Fashionable Occultism

by Maria Carlson

Originally printed in the Spring 2011 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation: Maria, Carlson. "Fashionable Occultism: The Theosophical World of Silver Age Russia
." Quest  99. 2 (Spring 2011): 50-57.

Theosophical Society - Maria Carlson is professor and associate chair of Slavic languages and literatures and courtesy professor of history at the University of Kansas . Her specialties include Russian culture, Russian intellectual history, Slavic folklore, and the Russian Silver Age. A version of this paper appeared in Journal of the Scriabin Society of AmericaIn the years that led up to the social, cultural, and political explosion that was the Russian Revolution of 1917, Russian culture moved toward fragmentation and end. To many, the approaching twentieth century must have appeared as two different worlds converging upon the same physical space. One was the "outside" world of a growing bourgeoisie, the rise of popular culture, positivism, and materialism. It was the sunlit, rational, scientific world of Max Planck and quantum mechanics, Konrad Roentgen and the X-ray, Albert Einstein and the theory of relativity, and the invention of the bicycle, cinema, the automobile, and the airplane.

But there was another world, a darker, more mysterious "inside" world. It was the world of Friedrich Nietzsche and a strange philosophy of eternal return, of Richard Wagner and the mythopoetic drama, of the French poates maudits, of painters who painted landscapes of the mind, of Allan Kardec and spiritualism, of Sigmund Freud, C. G. Jung, and the new "psychic science."

The physical reality of this dualistic world consisted of expanding industry, dirty factories, grim workers, and what appeared as the threatening vulgarity and mediocrity of a growing middle class. The power of the church over the hearts and minds of people was deteriorating, and with its deterioration and a rising atheism a coherent framework for life seemed to be disappearing. Suicide rates and drug addiction were going up, moral standards were going down. Prostitution, anti-Semitism, crushing poverty, epidemics, and disease belonged to this world. There existed a pervasive sense that civilization was coming to an end and that a degenerate Europe (including Russia) would be wiped out—by socialism, by the machine, or by a barbarian invasion from the East (the "Yellow Peril," an atavistic vision of a second Mongol invasion).

Politically, this period was also one of decay. The Romanov dynasty was destroying itself. The Russo-Japanese War of 1905-06, which ended disastrously for Russia , was followed by a revolution in 1905 that brought agrarian upheaval and major postal, telephone, railway, and factory strikes that crippled the country. We know in hindsight that this period would end with a bang—world war, revolution, and civil war.

The psychological tensions caused by this dual reality gave the elite and the sensitive a strong desire to escape from it into some alternative universe where the spirit of man was still the supreme value. Art, music, and literature, of course, offer the immediate possibility of escape from utility, materialism, "progress," mediocrity, and dullness.

In the small, intimate world of the Russian intelligentsia, there was a frantic attempt to cope creatively with the decay of old cultural values, to escape creatively from the impending crisis of culture and consciousness, to bridge the growing chasm between science and religion, reason and faith. Ironically, these psychological and philosophical tensions at the turn of the century created an intense period of blossoming in all the arts.

General Interest in the Occult

People respond in different ways to extreme shifts in their physical, intellectual, and psychic environments. Many among the Russian upper middle class and intelligentsia responded by undertaking intense spiritual searches in untraditional directions—to religious philosophies, orthodox and unorthodox, speculative mysticism, and occult and esoteric philosophies of every kind.

Occultism, in a bewildering variety of forms, was a popular intellectual fashion of the period. Most educated readers had at least a nodding acquaintance with spiritualism and Theosophy, but there was also Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Martinism, Hermeticism, as well as manifestations of "common" or "boulevard" mysticism, such as somnambulism, chiromancy, Tarot, phrenology, mesmerism, astrology, fortune-telling, and dream interpretation. In the cities, people attended public and private seances, demonstrations of hypnotism, and lectures by famous Indian yogis.

