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 AN ESSAY ON:
he Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern,
by Alex Owen, The University of Chicago Press, 2004



By Papa Nick



    The Occult revival that blossomed at the end of the 19th Century in England has gotten very little respect.  Social historians, if acknowledging it at all, have viewed it as an aberration, a flight from reason at a time when a rigid materialistic world view was shaping the society-to-come of the 20th Century.  The pursuit of mysticism, and the study and practice of magical arts, flew in the face of the march of progress towards a wholly secular society where trust in technology replaced faith in "God's Plan".

    Alex Owen, professor of history and gender studies at Northwestern University, has in The Place of Enchantment legitimized the "new occultism" of the 1890s as, not a reversion to superstition, but an influential cultural force that sought to redefine the definition of "self" for the modern era.  Focusing in-depth on the activities of the Second Order of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and to a lesser extent on the Theosophical Society and Hermetic Society, she illuminates the influence these organizations had on the intellectual avant-garde of the time.  Unlike more phallocentric researchers, she emphasizes the monumental contribution made by women to the growth and development of these organizations -- Florence Farr, Annie Horniman, Moina Mathers, Anna Kingsford and Annie Besant, in particular.

    What is most refreshing about Owen's study is that, although not an occultist herself, she gets it.  Her description of the astral experiments of the Second Order initiates, for example, is never condescending or skeptical.  She takes the magical diaries she has studied at face value, never casting doubt on the sincerity of her subjects.

    There are parts of the book, mainly the first and last chapters, that can be tough going for anyone who is not a graduate student.  Owen is, after all, a professor pleading her case to fellow academics.  Fortunately, though, the bulk of the book is a concisely written and exhaustively researched history of the "new occultism" of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, and its impact on progressive thinkers in arenas such as science (psychology) and art (Surrealism).  Perhaps a hundred years from now, a professor at Moon Base University will be penning a study of the impact of Maat and Chaos Magicks on the social milieu of this century!

    Crowley is not given short-shrift in this volume: an entire chapter, one pivotal to Owens' argument about Magic's role in redefining of the concept of Self, is devoted to Crowley's and Neuburg's evocation of Choronzon in the Arabian desert.  Professed Thelemites might not agree with her conclusion -- that Perdurabo's decision to use himself as the vessel for the demon's manifestation did not result in an unification of his Higher and Lower selves as Crowley claimed, but left him thereafter a puppet to unresolved conflicts in his subconscious.  Whichever is the case, she credits Crowley for being a heroic figure, albeit a tragic one, in the modern search for an integrated self.  (A long excerpt from this chapter is posted at www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/642011.html).

    There are more comprehensive histories of the Golden Dawn in other volumes, but perhaps none that so successfully extend the significance of that Order's efforts to the world beyond the Vault of the Adepts.  This book is at least worthy of a library loan for those interested in the impact Magick can have on the evolution of consciousness and civilization.