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... a short attempt to describe what I'm all about ...

As long as I can remember I have been an avid reader. Books for me are travel vehicles that allow me to visit other times and places, imaginary or real, and with my publications I hope to introduce my readers to new and unfamiliar worlds and ideas. The most consistent red thread that runs through my life and work is a deep curiosity for neglected or rejected ideas, traditions, and dimensions of reality - anything that others are not looking at or are not taking seriously - and a conviction that precisely what tends to be overlooked by mainstream society and culture is most likely to expand our perspectives, stimulate our creativity, and enrich our understanding.

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Strange as it might seem at first sight, for a scholar in the humanities, it actually fits this pattern that as a teenager I joined the Dutch Mycological Society and became a devoted collector of mushrooms. I found myself instinctively attracted to those twilight realms of the natural world that tend to be overlooked by biologists concerned with daytime creatures such as animals and plants... But while I enjoyed their fairy-tale aura of mystery and magic, studying mushrooms in fact gave me an early training in empirical research, attention to detail, and systematic scientific thinking from which I have profited ever since. As the topics taught at school held little interest for me, I learned to play classical guitar and went on to study music at the conservatory of Zwolle, only to discover that I was ultimately less interested in the practical aspects of musical performance than in thinking and learning about music and other forms of culture. In 1986 I decided to follow these interests by embarking on a second course of study next to finishing conservatory. I enrolled in a new program for cultural and intellectual history at the University of Utrecht ("Algemene Letteren"), where unheard-of new worlds of learning opened up to me and I discovered a calling for research and writing. Focusing on German culture, I enjoyed writing papers about great figures of German modernity such as the composers Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, and Hanns Eisler; philosophers such as Ernst Bloch, Ludwig Klages, and Christian von Ehrensfels; or writers and poets such as Thomas Mann or Rainer Maria Rilke. But most of all, I was wondering what it was that all these interests of mine had in common.

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Will-Erich Peuckert

Two books that I discovered by chance during my forays through the Utrecht university library proved decisive in that regard. Will-Erich Peuckert's classic study Pansophie (2nd ed. 1956) introduced me to early modern traditions and thinkers such as Marsilio Ficino, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Paracelsus, and Jacob Böhme - and I just couldn't understand why none of my professors seemed to know (or want to know) anything about these fascinating, profound, and evidently important figures or the mental worlds they inhabited. Why was it that these thinkers were not taken seriously? Why were they neglected or even rejected? Why had I never heard about them at school? A Dutch collective volume seemed to answer these questions, as it claimed that there were three basic components to Western culture: the dominant traditions of reason (rational philosophy, science) and of faith (monotheist religion) plus a neglected one referred to as gnosis. The "faith" component I knew quite well from my upbringing as the son of a Protestant minister, and an emphasis on "reason" was evidently central to mainstream society and its educational institutions. But almost everything that truly attracted me (in music, literature, art, or philosophy) hardly seemed to fit into those dominant categories. After all, these traditions and thinkers had little to do with the normative doctrines of official theology or strict rationalism. So I naturally asked myself "could it be that they belonged to this 'third component' of gnosis?"

This question set me on a road that would finally lead towards the study of religion. At the beginning I still tried to answer it from a theoretical and systematic perspective: in my MA thesis I made a first attempt to explore the relation between "gnosis" and art, but discovered that such an approach resulted in clean but artificial schematics that might be congenial to "reason" but could not do justice to the messy human complexity of the texts and traditions that I was busy discovering and trying to understand. This is how I evolved from a philosophical to a historical perspective. Ever since, I have been fascinated by the implications of historicity, temporality, and contingency for how we understand the world. 

Four scholars became very important to me in this quest. The historian of gnosticism and hermetism Roelof van den Broek, a professor at the University of Utrecht, became my early model example of solid historiography and philological expertise in the study of religion. The scholar of comparative religion Jan Platvoet, who was teaching at the Catholic Theological University in Utrecht, taught me the basics of an empirical methodology grounded in methodological agnosticism. My third chief influence I never met in person: in Chaim Potok's wonderful novel The Book of Lights (itself a formative influence at that time) I read about the ideal professor of Jewish mysticism Jacob Keter, and discovered that his real-life model was Gershom Scholem. Identifying very much with Keter's pupil Gershon Loran in the book, I decided that like him I would love to devote my life to learning about that mysterious realm of forgotten traditions that mainstream academia seemed to ignore. So this is how my curiosity about "gnosis" led me to to expand from an initial focus on music and literature towards the history of "rejected knowledge" from antiquity to the present, very much including those early modern figures and traditions that Peuckert had been writing about. Finally, I discovered that a French scholar at the Sorbonne, Antoine Faivre, had written learned studies and overviews of this domain as a whole and was referring to it as l'ésotérisme occidental, "Western esotericism." So that is the label I adopted for the field of research that I was beginning to explore. 

