On Esoteric Renditions of Non-Western Thought

Vera Trakhtenberg and Boris Falikov discuss the enchanted world

Left: Work created for DA! Moscow exhibition, 2019
Right: Bat, 2019
Tanya Pioniker

Curator of the Cultural Creative Agency Vera Trakhtenberg spoke with Boris Falikov, a historian of religion, about the West’s fascination with Eastern religions, humanity’s faith in magic, and the re-enchantment of the world. It is the third material from the series Tacit Knowledges—an educational program developed by CCA that looks at different ways of understanding and engaging with philosophy. Through a series of conversations, the project brings to light non-Western episodes of philosophical history as well as gives voice to epistemologies that have been dismissed as irrational or non-systematic.

Vera Trakhtenberg: Currently, during the pandemic, we are witnessing a heightened interest in esoteric knowledge and occult practices. How characteristic is this for periods of crisis and what kinds of parallels is it appropriate to draw with past situations? Could we give any sort of prediction as to how this interest will develop?

Boris Falikov: You are completely right; during such troubled times the interest in various esoteric teachings and occultism certainly always increases. In the 1920s, after World War I, there was an upsurge of interest in theosophy. The interest in spiritualism and anthroposophy also grew. When confronted with death, human beings invariably begin to reflect on metaphysical questions. Spiritualism itself emerged in the USA on the eve of the Civil War and then after it, when the Fox sisters, acting as mediums, claimed that they could communicate with the dead. It was thought that perhaps the dead could tell the living something that could help the latter set themselves up better during life, and also divulge the secrets of what awaits us beyond the limits of the physical world. There are plenty of similar examples in contemporary history, which I speak of in my work.

VT:Boris, what do you think stimulated such a geographically defined interest towards the East at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, during the emergence of what later became New Age thinking? Why did Western thinkers and artists turn specifically to Hinduism, Buddhism, and other teachings from this region?

BF:Such a connection is expected; I wrote about this in my book The Magnitude of QualityВеличина качества»). I wrote specifically about modernist artist’s fascination with Hinduism, Buddhism, and occultism. The reasons are many: during that period, the so-called fin de siècle, at the turn of the century, something I call the “oriental-occult synthesis” arose. What is this synthesis? It comprises Eastern ideas and religions that came to the West in an occult guise. This phenomenon can be explained by both practical factors as well as ones that are more complex to understand. I mean here the fact that the founders of the Theosophical Society, Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott, moved their headquarters from New York, where it had been located since the founding of the Society in 1875, to Adyar in India.

Thus they shifted the focus of their attention from the Western esoteric tradition —hermeticism, gnosticism, and the like—towards the East. Blavatsky and Olcott found in Hinduism and Buddhism a confirmation of the existence of a certain very ancient wisdom. While in Europe this wisdom was pushed away to the periphery of society, in India one could find “living exemplars” of such wisdom. Blavatsky and Olcott viewed Hinduism and Buddhism through the lens of their own esoteric and occult ideas and it is as such that these ideas reached the West. Ancient Eastern religions in this interpretation attracted both Western intellectuals and Russian intelligentsia. This is how the oriental-occult synthesis arose.

VT:And this synthesis exerted a massive influence on the entire culture milieu of that time.

BF:It undoubtedly influenced many very famous artists of that era. We are reminded of Wassily Kandinsky with his interest in theosophy and anthroposophy, of Andrei Bely, who was fascinated by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner. I could name many more, Kazimir Malevich, who also was exposed to Hinduism through an occult lens, among them. Curiously, the difference between these people is gigantic, but they are all united in their fascination with Eastern religion and occultism.

VT:Remarkably, it is precisely a fascination—they did not become members of the Theosophical Society, but used occult practices for the sake of their artistic practice. 

BF:Yes, if we look at it from an institutional standpoint, none of them became a member of the Theosophical Society or the Anthroposophical Society, founded by Rudolf Steiner. Some members of “Der Blaue Reiter” went to Steiner’s lectures, Andrei Bely studied anthroposophic meditation, but they did not throw their lot in with occult organizations. It seems that the artists of that time used techniques that many of them borrowed from Eastern religions and esoteric teachings only as instruments for the creation of an alternative religion—the religion of art.

VT:Such a consumerist approach today looks very colonial.

BF:Yes, from today’s point of view and in the context of postcolonial discourse this is “appropriation.” But at that time such borrowings were viewed completely differently. A hundred years ago, the exact opposite was thought to be the case: that the conquered East is taking revenge on the West for its loss in the struggle of civilizations. Franz Cumont wrote in his Les Religions Orientales dans le Paganisme Romain about how Eastern cults flooded the Roman Empire right after it conquered Eastern states. Mithraism, among others, took hold in the Roman Empire in this way. The change in focus is characteristic of our time and was to a significant extent fuelled by Edward Said, an American professor of Palestinian origin, through his book Orientalism.

