Occult Spiritualism in a Positivist Age: Modernist Reanimations

Research Seminar by Dr Michael Subialka (University of California).

Abstract: Occult thinkers in the nineteenth century envisioned a spirit world bridging material reality with the beyond – unknowable in its essence and yet seemingly available to our experience, as well. My talk examines how modernist writers and thinkers reactivate that nineteenth-century occultism as a way of combatting what they perceive as the deadening effects of modernity. A wide field of texts shows how spiritualism functions in tandem with modernist aesthetics to offer an alternative to modern materialism: from Luigi Capuana’s “A Vampire,” linking positivist science to occult spiritualism, to Luigi Pirandello’s spectral theory of characters, drawing on spiritual notions from Theosophy; from Grazia Deledda’s haunted stories of Sardinian folk culture to early film representations of the occult in silent cinema. Likewise, this way of joining modernist aesthetics with forms of spiritual occultism represents a key link between Italian modernism and its contemporary European counterparts, such as the “magical” art of Surrealism, or even TS Eliot’s ambivalent interest in the occult. For artists seeking to overcome a seemingly dead or deadening experience of modernity, the ideals of spiritualism offered a tantalizing (perhaps unrealizable) promise.

Respondent: Dr Alessio Baldini (Italian, LCS, University of Leeds) 

Location: Seminar room 1, Leeds Humanities Research Institute