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81742290 H D Robert Duncan and the Question of the Occult

81742290 H D Robert Duncan and the Question of the Occult

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, Robert Duncan and the question of the occult
Michael Boughn
© 2012 With the breakup of the hold that the New Criticism held over the official thinking of textuality, it became not only acceptable, but eventually even essential, to engage something called an occult tradition when discussing the development of high modernism. Such a thinking of tradition invokes a particular world, curiously not unlike what Eliot invoked in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” – a world, at the very least, of authoritative texts whose influence arises out of a handing down from one writer to another. Others consume this influence, learn it, absorb it, mentally ingest it, reproducing and altering the information at the same time, and often using it as the basis not only of writing but of whole sets of institutionalized practices. Demetres Tryphonopoulos has usefully summed up this sense of an occult tradition. In a series of “begets,” Tryphonopoulos moves from the religio-magical cults of antiquity to the Greek – Oriental synthesis of late Hellenism, through Orphism to Pythagorianism, Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism, Catharism, Cabalism, Hermeticism, Alchemy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, and Theosophy, linking them eventually to the work of Yeats, Pound, H.D., Eliot and others. While he is careful to point out how heterodox and fluid the transmissions are, the sense of continuity, or of a “movement” as he calls it in the title to his essay, is overwhelming.


. I wonder about this because there is something here that resonates with a moment in the correspondence between Robert Duncan and H. wrote to Duncan of how Yeats and his wife had invited her to Oxford to participate in an occult ritual. as Tryphonopoulos’s list testifies. but the tradition predates modernity by centuries. It is relevant in that almost universally the critics and scholars who in the last 25 2 . H. Duncan’s understanding of the authenticity of their bond seems to lie in an aversion to it. The interest that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was arguably no different than the interest that developed in the third or the eleventh or the sixteenth centuries.While this outline establishes a line of material transmission. Writing back to H. on October 31. instinct for life or of life.D. On October 27. .” And I wonder what he meant when he wrote that—that the holding back is an “instinct for life or of life?” Allow me a brief digression here into the question of belief. in which Duncan seems to establish the ground of their bond in a mutual relation to the occult that is outside the sense of continuity or tradition. it does not ask what seems to me the crucial question such an outline provokes: why does the tradition exist? What is its provocation and ground? What sustains it? Some have attributed the perennial interest in it to disenchantment with what is called modernity’s secularism. 1960. In fact. that prepared you. what I wanted to write was the rightness of what held you back. Duncan notes his own “holding back” from the Hermetic Brotherhood of his adopted parents: “.D. but something held her back.D.

”. Unacknowledged in these discussions is the fact that this language implicitly carries with it a specific cosmology that is directly at odds with the very phenomena it proposes to explain. to the display of “occult beliefs” and the “ubiquitous occult belief that true wisdom belongs to the remote past when man was close to his divine origin”.’s experiences as “figments of her imagination” that she believed in. to “a belief that throughout human history certain individuals have had intimate contact with the divine . There are many points where you could argue with the various characterizations of the occult.D. . Philosophy traces this discussion back to the rationalism of Socrates who attempted in his dialogs to bring his interlocutor to the recognition of certain false beliefs which 3 . Philosophy has a long and complex engagement with the idea of belief. This sense of belief reinforces the idea of a tradition or movement. . but for me the most important issue is not in those details but in the definition of the relation to them as one of belief. even to H. something to believe in. one that tends to merge at a certain point with a psychological engagement.” or the “adoption of a belief” when they indicate the poet’s relation to the occult. They refer to a “heterodox mixture of a relatively small set of doctrines” which the poet “believes in”. The discourse focuses on the difference between belief and knowledge and the distinction between true and false beliefs.years have turned the occult into a major determining dimension of modernism invariably refer to a “belief.

