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Review Article: Hermetic History — Erase It or Face It

LeGrand Cinq-Mars

Ecstatic transformation : transpersonal psychology in the work of Mechthild of Magdeburg. Ulrike Wiethaus. Syracuse University Press (Syracuse, NY, 1996). 0-8156-2680-0 ($36.50) 0-8156-0369-X Trade Paper ($16.95)

The Kabbalistic thought of Eliphas Levi and its influence on modern occultism in America. Robert L. Uzzel. Baylor University doctoral dissertation (Waco, Texas: 1995; UMI Dissertation Services Number 9528010).

Esotericism, “hermetism,” hermeticism, even magic — there is something of a vogue for these now, it seems, in the world of the official academies. Anthropologists do their field work among urban ceremonial magicians, and textual scholars assess the transmission of grimoires and books of shadows. Their publications are not sold only to large research libraries: the editions of the Nag Hammadi texts, or even the edition and translation of the Greek magical papyri, are not read only, or even largely, by academic specialists. Magicians add the special mojo of philology to their bags of tricks, and magical orders produce critical editions of the works of their founders.

Yet this interpenetration is somewhat less than mutual. These subjects are often approached, from the academic side, with the handy medusa’s head of theory to protect against the possibility of “going native,” or the bland assurance that such things have long since passed from the world to protect against the possibility that any large lecture class may contain devotees of rehabilitated deities for whom monotheism and atheism are equally implausible.

But there is no guarantee of distance, nowadays. A class on Druse or Tibetan religion may well contain Druse or Tibetan students. Nor is there any guarantee that theoretical constructs of the social sciences have been developed only in the hydroponic purity of the academy.

The two works reviewed here both ride this wave of renewed academic interest. Yet they do so on very different trajectories. One is published by a university press, the other extracted from the hoard of University Microfilms; one is a study of a respected mystic, the other a study of someone whose work was described (by no less an authority than Gershom Scholem) as “supreme charlatanism”; one assumes various postures in the heady, non-ordinary world of modern cultural and literary theory, while the other does not give any indication that the author knows such a world exists. The first may not seem to have much connection with the interests of this journal; the other is firmly connected with them. But they both deal with these interests, and the way in which they do so casts light on each other, and on different approaches to studying the history of esoteric traditions.

Wiethaus, for her part, sets out to study the work of Mechtild of Magdeburg in the light of the transpersonal psychology, with extra references to the realm of cultural theory, especially feminist theory and a certain related idea of spirituality. This psychological approach has roots in the work of Abraham Maslow, who, in the early 1950s, in opposition to the largely behaviorist trend in academic psychology, became interested in the study of experience, especially what he came to call “peak experience.” He came to regard peak experiences as characteristic of a stage of development that followed the successful accomplishment of a hierarchy of developmental tasks aimed at satisfying biological and interpersonal needs. Other important, though later, figures in the movement are Stanislav Grof, a psychoanalytically-oriented psychiatrist whose early work developed from his experience in Czechoslovakia with the clinical use of LSD, Ken Wilber, a theoretician rather than a clinician, who has a strong interest in the transformative potential of human consciousness.

The term ”transpersonal psychology,” often used for the work of these and similar writers, indicates a psychology that is oriented beyond the personal and toward the more-than-personal. Although in one sense this development promises a kind of de-mystified mysticism, in another sense (like generic “core shamanism”) it offers a mysticism unmoored from any developed social and community context, and permeated with assumptions (for example, about the need to satisfy needs hierarchically) that are not in fact shared by many mystical traditions.

The enterprise of transpersonal psychology is complicated by the connections, many of them far from explicit, of various transpersonal psychologists with various forms of spiritual practice. These carry with them clear philosophical, theological, or ideological positions, which are often re-packaged in the guise of psychological formulations.

Now, whenever one puts a topic through the mill of an interpretive approach, one risks finding the object of one’s study to be an illustration of the interpretive apparatus one has brought to bear on it. This is a danger that Wiethaus seems to take no pains to avoid. She demonstrates, oddly, no sense that the systems and thinkers she uses in her approach have a history, or that there is anything problematic about them. She accepts her theoretical authorities simply as given, with a lack of critical appraisal that leads her into anachronism and self-undermining judgments.

For example, in an extended discussion of R. M. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, she criticizes his “hierarchical” and “elitist” understanding of the kind of person who could achieve the experience of cosmic consciousness — the kind of person that he understood as being closest to the cutting edge of evolution. Wiethaus objects that he has not integrated his mystical experience (which, because mystical, must have been non-hierarchical and non-elitist) with a critical assessment of the values of his patriarchal culture. (Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs is not, somehow, as objectionable.)

Wiethaus shows no awareness of the ways in which evolutionary schemes had been merged with ideas of mystical achievement during the Nineteenth century, so that spiritual achievement was often seen (certainly not just by Bucke) as an almost biological progress up the Great Chain of Being. And she supposes that “mysticism” is everywhere and always universalist and non-hierarchical, because her modern authorities counterpose “spirituality” and “oppression” (and since hierarchy is oppression, and oppression hierarchy, spirituality must be apart from either). Any acceptance of hierarchy, then, especially on the part of a female mystic, becomes a clear sign of an incompletely realized spirituality, and especially an incompletely realized female spirituality.

She uses approaches and formulations developed by writers affiliated with such enterprises as Oscar Ichazo’s Arica Foundation, the Gurdjieff movement, Vedanta, and modern magico-political religious movements, without any indication that these authors and their ideas did not spring full-grown from eternity — and without any sense that there might be something problematic in using them to understand a medieval Catholic mystic (male or female). This is rather like using the thought of (say) Ian Paisley as a basis for understanding the work of James Joyce, because they are, after all, both Irish.