Ghoul, 2017
Tanya Pioniker

VТ:Yes indeed—the countries from which these religions originated were colonies for decades.

BF:Thus Said has remarked on the negative aspects of orientalism: in his book, he spelled out the fact that when Western thinkers look at an Eastern culture, they take away from it whatever it is convenient for them to take away, but that which they do take away has very little to do with how things are in reality. The most important factor for Said was that this kind of attitude was to the detriment of Eastern cultures. This is a very curious paradigm change.

VT:In the 1960s, with the emergence of New Age thinking, when members of what we call “counterculture” began yet another wave of pilgrimages to the East, precisely the same happened: they used practices, symbols, and ideas of Eastern religions for their own purposes. Only this time they threw some hallucinogens into the mix. 

BF:Yes, but I think that this is not the kind of exploitation of Eastern thought that Said writes about. At the very least, within the counterculture itself it was viewed differently, as a kind of “Eastern light,” a means of help in solving spiritual problems not only ethically, but aesthetically. In many ways this was determined by the counterculture members’ deep disappointment in their own culture, which drove them to look for means of salvation in other cultures and religions.

VT:Interestingly, the West’s disappointment in its own culture happens in waves that we can relate to historical crises. Currently we can speak about yet another crisis, this time concerning Western ideas of globalization, and we once again see people turn Eastward. In your book The Measure of Quality I found a very interesting idea that I would like to discuss in greater detail; I quote: “The West still views the East through the lens of occultism.” 

BF:This is indeed what has happened since this oriental-occult matrix came together. It is more convenient for the West this way—this is the conclusion I have reached after studying this question. The crux of Eastern religions, just like in any religion, is soteriology—the teaching of salvation. Salvation is understood differently: in Hinduism it is moksha, in Buddhism—nirvana. But an occult reading has placed the accents differently. Instead of the ideas of salvation, the things one could experience on the path to this salvation came to the foreground. Thus the focus was shifted onto miracles, travels through astral worlds, using the practices of imagination. Imagination here is in no way akin to fantasy—for occultists, imagination has an ontological dimension: those are worlds that really exist, they are more real than the ordinary world and traveling through these worlds becomes accessible thanks to special practices.

For artists and creators it was all the more interesting since it gave them tools to work with their own inspiration, an instrument for obtaining a principally different experience. Rudolf Steiner, who was a doctor of philosophy, called these practices Geisteswissenschaft, “spirit science,” so they were something one could learn. This was very attractive for Andrei Bely, judging by his diaries. Kandinsky also came to Steiner to develop his power of imagination. In his archives in Munich and Paris, one can find occult literature with his personal notes, including the works of Yogi Ramacharaka (real name: William Walker Atkinson, an American occultist). Stanislavski was also fascinated by Ramacharaka’s ideas while creating his famous method of acting.

VT:So we could say that this is a relatively easy way to achieve the effect of a miracle during one’s life, which from the point of view of Western religion, of Christianity, is granted by God.

Ghouls with Toadstools, 2016
Tanya Pioniker

BF:Precisely, hence the interest for Eastern religions in an occult guise. However, we shouldn’t think that modernists were interested only in their own inspiration. In reality they cared for the fate of humanity. As Kandinsky wrote in On the Spiritual in Art, he wanted a transformation of all humanity, humanity to attain new heights of consciousness. This was a kind of aesthetic utopia that inspired many. In Russian symbolist circles, the word “theurgy”—literally meaning “God-working” in Greek—was very popular. It meant the transformation of the world and a transition to a different ontological state. This term was borrowed from the dictionary of the Western esoteric tradition, it was used during the Renaissance, then by the Rosicrucians, then by the Freemasons, then by figures of the occult renaissance in France in the 19th century. The idea of a change, a magical transformation of the world, was significant long before any Eastward turns took place.

VT:Contemporary art is characterized by the idea that art is akin to magic, that it is capable of changing the space in which it exists, and then the entire world. Such statements are frequently made from the position of feminist discourse, of breaking the stigma of witchcraft as a pernicious practice characteristic to women, and also of a return to European paganism.

BF:Yes, currently there is a considerable interest in neopaganism. It began in the 1960s or even earlier, when after World War II Gerald Gardner founded WiccaWiccaA neo-pagan religion based on reverence for nature, the Horned God and the Triple Goddess., basing it on ancient pre-Christian cults of England. Such a turn towards the depths of pagan antiquity is reminiscent of the theosophical model, which also sought to attain an “ancient wisdom,” preserved in the esoteric tradition. In this kind of search, one resorts to popular memory and the unconscious, which preserve these traditions of witchcraft. In this vein, Gardner claimed that while creating Wicca he communicated with British witches belonging to a miraculously preserved tradition. Some people, however, think that he made it all up. In neopaganism, the figure of a goddess plays a huge role, which is of course much more interesting for feminist discourse than Abrahamic religions with their patriarchal structures. In Hinduism, the figure of the goddess is also prominent, which also made it popular and eagerly sought after, along with the practices related to it. 

