It may well be that the 1990’s will be recalled, at least among students of Western esoteric traditions, as the decade in which the traditional academic prejudice against the study of occultism finally broke down. The first half of the decade has already seen a steady stream of capable scholarly works on occult traditions in the West, and with each year that stream seems more and more likely to turn into a flood. Not that long ago, it was an easy matter to stay abreast of the entire academic literature on esotericism – but those days appear to be definitely past.
The very richness of the current literature makes a good general guide to the field a necessity, and Antoine Faivre has provided what is, so far, the best such work in English.
Access to Western Esotericism consists of three parts. The first, “Approaches to Western Esoteric Currents,” contains a discussion of methodologies, a summary of some of the key concepts of Western esoteric thought, and a short but fairly comprehensive summary of the history of esoteric currents in the West from ancient times to the present. While it’s possible to quibble about some of Faivre’s terms and classifications, they are at least useful as a starting place, and better than many such attempts; the protean nature of Western esotericism and the difficulties involved in studying an underground tradition make such projects more than a little reminiscent of the blind men and the elephant.
The second part of the book, “Studies in Esotericism,” is made up of seven of Faivre’s essays on various aspects of esoteric tradition. In many ways, this is the most fascinating part of the book, as many of the themes Faivre explores relate to writings and movements which have received almost no attention in the English-language literature. At the same time, as part of a general introduction to esotericism, these essays are somewhat problematic. Five of the seven deal with the relatively restricted field of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European esoteric traditions, three of them specifically with the German theosopher Franz von Baader, who (despite his importance) is far from a dominant figure in the field as a whole. All seven, in addition, treat esotericism as a structure of ideas rather than – or, better, in addition to – a structure of practice. These represent the focal areas of Faivre’s own work, but in the context of this book they cannot help but offer a somewhat distorted picture of the whole.
The third part, finally, is a well-annotated bibliography of useful texts, classified by period and theme, which will be of substantial value to the scholar and of no small use to the practitioner as well. Its one weakness (which, admittedly, it shares with almost all academic bibliographies on esotericism) is that it makes almost no reference to the substantial resources published by popular occult presses in the last thirty years.
Prophecy is an uncertain business, but it seems likely that Access to Western Esotericism will become one of the standard introductions to Western esoteric thought in English. At the same time, its limitations make one hope that it is recognized as exactly that – an introduction, beyond which students of esoteric tradition inside as well as outside the academic world will have to make their own way.