Even more piquantly, for someone who speaks against the erasure of women’s voices from history, Wiethaus discusses the psychosynthesis of Roberto Assagioli without once giving any sign of recognizing his place in the history of esotericism. Assagioli founded a movement of “psychosynthesis” that became a tributary current of transpersonal psychology. He also was translator for Alice A. Bailey in her European speaking tours. Bailey, who claimed to write as an amanuensis for a telepathic Tibetan, was herself following in the footsteps of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in her elaboration of a decidedly hierarchical, evolutionary, and even elitist scheme of spiritual development. Assagioli was also one of the first to publish systematic expositions of the kind of imaginal work commonly used in occult circles nowadays.

Yet Assagioli, like the others, is presented as a neutral “thinker” or “scientist”, with no suggestion that he might have had a history, allegiances, training, or beliefs, or that he might have been one of the sources for the kinds of practices in which Starhawk (one of Wiethaus’ authorities on feminist spirituality) was trained. Perhaps such avoidance is necessary in order to be able to mount a critique of the “male” hierarchical aspect of Assagioli’s approach; perhaps it is merely a matter of not knowing any better.

The great problem with this book is that one constantly gets the impression that the aim is less to achieve a clearer insight into Mechtild of Magdeburg than it is to appropriate her work as an exemplification of various current ideas about such Good Things as “the female”, “the mystical”, “the spiritual”, and “the marginal” — with no particular interest in the actual, historical people to whom those adjectives might be applied.

Uzzel, on the other hand, takes a much more conventional approach. He is simply interested telling us what he has learned about the influence in America of Eliphas Levi’s ideas about Kabbalah. First he tells us about Levi, relying largely on the prior work of other historians and biographers, as well as on Levi’s own work.

He sketches Levi’s influence in France and Britain, on the Golden Dawn and (in part via P. B. Randolph) on what became the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and thus on Aleister Crowley, whose magical career, and continuing fascination with Levi, Uzzel summarizes fairly enough. He does not hesitate to discusses Randolph’s sexual magic and its later influences in the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and the OTO; nor does he omit to mention Crowley’s magical use of sex and drugs.

He goes on to describes Levi’s influence in Nineteenth century America, with a special focus on the mediation of that influence through the extensive appropriations of Albert Pike and thus through American Freemasonry. He also traces Levi’s influence on Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society, and a series of other American movements and organizations, including various magical and esoteric groups like the Ordo Templi Orientis, the Builders of the Adytum, and Order of the Temple of Astarte (OTA). He concludes with a summary of what he takes to be Levi’s influence in this century and the last.

Uzzel addresses the vexed question of Pike’s racism with fraternal forbearance, but does not flinch away from reporting clearly the evidence that Pike’s views were not all that one might hope for from someone pledged to universal brotherhood. Similarly, he discusses the shifts and conflicts in Levi’s thoughts and attitudes as ways into appreciating Levi as a human being, and not simply as a plaster magus.

Uzzel has consulted the relevant works, even the most recent histories of Nineteenth century occult movements. But he has gone further. He wrote to various contemporary organizations, including the OTO and the OTA, and also had telephone conversations with various responsible officials in those organizations. He reports this correspondence, and these conversations, because it makes sense to him to ask people what they think, and to take their answers seriously (though sometimes not without a certain deadpan irony).

The sober biographical note that inevitably accompanies doctoral dissertations informs us that Uzzel is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the chairman of the Department of Religion at an AME college in Dallas, and that he is an active member of various branches of Prince Hall Freemasonry. He is, in a sense, writing both as an insider and an outsider to traditions that shaped Levi, and that Levi, in various ways, shaped. Uzzel’s Christianity is not Levi’s Catholicism, but the traditions of theological debate make the well-formulated differences a royal road to understanding the issues at stake. Uzzel’s Freemasonry is not (as no real Freemasonry could be) Levi’s idealized initiatic mystery school, but it has had to define itself and defend itself from both admirers and detractors, and bears the scars of these conflicts as badges of honor.

Perhaps the major gap in Uzzel’s treatment of Levi’s influence is his lack of attention to Levi as a stylist. He says little about the influence of Levi’s particular wit and style, with its delight in paradox, and in the insight that paradox brings. (One might say that the idea of the conjunction and interplay of opposites was explored in the German manner by Nicholas of Cusa, in the Swiss manner by C. G. Jung, and in the French manner by Eliphas Levi.) It was Levi’s spirit of paradox and serious play, of delight in the deception that reveals and the revelation that re-veils, that so many have found so attractive in his writing, and that has had a literary and stylistic influence far beyond the influence of specific ideas or concepts. It was Levi, too, who did not shrink from donning the mantle of charlatanism as a fashion statement, and making of it a master’s gown.

Wiethaus, for all her official daring, can only see the respectable side of her subject; for all her admiration for the margins, she ultimately wants to make the margins respectable, and marginalize what to her is dubious or suspect. Uzzel, on the other hand, perhaps because of the conventionality of his approach, shows no signs of anxiety. He examines the sectarianism, the scandal, the sexual magic, and the often peculiar allegiances of his subjects, without batting an eyelash.

If the contrast seems ironic, it is worth remembering that official daring is first of all official, and official interest in the margins is almost always associated with a colonizing agenda.


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Table of Contents | From the Editors | Medieval Methods of Geomancy | The “Arabic” Parts of the Original Rosicrucian Documents | Hermetic History — Erase It or Face It| Talismans and Planetary Squares | Unfamiliar Harmonies | The Black Arts by the Golden Horn

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