Will-'Erich Peuckert

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Inevitably, my curiosity about these forgotten traditions and ideas brought me to bookshops that specialized in "esotericism," where I found that most of the titles were not about the older Western traditions that had originally caught my interest, but about modern and contemporary phenomena such as eastern philosophy, spiritual healing, trance channeling, quantum mysticism, or the aquarian age. Partly for pragmatic reasons (even at that time it was not easy to get funding), I decided to write my PhD about this New Age movement, but to do so from a historical perspective that would allow me to explore its roots and origins. I defended my dissertation at the end of 1995; and since at that time there was a lot of public interest in the New Age, I got interviewed by almost every major or minor newspaper or journal in the country. I was fortunate that my New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought got published quickly and easily, first by Brill in 1996, then by SUNY Press in 1998. I wanted to show that these popular and commercial New Age movements were modernised and "secularised" transformations of esoteric traditions that could be traced back as far as antiquity; and against the dominant academic opinion that the New Age was just a social phenomenon full of nonsensical ideas undeserving of serious attention, I insisted on analysing those ideas in depth and placing them in a historical context. I was also very active editing several collective volumes in the study of religion and esotericism: Female Stereotypes in Religious Traditions (Brill 1995, with my promotor Ria Kloppenborg), Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times (SUNY Press 1998, with Roelof van den Broek, seated on the right in the photo above, next to Gilles Quispel, who had come up with the reason-faith-gnosis typology but whose Jungian approach was very different from mine), and Western Esotericism and the Science of Religion (Peeters 1998, with Antoine Faivre).

Antoine Faivre and I had been friends since 1992, when we met at a conference in Lyon. After finishing my dissertation I got a postdoc scholarship at the University of Utrecht that allowed me to spend a year and a half (1996-1998) in Paris, and soon Antoine and I were collaborating closely to get the study of Western esotericism recognised and established as a new field of research in the study of religions. We were networking, organising conferences and conferences panels (notably in the context of the International Association for the History of Religion since 1995), editing collective volumes, promoting the French journal ARIES, and writing articles, not only about various historical aspects of the field but also about questions of method and theory. This was of crucial importance because in the absence of any academic programs anywhere, there simply were no generally recognised criteria or standards of excellence in the study of Western esotericism. Antoine and I were arguing that to professionalize the field, it had to be approached first of all from a perspective of solid historiography focused on empirical "bottom-up" study of its primary sources.

Then, in 1997, the miracle happened. Independently of our activities (of which she had been unaware), a Dutch businesswoman, Rosalie Basten, announced her intention to create an academic chair at the University of Amsterdam devoted to "History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents." It was to consist of one full and two associated professors, two PhD students and secretarial staff. Of course I applied for this dream position, and I will never forget the day I received the phone call that informed me I had been selected for the job. I started on the 1st of September 1999 and could right away start filling in the other positions. Our first associate professor for esotericism in the early modern period was Jean-Pierre Brach, succeeded a few years later by Kocku von Stuckrad, who was succeeded in turn by Peter J. Forshaw. For esotericism in the modern and contemporary period we appointed Olav Hammer, who was later succeeded by Marco Pasi. The first years of our program were very intense, with many personal meetings among scholars in the field. Literally everything was new and had to be created from scratch. That Western Esotericism was riding a wave in these years was shown by the fact that a second academic program started at the University of Exeter just a few years after ours, directed by Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke (but sadly discontinued after his premature death in 2010).

