"More Than Human": The Queer Occult Explorer of the Fin-De-Siecle

Article excerpt

I will, from this day forward, apply myself to the Great Work-which is, to purify and exalt my Spiritual Nature so that with the Divine Aid I may at length attain to be more than human ... and that in this event I will not abuse the great power entrusted to me.

--Weschcke, preface to The Golden Dawn

This quotation comes from one of the central oaths taken by members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. The Golden Dawn, which we might define as inhabiting a gray area between quasi-Masonic order, cabbalistic cult, and bachelor's fraternity, experienced a surge of popularity following its inception in 1888 through the end of the 1920s. Claiming descent from older occult or cabbalistic orders (including the Rosicrucians), the Golden Dawn began attracting a membership made up of artists, intellectuals, and writers in Britain at the fin-de-siecle, including well-known figures like W. B. Yeats, Algernon Swinburne, and the infamous Aleister Crowley. The existence of the Golden Dawn, and its popularity among intellectuals, is symptomatic of a larger trend in the late nineteenth century.

In this article, I aim to show how the larger societal desire for the irrational that was embedded in popular occult movements like the Golden Dawn was also explored in contemporary literature of the Gothic and the supernatural. Moreover, I will demonstrate that the yearning for irrationality displayed by occult groups like the Golden Dawn, and writers like Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, and Robert Louis Stevenson, is an impulse marked by transgression and deviance that can only be described as queer.

My use of the word "queer" in this context is perhaps unusual, though not unprecedented. In their recent, groundbreaking volume, Queering the Gothic, William Hughes and Andrew Smith push our understanding of the term "queer" as it relates to the Gothic beyond sexual and interpersonal transgression, focusing attention on the "elusive" queerness of the Gothic that can be "taken outside of the sexual connotations" of the term "queer" (2-3). Following this lead, I suggest using the word "queer" in relation to the Gothic in a triple sense, reflecting the usage of the word before the various meanings differentiated themselves: the occult, Gothic tales of this period are therefore simultaneously (1) peculiar, (2) eerie, and (3) sexually or physically transgressive. These texts are thus marked by queer happenings that engage in this triple definition of the word queer, through the trope of irrationality and the occult.

Such a critical approach will thus help tease out the links between various cultural phenomena of the period (e.g., literature, religion, science) and show that the late Victorian and Edwardian era exemplify what Jasbir Puar has termed "queer times"--a period in which, after long repression, queer, transgressive ideologies become incorporated into heteronormative society; in this case through the figure of the occult explorer who attempts to exert mastery over the queer.

Enlightened Irrationality

As Eric Hobsbawm has argued, rapid scientific advances since the Enlightenment (alongside increasing intellectualization of the bourgeois classes), by the late nineteenth century appeared to have banished all that was deemed to be "supernatural and miraculous," including "the ancient forces of religion," from the central place they had once held, and replaced them with a more materialist understanding of the universe and of humanity's place in it (244). As David Punter and Glennis Byron summarize, the period was marked by "discoveries in the sciences" like evolution and geology that "only served to aggravate a sense of alienation and further disturb notions of human identity" (20). And yet concurrent with this trend towards the material, by the late nineteenth century an "array of mental and physical oddities," such as theosophism, hypnotism, clairvoyance, spiritualism, and other occult phenomena, "helped convince a significant number of Victorian intellectuals (and an even greater number of nameless artisans) that the Enlightenment philosophes had been much too hasty in dismissing the miracles and prodigies of old as fable and hearsay" (Melechi 4). …