For his part, Joséphin Péladan – that admirable artist to whom the future will render justice at the final reckoning, in judging him apart from the perhaps too original aspects of his work – took the head of a movement to spiritualize aestheticism… which will have profound repercussions on contemporary art. (Papus, Les sciences maudites, 1900)1
Joséphin Péladan (1858-1918), or Sâr Merodack as he preferred to be known, was a key figure in the inception and development of fin-de-siècle French Symbolism, as well as in the overt marriage of art and occult symbolism during the French occult revival. His Salon de la Rose et Croix, though short-lived, was perhaps one of the most ambitious artistic undertakings the French art world has seen, featuring unique exhibitions and productions seeking to unite the arts into a revival of initiatory drama, with a philosophical underpinning rooted in the Western esoteric traditions, and with the ultimate goal of the spiritual regeneration of society. Central to Péladan’s vision was his conception of the artist as initiate; select individuals who could bring a small part of the divine into the mundane sphere: ‘Artiste… sais-tu que l’art descend du ciel… C’est un peu de Dieu même dedans une oeuvre… si tu crées une forme parfaite, une âme viendra l’habiter.’2
This is the focus of this project, which traces the influences behind the man, his vision, his ‘esoteric-aesthetic curriculum,’ and its legacy on their own terms within the context of the history of esoteric philosophy and practice. The main questions that need to be asked are outwardly straightforward, yet in practice remain unanswered. Who was this self-styled Babylonian Mage who for six short years stunned fin-de siècle Paris with magical, mystical presentations of mythical landscapes and cryptozoic, androgynous figures that his writings inspired the artists of his time to paint? How was he able to influence other artists, poets and musicians to put their talent to the service of the Mysteries, under the banner of the Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique et esthétique du Temple et du Graal? In short: What was Péladan attempting to achieve, and what was the measure of his success?
The justification for these questions begins in the surprising dearth of objective treatment of Péladan’s work. While the cross-fertilization between esoteric thought and art in the European Renaissance and again in Romanticism has been explored from both the perspectives of the history of art and esotericism, the Symbolist movement in general, and the Salon de la Rose et Croix in particular, have not enjoyed such attention. Péladan’s name figures briefly in most literature addressing French Symbolism as well as nineteenth-century occultism, yet he is most commonly portrayed in terms of his capacity as an eccentric, the actual content of his theory frequently neglected in favour of emphasis on his idiosyncratic appearance and behaviour. The subtitle of Péladan’s biography by Christophe Beaufils: ‘Essai sur Une Maladie du Lyrisme,’ exemplifies the common approach to Péladan.3 Elsewhere, esoteric references found throughout Péladan’s work are dismissed as ‘overstated decorative devices,’ while it has been proposed that ‘these frills are quite unnecessary for the elaboration of Péladan’s central concerns, which become all the clearer once the mystic pose is laid aside.’4
This thesis argues that this mysticism represents the heart of his work. Occult figures appearing in his work have been considered to be no more than projections of aspects of his own personality,5 and his Rosicrucian order dismissed as a ‘failure [and] ill-conceived creation based on a misunderstanding: its mistake consisting mainly in having taken itself seriously.’6 Even in the scholarly literature addressing esoteric traditions, he is afforded a few pages here, a chapter there,7 with far more space usually afforded to his collaborators Papus (Gérard Encausse, 1865 – 1916) and Stanislas de Guaita (1861-1897), who also played an influential role in the French occult revival. Those articles taking a more objective view have focused either on isolated elements of his life and work, or on his interrelationship with other significant figures of the time, more frequently in a literary or social context. This approach does Péladan a certain injustice given that his life and work have neither been examined at any length in terms of their place in the history of Western esotericism nor as an esoteric current in its own right, nor in terms of his total vision.
Joséphin Péladan grew up steeped in Rosicrucian influences, synarchist and legitimist politics, and Catholic mysticism. He retained strong ties with Rosicrucian circles,8 and absorbed influences from numerous other esoteric traditions. During his lifetime he collaborated with some of the greatest figures in the modern esoteric canon. His first novel, Le Vice Supreme (1884), was the catalyst for de Guaita’s involvement with occultism. The actual degree of cross-fertilization between Péladan and Papus, F.-Ch. Barlet (Alfred Faucheux, 1838-1923), and a number of other central figures in the occult world of fin-de-siècle Paris and beyond9 is not yet properly investigated, and there is scope for much original research on primary sources.
