The Occult Revival – Literature, Hermeticism, Magic and Philosophy


In the night, in solitude, tears,
On the white shore dripping, dripping, suck’d in by the sand,
Tears, not a star shining, all dark and desolate…
………. – Walt Whitman, Sea-Drift

ISIDORE DUCASSE, who wrote the Chants de Maldoror under the pseudonym ‘Comte de Lautréamont’, considered by many the progenitor of Surrealism – a connoisseur of evil and death, a decadent with a penchant for vitriol and numbers; a flamboyant self-indulgent and excessive delight in the necrophilic and erotic affiliation of late romantic death and decadence, the bizarre, and the black comedy of revolt and disgust. Writing under the guise of a “sublime literature that sings of despair” he strove only to awaken in the dead reader a remembrance of the Good is itself a part of the gallows humor he was prone too, a devilish mixture of rage and despair brought to a high pitch of fierce and virulent nihilism: one that brokered the complete annihilation of progressive enlightenment values and politics.

I hail you, old ocean!
……– Comte de Lautréamont, Maldoror

Lautréamont’s great Hymn to the Ocean is still a strange and disquieting paean to the power of Nature over man, to his subservience; a late romantic motif and parodic satire of Romantic Nature and the Sublime. He sought to convey a counter-sublime and a religious inversion of the Romantic poets into perverse decadence, whose dark measure of sex and violence would conclude in the pages of Maldoror. Against the implacable majesty of the Ocean as Romantic Nature he offered us a beautiful and deadly Vampire Queen, a cannibal mistress of deserts and the abyss, against the fetid progeny of a landlocked hollow ape whose demented civilizations were mediocre and deliquescent at best: “The great universal family of men is a utopia worthy of the most mediocre logic”.1

Like those decadent Satanists from Baudelaire to Huysmans (convert to Catholicism) Lautréamont’s dabbling in this downward mythos would be more titillation and symbolic than real. A master of the parodic sublime he would offer a perverse entry into an aesthetic appreciation of the gothic and its dark cousin, the macabre: “Tell me, then, if you are the abode of the Prince of Darkness. Tell me… tell me, ocean (only me, so as to cause no grief to those who till now have known only illusions), tell me if it is the breath of Satan that creates the tempests which whip your salt-water cloud-high. You must tell me, for I would rejoice to know that hell is so near to man.” (KL 629-631). He would like many follow the song of opiates: “The magic poppies of an ineffable drowsiness envelop, like a veil filtering the light of day, the active power of my senses and the tenacious strength of my imagination.” (KL 1124-1125). What Lautréamont’s work sought above all was a Lucretian cosmos, an atheistic return of the pregnant cosmos of vital matter where the natural in man would once again be attuned to the immanent powers of the universe in all its monstrous glory.

Lautréamont’s work would define surrealism, become its Bible, its secret code, its agent provocateur into the alliance between a future about to be and a present always in process. There is a secret history of the underbelly of politics and the Occult, Drugs, Decadence, Symbolists, Surrealist, Situationism, etc. still to align all the darker narratives in a rhizomatic or interzone that shadows the higher more visible history of German Idealism and the Romantic Movements. The Enlightenment spawned many children but none so full of mischief as the singular and quixotic children of the night who flow through the squandered histories of art and literature.

The academic world up until recently has always eschewed the dark arts and their influence on literature, philosophy, music, painting, and culture as if it were beneath recognition rather than the energetic upsurge of most of the brilliant flashes of light within that strange milieu of accident and time we term the Occult.  Most of this would lead us back into the lore of the Hermetic Revival begun by those like Marsilio Ficino who translated a collection of Hellenistic Greek documents found by Leonardo da Pistoia and called Hermetica, later called the Hermetic Corpus – particularly the “Corpus Hermeticum” of Hermes Trismegistos, and the writings of many of the Neoplatonists, for example Porphyry, Iamblichus, Plotinus, et al. Ficino would try to synthesize Christianity and Platonism in his own work, while others like Giordano Bruno following in his footsteps would revitalize Hermeticism and Magic in its own right. This was an age when many Renaissance and older thinkers and Christian writers, including Lactantius, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Giordano Bruno, Campanella, Sir Thomas Browne, and Emerson, considered Hermes Trismegistus to be a wise pagan prophet who foresaw the coming of Christianity.