belief became more and more identified with the realm of fantasy and even delusion. agreeable. I hereby pledge to him my heart and soul. precious. and scientific positivism rendered knowledge as a function of measure. (44) The transformation of the word came with the shifting sense of what constitutes knowledge. to pledge yourself to God. Previous to that moment it was related to love and meant literally to hold dear where lief meant beloved. trusting His mercy. But the meaning of the word “believe” in English has shifted radically in the past. This was premised on the idea that there is an object which is distinctly other than the subject and that the subject can realistically 4 . as a fact of modern life. or as Wilfred Smith argued in Belief and History. I judge God to be existent”. As knowledge became identified with the commensurable. and especially with the full onset of modernity in the 16th century. The affirmation “I believe in God” used to mean: “Given the reality of God as a fact of the universe. I committedly opt to live in loyalty to Him. empiricism. Materialism. I offer my life to be judged by Him. To believe in God in that context was not to assert that God existed against the claims of sceptics. as true. I announce that my opinion is ‘ye’. with certitude and factuality. rightly or wrongly.” To-day the statement may be taken by some as meaning: “Given the uncertainty as to whether there be a God or not. It was declare your love for God.obscured his relation to the truth. To believe in something is to regard it.

” So “belief” becomes a marker for notknowledge. What does it mean. In fact.D. shared. then. as it were. and Duncan “believed in the occult?” Well. a secret knowledge that is recorded in a collection of texts. it is the world they shared an aversion to. it imposes on our perception. a body of tenets or propositions. to say that you believe in something is to simultaneously say that you don’t actually know it. first of all it means that they could just as reasonably— probably more reasonably—not have believed in the occult. Secondly.D. the associated sense of delusion always hovers around the word in this context. Smith points out. and the recognition of that aversion is the basis of the relationship. to use an Emersonian term.” No one. although most critics are careful not to judge this belief as true or false. a new thinking of and with the world. Emerson’s aversion was raised in 5 . to say that H. This is not the world that Duncan and H. Above all.measure it. our thought of this relationship. can reasonably be described as “believing the world is round. reasonable or delusional. Smith points to the entry for belief in the Random House dictionary: defined as a conviction or opinion. a thing. On the contrary. a deep structural sense of an objective world within which an observing subject operates to establish real knowledge. that you can’t measure it or prove it. the example is “the belief that the word is flat. it means there is “an occult” to believe in (or not to believe in). Emerson is apropos here because he was the first American thinker to move beyond the frame that these terms erect in the mind and propose a New World. Within this world.

has built a coach. and almanacs. and so being sure of the information when he wants it. He has got a fine Geneva watch. put it this way: “We are discovering that the I and the World. but has lost the use of his feet. Henry Corbin. and although much of that great essay. “Self-Reliance. the equinox he knows as little. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has. it is hidden from the vision of those who conform to the world as defined by coaches. the modes of being of the personal subject and the regions of being which it explores. (SR) Or to restate it. but he has lost the skill to tell the hour by the sun. The solstice he does not observe. it becomes clear as it progresses that the stake is much larger. and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind. you could say our modes of being necessarily carry with them restrictions that limit. He is supported on crutches. but lacks so much support of the muscle. In any case. define the world we find ourselves in. our vision. the man in the street does not know a star in the sky. Let’s turn the tables here for a moment and locate the structures of belief as part of a particular visionary relation to the world in which much of it is lost to our sight.” locates conformity in relation to a world of manners and morality. that we conform to.relation to the idea of something he called conformity. are not two things which 6 . clocks.” he wrote. What is then lost to vision constitutes something that could be called the occult. “The civilized man. the great scholar of Islamic philosophy and the visionary imagination.

that my imagination of my self belonged to no philosophic system. he was suggesting not so much an epistemological bond as an ontological one. ungraduated. . uninitiated. .” Emerson gives it a slightly different twist: Thoughtless people contradict as readily the statement of perceptions as of opinions. that my learning belonged to no institution. It is a question of seeing beyond 7 . spiritual. But perception is not whimsical. he was saying.D. a region of being that is immediate and actual and its ground is precisely that aversion. unanalyzed. are in another world. It is not a question of belief or textual transmission. . or rather much more readily. celestial – correspond to each other. . for they do not distinguish between perception and notion.D. an interpresence. in which sense circulates in unprecedented and unanticipated forms.D. When Duncan appealed to H.get juxtaposed. but fatal. They fancy that I choose to see this or that thing. he sums up his sense of it this way: . and a structure. but presences within each other. He and H. an indissoluble correlation. I had in mind that my worship belonged to no church. My thought must be without sanction. (69) This world they share is a world of correspondences in which various modes of being – physical. . I am unbaptized. that my mysteries belonged to no cult.’s aversion to attending Yeats’s séance and compared it to his own holding back from his family’s Theosophical beliefs. For my perception of it is as much a fact as the sun. Book.. In The H.