Wherever art and esotericism overlap, Péladan’s influence may also be considered as a parallel, though more practically and socially oriented current, to Helena Blavatsky’s contemporary Theosophical Society (est. 1875 in New York, with further societies in Greece, London and Paris by the 1880s). Peladan’s unique cosmology and synthesis of esoteric thought was influenced by his reading of Fabre d’Olivet, among numerous other contemporary occultists, and found fertile ground in the French occult revival inspired by Eliphas Levi (1810-1875) and his popularization of magic, Kabbalah and Tarot in England and France, while the artists belonging to the Salon d’Art Idéaliste founded 1896 by Jean Delville (1867-1953), the mirror of Péladan’s Salon in neighbouring Belgium, drew on the ideas of the Theosophists Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891) and Charles Webster Leadbeater (1854-1934), as well as Péladan’s work.
Yet where Blavatsky sought to intellectualize and integrate aspects of esoteric thought with evolutionism and the scientific world-view, Péladan sought revolution against realism and the re-enchantment of what he saw as a disintegrating and decadent society.10 Through his breakaway order he sought to merge his own occult theories with Catholic principles to ‘establish a nucleus from which would emanate a whole set of religious, moral, and aesthetic values.’11 Péladan’s vision was an attempt to return the soul to beauty and the innocence of Eden. His mission was the reinstatement of the Primordial Tradition, the old philosophia perennis of the Renaissance philosophers, through the ritualization of art, which in turn would function as the manifestation of the divine in matter.12 This became his life’s work, mainly set out in his treatise Comment on devient mage (1892), extended in L’Art idéaliste et mystique (1894), and applied in his numerous plays and novels.
In terms of the arts, Péladan uniquely bridges the gap between theory and practice, going well beyond the confines of simple aesthetic ideology. His theoretical work is central to the nature of occultism in Symbolist art – and equally significant to the exploration of the penetration of occult thought into the ‘mainstream’ through the vehicles of art and literature, since the most significant aspect of Péladan’s oeuvre remains the immense influence he had on at least two generations of artists across several geographical borders, via both his extensive writings on the idea of the artist as an initiate in true theosophical spirit, his unifying theory of the androgyne which has impacted disciplines from the arts to gender theory. His many plays, monographs, and novels (over a hundred) are testament to his own practical application of these theories, and though they may not all have enjoyed wide critical acclaim in the mainstream, neither when first produced, nor later, their impact on the spheres of both art and esotericism is undeniable. Le Vice Supreme (1884), self-published when he was only 26, and receiving wide acclaim, remains a prime example of the successful merging of occult thought and the literary form on a par with Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni (1842). His theoretical and critical writings moulded so many aspects of the Symbolist movement to the extent that they may be seen as comprising an esoteric aesthetic curriculum directed both at artists, and through his critical articles, at society in general. The resulting vision manifested in the unique artistic amalgamations produced at the Salon de la Rose et Croix, in what Péladan termed gestes esthétiques inspired by Wagnerian thought in form, Rosicrucian universalism AND individualism in scope, esoteric symbolism in content, initiatory drama and theurgical rite in purpose.
The purpose of Péladan’s vision was no less than a spiritual revolution with beauty as the supreme weapon and art as the coup de grâce against the ‘disenchantment of the world’ so prevalent as first the scientific world-view and then the industrial revolution completed their conquest of the Western mind, in an age he regarded as characterized by rampant materialism and futile decadence. In his own words, at the opening of the first Salon (1892): ‘Artists who believe in Leonardo and The Victory of Samothrace, you will be the Rose and Croix. Our aim is to tear love out of the western soul and replace it with the love of Beauty, the love of the Idea, the love of Mystery. We will combine in harmonious ecstasy the emotions of literature, the Louvre and Bayreuth.’ Péladan was in earnest about this revolution, as attested to by the sheer volume and depth of his work, as well as his eccentricity. Despite his arrogant and eccentric manner, his tireless efforts to disseminate and popularize his ideals belie any charge of narcissistic self-promotion. A close examination of this philosophy against a background influenced by the Synarchy of Charles Fourrier (1772-1837) and its subsequent treatment by Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre (1842-1909), reveals an imaginal world in which artist-initiates in direct communication with divine inspiration would form the inner circle. These initiates would then raise the souls of the masses to ecstasy through aesthetic bombardment, rather than subduing them by Machiavellian machinations, intoxicants, or soporifics.
