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Modern Occult Rhetoric

Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century

Written by Joshua Gunn

Publication Year: 2010

A broadly interdisciplinary study of the pervasive secrecy in America cultural, political, and religious discourse.

The occult has traditionally been understood as the study of secrets of the practice of mysticism or magic. This book broadens our understanding of the occult by treating it as a rhetorical phenomenon tied to language and symbols and more central to American culture than is commonly assumed.

Joshua Gunn approaches the occult as an idiom, examining the ways in which acts of textual criticism and interpretation are occultic in nature, as evident in practices as diverse as academic scholarship, Freemasonry, and television production. Gunn probes, for instance, the ways in which jargon employed by various social and professional groups creates barriers and fosters secrecy. From the theory wars of cultural studies to the Satanic Panic that swept the national mass media in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Gunn shows how the paradox of a hidden, buried, or secret meaning that cannot be expressed in language appears time and time again in Western culture.

These recurrent patterns, Gunn argues, arise from a generalized, popular anxiety about language and its limitations. Ultimately, Modern Occult Rhetoric demonstrates the indissoluble relationship between language, secrecy, and publicity, and the centrality of suspicion in our daily lives.


Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiii

This book began as a doctoral dissertation that I wrote during study at the University of Minnesota. I thank the many kind and patient folks at the University of Alabama Press, as well as three important scholarly mentors, for preparing me to do battle with the Demons of the Warmed-Over (if readers notice that these demons have not been...

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pp. xv-xxix

Many of us have had the experience of picking up a volume in the local bookstore, reading the first few pages, and finding ourselves utterly mystified. Despite the title or the promotional blurbs on the cover, the more one reads this book, the more the words seem to become resistant in their recalcitrant materiality. Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass...

Part I: Esoterica

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1. What Is the Occult?

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pp. 3-26

Thus begins Magus Eliphas Lévi’s influential 1856 treatise on transcendental magic, which recounts in evocative language the ubiquitous precept of the whole of occultism: the occult concerns secrets. Although the Frenchman claimed to be a devout Catholic (he even studied for the priesthood in his youth under the not-so-secret name Alphonse Louis Constant),2 his liberal...

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Interlude: Erasing the Grooves: On Cold Feet

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pp. 27-34

On a chilly evening in mid-October 1999, my friend Erika and I attended an informational meeting held by the Minneapolis chapter of the Society for Ascension. The meeting was advertised in a pamphlet I picked up one day while browsing in an occult bookstore near the University of Minnesota campus. The pamphlet described the Society...

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2. Toward an Occult Poetics

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pp. 35-52

In the ninth chapter of Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus, a witty young aesthete and aspiring poet seeking atonement (and eventually finding it in his intellectual father, Leopold Bloom), enters a room at the National Library and encounters a number of boisterous scholars. The scene is based on the mythic...

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Interlude: Mysteries of the Unknown

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pp. 53-55

One of my earliest memories of the “occult” concerns a television commercial for a series of coffee-table books by Time-Life titled “Mysteries of the Unknown.” The series featured nine heavily illustrated volumes ranging from Cosmic Connections and Mysterious Creatures to Psychic Voyages...

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3. H. P. Blavatsky and the Magic of Esoteric Language

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pp. 56-78

Although “New Age” is a hotly contested term among occultists, it originated in occult literature (most especially that of Freemasonry in the United States) and in general referred to the time of the arrival of a new level of human consciousness, the so-called Age of Aquarius,...

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4. On Textual Occultism

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pp. 79-105

Thus the most infamous occultist of the twentieth century, the “wickedest man in the world,” introduces the magical alphabet known as the Qabalah.2 For Aleister Crowley, the Qabalah is a “system of symbolism . . . [as well as] an instrument for interpreting symbols” not vouchsafed to the average person.3 His indictment of the secrecy...

Part II: Exoterica

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Interlude: Re-membering Crowley

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pp. 109-115

I first confronted Aleister Crowley’s face in church as a boy during a revivalist’s slide show. The revivalist was a traveling Christian Evangelical preacher spreading the word of the Devil’s doings in three-day seminars for young Christians. I can remember his coming to town every year since I was about six years old.1 Before I saw my first “show”...

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5. Aleister Crowley and the Hermeneutic of Authority

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pp. 116-137

The most famous magus of the early twentieth century enjoyed publishing the cherished occult secrets of rival magi. Concerning one controversial revelation, Aleister Crowley carped that “all this secrecy is very silly” and “it is a wicked imposture to pretend to have received [a secret alphabet] from Rosicrucian manuscripts...

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Interlude: On Stolen Letters and Lettered Secrets

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pp. 138-142

Edgar Allen Poe’s intriguing short story “The Purloined Letter” is built around the circulation of a royal secret. The reader is never privy to what the secret is. All we are told by the narrator is that a letter sent to the queen contains something nasty about the king, which incriminates the queen and which can lead to her death, and the queen knows...

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6. The Death of the Modern Magus: “The Masses” and Irony’s Other

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pp. 143-171

In the courtroom battle regarding Crowley’s publication of Mathers’s secret rituals, the justices had some difficulty finding for Mathers. Not only had the elder magus waited too long to sue (Crowley had published all but a few of the rituals so cherished by Mathers),1 but the published rituals seemed remarkably similar to those of other secret...

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7. Prime-Time Satanism: Stock Footage and the Death of Modern Occultism

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pp. 172-203

In 1977 a troubled Michelle Smith told her psychiatrist, Lawrence Pazder, some troubling stories. She said that at the age of five she was given to the Devil by her mother. Systematically abused and tortured, she was made to witness the sacrifice of countless animals...

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8. The Allegory of The Ninth Gate

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pp. 204-229

In a key scene from Roman Polanski’s 1999 occult thriller, The Ninth Gate, the “unscrupulous” book detective Dean Corso (played by Johnny Depp) learns that the occult book he is investigating has been protected by a secret society for centuries. Corso has been hired by the wealthy U.S. book publisher Boris Balkan...

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Epilogue: The Fool’s Yapping Cur

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pp. 230-236

Anyone who has studied the occult tradition will recognize what I mean when I say that everything is related, in some sense, degree, or number, to everything else. Students of the occult may also identify with the frustration I experienced trying to make sense of the veritable word-salad of modern occult texts. The texts...

Appendix 1: Scholarship on Occultism

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pp. 237-247

Appendix 2: Aleister Crowley’s The Book of the Law

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pp. 249-263


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pp. 265-303

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 305-328


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pp. 329-340

E-ISBN-13: 9780817385415
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817314668

Publication Year: 2010