Occult gender regimes: Polarity and Thermodynamic bodies – II
“…there is no word in any language I know which is an exact synonym for vril. I should call it electricity, except that it comprehends in its manifold branches other forces of nature, to which, in our scientific nomenclature, differing names are assigned, such as magnetism, galvanism, &c. These people consider that in vril they have arrived at the unity in natural energetic agencies, which has been conjectured by many philosophers above ground…”
Bulwer-Lytton, 1871, The Coming Race
The “occult” novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) had a tremendous impact on nineteenth century occult thought. Christopher Knowles & Joseph Michael Linsner (2007) call him, the “Stephen King of his era” whilst Joceyln Godwin (1994) considers his novel Zanoni to be the most important literary influence on Victorian esotericism. It is from Zanoni for example, that occultists borrowed the concept of “the Dweller on the Threshold” – the ordeal of facing the embodiment of fear before the adept can gain admittance to higher spheres.
The theosophist C. Nelson Stewart (Bulwer Lytton as Occultist, 1927) says that:
“If one were asked to name the book which more than any other provided a matrix for the building-up of modern theosophical philosophy in the English language, Zanoni seems the inevitable choice. Indeed, not only does a glance through the earlier literature published by the Theosophical Society never fail to reveal it as an oft-quoted book, but the advertisement pages show it being sold and translated as a kind of text-book.”
Various esoteric groups of the period claimed Bulwer-Lytton as an adept, and some contemporary authors (for example, Greg Bishop, in Wake Up Down There!: The Excluded Middle Anthology ) have asserted that Bulwer-Lytton was both a theosophist and a member of the Golden Dawn. According to Christopher McIntosh (1998) Bulwer-Lytton was proposed and voted an Honorary Grand Patron of the Soc. Ros (Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia) in 1871, but this occurred without his knowledge. When he found out about this preferment, Bulwer-Lytton wrote to John Yarker expressing his annoyance, and Yarker sent an apologetic reply. “As far as is known Lytton never attended a meeting of the Soc. Ros.” (see also Godwin, 1994, p218 for further discussion). Westcott, in his 1916 pamphlet The Rosicrucians, Past and Present, at Home and Abroad states that:
“The late Lord Lytton, the author of “Zanoni” and “The Strange Story” who was in 1871 Grand Patron of our Society, took very great interest in this form of Philosophy, although he never reached the highest degree of knowledge: for public reasons he once made a disavowal of his membership of the Rosicrucians, but he had been admitted as a Frater of the German Rosicrucian College at Frankfurt on the main: that College was closed after 1850.”
For this post, I’m going to focus on Bulwer-Lytton’s 1871 novel The Coming Race in order to highlight the emerging occult discourse which united the scientific advances in thermodynamics, social evolution and occult adeptship with the perfection of the will.
The Coming Race
The Coming Race (available online) explores themes which resonate closely with thermodynamics. The narrator, an independently wealthy American traveler, accidentally finds his way into a subterranean world populated by a race of beings who call themselves the “Vril-ya.” The “Vril-ya” have established a technological utopia, powered by “Vril” – an “all-permeating fluid” which is mastered through the training of the will, and which confers upon them tremendous powers of healing and destruction alike. The Vril-ya are ruled by a benevolent dictator, and their philosophy of society is presented as “no happiness without order, no order without authority, no authority without unity.” The Vril-ya have learned to master the passions that motivate crime or greed, and have a “natural instinct” for obedience. Their women are taller than the men, yet are “the most amiable, conciliatory, and submissive wives.” They are caucasian in appearance, with blue eyes and “hair of a deep golden auburn”.
The Coming Race makes many references to contemporary scientists and theories such as the luminiferous ether, and the heated debate over Darwin’s theories. Faraday is quoted in chapter 7:
“I have long held an opinion,” says that illustrious experimentalist, “almost amounting to a conviction, in common, I believe, with many other lovers of natural knowledge, that the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest have one common origin; or, in other words, are so directly related and mutually dependent, that they are convertible, as it were, into one another, and possess equivalents of power in their action.”