If occultism was an intellectual fashion of the fin de siacle, over time it was (as all fashions must be) replaced by other fashions, so that the "occult" aspect of Silver Age culture has probably not received the attention it deserves from historians. (The Silver Age is a term applied to the cultural flowering in Russia during the first two decades of the twentieth century.) What seems eccentric and esoteric to us today was not always so. Russian readers and critics at the turn of the century had little difficulty in recognizing, however superficially, the presence of occult paradigms, images, and vocabulary in the art, literature, and culture of the Silver Age. The Symbolist writer Andrei Belyi (1880-1934), for instance, was ashamed that his novel The Silver Dove was so "obviously Theosophical," yet no critic would use the word "obviously" today. Modern lack of interest in late nineteenth-century occult philosophy, however, does not mean it was unimportant for an understanding of the period. For creative, innovative individuals like Belyi, Aleksandr Scriabin, Konstantin Balmont, Max Voloshin, Nikolai Roerich, Wassily Kandinsky, occult philosophy was a lifetime pursuit that impinged on all aspects of their personal, spiritual, and creative lives. To ignore this dimension in their work is like trying to understand medieval art without a knowledge of Christianity.

Theosophy and the Russian Intelligentsia

While spiritualism, in both its mystical French form and its pseudoscientific Anglo-American guise, was by far the most popular of the occult movements entrancing Russians at the end of the nineteenth century, it was Theosophy that took particular hold of certain influential members of the Russian creative intelligentsia. Their attitude toward this movement was complex. It was not a naive acceptance of Theosophy as a pat answer to the nineteenth century's crisis of culture and consciousness. Nevertheless, they took their engagement with Theosophy seriously, viewing it as a legitimate voice in the larger dialogue on culture, religion, and philosophy that characterized their age.

The creative intelligentsia were quick to identify and respond not only to Theosophy's religious and philosophical dimensions, but also to the mythic, poetic, and aesthetic implications of Theosophical thought. This was especially true of the Russian Symbolist writers and artists, who drew inspiration from Theosophy and even used its cosmogenetic paradigm and its syncretistic doctrine to justify their own theories that true art was religious creativity and the true artist was a being in touch with the divine, a high priest.

About whom are we speaking when we refer to the Theosophically inclined creative intelligentsia? Among them were not only committed Theosophists like poets Konstantin Balmont, Nikolai Minsky, Max Voloshin, and Andrei Belyi, but also curious seekers who flirted with but eventually left Theosophy, including the writers Aleksei Remizov, Valerii Briusov, and Viacheslav Ivanov.

Certain Russian modernist painters (Roerich, Kandinsky, and Margarita Sabashnikova) felt that Theosophical knowledge enhanced the spiritual and intellectual content of their work. In music, Scriabin based his theory that the creation of music was a theurgic act—an act of magical, even divine creation— directly on Theosophical doctrine. Like the literary Symbolists, Scriabin was concerned with theurgy (the act of divine creation), the essence of incantation and rhythm as a profoundly "magic" act, sobornost ("spiritual communion") as mystical experience, art as a form of religious action, and the synthesis of matter and spirit. All these notions are central to Theosophy as well. Theosophy touched the interests of the religious and esoteric philosophers Vladimir Soloviev, Nikolai Berdaiev, and P. D. Ouspensky, who felt the psychological attraction of Theosophical thought and pursued it at a formative time in their lives, although they eventually went in other directions.

The creative intelligentsia and the Theosophists spoke a mutually intelligible, if not identical, language. Like other intellectual movements of the early twentieth century, Russian Theosophy clearly reflected the apocalypticism of its age. Theosophical notions of world catastrophe, cleansing destruction, suffering, and the building of a new, superior culture in which Russia would play a leading role were variants on the same messianic theme dear to Russian god-seekers (idealists) and god-builders (rationalists) alike. Theosophy resonated not only with the religious visions of Soloviev, Nikolai Fedorov, and Dmitry Merezhkovsky, but also with the theurgical aspirations of Maksim Gorky, based on his personal transmutations of modern Theosophy and Slavic sectarian gnosticism. Gorky's vision of a New Nature and a New World (subsequently assimilated to its socialist expression as the Radiant Future) had roots in Theosophical thought (Agursky, 81, 84ff.) Socialism produced its own Prometheanism.

