- Modernism & Magic
Has too much emphasis been placed on epistemological skepticism in the analysis of early twentieth-century literature and film? Have scholars of the period assumed too readily that high modernist formal experiment reflected a crisis in representation, a widespread loss of faith in language and its ability to communicate fully and without loss? These questions lurk quietly in the background of Leigh Wilson’s fascinating new monograph on modernism, magic, and the occult and give importance to what might otherwise be considered a rather eccentric study of modernist aesthetics. It is Wilson’s belief that the tendency of many of us to regard modernist mimetic practice as steeped in an awareness of the limitations of referentiality, to be poststructuralist [End Page 566] avant la lettre, blinds us to the extent to which modernists believed in the transformative power of language and visual form, indeed in a kind of “magical mimesis” that could close the gap between word and thing and bring life to dead matter. She argues that high modernism drew upon contemporary discourses of the occult, in particular theories of spiritualism and theosophy, as a means to give literature and art renewed power to enact change in what was increasingly understood to be a mechanical and positivistic universe and that we will never understand modernism’s achievement if we do not recognize its ambition to harness the vital materiality of the world.
In tackling this subject, Wilson, it should be noted, makes no attempt to provide a cultural history of modernist engagement with spiritualism and theosophy. Although she makes occasional references to Helena Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, the William Butler Yeats–affiliated Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the Aleister Crowley–led Ordo Templi Orientis, she spends little time discussing these organizations or outlining the roles they played in the lives of important writers and filmmakers. Nor does Wilson display any particular interest in analyzing modernist thematic treatments of the occult. Unlike other scholars who have written about modernism and magic, her book ignores almost entirely the work of Yeats, H.D., Kandinsky, and Scriabin, and when she examines the writings of Ezra Pound, whose poetry is sometimes discussed in relation to ancient occult traditions, she focuses primarily on his most political and least obviously esoteric writings. In linking, then, the occult revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with high modernist formal experiment, Wilson is principally interested in uncovering parallels between occult theories of magic and the aesthetic practices of a broad range of experimental writers and filmmakers, many of whom, such as Marxist film director Sergei Eisenstein, were openly critical of spiritualism and theosophy. In fact, part of what makes Modernism and Magic such an audacious volume is its insistence that modernist aesthetic experimentation “can only work conceptually if it uses, relies on and has at its heart an idea of magic.” In other words, Wilson asserts that modernist aesthetics was necessarily magical even when this was not the specific aim of its practitioners.
Wilson’s justification for making such a daring claim rests on the manner in which she defines magic. Instead of equating occult magic, as one might expect, with incantation, ceremony, communication with spirits, and the casting of spells, she defines it more as a “discourse of [End Page 567] the material world,” one that, she contends, has far more in common with the investigative methods of science than with the transcendental reflections of religion. It is for this reason that she places considerable emphasis on the activities of the London-based Society for Psychical Research, an organization that brought a scientific perspective to bear on allegedly paranormal activity and included a number of eminent Cambridge academics. In 1885, the SPR had famously investigated Helena Blavatsky and accused her of fraud, and they continued to bring a measure of respectability and seriousness to the examination of paranormal phenomena well into the twentieth century. It is for the same reason that Wilson places significant weight on the philosophical reflections of such modernist-era thinkers as Henri...