Vril and the Will
The narrator of The Coming Race, in describing vril mentions magnetism, galvanism, mesmerism, electro-biology and “odic force” as “the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest” – that these forms have “one common origin” and are convertible into one another and mutually dependent. Vril, directed through a vril-staff, can be used to heal, power machines, or for destructive purposes. Bulwer-Lytton explained Vril to his friend John Forster: “I did not mean Vril for mesmerism, but for electricity, developed into uses as yet only dimly guessed, which I hold to be a mere branch current of the one great fluid pervading all nature.”
Bulwer-Lytton’s concept of Vril develops out of a recurrent theme in his earlier works; the notion of the all-prevasive, connecting power of electricity is explored in Zanoni where the eastern sage Mejnour “professed to find a link between all intellectual beings in the existence of a certain all-pervading and invisible fluid resembling electricity, yet distinct from the known operations of that mysterious agency.” Similarly, in A Strange Story (1862) the physician Allen Fenwick performs experiments on inducing electrical currents via the exercise of will.
In a previous post in this series (Polarity and the spirited body – II) I examined some of the links between the capacity for mediumship and the notion of “passivity” (in particular, feminine passivity). In Isis Unveiled Madame Blavaksty makes a crucial distinction between occultism and spiritualism in that: “Mediumship is the opposite of adeptship; the medium is the passive instrument of foreign influences, the adept actively controls himself and all inferior potencies” and “One common vital principle pervades all things, and this is controllable by the perfected human will. The adept can stimulate the movements of the natural forces in plants and animals in a preternatural degree. Such experiments are not obstructions of nature, but quickenings; the conditions of intenser vital action are given. The adept can control the sensations and alter the conditions of the physical and astral bodies of other persons not adepts; he can also govern and employ, as he chooses, the spirits of the elements. He cannot control the immortal spirit of any human being, living or dead, for all such spirits are alike sparks of the Divine Essence, and not subject to any foreign domination.” (my italics) For Blavatsky then, the crucial distinction between spiritualism and “true occultism” is that Occultism is based on the “power” of a trained and perfected human will, awakened, strengthened, the “absolute ruler within his body” as opposed to the “passivity” of spirit mediumship. Again, this theme of developing the will in order to restrain the senses and “purify desires” is one than runs throughout Zanoni. In The Coming Race it is the use of the will which enables the advanced magical technology of the Vril-ya – not only does it have curative and destructive properties and powers all aspects of the Vril-ya’s industrial civilisation, it also enables the transmission of thoughts between individuals, and the rapid ascquisition of knowledge.
As Alex Owen (2004) says, the occultism of the late nineteenth century was “characterised by the will to both know and control the natural world” and that “total self-mastery and an indomitable will are the foremost prerequisities for magical Adeptship” (p6). She notes the relationship between the notion of self-mastery and the “bourgeois individualism” associated with the nineteenth century and points out that in this period, “occultism emerged at a time of growing uneasiness over what many perceived as the loss of personal integrity and authority in the face of an homogenizing mass society.” I would say that the occult concern with the will reflected wider cultural tropes concerning will-power, self-discipline, and correct behaviour. The Theosophical Society (and other esoteric movements in the nineteenth century) emerged during a period of social upheaval which saw the rise of various “social purity” movements (and there was a good deal of cross-over in membership of, for example, the Theosophical Society and various social purity campaigns in both the UK and USA). These movements stressed the importance of self-governance and moral regulation, often phrased in terms of developing “good character” which entailed practices of self-restraint and conformance to public virtues. “Character” was the visible, outward marker of inner, moral qualities, and the exercise of will-power in achieving self-control was central to this project. Hence social progress was rooted, ultimately, in the development of moral character. The idealisation of these virtues can be seen in theosophical accounts of the conditions for an aspiring occult “chela” – which stress the absolute necessity for “mental and physical purity” as well as courage, and a “calm indifference” to the vagaries of the world. Adepts were similarly idealised as being entirely selfless, and incapable, due to their evolved nature, of any kind of unchaste or immoral action (a belief which was severely strained through the successive scandals