Acess to a Western Esotercist
By Gary Lachman
Antoine Faivre is a professor at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, Religious Studies Section, Sorbonne; he is also University Professor of Germanic Studies at the University of Haute-Normandie and the author of several books, among them Access to Western Esotericism (SUNY Press, 1996), The Eternal Hermes (Phanes Press, 1996) and The Golden Fleece and Alchemy (SUNY Press, 1996). With two colleagues, he edits a journal, ARIES, for the Association pour la Recherche et l’Information sur l’Ésotérisme and is director of the series Cahiers de l’Hermétisme (Albin Michel).
Those achievements are impressive enough, one would think. But Faivre is notable for an additional reason. He holds the Sorbonne’s chair in the History of Esoteric and Mystical Currents in Modern and Contemporary Europe. Along with Joscelyn Godwin, Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Robert McDermott, and a few others, Faivre is among a group of modern university scholars for whom the words "esoteric" and "occult" are not anathema. In recent years, the study of esotericism has made inroads into areas of academic respectability. Nevertheless, among his colleagues, Faivre’s position is unlike any other. As a friend remarked, if there’s such a thing as a "professor of esotericism," he has to be in Paris.
Inaugurated in 1965, the chair in the History of Christian Esotericism was first held by Faivre’s predecessor, the aptly named François Secret, a specialist in Christian Kabbalah. Back then, the idea of "esotericism" was familiar at most to a few readers of René Guénon and followers of G. I. Gurdjieff, who had left his mark on Paris in the 1930s and 1940s. But by the time Faivre assumed the chair in 1979, times had changed. The "occult revival" of the 1960s and 1970s had taken place, and the roots of what became the New Age and a global hunger for spirituality had begun to stir. For the postmodern academic climate, eager to challenge canons and plough new fields of research, the rich history of the western esoteric tradition must have seemed a ripe territory to explore.
For readers familiar mainly with popular literature on the subject, Faivre’s approach can be sobering. Rigorously historical, his aim is to rescue esotericism from obscurity and obfuscation, and situate it as a legitimate current in the cultural heritage of the West. This means, first of all, to define exactly what we mean by the term.
One thing he does not mean is a "tradition." He says, "I don't know what it means, the ‘esoteric tradition’. I prefer to speak of ‘currents’ and of esotericism as a ‘form of thought’." For Faivre, esotericism is less a body of received doctrine than a way of looking at the world, a way that is pluralistic, eclectic, open to different ideas, and, oddly, modern. Postmodern, even. What Faivre calls his "humanist path" to esotericism shares much with poststructuralist thought.
This summer, researching a book on the modern occult revival, I had an opportunity to meet Faivre in Paris. At the Salon de Les Trois Colleges, on Rue Cujas near the Sorbonne, we had a conversation about esotericism, hermeticism, and the occult revival of the 1960s and 1970s.
GL: I’ve been reading The Eternal Hermes and Access to Western Esotericism, and I like very much your talk about esotericism as a "state of mind" or sensibility, rather than a doctrine.
Faivre: I call it a form of thought. An English translation of a second volume of Access is currently being prepared by SUNY. It’s entitled Theosophy, Imagination, and Tradition, which are the 3 main chapters, and subtitled Studies in Western Esotericism. I'm currently going over a copy-edited version.
GL: SUNY’s been doing very good work, producing many titles. Ten years ago you didn't see as many texts devoted to esotericism.
Faivre: Speaking of that, something very interesting has happened in Germany, almost for the first time, because German scholars since World War II have hardly busied themselves with the historical study of esotericism. But it seems things are undergoing a change. A symposium devoted to esotericism in the eighteenth century was organized by Monika Neugebauer-Wolk in Germany, the proceedings of which have just been published this year, entitled Aufklarung und Esoterik. She has written a long introduction dealing with the methodological approaches used by Hanegraaff and me.
GL: I mentioned that I am writing about the occult revival of the 1960s. It’s odd that in 1965, only a few years after the very popular Le Matin des magiciens (The Morning of the Magicians, by Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier, 1960) appeared, that a chair of Western Esotericism was established at the Sorbonne. Do you see any connection?