Many members of the intelligentsia, particularly among the modernist writers and religious thinkers, were also able to find common ground with the Theosophists because their personal views of religion tended toward the unconventional. Like the Theosophists, they were interested in ancient mystery cults, sectarianism, gnosticism, oriental religions, and the history of religious thought. Such views were occasionally expressed at the meetings of the various religious-philosophical societies that formed in St Petersburg, Moscow, Kiev , and other cities of the Russian empire. The more intellectually inclined Theosophists also belonged to these societies and participated in their discussions. The names of the leading Russian idealist philosophers (Berdiaev, Sergei Bulgakov, E.N. Trubetskoi, Sergei Frank, Vasily Rozanov, Aleksandr Meier, Dmitry Filosofov, and N. O. Lossky) frequently appeared in Vestnik Teosofii ("Herald of Theosophy"), the principal journal of the Russian Theosophists; their lectures and articles were regularly reported and reviewed in its pages. "Closely observing the religious seeking of our time, one cannot pass by Theosophy, because for certain strata of contemporary educated society Theosophy has made it easier to come to religion," Berdiaev pointed out (Berdiaev, 1).

What Theosophy Is 

If Theosophy was important for this group of creative intelligentsia, what, exactly, was it? In the broadest sense, the word "theosophy" comes from the Greek theosophia ("divine wisdom"). Here the term refers to various systems of mystic gnosis reflected in Buddhism, Neoplatonism, mystery religions, and the speculative mysticism of philosophers like Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900).

In the narrower sense, however, Theosophy refers to a movement, founded on November 17, 1875, in New York City by an eccentric Russian expatriate named Helena Blavatsky, or simply "HPB" (1831-91). Assisted by her spiritualist friend, Colonel Henry Olcott (1832-1907), this woman of genius (or notorious charlatan, depending on one's point of view) created the Theosophical Society, an organization that within twenty-five years was internationally headquartered in Adyar, India , and boasted tens of thousands of members worldwide. Theosophy soon spread to Russia , attracting numerous adherents from the middle and professional classes and from the gentry.

The exoteric or open aim of the Theosophical Society, as stated in its charter, was to form the nucleus of a Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, color, creed, or caste. Many Theosophists lived their creed: they did not drink alcohol or eat meat; they ran soup kitchens, pioneered Montessori education and child care, supported working women, worked with the poor, and learned Esperanto so that they could communicate internationally.

The subsidiary goals of the Society were to sponsor the study of comparative religion, philosophy, and science; to demonstrate the importance of such study; and to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the psychic powers latent in man. A small Esoteric Section of the Society met to study the more sophisticated, theurgic mysteries of Theosophy, which were not for everyone but for the more "spiritually advanced."

Theosophists define their doctrine as a syncretic, mystical, religious-philosophical system, a "synthesis of Science, Religion, and Philosophy," supposedly based on an ancient esoteric tradition that Blavatsky called the "Secret Doctrine" or the "Wisdom Religion." Through "comparative esotericism" (the study of all the world's religious and occult doctrines of the past), Blavatsky's Theosophy claimed to distill out the universal mother doctrine that ageless adepts had been jealously guarding from the uninitiated for thousands of years. Blavatsky called these adepts "Mahatmas" or "masters."

These ancient sages, she claimed, lived in a lodge somewhere in the Himalayas and had little truck with mankind. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, this "Brotherhood of the White Lodge, the Hierarchy of Adepts who watch over and guide the evolution of humanity, and who have preserved these truths unimpaired" (Besant, 41) decided that the time had come for some of these truths to be gradually revealed to mankind through certain chosen vessels. The first chosen vessel turned out to be Blavatsky herself. She explicated her wisdom religion in two lengthy texts, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), claiming that these epics of Theosophical thought were "dictated" to her by the Mahatmas, with whom she was in direct psychic communication.

The texts Blavatsky wrote outlining her "Secret Doctrine" were eclectic, syncretic, dogmatic, strongly pantheistic, and heavily laced with exotic Buddhist thought and vocabulary and not a few false analogies. Combining bits and pieces of Neoplatonism, Brahminism, Buddhism, Kabbalism, Gnosticism, Rosicrucianism, Hermeticism, and other occult doctrines past and present in an occasionally undiscriminating philosophical melange, Blavatsky was trying to create a "scientific" religion, a modern gnosis, based on absolute knowledge of things spiritual rather than on faith. It was an attempt to bridge the perceived abyss between science and religion, between reason and faith.

