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  • Socialism and Occultism at the Fin de Siècle:Elective Affinities
  • Matthew Beaumont (bio)

The affinities become interesting only when they bring about divorces.

—Goethe, Elective Affinities (1809)

In Là Bas (1891), J.K. Huysmans's fictional account of occultism in France at the fin de siècle, the charismatic decadent des Hermies recommends that in order "to avoid the horrors of daily life," his friend Durtal keep his eyes fixed on the pavement. "When you do that," he explains, "you see the reflections of the electric signs which assume all manner of shapes: alchemical symbols, the armoral bearings of alchemists on raised plinths, cog-wheels, talismanic characters, bizarre pentacles with suns, hammers and anchors" (250). As this compendium of material and immaterial images glimpsed in the reflective gleam of the metropolitan street suggests, for des Hermies, the occult is not simply an escape from the quotidian; it is indissociable from it. Materialist and spiritualist signs are inseparable. In Oscar Wilde's play Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), Lord Darlington famously declares that "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" (III. 305). Where Wilde separates the supramundane from the mundane, Huysmans makes them mutually implicit: des Hermies can see constellations in the gutter. In a previous chapter of Là Bas, des Hermies had emphasized how the interrelationship of positivism and mysticism in contemporary Paris, apparently so incongruous, in fact typified "the tail-ends of the centuries": "Magic flourishes when materialism is rife" (219).

In the febrile atmosphere of late-nineteenth century London, too, magic flourished alongside its old frère ennemi. It is not simply that occultism was a reaction against the increasingly discredited materialism of the nineteenth century. Their relationship was more dialectical than that. At a collective level, it was perhaps closer to what Freud called a "reaction-formation," a compensatory response that represses its complicity with the phenomenon that it constitutes as its opposite (93-94). As an exoteric movement, spiritualism had for almost half a century been infatuated with the problem of providing empirical evidence for the afterlife. In the late nineteenth century, esoteric movements such as theosophy, which self-consciously appropriated aspects of the spiritualism that it sought to displace, also sought material proof of the immaterial. If, therefore, the fin de siècle was characterized, as Terry Eagleton [End Page 217] argues, by "a kind of mystical positivism, for which, after the endless lucubrations of high Victorian reason, that which simply, brutally, self-identically is, is the most alluring mystery of all" (15), then it was equally characterized by a kind of positivistic mysticism. The Society for Psychical Research (SPR), founded in 1882, which consisted of skeptics and spiritualists suspended in a delicate state of intellectual tension, was one theatre in which this dialectic was publicly enacted. It contained both positivistic mystics, like Frederic Myers, and reputable scientists with a rather more agnostic interest in paranormal phenomena, like Henry Sidgwick. In the early 1880s, these factions were momentarily united by the aim of using the scientific method to investigate the immaterial and so to counteract the dispiriting effects of scientific materialism's ideological dominance.

Recently, the SPR has been exposed to scrupulous scholarship, notably by Pamela Thurschwell and Roger Luckhurst, and this has helped considerably to clarify the contradictory structure that I have briefly evoked. The relations between occultism and socialism, however, which form another significant dimension of the ideological contradictions of the fin de siècle, have been neglected (in contrast to the relations between spiritualism and feminism, which both Diana Basham and Alex Owen have examined in some detail). Thurschwell, for example, observes that "spiritualism, with its quest to form communities between the living and the dead, was an interest often shared by those who were committed to other radical reforms that aimed to stretch the boundaries, and assert the rights of other under-represented communities," but she does not elaborate the point (17). And in The Place of Enchantment (2004), Owen also marginalizes the dialogue between socialism and the occult at the fin de siècle, though she helpfully suggests that "it was considered perfectly feasible at the turn of the century to...


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pp. 217-232
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