Hermes on the Seine
The Esoteric Scholarship of Antoine Faivre
A truncated version of this review appeared in Parabola, 1996
Imagine you’re a bookish paleface wandering through the stained and musty halls of Western civilization, sick to death of the endless tales of bloody conquests, heinous Churchman, and the ominous march of abstract and manipulative reason. Just when you’re ready to cash in you chips and join the barbarians and bodhisattvas at the gate, you stumble across some moldering sidedoor, thick with sigils and glyphs and glints of otherworldly light. The door opens unbeckoned, and you stumble past animated statues of Egyptian gods into basements packed with arcana: astrological diagrams, alchemical flowcharts, magical cook-books and Hermetic texts, organized not by the Dewey decimal system but by the blazing rainbow filing system of the Kabbalistic Tree of Life. Isaac Newton’s alchemical library is here, along with the hermetic troves of Breton and Blake, Walter Benjamin and Umberto Eco. You wander like a half-blind Argentinian sage through this iconic museum, each tome vibrating with its neighbors until the texts become a hieroglyphic hall of mirrors that reflect anew yourself and the world that made you.
For folks willing to dig beneath the newsprint horoscopes, esotericism appears not only as an underground history of Western ideas but as a broiling stream of consciousness that feeds and flows through everything from science to poetry to politics. Mercurial, fecund with imagery, yet propelled by a quite modern sense of psychological dynamics and individual experiment, esotericism is the West’s magic realism, a living metaphysical poetry grounded in the transformative potential of experience.
Encompassing gnostic hermeticism, Christian theosophy, Kabbalah, Neoplatonism, secret societies, and operative occult sciences like alchemy, astrology and magic, the esoteric current flows from the heady eclecticism of ancient Alexandria all the way to today’s mail-order Rosicrucian societies and the therapists who run with the wolves. From a strictly historical perspective, the hermetic tale is fractured and fibbing, its “tradition” creatively manufactured through the dubious machine of false attribution, fantasy and revelation. The heart of alchemy and magic is a kind imaginal yoga, its practitioners ultimately deriving their authority from experiences which rip them out of the fixed co-ordinates of mundane space-time. Noting the difficulties such claims pose for the intellectual historian, the Sorbonne religion professor Francoise Bonardel goes all the way back to a remark Abbot Lenglet du Fresnoy made in 1732: “The Scholars who apply themselves to History rightly scorn everything that has to do with this Science [of alchemy]; and the Philosophers [alchemists], occupied solely with their operations, neglect their History, and mix together all the different times.”
What to do with such a potent, haphazard mixture? Both secular genealogies and the secret histories of Masons and Templars miss the point: like carnival and dream, esotericism lives in history’s breach. Forced to scurry into the shadows by the Enlightenment, esotericism has today become a kind of no-man’s land where dabblers and mystagogues and serious amateurs wander through a field rife with, as the esoteric scholar Antoine Faivre complains, “lax or chimerical minds, halfhearted or nonexistent documentation, repackaging of old errors and tenacious swarms of counterfeits, absence of scientific accouterments in reprinting of old works.”
Though creating a seductive playground for febrile brains, esotericism’s shaky intellectual edifice keeps the field isolated, which is a crying shame. Aside from the juicy pleasures this material affords, esotericism’s eclectic and embodied hermeneutics is a surprising gold-mine for contemporary thought, especially now that the ideologies that squashed the alchemical angel have crumbled, leaving us to wander about a tetherless and increasingly irrational mindscape. Though the Great Work of psychic and cosmic regeneration rubs against our justified distrust of mystical holism and golden age myths, the alchemist begins where we are: solo souls mired in fragments and mutant signs.
To pick through the esoteric bones without chasing away its iridescent spirit is a tough challenge, one already met in various ways by folks like Mircae Eliade, Frances Yates, Henry Corbin, and more recently James Hillman, Joscelyn Godwin, Adam McLean and Morris Berman. Of course, the most famous 20th century intellectual to go whole hog on this stuff is the mixed bag known as Carl Jung. Rejected by intellectuals who have never read him and occultists who can’t hack the rigor, Jung nonetheless followed his mentor Freud in being a brilliant and subtle reader of the dreamtext. Approaching alchemy as a cultural dreaming, Jung realized that the bumbling proto-chemistry known to the history of science could be seen as the first psychology, a tradition of internal psychic work mediated by powerfully concrete symbols that engaged body and mind. In a sense, die-hard rationalists are right to reject him Jung, for the core of his thought was gnostic. Today, his vast and relatively respectable international movement is reeling from the publication of Richard Noll’s The Jung Cult, which argues that this supposedly scientific organization is a magical charismatic sect based on a visionary experience Jung had in 1913, when experiments with the “active imagination” transformed the good doctor into a snake-entwined lion-god.
