Joséphin Péladan, the Catholic Rosicrucian
We have seen from their correspondence how Joséphin Péladan was responsible for introducing Stanislas de Guaita to the Rosicrucian tradition via an esoteric group in Toulouse, which led on to their working alongside Papus and his associates as they made inroads into the Isis lodge of the Theosophical Society in Paris. In a relatively short space of time there came the establishment of the C.I.E.E. training organisation, l’Initiation journal, a renewed Martinist Order and a newly conceived Kabbalistic Order of the Rose Cross.
However, along with this there were a number of internal contradictions that began to come to the fore. In part due to the inexperience and big egos of some of the parties involved but due more fundamentally to the roots of their esoteric assumptions. There was a great divide of occult traditions and aspirations between the great provincial centres in the south (Lyons, Toulouse, and so on) and Paris in the north. And particularly so with the Péladan family.
For most of the 19th century France was riven with counter-revolutionary movements of a romantic kind, looking for some kind of return of monarchy – such as the rumoured survival of Louis XVII, son of the guillotined Louis XVI. A situation broadly equivalent to the Stuart cause in Great Britain with its romantic Bonnie Prince Charlie and toasts to the “king over the water” after the Hanoverian succession, and it gave vitality to a number of quasi-masonic societies with various degrees of political aims behind their charitable pretensions.
Joséphin’s father, Louis-Adrien Péladan (b.1815) was a vigorous propagandist and journal proprietor in support of this kind of movement and, being staunchly Roman Catholic with it, had a penchant for arguments relying on mystical visions, apparitions and prophecies. There is an historical irony in his deep Catholic religiosity, for at the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, his branch of the family had been forcibly converted to the Catholic faith, whilst other branches, despite persecution, had remained Protestant.
Anyhow, whatever beliefs Louis-Adrien held he stuck to passionately, and the same went for his sons Adrien (b.1844) and Joseph-Aimé, or Joséphin (b.1858). The 14 year gap between the birth of the two sons seems to have led almost to a hero worship of the younger for the elder, exacerbated by the latter’s tragic death.
Adrien was dedicated to a medical career, although there is a degree of uncertainty about his educational attainments en route to it, that range from a family version of a child prodigy, whose academic work was so brilliant that his examiners sometimes could not understand it, to medical records that imply that it was barely up to pass standard. Or it may have been a result of his enthusiasm for animal magnetism and the practice of homeopathy of which he became one of the first practitioners.
However, for Adrien Péladen it was a choice of career that ended in disaster, for at the age of 41 he died of strychnine poisoning, the result of a massive overdose, erroneously prepared by a German pharmacist. Joséphin Péladan was so embittered by this that he condemned the man in no uncertain terms in the dedication to Curieuse, his second novel, published shortly afterwards.
“A mon frère et à mon maitre le docteur Adrien Péladan Fils, empoisoné le 29 septembre 1885 par le pharmacien Wilmar Schwabe, de Leipzig, qui lui avait envoyé au lieu de la troisième décimale demandée, une première de strychnine, c’est-á-dire la mort de 1250 personnes. (To my brother and teacher, Dr Adrien Peladan Jnr, poisoned on 29th September 1885 by the pharmacist Wilmar Schwabe of Leipzig, who instead of the thousandth part of strychnine ordered, sent him a tenth; enough to kill 1250 people.)
But Péladan’s bitterness went deeper than personal resentment or brotherly grief. He could never forgive the Germans for being the cradle of Protestantism, that he saw as “Deformation” rather than Reformation, or the ‘lavatorial ideas’ of philosophers such as Hegel. So it was tempting to flirt with ideas such as religiously or politically motivated assassination. Indeed Stanislas de Guaita had to ask him to be more cautious in their correspondence. The Franco-Prussian war might have been over for fifteen years but Prussian power was still to be feared in occupied areas such as Lorraine.
Oddly enough, after the success of Le Vice suprême, Joséphin found his novels (and there were eventually twenty one of them in La Décadence latine series) to be highly popular in German translation, and thus in the bizarre situation of detesting a large section of his readers. The main target of his satire had always been ‘Latin thought’.
“Anti-psychism has become the very character of Latin thought,” says the hero mage Merodack, “they violate concepts inversely. The mystics of our time are perverse; the believers superstitious; the virtuous inert. They laugh at the real presence in the Eucharist but believe in that of spirits in tables. They pass from the divine right of the king to the divine right of the people. From the injustice of the aristocracy to the ignominious aristocracy of the stock market.”
However he found no great conflict between occult speculation and religious belief. As we have seen, the Catholic authorities took a somewhat relaxed, if distant, attitude to Eliphas Levi’s works on magic.
So Joséphin Péladan was not opposed to the esoteric per se. He simply saw it as having its proper place within established religion rather than outside it. After all there can well be a small divide between the doctrine of the communion of saints and the imaginal contacts of the occult aspirant with tested and trusted inner contacts.
Thus he found no difficulty in co-founding , with Stanislas de Guaita, and later Papus and his friends, l’Ordre Kabbalistique de la Rose-Croix (the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose Cross). Although as he observed prominently at the beginning of his 1892 book Comment on Devient Mage (How to Become a Magus): “I believe and proclaim that the Roman Catholic and apostolic church is the True one. I profess to be its son and devote my mind and my heart to it. I recognise the infallibility of the Pope when he pronounces upon dogma “Ex cathedra” and “Urbi et Orbi”. That my conscience and my knowledge embrace no heterodoxy, I am ready to burn my work with my own hands should the infallible Peter judge it to be wrong or untimely.”
And in a Foreword addressed to “A Contemporary Young Man” he writes: “Before 1891 Magic was absent from French culture: I have brought light and glory to it, not by risky and dangerous pacts, but in a form of art that does not engage the sacred science in possible mistakes.”
Whatever the truth of this, the problem the others found with Joséphin Péladan was his tendency to make public pronouncements off his own bat without feeling the need to consult them on the matter. Thus in May 1890 he embarrassed everyone with a high handed condemnation of an important socialite Mme. Salomon de Rothschild who had recently purchased a property containing a chapel and small building associated with the writer Balzac and demolished them. His Rosicrucian Excommunication de la femme Rothschild commences: “For these crimes, We declare this woman infamous, and those who bear her name unless they publicly disavow her actions, and forbid others to receive her or even to greet her, and if she enter a church, a library, a museum, or concert have the right to expel her, and that any artist that works for her be regarded a renegade – in the name of all religions and arts, the decision of the Rose Cross.”
Naturally neither Papus nor Stanislas de Guaita could remain indifferent to this. Papus particularly because he relied to an increasing extent on attracting and influencing ‘big names’ in his general esoteric mission.
Similarly Péladan sent a letter to the Archbishop of Paris protesting about the move to allow bull fighting in the city as a tourist attraction. Although his protest was not so much on account of cruelty to animals but the moral degradation of women who went to watch it, on the grounds that they went in search of a sexual thrill from the spectacle.
However, he felt strongly enough in June 1890 to approach his fellow members of the Supreme Council of the Kabbalistic Order of the Rose Cross to express some of his concerns. He confirmed his commitment to a Hermetic philosophy but, despite the largely Protestant stance of the 16/17th century Rosicrucian manifestoes, sought to concentrate upon Catholic tradition and the expression of the spiritual in the arts.
All of which led him to break away publicly early next year, proclaiming himself Grand Maïtre et Hiérarque suprême du Tiers Ordre de la Rose Croix Catholique (Grand Master and Supreme Hierarch of the Third Order of the Catholic Rose Cross) and commitment to a new organisation La Rose Croix du Temple at du Graal (the Rose Cross of the Temple and the Graal).
By now the others felt things had gone far enough and publicly proclaimed that a resigned member of their Council, Mr Joséphin Péledan, had founded a schismatic sect of which he proclaimed himself Grand Master and Arch Mage, claiming instransigent ultramontanist principles, obedience to the Holy See etc., that was diametrically opposed to those principles ever professed by the illuminated brothers of the Rose Cross.
This might have been regarded in other places and at other times as no more than the rustling in a couple of obscure esoteric dovecots, but national attention came when, under the headline “The War of the Roses”, Le Figaro took up the story of this dispute between two high handed esoteric brotherhoods with ridiculous assumptions of their own importance,
It is something of an irony that the placing of l’Initiation on the Papal Index came after this turmoil and had little to do with it, coming almost by accident on account of some articles on Gnosticism which for some reason the Church deemed a greater threat to faith and morals than magic and psychism. Gnosticism would begin to attract the attention of Papus and his friends a little further down the line.
However Péladan’s initiative developed a wider and healthier public image with a series of expositions of “Symbolist” art. The term has since tended to be taken over to mean the work of Gauguin and his associates, but it originally signified the use of evocative symbols in art. The most famous examples that may come to mind are probably the highly evocative pictures such as Semele and Zeus, or Salome and the head of John the Baptist – by Gustave Moreau (1826-98) – whom Péladan had earlier supported in his art journalism.
From 1892 to 1897 a series of ‘Salons de la Rose Croix’ appeared annually in various locations with varying degrees of success, featuring avant garde music by Erik Satie, sculpture, poetry readings and dramatic and operatic performances, some written by Péladan himself. Gradually they petered out, Péladan not even bothering to turn up to the last two, as he and they slipped from memory, until he died, by now an almost forgotten figure, in 1918.
Nonetheless there remains a society devoted to his memory, although his work has never, so far as I can discover, ever appeared in English. At his best, a combination of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw in my estimation, with a facility to shock and amuse and wonder how far to take seriously. And I find works of art in the Moreau tradition, which includes a number of Belgian artists verging toward surrealism, usually worth seeking out.
It is possible we have not heard the last of any of these characters.