I’ll not go into depth in this only to say that this tradition never truly went away and would remain a part of the underbelly of the Enlightenment project and even show its rhetorical power up to and including our own age. What’s always fascinated me is how much denial goes on in the academic world while individual thinkers, artists, and scientists still dabble in the hidden paths of knowledge and wisdom. Those who favor a pure Reason devoid of Imagination have always sought to discount this other tradition, to wipe the slate clean of this more inventive realm of speculation and thought, imagery and strangeness; yet, it seems to bubble up from time to time in almost the most banal philosophical treatise.

Why? Why the fascination with the hidden arts of the Occult? I don’t think I can answer that in this post. But it is fascinating that some of the great minds of the past have been lured, seduced, and fascinated by this dark energy of the hidden and invisible. And one should not see it as an investment in the supernatural, because if one carefully reads the literature one realizes that it is more concerned with the revealing of Real, of making visible that which is hidden in reality, of bypassing the limits and filters of our Mind and Brain, the limitations of our physical deformations and revealing the strangeness of reality behind the subterfuge of our own disable consciousness. I think this is the key, that it realized after Kant that our minds are trapped in deformations, trapped and blinded to the Real, bound by false systems of language and mental forms that have made us prisoners of finitude. These various forms of disassociation of the Mind (Rimbaud), drugs (Psychomareceuticals), magic, ritual, etc. were systems of neurosomatic escape and exit.

I don’t have time to give a full rendition of this heritage so will only touch on its beginnings in the early revival of Hermetic and Magical literature during the age of Marsilio Ficino and Giordano Bruno.

Marsilio ficino: Neoplatonist and translator

Ficino’s main original work was his treatise on the immortality of the soul (Theologia Platonica de immortalitate animae). In the rush of enthusiasm for every rediscovery from Antiquity, he exhibited a great interest in the arts of astrology, which landed him in trouble with the Roman Catholic Church. In 1489 he was accused of magic before Pope Innocent VIII and needed strong defense to preserve him from the condemnation of heresy.

Writing in 1492 Ficino proclaimed: “This century, like a golden age, has restored to light the liberal arts, which were almost extinct: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, painting, sculpture, architecture, music … this century appears to have perfected astrology.”

Ficino’s letters, extending over the years 1474–1494, survive and have been published. He also wrote De amore (1484) and the influential De vita libri tres (Three books on life.) De vita, published in 1489, provides a great deal of curious contemporary medical and astrological advice for maintaining health and vigor, as well as espousing the Neoplatonist view of the world’s ensoulment and its integration with the human soul:

There will be some men or other, superstitious and blind, who see life plain in even the lowest animals and the meanest plants, but do not see life in the heavens or the world … Now if those little men grant life to the smallest particles of the world, what folly! what envy! neither to know that the Whole, in which ‘we live and move and have our being,’ is itself alive, nor to wish this to be so.

One metaphor for this integrated “aliveness” is Ficino’s astrology. In the Book of Life, he details the interlinks between behavior and consequence. It talks about a list of things that hold sway over a man’s destiny.

In many ways the vitalist philosophies of Will can be brought back to these early writings in Ficino. As James G. Synder will argue Ficino was not a Scholastic hylomorphic formalist, but rather offered a notion that “matter is not an indifferent and passive substrate that is devoid of form; on the contrary, it is pregnant, fecund, and as such possesses within itself the rudimentary forms of all things”. Ficino explains that human art is “nature handling matter from the outside”, whereas nature “is art molding matter from within, as though the carpenter were in the wood.” (Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology, IV.I.5.) Synder will argue that Ficino was versant in the recently translated work of Lucretius and that though his philosophy differs slightly from the Epicurean that both held firmly to a notion of matter as vital and pregnant. This is the first sign of a philosophy of immanence and becoming that would impact future philosophical speculation and thought in the centuries to come.

This universal force of bonding, which cannot be designated by one name, does not bind because of the nature or the sensitivity of matter. A body does not have any feeling on its own, but only because of a certain force which resides in it and which emanates from it.
…….– On Magic, Giordano Bruno

Giordano Bruno – hermetic and magical philosophies

Giordano Bruno in his On Magic would develop a materialist philosophy digging into the arcane mysteries of Hermetic and Magical texts that were in his time being translated into the popular lingua franca of the day.