Jung’s cosmic wigout doesn’t bug me much, and it probably doesn’t bug Antoine Faivre, the Sorbonne prof who holds the only university chair devoted to Western esotericism. Though a pedantic Catholic bias unpleasantly colors aspects of his work, Faivre has nonetheless labored to build a solid historical framework for Hermetic thought, while making suggestive claims for its contemporary relevance. A number of his works have recently been translated, including The Eternal Hermes, The Golden Fleece and Alchemy, and Access to Western Esotericism, as well as some essays in Modern Esoteric Spirituality, a solid but somewhat dull collection he co-edited with Jacob Needleman. A clue to the disciplinary state of esotericism is the fact that while SUNY Press put out two of these books, The Eternal Hermes comes from Phanes Press, a small Grand Rapids independent that tirelessly produces beautiful and affordable editions of hermetic emblem books and hermetic gems like Iamblichus’ Theology of Arithmetic and Porphyry’s Launching-Points to the Realm of Mind.
Challenging the pervasive notion that religious thought is little more than an obsolete set of warring dogmas, esotericism presents a volatile mode of hermeneutics that alters the perceiver as much as the perceived. For Faivre, esotericism is not a set of doctrines but a “form of thought,” an imaginary praxis where “the question is…less one of believing than of knowing or seeing.” In his archeology of esoteric knowledge, Faivre turns up a strangely vital ore, philosopher’s stones still glowing from the forge. And though some are certainly half-baked, these fragmented and mutant shapes still rise up like figures in the half-light of dream.
Separating esotericism from occult bric-a-brac and the wordless heights of mysticism, Faivre delineates a handful of its underlying “receptacles of the imaginary.” One is a pervasively analogic mode of perception with groks nature, human existence and the heavens as a resonating web of correspondences. To tap into the love vibe, for example, the magician would get in tune with copper and the rose, the lamp and the loins, the planet Venus and the signs of Taurus and Libra. A superstitious paradigm for sure, but a rigorous and beautifully concrete oneas Faivre writes, “If [esotericists] see the body as a magical object, mystically linked to the planets and to the elements of nature, it is because they find sense everywhere in things and transcend the illusion of banality, a supremely poetic task” Unlike Cartesian abstraction, which withdraws the imagination from the real, the esoteric practitioner saw the earth as alive, a forest of symbols overflowing with desire and sense.
And the lord of this dynamic network was Hermes, the most postmodern of gods, whose name not only blesses hermeticism but hermeneutics. In The Eternal Hermes, the most lucid and playful of his translated works, Faivre deals with two aspects of this spirit: the winged messenger god known to the Romans as Mercury, and Hermes Trismegistus, the mythical author of the Corpus Hermeticum, a collection of gnostic travelogues, magic and astrological jigs that became antiquity’s single most influential collection of esoteric thought.
Of course, in either guise, Hermes is far from eternal. In one essay, Faivre traces the shifting attributions and fluid genealogy of Trismegistus, as the Egyptian culture hero responsible for writing, astronomy and music develops into the historical guarantor of the Corpus Hermeticum. When the Hermetica were reintroduced to the West during the Renaissance, Trismegistus was believed to be a contemporary of Moses and so important that Cosimo de Medici had the material translated before Plato. But in 1614, the sharp tools of the historicists popped this mythic bubble when Isaac Casaubonthe Martin Gardener of his dayproved that the Hermetica was no older than the gospels. Faivre also traces the shifting image of the “thrice-great” sage in a beefy portrait gallery, which gives a taste of the data-dense and surreal engravings that fire the esoteric imagination.
At the same time, the messenger god who acts as Trismegistus’ mercurial namesake is himself constantly changing. As Norman O. Brown noted in an early treatment written years before Love’s Body, the god Mercury grows in power as trade and communication expand, the phallic stones sacred to his name moving from the crossroads between towns into the market-place at the heart of the city. Faivre does not go for that degree of historical causality, suggesting instead that perennial mutation is the very nature of this being. In the Gothic bloom of the 12th century, the Greek god of conjurers, scribes, and merchants became the agent of alchemical transmutation; in the Renaissance, the very embodiment of liberal and intellectual humanism. “It is he who breaks the fences, unblocks the circuits, and restores to circulation the knowledge hoarded by the guardians of the established intellectual order.” The Enlightenment then chases this lord of the printing press and the free flow of information into the irrational shadows, where he sets up watch over the occult hieroglyphs of secret societies and the discredited magical underground.
