Book Report: Occult Underground & Establishment
By Earl Wajenberg
This will be a book report on The Occult Underground
and The Occult Establishment by James Webb, published
by Open Court. The reports, I warn you, are on the long
side but I write them because of their general interest.
The two books are social histories of occultism, covering
the 19th and 20th centuries respectively. More exactly,
"The Occult Underground" covers the "period
of great uncertainty extending roughly from the downfall
of Napoleon to the outbreak of World War One" (1815-1914),
while "The Occult Establishment" covers the period
from the end of World War One to the date of writing (1918-1974).
I think it would be great if Webb had come up with a third
work, probably shorter, on the New Age Movement, but he
might have consider that it was too recent to be examined
by an historian.
The books are not, of course, just chronicles. Webb calls
them "an attempt to show how the occult revival can
be used as a key to a crisis which we have still not resolved,
and how the occult relates to the better-lit regions of
The crisis Webb refers to is one he calls "the crisis
of consciousness." Others might call it an "existential
crisis" or something of the sort. He refers to the
way the democratic, scientific, and industrial revolutions
combined to increase the power of individuals and nations
while simultaneously destroying the social, religious, and
political structures that provided orientation in the 17th
and 18th centuries.
Those centuries have been called the Age of Reason; Webb
calls the 19th and 20th centuries the "Age of the Irrational,"
and first published "Occult Underground" under
the title "The Flight from Reason." This marks
a negative tone in his approach to the occult, and I'm sure
he is not a Believer, but he is not a debunker, either.
His "Reason" (capital R) is not sanity or formal
logic, but the received wisdom of the dominant social institutions,
of the Establishment, the Powers That Be. (Webb often uses
both those terms, and coins the antiquarian variant, the
Powers That Were.)
Conversely, Webb defines the occult as "rejected knowledge,"
systems of thought and doctrine cast aside by the Establishment
for whatever reason. Thus Webb's occult includes Theosophy,
Spiritualism, and ceremonial magic, but also pseudo-sciences
and fringey religions. (I feel the books somewhat neglect
pseudo-science.) These things often overlap in membership
with offbeat social movements like the Fabians, the New
England Transcendentalists, and the Parisian Bohemians of
That, in fact, is Webb's point. The occult community is
simply the intelligentsia of the Underground, the Anti-Establishment,
Counter-culture, whatever it is called or calls itself in
a given age. Studying their history is valuable, says Webb,
not only for its intrinsic interest, but as a window on
those revolutionaries who, from time to time, disturb, modify,
or replace chunks of the Establishment.
Here is a short outline of The Occult Underground based
on the table of contents:
Introduction: The Flight From Reason
This contains the thesis statement and definitions of "private"
terms I have outlined in my first post. It also contains
hedges. Webb knows full well, for instance, that the "Age
of Reason" had weird ideas and superstitions, and the
"Age of the Irrational" had plenty of logic and
Chapter 1: The Necromancers
This describes the origins of mediumship and interest in
spiritualism, including Spiritualism proper and the career
of the famous/notorious Fox sisters, who invented table-rapping;
the Swedenborg Church; and the Society of Psychical Research.
Chapter 2: Babel
This describes the interest, attractions, repulsions, and
confusions in the West that resulted from exposure to Hinduism,
Buddhism, and other high religions of the East. It examines
the considerable role of oriental thought in western occultism;
the origins of Baha'i; and the Parliament of Religions at
the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, where the interest and confusion
were particularly evident.
Chapter 3: The Masters and the Messiah
This is concerned with the origins of Theosophy, a major
force in 19th- and 20th-century occultism. It gives a delightful
précis of the colorful (to say the least) career
of Mme. H. P. Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, and of
other Theosophical notables, such as Annie Besant (successor
to Blavatsky), Rev. C. W. Leadbeater (famous for observations
of auras and "thought-forms"), Rudolf Steiner
(one-time Theosophist and founder of the rival sect of Anthroposophy),
and Krishnamurti (an Indian chosen as a child by Besant
as the incarnation of Maitreya, the next Buddha, which position
he later publicly renounced).