Bruno was an outspoken Dominican who never allowed his intellectual pursuits and beliefs to be bound by the moral qualms of the Catholic Church nor his benefactors. Bruno accepted an invitation from Giovanni Mocenigo, who wished to be instructed in the art of memory, and also heard of a vacant chair in mathematics at the University of Padua. At the time the Inquisition seemed to be losing some of its strictness, and because Venice was the most liberal state in Italy, Bruno was lulled into making the fatal mistake of returning to Italy.

Mocenigo’s invitation and moved to Venice in March 1592. For about two months he served as an in-house tutor to Mocenigo. When Bruno announced his plan to leave Venice to his host, the latter, who was unhappy with the teachings he had received and had apparently come to dislike Bruno, denounced him to the Venetian Inquisition, which had Bruno arrested on 22 May 1592. Among the numerous charges of blasphemy and heresy brought against him in Venice, based on Mocenigo’s denunciation, was his belief in the plurality of worlds, as well as accusations of personal misconduct. Bruno defended himself skillfully, stressing the philosophical character of some of his positions, denying others and admitting that he had had doubts on some matters of dogma. The Roman Inquisition, however, asked for his transfer to Rome. After several months of argument, the Venetian authorities reluctantly consented and Bruno was sent to Rome in February 1593.

Jealousy and fear brought about the death of this man who was fearless in the need to know and understand, as well as enacting the very core of intelligent action in his own life and death.

In his treatise On Magic he would begin an account of his materialist and vitalist conceptions of Will and Drives reviewing the knowledge of current literature in his day:

First, the term `magician’ means a wise man; for example, the trismegistes among the Egyptians, the druids among the Gauls, the gymnosophists among the Indians, the cabalists among the Hebrews, the magi among the Persians (who were followers of Zoroaster), the sophists among the Greeks and the wise men among the Latins.

Second, `magician’ refers to someone who does wondrous things merely by manipulating active and passive powers, as occurs in chemistry, medicine and such fields; this is commonly called `natural magic’.

Third, magic involves circumstances such that the actions of nature or of a higher intelligence occur in such a way as to excite wonderment by their appearances; this type of magic is called `prestidigitation’.

Fourth, magic refers to what happens as a result of the powers of attraction and repulsion between things, for example, the pushes, motions and attractions due to magnets and such things, when all these actions are due not to active and passive qualities but rather to the spirit or soul existing in things. This is called `natural magic’ in the proper sense.

The fifth meaning includes, in addition to these powers, the use of words, chants, calculations of numbers and times, images, figures, symbols, characters, or letters. This is a form of magic which is intermediate between the natural and the preternatural or the supernatural, and is properly called `mathematical magic’, or even more accurately `occult philosophy’.

The sixth sense adds to this the exhortation or invocation of the intelligences  and external or higher forces by means of prayers, dedications, incensings, sacrifices, resolutions and ceremonies directed to the gods, demons and heroes. Sometimes, this is done for the purpose of contacting a spirit itself to become its vessel and instrument in order to appear wise, although this wisdom can be easily removed, together with the spirit, by means of a drug. This is the magic of the hopeless, who become the vessels of evil demons, which they seek through their notorious art. On the other hand, this is sometimes done to command and control lower demons with the authority of higher demonic spirits, by honouring and entreating the latter while restricting the former with oaths and petitions. This is transnatural or metaphysical magic and is properly called `theurgy’.

Seventh, magic is the petition or invocation, not of the demons and heroes themselves, but through them, to call upon the souls of dead humans, in order to predict and know absent and future events, by taking their cadavers or parts thereof to some oracle. This type of magic, both in its subject matter and in its purpose, is called `necromancy’. If the body is not present, but the oracle is beseeched by invoking the spirit residing in its viscera with very active incantations, then this type of magic is properly called `Pythian’, for, if I may say so, this was the usual meaning of `inspired’ at the temple of the Pythian Apollo.

Eighth, sometimes incantations are associated with a person’s physical parts in any sense; garments, excrement, remnants, footprints and anything which is believed to have made some contact with the person. In that case, and if they are used to untie, fasten, or weaken, then this constitutes the type of magic called `wicked’, if it leads to evil. If it leads to good, it is to be counted among the medicines belonging to a certain method and type of medical practice. If it leads to final destruction and death, then it is called `poisonous magic’.