but a particular rigor of thinking. (Voyage 25-26) Not occult. This provides a very clear distinction between. . Corbin proposes it as a “mode of being. on the one hand. “. affectionately but critically looks at the very tradition lately discovered by the critics. a type of philosophical thinking which proceeds indifferently from any sort of contingent object. Book. and in fact. and whose rigor consists of this very uniqueness. and on the other hand. a subtle growth of transparence. in a chapter called “Occult Matters” in The H. the scandal is a large part of its attraction for many people. all that is hidden from us but that 8 .the given. . His very careful consideration of Madam Blavatsky’s problematic history is notable for its even handedness and his presentation of her is at once critical but careful to rethink her legacy as a kind of artist at war with the world science had created under “the dictatorship of Reason. Partly for that reason. Duncan. and . subjecting it to logical operations. the significance revealed in your manner of understanding is dependent on your mode of being.D. especially Theosophy. . The very idea of the occult for us carries with it the permanent sense of scandal given our cultural context. There is no escaping it.” as if the way we know is a register of the way we are. Duncan expands and transforms the range of his thinking of the occult to address all that is esoteric. linked to something unique. then. your mode of understanding reveals your mode of being. I think. .” Almost as if in response to the misapprehensions woven through the history of that occult tradition.

Commenting on Suhrawardi. mind. within that which is apparent to everyone from the first. the hidden. as if to open the idea of the occult beyond the scandalous to include the ordinary. enacts a process that is remarkably similar to what Henry Corbin. The esoteric exists in relation to a process of revelation and vision that is not predetermined in some dogma or belief or set of texts but is always available in some new form to those who are open to it. in so far as our ordinary lives are haunted by these matters that we are unaware of.” (28) Like the occult. form. The esoteric. pointing out over and over how all the fundamental dimensions of our lives are largely determined by hidden forces. space. an unveiling through a spiritual hermeneutic or exegesis. identifies as a ta’wil. Corbin wrote. manifests itself while yet remaining veiled as part of the exoteric— that is to say. self. H.D. time. in discussing the visionary recovery of the esoteric. the 12th century Iranian philosopher. 9 . “there is the fundamental contrast of the opposition between batin (esoteric) and zahir (exoteric). that we fail to see. He writes of psychology. but it is not the stasis of a tradition or a body of knowledge. In Book 1 Duncan writes about occult knowledge of Eros. one of three texts she referred to as her Commedia (books that Duncan sadly never had the chance to read). anthropology. Esoteric is perhaps of more use here than occult in thinking of what bound H. the esoteric is hidden.D. and exile. In The Sword Went Out to Sea.shapes our lives like dark matter or dark energy that physicists now tell us affects the gravitational field of the universe and everything in it. and Duncan. physics and economics.

When she works them in her prose “fictions. “return them to their true and original meaning.’s exegesis reveals layers of 10 . had no real interest in that kind of attention to the social world. performed in much of her prose. consequently to return to the true and original meaning of a text. H. “What is accomplished will be in the writing. Ta’wil is. 28-29) This is the process H. that they incarnated powers and forms from deep levels of existence. etymologically and inversely. wrote.D.D. as Corbin put it. in a less than flattering light. It is to cause the descent of the Revelation from the higher world. Tanzil properly designates positive religion. spiritual significance. Her interest in the events and persons of her life had to do with the recognition that they were meaningful. as in Aldous Huxley’s Point Counterpoint or John Cournos’s Miranda Masters.D.D. to lead back. “but the writing does not matter. to cause to return. to restore to one’s origin and to the place where one comes home. the representation of persons and situations from the writer’s life using fictional names.” (Sword 15) H. a process that is often confused with a fictional form called the roman á clef. The roman á clef is usually implicated with a sense of satire or social critique. (Avicenna.” They are recitations that lead through the writing and rewriting of certain significant events in order to reveal their deep.” it is to attempt to.” H.D. the letter of the Revelation dictated to the Prophet by the Angel. a roman á clef that presents Miranda / H.Ta’wil usually forms with tanzil a pair of terms and notions that are at once complementary and contrasting.

