Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for March 1st, 2012

How I learned to love the Rosicrucians

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Why did I write a novel about the Rosicrucians? Mostly because they were available. The recent renaissance in conspiracy fiction has made it hard to find a secret society that hasn’t been done to death: Dan Brown alone has made it impossible to write about the Masons, the Priory of Sion, or the Illuminati—even if Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea hadn’t already done so—and Umberto Eco definitively took the Templars off the table, even if a wide range of authors have done their best to bring them back. As a result, when I began to think seriously about writing a conspiracy novel, and especially an homage to Foucault’s Pendulum, I realized that the Rosicrucians had one big advantage: there hadn’t been a major novel about them in years. Consequently, when most of us, including me, think of the Rosicrucians, the first thing that comes to mind is the modern incarnation about which Woody Allen says in Annie Hall: “I can’t get with any religion that advertises in Popular Mechanics.”

And yet much of the world was obsessed with the Rosicrucians for decades, almost from the moment they first appeared in a pair of manifestos published anonymously in Germany in the seventeenth century. The manifestos are famously impenetrable—I’m not sure I ever managed to get through all of them—but the story they tell set the standard for all secret societies to come: a brotherhood of learned men, originally eight in number, later thirty-six, quietly preparing for a revolution that would transform all of Europe. What kind of revolution? It isn’t entirely clear—and part of the fascination of the Rosicrucian tradition is that it promises so much while spelling out so little. The legendary founder of the Rosicrucians, a mysterious figure later known as Christian Rosenkreuz, emerges from a background of alchemy, magic, and Eastern mysticism, and whatever the Rosicrucians were planning was evidently based on a similar body of secret knowledge that, once revealed, would change the world forever.

The really strange thing is that the Rosicrucians did start a revolution, despite the inconvenient fact that they probably never existed. The idea of a secret society of learned men working to save the soul of civilization, which appears for the first time in the manifestoes, is incredibly compelling, even if the details remained obscure. It isn’t surprising, then, that readers across Europe hastened to found Rosicrucian societies of their own, like kids who start a secret club based on one they see in a comic book. On the scientific side, the manifestoes were the inspiration for a number of groups, dedicated to natural philosophy, that ultimately resulted in the Royal Society, and everyone from Descartes to Newton was accused of being a Rosicrucian. Meanwhile, Rosicrucian orders dedicated to magic and alchemy were founded in most countries, Rosicrucian imagery was appropriated by the Freemasons and other fraternal orders, and Rosicrucian novels were written by everyone from Edward Bulwer-Lytton (of “It was a dark and stormy night” fame) to Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, and eventually, interest in the Rosicrucians began to wane, supplanted by more exotic and terrifying societies, although the Rosicrucian strain in conspiracy theories never entirely went away. (Witness, for instance, the curious career of Walter Arensberg, who plays a small but crucial role in The Icon Thief, and about whom I’ll have much more to say later.) And as I continued to dig, I found that the Rosicrucians would take me, as a writer, in a lot of fascinating directions. Most promisingly, in light of my intended project, the Rosicrucians had a surprising influence on both the history of art and the history of Russia, where, as I learned from James Billington’s The Icon and the Axe, the Rosicrucians in Moscow were the first of the secret philosophical societies that would play such an important role in Russia’s evolution. It was a novelist’s dream: a genuinely mysterious tradition, long neglected, but rich in symbols and secrets, that would bind together much of the story I had in mind. And that’s when I decided that it was finally time to give the world another Rosicrucian novel.

This was all very well, but I still lacked one crucial element: an artist who would tie all these threads together. And as I’ll explain tomorrow, it was by the purest accident that I arrived at the final piece of the puzzle, the man whom André Breton called “the most intelligent man of the twentieth century.”

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Written by nevalalee

March 1, 2012 at 7:50 am

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