Thursday, April 19, 2012

Politics and the Occult

As with 'exoteric' religion, esoteric (or occult) forms lend themselves to supporting initiatives of right or left (or indeed centre). For example, Freemasons could be found on both sides of the revolutionary divide in France (and neither acquits itself well). This is the main thrust of Gary Lachman's account in his ' Politics and the Occult: The Left, the Right and the Radically Unseen' that occult/esoteric traditions lend themselves to political solutions across the spectrum; not only the better known (and overblown) connection between the occult and Nazi Germany. 

It is an informative and entertaining progress through the political aspirations of the occult practitioner from renewing the world through the humanist unifying tendencies of the Rosicrucian manifestos in the seventeenth century (whose intentions were swallowed up by the Thirty Years War) to the post- Second War World of Julius Evola inspiring Italian rightist terrorism.

Lachman is, as always, a balanced and sober guide, keen to puncture the inflation of conspiracy theory while recognizing the genuine neglect of the subject's real importance.

The best chapter is on the Traditionalists and their hatred of modernity. A modernity fashioned out of the Renaissance that ironically created them by way of reaction. One of the features of Guenon et al is that they rarely inhabited the tradition of their origin, tended to only attach themselves to an 'elitist' version of the tradition they adopted, and proceeded to 'correct' that tradition from their own metaphysical viewpoint rooted in a neo-Platonic/Vedantic non-dualist metaphysic that was often alien to the contours of the living tradition they found themselves inhabiting! Their preference for eternity over time left them profoundly hostile to the understandings of history and therefore in reality too 'idealistically' focused to be effective in the political sphere. A failure for which we should give repeated thanks.

Guided by their emphasis on the primordial and the elite, they were supporters of the conservative cause which in the case of Eliade and Evola led to commitments to facisim (that the former aimed to hide and the latter proudly maintained).

At one time, I read them with real engagement and interest - and I continue to hold some of their membership in high regard for those aspects of their work that are relevant to particular and demonstrable scholarship -  Philip Sherrard on Greek poetry and his translation of the Philokalia, Marco Pallis on Buddhism and A.K. Comaraswamy on art. However, their over-arching vision strikes me as too narrow, ahistorical and elitist and strangely disembodied- they defended an abstract Tradition rather than the actual traditions they inhabited (often at the margins). 

The two most attractive people in the text for me were Edward Carpenter -little read now but deeply influential at the opening of the twentieth century linking an open, mystical faith with progressive social causes and Rudolf Steiner whose practical interventions in agriculture, education and finance continue to flourish and grow. The linkage between the two is their emphasis on 'experiment' - on the religious life being enterprises in knowing - and though Steiner elaborated a complex edifice of thought - it was offered as a work in progress rather than a complete, closed system. There is significant space for new knowledge always judged against the valid,tested criterion of the past.

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