The Theosophical Forum July 1938

THE OCCULT NOVELS OF BULWER-LYTTON H. T. Edge

These novels, especially Zanoni, are quoted by H. P. Blavatsky as expressing in beautiful and dramatic form the teachings which she herself was expounding; and this fact alone will be for Theosophists a testimonial to their merits, if such be wanted. But Theosophists of today probably do not realize how much Bulwer-Lytton's books meant to some Theosophists whose experience, like that of the present writer, dates back more than half a century, to a time when occult books were few and far between, and the atmosphere of satisfied scientific materialism reigned more unchallenged than it does today. Zanoni and Mejnour lived in the mind as almost solid realities, and the sublime passages in which their thoughts were expressed dwelt in memory as a daily companion.

To the conventional critic of some literary cyclopaedia these novels will be classed among the author's vagaries; and his microscope will be focussed on what to him will seem faults of construction and wanderings of an unruly fancy. Though we intend to confine ourselves mainly to the particular works in question, we can hardly criticize them without at the same time criticizing the author's novels in general. Let it be our first duty to protest against attempts to measure a genius with calipers; to dissect a grand living whole until all reality and significance is lost in a confusion of meaningless details; to censure an author for failing to do that which he never attempted to do; to overlook his purpose while concentrating only on the means by which he has achieved it. It can scarcely be doubted that so competent and versatile a writer as Bulwer-Lytton could easily, had he so desired, have written things that would fully satisfy the demands of conventional literary criticism; and it is also just possible that he had other aims that seemed to him more worthy of his powers.

Those endowed with the sympathetic faculty of recognising greatness can see in the author a man of lofty imagination, imagination in the true sense, the imagination that lifts us to the heights of vision and insight; a man of rich and teeming nature, full of human sympathy, of vast experience of life, of wide culture and tireless industry a genius in short. The writings of such a man are outpourings from a full heart; they come in no ruled and ordered array; they ride roughshod over the laws of formal logic; they come like flashes of many-colored light. Such is not only the way in which genius communicates its message, but such is also the way in which that message is received; for our lives are not ruled by formal logic. The human heart and mind is a phantasmagoria of changing scenes, thoughts and emotions chasing each other helter-skelter in a way which the prim brain-mind would consider very disorderly, but which obey a superior principle of order, beyond the capacity of that brain-mind to measure; and which consequently achieve the effect intended. The Hebraic Solomon, of mighty experience in life, pours forth his teeming heart in a succession of vivid pictures, now rising to the heights of faith and hope, now sinking to the depths of despair; and his songs find their echo in ordinary human hearts who find their own joys and sorrows so faithfully reflected. The finest poem may present a series of images that are inconsistent with each other if measured by rule and compass; but if we can drop the mathematical instruments we may perchance glimpse the total effect.

So it is easy enough to convict our author of looseness in construction, of discursiveness, of long digressions, sermonizing the reader, and many other such alleged faults. But be it understood that we are not satisfied with saying that he achieved his purpose in spite of these faults; for we think it nearer the truth to say that he achieved his purpose because of these (alleged) faults. In Poe's poems we often feel how his genius was cramped by his elaborate theories of construction; and in many of Stevenson's works we realize that plain ordinary language would have suited the occasion better than the unusual words and over-choice phrasing which he so often employs. The Strange Adventure of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde may be full of inconsistencies and faulty analysis of the human constitution; but would it have been half so vivid and telling if the author had allowed his brain-mind to get to work on his vision instead of taking the advice of his wife to leave the vision as it was? Was Katherine Tingley's Aroma of Athens full of anachronisms and all sorts of features which the critics would condemn as faults? Likely enough, but little they care who were privileged to drink into their souls, to incorporate into their lives, the wondrous magic that was evoked not in spite of, but (we insist) because of these alleged faults. And so, if Zanoni had been constructed by Act of Parliament it would scarcely have outlived the brief day in which it was first published, and we should not now be reading it for the hundredth time without a hint of satiety.