VT:This looks like an attempt to return control over one’s life and future in times of turbulence and crisis, when we are deprived not only of said control, but of the possibility to predict or plan anything.

BF:Western culture has been plagued by this state of uncertainty, bordering on neurosis, for several years now. Undoubtedly, the pandemic has only intensified it: we are here today, but we may not be here tomorrow—this, of course, heighters the interest in magic and means to control the inexplicable. The darkness of uncertainty makes us turn to things that do not fit within the paradigm of contemporary science. It is namely utterly unclear what this virus, the one causing the pandemic, itself is. Scientists battle and argue, but there is still no solution to this problem and their research gives contradictory findings. People turn to magic and hope to deal with the crisis with its help.

When I was studying New Age thinking, I noticed one mythologeme: the so-called Gaia hypothesisGaia hypothesisThe Gaia hypothesis was proposed and developed by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s.. According to it, the planet Earth is taken as a living organism deathly tired of humanity, which harms it and attempts to destroy nature and the ecosystem. In the 1960s and later this theory left its mark on a powerful environmentalist movement, but right now I once again began seeing this mythologeme in conversations about the current epidemic. Allegedly, nature let a virus out from its depth, one that has previously been living in bats. It is interesting to trace the evolution of this mythologem today.

Ghouls with Bagels, 2016
Tanya Pioniker

VT:Yes, I have also encountered this scenario. It is curious that everything began with a bat—it is an ancient symbol of dark powers, a nocturnal animal. This alone could magnify the effect of uncertainty and cause fear. Humanity has come a tremendously long way on the path of scientific progress and evolution, and now we have arrived back at the starting point—at the fear of dark that hides some evil.

BF:Yes, the bat is a significant animal in the traditions of both European and Asian witchcraft. Proponents of the idea of the Earth’s revenge against humanity for deforestation, water pollution, and so forth draw on such symbols. Humanity tends to mythologize whatever happens to them; our culture is permeated by a large number of mythological interpretations. That has always been the case and it will always be the case. This is reflected in culture, in art, in everyday life.

In this context I, as a historian of religion, find it very interesting today to consider the classic works of Max Weber. He wrote about the triumph of secularization at the beginning of the 20th century and called it the “disenchantment of the world”—a poetic term that he likely borrowed from Schiller. Weber wrote that science “disenchants” the world, that with time religion will be pushed off to the periphery, myth will disappear and people, armed by scientific knowledge, will take the path of progress. But despite Weber’s genius, he, it seems, was mistaken. Although in the first half of the 20th century secularism has indeed changed many things, freeing a large part of humanity from religious irrationalism, this irrationalism then took a different form, that of totalitarian dictatorships and regimes—I mean here Nazism and Stalinism.

VТ: We are simultaneously witnessing a religious surge.

BF: Yes, indeed. Sometimes such a surge takes a nationalistic form, especially in the “global South,” while in the “global North” (this terminology is used by cultural studies scholars) secularization continues, although no longer straightforwardly. Religion and myth have always been with us and will remain so, although their forms evolve; thus a “disenchantment” of the world did not take place and we rather have become witnesses of its repeated “enchantment”, albeit partial.

Translated from Russian by Diana Khamis

Boris Falikov
Historian of religion, Associate Professor at the Center for the Study of Religion at the Russian State Humanitarian University. Author of Neo-Hinduism and Western Culture (Moscow, Nauka: 1994); Cults and Culture (Moscow, Russian State University for the Humanities, 2007); Eastern religions, occultism and art of the twentieth century, (Moscow, UFO, 2017). He researches new forms of religion and their impact on art.
Vera Trakhtenberg
Art critic, curator of the Cultural Creative Agency. She worked as a curator of the START project at WINZAVOD. The exhibitions she produced include Phantom memory of a beautiful era, MUZEON, 2014; Sculptures that we do not see, Central Exhibition Hall “Manezh,” 2015; Worker and Kolkhoz Woman. Personal File, IEC Worker and Kolkhoz Woman, 2015 (co-curator); Faith in a Deep Crisis, Victoria Gallery, Samara, 2019. Vera Trakhtenberg is also a lecturer at the School of Design, National Research University Higher School of Economics.
Tanya Pioniker
Artist. Born in Moscow in 1994. She graduated from the Institute of Contemporary Art (2013) and the Faculty of International Journalism of MGIMO (2015). Tanya Pioniker mainly works with graphics, using not only classical techniques but also materials at hand as well as important artifacts. Her main method is personal mythology.