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Jean-Pierre Brach, Hans van der Meij, Roelof van den Broek, WJH

Jean-Pierre Laurant, WJH, Antoine Faivre, Nicholas & Clare Goodrick-Clarke

At some moment towards the end of the 1990s, Hans van der Meij (senior editor for religious studies at Brill academic publishers), who had also solicited my dissertation for Brill, approached me with the idea of publishing a large encyclopaedic state-of-the-art overview of our field of study. After more than five years of very hard work, it was published in 2005 as Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (the DGWE, edited by me in intense collaboration with Antoine Faivre, Roelof van den Broek, and Jean-Pierre Brach). 1228 pages long, with more than 120 collaborators, we though of it as the flagship publication for all aspects of "Gnosis and Western Esotericism". Needless to say though, the field would keep developing rapidly over the following years, and nowadays we would conceive of it in somewhat different and no doubt even more comprehensive terms. Brill played a very important role in the professionalisation of Western esotericism research during those years. It was also thanks to Hans van der Meij that the small French journal ARIES (an acronym of the Association pour la Recherche et l'Information sur l'Ésotérisme), edited by Faivre and Roland Edighoffer, was re-launched since 2001 as a new peer-review publication: Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism. I served as editor-in-chief for its first ten years, when Peter Forshaw took over; after another ten years, Peter recently handed the job over to one of our former PhD students, Egil Asprem. In addition I was also responsible for an associated monograph series, the "Aries Book Series" (ABS, also Brill), which started in 2006 and is nowadays edited by Marco Pasi. Editing had definitely become a very large part of my everyday work in these years, with simultaneous labour on the DGWEAries, the ABS, plus the German-language section for the 948-page Festschrift for Antoine Faivre (Ésotérisme, gnoses & imaginaire symbolique: Mélanges offerts à Antoine Faivre, Peeters 2001).

Still during my stay in Paris, one evening in 1997 Antoine Faivre had lent me a rare book from his personal collection: a digest of Hermetic writings edited by Gabriel du Preau published in 1549, which included a strange text titled "Le basin d'Hermes" by a certain "Loys Lazarel," Lodovico Lazzarelli. The 16th-century French was not easy to decipher, but what I read somehow fascinated me and captured my imagination. During a short trip to Amsterdam just a few weeks later, at the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica, quite by chance I met a specialist of neo-latin, Ruud M. Bouthoorn, who happened to be working on Dutch translations of the very same author! We decided to collaborate on an annotated English edition and translation of Lazzarelli's writings, and those of his "spiritual master" Giovanni da Correggio, to which I ended up writing a 100-page introduction. Like our Dictionary, the book came out in 2005, under the title Lodovico Lazzarelli (1447-1500): The Hermetic Writings and Related Documents (Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies 2005). Lazzarelli turned out to be a brilliant but almost wholly forgotten author, and his work completely changed my perspective on the traditions to which Peuckert had first introduced me, and which Frances A. Yates (in her famous books of the 1960s and 1970s) had referred to as "the Hermetic Tradition of the Renaissance." 

Still in my annus mirabilis 2005, during a meeting at Rosalie Basten's residence in southern France, it was decided to create a new scholarly organisation: the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE). I served as its President for the first two terms, when I could hand over the position to Andreas Kilcher. The ESSWE quickly developed into a vibrant network, bringing together students and scholars at all career stages, and generating a whole series of smaller networks focused on specific periods or themes. Large biannual conferences were organized in 2007 (Tübingen), 2009 (Strasbourg), 2011 (Szeged), 2013 (Gothenburg), 2015 (Riga), 2017 (Erfurt), and 2019 (Amsterdam). 

Combined with teaching, all these editorial, organisational and management activities took so much time and energy that for a long period during this century's first decade, I only managed to publish articles and book chapters but could not find the focus and concentration needed for larger projects such as monographs. However, early during that period, the American Swedenborg Foundation had approached me with the request for a major introduction to their "New Century Edition" of Swedenborg's largest work, the Arcana Coelestia ("Secrets of Heaven"). I did not actually know much about the Swedish visionary, but was aware of his importance, so this seemed a good occasion to study his work in depth. It turned out to be a good decision. Because eventually my introduction proved too long for the first volume, it got published as a small separate book about Swedenborg and his early reception in 18th-century Germany: Swedenborg, Oetinger, Kant: Three Perspectives on the Secrets of Heaven (West Chester 2007).

Summer University "Gnosis and Hermeticism", Amsterdam 1994.

