*2005-06 ARCHIVE* FOR neomenia | new middle ages

Thursday, May 04, 2006

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Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Chicago Manual of Style Replying

Q. I’m an editor in an academic publishing house. I’ve been advised by our best-selling author to use “eadem” (fem.) in place of “idem,” where appropriate. Recently I had an instance in which I needed to use “idem” (within the same note) in reference to two male authors. The masculine plural is “eidem.” Then I realized we might potentially need the feminine plural form some day! Yikes! Do we really want to go down this road?

A. More to the point, how would authors and editors determine the gender of every author in a bibliography? “Idem” is the standard term, and to attempt further clarification invites inaccuracy and possible offense (not to mention restraining orders).

Source: CMS

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

It's so cowardly to attack the church when we won't offend Islam

Nick Cohen

Sunday February 19, 2006
The Observer

Last week, I went to the East End of London to witness the death of the avant-garde. At first glance, Gilbert and George's Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual?' exhibition at the White Cube did not look like a wake. The bright and glistening gallery is in Hoxton, a corner of town that has been full of life since it was colonised and gentrified by 'Young British Artists' in the early Nineties. As fashionable visitors move between its loft conversions and cafes, 'edgy' is the highest compliment they can bestow and 'taboo' the gravest insult. Taboos are taboo in Hoxton.

Even on a wet Thursday lunchtime, there were plenty of sightseers from the metropolitan intelligentsia enjoying the show rather than mourning the passing of their world. In prose that might embarrass an estate agent, novelist Michael Bracewell told them in the catalogue that Gilbert and George were engaged 'in rebellion, an assault on the laws and institutions of superstition and religious belief'.

Burbling critics agreed. Gilbert and George still get a 'frisson of excitement' by including 'f-words, turds, semen, their own pallid bodies and other affronts to bourgeois sensibilities' in their work, wrote a journalist with the impeccably bourgeois name of Cassandra Jardine in the Daily Telegraph. 'Is it the perfect Christmas card to send George Bush at Easter? Yeah, yeah,' added groovy Waldemar Januszczak of the Sunday Times

Their justifications for edgy art won't work any longer and not only because the average member of the educated bourgeoisie likes nothing better than f-words and pallid bodies on a visit to the theatre or gallery. After the refusal of the entire British press to print innocuous Danish cartoons, the stench of death is in the air. It is now ridiculous and impossible to talk about a fearless disregard for easily offended sensibilities.

Sonofagod is clearly trading under a false prospectus. Gilbert and George narcissistically present themselves as icons towering over a shrivelled Christ. 'God loves Fucking! Enjoy!' reads one inscription. This isn't a brave assault on all religions, just Catholicism.

The gallery owners know that although Catholics will be offended, they won't harm them. That knowledge invalidates their claims to be transgressive. An uprising that doesn't provoke a response isn't a 'rebellion', but a smug affirmation of the cultural status quo.

If they were to do the same to Islam, all hell would break loose. In interviews publicising the show, Gilbert and George showed that they at least understood the double standard. They're gay men who live in the East End where the legal groups of the Islamic far right - Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Association of Britain - are superseded by semi-clandestine organisations which push leaflets through their door saying: 'Verily, it is time to rejoice in the coming state of Islam. There will be no negotiation with Islam. It is only a short time before the flag of Islam flies over Downing Street.' Even if the artists found the audacity to take on the theocrats around them, they know no gallery would dare show the results.

The fear of being murdered is a perfectly rational one, but it is eating away at the cultural elite's myths. In the name of breaking taboos, the Britart movement has giggled at paedophilia (Jake and Dinos Chapman) and rubbed salt in the wounds of the parents of the Moors murderers' victims (Marcus Harvey). It can't go on as if nothing has happened because the contradictions between breaking some taboos but not others are becoming too glaring. They were on garish display last year when the Almeida Theatre, the White Cube of theatreland, showed Romance by over-praised American playwright David Mamet.

