Monday, June 19, 2017

Alex Ross on the occult roots of modernism in the arts, via The New Yorker

John Bramble, in his 2015 book, “Modernism and the Occult,” writes that the Salon de la Rose + Croix was the “first attempt at a (semi-)internationalist ‘religion of modern art’ ”—an aesthetic order with Péladan as high priest. In the years that followed, radical artistic thinking and obscure spiritual strivings intersected in everything from Kandinsky’s abstractions to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and the atonal music of Schoenberg.
Kenneth Silver expands on the connection in a thought-provoking essay in the “Mystical Symbolism” catalogue, entitled “Afterlife: The Important and Sometimes Embarrassing Links between Occultism and the Development of Abstract Art, ca. 1909-13.” The word “embarrassing” is taken from the art theorist Rosalind Krauss, who wrote, in 1979, that “now we find it indescribably embarrassing to mention art and spirit in the same sentence.” Yet in the early twentieth century Kandinsky, Pound, and other modernists absorbed what Silver calls “an amalgam of spiritual sources—Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, kabbalistic, alchemical, and just plain wacky.” Assuming the pose of a sorcerer or guru emboldened more than a few artists and writers in their quest to explode tradition and create a new order.
Fin-de-siècle spiritualism also had a radicalizing effect on music: “Le Fils des Étoiles” was only the beginning. In the first decade of the century, Alexander Scriabin reached the border of atonality under the influence of Theosophy; he devised an ear-burning, six-note “mystic chord” that voices a hitherto ineffable divine presence. Jean Delville supplied an image of a sun deity for the cover of Scriabin’s sumptuously dissonant score “Prometheus, Poem of Fire.” As for Schoenberg, he was immersed in mystical texts at the time of his atonal leap: in terminology reminiscent of Péladan, he explained that whereas conventional major and minor chords resembled the opposition of the two genders his new chords could be compared to androgynous angels. Even the cool intellect of Igor Stravinsky was touched by theurgic energies: the neo-pagan scenario of “The Rite of Spring” was co-created by the Russian Symbolist painter Nicholas Roerich, who went on to have a spectacularly strange career as a Theosophical sage. [emphasis added]

In the wake of two catastrophic world wars, mysticism lost its lustre. The ecstatic liturgies of the fin de siècle rang false, and a rite of objectivity took hold. The supernatural was all but expunged from modernism’s origin story: the great Irish-literature scholar Richard Ellmann insisted that Yeats employed arcane symbols “for their artistic, not their occult, utility.” In the narrative that so many of us learned in school, the upheavals of the modernist epoch were, above all, formal developments, autonomous events within each discipline. Clement Greenberg spoke of painting’s “progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium”; Theodor W. Adorno, of the “inherent tendency of the musical material.” Such sober formulas fail to capture the roiling transcendental longings of a Kandinsky or a Schoenberg. [emphases added]

Hence the disreputable allure of Péladan, who dared to speak aloud what usually remains implicit in the aesthetic sphere: belief in the artist’s alchemical power, in the godlike nature of creation, in the oracular quality of genius. (Think of how often prewar Expressionism is said to have anticipated the horrors to come, as if artists were clairvoyant.) The question we want to ask a figure like Péladan is whether or not he meant what he said—whether, in essence, he was a lunatic or a charlatan.


Adorno was, perhaps, ultimately insufficiently dialectical about Schoenberg and the emergence of atonality at at least two different levels. At the first level he may have insufficiently appreciated the necessary linkage between occultism and the inspiration for atonality as an expression of a transcendental state of being. He wouldn't have been the only academic to have so failed, of course, but by the same token Anglo-American Christian polemicists were generally not even paying attention.  A potentially useful application from Francis Schaeffer's phrase book would be to say that the atonalists were creating music that aspired to be above "the line of despair" but which became incomprehensible to ordinary people who didn't have access to the figuratively and literally occult knowledge necessary to understand what a Scriabin or a Schoenberg were aspiring to. 

The other level at which Adorno was insufficiently dialectical was in the sense that he was trapped in the mental rut of supposing we must still only divide the octave into twelve-equally tempered equi-distant tones.  As the innovations of Harry Partsch and his associates, including Ben Johnston, have managed to demonstrate in the last eighty or so years, it's possible to divide the octave into fifty-three pitches and to compose music that employs what has for a generation or two been called "microtonality".  To the extent that Adorno ignored efforts at musical innovations in the Soviet bloc and the United States he was ignoring the two regions on earth where attempts to break out of the strait jacket of the 12-tone scale were most readily documented. 

But it's not as though Francis Schaeffer, in his own way, failed even more than Adorno to entirely engage with some of the aesthetic and conceptual innovations in the arts of his respective time.  I can be sympathetic to Adorno's proposal in Aesthetic Theory that we can't forget that art involves an explicitly cognitive as well as an intuitive thought process. That doesn't mean I'm on board with him about the "necessity" of twelve-tone, let alone his polemics against jazz.  But I think it's possible to take on a few of Adorno's concerns as useful concerns about the way people theorize about art.  Then, of course, we can also keep in mind that it's good to not ignore the explicitly occult inspirations of any number of the early 20th century modernists.  Over the last year and a half I've been sort of toggling back and forth between some writings from the Frankfurt school and some writings from Schaeffer and a bit of Chesterton to see whether or not these two fairly different approaches to the arts in terms of the embrace or rejection of religious belief might yield some possible overlap in a proverbial Venn diagram. 

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