In the arts, occultism, as it was evolving in the early 19th century, manifested in the form of a movement called Romanticism.
The Romantic movement (or Romantic era) was an artistic, literary, musical, and intellectual movement begun by poets in the last years of the 18th century that, in most places, peaked around 1850 or so. Romanticism emphasised emotion, individualism, the idealisation of nature and the past, was suspicious of science and industrialisation, and held in high esteem “clandestine literature” (Wikipedia). In other words, the occult.
Driving this movement was a sense of such deep longing and desire that, in Germany, where Romanticism has its roots, there is one word to convey this concept, rather than the several it takes in English: sehnsucht. What is so vitally important about this fact is that it indicates how suddenly and how quickly change was occurring in the West.
Change is never easy. The familiar fades away to be replaced by the strange and unusual: the new. For thousands of years, change was so gradual that great-grandfathers, even great-great-grandfathers, could describe to their grandchildren a world that was virtually identical to the one they were growing up in. This being so, their experiences and their knowledge were extremely relevant. The young could readily respect their elders because the words and guidance of the aged were still pertinent to the trials of youth.
By the 18th century, though, and with the advent of the industrial revolution in north-east England, change began to noticeably accelerate.
“Dark satanic mills” was what William Blake called the new landscape. Indeed, being powered by coal, it was a sooty business for sure, but the darkness was the loss not of clean air but something else entirely. And certainly, there were those who took advantage of the workers; there always have been, besides many other downsides (“same as it ever was,” as the song goes). But what he was actually alluding to really strikes a chord with those fears and uncertainties that accompany rapid and sweeping change.
Romanticism’s romanticising of the past, usually with a strong preference for the mediaeval rather than the classical, was a reaction to this revolution, the social and political fallout of the Age of Enlightenment, and also the scientific rationalisation of nature, which tended to reduce all things human to a mere clockwork aspect. Represented mostly in the visual arts, literature, and music, Romanticism also had a major impact on historiography, education, social dynamics, and the natural sciences, which will turn out to be a lucky thing because it will evolve into the positive side of environmentalism (goodbye to a lot of that soot). It also had a great effect on politics, as there was a major rejection of it in favour of culture.
Culture and imagination
As Timothy Goeglein, a Republican who worked during the Baby Bush administration, put it, “Politics is downstream from culture and not the other way around.” This is possibly the smartest thing I’ve ever heard from a politician, and the Romantics would have heartily agreed.
The word “culture” is from late Middle English: “tilling; place tilled,” from Anglo-French, Middle French, from Latin cultūra “cultivation, agriculture, tillage, care.” It is connected to the word “cult.” The word cult is from Latin cultus “habitation, tilling, refinement, worship,” equivalent to cul-, variant stem of colere to inhabit, till, worship. You can see in late Middle English that the sense evolved from “cultivation of the soil” into (in the early 16th century), “cultivation of the mind, faculties, or manners.” This gets us to what the word “culture” has meant since the early 19th century: the arts and other manifestations of human aesthetic and intellectual achievement regarded collectively.
But what exactly is culture? It’s the stories we live by—the collective particular themes within the universal themes of a particular region or demographic. Everything in art is a story, and every good story has a universal theme (a term or concept of general application). Even postmodernism, a 20th-century “philosophical” aberration, tells particular stories. One of them is that there are no such things as universal themes, which thus postulates the impossibility of ever really knowing anyone or anything, which, in turn, is a universal theme. (You’ve got to admit, that’s a heck of a story!). The Romantics would have depicted this postmodern story in painting by, for example, depicting two overweight people with blue-green hair sitting on a ledge, a wide gap between them indicating their estrangement as they both stare resentfully off into a distant grey horizon while self-harming.
A typical Western European story is that one works to have enough money to have a certain quality of life: family, good friends, good wine, good food. In this case, work is a means to an end. Of course, that’s only one story of the many that make up that part of the world. A typical U.S. story is that you have to work hard to “make it,” and if one is willing to put in the effort, they can make something of themselves. In this case, work is its own end. If this is what you want, then this is a good story. (Of course, this story is rather under attack right now because it promotes a kind of excellence, but that’s not the point.) Two very different cultures, two different stories.