erupting around Charles Leadbeater from 1912 onwards). I think its clear from Blavatsky’s writing that for her, at least, occultism and morality were inextricably intertwined (see Tantra’s Metahistory III: The Left-hand Path – II for further discussion of Blavatsky’s view of Occultism & morality). An editorial in Lucifer (1889) reporting on the activities of one Hiram E. Butler (whose work had been favourably reviewed the year before) and his Boston-based “Esoteric Society” makes the following assertions: “The practice of mesmerism has always been discountenanced by the Theosophists, yet the literature on the subject has been utilized by Butler and his confederates, who have been teaching a bastard sort of mesmerism to their dupes, calling it ‘spiritual development’. The mesmeric force is simply sex-magnetism. In this simple statement is the secret of spiritualistic ‘mediumship’ as well as ‘mesmerism’ and ‘black magic’. It is also the secret of the invariable fall into vice and sexual degradation of fools who dabble in such things, whether they call it ‘mediumship,’ ‘mesmerism,’ ‘mental healing.’ or what not. … The whole thing is very, very vile, and the less people have to do with those subjects in that way the better for them. True occultism has nothing to do with the filfthy subject. … The ‘Esotericism’ of these specimens of Boston culture is identical with the voodooism of the negroes. It is called tantrika in India and is filfthy in the extreme.”
It might seem that I am straying somewhat from the focus of this series – the representations of gender polarity in relation to various “forces” and their wider cultural contexts – but I think that examining the emerging emphasis on the will in nineteenth-century occultism, together with notions of individual/social progress and evolution forms an important “bridge” to later occult theories of the body as an ecology of manageable forces – subject to laws and capable of being directed via correct “training” and discipline. Although initially, such “mastery of forces” is seen as a facility only available to occult adepts, the idea that one can manage and control the body’s energies, like other “occult powers” (such as astral projection) are subject to increasing democratisation throughout the twentieth century.
The Coming Race – with its themes of utopianism, racial superiority, enlightened vegetarianism and technological prowess was an alluring vision of the future, and ran to five editions in the first year of its publication. Like Zanoni, it too was highly influential on nineteenth century occultism – and in particular on Madame Blavatsky and other prominent Theosophists. Blavatsky writes: “The name vril may be fiction [but] the force itself is doubted as little in India as the existence itself of their Rishis, since it is mentioned in all the secret works.” (quoted from Barkun, 2003) Similarly, in Isis Unveiled she names Vril as but one name amongst “an infinite confusion of names to express one and the same thing” – equating Vril to different forms of “sacred fire” as well as “the Akasa of the Hindu adepts; the Astral light of Eliphas Levi; the nerve-aura and the fluid of the magnetists; the od of Reichenbach …. galvanism; and finally electricity” (1,125, 128-129). She also asserts (in The Secret Doctrine that Bulwer-Lytton derived the idea of Vril from ancient Indian writings dealing with “those terrible engines of destruction known to the Mahabharatan Aryans.” SB Liljegren’s monograph (1955) shows how much of a debt Madame Blavatsky’s writing owes to Bulwer-Lytton’s novels, particularly The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) and Zanoni.
Unsurprisingly, Vril is a popular topic circulating throughout theosophical writing from the late nineteenth century onwards, particularly when authors wished to make a link between occult forces and scientific discoveries – one example being that Bulwer-Lytton’s concept of Vril is a “foretelling” of the discovery of radium, or of atomic energy. As a trope, it allows the linkage between ancient “occult secrets” and contemporary scientific discovery, with the promise that in the future, humanity will have evolved enough (both morally and spiritually) to understand and utilise such forces wisely. Theosophists tended to be optimistic (no less than contemporary occultists) that orthodox science was on the brink of validating their beliefs and theories. The concept of Vril itself (guaranteed one kind of immortality by John L. Johnston’s “liquid life” beef extract – Bovril from 1886) was frequently claimed by occultists to have originated in “ancient writings” (a claim started by Madame Blavatsky) and often equated with akasa (often translated as a variant of “astral force”) particularly because the manipulation of this “force” was restricted to adepts. For example, W.J Colville, in Studies in Theosophy: Historical and Practical says:
“This subtle, all-pervading force is amenable to the control of a high order of intelligence only, and while universally present in nature, cannot be manipulated and utilized except by persons in whom the lower principle (homo) is subservient to the higher principle (vir.)”
