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  • Dis/enchantment:Locating Modernity Between Secularism and "The Sacred"
  • Megan Goodwin (bio)
Alex Owen's The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004
Jeffrey John Kripal's Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010

In her 2004 The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern, Alex Owen notes that "the evocative term enchantment neatly captures the sense of the magical, the numinous, and a state of mind seemingly at odds with the modern outlook" (12; emphasis added). Owen attempts to unsettle the implied antagonism between magic and modernity in this rich contribution to modern British intellectual historiography. Indeed, The Place of Enchantment insists that fin de siècle occultism was a constitutive element—or at least symptomatic—of modern British culture (8).

Owen offers a nuanced account of occultism from 1880 until 1914, in which she centralizes ritual magic and magicians in historical accounts of British modernity. She observes that late Victorian and Edwardian England's "occult preoccupation" constituted "one of the most remarked trends" of the period, as many educated, middle-class white women and men "became absorbed by metaphysical quests, heterodox spiritual encounters, and occult experimentation" (4, 7). Marked interest in medieval and Renaissance Christian mysticism, "heterodox inspirational neo-Christianity," and nondenominational and/or non-Christian esoteric philosophy characterized this new "spiritual movement of the age" (4). The Place of Enchantment addresses a scholarly lacuna and what Owens terms an "almost willful" scholarly amnesia regarding "the hugely popular occult movement of the turn of the century" (5).

But Owen's contribution does more than merely correct the occlusion [End Page 326] of the occult from fin de siècle British historiography; rather, the author confronts prevalent scholarly understandings of modernity as necessarily and exclusively secular. The Place of Enchantment is by turns a cultural history of the occult and ceremonial magicians, an intellectual history of "occult subjectivity," and a theoretical complication of Weber's Entzauberung: that is, the disenchantment of the world as a necessary condition of modernity (Weber et al. 2004, 13). Owen ascribes modernity to fin de siècle occultism because of occultists' preoccupation with the "elaboration and full comprehension of the self"; she presents the notorious magician Aleister Crowley as an extreme instantiation of such self-exploration (2004, 13). Owen thus understands enchantment as a necessarily modern mode of spirituality.

The survey of occultism's "Sexual Politics" will be of particular interest to gender scholars, though Owen's attention to female occultists is by no means limited to her fourth chapter.1 The Place of Enchantment profiles several female ritual magicians of note and offers a cursory explanation for occultism's appeal to women as a "unique sociospiritual environment offering personal validation and an intellectual rapport" (90). Owen emphasizes shifting gender roles in fin de siècle Britain and presents modern occultism as profoundly ambivalent with regard to "the problem of women" (85). This mode of spirituality, Owen proposes, facilitated women's authority and "offered a 'new' religiosity capable of outstripping the conventional Victorian association of femininity with a domesticated spirituality," in keeping with feminist aspirations toward social change. As a spiritual movement, however, modern occultism did not substantially disrupt women's roles in the moral or temporal "order of things" (87). Thus occultism could be seen to support both traditional and progressive positions on the "woman question" (87). While turn-of-the-century ceremonial magicians did recognize, and to some extent participate, in a renegotiation of gender identities, Owen maintains that occultists ultimately aspired to spiritual androgyny—and that negotiating gender was merely "a single element in magicians' broader quest for self-knowledge" (113).

The Place of Enchantment makes a thorough and convincing case for ceremonial magic as a quintessentially modern practice, if we accept the will to know oneself as the paradigmatic goal of modernity (257).2 Owen is perhaps less successful in realizing her second objective: mobilizing occultism (and spirituality writ large) as a disruption of the presumed secularism of modernity. [End Page 327]

The Place of Enchantment attempts to unsettle the notion of modern secularism as an absence of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1520
Print ISSN
0732-1562
Pages
pp. 326-333
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-03
Open Access
No
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