Stanislas de Guaita & Joséphin Péledan at the Threshold of the Mysteries
So far we have been largely concerned with the life and work of Gérard Encausse, or ‘Papus’, but remarkable though his influence was, he was not the only young man to cause a stir in esoteric circles in late 19th century Paris. Another mover and shaker was a very different individual, by the name of Stanislas de Guaita, a descendant of minor Italian nobility with considerable literary abilities and inherited wealth.
Once again the memoirs of Émile-Victoire Michelet provide us with an introduction. And while he had not been too impressed at his first encounter with Papus – the stumbling orator at the Theosophical Society meeting – his impressions of Stanislas could hardly have been greater. Indeed so impressed was he that in the end he ranked him with such pioneers as Eliphas Levi, Hoene Wronski and Fabre-d’Olivet.
But at the time of their first meeting, in 1880, when both had not long turned 20, their ambitions lay in the direction of literature rather than occultism. Both were budding poets and indeed in this same year Stanislas saw publication of his first slim book of poetry Oiseaux de Passage (Birds of Passage). Apart from a brief reference to Alchemy there was no hint esoteric interest in it, although next to literature his burning interest at school and college had been chemistry, with a somewhat darker leaning toward toxicology.
It may have been something a little more than youthful romanticism that led Michelet to fantasise about some deeper significance to their meeting. In that he, a young Breton poet from the west, should be meeting up with one from Lorraine in the east, on the ‘mount of St. Geneviève’ in Paris. That is to say a promontory on the left bank of the Seine that has the Pantheon, the resting place of the nation’s great at its summit. More prosaically their meeting was in a Latin quarter café, the introductions being effected by Maurice Barrès, a former schoolfriend of Stanislas and fellow literary hopeful.
But it was not a pairing of these two in the field of literature that was to come to pass. Stanislas certainly attained great stature in the literature of French occultism but only after coming under the influence of another young man who had recently arrived in Paris – come up from the south. His name was Joséphin Péledan, eager to make his way in the artistic world, scraping a living as a bank clerk while trying to establish a reputation as an art critic.
Back home his elder brother Adrian, a member of a Rosicrucian society in Toulouse, had been deeply committed to occultism. Ten years older than Joséphin, he was a qualified doctor and one of the first to practice homeopathy. Unfortunately he was not to live much longer. In 1885 a pharmacist’s error caused his death by strychnine poisoning but not before young Joséphin had found sudden fame – not as an art critic but as a novelist.
In 1884, his self-published Le Vice suprême took the book trade by storm. Far from being a salacious pot boiler as its title might suggest it was a critique of modern society with leading characters accomplished in the esoteric arts. Indeed, along with a series of similar novels, Péladan ‘spiritual adventurer and lover of life’ as a blurb described him, followed up with a collection of teachings Comment on devient Mage (How to become a Magus), although it had nowhere the impact of the novel.
When Stanislas de Guaita read Le Vice suprême he was bowled over by it. We are fortunate that a series of letters has survived from him to Péledan. Quoting from the first, sent on November 3rd 1884 ....I have just read your fine book ‘Le Vice suprême’ – and have re-read it several times for it is one that can only enthuse or horrify a reader – for it appears to be either a masterpiece or a hoax. I dare to admit that I am one who has been enthused by it......It seems to me that the Kabbala is a superb science with grandiose dogmas and incomparable myths. I consider the abbé Constant a great man and the mockery to which he is subjected make him all the greater in my eyes.
Indeed Stanislas was inspired to devote the rest of his life to an analysis of occult theory and practice in a series of books. The first, Essais de Sciences maudites (Essays on Forbidden Sciences) in 1886, was eventually extended to three times its length and renamed Au Seuil du Mystère (At the Threshold of the Mysteries). It was the forerunner for Le Serpent de La Genèse (The Serpent of Genesis) planned to be published in three volumes as Le Temple de Satan, (The Temple of Satan) in 1891; La Clef de la Magie Noire (The Key to Black Magic) in 1897, and Le Problème du Mal (The Problem of Evil) that unfortunately was never finished, in fact barely started. He died at the age of 36 at the end of 1897 probably hastened by narcotics taken as a relief from persistent migraines.
The writing of these books was not his only legacy however. Along with Péladan, and later incorporating Papus, he founded the Ordre Kabbalistique de la Rose+Croix (Kabbalistic Order of the Rose Cross). He also amassed a remarkable occult library of over 2000 volumes that he made available to associates and friends in Paris, along with use of his extensive apartment for meetings and practical occult work.
In the meantime Joséphin Péladan, with a separate agenda and eventually separate Kabbalistic Order made great inroads into French and European artistic culture with a series of projects embodying the Symbolist movement in art, music and theatre.
The story of their achievements, and vicissitudes, was instructive at the time and remains so, not only as bench marks of what can be achieved, but also as warning signals on what it may be best to avoid. As with Papus and his friends, the ideals and inexperience of youth (most were under 30) were both advantages and disadvantages in their voyages of discovery.