Mixing Memory and Desire: Four
IV. Science and the Occult
Meanwhile, the nineteenth century saw the rise of two major movements--that of science, and that of the occult. Both were the result of the Industrial Revolution; the quality of instruments for science as well as the rise of the middle class helped to move science as a discipline forward, giving us Darwin's theory of evolution, as well as the beginnings of anthropology and archaeology. However, the highly destructive elements of the Industrial Revolution on all facets of society--environmental, social, and religious (with Darwin comes the rejection of myth)--also brought with it the rise in the occult, namely lodges devoted to magical or mystical practices. Such lodges included the Freemasons, Theosophists, the Order of the Golden Dawn (of which W.B. Yeats was a member), and the O.T.O. The pull of such organizations was undoubtedly similar to that of pastoralism--the belief in something other, something outside society, untainted by the corruption of modernity. "Many persons of all classes were swept up by the occult revival that occurred during the last years of the nineteenth century; this was part of the inevitable reaction against the rationalism and materialism of the Victorian culture" (Fennelly 285).
One thing that many lodges had a fascination with was Celtic myth, in no small part due to W. B. Yeats and the Victorians before him. Yeats was a member of the Golden Dawn, and a practicing magician (285). Other members of the lodge were A. E. Waite (designer of the modern Tarot deck and author of several studies on the Grail legend), and Aleister Crowley, notorious occultist, Satanist, and underground writer. Yeats often corresponded with the lodge's leader, S.L. MacGregor Mathers--for them, "the Celtic revival was their most pressing concern" (301). Yeats was a supporter of the Irish independence movement, and much of his poetry deals with Irish subjects; he even wrote a cycle of plays about the Ulster hero Cuchulain. He is said to have helped in the designing of the Tarot deck with A. E. Waite (Raine 5), and this "wicked pack of cards" would later show up in Jessie L. Weston's From Ritual to Romance, where she connects them to the Grail through the Templars. This would later come to influence Eliot's The Waste Land.
The second movement which made its impact on society at this time was the science. As a concrete discipline, science had grown since the beginning of the Renaissance, and was now kicked into high gear. The most radical change came about when Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species, arguing that all life was not simply created in one form by God four thousand years ago, but constantly adapts to its environment, producing new species in the process, and killing off old species that can no longer compete. The strong (those lucky enough to be born with adaptations for the environment) survive and produce strong offspring; the weak (those who are ill-adapted for the environment) do not. Such an idea understandably shocked and upset many people, particularly the notion that we are descended of apes.
But for every science, there is a pseudo-science, and in this case, that is Eugenics. Eugenics works upon the belief that proper breeding of humans, based upon their genetic makeup (or what people would like to think of as genetic makeup) will result in the building of supermen. This superman was based not only upon his intelligence or physical prowess, but also upon racist ideas of white supremacy, of which the superman is often called Aryan ("Aryan" para 1), which was originally a tribe that invaded India four thousand years ago, but which was used in the nineteenth century to denote "whites," specifically Indo-Europeans, not Semites (Jews and Arabs). Interbreeding with non-Aryans (Semites, Africans, Asians) causes the Aryan stock to degenerate; the corollary being that pure breeding will produce a superman.
The esoteric circles jumped on this rather quickly, particularly a group called the Thule Society. Influenced by the Theosophists' belief in a legendary island of "Masters" (the Theosophists called it Atlantis), "Thule" is a mythical northern island believed to exist in ancient times, which was then taken up as the original home of the Aryans. The Thule Society was driven by Rudolf von Serbottendorff, who was "schooled in occultism, Islamic mysticism, alchemy, Rosicrucianism, and Freemasonry" (Schwartzwaller para 2)--in other words, a general mish-mash of 19th century esoteric philosophies. They were especially fixated on the figure of Armanius, the Teuton leader who defeated Rome in 9 AD, believing such a figure as evidence in the superiority of the Aryan race. Some of the early disciples of the Thule Society would also turn up in the upper echelon of the Third Reich-Heinrich Himmler, Rudolf Hess, and Adolph Hitler.Mixing Memory and Desire: Five