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Reviews Owen, Alex. The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism andthe Culture of the Modern. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 384 pp. The follow-up to her influential The Darkened Room (1989), Alex Owen's The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of Modernism is a magisterial and often riveting account of fin-de-siècle magical culture. If some of its conclusions seem a bit belated in light of recent scholarship — her contentions, for example, that occultism was allied with modernity, and that "Victorian science was sometimes less divorced from occultism than its practitioners might care to admit" (6) — we must remember that our familiarity with these arguments is very much a result of her own earlier groundbreakingwork The Darkened Room helped to constitute the supernatural as a legitimate topic of academic inquiry, and the many subsequent studies to map the connections between mysticism and modernism — Pamela Thurschwell's Literature, Technology andMagicalThinking 1880-1920 (2001), Helen Sword's GhostwritingModernism (2002), and Roger Luckhurst's The Invention of Telepathy (2002) - have all cited it in their bibliographies. What the book's thesis may lack in novelty is more than compensated for by its meticulous detail and engaging prose style. Owen has an unerringinstinct for the truly interesting, one that is immediately evident in die book's opening account of Annie Horniman and Frederick Leigh Gardner's magical visit to Mars in 1898. Such fascinating descriptions of the more bizarre practices of supposedly staid Victorian Britons will ensure that the book finds an audience among general readers and scholars alike. Owen starts by taking apart the traditional antinomy of magic and modernity. While most historians typically recognize thefin-de-siècle as the apex of secular rationality, the period was also dominated by the formation of numerous high profile and widely attended occult organizations such as the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Rather than presenting these groups as deviations from the otherwise uncontested triumph of Enlightenment values, she argues that their explorations of esoteric subjectivity were coextensive with the new theories of consciousness emerging from contemporary psychology, philosophy, and medicine. While "the concept of the occult self as it emerged at the turn of the century was conceived in the context of timeless teachings 64volume 31 number 1 Reviews of the 'ancientwisdom'," it "was predicated on a modern elision of self and consciousness that underwrote the most recent formulations of subjectivity" (116). The occultists privileged the self as ultimate source of authority yet recognized that it was not cohesive or ever fully accessible; their rituals attempted simultaneously to concentrate the magician's personality and to annihilate it in order to merge with a universal cosmic mind. Their belief in the evasive multiple nature of human personality was, argues Owen, quintessentially modern. The book is most useful in dif(etenúa.tsngfin-de-siecle occultism from die other numinous practices such as spiritualism mat preceded and surrounded it. The distinction between the two branches of metaphysical inquiry, not unlike that between the mid-Victorian and the modernist novel, lay in late century occultism's more ambiguous relationship to the masses. Whereas spiritualism was primarily a democratic endeavour, one that invited everyone to cultivate mediumship and access the revelations of post-life communication, occultism restricted metaphysical knowledge to the learned and typically middle-class Adept. "The new occultism," she argues, "represented a somewhat elitist counterpoint to the hugely successful spiritualist movement that preceded it . . . There was an implicit understanding that it was learning, rather than the less predictable mediumistic 'gifts' that underwrote the new spirituality" (5). The movement's lofty intellectual platform attracted such late-Victorian luminaries as Anna Kingsford, Florence Farr, Annie Besant, Arthur Machen, and, of course, W B. Yeats, whose creative incorporation of occult themes has already been well documented. A hazard of working with texts such as magical diaries and ritual manuscripts is diat they often produce a hermeticizing effect on one's own writing While Owen brooks diis problem better than some, her generally lucid prose nonetheless occasionally picks up the vagueness of the topic she is describing Repeated references to occult concepts of the Astral Self, consciousness, and spiritual being...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 64-66
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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