His characters hurled anti-semitic and anti-Christian abuse at each other and very edgy it sounded, too. The justification for his venom was that he had set the play against the backdrop of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks. He meant the hatreds on stage to reflect the hatreds of the Middle East.

Readers with an interest in foreign affairs will have spotted that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is between Muslims and Jews, not Christians and Jews. Islamophobic abuse ought to have followed the anti-semitic abuse if the play was to make sense. Neither Mamet nor the Almeida had the nerve do that. Their edginess was no match for the desire of the prudent bourgeois to save his skin.

The insincerity extends way beyond the arts. Rory Bremner will tear into Tony Blair, but not Mohammed Khatami. Newspaper editors will print pictures of servicemen beating up demonstrators in Basra, which may place the lives of British troops in danger, but not Danish cartoons, which may place their own lives in danger.

You can't be a little bit free. If you are not willing to offend Islamists who may kill you, what excuse do you have for offending Catholics, the families of murdered children and British troops who won't?

via inferno xv

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Twin Zimbabweans wear loin cloths in court

Associated Press

HARARE, Zimbabwe - Twin Zimbabwean brothers, who dressed in goatskin loincloths to promote traditional African values, were charged with indecent exposure and jailed to await psychiatric tests, court officials said Friday.

Harare magistrate Mishrod Guvamombe ordered the 22-year-old twins, Tafadzwa and Tapiwanashe Fichiani, held in custody to reappear in court on indecency charges Feb. 2 when psychiatric reports will be considered.

The pair went to court Thursday wearing the loin cloths, known as nhembe, covering only their genitals.

They face a fine of Zimbabwe $25,000 (less than 30 U.S. cents).

The twins were arrested, but freed on bail earlier this month, after complaints over their attire by shoppers at a suburban mall in northern Harare.

Police said the brothers claimed to have a religious calling to return to the traditional dress of animal skins worn before the colonial era in southern Africa.

The brothers said they refused to sleep on Western-style beds and were vegetarians.

Zimbabweans generally favor conservative Western clothes. Colorful and flowing African robes are seldom seen.

The state Herald newspaper Friday quoted experts on culture and tradition saying animal skins were only worn in some ceremonial and tribal rites.


Friday, January 27, 2006

Lost treasures of Constantinople test Turkey's 21st-century ambition

The Guardian, January 25, 2006

Ian Traynor

Deep in the soft black earth beneath the cleared slum tenements of old Istanbul, Metin Gokcay points to neatly stacked and labelled crates heaped with shattered crockery. "That's mostly old mosaics and old ceramics," said the Istanbul city archaeologist. "And over there we found bones and coins."

Looking at huge slabs of limestone emerging from a depth of more than 7 metres (25ft) below ground, he adds: "That's late Roman, this is early Byzantine. This tunnel here is very interesting. Perhaps Constantine's mother had her palace over there."

The archaeologist is making mischief. For more than a millennium this city bore the name of Constantine, but whether the emperor's mother lived at this spot called Yenikapi, a powerful stone's throw from the Sea of Marmara, is a moot point. Mr Gokcay is intrigued and baffled by the subterranean stone tunnel which, measuring 1.8 metres by 1.5 metres, is too big to have been used for sewage or as an aqueduct.

But if Mr Gokcay remains in the dark as to the function of the ancient tunnel, his excavations have led to a stunning discovery that could jeopardise Turkey's most ambitious engineering project - a new rail and underground system traversing the Bosphorus and connecting Europe to Asia via a high-speed railway.

Mr Gokcay has uncovered a 5th-century gem - the original port of Constantinople, a maze of dams, jetties and platforms that once was Byzantium's hub for trade with the near east.

Cemal Pulak, a Turkish-American, from Texas, and one of the world's leading experts in nautical archaeology, said: "The ships from here carried the wine in jars and amphorae from the Sea of Marmara. The cargoes of grain came in from Alexandria. This was the harbour that allowed this city to be."

