65. Occultism in the Bourgeois Age
With the French Revolution the period of Renaissance and Enlightenment occultism came to an end. The Protestant Jacobin Fabre d’Olivet, the Catholic revolutionary Louis-Claude de Saint Martin and the Catholic Bonapartist Willermoz all three had developed a Qabbalistic interpretation of the confessions they belonged to. The restoration of the status quo after the fall of Napoleon interrupted, for approximately fifteen years, the proliferation of those esotericisms that had arised hiding behind the Goddess Reason. Occultism reappeared at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the wake of Romantic gothic literature. This tendency would have remained a mere aesthetic morbidity if it had not been supported by the practice of spiritism. A further ‘methodical’ component was inherited from the French libertine circles and the British Hellfire Clubs of the previous century, whose members tried to self induce paranormal experiences in secret meetings, through the use of sex and drugs. From the confluence of these three currents emerged the occultism of the bourgeois age.
The most representative figure was Alphonse Louis Constant (1810-1875), better known by his nom de plume Éliphas Lévi, a pseudo-Hebrew translation of his baptismal name. Born into a poor family, he was sent to a seminary to complete his education, but the week before his ordination as a priest he left the cloth. He had a life of hardship, he worked as draughtsman and painter and also gave private lessons. During this period, while in Paris, he associated with socialist and proto-feminist circles, characterised by pretended mystical tendencies. It was during this period that he published La Bible de la liberté, a book considered blasphemous and subversive even by Louis-Philippe’s liberal regime, which cost him eleven months in prison. It was not until he was in his forties that Constant began to take an interest in Hermeticism and the Qabbalah. In 1854 he travelled to London where a medium urged him to summon the spirit of Apollonius of Tyana. He prepared complex rituals, evidently concocted from disparate books, and, on the agreed date, he performed a ceremony for twelve hours straight. At the end, a grey spectre appeared and touched his arm. Éliphas Lévi fainted from the pain and woke up with his arm frozen and swollen for several hours. From then on, he carefully avoided any practical experience, sticking to simply reading texts and writing. He also discouraged his followers from practising séances or necromancy.
In 1855 he wrote his most famous book, Dogma and Ritual of High Magic. It is a text that puts together quotations from Plotinus, the Qabbalah, Renaissance hermeticists and alchemists such as Knorr von Rosenroth, Agrippa, Jakob Böhme, and Enlightenment occultists such as Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, Emanuel Swedenborg, Antoine Fabre d’Olivet, Chaho and Goeres, but ultimately appears to be a simple guide to ceremonial magic. On the other hand, he did not consider himself a master strictu sensu, nor did he claim to be an initiate. His admission into Freemasonry in 1861, in fact, was late and had little significance to him. However, that book and the other ones that followed, gave him enough fame and sufficient income to live on and to rent a decent flat. He met and frequented Jean-Marie Ragon, Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the diabolical Abbot Vintras, Dr. Fernand Rozier, Count Alexandre Branicki, the “baron” Nicola Giuseppe Spedalieri and the spiritualist Victor Hugo. As it can be seen, Éliphas Lévi had become well established in the good bourgeois society, where he propagated his ceremonial magic disguised as Qabbalah, even charging for ‘lessons in High Magic’.
Many pseudo-esoteric circles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries drew on the magic of Éliphas Lévi. Among these were the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia, the Golden Down, the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, the Cosmic Movement, the Abbey of Thelema and many others.
We find necessary to dwell on Alexandre Saint-Yves, another figure comparable to Constant, whose influence on occultist circles was, however, far more serious. Born into a middle-class family in 1842, Alexandre Saint-Yves quickly became a military doctor. He soon gave up a career in arms because of his physical condition and moved to the small Norman island of Jersey where he met Victor Hugo. The famous man of letters was in exile there due to his opposition to Napoleon III’s regime; he spent his evenings practicing “table dancing”, a passion he shared with Saint-Yves. The latter later found a clerical job at the Ministry of the Interior. In 1877, he met and married Marie Riznich who was divorced from Count Eduard von Keller, a relative of Honoré de Balzac . She was a very wealthy woman due to her family’s business in Odessa and the bank it owned in Vienna. Thanks to his wife’s fortune, Saint-Yves was able to pay for publishing his books and to acquire the title of Marquis from the Republic of San Marino in 1880. Later, after buying an estate in Alveydre, he added the name of the estate to his surname as if it were his fiefdom.