Ninth, all those who are able, for any reason, to predict distant and future events are said to be magicians. These are generally called `diviners’ because of their purpose. The primary groups of such magicians use either the four material principles, fire, air, water and earth, and they are thus called `pyromancers’, `hydromancers’, and `geomancers’,I or they use the three objects of knowledge, the natural, mathematical and divine. There are also various other types of prophecy For augerers, soothsayers and other such people make predictions from an inspection of natural or physical  things. Geomancers make predictions in their own way by inspecting mathematical objects like numbers, letters and certain lines and figures, and also from the appearance, light and location of the planets and similar objects. Still others make predictions by using divine things, like sacred names, coincidental locations, brief calculations and persevering circumstances. stances. In our day, these latter people are not called magicians, since, for us, the word `magic’ sounds bad and has an unworthy connotation. So this is not called magic but `prophecy’.

Finally, `magic’ and `magician’ have a pejorative connotation which has not been included or examined in the above meanings. In this sense, a magician is any foolish evil-doer who is endowed with the power of helping  or harming someone by means of a communication with, or even a pact with, a foul devil. This meaning does not apply to wise men, or indeed to authors, although some of them have adopted the name `hooded magicians’, for example, the authors of the book De malleo maleficarum (The Witches’ Hammer). As a result, the name is used today by all writers of this type, as can be seen in the comments and beliefs of ignorant and foolish priests.2

What do we extract from this? Bruno affirms a tradition of wisdom aligned with the rhetoricians of sophistic knowledge; that magic is bound to material or ‘natural sciences’; that magicians play upon the affective and imaginal to produce effects in participants (theatricality); magic works according to physical laws of cause and effect; magic works with mathematical or higher symbolic logic; magic becomes a way to bind the physical powers in nature; magic is a form of time-travel, invoking knowledge of the future; magic as harm and poison; magic as a form of prophecy; magic as a form of fakery and foolishness. What one gathers in Bruno is this keen differentiation of magic that is viable, or scientific magic connected to the natural universe and its powers, as well as magic as communication that can bind humans by political persuasion or propaganda.

Bruno would develop an strange materialist philosophy of bonding. If one reads the treatise correctly one discovers that it is actually a treatise on political propaganda and control, of how humans can be brought under influence through binding agents:

Taken universally, bonding agents are God, demons, souls, animals, nature, chance, luck and, finally, fate. This universal force of bonding, which cannot be designated by one name, does not bind because of the nature or the sensitivity of matter. A body does not have any feeling on its own, but only because of a certain force which resides in it and which emanates from it. This force is called, metaphorically, the `hand which binds’, and it is oriented and adapted to bonding in multiple ways.3

As he would elaborate “anyone who has the power to bind must to some degree have a universal theory of things in order to be able to bind humans (who are, indeed, the culmination of all things). As we have said elsewhere, in this highest species, it is possible to see, and especially to rank, the species of all things. For example, some humans are like fish, others like birds, others like snakes, and still others like reptiles, whether it be in the latters’ species or in their genera. Also, different people have different functions, habits, purposes, poses, inclinations, understandings and eras. And so, as was imagined by Proteus and Achelous, the same material object can be changed into different forms and figures, such that to bind them continuously one should always use differing kinds of knots. In addition to this, let us notice the conditions of human life: being young and then old; being of a moderate ate station, or noble, or rich, or powerful, or happy, or, indeed, even envious and ambitious; or being a soldier or a merchant, or one of the many other officials who play a role in different ways in the administration of a state, and thus who must be bonded to each other because they function as agents and instruments of the state.” (KL 2378-2385).

This notion of how things our connected through various bonding agents is intriguing as an inventive extraction out of his reflections on hermetic and magical thought for both political and social bonding, manipulation, and control. All this before modern political statecraft was even a blip on the religious radar. One always reads these thinkers askew, misreading or misprisioning them into thought on a parallel scale.

I’ll need to return to this history in my next post….

  1. Lautreamont, Comte (2006-01-26). Maldoror and Poems (Classics) (Kindle Locations 572-573). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.
  2. Giordano Bruno. Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: And Essays on Magic (Kindle Locations 1837-1866). Kindle Edition.
  3. Giordano Bruno. Giordano Bruno: Cause, Principle and Unity: And Essays on Magic (Kindle Locations 2387-2390). Kindle Edition.

