Alchemist of the avant-garde : the case of Marcel Duchamp by Duchamp, Marcel; Moffitt, John Francis; Duchamp, Marcel

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I have perhaps taken an unusual tack here by defining Lévi’s importance for the central figures of the evolving Symbolist aesthetic, itself essential for early twentieth-century artistic abstraction, Duchamp’s included. But what was Lévi’s significance for the history of Occultism itself? For Christopher McIntosh, the answer is perfectly clear. It is this: Lévi helped to change the popular concept of magic. Whereas magic had hitherto been regarded by most people as a means of manipulating the forces of nature and by many as a dangerous superstition, Lévi presented it as a way of drawing the will through certain channels and turning the magician into a more fully realized human being.

As Lévi shows, this notion was as common in midnineteenth-century mainstream Occultism as it was to be three decades later in Symbolist literary theory. Lévi explains, “I speak of the Imagination, which the Kabbalists term the DIAPHANE or TRANSLUCIDE. Imagination, in effect, is like the soul’s eye; therein forms are outlined and preserved; thereby we behold the reflections of the Invisible World. It is the glass of visions and the apparatus of magical life . . 50 This proto-Übermensch is the ecstatic genius dominated by his imagination, and this faculty makes him a prophetic seer.

The ancient people behaved differently. 33 We shall see that European esotericists believe that the so-called ancient people were sensitives, clairvoyants, which moderns clearly are not— unless they are avant-garde artists. Although little discussed as such, this invidious comparison, one monotonously drawn even today between precivilized, superior, cosmic consciousness and modern, inferior materialism, is ubiquitous. Long after the popular demise of Swedenborgism, the same belief in the intellectual and ethical superiority of vaguely stated ancient doctrines becomes an essential component of primitivism.

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