In a mood of barely suppressed excitement, armies of archaeologists and labourers have been scraping away silt and rubble for the past year and revealed a vast site the size of several football pitches. It is slowly giving up its secrets and its treasures.

Seven sunken ships have already been found buried in mud at Yenikapi, a few hundred metres inland from the Sea of Marmara and a 10-minute stroll from the mass tourist attractions of the Grand Bazaar and the Topkapi Palace.

Mr Pulak is thrilled that one of the ships, a longboat, may be the first Byzantine naval vessel ever found. All of the boats appear to have been wrecked in a storm. There are 1,000-year-old shipping ropes in perfect condition, preserved in silt for centuries. There are huge forged iron anchors, viewed as so valuable in medieval Byzantium they were highly prized items in the dowries of the daughters of the wealthy.

Treasure chest

But if the discovery of the ancient port of Constantinople promises a treasure chest of riches for historians and archaeologists, it also brings its problems. The old harbour straddles what is to become the biggest railway station in Turkey, a gleaming modern temple connecting the city's new high-speed rail and metro.

"It's a phenomenal site. But it opens a can of worms," said Mr Pulak. "This is to be the biggest station in Turkey and they'll be wanting to put huge shopping malls on the top."

The Yenikapi site is the linchpin of what the Turkish government dubs the "project of the century". The $4bn (£2.2bn) Marmaray transport project is being built by a Japanese-led consortium. There will be tunnelling under the Bosphorus for the first time ever, with high-speed trains going through the deepest underwater tunnel in the world in the middle of a high-risk earthquake zone. The tunnel itself will be built to withstand quakes of 9.0 on the Richter scale in the area of the North Anatolian Fault, which runs below the Sea of Marmara nearing the walls of Istanbul. Seismologists say a large earthquake and a mini tsunami are almost inevitable within a generation at the latest.

The ambitious new transport system is to shift 75,000 passengers an hour and to put Istanbul behind only Tokyo and New York in the global league table for urban rail capacity.

There is no doubt the Marmaray is needed urgently. In a city of 12 million, which seems to grow by the week, the traffic congestion is a nightmare and the Bosphorus bridges are gridlocked semi-permanently. So the engineers, transport officials and urban planners are in a hurry to get the infrastructure built by the end of the decade. That puts Mr Gokcay and his teams of experts under immense pressure to finish their dig.

"The transport guys say they are losing a million a day because of the archaeological delays," said one expert. "But it's ridiculous - when they were building the Athens metro the excavations took seven years. Here they want it finished in six months."

Ismail Karamut, the director of the city's museum of archaeology and a leading expert on the history of Istanbul, refuses to be intimidated by the urban planners. "This city is 2,800 years old and here we're digging right in the middle of a living city. It's not like excavating on a mountainside. The transport people can't start until we're finished. And maybe they'll have to change their project depending on what we find. We've told them we can't give them a deadline."

It is perhaps logical and fitting that the same spot that provided the shipping hub for 5th-century Constantinople should become the rail nexus for 21st-century Istanbul. But the dilemmas thrown up by trying to secure the future without destroying the past are a headache.

Ottoman gardeners

The discovered artefacts fall into the easy bit. The ships can be rebuilt using computer simulations; the anchors, ropes and coins can all be housed elsewhere. But you cannot move the ancient port - believed to be Portus Theodosiacus, in use from the 4th to the 7th centuries, after which it started silting up, then became useless for shipping. In later centuries it served just as fertile vegetable plots for Ottoman allotment gardeners.

One idea is to cordon off the old port area creating an "archaeological island" that would be an exhibit in the new transport complex. But that is a tricky solution because of the underground shafts and the vast scale of the station.

The doyen of archaeology for Constantinople, the late German researcher Wolfgang Muller-Wiener, predicted 30 years ago that the old port would be found at Yenikapi. But the site was covered in illegal tenements and could not be explored. It was the modern transport project that made discovery of the old port possible, since the site had to be cleared to make way for the railway station.

