The Visionary and His World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Charles Fourier: The Visionary and His World [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Jonathan Beecher.

Beecher Charles Fourier The Visionary and His World

Jonathan Beecher’s hefty intellectual biography of Charles Fourier (1772-1837) was groundbreaking when it was first published in 1986, and I doubt that it has been superseded by later scholarship in any significant respect. While reading, I often found myself comparing it to the historical study of Fourier’s contemporary William Blake by David Erdman, which was also structured along biographical lines. But while I found prior familiarity with Blake’s writing essential to appreciation of Erdman’s treatment, Beecher makes no such presumptions for Fourier, whose works have been so marginalized–if not outright suppressed–among general readers and scholars alike.

The book is divided into three major sections. The first, “Provincial Autodidact,” traces Fourier’s early life and first writings, his encounter with his “first disciple” Just Muiron, and the project of composing his magnum opus Traité de l’association domestique-agricole. The central part of Beecher’s volume goes into great detail on Fourier’s ideas as set forth in his works, including those that remained unpublished during his lifetime. In this section Beecher is often concerned to rescue Fourier from the Fourierists who later omitted and “improved” upon various details of their “master’s” great and unified conceptual edifice. The third part, “Parisian Prophet,” details the development of his following, his interaction with the ideas and adherents of the other early socialist leaders Saint-Simon and Owen, preliminary ventures in application of his theories, his eventual estrangement from the movement that his works had founded, and his demise.

Fourier claimed that his entire theory flowed from the “secret of the calculus of passionate attraction” (193)–earlier translators prefer “passional,” and I think this distinctive term has some merit. (It denotes “of the innate passions” rather than “in an impassioned manner,” although the two are certainly not exclusive of one another.) Proposing to do away entirely with individual repression in favor of expression of the passions, Fourier maintained that what was needed was the correct form of social organization, allowing the diversity of innate passions to cover the gamut of necessary work. The consequent development would be Harmony, a stage that would obsolete Civilization. Throughout his writings, Fourier consistently uses “civilized” as a pejorative to describe the ills of the society in which he lived. He was an unflinching feminist and an extreme sexual libertarian, and Beecher is not the only reader of Fourier to draw comparisons to Francois Rabelais on the one hand and Wilhelm Reich on the other.

At its most expansive, Fourier’s theory supplies a complete past and future history of the world, a distinctive cosmology, and a metaphysics including reincarnation. He anticipated that Harmony would produce beneficial changes in weather and climate as well as alterations in human physiognomy. His most exotic prognostications–and it is not always easy to tell if these are satirical–included the ideas that the oceans would become potable, the moon would vanish and be replaced with five new satellites, and humans would grow a new limb called the archibras–an immensely long prehensile tail with a small hand on the end of it.

As Beecher notes, the milieu in which Fourier’s intellect first matured included “esoteric Freemasonry and illuminism … Rosicrucianism, Swedenborgianism, and a variety of other mystical cults” (38), and while Fourier always presented his theory as sui generis, early adherents including Just Muiron were often attracted by what they perceived as similarities to Martinism and other theosophical systems. More recent scholarship by Julian Strube touches on the Fourierist contributions to French occultism, especially in the work of Alphonse Louis Constant (Eliphas Levi), and Fourier also inspired Anglophone occultists such as Richard J. Morrison (Zadkiel). Later, he was to be embraced by the Surrealists as a sainted predecessor.

Lively, relevant, and far briefer orientations to Fourier can be found in Umberto Eco’s The Uses of Literature (213-255) and Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Escape from the Nineteenth Century and Other Essays (5-37), but Beecher’s tome is fully worth the work of reading it. It left me with no doubt that Fourier supplied an important node in the intellectual current where I operate, offering a transformative vision of a society in which Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

These misconceptions may be summed up as follows:—Firstly, that Buddhism is a ‘heathen’ doctrine, whose adherents worship idols and pray to stone and wood; Secondly, that it is a mysterious sort of affair, connected with miracle-mongering and ‘esotericism’; and, Thirdly, that it is a backboneless, apathetic, pessimistic manner of philosophy, with annihilation as its goal and aim, tending to the subversion of all useful activities, well enough for ‘the dreamy peoples of the Orient,’—as those who know them least delight in calling them,—but totally unsuited to the more active and energetic nations of the West.

