György E. Szőnyi: “The Lure of the Occult. Cultural History and Counterfactual History in Some Esoteric-oriented Fiction”

György E. Szőnyi: “The Lure of the Occult. Cultural History and Counterfactual History in Some Esoteric-oriented Fiction”


Mirroring his wide-ranging interests, György E. Szőnyi, Professor of History and Medieval Studies at CEU and of English Studies at Szeged University has already contributed to the series of departmental research seminars in a great variety of topics such as musicology, iconology and English literature. Now he gave a talk on one of the side interests of his cultural historical research of Western Esotericism, namely the study of fictitious literary works which exploit occult themes mixed with historical backgrounds to create fantastic and uncanny narratives.

The professor pointed out that humanity seems to have an ever-present need to be entertained and thrilled by the supernatural, and that this is indicated by the fact that topics like magic, the occult or creatures of the other world have a continuous tradition in literature. Ranging from the earliest examples such as the Gilgamesh epic, they come up in the works of every age and every culture be it Apuleius’s Golden Ass, medieval romances, the Renaissance plays of Shakespeare or the vampire novels of the 21st century.

In his talk however, Szőnyi focused on modern authors of the 19th – 21st centuries, and his main argument was that in these centuries, these books represent a sort of counterculture; they are the conscience of humanity against the excesses of reason in the modern world. This also means that as opposed to disenchantment theories based on Max Weber, the enchanted world has never left us. In fact, the occult is increasingly becoming mainstream in modern culture, and following the sociologist Christopher Partridge it can be termed as occulture. In his presentation, the professor described several modern novels, for example Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and Antal Szerb’s The Pendragon Legend (1934), but Deborah Harkness’s recent All Souls Trilogy was also discussed.

According to Szőnyi, a frequent characteristic of these novels is that they have a double plot line, where a present and a past story are running parallel to each other. As the contemporary rational protagonist is researching more and more into the past, he or she is forced to face the supernatural while the two timelines collapse into one another. The significance of the topic of historical research is partly explained by the general human trait of the fascination with the past, the origins. More specifically however (as the professor pointed out, answering a question), these novels usually go back to the early modern era because this was the last period when a holistic view of the world (indispensable for esotericism to work) was still valid. Pressed by a question on the nature of ‘the Enlightenment’, Szőnyi explained that with the scientific revolution and the enlightenment, this all-encompassing worldview was shattered, and the ‘lure of the occult’ lies exactly in the fact that it tries to give a holistic understanding of the world as well as a sort of unity with nature as opposed to the specializing tendencies and the alienation from nature brought about by modern science. This is why in modern novels most basic elements of western esoteric traditions can be found: the great chain of being; the correspondence between micro- and macrocosm; the secret sciences (astrology, alchemy and magic) whose followers seek to uncover these correspondences and reach human exaltation by manipulating them; the secret societies which guard and hand over occult knowledge; the demonic and angelic lore etc.

At the same time, there are shifts in the issues which characterise the novels of given time periods. In the 19th century for instance the topos of spiritualist circles was greatly emphatic, in the beginning of the 20th however, it was Freudian ideas about sexuality and the chaotic female principle which were recurring motifs. The 20th century is the time of the ‘uncanny’, a Freudian concept meaning such situations which are familiar but because of a change in some detail this homely feeling is lost and uncertainty takes its place. In the professor’s view, the 21st century novel so far seems to be characterised by the sober historical frames becoming more and more fictional, wild and thrilling. All this of course show great variety and is also influenced by the attitude of the writers themselves to the occult. Based on this, Szőnyi created a tripartite taxonomy of writers. Realistic/historical writers such as Marguerite Yourcenar (The Abyss, 1968) use historical explanations for what is happening to the characters. Sceptic writers like Umberto Eco (Foucault's Pendulum, 1987) rather try to prove that esotericism is a dead end in human thinking. Finally, initiate writers who themselves believe in some sort of esotericism, like Mária Szepes (The Red Lion, 1947) form the third category.

The lecture was followed by several questions and comments from the audience. It was suggested for instance that these novels induce a cathartic feeling in the readers substituting the occult experience itself, something which modern readers lack from their lives. In a discussion on why there is a fascination with eastern magic and occult knowledge in western fiction, it was suggested that Western Christianity’s emphasis on spirituality and its despise of the material side of the world makes the East so exciting: here (even in Orthodoxy) the material side of life is valued as well alongside the spiritual one. Continuing this line of thought, Philipp Pullmann’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000) can also be seen as a reaction of a professedly atheist writer against Christianity by giving young people a more material view of the world. At the same time it is interesting that even he had to rely on deeply Christian narratives, such as the apocalypse to convey this message. Finally, a question was aimed at the possible fate in our post-Guttenberg world of the recurring motif of a book or manuscript which creates the bridge between the two timelines of the novel. Szőnyi explained that contemporary writers still have a fascination with these artefacts, however, there are very innovative usages, such as can be read in Harkness’s trilogy, where the book not only projects images from itself, thereby becoming a sort of multimedia device, but is a genetic repository as well, since it was made of the organic remains of vampires, witches and demons.