Secrecy Redefined: Print Culture and the Globalization of Occult Philosophies in the Long Nineteenth Century
Oates, Lori Lee
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
This thesis seeks to examine the relationship between occult religion and the global circulation of texts. For some time now, scholars have rejected the secularism thesis or the idea that there has been a decline of religion in the post-Enlightenment period. Today, we largely accept that religion did not actually decline or disappear but, rather, it has changed form. Religion shifted from traditional religious institutions to become an aspect of aesthetic culture, available through the commercial economy. My work explores how the relationship between the book and commercial religion emerged and evolved during the long nineteenth century. Occultism has long been viewed as an aspect of the rise of secular society following the Enlightenment. This thesis proposes a new lens through which we can view the evolution of occultism, seeing it as a response to growth in global networks of empire and the commercialization of religion through the printed word. It explores how the nature of the transmission of occultism shifted, particularly during the final decades of the nineteenth century. Antoine Faivre’s foundational text Access to Western Esotericism (1994) put forward the concept of the transmission of occultism as something that occurs between a disciple and an initiate. My thesis, however, argues that the widening of print activity and literacy expanded the opportunities for initiation into magic to occur more broadly, changing the nature of who could become an initiate. As such, secrecy around magic became redefined. It shifted from being a pursuit of the literate elite to something that was widely available. This analysis is delivered in four chapters. The introduction examines the relationship between literature and nineteenth-century occultism. It also discusses the influence of globalization. Chapter one discusses the occult in post-revolutionary France and the influence of Egyptian orientalism on French occultism. Chapter two addresses Victorian occultism and discusses the context of a growing Victorian literary industry. Chapter three addresses the Theosophical Society as an agent of globalized and commercialized religion. It also addresses the importance of British imperialism in India. Finally, chapter four discusses the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the resurgence of Egyptian orientalism and elitism in British occultism.
PhD in History