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Leigh Wilson, Modernism and Magic. Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult

Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, 187 pages. 24,22 euros. ISBN : 978-0748627707
Florence Marie
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Leigh Wilson, Modernism and Magic. Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2013, 187 pages. 24,22 euros. ISBN : 978-0748627707

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1In her 167-page book entitled Modernism and Magic. Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult, Leigh Wilson tries to understand in what respect a certain number of modernist writers’ and avant-garde artists’ interest in theosophy, spiritualism and occult practices influenced their creations. She argues that in many cases their interest enabled them to define a new approach to mimesis without rejecting the latter altogether. She contends that magic was at the heart of the occult discourses during the early years of the twentieth century in spite of their emphasis on their status as scientific discourses. Being based on magic, theosophy and spiritualism could be made use of by writers and artists because magic has something in common with mimesis as they both treat the signifier ‘as if it was real’. Thus the redefinition of mimesis was possible; it meant going beyond mere imitation so as to transform what was copied; it sought to reveal what was not immediately visible on the surface but was present nonetheless. In Leigh Wilson’s opinion the principle of mimesis was thus not discarded—unlike what is usually accepted about modernism—but redefined, so as to make possible ‘the realization of a still unfinished reality’ (13) and to change the world. In order to illustrate her thesis, Leigh Wilson tackles the problem of language in the first three chapters and deals with the visual and the cinema in the last two chapters.

2In the first chapter, Leigh Wilson discusses the views of anthropologists like J. Frazer and E.B. Tylor and of philosophers like H. Bergson, who condemned contemporary beliefs precisely for their reliance on magic while theosophists and spiritualists defended themselves by anchoring their beliefs to ‘an experimental method’ (25). She also examines T. Adorno’s and W. Benjamin’s antagonistic views about magic, seen as error by the former and as ‘productive error’ (32) by the latter. Leigh Wilson concludes that experimental work is necessarily magical in so far as it is believed to have the power to transform the world or at least to reveal the world as different from what it is supposed to be and she relies on the writings by E. Jolas in his magazine Transition to do so.

3In the second chapter Leigh Wilson embarks on the theoretical debate concerning language at the time. Is language simply instrumental? What is its relation to the world? Is it completely severed from the world as Nietzsche claimed it was? And if it is the case, is it necessarily a flaw? Couldn’t this be an asset in so far as while being disconnected from the truth, it has, however, the capacity to create other things? Not all philosophers agreed with Nietzsche, as proved by Leigh Wilson’s discussion about B. Russell’s and L. Wittgenstein’s ambiguous evolution and about T. E. Hulme’s and C. K. Ogden’s ambivalence. The idea underlying this discussion is that even if like magic, which treats the word as if it was the real thing, language is erroneous (because of the fundamental absence of congruence between the name and its essence), it can be used—especially in experimental writing—to demonstrate ‘the persuasive power of words’ (57). In other words, language can be used as magic, however unpalatable this conclusion may have been for the four thinkers aforementioned. The theoretical debate is followed by literary examples illustrating the ability of language to create the world anew: M. Proust’s La Recherche du temps perdu; T. Mann’s The Magic Mountain and J. Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. For instance, Leigh Wilson demonstrates that although Joyce’s séance (Book III. iii) can be seen at first sight as a parody of irrational beliefs, the episode also illustrates that from a technical point of view the function of language is the same as the function of the séance, since it creates something ‘above and beyond the material world precisely because of its particular relation to it’ (71).

4In the third chapter the focus shifts to the magical power of sound beyond any referential meaning. Sound is magic because it has a transforming power. This time the connection between magic and modernism is made through the theosophical conception of language. In theosophy sound is said to have a transforming power, albeit a dangerous one because no one knows what occult forces can be released. T. Mann expresses his misgivings about the power of sound in Doctor Faustus whereas J. Joyce embraces it with relish in Finnegans Wake and defuses its potential danger by playing on the idea of reversibility (between words and sound in this case), as exemplified at the time by the optophone, a device which ‘transforms form, ‘alias light and shade’, into sound and vice versa’ (99).

5Thus in the first three chapters language has been reconnected to the world in vital ways through experimental writing, which can then reshape reality. The two following chapters deal with the cinema. At the time the moving picture was said to be free from the arbitrariness of language and as such to be even more likely to reveal a truth which was not otherwise visible.

6In chapter IV kino-eye as defined by Dziga Vertov (no fictional scenarios, no script, no actors) is explicitly compared ‘to the microscope, the telescope and the X-rays, all of which made visible things previously invisible’ (107). On the other hand, this possibility was seen not only as scientific but also as magical because it was akin to telepathy as far as the relationship between the film and its viewers was concerned: the thoughts of those present in the film were communicated to the viewers ‘‘at a distance’ using means other than the usual, that is, language’ (109). Thus Leigh Wilson puts forward all the ambivalence of D. Vertov, who on the one hand dismissed magic and on the other hand made use of ‘the magical lexicon and figuration in the films themselves.’ (109)

7Finally, in the last chapter, Leigh Wilson discusses Ezra Pound’s and S. Eisenstein’s concern for animation (‘film’s ability to animate the inanimate’ [145]) and shows their antagonistic attitudes were influenced by what was said at the time about ectoplasm, which was no longer seen as ‘evidence of an unseen, immaterial world of the spirit that can have communication with the material world of the living’ but ‘as evidence of previously unknown aspects of the material world itself.’ (146) The real and its truth were thus redefined, and so was mimesis.

8It is a demanding study at least for those who are not versed in theosophy and spiritualism. In some chapters, however, the latter are less present than what the subtitle of the book suggests and the author sometimes brings literature and occult practices together in a roundabout way. The work broaches a lot of different topics, which would probably need more probing. Some of the concepts on which it is based are not necessarily defined in a clear way (probably on account of the nature of these concepts themselves) and they are given several interpretations added one after the other in the course of the different chapters. It falls to the reader to establish the links between some ideas, which means the study is arduous at times. While reading this erudite study the reader also comes across the names of various thinkers in the space of a few mere pages (for instance Ricœur, Wittgenstein, Hulme, E. Fenollosa, Derrida are mentioned in the space of 3 pages) and he is supposed to know quite a lot about them already if he wants to follow the train of thought of Leigh Wilson and see the connections. Thus the theoretical approach is interesting but the literary and visual examples are more readable and more directly related to the topic. In that respect, it is a pity there is no overall conclusion to round off the study for the reader.

9The work, however, is stimulating and thought-provoking in many respects. One of its subsidiary roles is to help the reader recall that all the technological inventions that we now take for granted (the cinema for instance) and some of the creative experiments of the time (atonal music for instance) were the object of discourses that were in some cases scientific and in other cases magical in so far as they were discourses on the uncanny. Above all and because there is in each chapter a summary of all the conflicting views these highly controversial topics have elicited (and Leigh Wilson is clearly aware that her vision is at odds with the vision of a lot of other scholars—Helen Sword, Michael North—whose conclusions are discussed in the course of the book), the study urges the reader to reconsider the relation between modernism and occult discourses but also between modernism and mimesis.

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Florence Marie, « Leigh Wilson, Modernism and Magic. Experiments with Spiritualism, Theosophy and the Occult »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 47 | 2014, mis en ligne le 24 novembre 2014, consulté le 22 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Florence Marie

Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour

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Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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