Mr Karamut said: "We knew from the ancient documents and records that there was some kind of port around there. But we didn't know exactly where. We didn't know that it could be Constantinople's first harbour."


Sunday, January 22, 2006

Algebraic Pathologists... er, Topologists vs Anna Byrn (a letter to Noam Chomsky)


In your recent Irish interview you state (allow me a lengthy quote):

There is a kind of a loose, abstract connection in the background. But if you look for practical connections, they're non – existent. I'd do the same political things if I was an algebraic pathologist and somebody could have the same linguistic views as I do and be a fascist or a Stalinist. There'd be no contradiction.

Lo and behold, we are witnessing a luminary of systematic thought signing a declaration of political impotence of all systematic thought (including your own).

What transpires is that at this point in the history of thought, it is no longer relevant what abstract system we embrace or create as philosophers. After all, we all forget (myself included) as we talk/write/read, a new person named, say, Anna Byrne, is born, and from a certain existential vantage point we have nothing to offer this baby girl. Textuality of our civilisation is no longer a guarantee of meaning. All communication is textuality. Derrida's Il n'y a pas de hors-texte is more trivial than we think and should be deemed as Il n'y a pas de communication de hors-texte. Communication per se is not the meaning.

The nature of deceit is in deceiving. Rousseau in Émile ou De l'éducation: "Nature never deceives us; it is always we who deceive ourselves." But honestly, what if the whole of my cosmos (nature included) is deceit?

This is not to say that no abstract philosophy, to put it trivially, "has anything good to offer", but that as a rule my philosopheme is largely textual affair, it is in-word rather than in-deed. Now, were it different, I would employ some other means of doing politics: I am good with speech? Yes, but at this point of my existence my speech, my discourse is nothing but a metaphor, a mythical sign, a promise.

Everything is a sign, a no-sign is rather a non-existent feature, according to Е. Григорьева/Y. Grigoryeva, Russian semiologist and aesthetic thinker from University of Tartu, Republic of Estonia. On her blog (1, 2) she talks about the far from 'adequate' expressive means for apprehension of things sublime or 'impossible'.

Philosopher is akin to artist inasmuch the material impotence (and thus the seminal untruth) of our philosophic act is exposed. After Adorno, we can envision philosophy just as he spoke about Art:

All that art is capable of is to grieve for the sacrifice it makes and which it itself, in its powerlessness , is.(1)

A frame of thought that is not a petty sacrifice for the sake of self-propagation, self-aggrandisement, an eloquent petty creed, goes beyond mere positing, mere textual argument.

Proverbial Derridan Il n'y a pas de hors-texte needs to be rephrased as: "Il n'y a pas de hors-texte. Anna Byrne est nee de hors-texte. Anna Byrne... c'est quelque chose d'impossible."

Not all extra-textuality is the salt of the earth though. Our hypothetic Anna Byrn (which is basically a common Irish name of a hypothetic unique person that may have been born to a family on this very day) may be or may be not, depending on her geniality. Unless she is a genius, Anna Byrn herself will grow up to hardly ever realise she is unique enough to strive towards uniqueness, rather than being unique because I am a princess. She herself is this Grigorieva's inadequate shape striving towards the impossible within the margins of the possible. Unless she is a genius, she will hardly evolve and she will not revolutionise herself nor these humble margins. Yet inasmuch this Anna Byrne is Derridan instead of mine, she is wholly textual creation, not a live human. And it is within such conventional philosopheme that the other, a non-textual Anna Byrn, is just impossible.

Ayn Rand's version of my Anna is equally mediocre, insofar Rand's civilization is in Ayn Rand's own words "the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage's whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from (emphasis mine - a.m.) men."(2)

Insofar both libertarian individualism and liberal societarianism have all necessary elements of ethical systems, they should not be exempt under Chomsky criterion. (Said aside: as far as my opinion goes, both are a product of a thought-pattern, to which personal freedom, dignity and uniqueness are irrelevant. It is about 'freedom from' and, essentially, it is freedom from one unfreedom for the sake of another.)

