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Enchanting Modernity: Theosophy and the Arts in the Making of Early Twentieth-Century Culture

A Colloquium at Liverpool Hope University

3 December 2010

Founded in 1875, The Theosophical Society fused the study and practice of ancient mystical traditions with a commitment to shape, rather than reject, the modern world. Its ubiquitous worldwide presence in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture, along with various splinter groups, has been used to refute Max Weber’s theory that modernity brought about the absolute ‘disenchantment of the world’. Evidence of Theosophy’s ‘modern enchantment’ has led historians such as Alex Owen and Corinna Treital to question the orthodox assumption that, from the Enlightenment onwards, God was replaced by rational man. Theosophy’s widespread influence also supports Michael Saler’s claim that enchanted cultures of magic, wonder, and belief were not as incompatible with modernity as Weber would have us believe. Pre-Enlightenment cultures of enchantment not only persisted, but were fundamental and foundational to modern culture.

Scholars such as Owen and Treital have laid a foundation for understanding Theosophy’s role in shaping modernity, but the extent of its influence on modern arts and ideas has yet to be fully explored. In this colloquium, we seek to consider the influence of Theosophical ideas and practices on intellectual and artistic endeavour during the period from the late nineteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. The visual, theatrical, and musical arts of this period retained a pre-Enlightenment sense of enchantment and wonder by virtue of the perceived metaphysical origins of the creative and appreciative act, which science could not satisfactorily explain. The ‘enchantment’ of artistic creation and appreciation allied it to the aims of the Theosophical Society and satellite organizations, which we suggest had a stronger influence on the arts at this time than hitherto accepted. Exploring the relationship between Theosophy, the arts, and intellectual change promises to open up new histories of modernity in which traditionally marginal belief structures are seen to have shaped the modern experience in fundamental ways.

Organisers:

Helena Capkova (University of the Arts London)
Rachel Cowgill (Liverpool Hope University)
James G. Mansell (University of Nottingham)
Christopher Scheer (Utah State University/Liverpool Hope University)
Sarah Victoria Turner (University of York)


(Click here to download the schedule)