealists, inevitably, to the occult tradition.’ Beginning with experimentation with automatism in the early 1920s, by the ’40s it was using overt imagery from the Tarot, Tantra, shamanism, and so on.

Among her examples of the direct inspiration of occult ideas on artists are Mondrian and Kandinsky - followers of Blavatsky who attempted to express Theosophical spirituality in their abstract paintings – the poet Apollinaire, coiner of the word ‘surrealism’, who ‘believed magic was still a relevant proposition in the twentieth century despite intellectual sophistication and technological progress’, and Picasso, who in the words of critic Jacques Rivière ‘strayed into occult researches where it is impossible to follow him’.

André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifestos of the 1920s that defined the movement, was another key figure with a deep interest in the occult, as was Marcel Duchamp who, although remaining ‘slightly aloof’ from Dada and surrealism, drew heavily on occult concepts, particularly from alchemy. Choucha describes Duchamp as a ‘modern alchemist’ and his The Bride Stripped Bare (derived from an alchemical term) as his Great Work.

Another artist she examines is Austin Osman Spare who, unlike the others discussed, who were artists who drew on occult ideas for inspiration, was an occultist who used art as part of his magical practices.

There’s a two-chapter break in the chronological narrative to examine the parallels, in concepts and objectives, between surrealism and occult systems. There is, for example, the similarity of Breton’s ‘point of the mind’ at which apparent opposites are ‘not perceived as contradictions’ to the Cabala’s Kether, as well as alchemical concepts.

An important part of this interlude is a discussion of the female principle in surrealism. Choucha makes the intriguing argument that it was the place of the feminine in esoteric systems, primarily Tantra and alchemy, that was behind the surrealists’ characteristic veneration of women revolutionaries, rather than, as usually thought, political arguments about female subjugation advanced by the likes of Engels.

This leads on to the chapter ‘The Androgyne, the Surrealist Woman, and the Magical Tradition’, which explores the importance of androgyny in surrealism, again as in Tantra and alchemy, in all three representing the union of opposites. However, Choucha observes that ‘There is plenty of evidence to suggest what may have been a “perfect union” for the male surrealist was not necessarily as perfect for women.’

Female surrealists, such as Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington, ‘tended to be on the periphery of the group and disinterested in theory’: ‘Faced with no strong female roles to emulate, many of the women turned to occultism, which held an attraction because of the powerful female archetypes and mythological goddesses in these systems.’

Another of Choucha’s themes is the surrealists’ view of eroticism as a ‘subversive force’, which led to an interest in Tantra and Western systems derived from it, such as that of the OTO.

The historical narrative is resumed with the dispersal of the surrealists by the Second World War, which led to ‘a maturing of surrealism, with stronger and more obvious occult leanings.’ A chapter is devoted to a detailed analysis of the paintings of Max Ernst and his lover Leonora Carrington, to demonstrate not only how they applied occult concepts in their work but also in their personal lives.

Choucha ends with an analysis of why the occult attracts artists and poets, concluding that it is because of occultism’s ‘opposition and challenge to the establishment, academism, and accepted values, conditions, and standards.’ A particularly incisive point is that ‘The surrealists adopted occult theories, not so much as a challenge to the facts of science and logic, but as a challenge to the values attached to those facts.’

All in all, Surrealism and the Occult is a superb, fascinating and illuminating study by a scholar with a thorough knowledge of both fields and who has a gift for explaining complex ideas, making the book accessible to readers with every degree of familiarity with the artistic and occult worlds.

John Bramble’s Modernism and the Occult isn’t. In fact, it’s about as far from Choucha as it’s possible to get: abstruse, opaque, self-consciously academic – Bramble is a classicist at Corpus Christi College, Oxford - and written for a specialist audience.

Admittedly I was prejudiced from the start, as I have a problem with the term ‘modernism’. It’s so broad and all-embracing as to be virtually meaningless: after all, a ‘movement’ that manages to accommodate Nietzsche and the Beatles is hardly narrowly defined. Sweeping up all manner of schools and movements – artistic, literary, musical, architectural, philosophical, even religious – and declaring them all products of the same cultural and historical impulses seems to me to be imposing a pattern that exists more in the eye of the beholder. As Bramble himself puts it, ‘Where does modernism and the early twentieth-century vernacular begin? Given their shared exotico-occult, high-imperial background and histrionic flare, that question is not easily answered.’ Indeed.

The concept of modernism seems primarily designed to create work for those who study it, as they debate what should and shouldn’t be included. I was alarmed to read in the preface by the series editor, fellow Oxfordian Roger Griffin, that this book is part of a ‘radical extension of the term modernism to embrace cultural phenomena that lie beyond the aesthetic in the narrow sense of the term.’ Please, enough already!

My other beef with modernism, or rather modernist scholarship, is it’s use of overblown, self-important and downright posey language – inventing unwieldy portmanteau terms on a whim – that obscures rather than illuminates, an academic-speak designed to keep discussion to a select inner circle, and make it all sound much more definite and impressive than it really. That’s very much the case here, making Modernism and the Occult, in the widest sense, an esoteric work in its own right.

In all-too-typical phrases, Bramble writes of ‘the anomistic deliquescence which… new nomo-seeking modernists tried to overcome’, ‘gesturalist encodings of the rhetoric of unmediated perception’, ‘anti-heroic, anegoic or objectivist alternatives to the “unshaven” vitalist/gesturalist ethos’ and the ‘transition towards a new, energetic-cosmogenetic, post-onieric-visionary zone’. Prétentieux, lui?

Another obstacle to comprehension is the level of background knowledge that Bramble assumes. Names of individuals, schools and movements in both the arts and occult – the Swedenborgian doctrine of correspondences, Eranos, the Golden Dawn, Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the Oriental monochromaticists - are dropped in without any introduction or definition, the reader clearly expected to know all about them already. All this is in great contrast to Choucha’s clarity and accessibility.