Allan Bennett, The Faith of the Future, The Value of Buddhism

Hermetic quote Bennett The Faith of the Future The Value of Buddhism misconceptions heathen miracle-mongering esotericism  backboneless apathetic pessimistic subversion dreamy unsuited active energetic

the prudent but strict curtailment of the freedom of the press; the minute police supervision of all teachers and professors; and the ferreting out Illuminism in its most secret recesses…. The result will be that henceforth no one will be able to corrupt the opinion of the people … and that the real happiness of the people will no longer be threatened by the destruction of religion and the subversion of society.

Terry Melanson, Perfectibilists: The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Melanson Perfectibilists prudent strict curtailment freedom press police supervision all teachers professors ferreting out illuminism corrupt destruction religion subversion society

New and Collected Poems 1964-2006

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews New and Collected Poems 1964-2006 [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ishmael Reed.

Reed New and Collected Poems 1964-2006

When I was in high school, a critical aside comparing Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus to Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo brought me haphazardly to a public library copy of Reed’s first poetry collection Conjure, which excited me to the point of photocopying nearly a third of it — after resisting the temptation to steal it outright. For about twenty years thereafter, Reed’s work motivated myriad unrewarded searches on my part among the poetry shelves in used bookshops across the country. In 2006, the volume of Reed’s New and Collected Poems 1964-2006 supplied me with the full contents of Conjure, as well as the interim volumes ChattanoogaA Secretary to the Spirits, and Points of View, and a further collection of poetry more extensive than any two of the earlier books combined. 

Conjure still includes several of my all-time-favorite short poems: “There’s a Whale in my Thigh,” “The Piping Down of God,” and “Dragon’s Blood.” According to the author’s micro-vita appended to this volume, “Beware: Do Not Read This Poem” is also an all-time-favorite of literature instructors. Perhaps the best and most representative poem of this earliest set is the exquisite “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra,” a houngan’s brag rebuking Christian tyranny with a mixture of Wild West and ancient Egyptian imagery.

The later materials continue in the same vein, with a tiny bit less anger and a little more sorrow, but Reed’s sense of humor is undiminished. Although he no longer foregrounds the blazon of his school of Neo HooDooism, his methods and aims seem quite consistent with what came before. In the later work, his awareness of the (already much-realized) possibility that his poems would serve as musical lyrics more often leads Reed to use repetitive chorus forms and traditional structures, but even in the early pieces, there is a vivid aural sensibility that constantly tempts to reader to declaim them aloud for the benefit of their full force. 

Reed insists that his poetry is not theological in its aims, despite its use of various non-Christian and counter-Christian tropes and images: “The key lesson that I do take from Yoruba religion is from the parable in which a traveler finds himself in a strange country, away from his gods, and the only god that he can depend upon is his own mind” (xix). But he makes no such disclaimers regarding politics. A political piece among the more recent work that I found especially striking as an expression of its own time was the 2001 “America United” (362-372). And one that read with eerie irony in the light of current events (police violence in late October 2011) was “Let Oakland Be a City of Civility” from 1999 (341-345).

After the recent poems, the book concludes with an opera libretto Gethsemane Park, and a prose narrative “Snake War” based on a translation of an excerpt from Fungawa’s Igbo Olodumare (The Forest of God). The former is a sort of Godspell-like displacement of gospel events into the modern American city, in which Jesus is not a human hero but a discorporate orisha.

In an untitled verse from 1992, Reed wrote: “Ever get the / Feeling that your past / Is a hunter who knows the / Woods better than you” (327). In fact I do, and this four-decades-plus collection goes a way toward demonstrating why Reed might as well.