Chapter 4: The Lord's Anointed
This chapter describes the interactions between Christianity
and occultism -- other than simple enmity. This includes
the millenialist groups like the Millerites and their successors,
Seventh-Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses; the Mormons;
the Christian Scientists; a small Counter-Reformation Part
II in extremist Anglo-Catholic circles; and the vision-laden,
conspiracy-hunting, semi-Catholic sect of the French Vintrasians.
Much of the American activity started up in the "burned-over
region," an area of upper New York state once famous
for traveling revivalists. Please note that most of these
Christian "occultisms" do not entail spell-casting
or seances. This illustrates Webb's wider use of the term
"occult" as "rejected knowledge" --
in this case, rejected revelations or doctrines.
Chapter 5: Visions of Heaven and Hell
This chapter describes the role of occultism in the artistic
community, focusing on "Bohemia" in late 19th-century
Paris. This is a particularly juicy chapter, full of colorful
characters. Webb divides the artists, particularly the authors,
into two camps--aesthetes and poetes maudites ("accursed
poets," their own phrase). Both reacted against the
naturalism of Established art. Aesthetes searched for an
ideal beauty beyond the limits of nature. Poetes maudites
sought to plumb the depths of experience in their search
for wisdom, and I do mean depths. (They produced scandalous
novels about depravity, like "La Bas" by the Abbe
Boullan.) One of the leading aesthetes was Josephin Peladan,
who proclaimed himself "Sar Merodach," and a sort
of archbishop of an order of Catholic mage-artists (founded
by himself). Accursed poets include J. K. Huysmans and (I
Chapter 6: Secret Traditions
This chapter is much more generally historical than the
rest of the book. It examines the ancient sources that contributed
to "the Tradition," by which Webb means the body
of lore that occultists largely draw on. These include Neo-Platonism,
Gnosticism, Hermetism, and the mystery religions. While
not wanting to push the idea too far, Webb assigns Plato
as the patron saint of the occultists, versus Aristotle
as the patron saint of the Establishment intelligentsia.
Stirring up and confusing this semi-coherent body of ancient
lore is a large dollop of rejected science that started
accumulating back in the 18th century.
Chapter 7: An Anatomy of Souls
This chapter examines the opening moves of the occult revival
in the 19th century. It seems to start with the partition
of Poland and the scattering of Polish refugees all over
Europe. Some of these refugees appear to have been occultists,
and brought the Traditions (as outlined in the previous
chapter) to France, where French occultists had been subsisting
on Mesmerism and second-hand Hinduism. The chapter also
describes the career of Eliphas Levi, a founding father
of modern occultism.
Chapter 8: The Spiritual in Politics
This follows closely on the theme of the previous chapter.
The occultist accompaniment to liberal protests over the
treatment of Poland went on amid grandiose political fevering
about Poland being a "Christ-nation" crucified
for the sins of other nations, and the second coming of
Napoleon. Others put up France up as the "Christ-nation,"
crucified at Waterloo. Seers claimed that Louis XVII had
not died as a child in the Terror, but (rather like Anastasia
and Elvis) was still around; pretenders, of course, were
plentiful and colorful. More immediately interesting, Webb
claims that the Irish sense of national identity was *created*
by W. B. Yeats, James Morgan Pryse, and other poetic occultists.
He compares this to a less successful attempt to promote
Scottish home rule.
Chapter 9: The Two Realities
In this summing-up chapter, Webb points out the natural
affinity occultism has for other anti-Establishment and
revolutionary movements. One such companion is that flavor
of nationalism that sees the Nation as a metaphysical being
greater and realer than the individuals in its population.
Another natural ally is any ideology held with the force
of a religion. The common denominator to all such things
is an idealist temper, subordinating the material world
to an immaterial scheme, whether that scheme be magical,
biological, or social. This is a theme he enlarges on in
the next book.