Insofar I can only build in/on my dreams, a civilization of my dreams strives in the opposite direction to mere freedom from of this world: it is striving towards the impossible and unique in Men, or in my case, toward a the impossible and unique in a hypothetic woman born today and named Anna Byrne.

Andrew Magergut

N. Chomsky's reply:

Minor transcription error: it was "algebraic topologist," not "algebraic pathologist."

On the rest, you misunderstood. It is a question of fact, not religious dogma, whether there are direct connections between discoveries in the sciences (in this case, about language and mind) and political action.* None are known, beyond the loose abstract connections that I've discussed often in print, tracing them back to their roots centuries ago. None of your conclusions follow from this statement of apparent fact. If you think the statement of fact is wrong, then the right response is to show it. I presume you would not suggest that we should claim what is false. The rest of what you write below has no connection that I can see to what I said in the interview, or have said or written anywhere else.** Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: for about 50 years, there have been efforts to find some evidence to support it. By now there is some, though it deals with matters that have nothing like the anticipated scope. Differences of visual perception that seem to relate to how languages individuate objects, etc.

Noam Chomsky

p.s. Note: It would be too lush to expect Chomsky to show much concern for metaphysical or aesthetic questions, so i guess, no point in explaining myself further to him: it will be all reduced to something like: 'I am a structural linguist, better try some other department'. The humble idea that human creativity could be a bit more holistic and graceful and mindful of the needs of human persons (as opposed to social institutes) and less evil is not something that Chomsky has time for.

* No, I am not contrarying anything, except for liberalism and leftie libertarianism being the beacon of personal freedom.
** Same as above.

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Three Reviews

Religion: The Occult Tradition by David S Katz, Cape, pp272

Hidden leanings

Jad Adams (The Guardian)

Scripture tells us that young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams. In these tales of Swedenborgians, theosophists, illuminati, Mormons and Freemasons, David Katz gives us much of both as we travel from neoplatonism to American fundamentalism via the Cock Lane Ghost.

Katz, a history professor at Tel Aviv University, sees the occult tradition as a coherent intellectual stream with its beginnings in Plato, flowing through the European Renaissance and industrial revolution to arrive at American fundamentalism with its detailed mythology about the End of Days based on an esoteric reading of the Bible.

Article continues
He takes "occult" to mean hidden from the senses: the belief that there is knowledge accessible by covert means which allows practitioners to know the workings of the universe and even manipulate its operation. The occult tradition is a fusion of three streams of thought, Katz says, in a book for anyone excited by knowledge and the interpretation of ideas. First came the neoplatonists with their view that things had properties which were transferable: using the heart of a brave animal such as a cock or a lion would help promote bravery; eating the breast of loving creatures like sparrows or turtles would induce love.

The second store of ancient lore he notes is the mystical contemplation of the Judaeo-Christian gnostics. Finally come the writings that were supposedly handed down from the (mythical) figure Hermes Trismegistus, who represented a body of knowledge from Egypt, therefore predating Grecian and Roman civilisation.

These form a continuous core of belief which over the centuries has informed not just religion and politics but science, too. Katz follows historian Frances Yates in feeling it is not enough to construct a history of science by looking for thinkers in the past who got it "right"; we need to study the period when alchemy was evolving into chemistry and astrology into astronomy to see why experimental choices were made.

That makes this a deeply subversive book. Scientists, if they think about the philosophy of science at all, cleave to a 19th-century narrative which says that in all civilisations as they developed, superstition came first, then religion, then science, which at last was the truth. In fact the founders of modern science were swimming in a stream of occult lore, much of which they retained and passed on to us in disguised form.

Thus Paracelsus claimed to have discovered, by alchemical means, the very building blocks of the universe, and the key to their construction, which was chemistry. He passed on the occult notion of macrocosm and microcosm: anything true in the laboratory must be true in the universe at large. Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for adhering to an Egyptian world picture with the sun as the centre of the universe and the chief divinity. The heliocentric universe could be analysed by Copernican calculations, but it was based on the Hermetic tradition.