The radical magi encountered a world wherein one world-image was locked in place—not just the geocentric cosmos but the whole Christian orthodox value system that went with it. Their subversive purpose revolved around the project of a free circulation of imagery, a breaking-up of the stasis and the creation of a more responsive model. The single world-view of orthodoxy was seen as stifling, tyrannical, oppressive. Inasmuch as the self interiorized this view it reproduced the oppression on the level of the subjective. The hermeticists opposed the very singleness of this worldview with a contradictory multiplicity, a critical form of “paganism” based on difference.

Hakim Bey, The Obelisk

Hermetic quote Bey Wilson The Obelisk radical magi encountered one world-image locked subversive purpose free circulation imagery contradictory multiplicity critical paganism difference

Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Glenn Alexander Magee.

Magee Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition

Writing very consciously in the vein inaugurated by Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Glenn Magee details the esoteric contexts and underpinnings of the work of G.W.F. Hegel. This is not a work of tendentious revisionism. The wonder is not that Magee can read Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, but that — in light of the evidence which he marshals — so many others have managed to avoid the obvious conclusion. A review from The International Philosophical Quarterly quoted on the back cover of my copy claims that the work exposes “Hegel’s dark side,” but Magee makes no such judgment. When he writes about indicting and convicting Hegel of Hermeticism in his final chapter, he is very plainly using a cacophemistic rhetorical figure. Hermeticism as Magee defines it (and he does a competent job of doing so) could be “dark” to the conventionally pious Christian, or to the rationalistic secular sorts who may have had the upper hand in the 20th-century study of Hegel, but it wasn’t to Hegel, nor to Magee nor me.

I came to this book after reading a good deal of the “Young Hegelian” Ludwig Feuerbach, for whom Hegel figures as the culmination of an obsolete crypto-theology, and I was open to the possibility of heightening my intellectual sympathy for Hegel. Magee pulled that off quite nicely. After reading his treatment of The Phenomenology of Spirit as an initiatory rite (!) I found myself for the first time ever actually considering a full read of that forbidding tome.

Magee has a lot to say about the kabbalah, which he understands to have been influential on Hegel both directly (in Rosenroth’s Kabbalah Denudata and the like) and via the work of Jacob Boehme. Most of his points are fairly sound, but he did not impress me as a scholar of kabbalistic history. He seemed thoroughly dependent on Gershom Scholem. And his transliterations were distractingly erratic; for instance, he wrote Ayin for AIN, although the same word was elsewhere Ein (in Ein Sof).

Likewise, Magee’s appreciation of the history of alchemy seems adequate for his task, but not thorough. In this case, I think he errs (in a way he does not with the Kabbalah) in deeming alchemical methods to be all of a sort. When he declares that “there is no way to decide if the alchemical opus is intended to be entirely figurative or symbolic, or if there is both a literal, physical operation of some sort coupled with a mystical doctrine” (209), it seems clear that he could benefit from the work of recent researchers into alchemy in the history of science, such as Lawrence Principe.

I have no such complaints about Magee’s efforts to contextualize Hegel with reference to the development of Rosicrucianism in Germany. In this case, he draws on appropriate and reliable scholarship in a way that has apparently been neglected by earlier Hegel scholars. Merely in passing, I was delighted to note Magee’s observation about the genesis of the phrase “immanentize the eschaton” in The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin (1952), where he is discussing the effects of Joachimist prophecy. 

I was cumulatively impressed with Magee’s thesis, which at one point he puts like this: “Hegel’s speculation, as I have characterized it, is a sophisticated, post-Kantian reappropriation of the memory magic and ‘active imagination’ of Hermetic thinkers such as Bruno and Boehme” (103). He covers Hegel’s ideas about magic, and the essential identity between Hegel’s “speculative philosophy” and esoteric (or mystical) religion. I strongly recommend this book to those who enjoy readings in the history of ideas, and who want to be able to appreciate the aquifer feeding a wellspring of 19th-century philosophy.