Tobias Churton is Britain’s leading scholar in Western esotericism. A film-maker, composer and poet, he recently completed his latest book, Occult Paris: The Lost Magic of the Belle Époque, that examines how Paris, in the closing years of the 19th century, became the locus for the most intense revival of magical practices and doctrines since the Renaissance. The spiritual and occult revival during this important period in Paris deeply influenced many well-known cultural movements, such as Symbolism, the Decadents, modern music, and the “psychedelic 60s.” Its legacy remains with us today.
JOANNA EDWARDS (JE): What makes you want to write books? This is your eighteenth work is it not?
TOBIAS CHURTON (TC): I love books. I started my first book when I was eleven. It was an illustrated history of the world. I typed it, which was unusual in those days, certainly for a boy. It’s not bad. Good pictures. I certainly had the idea that we have much to learn from history, and that the past is real, for our reality is already past, and time is a continuum, not a series of fleeting “nows.” That injunction to “Be Here Now” always makes me laugh.
Anyhow, I got from the ancient Sumerians to Rome, at which point I was distracted by schoolwork, or something more involving. I learned that all empires fall. The last words of it were: “Knowledge is the prize we strive to seek.” Rather prophetic. I was somewhat unusual, it transpired. I cared about such things.
When I was twenty and had just finished my Oxford studies, I went to see the retired bishop of Dorchester who was on his last legs in an Oxfordshire country nursing home. I was expecting to be ordained as a priest at some point. He asked me what I wanted to do with my life. I said I wanted to bring important knowledge through from the past, particularly spiritual knowledge that had been forgotten: to be a lamp for the future, which is darkness to us, despite the myriads of journalist-prophets, forever prognosticating on the future. So that’s what I do. I bring the knowledge through. Why so many books? I am aware that the biblical book of Ecclesiastes warns that “of making many books there is no end,” and that “all is vanity.” Well, someone preserved his book, didn’t they? You have to “labour while it is yet day.” Or as the little working creatures in The Flintstones used to say: “Somebody’s gotta do it” – or, more often: “It’s a living!” Writing is a way of life. So once you have a life, all you need is the “way” and the “truth,” which appear from living sincerely according to your gifts, and sticking to it, whatever the passers-by say. St. Paul taught that a little piece of wood saved the world. That’s where our paper comes from.
JE: What gave you the idea to write Occult Paris?
TC: In the “closing overs” of writing Gnostic Mysteries of Sex I investigated again a few of the beliefs of the remarkable Frenchman, Joséphin Péladan, who died towards the end of World War One, after a long fall from fame. The more I thought about some of his ideas, the less eccentric they appeared to me, and the wiser he became in my mind, despite an awful, longstanding reputation as a showman, dandy and eccentric. He used to wear medieval costume and had hair like Jimi Hendrix! When one thinks about it, much medieval costume was very practical and gracious, and certainly more attractive than the “casual” pseudo-sportif garments whose opacities currently pock the skin of the Western world.
Anyhow, I thought of a biography of Péladan, and then after much consideration, decided to take on the whole movement of which he was a part. I also wanted to write another book that was about the deep bond between Art and spirituality, and Péladan was preoccupied with that relationship, though he did not act alone. He was part of a quite extraordinary community of painters, magicians, spiritual writers, novelists, composers, poets and journalists. They comprise the essence of what came to be called the “Belle Époque” that lasted from the end of the Franco-Prussian War to World War One which wrecked almost everything. We’ve still never really “got over” that destruction – as I used to feel when I was taken to see the Anzac Parade through Melbourne when I was a boy in Australia.
I wanted to show how the Symbolists in Art, the Occultists, the Decadent Movement, and two of my favourite composers worked together to change profoundly the spiritual and aesthetic landscape. I wanted to show how the whole thing actually operated, for the first time in one book. Obviously I’d like people to be inspired by the possibilities, which are still valid and real, and realistic too.
JE: This is a very sumptuous, attractive work. Apart from its handsome appearance and high production values, who would find this book interesting?
TC: Do you like Art? Do you want to know what it’s really about? Are you interested in Magic, and want to know more about what makes things and people magical? Do you like French culture at any point, and want to know an amazing story that has been obscured by superficial readings of its outflow? Are you interested in Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism, the regaining of ancient powers of mind and sensibility? Are you interested in the social progress that existed before world war erupted? Are you attracted by the high zones of the Beautiful, the True and the Good? Do you like a fascinating story that has never been told in quite this way before, that has lots of material in it you won’t find anywhere else; unpublished documents and insights aplenty? Do you want something meaty, and moving and, hopefully, inspiring and grand? Yes? Then you ought to find this book of interest. It shows the inner landscape of some of the finest creative minds of our species. That they nearly all happen to be French is perhaps an accident merely of geography! The messages are universal. When is an image a symbol?
