, 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.


While this outline establishes a line of material transmission, 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, but the tradition predates modernity by centuries, as Tryphonopoulos’s list testifies. 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. I wonder about this because there is something here that resonates with a moment in the correspondence between Robert Duncan and H.D. 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. In fact, Duncan’s understanding of the authenticity of their bond seems to lie in an aversion to it. On October 27, 1960, H.D. wrote to Duncan of how Yeats and his wife had invited her to Oxford to participate in an occult ritual, but something held her back. Writing back to H.D. on October 31, Duncan notes his own “holding back” from the Hermetic Brotherhood of his adopted parents: “. . . what I wanted to write was the rightness of what held you back, that prepared you, instinct for life or of life.” 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. It is relevant in that almost universally the critics and scholars who in the last 25


years have turned the occult into a major determining dimension of modernism invariably refer to a “belief,” 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”; to “a belief that throughout human history certain individuals have had intimate contact with the divine . . .”; 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”; even to H.D.’s experiences as “figments of her imagination” that she believed in. There are many points where you could argue with the various characterizations of the occult, 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. This sense of belief reinforces the idea of a tradition or movement, something to believe in. 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. Philosophy has a long and complex engagement with the idea of belief, one that tends to merge at a certain point with a psychological engagement. The discourse focuses on the difference between belief and knowledge and the distinction between true and false beliefs. 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


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


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


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


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


the given. Corbin proposes it as a “mode of being,” as if the way we know is a register of the way we are. “. . . your mode of understanding reveals your mode of being, and . . . the significance revealed in your manner of understanding is dependent on your mode of being. This provides a very clear distinction between, on the one hand, a type of philosophical thinking which proceeds indifferently from any sort of contingent object, subjecting it to logical operations; and on the other hand, a subtle growth of transparence, linked to something unique, and whose rigor consists of this very uniqueness. (Voyage 25-26) Not occult, then, but a particular rigor of thinking. 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, and in fact, the scandal is a large part of its attraction for many people. Partly for that reason, I think, Duncan, in a chapter called “Occult Matters” in The H.D. Book, affectionately but critically looks at the very tradition lately discovered by the critics, especially Theosophy. 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.” Almost as if in response to the misapprehensions woven through the history of that occult tradition, Duncan expands and transforms the range of his thinking of the occult to address all that is esoteric, all that is hidden from us but that


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful