Saturday, March 12, 2016

Thrill-seeking in literature and life: it reaches backwards and forwards at once

19th-century Parisian literary sorts- like their countrymen in general- had one foot in the Jules Verne future, and one foot in the medieval past of Victor Hugo's hunchback:
The late 19th century saw a craze for books about Satanism, often purporting to be scientific or anthropological studies of Satanic cults in the present day. Bois’s 1895 Le Satanisme et la magie was a major best seller, as was de Guaita’s 1890 Au seuil du mystère, and Bataille’s 1892 Le diable au XIXe siècle. 
Other writers, like Papus (real name Gérard Encausse), sought to defend occultism against accusations of outright Satanism. In 1895, Papus published Le diable et l’occultisme, an apology for occultism as a means by which “occultists sought to bring back France’s intellectual elite to a belief in the Beyond.” Occultist or Satanic novels, too, drew public interest. Huysmans’s Là-bas, a novel set in a very slightly fictionalized Satanic underworld based on the circles of Boullan and his associates, was likewise a controversial success. Even the Catholic Church published the La revue du diable to keep churchgoers apprised of potential dangerous Satanic influence. The occult captured the national imagination; it was not merely scandalous, but saleable.
As Matthew Beaumont notes in Victorian Review, writing about the analogous occult craze in London, it would be a mistake to see popular interest in Satanism and magic as merely reactionary responses to an increasing bourgeois, materialist society. Rather, Beaumont says, “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.…” In other words, the Parisian intelligentsia’s obsession with Satanism could be seen as a manifestation of its love-hate relationship with modernity. By creating a false dichotomy between an imagined, quasi-Medieval world of occultism (in contrast to some mercantile, mechanized present), many writers were in fact able to explore and capitalize on that present’s most alluring elements. 
After all, it is telling that occultists and theosophers of all stripes used the language of scientific inquiry: seeking “proof” for such spiritual and spiritualist concepts as telepathy and the afterlife. Figures like the famous neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot—whose treatment of female hysteria, by stimulating women before male audiences in an operating theater, embodies the era’s performative sensationalism—simultaneously cast themselves as scientific heroes and quasi-magicians. Charcot’s interests, for example, ranged from neurology to mesmerism...

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