What may perhaps be considered another hall-mark of genius is the fact that Bulwer-Lytton was mercilessly attacked by the established powers for a bad influence on morals the exact opposite of his intent, the exact opposite of the effect he actually produced. In his Word to the Public, published after the attacks on his Lucretia, or Children of the Night, he appeals to the public and to people of real intelligence, against these pygmies in high places.

As to the source of his truly wonderful portrayal of occult mysteries, we have always to bear in mind that every man has innate within him the faculties which can bring him into direct contact with the unseen. Next, he was a man of great erudition and untiring industry, born into circumstances which gave him command of ample literary resources. One is tempted to surmise that the author's own personal experience of trial on the path must have had something to do with the matter; but in the absence of anything sufficiently definite on this subject, we must let it pass.

"Zanoni"

It will not be necessary to load our pages with extracts from books that are well known and easily accessible. In Zanoni it strikes us at once that there are only two adepts (ultimately only one) in the whole wide world, a world so multitudinous and varied in all its other denizens. We have no hierarchies, no orders, no degrees. This is indeed an anomaly, but serves its purpose in concentrating attention on the picture to be presented; to have attempted to cover too much ground would have shallowed and faded the result. Also, we are at liberty to take Zanoni as a type; though here again it might be objected that his association with such historical realities as Robespierre and the guillotine militates against this. But our previous remarks about consistency and inconsistency will save the situation here. We have in this work a number of different lessons shown in a vivid light. And what adepts they are! Mejnour has been described by H. P. Blavatsky herself as resembling a desiccated pansy between the leaves of a book of solemn poetry. Zanoni, it is true, is a sublime figure; yet his lonely isolation offers no enviable prospect, and is used in the story as a contrast to the healthy life of human love and companionship to which he eventually either attains or succumbs. Again, he has prolonged the exuberant vigor of youth by quaffing the elixir; which seems to make a sensualist, though a refined one, out of him.

Then there is the affair of his love match: it must be realized by the student of Occultism that Zanoni, in order to win the glorious heights to which he is represented as having attained in order to have overcome the dread guardian of the threshold must once and for all have put himself beyond the possibility of falling prey to the particular temptations to which he yielded. This is not to underrate the power and holiness of a pure earthly personal love; but, however great and holy such a sentiment may be, it is still mortal, still earthy, and Zanoni has risen above all mortality and earthiness. Nay, does he not by his yielding lose the power of invoking the glorious Adonai, and find that his call is answered only by the dread specter? It would seem that, whatever initiation he may have passed, it was incomplete: there seems about him that which brings to mind the Pratyeka-Buddha, who enjoys bliss at the cost of severing himself from his kind. If so, then we may welcome the sacrifice which Zanoni makes, and see in it the willing sacrifice of the true Buddha, who forsakes his bliss in order to follow the dictates of his Heart. This is surely the lesson the author intends at this point.

The contrast between the loneliness of head-learning the Eye Doctrine and Heart-Wisdom is a favorite theme with Bulwer-Lytton, and often takes the form of a pre-occupied self-satisfied intellectual introvert, who falls prey to the attractions of a simple girl who is an incarnation of the qualities of the heart. We shall find this theme in the Strange Story, illustrated by the love of Fenwick and Lilian. We see it here again in Glyndon, oscillating between the lures of head and heart, too young to know what he wants and rashly plunging into everything to find out by the test of bitter experience.