Here is a short outline of The Occult Establishment
based on the table of contents and the abstracts at
the head of each chapter:
Introduction: The Struggle for the Irrational
Abstract: The Flight from Reason -- The Occult as Rejected
Knowledge -- Secular Religions -- The First World War and
the Failure of Rationalism -- The Occult and "Illuminated
Politics" -- The Consistency of the Irrational
In this chapter, Webb once more defines his own uses of
terms such as "reason" (conventional wisdom and
consensus reality), "occult" (unconventional wisdom)
and "illuminated politics" (politics influenced
or motivated by occult theories). He remarks that, while
the occult movements of the 19th century were predominantly
religious, those of the 20th are predominantly ethical and
Chapter 1: Ginungagapp [The primal void in Norse mythology.]
Abstract: A Neurasthenic Society -- Occultism in the Twenties
-- Irrationalist Currents in Central Europe -- The Progressive
Underground and Occultism -- The Occultism of Prague and
Vienna -- The Munich Cosmics -- Communes and Colonies --
Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy
This chapter surveys the social situation in Europe just
after World War I, which Webb sees as "without form
and void" in many ways, confused and lacking in direction.
Occult and social-reform movements begin to overlap in membership,
and in their ideas. Post-war German occultism was "invaded"
and dominated by the Parisian Symbolists and the English
Theosophists. The chapter gives capsule histories of several
occult societies and utopian movements, including the O.T.O.
and the ominous beginnings of racial mysticism. It includes
the occult-related careers of interesting figures such as
Gustav Meyrink, Freidrich Eckstein, and Rudolf Steiner.
Chapter 2: Eden's Folk
Abstract: The Disease of Civilization -- The English Youth
Movements -- Back to the Land -- The Merrie England of the
Guilds -- Christian Utopias -- The Youth Movements and Social
Relevance -- Social Credit -- The Illuminates and Fascism
-- The Illuminates and Anti-Semitism
This chapter focuses particularly on the social and utopian
movements that flourished between the world wars. Many were
British; most are now extinct. They were typically anti-materialist
(in most senses of "materialism") and anti-individualistic.
The Boy Scouts originated as one of the English Youth Movements,
but not a very occult one; however, less conventional alternatives
also arose, like the "Kibbo-Kift." Many of these
youth-movements had religious elements; some put their young
members through a recapitulation of human history, from
stone age to civilization; some had eugenic themes; many
were elitist in one way or another. They quarreled and schismed
a great deal. They interlaced with the romantic agrarian
movements that sought the supposed "good old days"
of small self-sufficient pre-industrial villages; these
included assorted craft guilds inspired by William Morris.
The Christian utopians included notable writers such as
Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra
Pound. "Social Credit" was a scheme whereby people
were to be recompensed by the government for the utility
of the jobs to the nation, if this was not properly represented
by the market. (E.g. sewage workers would get a big "social
credit" bonus because their job is so necessary.) The
occult connection to all this is more an overlap of membership
than of ideas.
Chapter 3: Wise Men from the East
Abstract: Slav Mysticism and the West -- The Russian Religious
Revival - -- Symbolism and Decadence -- The Occult Revival
in Russia -- Magicians at Court -- The Emigration of the
Mystics -- Slav Gurus in Western Europe -- Their Association
with the Underground -- Types of Russian Illuminated Politics
This chapter describes the occult scene in czarist Russia.
The Russian religious revival included bizarre sects and
schisms of the Orthodox Church: Raskolniki, Stranniki, Khlysty,
and Skoptsy. It details the career of Mme. Blavatsky and
later Theosophists in Russia, and their schismatics, the
Anthroposophists. It sketches the careers of Soloviev, M.
Philippe, Rasputin, Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Keyserling, and
Lutoslawski. Many of these folk and their followers fled
west when the Revolution came. Webb attributes Russian occultists
with popularizing the notions of the world as organism,
imminent apocalypse, and the hatred of materialism.
