The Left-Hand Path

Last May, the New Republic carried an informative article about how contemporary exponents of Cabala, a school of Jewish mysticism dating from the Middle Ages (if not earlier), have shaped the minds (such as they are) of such celebrities as Mick Jagger, Britney Spears, Demi Moore, and Madonna.  The Material Girl herself was quoted from an interview she had given the year before as telling Dateline NBC that she was “a Kabbala-ist” and expounding on the analogies between Cabala and punk rock.  Both, she maintained, are ways of “thinking outside the box.”

Alex Owen’s new monograph on the rise of occultism in late-19th-century Britain does not focus on Cabala, though the cabalistic tradition plays quite a large part in what she is talking about.  Her main interest is in how “occultism” reflects and has helped shape modern culture and what both “occultism” and “modern culture” mean, but that is not necessarily the interest that most readers will take in her well-researched but sometimes-murky book.

The sudden obsession of a number of perfectly ordinary middle-class Victorians with the most esoteric and bizarre lore of ancient and Renaissance magic and with the reality of what most people would call supernatural phenomena could be dismissed as simply an aberration; the truth is, however, that occultism in the late Victorian era,...

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