Although coined back in the 1980s, in the last decade ‘occulture’ has emerged as something of a buzzword in the art world and among cultural commentators in academia. As Carl Abrahamsson – a self-proclaimed ‘cultural entrepreneur’ and founder and editor of the ‘annual occultural journal’ The Fenris Wolf - notes, it has almost entered the mainstream. (There’s even an annual international Ocultura festival held in Leon in Spain, at which Lynn Picknett and I were invited to speak in 2017, together with Gary Lachman, who has written the foreword to this book.)
‘Occulture’ means more than simply art, music and literature inspired by the occult or popular movies based on occult themes. In Lachman’s words, it describes ‘the strange interzone between creativity and ritual, the liminal space blending magic and art.’ It encompasses creative endeavours that spring from the same impulses as magic, whether or not the artist has an interest in, or even awareness of, esoterica; Abrahamsson includes in this work figures, such as the American expat novelist and composer Paul Bowles (1910-99), who weren’t part of any occult scene.
Abrahamsson doesn’t confine the influence of those impulses – the hidden forces of the subtitle - to the arts. As he writes, the occult ‘has also been the breeding ground for ideas and concepts that have later on been integrated in the natural sciences, religion, and psychology.’
It’s difficult to do justice in a review to this anthology of articles and lectures, 21 in all, that Abrahamsson has written or delivered over the last decade, as they cover such a wide range of subjects, themes and ideas: the Lebensreform movement in interwar Germany; the moon in magic, folklore and the space race; a comparison of the systems of Crowley and Steiner (both of whom attempted to combine esoteric disciplines with the scientific method); the magical innovations of Anton LaVey; the place of myth in the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung; the similarities between ritual magic and psychotherapy; Crowley’s views on gender; the importance of dreaming – and much more.
For Abrahamsson, the crucible of contemporary occultism (and his own entry into the subculture) was Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth – ‘a mix between a magical order, a think tank, an archive, an experiment in intentional art, and many other things’ – established in early 1980s Britain by Genesis P-Orridge (coiner of the term ‘occulture’), which had an instant appeal to ‘a DIY generation frustrated with lies, blunt propaganda, and mass-market ersatz commodities.’ From the 1990s that impulse was carried on via the Internet, cyberpunk and movie series such as The Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies and even, in Abrahamsson’s view, Harry Potter: ‘Bland mass-market expressions, yes, but still probably very indicative of a world in need of some serious re-enchantment.’
That need for re-enchantment is a major theme of the collection, as is the de-enchantment that has given rise to it.
Several pieces, naturally, present Abrahamsson’s views on the theory and practice of magic, which for him is a creative, personal endeavour, not the robotic performance of time-hallowed rituals using traditional symbols and formulae. It should, he maintains, spring from a desire for self-transformation and not be, as it is for many self-professed occultists, just a form of escapism. There is, consequently, a focus on the magical systems of Aleister Crowley and Anton LaVey (who was himself heavily inspired by Crowley), both of which emphasise individualism and creativity.
Individualism - an ‘enlightened egoism’ based on self-knowledge and will in which one takes responsibility for one’s choices and actions - is at the heart of Abrahamsson’s thinking, not just about magic and art but living in general.
Abrahamsson sees art as an essentially magical act, springing from the same place as magic. Both are ‘protohuman endeavors’ – all ancient art was magical in nature – and he decries the devaluation of contemporary art into the superficial and mass-market, ‘an aestheticized, commodified world of forms filtered through desperate and petty egos and their external commanders,’ a world run by ‘self-serving academics.’ He reserves particular loathing for ‘the art-world subspecies phenomenon’ that is the curator.
There’s a similar trenchant deconstruction of other aspects of our times, which ‘denigrate individuals to utilitarian units inside a soulless collective’, all sharply observed and succinctly expressed, as in ‘Social order is maintained by ever-stricter control, either blatantly dictatorial or via diametrical manipulations (freedom of expression more monitored than ever, freedom of movement scrutinized by surveillance, freedom of thought made ill at ease by the doublespeak of political correctness).’ It’s hard to disagree.
Abrahamsson isn’t a great fan of technology either, considering that it’s led to an ‘intellectual depletion’. Not only is our thinking done for us, but so is our fantasising. Children – and for that matter adults – no longer create their own inner lives through play and fantasy; the fantasy is now provided via their iPhones and tablets. He aims particular ire at Pokémon Go: ‘The invasion of the private sphere has now apparently gone public. It’s a dissolution of human dignity and a fictional entrapment that I fear will not be temporary.’
Abrahamsson draws attention to the paradox that our culture decries magic, myth and intuition as irrational but ‘still happily provides them via demagogic proxies like fiction and entertainment.’ This has, he argues, led to a devaluation of myth: ‘The result is a kind of anti-Jungian abyss. Stress and existential anxiety increase and are not treated therapeutically, but pharmaceutically.’
It’s not all negative, though. There are some more upbeat contributions, seeing positive developments in spontaneous outpourings of the imagination: ‘I would say that the reemergence of transcendental mind frames, sympathetic magical thinking, and ritualistic behavior fully constitutes a re-enchantment of the human psyche and of culture.’ He sees particular hope in the upsurge of interest in occult themes by artists and in academic interest in the relationship between art and the occult – which has led to the popularisation of the term ‘occulture’.
Although dealing with some deep matters – occultism, art, philosophy – that are often the object of pretentious or bombastic writing, Occulture is pleasingly free of either. Despite the breadth of his knowledge and experience, Abrahamsson never talks high-handedly to his readers, delivering his thoughts and arguments clearly. There’s much in the book for readers with every level of knowledge of the subjects discussed – although it does assume a familiarity with, for example, the ideas of Crowley, LaVey and Jung - and much to reflect upon. – Clive Prince.