JE: What are we to understand by the word “occult”?
TC: This word has had quite a history! There must be something about its shape and sound. It used to be a perfectly respectable word and interest in Edwardian times. The Sixties saw it begin to be sensationalised around Dennis Wheatley-inspired movies. It means “hidden,” in the sense of something “occulted” by something else. So it is close to “esoteric” (the inside); one has to go a bit deeper than the appearance of things. There are qualities and energies that are not apparent. Science has revealed a great many “invisible powers,” and the history of occultism is entwined around the origins and development of science. The aim of “occultism” is to restore lost powers.
The philosophy of “Occult Paris” as I call the period, is a concerted attempt to correct the fallen image and powers of Man. The philosophy of Martinès de Pasqually and Louis-Claude de St Martin was important, as was Fabre d’Olivet. The latter believed that most history was just superficial: mere events without inner meaning. So the occult is in fact not about hiding, but revealing that which has been obscured or hidden. Spiritual powers in particular. In French it’s all so much easier, where the word “ésprit” means both “spirit” and “mind.” In the 20th century we tend to think of “mind” as being a phenomenon of brain, rather than the other way around. It’s a chicken and egg thing. In Hebrew, “spirit” means “breath,” in the sense of what is apparent when a being is alive: invisible life force; we can feel it, but we cannot see it. We’re talking about the essential life of things that are animated – and “animated” comes from the Latin “anima” which we translate as “soul.” All these “things” are intertwined; they are not objects, but they are perceptible.
JE: Were there other occult movements going on in the world at the time?
TC: The French movement has been called an “Occult Revival,” so while there were existing occult sodalities in England, America, Germany and elsewhere from the 1870s to World War One, much that had existed before had faded or disappeared, and the French movement was particularly vital, integrated and influential, and inspired a great deal of what has followed.
We might recall that the founder of the British Golden Dawn went to Paris to “set up shop,” and Aleister Crowley’s occult career really gets going in Paris – a place to which he returned, and eventually chose as his home. The key period was the decade of the 1880s and it’s no accident that the Parisian Kabbalistic Order of the Rose-Croix was founded in 1888, the same year as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, in London. The Golden Dawn came out largely from the experience of Anna Kingsford’s “Hermetic Society” and Anna Kingsford cut her “occult” teeth in Paris, with Lady Caithness before moving to London.
The Theosophical Society was founded in New York, of course, in 1875, and was of interest to most of the key figures of Occult Paris at least for a time, though Gérard Encausse (“Papus”), Stanislav de Guaita and several other key figures deferred from the Theosophical emphasis on Indian spiritual philosophy. And, of course there was the whole world of esoteric Freemasonry, with which the movement was also deeply connected. Paris was the main heartbeat, without a doubt.
Madame Blavatsky loved being in Paris with her friend, Lady Caithness, whose almost incredible salons in the avenue de Wagram were so potent an influence. It was there that Jules Doinel’s Gnostic Church was born, whose branches reach into the present time, despite its difficult, sometimes scandalous, beginnings. If you want to understand modern esotericism, you need to get a grip on Occult Paris; it was a fountain.
JE: Why was Paris so central to the movement?
TC: That is one of those difficult questions, since the phenomenon is established and it’s difficult to imagine it not having happened, so we have hindsight, which has its own logic. However, in the book I venture some accounts of what made Paris in this period an almost inevitable spark-point for a new Hermetic movement. It has a great deal to do with the history of France after the Revolution of the 1790s severed France from much of its former certainties. I deal with this political aspect in the book, and it’s fascinating, because we see similar things happening in other post-revolutionary societies.
Paris after the Franco-Prussian War moved towards the modern era with a heavy and conscious awareness of the importance of the Arts – this was perhaps Paris’s particular virtue at the time. There were sexual liberties explored (mostly by foreigners) in Paris with a flavour unique to the city, a kind of aesthetic pornography. We still think of the word “erotic” as having a kind of “French” flavour. The Last Tango must be in Paris. The confluence of social liberties, bourgeois hegemony, modernisation, political uncertainty, the attraction of the place for artists, the lack of a stable religious life, the arrival of Polish émigrés, often with messianic beliefs, and the pre-existence of revolutionary spiritualisms (such as Éliphas Lévi’s Transcendental Magic), all combined with other movements of the time, and insights coming from hither and thither.