But behind Theosophy's neo-Buddhism lies an essentially Judeo-Christian moral ethic tempered by spiritual Darwinism (survival not of those with the fittest organism, but of those with the "fittest" spirit). Theosophy could be described as an attempt to disguise positivism as religion. This idea was seductive in its own time, given that the end of the nineteenth century, like the present era, was torn by the psychic tension produced by the seemingly unresolvable dichotomy between science and religion. And so Blavatsky's new Theosophy offered nineteenth-century man an alternative to the dominant materialism, rationalism, and positivism of the age.

Although the Theosophical Society was founded in New York in 1875 and grew quickly worldwide, the Russian Theosophical Society was not officially registered and chartered in St. Petersburg until September 30, 1908 (Old Style), following social reforms forced by the 1905 Revolution. Nevertheless, Theosophy existed in Russia long before the official registration of the Society. Russians who traveled abroad often became members of the national sections of the Society in England, Belgium, Germany, and France . Scriabin, for example, was a member of the Belgian Lodge. Most Russian Theosophists belonged to the English or German Sections. Documented private Theosophical circles existed in major Russian cities from the early 1890s, and Theosophical texts circulated in French, German, and English texts as well as in hand-copied manuscripts (a form of Theosophical samizdat).

Theosophy is a modern combination of metaphysical monism, emanationism, and pantheism. As such, it traces all existence back to the emanations of a single, ineffable, unknowable Godhead. The Godhead emanates and creates the universe. Because the universe "unrolls" from the Godhead, God is everywhere and in everything (pantheism). At the end of time, all existence "rolls back up" into the Godhead. This is the "outbreathing" and the "inbreathing" of Brahma. The process cyclically repeats into eternity.

The human soul, likewise an emanation of this single reality of the Godhead, transmigrates through an enormous number of lifetimes, first downward, from spirit into matter, then back up from matter into spirit. Each incarnation is shaped by the karma generated by good or evil acts. At the end of the nineteenth century, Blavatsky announced that the present era of earth history marks a turning point at which the downward march of humanity into matter must be reversed; enlightened individuals, aided by the revelations of Theosophical doctrine, are ready to begin the ascent to the realm of the spirit, ready to be rolled up into the Godhead, to become god.

Theosophy and the Creative Artist

If we are interested in understanding creative artists motivated by speculative mysticism (as Scriabin, Belyi, Roerich, and Kandinsky were), then we need to become sufficiently acquainted with Theosophy to discern evidence of the contact of the creative personality with it, when valid, and to consider the ways in which a Theosophical world conception or the use of key Theosophical imagery and vocabulary might influence the artist's work. Some knowledge of Theosophy can be particularly productive in dealing with modernism in Russian literature and abstraction in Russian painting, for example. In his book The Sounding Cosmos, Sixten Ringbom writes about the tremendous social and intellectual changes that occurred during the fin de siacle and points out that it is no coincidence that "abstract art [in all its various expressions] emerged by the end of the first decade of our [twentieth] century, the same decade that saw the publication of Theosophical works describing the non-objective worlds in texts and illustrations." He goes on to say that Theosophy was "the creed that contained, as it were, a built-in link between the spiritualistic world conception and its materialization in an image" (Ringbom, 24).

In the case of Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, both of whom read Annie Besant's, Charles W. Leadbeater's, and Rudolf Steiner's creative descriptions of life on higher planes and in different forms of refined matter, their abstract art clearly emerged from a desire to portray spiritual and psychic realities, and not from mere boredom with representational painting or the experience of alienating angst (although that may have come later, and was probably exacerbated by the subsequent loss of the spiritual that the first generation of abstractionists was seeking to avoid). When Kandinsky and Mondrian used words like "mystic" and "spiritual" to describe their art, they had specific connotations in mind.