Newton, the man credited with being the first modern scientist, devoted at least half his active working time to the interpretation of esoterica. Newton's conviction was that a misreading of the heavens goes along with a misreading of religion. God provided two alternative sources of information: the written book of scripture and the visible book of nature. Basic metaphysical truths are obtainable from both.

Coming closer to the present, Katz emphasises how much of the theory that fed into psychology and psychoanalysis was not about a sexual unconscious but a paranormal one. He invites us, in the 1870s at the height of the supposed battle between religion and science, to a seance which Darwin and Galton attended together. Co-evolutionary theorist Alfred R Wallace was preoccupied with spiritualism, eventually to the exclusion of other forms of investigation.

This is a coherent picture of the persistence of weird stuff in the lives of the famous, which will infuriate both believers and sceptics. A great deal in this book has been said before, as Katz acknowledges in his references to other scholars. His unique contributions go to show how the occult tradition continued into the 21st-century world. En route, Katz convincingly explains how India replaced Egypt as the supposed source of all ancient wisdom, a transition which pandered to the race theory popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries - it permitted the replacement of a Semitic spiritual ancestry from the Middle East with an Indo-European (Aryan) ascendancy.

So, with the introduction of power politics, the occult approaches its bizarre modern form in the predictions of Armageddon by American fundamentalists. The movement was so called after its emergence between 1909 and 1915 in the form of a dozen pamphlets entitled "The Fundamentals" which were distributed by the American Bible League. They stressed the infallible literal truth of the Bible and the concept of the born-again evangelical Christian.

While this is no more than a restatement of basic Protestantism which would be familiar to Martin Luther, the evangelicals have woven into their beliefs a complex theology prophesying the last days of humankind that bears only the most tentative relationship to scripture. Thus we have belief in "the rapture", the bodily disappearance from the earth of true believers in the seven years of tribulations before the second coming of Christ.

In a controversial distinction, Katz differentiates between Christianity as generally practised and its incarnation as fundamentalism, which predicts the future through deciphering a document (the Bible) whose meaning is hidden. Thus, Katz argues, we find George W Bush making speeches which clearly echo prophetic biblical passages from Isaiah and Revelation. This is discernible to evangelicals but passes by the secular. Bush is truly preaching to the converted.

Some people's shelves groan with works on mysticism and the occult, and this would make an erudite addition for them. For those who will read only one book on the exegesis of ancient grimoires, this should be it.


De-masking the occult tradition

Michael Burleigh (The Times)

The critic Theodor Adorno once wrote that the defining characteristic of occultism was “the readiness to relate the unrelated”, rather like drawing a line of your own invention through several dots on a puzzle rather than following the numbers to draw a face. That is almost the mission statement of David Katz’s concise, erudite and often comic book: to restore a vast and coherent body of occult knowledge from the condescension of modern science or the demotic residue epitomised by the astrologer Russell Grant.

Katz covers much more than the past 500 years that he announces as his chosen period. His story begins with ancient Greece and ends with American Protestant fundamentalists planning their lives around the “Rapture”, when they will be beamed elsewhere for seven years, while the Beast busies himself with the unregenerate many. Plato believed that the universe was alive and that the world is a shadow of an ideal reality.

Neo-Platonist philosophers and the early Christian Gnostics developed these ideas. A neo-Platonist magus, or adept, could detect the hidden (or occult) properties in seemingly prosaic plants or animals, so as to redirect the “energy” in the heart of a lion to foster human fortitude; the elite Gnostics employed mystical contemplation to free the divine spark left in some people by the Higher God, while the majority made do with the botched bodies created by an evil lesser deity.

However, since the occult resembles a Russian doll, it was soon believed that Plato himself was but a conduit for a more venerable wisdom. This hailed from Egypt, which, until the relatively modern fascination with India, was regarded as the repository of truths hidden in pyramids and hieroglyphs. This belief is called Hermeticism — after the mythical Hermes Trismegistus. He was supposed to be a contemporary of Moses, an Egyptian priest, who translated the wisdom of ancient Egypt into Greek.

