Demonizing esotericism: The treatment of spirituality and popular culture in the works of Gustav Meyrink
This study reintroduces the early-twentieth-century Austrian author Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) and situates his literary oeuvre at the intersection of literature, religion, and popular culture. This once widely popular satirist, fantasist, and occultist, most commonly remembered for his best-selling novel Der Golem (1915), has received only limited attention from the scholarly community in recent decades. But Meyrink's philosophical essays demonstrate contemplative interaction with questions of spirituality in the scientific and industrial age worthy of further consideration, and these topics, although obscured, are also manifest in his fiction.
A practicing occultist highly revered for his esoteric knowledge, Meyrink recognizes the turn-of-the-century occult revival as a justifiable reaction to religious concerns generated by the crisis of modernity, as well as an integral element of European popular culture. In implementing his vast knowledge of esotericism, Meyrink purposefully manipulates occult material in his fantastic works with the result that he effectively demonized certain spiritual notions otherwise deemed essential to attaining spiritual enlightenment. Disenchanted with what he perceives to be the trivialization of occultism initiated by the melding of this brand of spirituality and popular culture, Meyrink's fiction demonizes esotericism by shrouding occultists and their rituals in negative, demonic, and monstrous imagery. In so doing, Meyrink depicts the serious ramifications of unsound and ill-fated occultist practices. Meyrink wishes to send his readers a spiritual message cautioning them against falling victim to erroneous teachings and fraudulent spiritual guides during a time when these risks rapidly increased due to the growing popularity of occultism in Europe. Yet, despite their obvious criticisms of popular occultism, Meyrink's works also promote the benefits of esotericism in the modern era. In a display of the tensions inherent in cultural modernism, Meyrink's seemingly regressive representation of esotericism is actually an attempt to showcase religious currents as progressive belief systems better suited to serve the needs of a scientifically and technologically advanced society.