When it comes down to it, it is hard to escape the conclusion that while the circumstances were propitious, it was the appearance of certain personalities at key points that made it all possible. The “Decadent” movement already through Baudelaire had given birth to the notion of a “Satanic” salvation path, of going into the depths, of voluntary renunciation of bourgeois certainties and comforts to purge the stain from the diamond truth. And there was much of the industrial materialist “modern” to react against. It was a poetic movement: a rediscovery of a counter-philosophy to encroaching materialism and destructive vulgarity.
JE: Are there any women involved in the story?
TC: I have mentioned Lady Caithness, whose idea of the “Fourth Revelation” and the spiritual revelation of women, and the female priesthood, was extremely prescient and powerful. She has been almost forgotten but really you cannot think of female spiritual equality in the modern world without paying her generous tribute. I hope I do this adequately. I have mentioned Helena Blavatsky, of course. It’s nice to see her in a more enriching context than we are used to. Anna Kingsford was the woman who most inspired Samuel Mathers. Indeed, it was probably her death that precipitated the Golden Dawn’s formation, with all its contemporary offshoots. She was a remarkable lady, and quite extreme; she apparently used magic in an effort to bring men who she felt were a danger to animals to a deserved end! Before Albert Schweitzer, she had the idea of “reverence for life” as an essential spiritual and cross-denominational precept. These women were revered and listened to by men eager for spiritual inspiration.
However, the predominant idea of the period, and which Péladan in particular promoted, was the revolutionary idea of Androgyny – which we saw flower to a curious extent among the hippies in the 60s and 70s – an idea which had clear Gnostic antecedents. The primal creative power in Hermeticism is “bisexual,” and becomes divided only in manifestation. It was also another good idea “pour épater les bourgeoises.” There is no doubt that in 1964 the Beatles’ long hair had more revolutionary shock value than their music, great as it was.
JE: Are Rosicrucians involved in the story?
TC: Certainly. A very important strand. I was able to research the existence of a continuity of the Rosicrucian impulse, active in Toulouse, France, in the early 19th century, with roots in the Cagliostro period in the late 18th century. That was fascinating, and will come as a revelation to those interested in Rosicrucian origins and developments. Péladan had his brother’s initiation into the Toulouse Rose-Croix as a foundation for his extraordinary Order of the Catholic Rose-Croix, the Temple and the Graal. Péladan’s movement has tended to be dismissed as a purely aesthetic fantasy of his, but I show that it has roots in far older “Rosicrucian” traditions. We also see how it is Péladan’s outlook that has influenced the whole “Priory of Sion” legend. No Péladan; no Dan Brown, you might say! I also show who the “Martinists” were and where they came from, and why the strand is so pivotal.
JE: Is it true that you have included composers Claude Debussy and Erik Satie in your story? Why?
TC: It has been a longstanding disgrace that Debussy continues to be described as an “Impressionist.” He hated this idea in his lifetime, but that has done nothing to prevent this travesty being reprinted on a myriad record and CD covers! It’s nonsense. As one Symbolist writer said: “The ceiling of Impressionism is too low.” Debussy was influenced deeply by the Hermetic understanding of Nature, shared among key writers known as “Symbolists” who tried to get to divine knowledge reflected in Nature, but whose source transcended appearances. I show how Debussy’s attendance at Bailly’s shop for “Independent Art” in the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin was a critical part of his personal and musical development, as was his personal relationship with Erik Satie. I demonstrate the esoteric construction of many of Debussy’s most well known compositions, and show why Satie’s “Gnossiennes” is plainly of Gnostic inspiration. This will be a gem for musicologists with minds willing to be opened. It also helps give us the essential “Gnostic soundtrack,” and show that Gnosis is a truly creative impulse well beyond the borders of conscious esoteric interest. If you want to scale the heights, you must get into the depths, and drink deep.
TC: How to be sensitive to Nature in its fullest sense; how to become a more divinely-tuned individual; how to find a path of interior self-realisation; how to develop the spiritual faculty of imagination; how to overcome religious and denominational differences. The benefits are practically limitless for we are talking essentially about the recovery of the original image of Man, and what it means to be a true Artist, that is to say, a Magician, and that Art is of God and encompasses all things. And my book shows how it has already happened, to inspire our best endeavours with full knowledge.
JE: Do you think we should have lessons on Esotericism in schools?
TC: I do; and the sooner the better.
JE: Do you think it likely?
TC: Change is possible; that is the essence of magic.
Joanna Edwards is Head Teacher of a Church of England Cathedral School in England. Tobias Churton’s Occult Paris: The Lost Magic of the Belle Époque is available from all good bookstores.
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