Oh, My Pop Culture Occultism: Esoteric Traditions in Foucault’s Pendulum

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Umberto Eco (via WAMC)

Earlier this week, I talked about the political implications of Umberto Eco’s 1988 novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, particularly with respect to the conspiracy-minded thinking that it dissects. But there’s also a significant spiritual dimension to the novel, as its focus on esoterica and the occult represent a real history of discontent with mainstream religion that stretches back nearly a thousand years.

The book generally side-eyes occultists, both past and present, and doubts their claims to supernatural powers. But it is very clear that such figures and groups really existed, and many of them authentically aspired to the powers they claim to have obtained, and their claims were very widely believed. New Age philosophies and other countercultures linked to the esotericism generally have a reputation for being peaceful and loving, but it’s one which has not been earned.

Eco by no means condemns the occult in general terms, but he does call attention to the potential for such beliefs to generate abuse and hatred. The large-scale rejection of Christianity by the alt-right in the United States, and the ongoing links between various neo-pagan subcultures and neo-Nazism, show the need for continued study.

Esoterica is a catch-all term describing a large collection of diverse religious and cultural movements in Western history, ranging from Roman-era mystery cults to storefront fortune-tellers in Greenwich Village. It includes paganism, spiritualism, and New Age philosophy, melding both ancient traditions and idiosyncratic inventions of 21st century practitioners.

Modern esoteric traditions date back to the Renaissance, when increased international contacts, religious tolerance and cheap printing allowed new ideas to flourish outside of the dominant Christian paradigm. Mystical Jewish traditions in Kabbalah found patrons in Italy; Paracelsus and Nicolas Flamel explored alchemy with pagan sources, and even within the church, mystics found new influence.

Esoteric thought has competed with mainstream religion ever since: Queen Elizabeth hired a magician,  Mary Todd Lincoln sought out mediums to speak with her dead son, and Aleister Crowley toured the world to packed audiences. While esoteric practitioners were often denounced as devil-worshippers (accurately, in some cases), they gained an increased acceptance in mainstream society, given the lordly membership of the Hellfire Club or the prominence of Cagliostro in the court of Louis XVI.

Many esotericists were freethinkers who broadened tolerance in Western Europe, but there was certainly a dark side. Ultra-nationalists in the 19th and 20th centuries pushed Nordic paganism as the native religion of Germany, with the anti-Semitic implication that Christianity was a Jewish conspiracy. Hitler’s associates found themselves in friendly company in esoteric organizations like the Thule Society. After World War II, the far right receded, and the clear overlaps between esotericism and hatred receded. With some exceptions, like “Hitler’s priestess” Savitiri Devi, Western explorers of alternative religious beliefs tended to conclude that all you need is love.

Writing in the 1980s, as memories of Hitler dimmed in a generation born after World War II, Eco is subtle in introducing the far-right, hateful beliefs of his occultists. When the protagonists first meet Colonel Ardenti, whose research launches their journey into esoteric history, they largely ignore his biography in favor of soliciting more of his unusual ideas, which focus on the mystical powers of the Knights Templar. They view him as harmless, but they ignore his ideology at their own peril. The colonel describes himself as a veteran of four wars: “I was a volunteer lieutenant in Ethiopia. Then a captain, again a volunteer in Spain. Then a major back in Africa, until we abandoned our colonies. Silver Medal. In ’43—well, let’s just say I chose the losing side.”

The protagonists tune him out, but he is proudly stating his fascist bona fides, with Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia, Franco’s fight in Spain, and the Italian African campaigns in World War II (Italy was defeated and expelled from East Africa by 1941, to Ardenti’s apparent chagrin). His 1943 service is even worse: this is a reference to the Italian Social Republic, the Nazi puppet regime formed in Italy after Mussolini was deposed and his government surrendered to the Allies. He also notes a later affiliation with Massu, a leader of a coup attempt by the French military in 1958. With this introduction, we should not be surprised that Ardenti’s vision of the esoteric world is not peaceful or just.

Ardenti’s Nazi leanings are baked into his beliefs: he discusses the Templars as possessing special Celtic and Germanic knowledge, to refute the presumption that their Israeli base brought them under the influence of Judaism and Islam. He also makes Nazi-inspired references to Nordic Aryanism and Ultima Thule. If the protagonists ignore this, the reader should not. As they continue inventing their Templar-led history from Ardenti’s ramblings, they end up incorporating Hitler and the Holocaust in a way which purportedly explains the barbarism of the Third Reich: Hitler was searching for the nugget of secret knowledge held, perhaps, by one Jew in all of Europe. It’s far from a justification, but it has the implication that something more than hatred motivated Hitler, an idea which repulses the protagonists, although they end up incorporating it anyway. Other encounters with bigots searching for occult power hammer the message home.