In the experiences of Glyndon we have a most dramatic portrayal of what awaits him who through rash ambition forces himself into realms for which he is all unprepared. It may seem to some that the adepts unduly lured the aspirant to his doom; but, as explained to him by Zanoni, it was the demand of Glyndon's own impetuous desire that prompted him to make a call such as no Master has the right to refuse. The Master may warn and point out the dangers, and if the call comes from the passions alone, he may refuse; but if he discerns a spark of genuine aspiration, he may not spurn it. Thus Glyndon goes through the fires of purification, due to the admixture of unworthy motives; and success awaits him in the future. In this drama we have an actual fluid elixir, and other physical means, employed by the two Adepts; and while it may suit some to regard these as merely symbolical, yet we must remember that analogy runs throughout nature. That actual fluid elixirs exist and are used cannot be denied, unless we are prepared to reject evidence as strong as what in other cases we are ready to accept. It may be that Adepts of a high order do not require, or do not resort to, such physical means; yet physical means are not in themselves to be despised. It is only when the physical replaces the spiritual that the opprobrium of black magic is applicable; to the pure all things are pure, and there seems no reason why a Master of White Magic should not avail himself of the bounties of Nature on all her planes.

The Dweller on the Threshold has passed into language: it is the great Lord of the Underworld, the ruler of the lower kingdom, the Satan that tempted the Christ with all the riches of earth. It lurks in the recesses of every human nature, harmless and beneficent so long as its power is not challenged; but once we make up our mind to scale the heights, we must either master it or succumb. Glyndon tears aside the veil while he is yet fresh from the fires of lust and filled with the pride of passion; and evokes the dread presence. Once summoned, it cannot be dismissed; and we learn how he goes forth from his trial, his blood tingling with quenchless desires to attain, but doomed to perpetual dissatisfaction. It is only when plunged in worldly pursuits that he is free from the presence; but let him for a moment aspire, even though it be in painting a picture, and the Dweller is by his side. Only one thing can lay it unselfish love; but it is his sister, not himself, who by her sacrifice of life for him, evinces this love.

Contrasted with the Rajah of the Senses we have the glorious Augoeides, the Shining Form, the Manasaputra in man; and perhaps we may see in Adonai (though not clearly distinguished from the other) that Atman which, shining in all men, is universal, and particular to none.

We cannot but feel that Zanoni ultimately chooses right in abandoning his glorious isolation at the dictates of his heart. When he took his first initiation, far away in the past, he must have left an important part of his belongings behind, and had to come back a long way to fetch it. The object of his love makes but a poor figure, considered from a worldly standpoint; but the real bride was veiled from sight behind the earthy vestures; and the marriage is consummated, as alone it could be, beyond the tomb in a region left vague, tenanted only by God and his angels and the souls of the blessed.

"A Strange Story"

In the Strange Story a different chord is struck; for instead of the romantic atmosphere of Zanoni, the setting is that of conventional upper-middle-class respectability. Not amid Italian moons and spouting volcanoes, not amid brigands and guillotines, does the occult manifest itself; it obtrudes itself upon the tea-table and flusters the prim old maid. At the very beginning we have a most important lesson: the effects of Karman, as concentrated by the curse of a dying man. The narrator and hero, thoughtless in his physical vigor and intellectual pride, so mercilessly attacks the beliefs of the poor old doctor who believes in hypnotism and consults clairvoyants, that he brings about his death from the poverty due to the ruin of his practice and the mortification attendant upon the loss of repute. The curse is fulfilled in detail throughout the book. It is by the very magic whose existence he has denied that Fenwick is thwarted in ambition, success, reputation, and love; and brought well-nigh to the scaffold. But note well: his fault was not due to want of heart but to wrongness of head and to heedlessness. The Karman is therefore restricted in its sphere of action, and he ultimately wins through. Those who tend toward a too narrow and rigid interpretation of Karman may find a difficulty in analysing the situation that arises from the curse of the dying man; but Karman acts on all planes, and all men are inextricably interwoven with each other; so that the problem of tracing the complications of this universal law is one of infinite difficulty. Here again we have Bulwer's favorite theme of the contrast between cold intellectualism and sympathy; and illustrated in his favorite way that of love between a man of intellectual pride and a woman who is all heart, a man with a complex and "logical" mind and a girl who sees with the intuitive eye of the heart. Those who have understood the teachings in The Secret Doctrine about the Divine Hermaphrodite will know that these two sides of human nature exist (or existed) in the so-called past as an undivided whole, which has become separated. May we not see did not the author see in these attractions between the two representative types of mortal beings, an attempt to recombine the sundered fragments of the soul; ending so often, in earthly life, in anticlimax, and to be realized only in that land far away where alone ideals are found? Leaving aside the personal mask, we see that, in the idyll of Fenwick and Lilian, a victory is achieved, whose full meaning pertains not to this muddy vesture of decay.

