OCCULT PARIS: The Lost Magic of the Belle Epoque by Tobias Churton (2016, Inner Traditions)
Occult Paris by Tobias Churton is a masterful study of the issues and people in the art world of Paris around the turn of the last century. The mystical component is almost an afterthought as Churton has a fascination for some people that is hard to describe. You don’t need a degree in French literature to understand this book, but it might help.
The Belle Epoque (French: beautiful era) was a period from the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871) to the start of World War I (1914). This is the period the book covers with great detail. As the title says, it’s concerned with the area of Paris in particular and France in general. Churton quotes frequently in translation from many of the great writers and artists from this time period. I hadn’t heard of many before, with the exception of the great composer Claude Debussy (1862-1918). Debussy, I found out, was influenced by many of the occult thinkers of this era.
The book focuses on Joséphin Péladan and Papus, both writers and leaders in their respective communities. Péladan was famous for his decadent books and appearing as a fop in ornate clothing. Papus, whose real name was Gerard Encausse, was an esoteric book publisher and founder of several mystic orders. Both of the names are prominent in this account. If you don’t know much about them, as I didn’t, you’ll have to do some catching-up while reading the book.
Occult Paris has one of the best descriptions of Martinism I have yet to find. Martinism was a strange mixture of Christianity and Freemasonry that originated in Europe in the eighteenth century. It never took off in the United States and remains a cypher on this side of the big pond. However, many of the characters featured in this book were very interested in Martinism and it influenced them greatly. Rosicrucian thought was very big among these people and there were many Rosy Cross orders founded in their wake. Papus was a one-man initiator who started or was involved with more mystic groups than most people would ever encounter in their lives.
My prime interest in this book was that it detailed the rise of the Gnostic Catholic Church, Église Gnostique (French: Gnostic Church). There are novels that need to use this group as an inspiration point. To make things brief, Jules Doinel, an archivist who worked for the French Government, developed a keen interst in the heretical Christian Cathars (or Albigensians) of France in the thirteenth century. The author recounts how he started an independent sacramental church out of nothing during a séance in the autumn of 1889:
“’Around 10 p.m., after prolonged mental prayer, the heavy table began to tremble under the group’s fingers, as if life pulsed through its grain. A vibrating sound was heard that impressed everybody. It appeared to chant: “Est Deus in nobis, agiante calescimus illo,” whereupon the medium made a sign to Lady Caithness who seized the wand of evocation—a pendulum—and cast it over the alphabetic frame. The frame contained letters above which the wand would rest. She spelled out the words: “Prepare yourselves. Soon the Bishops of the Albigensian Synod of Montségur are going to appear.” Then sparks flew about the oratory and the effigy of Mary came alive. A smile played on the Queen of Scots’s lips and her eyes lit up in the dark. Doinel screamed. The “enchanted” oratory was enveloped in a profound, pregnant silence. Doinel felt a soft hand on his lap. His hair stood on end. A countess and princess close by went pale, bundles of nerves as the table assumed vibrating life, beating a rhythm for ten long minutes. At the climax, a huge bang came from the table’s center and the wand again ran over the raised letters of the frame, “magically” spelling out the following: “Guilhabert de Castres, bishop of Montségur and the forty bishops of the high synod are here.” The circle was seized by an impulse to stand and the evocation commenced with the prayer of the Paraclete, then the salute to the gnostic bishops, then the solemn interrogation….
…“The Assembly will be composed of Parfaits and Parfaites. The Holy Spirit will send you those males and females that he must send you. We bring you joy and peace, the joy of the Spirit and the peace of the heart. Now, kneel, O you who are the first fruits of the Gnosis. We are going to bless you.”Doinel and the assembled were seized by “an understandable emotion”; tears streamed from their eyes as their hearts were gripped by an anguish at once voluptuous and gentle. Doinel felt fire in his veins. Kneeling down, the table again began quivering to a rhythm while an “aura” enveloped them like a whirlwind and a voice was heard: “That the Holy Pleroma blesses you. That the Aeons bless you. We bless you as we bless the martyrs of the Pyrenaean Tabor. Amen. Amen. Amen.’”
After these auspicious beginnings, the patriarch of this new church went around making bishops and priests.
Just about every Gnostic church these days, and there are more than two, date from this beginning. The whole concept of “wandering bishops” almost originates with this church. I say almost because they go back a few years to schisms in the Roman Catholic Churches in Europe. However, if it wasn’t for this one séance, none of these groups might exist. At least not in their current form.
Occult Paris is not an easy read. The author has academic credentials and the book assumes the reader is knowledgeable of his favorite topics. I learned a lot from it. I will admit that when the book ventured into territory I did know about, it added to my own database. For these reasons I give it a recommendation, just expect to use a reference to check up plenty of obscure French artists if you are not well versed in this part of French history.