Saturday, October 2, 2010

Literature and the Occult: The Strange Life and Times of Gustav Meyrink.


The relationship between art and occultism is a varied, deep-rooted, and fascinating subject. Many artists have professed a interest in the occult, and flavoured their artworks with the peculiar ambience and iconography of the Art. Of these, some were actual practitioners of magic, some armchair dabblers, and others outright sceptics who merely adopted esoteric emblems for aesthetic effect. Aleister Crowley was a poet, and occasionally wrote novels, such as the Moonchild, which expounded various aspects of his doctrine. Austin Osman Spare, whose pastel The Vampires are Coming is pictured above, was a remarkable artist and magician for whom both activities were complimentary aspects of the same essential process. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whom we encountered before in relation to The Coming Race and the Vril craze, published a novel called Zononi in 1842 which was essentially an allegory of Rosicrucian initiation. The Welch author and mystic Arthur Machen's anti-modernism and belief in esoteric doctrines produced a small body of highly influential weird fiction, including the Great God Pan and the almost grimoire-like The White People.

On the other hand, H.P. Lovecraft produced an enduring vision of Occult forces flowing into our world from Outside which has influenced generations of occultists and practitioners of rejected knowledge. But Lovecraft himself was an avowed rational sceptic and materialist. WB Yeats famously threw himself into the shenanigans of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, but turn of the century Theosophy and occultic revivalism receive a more sardonic treatment in Eliot's Waste Land and Joyce's Ulysses.


Nevertheless, even where no explicit or conscious connection exists, the artist and magician are bound together by a persistent congruence that is suggestive of shared origins. The classical poetic tradition of invoking the aid of the muses reflects the essential character of unfathomably ancient ceremonial magic: the summoning of supernatural entities and familiars to provide the magician or poet with extraordinary knowledge and abilities. (Though we have now largely replaced the idea of the muses with that of individual genius, the principal of inspiration remains a very mysterious force. Writers and artists in general feel the greatest sense of satisfaction and creativity when they have stopped trying; when some voice in the head or divinely inspired autopilot takes over the reins.) Further to this, the fictional world that emerges in artistic creation bears many similarities to the real world as experienced by the occultist.

The various worlds that emerge from literature and the arts are symbolical landscapes and products of a grand underlying design; they are places where no accidents ever occur, where correspondence and coincidence abound, and the artifice and intentions of the author provide a kind of Cabalistic code underlying the surface of the text. In this sense, Joyce's Ulysses is a supreme work of literary Cabala and occult imagination, a imaginary universe whose apparently quotidian and random character betrays endless interconnection, and the working of a grand, intricate design. ( Ulysses contains the following passage, one of my favourite in all of literature, which is distinctly occult in character: "He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible. Maerlinck says: If Socrates leave his house today he will find the sage seated on is doorstep. If Judas go forth tonight it is to Judas his steps will tend. Every life is is many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves".)


Gustav Meyrink was assuredly no stranger to wondering strange mental topographies and urban labyrinths, only to find his own reflection gazing back at every turn. Born the illegitimate son of a Baron and actress in Vienna in 1868, Meyrink spent most of his life in Prague, that grand miasmal mindscape of literary disorientation and angst. He was a contemporary of Kafka who was much admired by Max Brod, having achieved a considerable fame with his early novels of the uncanny The Golem and The Green Face. It has often been said that the prodigious strangeness of Meyrink's novels is eclipsed only by the details of his own life. A brief biographical abstract should leave the reader in no doubt of the validity of this claim.

Meyrink actually started out in life as banker, a profession wherein he enjoyed considerable early success. Between the years of 1882 and 1902, he was a director of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank in Prague, and enjoyed an extravagant reputation as a bon vivant and fashionable man about town. All, however, was not quite well behind the glittering fa├žade. Meyrink suffered from severe depression which ultimately culminated in nervous breakdown and attempted suicide.

On Assumption Eve, 1891, Meyrink was twenty four years old. He stood by the table in his apartment, holding a revolver in his hand, ready to end his life. Suddenly, he heard a rustling noise coming from the door. Upon investigation, Meyrink discovers that somebody has shoved an occultic pamphlet through the door. It is entitled "Afterlife."

This bizarre coincidence understandably set Meyrink off on a prodigious, life-long quest for occult knowledge and spiritual awakening. Later in the same year of his aborted suicide attempt, Meyrink became a founding member of the Theosophical Lodge of the Blue Star. He was "put to sea" in an endless tide of esoteric books and philosophies, studying and experimenting avidly with Cabalism, Freemasonry, yoga, alchemy, and hashish. There seems to have been no extreme to which he would not go in order to induce visions of the Other World. According to James Webb's book The Occult Establishment, "during the period of his strictest regimen - which probably coincided with his contact with the headquarters of the Theosophists - he took only three hours sleep a night, observed a strict vegetarian diet, performed arduous exercises, and drank gum-arabic twice a day in order to induce clairvoyance. At the end of these privations he had a vision like that of the Emperor Constantine and of abstract geometrical designs."

There was no stone Meyrink would leave unturned in his valiant attempt to attain the Great Work of spiritual transcendence. At one point, his practical experiments in alchemy lead to the shit quite literally hitting the fan: "All the necessary conditions for the alchemical "first matter" as he thought, were fulfilled by an element called "Struvit" or "Ulex" which had only been discovered in Germany, and always in ancient sewers. It therefore arose, argued Meyrink, in human excrement; and the substance fulfilled all the conditions laid down in alchemical texts. So from a "primaeval cess-pit" in Prague, he took a lump of excrement about the size of a nut and followed the instructions of his textbooks. The necessary color changes took place, but at a crucial point of the process his retort burst and the half-transformed prima materia hit the aspiring alchemist in the face."

In 1902, Lady Fortune gave a sharp turn to the wheel of Meyrink's destiny. He was about to get married for the second time, but severe disagreements with his future brother in law lead to him fighting an interminable series of duels with various officers of a Prague regiment. Worse still, rumours were swirling around Prague that Meyrink was running the affairs of the Meyer and Morgenstern Bank according to advice from the spirit world. In the ensuing scandal, he was thrown in jail, wherein he is thought to have broken his spine, and temporarily lost the power of his legs. Meyrink spent just two and a half months in prison, but it had left him financially ruined, and requiring all his reserves of yoga training to heal his shattered body. It was during this period of recuperation that he began writing, and embarked upon an initially successful career as a novelist.

This is only really scraping the surface of Meyrink's adventures in the occult. Another fascinating story suggests that in 1917, agents of the German government encouraged him to write a novel suggesting that the First World War was started by the Freemasons. He later backed away from the project, apparently under pressure from high-ranking Freemasons. Ill-fortune and eerie coincidence seemed to remain constants in his life. In the winter of 1933, Meyrink's son Harro (or "Fortunat" according to the wikipedia entry, which would make the tale even more bizarre if true) injured his backbone while skiing. The injury would effectively have confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. However, he committed suicide at the age of 24; the same age his father would have gone, had the "Afterlife" pamphlet not came rustling through the door. Less than a year later, Meyrink himself passed away, in the villa in Starnberg, Bavaria, known, after a hunted building in The Golem, as "The House at the Last Lantern."

More on Meyrink's Writing Shortly.

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