Academic journal article The Historian

Beyond Enlightenment: Occultism, Politics, and Culture in France from the Old Regime to the Fin-De-Siecle (1)

Academic journal article The Historian

Beyond Enlightenment: Occultism, Politics, and Culture in France from the Old Regime to the Fin-De-Siecle (1)

Article excerpt

FRANCE is often seen as the land of Enlightenment par excellence, the ancestral home of Cartesian rationalism and Voltairean skepticism. While this is no doubt true, the traditional emphasis on France's Enlightenment and Positivist heritage has long obscured a very different, but far from marginal tradition of occultism, made up of a broad range of supernatural beliefs and practices, including astrology, alchemy, divination, prophecy, and spiritism. Far from being banished into the darkness of folk memory by the lamp of Reason, the French occult tradition instead developed parallel to the unfolding of rationalism across the modern age, with peaks in the occult revivals of the late eighteenth and late nineteenth centuries. While some facets of the occult tradition have ancient roots, others are of quite recent origin, and the tradition remains vital and dynamic to this day, constantly evolving and absorbing new elements to satisfy popular demand. Rather than being dismissed as an atavistic relic from a bygone age, occultism must instead be seen as an alternate face of French modernity, with multiple connections to broader social and cultural concerns.

This article seeks to demonstrate that the apparently ethereal, world-renouncing, and timeless discourse of French occultism was in fact deeply enmeshed and engaged in the social and political debates of the times in which it was produced. The occult revivals of the late Old Regime and Revolutionary eras, and that of the fin-de-siecle were unusual, but clearly recognizable, responses to the dislocations and upheavals that France experienced in its long path toward modernity. The Revolution itself, and its aftershocks felt in France across the nineteenth century, convinced a number of Frenchmen that their society was fundamentally out of balance, and the failure of either revolutionary republicanism or reactionary monarchism to bring stability to post-Revolutionary French society led them to look elsewhere, to a distant, often imagined past, for the answers to their contemporary dilemmas. Amid so much tumult and uncertainty, a small but not insubstantial number of Frenchmen sought in the supposedly ancient wisdom of the occult tradition a vision of harmonious order, of a return to wholeness, and an organically united society. Metahistorical narratives, which sought to demonstrate the supposedly timeless principles of social order and harmony, and political prophecies, which announced the imminent resolution of France's post-revolutionary disorder through the coming of a great monarch, were two expressions of this spiritual quest, which will be examined in detail in the pages that follow. These expressions of occult political discourse, it will be argued, flourished in times of social and political uncertainty, but faded as republicanism planted its roots in French society, and at least a relative degree of stability was achieved, at the close of the nineteenth century.

Modern French occultism is primarily, though by no means exclusively, a phenomenon of the political Right, with a fundamental ambivalence (if not outright rejection) toward the modern world and an emotional nostalgia for a lost golden age of mankind. One could cite numerous personal and professional ties to make this point. For example, Louis-Claude de Saint-Martin, one of the most influential figures of the post-Enlightenment occult revival, was a major influence on the counterrevolutionary thinker Joseph de Maistre; Stanislas de Guaita, the founder of the revived Rosicrucian order of the fin-de-siecle, was a childhood friend of the writer Maurice Barres, a key figure in the integralist new Right of the late nineteenth century; and Gaston Mery, founder of the occult journal L'Echo du Merveilleux, was a former collaborator on La Libre Parole, a journal edited by the radical anti-Semite Edouard Drumont. That said, however, several caveats are in order. …

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