Faivre: Not at all. There’s no connection, or only an indirect one. You could look at it as I do in Access to Western Esotericism, in terms of "periodization"—how certain things happen at the same time—but to be honest, one must say that there was really no direct connection. The Section des Sciences Religieuses at the Sorbonne is designed to cover a wide area of religious phenomena. It was realized little by little that too many things under that heading were neglected, despite the fact that in 1965 we had forty chairs in that domain. Too many things pertaining to religious phenomena were borderline, and didn’t fall under a classical definition of "religious." Call it "mysticism" if you like. And so in 1965 a chair of Christian Esotericism was devised to cover at least some of these things. The creation of this chair was not due to some impetus to "keep abreast of the times," but just to fill in a horrendous gap.
GL: Were you interested in esotericism then?
Faivre: Yes. You see, in 1958 I was twenty-four, in the army, most of the time in Algeria, during the war. I read Le Matin des magiciens then. It was a big change from what I busied myself with at the university. I was interested in German Romanticism and animal magnetism, which plays a role in some aspects of German philosophy. I discovered Goethe’s long poem, The Bride of Corinth, which is a vampire story. At the same time I saw the Terence Fisher film, The Horror of Dracula. I made a connection and immersed myself in the study of the vampire story in Europe, which I traced back to the beginning of the eighteenth century. I worked and worked on this idea and shortly before going into the army had a big manuscript, which I gave to a publisher. A few months later, on leave in Paris, I discovered to my amazement that he had published the book, which was only a draft! I was simultaneously pleased and disappointed.
That book, Les Vampires: Essai historique, critique et littéraire (1962) has been considered a kind of mythological work. I was really interested in things that had very little to do with the classical academic curricula. I decided then to work on esotericism. As a Germanist, I was in a rather good position. So many things had been neglected. I began studying esoteric currents in the Renaissance, Pico, Paracelsus, and so on. I studied mostly esoteric currents in Germany in the eighteenth century—Karl von Eckartshausen (1752–1803), who was the subject of my PhD work, Theosophers, people dabbling in magic or alchemy in the pre-Romantic and Romantic periods.
GL: Was this considered an odd pursuit?
Faivre: An interesting question. I was dealing with authors from two hundred years ago, who hadn’t been recognized, who couldn’t be found in the general books of literature. Most Germanists worked with authors with a certain academic recognition. But fortunately, and for the first time, I must say, in the French academy, the kind of work I was doing became something of a trend. At the end of the 1950s, in the early 1960s, there were more and more professors who considered that research should be devoted to minor people writing at the time the historians were studying. And that’s what happened. In 1969 my study on Eckhartshausen was published. My director received a few phone calls from his colleagues, basically saying, "We don't even know the name of the guy this thesis is devoted to." But then came the trend. This wasn't the beginning, but it was starting to spread.
GL: And where does that place the study of esotericism today? It definitely seems more academically respectable, but is there any danger of its becoming just another academic subject, and of losing its heart?
Faivre: A danger? Why a danger? You can apply that to any subject in religious studies. Why should esoteric studies be an exception? We would never vote an individual into our institute who approached us with a thought like that. Within the academy studies have to be academic. And nothing else.
GL: But it seems you're balancing between wanting to do a very thorough, rigorous historical study, so that it’s much more serious than much New Age writing, and trying to retain the heart of esotericism somehow. From your writing I get the idea that it’s more than a subject for study.
Faivre: I would do exactly the same thing in any other subject. I would write with my heart. By no means is what I do designed to spread esotericism. We are not proselytizing. Absolutely not. I’m not someone who writes or speaks with a view to propagating these ideas.
GL: One aspect of the occult revival of the 1960s and 1970s is that so much of it looked back to the occultists and esotericists of the late nineteenth century. It seemed that in the late nineteenth century, esotericism and the occult made inroads into areas covered by literature and the arts. Why do you think this was so?
Faivre: It was the first time esoteric ideas reached the masses. That didn’t happen until the end of the nineteenth century. The Theosophical Society was really sociologically a great movement. Anthroposophy was a bit later. At the end of World War I there were many other societies—such as AMORC, the Rosicrucian society. This accounts for the spread into popular culture and the arts. Then in the 1960s, you could say it was already the dawn of postmodernism. We were coming out of the period of the great ideologies. There were many people dissatisfied with Marxism, existentialism, and so on. Things were very bleak. Then there was this strange medley of all sorts of things, such as the book by Pauwels and Bergier. It wasn’t so much what was in it, as how it was arranged, how it was laid out. It’s a bad book. But it’s of great interest to sociologists.