As in Zanoni, we note the isolation of the magician (in this case a black one) and the absence of anything like lodges and orders of adepts. But we may perhaps suppose these to be implied, while recognising that an artist is neither a photographer nor a map-maker, and that he necessarily and of intent eschews the vagueness of comprehension and of detail in order to present a vivid picture. We can hardly suppose that a novelist who should be scrupulously exact would be very interesting; so no fault can be found with this circumstance. Here however we have a new feature introduced in the contrast between the white magician, represented by Derval, and the hideous monstrosity Margrave; while the existence of a lodge is indicated by the fact that Derval is said to have obtained his wisdom and power from Oriental dervishes.

There can be nothing more graphic and at the same time accurate than the description of the three fires in the brain of the entranced Margrave, as seen by the also entranced Fenwick. The red fire of animal life; intertwining with it, the azure flame of the intellectual life; while sitting apart and enthroned is the silver spark of the essential spiritual being. Even for Theosophists, well-read as they may be in the teachings as to man's compound nature, this is well worth reading for the intense power with which the truths are brought before the eye and made real. And what could be more vivid than the portrayal of the loss of the soul; how, in the vision, the whole career of Margrave is compressed into an episode, which in the actual narrative spreads itself out in what we know as time. The red fire waxes lusty, and calling to its aid the azure flame, it wages war against the silver spark, until at last that spark, with many a tear and lamentation, forsakes its desecrated shrine, leaving that shrine to the devastation and destruction of the triumphant foe. We are reminded of Poe's "Haunted Palace," where the "Spirits moving musically to a lute's well tuned law," are replaced by "Vast forms that move fantastically to a discordant melody . . . and laugh, but smile no more." Ah, pity that Manasaputric light, for it has failed, and must slowly and patiently build itself a new shrine; yet in the realms wherein it dwells, perchance even sorrow is a melody sublime. Far more is our pity due to the doomed rebel, who, in his attempt to carry captive his own immortal Soul, has eternally cut himself off from that Soul the root of his existence. In Arabian tales some potentate builds himself a palace replete with all the riches that earth can furnish, and craves but one final boon a roc's egg to suspend within the dome. The egg is found and suspended: the whole fabric instantly vanishes in ruin and nameless dust. Such likewise was the fate of those who strove to pierce the vault of heaven with their tower, and thereby brought down the celestial fire to their utter destruction.

The whole mystery of the man who loses his soul unfolds gradually and is not made clear until we have reached the last chapter. Beginning as the headstrong Louis Grayle, he falls foul of his comrades and starts a career of selfish ambition. In the East, when stricken to death by the fatal scourge, he is rescued by a holy dervish who administers the elixir. He murders the dervish to obtain the elixir. Wakes up, not knowing who he is, whence he came. Believes himself to be the natural son of Louis Grayle, whom he but dimly remembers and about whom he strives to get information. Takes the name of Margrave. As Margrave he evinces a curious double consciousness, working evil spells in his astral body, and knowing nothing about it in his waking life. The evil genius guides his acts, yet in the waking state he is only dimly conscious of it. This is brought out in the scene where Fenwick casts him into a trance with the magic wand and compels the disclosure.

This book is so replete with details of magic lore, pointing to a very extensive research by the author, and filled in by his wonderful truth-seeing imagination, that we can only refer briefly to a few. Here again we have the elixir, as an actual fluid, and we have the magic wand, the circles with lamps burning a mystic spirit, the double triangle, and other appurtenances of ceremonial magic. In the hands of Margrave, these things may be considered orthodox; but Sir Philip uses some of them also.