In fact, the relevant texts were written in about AD200, and passed off as ancient, a fact that did not curtail the enthusiasm of many Renaissance scholars for hermeticism, once a Macedonian monk turned up in Florence in 1463 bearing a selection of these writings. The translation of the entire works of Plato was put on hold so that Cosimo de’Medici could devour these occult texts.

As Katz argues, the Renaissance avatars of modern western culture inhabited a rich spiritual world to which alchemy, astrology, magic and the mysticism of the Jewish cabbala were as integral as what we might understand by science. By about 1600, the essentials of occultism were fixed, namely that the ancients possessed ultimate wisdom, and all one had to do to access this — so as to control things — was crack the hidden code.

The dividing line between occult beliefs, “religion” and “science” was diaphanous, for such august figures as Isaac Newton were obsessed with the idea that the divine architect had left hidden clues to the structure of the universe within the Bible’s descriptions of the Temple of Solomon. He devoted enormous energy to understanding the Apocalypse.

Belief in esoteric wisdom spawned esoteric societies, real or imaginary. Many people tried to join the Rosicrucian Order after its existence was rumoured, but they were destined for disappointment, since it never actually existed before being founded in the 19th century. Others transformed unremarkable medieval lodges for itinerant building workers into the equivalent of gentlemen’s clubs, where symbols derived from the building trades, such as trowels and levels, jostled with secrets allegedly brought to Scotland by the Knights Templar. When Bavarian freemasonry was itself infiltrated by a group called the Illuminati, powerful people, as well as the Catholic church, began to interpret such important events as the French revolution as the product of Masonic conspiracies. Ironically, the imaginary malign force behind the revolution became a reality in the form of the various secret societies of Napoleonic and Restoration Europe, not to speak of those progenitors of modern communism — Gracchus Babeuf and Filippo Buonarroti, the world’s first professional revolutionaries.

With his characteristically light touch, Katz outlines the main 18th- and 19th-century manifestations of the occult tradition. “Science” aided rather than impeded the rise of such things as spiritualism. The phonograph, transoceanic cables, camera and telephone actively fostered the belief that it was possible to communicate with and record the voices of the dead. After all, what was that crackling on the phone line? If occultism was rarely incompatible with high scientific endeavour, nor was it wholly divorced from religion.

The gloomy Emanuel Swedenborg, whose followers founded a sect, thought he could pass between the life to come and the present, transmigrations that enabled him to decode the “real” meaning of the Bible to which he added a book or two. In America, an angel gave Joseph Smith the golden plates of the Book of Mormon, and four years later a pair of magic spectacles enabling him to decode them, the miracle that underpins the Church of the Latter Day Saints in modern Utah.

With interest in Indian mythology stimulated by Max Müller, the Oxford anthropologist, Madame Blavatsky founded Theosophy as a means of communicating eastern mysteries to the western world, although ironically, it largely became a vehicle of Hindu nationalist self-assertion. Katz is amusing about Ernest Jones’s attempts to contain Freud’s occult enthusiasms lest these queer the scientific pretensions of psychoanalysis.

Katz brings his story up to date by treating the “dispensationalist” fundamentalist strain within American Protestantism as a branch of occultism. Although these people predicate a dire fate for Jews who have not converted to Christianity before the Second Coming, they are among Israel’s keenest supporters since, without it, the battle of Armageddon and the thousand-year reign of Christ lack scriptural location. What began in the rarefied world of Renaissance courts has become integral to the creed of 50m people in the world’s most modern nation.


In 1882, the formation of The Society for Psychical Research brought together eminent scientists and thinkers with the aim of investigating the occult. A key element of its work was the attempt to prove a pillar of Victorian religion, the reality of life after death. Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), professor of moral philosophy at Cambridge, was a keen member of the group. John Maynard Keynes said of Sidgwick, “He never did anything but wonder whether Christianity was true, and prove that it wasn’t and hope that it was.” Others associated with the Society were Gladstone, Tennyson, Ruskin, Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain.


