Kathryn LaFevers Evans, Independent Scholar
During March 2008, in Portland Oregon, I participated in two Sessions on esoteric subjects at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS), an interdisciplinary meeting of eighteenth-century scholars.
The first of the two esoteric sessions, “The Use of the Supernatural,” included a paper by Kris Pangburn, recent doctoral recipient at UCLA, “The Science of the Supernatural: Late Enlightenment Vitalism and the ‘True’ Appearance of Johann Karl Woetzel’s Wife after her Death.” This dealt with Woetzel’s difficulties as a scholar of the supernatural within the Academy of his time. That marginalization demanded a good portion of Pangburn’s scholarship in our time as well, which he utilized as an argument for parity in the current Academy. Pangburn captivated the audience when reporting the satirical rebuttals written in response to Woetzel’s proof of his wife’s supernatural presence after her death, describing how Enlightenment authors had rebutted Woetzel’s claim with such satirical stories as, “The True Appearance of my Poodle after Death.”
During questions, Pangburn answered that there is support for esoteric studies at UCLA, through his doctoral advisor Peter H. Reill and the UCLA Center for Seventeenth- & Eighteenth-Century Studies.
The other presenters had equally impressive impacts. I will mention Bruno Forment’s (USC) paper, “Qual oracol tremendo! Operatic Responses to the Supernatural in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Berlin,” was presented in no less than five languages: his native German, English, Latin, French, and Italian. Truly a Renaissance man in that regard, Bruno Forment demonstrated the depth of scholarship that esoteric studies requires.
UCLA professor Dr. Peter H. Reill commanded the greatest respect in a session on “Symbols and Signs: The World of the Occult in Early Modern Europe,” presenting a paper on the Hermeticism of Johann Salomo Semler. Reill explained that one purpose of Semler’s Hermetic chemistry was to produce “air gold,” specifying the belief that Hermetical science could not be taught publicly, instead requiring a certain type of person to practice a science that deals not with the corporeal but with the imperceptible; creates a universal solvent; and probes the depths of nature through personal involvement. Occult issues of the day included: toleration; nature and theology; invisible nature; God as Logos; God as Will; subtle matter and perceptible matter; primary matter throughout all matter; emerging outer form; and embryonic substances. Practitioners sought true toleration for their research into “private religion,” versus joining organized religion.
Daniel Lupton, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, broke the spell of high seriousness with his animated delivery of “Wine, Women and Satan: Occult Rhetoric in Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club.” This clandestine organization parodied religion through their satirical descriptions of sex, violence, baby-eating, and anti-Catholic erotica as allegedly found in Tantrism, Kabbalah, Paganism, and Magic. Lupton proposed the idea that perhaps the Hell-Fire Club was not merely a parody of religion, but instead we might wonder if its participants were indeed occultists.
Following this, my own performative reading of “Rabelais, Boehme, Rosicrucians, and Sterne: Hexagrams and Military Hobby Horses” was well-received. I closed with a food-for-thought comment that scholars of esotericism are choosing to utilize the term “esoteric” in Academia, rather than “supernatural” or “occult,” in part because of the negative connotations those terms have accrued in past Academic paradigms. Current scholars of esotericism strive for balance between subjectivity and objectivity, considering satirical constructs such as the true apparition of the poodle after death, Dashwood’s Hell-Fire Club, and Sterne’s Demoniacs for what they are—the esoteric satire of learned wit, a subject of serious study.