Between the incredulous (or credulous) scientific skepticism of the unconverted Fenwick, and the occult truths brought out in this book, we have the ingenious brainy hair-splitting Faber, an intolerable old bore, whose theories are set up only to be knocked down; and whose discourses provide the reader with ample opportunity for skipping. Worthy of note is the utter contrast between the beautiful Margrave, whose radiant presence is a delight, and Stevenson's Hyde, who has an aura which gives everyone the horrors at first sight. But then Jekyll is also a detestable character, and the whole analysis is faulty which does not at all prevent the book from accomplishing its purpose.

"The Haunted and the Haunters"

The story called The Haunted and the Haunters: or the House and the Brain is most unfortunately nearly always found in its mutilated form, accompanied by a note which tells us that the author suppressed a part of it (when republished from its original form in Blackwood) for fear that it would interfere with the plot of his Strange Story. But the part suppressed is far and away the most important part. We are left with a very capital ghost story and with speculations that the phenomena are due to the distant workings of a black magician. But in the missing part the narrator actually meets this black magician. This being is unique; he is the only one of his kind in the whole world, so far as we can make out. And this is of course impossible. But again it is pertinent to say that the author's aim is to paint a vivid picture, unencumbered by unnecessary details and elaboration. For those who have not read this latter part of the tale, it may be well to summarize its purport. The man (whose portrait, it may be remembered, is found in the hidden room in the haunted house), is a being endowed with immense force of will and a natural power of concentration and attraction towards the occult. But he is wholly without conscience, and is a sensualist. By means of his mighty will, and the secrets he has discovered, he can defeat death and prolong his life indefinitely. From time to time he arranges an apparent death, schemes the transfer of his enormous wealth, and reappears in a new age and a new guise. He is identified with several distinct characters in history. He throws the narrator into a trance, wherein the narrator obtains the power of supreme clairvoyance and reads to the magician his future: how he will yet live to play a part that will fill the world with amaze; but how in the far distant future he will be hunted down by all humanity and will perish amid polar snows, his titanic will subdued at last.

Such a man might exist; such a man as I have described I now see before me Duke of ___, in the court of _____, dividing time between lust and brawl, alchemists and wizards; again, in the last century, charlatan and criminal, with name less noble, domiciled in the house at which you gazed today, and flying from the law you had outraged, none knew whither; traveler once more revisiting London with the same earthly passion which filled your heart when races now no more walked through yonder streets; outlaw from the school of all the nobler and diviner mysteries. Execrable image of life in death and death in life, I warn you back from the cities and homes of healthful men! back to the ruins of departed empires! back to the deserts of nature unredeemed!

This story is written with great power; it produced a great and lasting effect on the present writer, who first read it a few years before he heard of Theosophy. But it produced a weary conflict within him, because, the magician being so black, an antagonism arose between the ideals of power and knowledge on the one side and conscience on the other. This discord was happily resolved by the discovery that white magicians existed. If we wish to use this tale as a symbol, may we not say that such an evil entity as is here depicted forms a part of the make-up of most of us? On any theory which supposes that such elements of our compound nature can be isolated, and thus stand naked in all their good or evil qualities, as the case may be, we may contain within us such a being, seeking to master the possession of our instrument and tending towards the production of a Margrave or a Hyde.

The theory of hauntings propounded in this story represents the effects of a powerful mind, aided by application of occult means of a more or less physical nature, in vivifying the astral light, so that its preserved images of crime and misery clothe themselves in visible forms and enact mechanically a drama of events of the past. The struggle between the narrator and the overpowering evil will of the black magician is especially worthy of notice. Though every faculty of body and volition is crushed down, though he yields even to fear, yet he summons a courage that is above even that fear pride, he calls it rises to a plane whereon the sorcerer cannot act and conquers.


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