Redeeming the “Dreyfus of Literature”

Posted by on Jan 4, 2013 in News | 0 comments

Péladan was dubbed "the Dreyfus of literature" by the periodical press of his time and he was to reclaim this title in his notes for an autobiography that he never completed. The caricature, entitled « Josephinus Christus » is typical of the treatment he received in the press during the 1890s. Image source: Fonds Péladan, MS 13412, feuillet 17 (via cairn.info).

Péladan was dubbed “the Dreyfus of literature” by the periodical press of his time and he was to reclaim this title in his notes for an autobiography that he never completed. The caricature, entitled « Josephinus Christus » is typical of the treatment he received in the press during the 1890s. Image source: Fonds Péladan, MS 13412, feuillet 17 (via cairn.info).

One of the books I’m currently reading in what little free time I have is Toby Churton’s biography of Aleister Crowley, which starts out by stating that his intention is to puncture the dark legend that has grown up around Crowley, and goes on to say:

How are we to understand who Crowley really was, and what he really achieved, if, as we shall discover, the legend is largely a libel?

Ask the man. He left us clues. (Churton, p.5). 

This is largely my approach to Péladan as well, inspired not only by Churton, but as I have said before, also by Northrop Frye’s treatment of Blake:

… no one will deny that Blake is entitled to the square deal he asked for, we propose to adopt more satisfactory hypotheses and see what comes out of them… First, all of Blake’s poetry, from the shortest lyric to the longest prophecy, must be taken as a unit and mutatis mutandis, judged by the same standards… Second, that as all other poets are judged in relation to their time, so should Blake be placed in his historical and cultural context… (Frye, Fearful Symmetry, p. 4).

As I have noted elsewhere in brief, Péladan has been sorely hard-done-by in most extant biographies, and those that do not vilify him are for esoteric, rather than scholarly consumption. What I am currently attempting is a close review of his life and work, implemented, as with Frye and Churton, by letting the man speak for himself. Heaven only knows he wrote enough, so there is ample material to which to recourse. Now of course the clarification of many long-held, stereotypical perspectives on Péladan is part of the purpose of my dissertation, and those eager to read the fine detail will have to wait until it is submitted, revised and (hopefully) published in book form. However, a recent email exchange focusing on a question about Péladan has reminded me that firstly, old prejudices die hard, and secondly, not everyone appreciates the effort that goes into documenting  a given point by use of that wondrous thing, documentary evidence,  nor its purpose.

I must beg the pardon of my esteemed academic peers and colleagues who will already be stifling yawns and no doubt thinking that I am about to state the obvious. Well, it so happens that the obvious needs stating when, like me, you walk a constant line between the worlds of academia, art, and esotericism. And in order to help those outside academia to understand why we think and speak as we do, sometimes we really do need to spell out the point that facts are not matters of interpretation. In addition, we also need to spell out the significance of judging a worldview – such as that held by Péladan – within the context of its time. Certainly the emphasis we give to different facts and the way we present them may lead to implications and interpretations, but when it comes to “allowing a man to speak for himself” as is the case with Péladan, this involves a close reading of his own words wherever possible, based on the primary sources, rather than commentaries of the same, paying due respect to the context and historical period.  Sound simple? If only.

There are certain enduring perceptions about Péladan that originated within the ridicule he endured during his lifetime, were assiduously propagated by his rivals, Oswald Wirth in particular, and from there passed into occult legend through the biographies by (among others) Rene-Louis Doyon (1885-1966), who reiterated the prevalent impression of Péladan as an attention-seeking, arrogant and self-crowned braggart. These same impressions were repeated and propagated by Robert Pincus-Witten (1935- ) in one of the first academic treatments of Péladan in the form of a doctoral thesis presented at the University of Chicago in 1968.1 The critical biography by Christophe Beaufils, entitled Joséphin Péladan: Une maladie de lyrisme, and published in 1993, is a meticulously researched book that still fails to acknowledge or demonstrate the slightest understanding of Péladan’s esoteric outlook, belief system, and motivation, which, as I argue throughout my thesis, is central to his work.

Even fairly sympathetic treatments of Péladan tend to emphasise his eccentricity and downplay his output as a writer, and to date the only works I have seen that pay any attention to his esoteric work remain isolated to the four volume compendium by Edouard Bertholet (1952), the short biography by Emile Dantinne (1947), both valuable sources from which to glean the esoteric reception of Péladan’s work. So too is the work of Jean-Pierre Bonnerot, but in all three cases, they are more theological exegesis than objective historiography, and thus cannot be taken at face value as scholarly sources, but instead form valuable, primary source material. Two notable exceptions are the articles by Nelly Emont in the L’Age d’Homme-Dossier H on the Péladan family, but this is a short monograph lacking in detail, despite the useful insights it offers; the second is an extensive section in Gerard Galtier’s Maçonnerie Egyptienne, which despite having a different focus, offers valuable contextual and historical detail on the Péladans and their esoteric milieu.