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Esalen 2004

Standing left to right: Garry W. Trompf, Peter Kingsley, Gregory Shaw, Kocku von Stuckrad, Jeff Kripal, Olav Hammer, check, Elliot Wolfson, George Luck, Robert Fortes, Helmut Zander, Dan Merkur, Arthur Versluis. Setting left to right: Brendan French, WJH, Mike Murphy, Don Hanlon Johnson, Claire Fanger, Frank Poletti, Antoine Faivre, Michael J.B. Allen, Gordon Wheeler.

In 2003 I was invited to a conference at the famous Esalen centre in Big Sur, California. Here I made the acquaintance of Jeff Kripal, Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, Houston; and the founder of Esalen Mike Murphy proved to be so interested in the new study of Western esotericism that he made it possible for us to organise a series of four successive conference at Esalen from 2004 to 2007. These were easily among the best and most inspiring academic meetings I have attended, due to the combination of a very high level of invited scholars (it is hard to say "no" to Esalen) and a unique, intimate setting for intense discussion in Esalen's "Big House" at the edge of the Pacific. Out of one of those conferences came a large collective volume that I edited together with Jeff Kripal, Hidden Intercourse: Eros and Sexuality in the History of Western Esotericism (Brill 2008/ Fordham University Press 2011).

As the decade continued and my experience with the study of Western esotericism matured, I began to feel a need to formulate my ideas about them in some kind of synthesis. I had been studying these traditions for more than two decades and could no longer doubt their enormous complexity and historical importance. Why was it that all this fascinating material had been marginalised by academia, rejected and discredited as unworthy of attention, or ridiculed as irrational nonsense? This had in fact been my original question, and I finally tried to answer it in a large monograph published in 2012: Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge University Press). Few reviewers seem to have noticed that its true topic is not really esotericism but "Western Culture" - which (as I argue) has defined and keeps defining its very identity by means of rejecting its reified "others," demonising them under such pejorative labels as "magic," "the occult," "irrationality," or "superstition." If our perception of these traditions is deeply misleading and incorrect, a product of simple ignorance, while the way in which Western culture understands itself is based on rejecting false stereotypes, this means that we must re-invent ourselves from scratch. In my current work, this larger agenda has moved increasingly to centre stage. Once I had clarified by own thinking about esotericism as "rejected knowledge," it proved relatively easy to write a follow-up volume for the general market: this one came out a year later, as Western Esotericism: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury 2013).

In 2019, our Amsterdam centre for History of Hermetic Philosophy and Related Currents (HHP) celebrated its 20-year anniversary, coinciding with the 7th biannual conference of the ESSWE. At the 10-year anniversary we had already published a modest memorial volume: Hermes in the Academy (Amsterdam University Press 2009, edited together with Joyce Pijnenburg). We now brought out a larger volume designed to address various stereotypes and misconceptions about the field: Hermes Explains (Amsterdam University Press 2019, edited together with Peter J. Forshaw and Marco Pasi). This anniversary-cum-conference felt like the completion of a twenty-year cycle, and the opening of a new one. Over the course of the years, I have come to be more and more interested in consciousness and alterations of consciousness, as I believe they are central to what revealed or salvational "knowledge" (gnosis) means in the context of Western esotericism; so this focus will play a key role in my upcoming monograph Hermetic Spirituality and the Historical Imagination: Altered States of Knowledge in Late Antiquity (Cambridge University Press 2022).

In recent years I have become concerned more and more deeply about (for lack of a less dramatic formulation) the future of Western culture. I grew up and reached maturity at a time when most academics took the progress of civilisation for granted; and while working to establish a new field of research, I never doubted that the Humanities in which I had been trained would always be there to provide a wider intellectual context. In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 and the political turmoil of recent years, I have begun to doubt these assumptions. The culture I used to take for granted and all the values on which it was based are in rapid decline, and it is entirely possible that the Humanities will either not survive at all or will be mutated beyond recognition. It is against this background that I hope to write a book for the general market about Western culture. The central argument will be that if we truly take seriously everything that used to be marginalised or discredited as not "truly" part of Western culture, the result must be a completely new and much more truthful narrative about what the history of that culture I care about is (or should be) all about.  

 

Finally, I find myself returning more and more often to my initial fascination with the arts, especially literature and music. A while ago it dawned on me that among the countless texts that fall within my domain of scholarly interest, those that impress me most always have some kind of intrinsic poetic qualities - "poetic" being used here in a wide and comprehensive sense that includes all forms of artistic expression. Poeticity may ultimately be at the centre of my life-long fascination for what the Germans call das Andere der Vernunft.

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