Like Éliphas Lévi, also Saint-Yves d’Alveydre did not refer to a regular chain of masters, preferring to spread among his admirers the legend of an exceptional birth and a spontaneous self-initiation. Nor does he appear to have joined any of the pseudo-initiatic organisations that, at the time, were swarming throughout Europe. Nonetheless, his claims of innate wisdom were assumed as true by his many admirers. Like almost all the occultists of the second half of the 19th century, he had come close to the revolutionary theories of socialism. In fact, his first important work was the Mission des Souverains, immediately followed in the same year, 1882, by a Mission des Ouvriers in which he supported the legalisation of workers’ unions. Partially distancing himself from contemporary socialism, in these two works he proposed as solution to all the political and social problems of the century, the freedom offered by a combined reinterpretation of Christianity and the French Revolution, all unoriginally viewed in the light of Science. In these two works the author laid the first foundations for his theory of Synarchy.
Another important book by Saint-Yves was the Mission des Juifs, an actual plagiarism of Fabre d’Olivet’s Histoire Philosophique du Genre Humain. In this work he described the process of degeneration of human history, which reached its lowest point with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans and the consequent diaspora of the Jewish people.
In the meantime, from 1885 onwards, he had come into contact with a bird seller from Le Havre, a certain Hardjji Sharipf (Hajji Sharif), obviously an Indian ‘prince’ in exile. Despite his clearly Islamic name, Hajji proclaimed himself “Brahma Guru Paṇḍita of the Great Agarthic School”. From him Saint-Yves took private lessons of Sanskrit, mixing data from the Indian sacred language with Arabic and Hebrew. Finally the ‘Guru Paṇḍita’ revealed to him the alphabet and the ‘Vattanian’ language in use in the underworld of Agarttha which was, according to him, well known among the brāhmaṇas of India. In order to uphold his alleged self-initiation, Saint-Yves did not treat Hajji Sharif as a guru and, like the good rebel he was, he decided to visit Agarttha uninvited. He had, in fact, practised a discipline to separate the “astral body” from the gross one. As he himself explains in the introduction to his last book Mission de l’Inde en Europe, in doing so he had invisibly introduced himself into the underground kingdom, and admired its universities, the technology for light up the caves and the dense railway network of Agarttha. This daring intrusion would have brought him the reprobation and threats of the brāhmaṇas who guarded such precious spiritual secrets.
In imitation of humanists such as Llull and his prosecutors, Saint-Yves also invented a rotating mechanism based on numbers and various alphabets, including the Vattan, which answered any question on any subject. He called this mechanism the Archeometer. The book that he was preparing on this utopian instrument appeared posthumously and incompletely in 1913 edited by the Amis de Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, i.e. Papus and his circle.
The death of his wife in 1895 was a severe blow to Saint-Yves. He dedicated to her a room in his palace in Versailles, and transformed it into a spiritist temple, where he had long conversations with the ghost of his beloved Marie Riznich. He died in 1909 surrounded by the admiration and respect of his ‘disciples’. Among them there were Dr. Gérard Encausse (Papus), René Guénon, “Maître Philippe”, René Adolphe Schwaller de Lubicz, Georges-Albert Puyou de Pouvourville (Matgioi), Josefin Péladan, Paul Sédir, Albert Faucheux (François-Charles Barlet), John Gustaf Agelii and the Marquis Stanislas de Guaita, to name only the best known. This group of admirers was also ‘initiated’ into the use of opium by Matgioi. After the death of Saint-Yves, the irreconcilable separation between the different currents of European occultism and esotericism began. Thus ended the occultist adventure of the bourgeois age.
Gian Giuseppe Filippi