Cultures are made up of many, many such stories, both good and bad, and many of the good ones must be imagined, most often by their artists.
The Romantics saw the imagination as the primary origin of existence itself as well as the fountainhead of human flourishing. The fundamental creative force residing in the heart of each person, analogous to the Supreme Creator, is considered the most godlike of man’s abilities. Ultimately, as rationalisation gained ever greater momentum and influence in culture, the Romantics were at the forefront in defending man’s imagination and his intense sensitivity to beauty, the only factors apparently not shared by any other form of life (if you exclude elephants with paint brushes). The Romantics saw which way the wind was blowing—toward materialism—and so they chose a completely different path, towards an entirely underappreciated destination: what was, still is, and always will be terra ignota: the thrilling and dangerous worlds of infinite imagination.
Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772–1801), better known by his pen name Novalis, was an 18th-century occultist and a creator of Early German Romanticism. He said, “Imagination places the future world for us either above or below… We dream of travels throughout the universe: is not the universe within us? We do not know the depths of our spirit. The mysterious path leads within. In us, or nowhere, lies eternity with its worlds, the past and the future.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), who was an English poet and another founder of the Romantic Movement, said, “Imagination is the living power and prime agent of all human perception.” Along with the writer Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859), both were interested in dreams as well as the hypnagogic and hypnopompic states, which are when you are half awake right before you fall asleep and half awake right before you wake up. They were thoroughly absorbed by all things happening in the darker, more mysterious parts of the mind. Despite the dangers that they well knew were hidden there, De Quincy said, “Either the human being must suffer and struggle as the price of a more searching vision, or his gaze must be shallow and without intellectual revelation.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), the father of early German Romanticism and probably the de facto originator of the whole thing, in Germany at least, wrote the most well-known version of the classic German legend based on the historical Johann Georg Faust. Basically, the story goes, Faust made a wager with the Devil (Mephistopheles) and, in doing so, sold his soul. Not to egregiously oversimplify, Faust represents the striving, dissatisfied human, and Mephistopheles the dangers of the unknown regions of consciousness and the imagination. If Mephistopheles can grant Faust just one moment of transcendence on Earth, etc., etc., then Faust has to serve him forever in Hell. It’s a perfect illustration of the perils of occult thinking, but in Goethe’s version, everything turns out well.
Also, Goethe’s The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily is another tale chock full of occult symbolism. Apparently it was born out of Goethe’s reading of The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz, the third of the Rosicrucian manifestos published in 1616. At the story’s centre is the crossing of a river, which represents the divide between the outer life of the senses and the ideal aspirations of the human being: the transmutation of the soul into the gold of illumination.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803–1873) was, probably, the 19th century’s most influential occultist, and this is saying something given who and what would follow in that century. He authored The Coming Race, an account of a master race and a powerful energy called “Vril.” He also wrote Zanoni in order to “make himself acquainted with the true origins and tenets of the singular sect known by the name of Rosicrucians.” If you’re interested in Rosicrucianism beyond the original tracts, then read Zanoni.
There can be no coincidence that the power of words to manifest that which may be discovered in these dark and mysterious realms and the use of them in magic to transform reality go hand in hand. The originators of the Romantic era were all writers and poets, and, with some exceptions, occultists. This new paradigm exploded across all art forms for more than a half century and, although eventually superseded by Symbolism, a more psychological movement, never fully died away.
With Romanticism, however, also arises the perils of too total a rejection of the prosaic, the normal, the everyday. Other dimensions and worlds, magical realms, and altered consciousness, rather than being great pools of inspiration and illumination, instead become the prisons of those too overcome by sehnsucht.
This yearning is a natural part of being human. When it is not pathological, this sharp longing, combined with an unlimited imagination made possible as often as not by occult technology, is what drives man to greater cultural and social heights.
1st image: Two Men Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich
2nd image: illustration for Faust by Harry Clarke