The idea that abstraction in painting and music may have emerged from a desire to portray spiritual and psychic rather than physical realities—to depict the fourth dimension, so to speak—can be pursued into the realm of modern literature as well. The resonance between the abstract paintings of Kandinsky, the modernist novels of Belyi, and the compositions of Scriabin is suggestive. All were highly creative personalities, had rigorous academic training, and were seriously interested in Theosophy. Belyi was philosophically and aesthetically saturated with Theosophical doctrine; Kandinsky was more selective. Scriabin was totally committed; he even defined the concept of "ecstasy," which is central to his creative philosophy and to his worldview, as "seeing on the higher planes of nature."

In the case of all three artists, the notion of the modern that emerges in their work is one based on the supersensible perceptions of a higher reality, on the representation of that which occurs beyond the plane of "gross matter," where spiritual "forms" need not necessarily resemble the forms of physical matter found in this world at all. Their works strive for an intellectual and spiritual dimension that is simultaneously personal and universal. Like the Theosophists, these artists strip away the "outer garments" of their historical period and their own personalities to reach the eternal and spiritual in art.

This explication has been very abstract. I would like to provide a concrete example of how a specific Theosophical idea might have affected the Russian Silver Age artist.

Thought Forms, written by Annie Besant and Charles Leadbeater, was among the most provocative Theosophical works. This book was devoted to the use of color and abstract forms as representing emotions, thoughts, and feelings projected onto the astral plane. The astral plane is the second of seven levels of being. Most of us live our lives focused on in the "gross matter" of the physical, or material, plane, unaware that there is also an astral plane, mental plane, and beyond them, intuitional, spiritual, monadic, and, finally, divine planes. These seven planes of existence, Besant tells us, are "concentric interpenetrating spheres, not separated from each other by distance, but by difference of constitution" (Besant, Ancient Wisdom, 63). They exist simultaneously, occupy the same space, and are in fact differing dimensions, or states, of matter and consciousness. They are invisible to the average human being, but can be contacted by those who are mentally ill, in a dreaming state, or spiritually trained to access them.

Thoughts and feelings can become palpable on the astral plane; they can take form. To understand this, we need to turn our thinking a few degrees. While the materialists insisted that thought was the product of chemical reactions in the brain, that matter generated thought, the occultists reversed this: thought, they said, generated matter. In Isis Unveiled, Blavatsky writes:

As God creates, so man can create. Given a certain intensity of will, and the shapes created by the mind become subjective. Hallucinations, they are called, although to their creator they are real as any visible object is to anyone else. Given a more intense and intelligent concentration of this will, and the form becomes concrete, visible, objective; the man has learned the secret of secrets; he is a magician (Blavatsky, 1:62).

Consider Blavatsky's observation, a basic tenet of Theosophy, in connection with Belyi's novel Petersburg , where characters are willed into existence not only by the author, but even by other characters. The works of the period contain many such occult references.

Besant said that these forces were the result of "intense and intelligent concentration" of will: "thought forms." Thought forms are mental projections, thoughts, or ideas, too subtle to be seen in gross physical matter, but which manifest themselves in refined astral matter. While they may assume shapes reminiscent of objects in physical matter, they more commonly assume an abstract form natural to the astral or mental plane. Such a form would have nothing in common with its source on the physical plane. Besant's book contains illustrations of such thought forms: geometric figures, starbursts, hazy clouds, even proto-computer graphics, all highly suggestive of later abstract art.

Thought forms, according to Besant, take their particular structure from the vibrations of astral matter (or elemental essence). As an example, she refers to putting sand on a sound plate and then vibrating the plate. The sand will create regular patterns. Vibrations in astral matter, of course, produce astral sound as well as form. As they move through astral space, they strike other thought forms, setting up additional vibrations. Such vibrations, perhaps, produce the music of the spheres, or the ringing cosmos, or a symphony or poem.

In any event, the shape of these thought forms is fluid and easily modified. When they assume shape, the thought forms also take color from the generating emotion or intellectual thought. Thus different colors are associated with different emotions, different vibrations/sounds, and different shapes.