Chapter 4: The Conspiracy against the World
Abstract: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- The Occult,
Anti-Semitism and Conspiracy Theories -- The Theosophical
Society and the Plots of Jews and Jesuits -- The "Secret
of the Jews" and its Occult Sources -- The Protocols
and the Rival Gurus -- The Illuminated Nature of Russian
anti-Semitism -- The Supernatural and the Myth of the Ipatyev
House -- Illuminated anti-Semitism comes West
This and the following chapter are the darkest in the book.
The Protocols are a document forged around the time of the
Dreyfus scandal, purporting to be a "leak" from
the files of a world-wide Jewish conspiracy. There were
and are many different conspiracy theories, but Jews are
one of their favorite targets (along with Masons and Jesuits),
because they are simultaneously ethnic but international,
arousing suspicion in some ardent nationalists. Conspiracy
theorists overlap a lot with occultists because, according
to Webb, both spheres of interest invite fanaticism and
a binary, black/white mode of judgement; also, both conspiratism
and occultism are, in Webb's view, responses to insecurity.
However, sometimes the connection is inverted; many conspiratists
are fervent ex-occultic ANTI-occultists. This chapter examines
the weird career of Yulianna Glinka, Theosophist and amateur
spy. It also touches on Mme. Blavatsky, her theories on
the evolutions of races, and her "Jesuit conspiracy",
and the Theosophical anti-Semitic book "The Hebrew
Talisman." In Russia, all this connected to the Orthodox
Church and the tsar's court, where different occultic lobbies
accused one another of Zionism.
Chapter 5: The Magi of the North
Abstract: The Underground in Power -- "voelkisch"
Occultism -- The Mystic Dietrich Eckart -- The Spirituality
of Gottfried Feder -- Alfred Rosenberg and Russian anti-Semitism
-- Rudolf von Sebottendorff and the Thule Bund -- Adolf
Hitler and "voelkisch" Occultism -- The Ludendorffs
and the Conspiracy Theory -- The Fate of the Mystics after
the Machtergreifung -- Rosenberg's Aryan Atlantis -- Himmler's
Occult Fantasies -- The Deutsches Ahnenerbe -- Hitler and
Hoerbiger -- Other Realities and the Divine Sanction
"Nazi Germany present the unique spectacle of the
partial transformation of the Underground of rejected knowledge
into an Establishment." That is the first sentence
and theme of this chapter. The "voelkisch" (or
"folkish") occultism mentioned in the abstract
deals with the general idea that whole peoples have racial
or national spirits beyond (and, in a fascist view, more
important than) their individual ones. The chapter describes
Adolf Lanz and his "Ariosophy," an Aryan edition
of Theosophy. Eckart receives a biographical sketch -- a
gnostic ex-monk who hated Jews and Anthroposophists. Other
interesting characters are Baron Reichenbach with his theory
of "historionomy" and Hans Hoerbiger, who preached
that the moon and all planets but Earth were made of ice
and the stars of hot metal. All these people and ideas form
part of the fabric from which Hitler wove his horrid tapestry.
But please note that Webb specifically denies that Hitler
and the other leading Nazis were primarily occultists, though
they clearly had occultic interests. It is also worth noting
that ONLY those occultists who contributed to the Nazi fabric
were tolerated -- e.g. Hoerbiger with his cosmic ice. All
the others -- Theosophists, Anthroposophists, even Ariosophists,
plus Spiritualists, astrologers, and all the others -- were
rounded up along with Jews, gays, gypsies, Christian Scientists,
and Jehovah's Witnesses, and sent to the camps.
REVIEWER'S NOTE: Webb does not remark on it, but I think
one of the striking changes in occultism since World War
Two is the shift *away* from "voelkisch" theories
and to extremely individualist or universalist ones.
Chapter 6: The Hermetic Academy
Abstract: The Discovery of the Unconscious -- Freud and
the Occultists - -- The Status of Hypnotism -- The Eccentricities
of Wilhelm Fliess -- Psychoanalysis and Psychical research
-- Freud as Secularizer of the Occult -- The Occult Experiences
of Jung -- Basilides the Gnostic -- The Analysis of Kristine
Mann-- The Eranos Conferences -- J. W. Hauer and the Nordic
Faith Movement -- Spiritual Progress and Education -- The
Occult and the New Educational Fellowship
This chapter, on a much happier theme, discusses the influence
of "rejected knowledge" on the academic establishment.