Who are you calling trashy and sensationalist?

Gary Lachman (The Independent)

Academic studies of the occult often seem to show up after the fact, like latecomers to a party that's been going on for hours. Once arrived, they inform readers about things they more than likely are very familiar with: most books on the occult are read by people who are already interested in it. David S Katz's The Occult Tradition is no exception. For Katz, a historian at Tel Aviv University, practically every other book on the subject is "trashy" or "sensationalist" and can be found on the "shelves of used bookstores everywhere" - apparently an unenviable fate. This more or less mandatory disclaimer protects against fellow academics who anathematise scholars who "come to see the occult tradition as having a deep meaning in their own lives", rather like those poor souls who study art and actually like it. Of course Katz is right in a way: there's been a lot of rubbish written about the occult. But only someone who's turned his nose up at those "trashy" books will find anything new here. And the irony is that a great many of those books will prove a more enjoyable read than this supercilious, patchy attempt to show how the occult has informed modern culture. Like medical textbooks on sex, Katz's work might have some use as a reference, but inspiring it isn't.

Much of what we can call the "history of the occult" is absent from this book. Central players like Rudolf Steiner, Aleister Crowley and GI Gurdjieff warrant only a namecheck, and in the case of Steiner and Gurdjieff, are misrepresented. Gurdjieff was not a "19th-century occultist;" he only came to public awareness in the 1920s, and his earliest appearance as an esoteric teacher was well within the 20th century. The home of Steiner's spiritual movement in Switzerland is Dornach, not "Dorlach"; a typo, sure, but it should have been caught. Katz unquestioningly repeats the usual account of Madame Blavatsky's "exposure" as a fraudulent medium, failing to relate that the original report, in 1885, by Richard Hodgson, a member of the Society for Psychical Research, was itself rejected as seriously flawed by the SPR a century later. Katz devotes several pages to cranky proto-Nazi occultists (a standard trope of debunkers), yet C G Jung, who wrote volumes on Gnosticism and alchemy, and more or less made the occult and the paranormal respectable areas of inquiry, is tossed a paragraph, within which, nevertheless, Katz manages to jam all the myths about Jung's supposed racism. In doing this, Katz bases his account on Richard Noll's controversial (and not a wee bit sensational) work The Jung Cult, a study that has itself been brought into question. Reading Katz, however, you wouldn't know it.

In the same way, informing us repeatedly of the many 19th-century mediums who were "outed", Katz fails to mention that the most celebrated of all, Daniel Dunglas Home, was never shown to be a fraud, and that the eye-witness accounts of his "miracles" were never refuted. Parsimoniously, Katz devotes only a sentence or two to main characters like Eliphas Levi, who practically started "occultism" as we know it, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, clearly the most well known magical society of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Allen Kardec, whose books on spiritism form the basis of a popular religion in Brazil.

Equally annoying is Katz's condescending tone when speaking of people like the philosopher and psychologist William James, who wrote incisively about mysticism, altered states of consciousness, conversion, the paranormal and other occult subjects, including the possibility of life after death. Had he bothered to include him, Katz would probably have taken the same tack with another influential philosopher, Henri Bergson, like James a president of the SPR and a rigorous investigator of the occult. Bergson, however, isn't even mentioned.

Nevertheless, there is some interesting stuff. Katz's account of Isaac Newton's biblical exegesis shows that the father of modern science was a dab hand at the occult sciences too. There's also Mark Hofmann's murderous forgeries of Mormon scripture, and the centrality of Fundamentalism (by definition Christian) to American policy in the Middle East. This is Katz's real subject: religious eccentrics. These sections partly make up for the rest of the book, but only partly. No, if you want to know how some of academia sees the occult, take a look. But if you want a real history of the thing, there are better ones.