This project comprises a close re-examination of Péladan and his work, framed within the context of (a) contemporary history of Western esoteric currents, and (b) the interrelationship between esotericism and art as revealed by Péladan’s own writings and the artists he influenced. Following an in-depth exploration of his influences and environment, it focuses on his ‘esoteric-aesthetic curriculum’ and vision in terms of its development and purpose, as revealed through his writings, with particular emphasis on the concept of the artist as a ‘spontaneous’ initiate as found in his work, and the effects as revealed through the artists and occultists on whom he can be shown to have had a direct and lasting impact.
1 Written after Peladan’s break with Papus and de Guaita and his formation of the Ordre de la Rose-Croix Catholique et esthétique du Temple et du Graal. Cited from Christopher McIntosh, Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival (London: Rider, 1972), p. 176
2 Josephin Peladan, L’art idéaliste et mystique, doctrine de l’Ordre et du salon annuel des Rose+Croix, (Paris : Chamuel 1894) p. 33.
3 Christophe Beaufils, Joséphin Péladan 1858-1918: Essai sur une Maladie de Lyrisme (Grenoble : Jerome Millon, 1993)
4 Ben Fisher, ‘From the Sphinx to Pisa: Reconciling two faces of Péladan.(Joséphin Péladan),’ Modern Language Review, January 2007
5 ibid; Fisher citing Leon Bloy.
6 Marie-Francoise Melmoux-Montaubin, ‘Peladan et sa Rose-Croix : Echec ou Malentendu ?’ in Le Defi Magique : Esoterisme, Occultisme, Spiritisme (Lyon : PUL, 1994) p. 84
7 Indicatively, eleven pages in Christopher McIntosh’s Eliphas Levi and the French Occult Revival (1972), a chapter in James Webb’s The Occult Underground (1974). Though these are more objective and sensitive treatments of Peladan, their brevity indicates the lack of further exploration of his work from this perspective.
8 J-P Laurent, V. Nguyen, Les Peladan, (Lausanne, Switzerland : Dossier H, L’age de l’Homme, 1990) pp. 46-52.
There are also claims that Péladan belonged to an initiatory chain beginning with Edward Bulwer-Lytton who had belonged to SRIA, to Eliphas Levi and passing through Péladan’s brother, Adrien. This point has however been disputed as speculation (McIntosh, Eliphas Levi, p. 164, citing Robert Ambelain, Templiers et Rose-Croix (1955)
9 Such as members of the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor, or cross-fertilization with members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Servants of Light. Yeats is known to have been in Paris in 1894 and met Péladan along with a number of other French Rosicrucians; Barlet broke with Péladan together with de Guaita and Papus. MacGregor Mathers is also known to have associated with Péladan’s order.
- Joscelyn Godwin, Christian Chanel, John Deveney, The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor (Maine: Weiser, 1995) p. 428
- Michael Fixler, ‘The Affinities between J.-K. Huysmans and the ‘Rosicrucian’ Stories of W. B. Yeats,’ PMLA, Vol. 74, No. 4 (Sep., 1959), pp. 464-469 (p. 464)
- René Guénon, ‘F.-Ch. Barlet et les sociétés initiatiques,’ Le Voile d’Isis 30 :64 (April 1925), 217-221
10 Josepin Peladan, La queste du Graal – Proses Lyriques De L’éthopée – La Décadence Latine (Paris : Au Salon de la Rose+Croix, 1892)
11 McIntosh, Eliphas Lévi and the French Occult Revival, p. 174
12 It is also claimed that this mission centres around his theory of the androgyne: ‘Peladan […] n’est anime par une seule ambition, celle de paraitre au monde comme celui qui aura su adapter pour ses contemporains cette Tradition authentique, fruit de la Revelation primitive qui eclaira jadis les etres a la recherche de Dieu [...] par une foi indestructible dans l’idee que toute destinee humaine, a l’image de celle d’Adam, commence et se termine par l’androgynie. C’est au nom de cette conviction que Peladan oeuvrera…’
- Nelly Emont, ‘Introduction a l’oeuvre de Josephin Peladan,’ in Les Peladan, (p.63)