Modernism and the Occult

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John Bramble
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , March
     178 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


John Bramble’s complex volume Modernism and the Occult might be challenging for the casual reader wanting to know about the occult and its relation to modernity. But for one more familiar with the late 19th and early 20th century development of occultism, and/or a solid understanding of the evolution of modern art and its inextricable relationship to modernity, this will be an absorbing, if unusually written, read.

The book primarily engages with the development of modernism from roughly the 1880s to the mid 20th century using both occult movements and art movements (influenced by Western empire, and Eastern esoteric ideas) as a means by which to historically observe the process. Bramble wants to “foreground European high empire for the indelible transcultural mark it left on the ‘Western Occult’” (1), and to “trace the history of modernist resort to East-West syncretism (the high-imperial occult) as a tool for exploring the sometimes threatening, sometimes captivating condition of modernity” (2). Especially, Bramble is fascinated with the theories of historian Bernard Smith and spends much time in his writing making a case to substantiate Smith’s “high-imperial, occult-exotic theory of modernism” (10) throughout the book.

The structure of Modernism and the Occult consists of six short chapters, which discuss the following topics.  Chapter 1, “Empire and Occultism,” is a survey of what Bramble considers to be the high-imperial occult and the enthusiasm it produced for occult matters and material originating in the East. Chapter 2, “Modernist Interworlds,” continues with a fascination and co-option of what is considered occult from the East. Vivekananda, German Expressionism, and ideas of the subconscious and trance states are also explored. Chapter 3, “Destruction-Creation: From Decadence to Dada,” deals with destruction and creation cycles, the Symbolist movement, more Eastern influences, Schopenhauer, Dada, Vendanta, Cubism and Expressionism, and modernism’s neo-romantic current. Chapter 4, “Call to Order, Occultist Geopolitics, Spirit Wars,” explores Nazism and the occult, identities, the tensions of anticipated war, Germany’s pivotal position, Vendanta, Ruth St. Denis, and Bloomsburian Tantra. Chapter 5, “‘Zen’ in the Second Abstraction,” discusses Surrealism, Expressionism, and Asian influences—especially Zen—on the development of 20th century art. Chapter 6, “Owning, Disowning and Trivializing the Occult,” is a recapitulation and conclusion questioning the development of modernity as seen through the book, and speculating on where such development may lead.

Without doubt, John Bramble, a classicist and Emeritus Fellow at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, has read widely on his topoi. The text is a comprehensive and impressive who’s who of the various movements he details, and is an outstanding resource in its own way. Additionally he’s made an intriguing case in support of his examination of Bernard Smith’s high-imperial occult-exotic theory of modernism.  I admire John Bramble’s effort. I only wish there were more of it to consider, and for several reasons.

Specifically, Bramble has a particularly dense style of writing which is not always conducive to clarity. For example, paragraphs will often contain strings of names of people (or events or places) with only an intimation of how they are related. Some of these read like personal research notes, which may obfuscate meaning, as not all readers are already familiar with the subject matter; and because it can seem reductive, which I am sure is not the author’s intention. But given the absence of exposition, we are not always certain how deeply he understands some of these conglomerations of historical facts he shares in his flow of consciousness/shorthand style. These one hundred and forty-four pages are begging to be developed into two hundred and eighty-eight pages of final product, the missing half spent truly engaging in the otherwise absent elucidation of the banquet of facts Bramble serves to us.

Still, that shouldn’t prevent the curious from engaging with this book. The bumps in the road are worth the ride. Modernism and the Occult is a worthy read for those who are interested in the development of modernity, European high empire, modern art, and the occult and the influence of Eastern thought upon it. He has done a stellar job undertaking the difficult task of bringing disparate strands of phenomena and thought together to construct a very particular view of a fascinating part of the history of modernity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Della Campion is a doctoral student in the study of religion at the University of California, Davis.

Date of Review: 
October 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Bramble, an Emeritus Fellow of Corpus Christi College Oxford, lectured in Classics at Oxford University, UK. His publications as a classicist include Persius and the Programmatic Satire (1974, reissued 2010), and contributions to The Cambridge History of Classical Literature Vol. 2 (1983). As a historian of mystical syncretism and religio-cultural mixing, he has contributed to The Subtle Body in Asia and the West (2013).



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