5 thoughts on “The Occult Revival – Literature, Hermeticism, Magic and Philosophy

    • Well I think these guys were seeking a way out of Scholastic philosophy, so the influx of Lucretius, Hermetic, and other magical philosophies presented the first inklings of a process oriented philosophy against the strict substantive formalism of hylomorphic philosophy… one has to read between the lines, realize that it was out of this amalgam that our age of process and becoming became central. Without these early heretics much of our thinking would still be bound to the older realisms of Aristotle and a static notion of matter that was based on dualistic trends of body/mind… etc. In some ways this underlying materialist discourse of immanence begins here but does not end…

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  1. Great post, Steve! I think you hit the nail on the head – ” I think these guys were seeking a way out of Scholastic philosophy…” When it comes to the Symbolists, the Decadents and the post-Romantics, we can find that their writings were a curious probing of the industrial processes of modernity, and the ways that these forces (under the rubric of the Enlightenment) were remaking the world around. This can be felt most sharply, as Walter Benjamin points out, in the poetry of Baudelaire, but is by no means isolated to him… I’m reminded of the explication of Faustus in the opening pages of Berman’s book on modernism, which illustrates the way that occult powers are invoked in order to establish a great machine of development. The great powers of the heaven, once the domain of the mystic, come crashing down to earth in the form of electricity, noisy machines, remaking the earth in its own image.

    This isn’t to say that their writings are uncritical! The subaltern embrace of the hermetic and the esoteric is less an exploration of the Enlightenment’s values of reason and rationality as it is repudiation of them – a rejection carried out that does not seek to move backwards to the theological dogmatism of the pre-Enlightenment world. Their invocations are heresies against both rationality and religion (and perhaps a recognition of the fact emphasized by Vaniegem, that religion and Enlightenment rationality served only to adjust the domain of power from a theological scale to a secular scale without breaking with its internal logic).

    A good example would be Charles Fourier, whose influence runs through the Vaneigem, Marcuse, and numerous other leftist thinkers. There’s a citation in Benjamin’s Arcades Project that reads “In Fourier, occult science acquires a new force – that of industry.” Fourier appropriates the rationalist sciences of his time (namely, Newtonian physics) and builds an alternative and alchemically-tinged cosmology ruled by “passions”. It’s a willful subversion of Enlightenment techniques, used to build a civilization that would appear as irrational and utopian from the perspective of power. By the time these influences trickle down the 1960s, they’re redressed as a critique of the new rounds of technology and organizations of power:

    Vaneigem: “for if cybernetics was taken from its masters, it might be able to free human groups from labour and from social alienation. This was precisely the project of Charles Fourier in an age when utopia was still possible.” (Revolution of Everyday Life, pg. 84)

    Marcuse: “: “The transformation of labor into pleasure is the central idea in Fourier’s giant socialist utopia… Fourier insists that this transformation requires a complete change in the social institutions…” (Eros and Civilization, pg. 217)

    Swinging middway between Fourier and the Situationists on one hand and the Frankfurt School on the other is Surrealism – which offered other occult tools for the dawn of postmodernism. Take, for example, automatic writing, with its foundation in the activities of the Spiritualists – when Surrealism landed in America in the late 40s and 50s, the technique was appropriated by the abstract expressionists and Fluxus as a means to illustrate the possibilities present in automation (there’s a good essay by Fred Turner on this). Marcuse again: “The technological transformation is at the same time political transformation, but the political change would turn into qualitative social change only to the degrees to which it would alter the direction of technical progress – that is, develop a new technology.” (One Dimensional Man, 227)

    One could go on forever, of course, but what interests me is the way that all these occult impulses arise again in the late 1970s and early 80s, around the time Toffler and the other neoliberal futurists were proclaiming that technology was about to liberate us from all forms of oppression – the critical perspectives of Vaneigem and Marcuse transformed into justification of the system (or, in other words, Enlightenment was right all along!). Genesis p.Orridge, a post-Situationist if there ever was one (especially around the time of COUM and Throbbing Gristle), established a techno-occult order, Leary swapped the mysticism of LSD for the mysticism of the computer, Gibson populated cyberspace with ghosts and voodoo spirits.There seems to me a strong congruence between the Decadents, Symbolists and Surrelists and the wild-and-wooly parts of cyberculture, with certain currents in the 1960s and post-structuralism hanging somewhere in the middle. But beyond several notable instance, cyberculture lacked that critical punch that its predecessors had. I’m curious to your thoughts on that, or am I seeing connections that simply aren’t there?


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