18 May 2017


Tobias Churton. Occult Paris, The Lost Magic of the Belle Epoch. Inner Traditions, 2016.

I came to this book as someone unfamiliar with the subject matter, and I was therefore encouraged by the rave reviews on the flyleaf, one of which described the book as “the best introduction to the French occult revival ever written”. However, speaking entirely for myself, I found it packed full of too much detail, much of which which can have no interest to the uninitiated reader, and in consequence I found the book a hard read.
This experience, of course, may be different for the cognoscenti, who may find pleasure in learning about the day-to-day minutiae of the leaders of this no doubt important occult movement. I did not. Having said that, there are a large number of interesting pieces of information mixed in with all the minutiae, and the effort of reading it is not without its rewards.

The book narrates the history of the occult movement in Paris during the Belle Epoque, focusing on a number of its leaders. The principal ones among them were Victor–Emile Michelet, whose recollections the author draws heavily on, Edmond Bailly whose bookshop acted as a creative centre for the movement, Stanisas de Guaita , who became Grand Master of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Cross, JosĂ©phin PĂ©ladan, a writer who founded a rival order of the Rose+Cross+Catholic and who organised a series of important Salons in the 1890’s, and GĂ©rard Encausse (Papus) who founded a Martinist Order. Much of their inspiration appears to have come from Hermeticism and Gnosticism. It may be recalled that the Early Church had tried and more or less succeeded in stamping out Gnosticism, with any adherents being declared heretics, and so it comes as no surprise to read that the R+C+K was placed on the Index of the Catholic Church. This was one reason behind PĂ©ladan’s decision to found the R+C+C but of course this led to a falling out with his erstwhile friend De Guaita.

Were the Catholic Church’s misgivings well founded? It is no doubt the case that the R+C+K prescribed alternative paths to salvation, but in terms of its tenets and its membership, it was nothing if not respectable and this can be seen in the way that the alleged satanic practices of the AbbĂ© Boullan were denounced by de Guaita. The former was a de-frocked Catholic priest who had become involved with the “somewhat sickly cult of Eugene Vintras” which claimed “miracles of bleeding hosts and the spiritual benefits of sexual rites combined with prayers”. De Guaita apparently believed that ex-AbbĂ© Boullan was able to project 'fluid' forces to imprint his evil on female dupes. In return, when Boullan became ill and was close to death, he told his disciple Huysmans that De Guaita was responsible, and the allegation was repeated by Jules Blois, another acolyte of Boullan; Blois stated that De Guaita had “manufactured…poisons with a great science and most marvellous skill, that he volatizes them and directs them into space, that he has even… a familiar spirit at his home locked in a cupboard and which becomes familiar at his command”. The upshot of these allegations was not a libel suite, as one might have expected, but instead two duels from which, fortunately, the protagonists emerged almost unscathed.

If the modern reader wonders whether the occult movement had strayed into fantasy with these reports, which entertained the whole of Paris, the book nevertheless underlines the importance of occultism to the artistic revival at this time through the influence of JosĂ©phin PĂ©ladan. He, most of all inspired the artists around him by arranging a series of artistic Salons in Paris; the last took place in 1895 and drew a crowd of 15,000 on the first day. The book discusses at various points the influence of the occult, and particularly the revival of the occult on various Symbolist artists, but especially upon the musicians Satie and Debussy. The author discusses in some detail Debussy’s understanding and employment of the Golden Section in his music. For Peladan, the revival of La Gnose, would lead to a rejection of materialism and the recovery of spirituality, and it would seem that there is a real link between the occult movement in Paris at this time and the revival of the arts, not least through the endeavours of men like him.

The author also provides a sympathetic portrait of Papus who founded the Martinist Order. This was an attempt to integrate the various strands of the occult such as Martinism, Masonic Templarism and Christian Theosophy within a single initiatic order, and at various times PĂ©ladan, De Guaita and Michelet inter alia were members. Papus himself however eventually fell under the benign and saintly influence of Monsieur Phillippe, who practised brotherly love and healing through selfless prayer (and who at one time was close to the Romanov royal family before the advent of Rasputin). Papus really seems to have drifted away from the occult towards a form of Christian piety in action, by attending as a medic to the needs of the Parisian poor, and then by working with the wounded in the Great War, until his death in 1916 aged 51.

To conclude one can see that there is much to admire in the book; the author provides evidence of the link between a number of artists and the movement, and one can surmise that there was some form of spiritual revival that impacted on artists such as Debussy; there is an excellent index (no doubt of use to the academic); there is a wealth of fascinating detail. But for me there is also a welter of not so fascinating detail, which made the read more laborious than it ought to have been. -- Robin Carlile.

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