Being interested in esoteric currents doesn’t mean being interested only in the period when that current was supposed to have reached its "perfection," but in the genesis, developments, shiftings, derivations. When I first staring reading this sort of literature, names like Crowley, the Golden Dawn, and Gurdjieff sounded mysterious. Now they’re no longer mysterious. They ceased to be so as early as the 1970s. But one of the tricks of Le Matin des magiciens was to present religious mysteries as scientific enigmas, and scientific enigmas as sacred mysteries.
GL: As Erich von Daniken would do soon after in Chariots of the Gods. The gods are spacemen.
Faivre: Daniken represents one of the extreme forms of euhemerism. There is a strong euhemeristic trend in all this. [Euhemerus, 3rd century sc, believed the gods were humans divinized after death.] In order to make sacred things palatable in our culture, which has lost its interest in established religions, we need to find actual, physical explanations. I find that very clever, in the sense of how our cosmological images are shaped.
[In The Eternal Hermes, Faivre traces the history of the fleet-footed god in the Western imagination. In one strongly euhemerist view, Hermes-Thoth was an actual historical person, responsible for some 36,525 books. I told Faivre how much I liked his view of Hermeticism as a pluralistic, eclectic way of looking at things.]
Faivre: There is an opposite way of looking at esoteric currents, a way that tends toward dogmatism, and that unfortunately has got a great deal of attention. Think of René Guénon. Consider for example the notion of universal correspondences. It’s extraordinary how different or opposite discourses on that can be. It boils down to the question of hierarchies. If you say that what is above is like what is below, and what is below is like what is above, you can have a very hierarchical view of humankind, of nature. And this lends itself to an approach that describes higher and lower levels of reality, for example Vedanta, or rather the dogmatic way in which Vedanta is presented in some perennialist discourses.
On the other hand, the very notion of universal correspondences can be understood in a way that is absolutely different—in a democratic way, for example, when William Blake says, "To see the world in a grain of sand." The Copernican revolution did not make problems for the hermeticists. So the earth is no longer the center. So? Okay. Hermes speaks of the center, but there is not only one center, there is an infinity of centers, and there the notion of hierarchy tends to disappear.
You have two ways of looking at things when one speaks of esotericism. One way can be used to the advantage of certain right-wing political movements. Here the emphasis is on hierarchy and authority. It’s led to esotericism being associated for the most part with right-wing politics. This is one reason why esotericism hasn’t been a major study in Germany. It has the association of the Nazis and the occult and so on. And some esotericists have been right-wing. But there is also a strong left-wing, socialist history in esotericism. Éliphas Lévi, who began the occultist current in the nineteenth century, was a utopian socialist.
GL: It seems this aspect of esotericism is getting the most attention these days. You tend to see more and more that it gets lumped in with fascism and right-wing politics, and obviously there is some of that. Julius Evola, for example.
Faivre: Of course, yet many people see only this, not the other. Because of these misunderstandings, an interesting, scholarly academic association was created here. Politica Hermetica, to which I belong, has a conference every year, each time on a different subject, and the proceedings are published. We’ve had topics such as "Hermeticism and the French Revolution" and "The Politics in Evola and Guénon." Wouter Hanegraaff, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, is seriously thinking of a big international symposium on the subject. So there is some positive work on esotericism and right-wing politics.
All this has to be discussed and thoroughly studied. There have been excellent books, like Nicolas Goodrick-Clarke’s The Occult Roots of Nazism. But most books that deal with this don’t deal with the fact that the people who are presented as sources or references for the Nazis don’t by any means represent all the esoteric currents.
GL: I was going to say that the whole Alexandrian atmosphere that fostered Hermeticism was one of tolerance and plurality. I don’t think many of us would enjoy living under a theocratic social system, like the kind Guénon would have approved of.
GL: I want to say that you are doing good work, reclaiming aspects of Western culture and history that have been unavailable for many people—aspects that many people would be interested in if they knew about them, but they don’t.
Faivre: I have been trying for a few years to present a methodology for studying particular aspects or currents of esoteric thought. This methodology has, I hope, contributed to opening the field of esotericism to academic research. What is important is that one tries, always tries, to define more and more thoroughly what one is speaking about. Not to confuse esotericism with mysticism, or religion, or intuition, or secrecy, and so on. Of course, there are lots of overlapping areas. But one must proceed methodologically, otherwise one does not do service to the things one studies.
Gary Lachman has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Lapis, Gnosis, and ReVision, as well as the Quest. He is currently writing a book, The Mystic Sixties, and lives in London with his partner and their son.