With his goofy but intriguing references to Harpo Marx and Mad Max and the Thunderdome, Faivre also suggests how much Hermes is still with us. As imaginative psychologists like David Miller and James Hillman have shown, the pagan gods reside where William Blake always said we’d find them: in the human breast. But rather than guide us toward our inner alchemical child, Faivre nudges Hermes gently into postmodernity. Eclectic and highly mobile, a quicksilver interpreter in a network of signs he both uncovers and conceals, Hermes easily surfs into our wired world, his science marking “the pathways of alterity, living diversity, and the communication of souls.” As the thief who “steals things only to put them back into circulation,” he even gives his blessing to DJs, adbusters and digital samplers.
Faivre mentions one dubious but suggestive etymology of “Mercury” that dips into the Celtic to come up sign (merc) and man (cur). Hermes is a sign-man, a wandering glyph, a signifier on a stroll. Rather than seek mystical union with an unmediated presence, Hermes and his followers throw themselves into the tangle of signs, not as writers but as pluralistic readers. “If it is true that language starts by reading, it must be recognized that, in our age, one no doubt speaks too much of ‘writing.'” Faivre rejects the endless Derridean deferral, “the agnostic impasse of those who indulge in pure abstractionism, of those who flee meaning by identifying it with formal relations, with the exchange of empty signs…Hermesian reading is an open, in-depth reading, one that lays bare the meta-languages for us, that is to say, the structure of signs and correspondences that only symbolism and myth make it possible to conserve and transmit.”
Of course, all this talk of reading has a very mundane ground: books. Hermetic fans dig books, huge libraries of books, rare books, facsimiles of rare books, bibliographies of books they’ll never see. Half the fun of Faivre is his concise and erudite travelogues through esotericism’s literary universe, the titles passing by like fabled cities glimpsed from the air: the Picatrix, the Arcana coelestia, The Book of Crates, The Emerald Tablet, The Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage. All fields of knowledge grow in life and complexity the more deeply one reads, but the resonances and cross-currents of occult and alchemical lore act on the reader with peculiar force, as if the symbols and figures are forged in the “incandescent melancholy” of the reflective mind. Faivre quotes Mircae Eliade: “we are condemned to learn about the life of the spirit and be awakened to it through books.” In his arcana-packed Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Econo mean collector of hermeticasuggests that esoteric truth is at most a semiotic conspiracy theory born of an endlessly rehashed and self-referential literature. But perhaps this perpetual play of text and perception is the only “true” initiation.
From the 17th through the 19th century, hermeticism’s dreams of regeneration, universal harmony and a transformed earth bubbled about in liberal, utopian and socialist political circles. But like surrealism, which could encompass a communist Breton and a royalist Dali, 20th century esotericism is mighty schizoid. The more counter-cultural streams that gave us Eastern gurus, the New Age and the popular culture of the occult tend towards progressive or libertarian sentiments. But many old-school esotericists hunkered down in their opposition to the secular rabble, turning conservative or even fascist.
Faced with the ideological nightmare of the 20th century, any appeal to a mythic return is rightly feared. Who needs more golden ages and cosmic hierarchies and redemption songs? But can we really say that secular materialism, scientism, the logic of rational control or the decentered, demythologized subject are not themselves guiding myths that orient us towards an essentially intuitive sense of liberation? What drives us? In making a claim for myth, Faivre writes that “‘Remythologization’ does not mean the creation of false myths but the refusal of them; it is not sacrificing to ancient or new idols but refusing to idolize history, that is, of refusing to succumb to the ideologies and pseudo-philosophies of history. If Hermeticism today has a role to play, it is that of demystifying, so as to remythify.” But whose myths do we embrace?