As the abstract shows, it deals almost wholly with psychology,
but Webb credits Einstein's relativity theories with shaking
the old Establishment world view enough to soften up the
academic establishment. Webb remarks on the love/hate attitude
of occultists toward science -- on the one hand, the Establishment
rival that has rejected them, on the other, the "in-crowd"
they often seek to join. The chapter examines Freud's early
and late interests in psychical research and, in the middle,
his very careful distancing of himself and his psychoanalytic
theories from anything occult, in order to gain scientific
respectability. Jung, on the other hand, accepted psychic
phenomena as a matter of course, which was part of the wedge
driven between him and Freud. Jung's occult connections
are many and complex.
Chapter 7: The Great Liberation
Abstract: Liberation and Society -- Modern Art and the
Occult revival -- America imports Bohemia -- Drugs and the
Occult -- Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey -- Underground Occultism
-- Haight-Ashbury and the Hippies -- New Forms of Illuminated
Politics -- Reich, Marcuse, and Metaphysica Liberation --
R. D. Laing and the Dialectics of Liberation
This chapter, as the abstract shows, brings us nearly up
to the present and deals with the '60s and '70s. This phase
brought the gnostic theme of liberation from the world into
"illuminated politics." Originally, this was escape
from matter; politically, it became escape from the Establishment
or the non-visionary, non-hallucinogenic state of consciousness.
The occult is linked to modern art by the quasi-sacred role
given the artist, who leads the viewer beyond the mundane.
The drugs mentioned in the abstract are, of course, mind-altering,
starting with ether in the 19th century, but principally
discussing LSD. The new forms of illuminated politics are
not only in the issues but in the methods -- be-ins, happenings,
protests, and myth-based media-manipulation. This trip down
memory lane include Jack Kerouac, Alan Watts, Reich's "orgone,"
the Yippies, and Leary's sacramental views on LSD.
Chapter 8: A Grammar of Unreason
Abstract: Rationalists and Irrationalists -- The Private
Worlds of Occultists and Illuminated Politicians -- Writers
and Readers of Fantastic Literature -- The Nature of Imaginary
Worlds -- Their Connections with the Occult -- Flying Saucers
-- The Search for Otherness and the Creative Imagination
This chapter is an odd blend of summary statement and brief
survey of fantastic literature for the period. Webb sees
three massive crises of confidence in the history of the
West: one in the centuries around the life of Christ, another
in the Renaissance/Reformation period, and the current one,
starting in the 19th century. The middle crisis ended by
producing the conventions he has been calling "Reason"
-- a concentration of attention and technique on the problems
of everyday survival and convenience; it is successful but
insufficient to human needs.
To me, the most interesting part of the chapter is his exploration
of the overlap between occultism and fantastic literature.
He notes the use of occult themes in fantasy and SF, and
their more historical overlap in the origins of UFOlogy
and Scientology. Though why Webb picks on fantastic literature
to plumb the nature of occult psychology (rather than any
of the other places it crops up) I do not understand.
He ends the book by noting the common urge to find "otherness"
in both occult efforts and fantastic art -- to discover
it, or to invent or feign it. Both spring from the creative
urge, which is both necessary and perilous.
"They have been ringing in the age of Aquarius since
the last century. It may never come, but it is essential
to keep ringing; for without that distant angelus life would
be a sad and dreary place. The hope for something better,
something different; the prodding, nudging, shoving force
that irritates man to change by inducing visions of a reality
other than that of the present: this might -- in the imagination
of this writer at least -- be the explanation of all art,
all religion, all philosophy. ... This is no place to pronounce
on the personal quests of the occultists. The impression
remains that most become trapped in their private worlds
and produce sadly little evidence of the power of imagination.
There are too many attempts to destroy reason rather than
extend it. ... Unreason exists to be made reasonable, and
reason to be extended by the discovery of possibilities
initially outside its comprehension."