As president of the ESSWE, Wouter Hanegraaff opened the second day of the conference with a talk on the state of the field of esotericism. Highlighting the major movements in scholarship, it was remarkable to see how Western esotericism as an academic discipline has grown from its inception in the 1970’s to its present state, where there are actually university departments devoted to its study. This seems like significant progress, yet Hanegraaff emphasized that there is still much work to be done for the field to continue on its current trajectory.
I’m going to spend a bit of time on this presentation because I feel that, as someone who has really solidified the field, Hanegraaff is in a unique position to talk about the issues involved with the study of Western Esotericism. Secondly, since he is stepping down as president of the ESSWE (it’s in the organization’s by-laws that a president only serve two terms), it seems fitting to take a pause here. Many of you right now are no doubt wondering if I can breathe with my nose buried so far up his ass, but I can assure you that though it is a little stuffy in here, I’m getting plenty of air.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Hanegraaff’s lecture, at least for younger scholars, were his observations on Western Esotericism 3.0, or as some have called it, the next generation of esotericism scholarship. Hanegraaff identified some of the difficulties facing those who particularly study contemporary esotericism, namely that modern currents are often detached from existing definitions of “esotericism.” He also pointed out a very real problem with studying early modern sources, namely that younger folks aren’t up to snuff with their languages—ancient or otherwise. For example, he feels that Latin and German texts are particularly vulnerable to linguistic decline amongst scholars of esotericism. These issues aside, Hanegraaff is hopeful. Though the field has covered a lot of grand in the past few decades, he feels that an emphasis on the historical contexts of these movements can both position esotericism as an ongoing feature of history, as well as professionalize the field.
And then there were more lectures. The really neat thing about the ESSWE conference is that while there are a tremendous variety of topics, each paper is extremely specialized. Perhaps that’s not very useful if you’re looking for specific research, but it’s definitely a nice overview of the sorts of topics that can be considered esoteric.
The afternoon keynote address was delivered by Carole Cusack, who was pinch-hitting for a cancellation, although you would never know it. Cusack presented on the Gurdjieff movement, and while she covered a range of ideas, I was most taken with how the group controls its knowledge, often ensuring initiates are long-term members before rituals are fully revealed! (Of course, this makes one wonder what sort of benefit a newer follower would get from utilizing methods that are only half-correct, but I digress.) The whole “secrecy as currency” thing really fascinates me, and Cusack brought in some photos of practices that aren’t shared publicly, thus giving value to her own presentation! How meta!
The afternoon also saw a well-attended session on Women in Occultism. All of the papers were really fascinating, and I think I have a bit of a crush on Allison Coudert, whose lecture on Francis Swiney (a completely atypical feminist) was filled with passion and vigor and perhaps a couple of other synonyms. Jimmy Elwing presented a well-organized lecture on Ida Craddock. He took some hits from the audience afterward, but defended himself well. I wish I could say the same thing for Dion Fortune, because Elizabeth Lowry’s talk on Psychic Self-Defence (another stellar presentation) just made me think that Fortune was a total passive-aggressive. Yes, I know as academics we are not supposed to judge, but Fortune sat in a room for 8 hours listening to someone berate her and her response is to get catty in a tell-all book? Bitch, please. That shit is weak!
I got into an interesting conversation over drinks with a scholar of gender issues in Thelema about whether or not we actually needed a panel on Women in Occultism in the first place. She observed that the only commonality between the three women discussed was their gender. For example, we certainly would not take three random gentlemen representing completely different topics and have a “Men in Occultism” panel!
On the other hand, it was nice to see women put forward like this. After all, one of the ways to address gender imbalances in scholarship (and elsewhere) is to bring voices forward which represent women. Besides, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thrilled that this panel was totally well-attended and I was happy to see so many people taking interest in women’s contributions to esotericism. But still, the whole thing remains problematic. As a woman, I don’t want token representation, I want equality. I’m not sure that emphasizing gender is the best way to make this happen.
While readers will be happy to see I’ve gotten over my camera shy-ness, I did not manage to take any pictures of the Women in Occultism session. Instead, enjoy this lovely flyer for a Toto concert. Those of you who have worked in recording studios (such as myself) will undoubtedly be sad to know that the concert conflicted with the ESSWE Conference Dinner, thus depriving members of the impeccable timing of drummer Jeff Porcaro. Actually everyone is sort of deprived of this since Porcoro passed away quite a while ago. Sigh.
This wraps up day two of the ESSWE4 conference. I leave you with some words of wisdom from György Szönyi’s lecture on the esoteric philosophy of wine as related by Béla Hamvas:
“The mouth transfers the food, the kiss, and the word.”
And with that I bid you adieu. Tomorrow I’ll take you with for a full session on Aleister Crowley and try to figure out why the vibe was so eerily quiet. Spooky!
You can read my earlier posts on the ESSWE conference here.