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Spirituality and the Occult: From the Renaissance to the Modern Age

By B J Gibbons, published by Routledge at £12.99. 196 pp. Pbk, (no illus). ISBN: 0415244498 (Reviewed by Anthony Roe)

My teenage work in public libraries early taught me that, contrary to the import of the well-known adage, people do judge a book by its cover. “Spirituality and the Occult” has a wrap-around reproduction of the symbolist painting “Apparation” by Gustave Moreau. Andre Breton regarded him as a true initiator of the Surrealist aesthetic and both Max Ernst and Salvador Dali have recognised him as one of the precursors of surrealism.

“The Apparation” was first shown at the Salon of 1876, housed in the Palais des Champs Elysees, and attracted more than 500,000 visitors. The undulating figure of Salome is caught in a movement of startled terror at the sight of John the Baptist’s severed head surrounded by a cross-nimbus; a snake glides up along her body. A disciple of Gustave, Jean Delville (1867-1953), claiming kinship with Moreau, professed them to be painters of the astral light and esoteric doctrines. The book under review seeks to give a word picture of esotericism in its concatenating course through history from the renaissance to modern times.

This new paperback is really an extended essay (some 97,000 words) inspired by conversations the author had with colleagues. He is Lecturer in Literature and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University. It is an academic work, at least in its language. Written in a terse and compact style, the reader needs to hit the page racing, when such sentences greet one as: “… the Northern tradition (and Behmenism in particular) tends not to be Neoplatonic in according ontological primacy to the divine will rather than the divine intellect” and “As with ancient Gnosticism, gnosis for early modern occultists was not a matter of ‘propositional knowledge’ or assent to a particular set of doctrines, although a clearly defined doctrinal creed can be found in their works … it was as much conative as noetic …” , and that’s only in the introduction!

We are also introduced to a choice vocabulary with words such as ‘microtheos’ with which we may not be familiar, and concepts too, as ‘the divine Nulllity and Volunty’, alongside, it must be said, simpler statements as “The doctrine of signatures also survived in nineteenth-century scientific circles”. References abound (there are over a myriad notes, literally, appended to the eight chapters.

Amongst familiar sources as old Paracelsus and Agrippa, and more recent ones, as Mathers and Crowley, we also meet less familiar gurus as Stoddard Martin and Urzula Szulakowska.

Now spirituality betokens a spiritual quality, something of the spirit as opposed to matter, affecting the soul, especially by the agency of God, things holy, divine, inspired, relating to the inner nature of man, having the higher qualities of mind. Those who embrace spiritualities are opposed to the stance of the natural, carnal man. Their spiritual life regenerates them and they devote themselves to sacred and religious things. They may even renounce the world, become mystics, and seek to enter ethereal realms whilst yet alive. This is the antithesis of the occult stance, which deals with the mysterious and recondite, beyond the range of ordinary knowledge, involving the supernatural, the magical, things kept secret, yet applicable to this world: the thesis of esotericism is to concretise the abstract, to make tangible the divine, to ‘draw down the moon’; indeed for the apothesis of man and woman into god and goddess: a way of activity in the here and now, not escape to a never-never land. It has only recently been realized, says the art historian Pierre-Louis Mathieu, that Moreau was one of the first painters to venture into the abstract field. He walked between the worlds. But as our Liverpool Lecturer succinctly quotes Novalis: “We are gods”.

Our author notes that the ‘Mind and Spirit’ sections of our bookshops burgeon with titles, and despite the evident eclecticism of esoteric movements there is much to be gleaned and revealed about their manifestation in our everyday lives. This he sets out to do, and successfully so. We follow the trail of spiritual values down the ages through the study of nature, science, literature and the arts, society, religion and history, and learn how spirituality and the occult have informed development in all these spheres of life. The distinction is made between pantheism and panentheism, in which God embraces the world. But as our author says, the emphatic panentheism of occult philosophy has been transformed into what has been called ‘panenanthropism’. God has been incorporated into the world, and the world sumsumed in human consciousness. Man, microcosm and microtheos, has swallowed up both God and the world.If you want to know what all this means and entails, read Gibbons book, a tour de force that will certainly well serve as a substantive brief for any tyro in the occult arts, or as a good bedtime read for older afficionados, though watch out for the reference to Buffy and the Vampire …