clad in contemporary garments. exclude from perception because it does not fit into categories of authorised knowledge. as if to answer the critics before they could chirp up with their predictable accusations of silliness or imaginary figments. It also affirms the profound evasiveness of the world. perfect image had stepped. Out of the legend. “must take it out of one.” “It was. .correspondences between elemental forms. The well-known table tapping episode that is the basis of the material for much of Sword. It is an implicit commitment to remain open to what is outside. about these things. the esoteric dimensions of meaning that resonated within certain events that informed her life.” she says. the “truth of the Spirit’s revelation to itself. We know so little. “. the myth of all religions. the history.” She made this assertion several times during the course of the narrative. discounts the occult dimension of these events: “. because it can’t be made to conform to current modes of official measure. through the persona of Delia Alton. it is not purely negative in its implications. conjecturing on the cause of the delirium that gripped her after the war. the white-robed. If it is the staking out of a kind of agnosticism in relation to the immense dark areas of our experience that others identify as the occult. contacting entities from outside. to greet me. what others tune out. . .” H.D. 11 . a superimposition of the past on the eternal.” (63) This is hardly the voice of someone who “believed in the occult. nothing at all really. is really irrelevant except as another moment of the eruption of this form. .” Delia Alton says. Provided there are entities from outside..

To be prepared “for or of life” is to meet its mystery with the same embrace you meet its familiarity. after Jean-Luc Nancy. as Emerson says.” Emerson wrote.Call them eruptions of wild sense. It was a fascination that led to grand gestures. The imagination does not create these eruptions. with ritual magic. The holding back Duncan noted is a rejection of what Emerson calls “communities of opinion” that make us false in each particular so that our every word chagrins us. such displays were of 12 . where sense is understood. “and not for a spectacle. as the condition that breeds meaning. There was in fact a relatively broad fascination with alchemical.” The instinct for or of life comes into the picture precisely here. so it be genuine and equal.” the life in question is one that is full of this wild sense that often is ignored or invisible. than that it should be glittering and unsteady. these images the imagination throws up. informing the world? When Duncan wrote of instinct that “prepared you for or of life. It is the organ that perceives them and gives them form. I much prefer that it should be of a lower strain. The question is what do they mean. even careers. “My life is for itself. ritual performances. to unbind your eyes. fraudulent events. and internecine battles between competing organizations were part of what Emerson located as spectacle. organizational bureaucracies. with public displays of belief. because it unsettles the world as given. It is not a question of believing or not believing. As phenomena. Hermetic and Theosophical texts among certain circles in the early 20th century (as there was in the 11th and the 15th and the 19th). But all this fascination with texts.

That was grounded in the living experience of the esoteric reality that informs every minute of our lives. It was life itself.” the ground that gives rise to the perennial interest in the texts.. 13 .another order than the bond that Duncan shared with H. the furtherness “within that which is apparent to everyone from the first.D. life open to what Duncan called What Is.

Ed. Bollingen Series LXVI. 2002. Tr. Henry. Oronto. 2007. Literary Modernism and the Occult Tradition. Book. --. Gainesville: UP of Florida. ME: National Poetry Foundation. Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult. Tryphonopolous. The Voyage and the Messenger: Iran and Philosophy. 1977. Robert. The Sword Went out to Sea. Michael Boughn and Victor Coleman. Venice CA: Lapis Press. 1960. Librett. Leon Surette and Demetres P. 14 .D.D. Wilfred Cantwell. Jean-Luc. Smith. Joseph Rowe. Nancy.” In The Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. Jeffrey S. The Sense of the World. 2011. Berkeley: U of California P. Johnston. Duncan. / Robert Duncan: Correspondence 1950–1961. Tr.D. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books. Cambridge: Harvard UP.Works Cited A Great Admiration—H. Middleton. Timothy. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP. 1995. Tr. The H. 1992. 1987. Ralph Waldo. CT: Weslyan UP. Avicenna and the Visionary Recital. 1990. Precipitations: Contemporary American Poetry as Occult Practice. Princeton: Princeton UP. 1997. 1996. “Self Reliance. Devin. Ed. Willard Trask. Emerson. Corbin. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia. Materer. H. Belief and History.

B. 15 . Eliot. and the Occult. Yeats. Ithaca NY: Cornell UP. 2002. W. Sword. Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s UP.S. 1993. Ghostwriting Modernism. The Birth of Modernism: Ezra Pound. Leon. T.Surette. Helen.

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