Belyi's novel Petersburg , published in 1912, offers a good example. "An astral entity will change its whole appearance with the most startling rapidity," Besant explains, "for astral matter takes form under every impulse of thought, the life swiftly remoulding the form to give itself new expression"  (Besant, Man and His Bodies, 39). And this is one reason why characters in Belyi's novel constantly change into other people: the Semitic Mongol—the student Upensky—Uppanchenko—the "black-hearted" Mavrokordato; Shishnarfiev—Shishnarfne—Enfranshish; Voronkov—Morkovin; the Bronze Horseman—the Dutchman—the sailor—the Bronze Guest. Why do slippers and wallpaper come alive and suitcases reshape themselves? They are all astral entities, constantly being molded and remolded on the astral plane by the thoughts of Russians. These thought forms, once in existence, can then influence events and people on the physical plane.

The same may be said of colors. In Petersburg, the Theosophical colors determine the novel's color imagery: the bright yellow of pure intellect is associated with the abstractly intellectual Senator Ableukhov and his house, for example; while the green waters of the Neva signal the selfishness and deceit that characterize the city. Red anger, gray malice, black hatred all have their own codes in the novel.

These color codes are not accidental. The Theosophical color schemes had been presented earlier in Annie Besant's Ancient Wisdom, but Thought Forms lavishly illustrated the concept in vibrant Theosophical color. Widely available and advertised, Thought Forms was closely read by the avant-garde art community. Kandinsky owned the 1908 German translation and familiarized himself with it before publishing his own major essay, Ãœber das Geistige in der Kunst ("Concerning the Spiritual in Art"). In Russia , Theosophists and occultists read it in English, in German, or in the popular and frequently reprinted Russian paraphrase of Elena Pisareva.*

Scriabin's uses of sound and color (in his famous "light organ," for example, which was to accompany the performance of certain musical works) parallels Belyi's orchestration of words and colors in his novel. For both artists, the colors, when coupled with the music (vibration) of the cosmos, were capable of evoking a symphony of emotions and states in the reader/listener that raised him above the murky, muddy colors of the material earth and into the azure and gold of divine spirit.

The interest of Kandinsky, Belyi, Scriabin, and other creative personalities in Theosophy was a manifestation of the the larger crisis of culture and consciousness of the fin de siacle. Our deeper knowledge and appropriate understanding of the role that the Theosophical worldview played in their visual, literary, and musical quests and creations offer new interpretive possibilities of their work and their times, and help us better to appreciate the artistic masterpieces to which this era gave birth.

Selected Bibliography

Agursky, Mikhail. "Maksim Gorky and the Decline of Bolshevik Theomachy." In Christianity and Russian Culture in Soviet Society, ed. Nicolai N. Petro (Boulder. Colo. : Westview, 1990).

Berdiaev, Nikolai. Tipy religioznoi mysli v Rossii. Paris : YMCA, 1989).

Besant, Annie. Ancient Wisdom. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1977 (1897).

———. Man and His Bodies. Adyar: Theosophical Publishing House, 1975 (1896).

Besant, Annie, and C. W. Leadbeater. Thought Forms. London : Theosophical Publishing House, 1901.

Blavatsky, H. P. Isis Unveiled. Two volumes. Wheaton : Theosophical Publishing House, 1972 (1877).

Ringbom, Sixten. The Sounding Cosmos: A Study of the Spiritualism of Kandinsky and the Genesis of Abstract Painting. Ã…bo ( Turku), Finland : Ã…bo Akademi, 1970.

Sabaneyeff, Leonid. Modern Russian Composers. Translated by Judah A. Joffe. New York : International Publishers, 1927.


*Elena Pisareva (1855-1944) was a principal contributor to the Theosophical movement in Russia from the 1880s through the 1920s. A talented writer and prolific translator, she wrote a firsthand account of how Theosophy came to Russia and developed there until the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, after which many of the leading figures in Russian Theosophy went into exile. See her book Light of the Russian Soul: A Personal Memoir of Early Russian Theosophy, trans. George M. Young ( Wheaton : Quest, 2008; excerpted in Quest, Sept.-Oct 2008).

Maria Carlson is professor and associate chair of Slavic languages and literatures and courtesy professor of history at the University of Kansas . Her specialties include Russian culture, Russian intellectual history, Slavic folklore, and the Russian Silver Age. A version of this paper appeared in Journal of the Scriabin Society of America 12.1 (Winter 2007-08), 54-62.