The idea of an advanced race preparing to replace humanity – the Vril-ya (descended not from apes, but from frogs) – also neatly dovetailed into theosophical theories of race and racial progression – which also reflected wider cultural concerns such as the enthusiasm for eugenics, education and moral improvement. Theosophist theories of racial development and progress were complex, and some Theosophists, such as Susan E Gay (see this post for related discussion) evisaged a future race that would reproduce via parthenogenesis. In The Coming Race, the narrator explains that the letter V “nearly always denotes excellence or power” and that “vril” equates to civilisation and the Vril-ya, “the civilised nations” as vril is the basis of their society and power (it has also been suggested that “vril” is a contraction of ‘virility’). This language was related to Indo-Germanic or Aryan racial theories (Bulwer-Lytton dedicated The Coming Race to Max Muller). Some scholars have suggested that Blavatsky saw in the Vril-ya a confirmation of her notion of “ascended masters”.
Anne Besant made a great deal of use of the theme The Coming Race in her writings. In one lecture (later published in 1917) entitled “The Coming Race” she makes an exhaustive analysis of racial types and features – including the notion that different races have different nervous systems: “If a Chinaman or a Japanese is wounded in battle, he has much more chance of recovery than one of the Aryan Race. The Red Indian, again, of America, who is also a fourth Race Man, will bear a wound that would kill any of you by shock, not by bleeding but by nervous shock, and he will recover from a wound which would kill a fifth Race man.” (see previous post). She proposes that the “Coming Race” will be typified by compassion, brotherhood and wisdom, and is particularly emerging in America, Australia, and New Zealand. Signs of “The Coming Race” include the birth of children with a “nervous system so delicately poised that it is always in danger of jar and injury.” She laments the conditions of cities such as London, but rather than wanting to “abolish” them says that “For, mind, that which is destructive to a delicate nervous system is the necessary stimulus for the evolution of a nervous system of lower and coarser type.” For those of a finer nervous organisation – and their children – she says the “best policy is to leave London for the country, and surround themselves and the children of the Coming Race with sweeter and better environments.” There is much advice in this essay how to prepare oneself for the advent of “the Coming Race” – by avoiding meat, alcohol, practising meditation and cultivating selflessness – ” the training of the life into expressions along higher lines.”
Michael Barkun A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America (University of California Press, 2003)
Annie Besant, The Coming Race (Theosophical Publishing House, Adyar, 1917)
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, David Seed (editor) The Coming Race (Wesleyan University Press, 2005)
Bruce Clarke, Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics (Univ. Michigan Press, 2001)
Jox Dixon Divine feminine: theosophy and feminism in England (John Hopkins University Press, 2003)
Joceyln Godwin The Theosophical Enlightenment (SUNY, 1994)
Christopher Knowles, Joseph Michael Linsner Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heros (Weiser Red Wheel, 2007)
SB Liljegren, Bulwer-Lytton’s Novels and Isis Unveiled (Harvard University Press, 1955)
Christopher McIntosh, The Rosicrucians: The History, Mythology and Rituals of an Esoteric Order (Samuel Weiser, 1998)
Leslie George Mitchell Bulwer Lytton: the rise and fall of a Victorian man of letters (Hambledon Continuum, 2003)
Alex Owen The Place of Enchantment: British Occultism and the Culture of the Modern (University of Chicago Press, 2004)
Betsy van Schlun. Science and the Imagination: Mesmerism, Media and the Mind in Nineteenth-Century English and American Literature (Galda+Wilch Verlag, 2007)
Wikipedia entry Vril (accessed 11/05/2011)
Sir Edward G. D. Bulwer-Lytton: A Brief Biography
Image of Bulwer-Lytton from www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/mclenan/41.html (scanned by Philip V Allingham)