Faivre distinguishes three modern esoteric myths: an evolutionary and highly syncretic wing that holds that civilization is progressing towards some great unity, like the Theosophical fusion of West and East. Others take the Devo road, complaining that civilization has degenerated from an original revelation that only a tiny Traditionalist elite keeps alive. Faivre calls for a third way that is open to modernity, an eclectic and dynamic path that “takes place in an ensemble of forces opposed in a living tension.” Such a path coincides with poststructuralism in refusing the abstract dialectics of identity that drive Hegelian idealism and its materialist sequels. “Hermes is the anti-totalitarian god par excellence,” he assures us.
One sign that this path is not a retreat into fairy tales is the curious fact that the esoteric mind has always fed off of scientific developments. Works like The Tao of Physics, and the countless popular books about black holes and quantum weirdness, are only the latest chapter in a tale that runs through Isaac Newton’s vast alchemical writings and Bruno’s Copernicism back to the sacred geometries of Greco-Egyptian mathematics. Despite the enormous difference between differential tables and emerald tablets, the hermetic mind is comfortable with the latest cosmologies because it’s comfortable inhabiting a “multiple reality which, far from limiting itself to a project of flat rationality, would associate the flesh and the flame.”
Unfortunately, Faivre also feels compelled to police this domain, and like all police actions, it’s an ugly thing to watch. In Access to Western Esotericism, he asserts that neognostic cosmologies that embrace pantheism and avoid anthropocentrism and references to some original Fall are not “true gnosis.” He also consistently denigrates modern occultism as “trivial esotericism” that his anthology of Modern Esoteric Spirituality contains nothing on ceremonial Neopaganism or Aleister Crowley’s fascinating legacy is absurd. He also hates the East, as his references to the “deadened itineraries of Jack Karouac” and his ignorant asides about Zen Buddhism proves. Not exactly a fan of today’s pierced and tattooed body, Faivre attacks the “savage imaginary” of new religions movements for their self-indulgence and lack of rigor, though he acknowledges that they “bear witness, in spite of everything, to the need to escape the “official” regime of the imaginary.”
Any time esoteric writers start differentiating “true” and “false” gnosis, you know that Hermes has fled the scene and some demagogue with an agenda has taken his place. The test of a strong and beautiful world-view is how it reacts to its own boundaries, and when he reaches his limits, Faivre sadly collapses into a pedantic Catholic mystagogue contradicting his previous calls for pluralism and tolerance and an esoteric technology that does not depend on prior adherence to a belief system. From the Renaissance on, hermeticism was the West’s Santeriaa pragmatic syncretism of paganism and Christianity’s esoteric dimensions. But in the end, Faivre’s myth and mystery is utterly orthodox.
And things get mighty woozy when Faivre turns to his pet subject: the occult German theology known as theosophy. At first, I looked forward to his essay on love and ontological androgyny in Franz von Baader. The alchemical androgyne is a mighty bizarre figurefor the 18th century von Baader, the being that preceded Adam and Even was a gutless creature whose mysterious reproductive organs were located at the heart and who digested food in its mouth. Like many aboriginal shamans, the hierophant Hermes is also an androgyne, a magical cross-dresser, and it’s only time before some post-structuralist body semiotician really dives into this extremely fertile material.
But faced with such potent sexual imagery, Faivre’s Catholic programs kick in with their tired tales of the sinning flesh. Seeking the true figures of holy androgyny, he rejects the earthy polymorphs of pagan representation and Western tantrists, embracing instead virginal Madonnas and sexless angels. He reminds us how repellent myth becomes when it starts legislating human mores; in his hands, the gendered imagery that drives the polytheistic dynamics of mythic thought (and perhaps human psychology) degenerates into a sexist literalism. Like some priest dispensing marriage advice, Faivre explains the passivity of women, the mystical reasons for their mysterious bouts of silence, and their proper subordination to husbands whose desire they shape, husbands who in turn find their freedom in subordination to God. He even writes that the diminishing sexual desire in a marriage is a healthy sign. Reading this junk, I felt trapped in some holy panopticon, and only a bout of perverse sex and a blast of Satanic industrial music cleared the cloying air.
But despite these conservative and somewhat odious sentiments, Faivre’s work helps establish esotericism as a legitimate object of academic study, and is valuable for organizing the broad outlines and textual minutia of hermetic history (his books are worth their price for the bibliographies alone). Rigorous esoteric history provides great ballast and cultural depth to those spirit-minded readers who can’t stomach the crystal New Age sideshow and can’t turn East without the nagging suspicion that you can never really leave home. Like a ruin whose tumbled shapes speak fresh and unintended meanings, the very fragmentation of the West’s hermetic soul gives it room to breathe.