So, having got that off my chest (and don’t even get me started on postmodernism), what’s the book about? The back cover explains (or rather ‘explains’) that it ‘tracks the specifically modernist, not the occult revivalist or proto-New Age, manifestations of the occult-syncretic-exotic conglomerate.’ So that’s clear then.

Bramble gives his aim as being to demonstrate ‘the range and magnitude of modernism’s complicity with the occult’, while admitting that ‘the exact extent and nature of modernism’s indebtedness to practising occultists and non-art-world Theosophists remains unclear.’

My main difficulty with the book (well, apart from understanding what it’s talking about half the time) is that Bramble has adopted a definition of ‘occult’ that, in typical modernist-studies fashion, is too broad. He identifies three ‘initiatives’ of the nineteenth century that helped shape modernism, or rather movements that are considered part of modernism: the occultist, from Western traditions such as Hermeticism, alchemy and the Cabala; the vitalist, from Mesmerism and the like; and the Orientalist, from Eastern spiritual philosophies and disciplines such as yoga, Hinduism and Buddhism. Of these, Bramble gives priority to the last, assigning it a more important role than the others. Moreover, although aspects of Eastern spirituality clearly did influence esoteric schools and groups such as Theosophy and the OTO, Bramble brings it in its entirety into his definition of ‘the occult’, which is questionable to say the least.

Consequently, much of the book is given over to tracing the inspiration of the East throughout the history of modernism, from the ‘quasi-Buddhist grand démolisseur’ Schopenhauer to the American abstract artists, much of which isn’t occult in the strictest – or for that matter loosest – sense. For example, there’s a section on the modern dance pioneer Ruth St Denis [left], on the grounds that she was influenced by Eastern dance (and was, apparently, interested in Theosophy); hardly an example of ‘the occult’s’ influence on modernism.

The same goes for the chapter on Zen, included because ‘Zen stands in a similar relationship to late modernism as Theosophy to early modernism.’ In it, Bramble makes much of visits to the Orient by post-war Americans such as Jackson Pollock, Morris Graves and John Cage, and Graves’ frequenting of a Buddhist temple in Seattle. Fine, but what’s all this got to do with the occult?

This redefinition of ‘occult’ to make it mean what Bramble wants it to mean made much of the book redundant for me.

Where it comes to occultism proper, Bramble drops tantalising asides before ploughing on along his Orientalist trail. For example, in a discussion of post-war Californian surrealism, he mentions that the poet Robert Duncan was ‘acquainted with Golden Dawn magic since childhood’, and writes in respect of novelist Malcolm Lowry, ‘Present by virtue of an encounter with the Crowleyite “Frater Achad” (Charles Stansfeld Jones), Lowry’s interests in Golden Dawn Cabala, later shared with Kenneth Anger, show how Symbolism-era occultism, if not its “orders”, continued to flourish’ – before going off on the ‘Hindu occupations’ of John Cage. As with a casual aside about French artists Yves Klein’s and Arman’s 1948 initiation into the Rose+Croix, I wanted to know more, as it seemed more relevant than Buddhism or Hinduism.

Part of the reason for this emphasis on the East is that Bramble considers that groups and schools which more obviously merit the label ‘occult’, such as the Golden Dawn and the Parisian occult revivalist societies, had ‘little impact on modernism’. This conflicts directly with Choucha, who demonstrates that, when it comes to surrealism – a central part of modernism – traditional occultism and occultists had a very direct and significant impact. (Given the relevance of Choucha’s book to Bramble’s theme, I was surprised not to find it in his bibliography.)

Despite the authority with which Bramble writes, he makes some distinctly dubious statements. Discussing Nazism’s alleged occult roots, he states that the term ‘Third Reich’ was derived from the mystic Joachim of Fiore’s Third Kingdom of the Holy Spirit, whereas the conventional explanation, that it signified the third in succession to the Holy Roman Empire and the German Empire of 1871-1918, is certainly correct – after all, it’s what the person who coined it, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, said.

Discussing the surrealist poet Louis Aragon’s 1925 call for an uprising in the East, Bramble notes it includes the words ‘Let distant America’s white buildings crumble’, which he calls an ‘uncanny premonition’ of 9/11 – which is pushing it bit.

I wasn’t convinced that Bramble knows as much about Western occultism as he makes out. Oddly, he consistently lumps the Golden Dawn in with the Parisian occult groups, even including them in a contrast with their ‘Anglophile, Germanic and Russian coevals’.

More significantly, at one point he argues (or rather, in typical fashion, airily states) that the objective of magic is the liberation of the individual, and that its modern proponents, such as the Theosophists and Aldous Huxley (in his Perennial Philosophy), ‘strayed’ by assuming it was rather about ‘cosmological know-how’. I’d argue that, where the Western occult philosophy is concerned, they were correct, and that it’s Bramble’s interpretation that’s the modern one (perhaps because of his extended definition of the occult to include Eastern philosophies, which are more about personal liberation).

I kept getting the sneaking suspicion that Bramble’s redefinition of the occult is to make it include the things he knows most about, adjusting the subject to fit his knowledge rather than the other way round.

Bramble ends by arguing that ‘modernist occultism’ has been overlooked in modernist studies, likening it to the neglect of the influence of occultism on the Renaissance before Frances Yates’ works. That’s if there is such a thing as ‘modernist occultism’, according to Bramble’s expanded definition. But that’s modernism for you. At least it gives them something else to debate.

It’s rather Nadia Choucha who, without the high-flown language and playing fast and loose with terminology, demonstrates the very real, but neglected, contribution of occultism to nineteenth- and twentieth-century art and culture. -- Clive Prince

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