The dearth of focused work on Péladan is of course the reason I am undertaking this project at all. The deeper I enter the maze of his prodigious output, the more stunned I am at the glaring omissions on the part of earlier biographers. Bertholet, Dantinne and Bonnerot (who I do not class as biographers but as interpreters of his work), make it quite clear from the outset that they are focusing on his esoteric teachings and not whether he was well-liked or understood during his lifetime, and within the esoteric milieu they have offered rich and insightful presentations of his work. However, the biographical and scholarly treatments of Péladan display a shocking lack of due diligence which I cannot quite fathom because, just as Churton notes about Crowley – the man left clues. All one has to do is look for them, follow the breadcrumb trail, and join the dots. Péladan took care to cross-reference between his books in order to demonstrate where one theoretical exposition supported a given literary expression of the same idea, while he also took immense care to explain some of his more apparently controversial ideas. Here’s one of my favourite examples:

In the appendices to each of the seven books in his theoretical series Amphitheatre des Sciences Mortes, he included a set of table of concordances (accompanied by a short synopsis for each book), demonstrating how his whole oeuvre of novels and theoretical works fit together. In the synopsis for his first novel, Le Vice Suprême, he briefly introduces the dramatis personae, noting that each of them represents an (arche)type. These characters reappear throughout his novels, taking on different roles. In a prime example of his ability to perceive his own work both esoterically and exoterically, he says of his principal character and literary persona Mérodack:

‘Mérodack: the peak of conscious will, a type of absolute entity… Every novel has a Mérodack: that is to say an abstract Orphic principle facing an ideal enigma.’1 

Furthermore, in Queste du Graal, published in 1894,1 after twelve of his twenty-one novels from La Décadence Latine and four of his seven monographs from Amphithéâtre des Sciences Mortes had already been published, Péladan provided a series of excerpts from these books, noting with obvious exasperation and not a little petulance in the foreword that his readers had quite failed to understand him:

‘One renounces the notion of understanding the author. However, in such an uncivilized country, where everything threatens the author: the army, the law, the customs, a certain notoriety offers a certain security.’2

Since his readers had not yet grasped the message he was trying to communicate, he had extracted the essence of his work in the hope that by simplifying it in the form of an anthology of interconnected excerpts, it would become clearer. This, alongside the schema of concordances and his own typology for his novels, affirms beyond question that Péladan had created his works according to a specific plan, and that – regardless of the impressions of his critics or Péladan’s failure to convince his readership – there was a systematic method and intentionality underpinning his whole oeuvre.3 (The objective of my research therefore, is to explore the content of that intentionality.

The cross-connections and very direct statements of purpose Péladan included in almost all of his works, along with the cohesion and consistency of his message should have been evidence enough for earlier writers to suspect that there was more here than met the eye. Yet, with the exception of perhaps two brief articles by Frantisek Deak and Nelly Emont, I have not seen a single scholarly source that does not perpetuate the various assumptions about Péladan, and thus his name still carries the stain of eccentricity, hollow posturing, fanatic Catholicism, imposture, misogyny, anti-semitism, and braggadocio. Eccentric he undoubtedly was (name me one artist who isn’t!) but the other accusations – each and every one of them – are mistaken.I should probably note that this is not a sign of my having “gone native” and become overly attached to my subject – I have acknowledged Péladan’s failings where they are incontrovertible. But in the case of the labels I note above, the evidence speaks for itself.  Some of them are easier to explain than others, but in the next few posts (as time allows) I shall be treating each of these accusations separately, complete with brief documentation, to demonstrate why they are quite untrue, and hopefully thus carve the space for the re-evaluation of his work on its own terms. Watch this space…

 

1 J. Péladan, La queste du Graal: proses lyriques de l’éthopée.

2 Péladan, La queste du Graal, p. 1.

3cf. Literature Review, Section X, Chapter X of this thesis, in which previous authors and biographers have dismissed Péladan’s esoteric references and “mystic frills”.

4Nicholas Ruiz III, ‘Theory, Interdisciplinarity, and the Humanities Today: An Interview with Vincent B. Leitch,’ Interculture, 2:3, (2005), p. 5, available online at http://iph.fsu.edu/interculture/pdfs/ruiz%20vbl%20interview.pdf [accessed March 28 2012].

1J. Péladan, L’Art Idéaliste et Mystique: Doctrine de l’Ordre et du Salon Annuel des Rose-Croix (Paris: Chamuel. 1894), p. 275.

 

1 Robert Pincus-Witten, Occult Symbolism in France: Josephin Peladan and the Salons de Rose-Croix (New York: Garland, 1976). Originally presented as a doctoral thesis to the University of Chicago in 1968.

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