Eco periodically references another occult figure, Julius Evola, who appears to be returning to prominence in the Trump era. Evola’s beliefs are all over the map, but a few points remain clear: a) Evola was a Nazi dedicated to fascism, and b) Evola saw pre-Christian European religious beliefs as superior. Where Eco evokes of Evola’s influence during the Years of Lead, his influence on the alt-right is crucial.

Evola was a loyalist to the Mussolini regime, and seemed to worship Hitler, Himmler, and the other extreme elements within the Nazi regime in Germany. After the war, he escaped prison, and continued to advocate for the violent overthrow of democratic governments, replacing them with a pan-European “Imperium”.

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Julius Evola: I’m not creepy. You’re creepy. (via Wikipedia)

Inseparable from his political beliefs were his esoteric, pagan-inspired religious views. He called for an elite class of mystics to dominate society, restoring a mythological Aryan regime in prehistory. Borrowing from Hindu traditions, which he also saw as Aryan, he wanted to create a new caste system, where a class of priests would stand above all. Current societies, in his mind, had become debased by turning rule over to lower classes, the warrior-monarchs of the Middle Ages, the bourgeois merchants of the Enlightenment, and the masses of the 20th century.

It’s not hard to argue that Evola and the alt-right corrupt pagan or otherwise non-Christian traditions, but it is relevant to note that this rightist study of alternative religious beliefs is authentic, and they are not always easily separated from tolerant or otherwise progressive traditions. Graham Hancock talks about the Kali Yuga in TED talks on the BBC, criticizing the modern world’s of environmental corruption and materialism, but with language shared by Evola’s assault on a modern world of racial and sexual equality. Neo-pagan communities have long been plagued by various neo-Nazi groups, such as as the Wolves of Vinland.

Evola might be condemned to obscurity, prominent only in discredited communities in the last century. But he’s experiencing a revival. Trump’s chief aide, Steve Bannon, cited Evola in a 2014 speech, appearing to be specifically familiar with his ideology. He has a following on the alt-right, including among such prominent figures as Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer. In Europe, Evola is influential among Putin associate Aleksander Dugin, and far-right parties in Greece and Hungary.

Evola’s efforts to steer the right away from Christianity seem to be fruitful. Richard Spencer is an atheist, but has praised paganism as the “indigenous religion of Europe”, and his organization has run features praising paganism as a white alternative to Christianity. Others push for a Christian-pagan syncretic religion, with the latter bonding whiteness to a religion started by Palestinian Jews.

Eco reminds the reader to take Evola and people like him seriously. He’s not a random weirdo, rambling about nonsense, like Charlie Sheen. Nor is he just a brute who happens to have a few unusual ideas in his head, also like, well, Charlie Sheen. The esoterica is entwined with brutality. When the true believers in Foucault’s Pendulum believe themselves in range of obtaining esoteric power, their remaining scruples drop away; with one self-described high priest screeching for “le sacrifice humaine”. Bodies abruptly start to pile up. Likewise, when an Alex Jones fan believes he’s finally cracked #pizzagate, we narrowly escape a massacre.

Eco also compels a closer look at esoteric religious belief, and we should reflect on why its affiliation with the far right is so persistent, now that Bannon is quoting Evola. Moreover, it calls for reflection on the particulars in which politics and faith can interact with such harmful consequences in general. The matter comes up several times in Eco’s famous essay on fascism from 1995, which gained new prominence in the aftermath of the 2016 election. It was little remarked in discussions of Trump, but Eco’s first point is that fascism is driven by a “the cult of tradition”, which was simultaneously syncretic, revelations “concealed under the veil of forgotten languages—in Egyptian hieroglyphs, in the Celtic runes, in the scrolls of the little known religions of Asia.” He concludes, “If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled as New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine who, as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge—that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.” This, combined with a fascism’s claim that “heroism is the norm” for its adherents, gives esoteric belief a whiff of esoteric power, and genuine appeal to fascists.

The 20th century ended in a world where, uniquely, tolerance, Christianity, and secularism were all mainstream. Eco anticipated an alt-right obsession with esotericism, because it gave grounds to reject all three, and allow hatred to flourish again. He lets his protagonists—and the reader—be seduced by the appeal of esoterica and mysticism. They play around with dark forces, but none of these forces are magical or supernatural, they are utterly human. There may be more to reality outside mainstream belief, but the risks of death and hate are here regardless.


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