Fluffy Pagans

Nimbo-Cumulus: A Review of The Cloud upon the Sanctuary

The text, in the form of six Letters, by Karl von Eckartshausen (1752-1803), a now-obscure courtier in Enlightenment Bavaria, is squarely in the tradition of Christian mysticism. For many readers, his frequent resort to statements of Christian dogma, occasionally belied by inclusive statements about the oneness of all true mystical experience across times and cultures, could become wearying. However, there is something a little different about this particular Christian mystic, which has made him worthy of study by some rather unlikely folk. Indeed, one of the book's many claims to fame is that it was instrumental in convincing the young Aleister Crowley to seek membership in the Golden Dawn in 1898, although it is very likely that when A. E. Waite recommended the book to Crowley, he was trying to dissuade the younger man from his interest in practical magick. Mme. Steiger’s translation was first published in serial numbers of a magazine called The Unknown World from January to June 1895. This magazine of occult and Hermetic speculation was edited by A. E. Waite. The first book publication was in 1896; the present volume is based on the third edition.

The Front Matter

This edition is very heavy on front matter: 47 pages vs. 137 pages of the original text and translator's notes. Readers who are interested in the book because of its relationship to the Hermetic tradition in modern times might, quite seriously, buy the book just for this material. There is a running argument between these covers, carried out over the course of two hundred years, among a quite diverse group of people, and exemplifying a vaster dialog among all people of spiritual bent in all places and times. Working outward from von Eckartshausen's actual text, we find a twenty-five page introduction by A. E. Waite (added to the third edition of 1903), slightly over two pages of preface by J. W. Brodie-Innes, and twelve pages of foreword by Masonic historian Edward Dunning.

The names Waite, Brodie-Innes, and indeed de Steiger, are all familiar to students of the Western Hermetic tradition, as early members of the Golden Dawn and its various spin-offs. While the little essay by Brodie-Innes is little more than esoteric cheerleading, it is certainly well enough written. Waite, of course, is also familiar as the author of The Book of Ceremonial Magic and others, and translator Isabelle de Steiger’s name appears in conjunction with his in many places. Dunning's other public work is a history of the Masonic writings of Waite.

Dunning asserts baldly that von Eckartshausen had been a member of Weishaupt's Illuminati, whereas Waite is at great pains to deny any such affiliations (one is tempted to make a joke about Illuminati censors insisting that both assertions appear in the book). If the Illuminati were (as reputed) of the Enlightenment tradition, rational and Deist, then von Eckartshausen must have had a dire break with them, indeed, because there is much criticism in Letter I of exactly the intellectual tendencies most characteristic of the period. Those familiar with Waite's writings will know that he is highly scholarly, endlessly verbose, and tirelessly opposed to the actual practice of magick. It is very interesting to watch him critique the degree of von Eckartshausen's enlightenment, completely unaware of just how unenlightened he himself seems to the psychically alive reader. It does not help that at every juncture where he might prove otherwise, he draws the curtain of sworn secrecy across his discourse.

The Heart of the Matter

I found the actual text very appealing, once I got past the religiosity of its surface. It is, indeed, a manifesto of Christian Hermeticism, in which the Light is a synonym for the spiritual Mercurius, the Prima Materia out of which the dense, visible world of Assia has hardened to set up the Oldest Game of spiritual hide-and-seek. The author affirms that enlightened people of all places and times belong to an Interior Church of which all exoteric religions are variously-distorted reflections, and that the realization of this One Thing (in the words of the Emerald Tablet) gives rise to a natural morality based in love. Never mind that he keeps spiraling back to affirm that this One Thing is some Middle Eastern Rabbi named Yeheshua, or Jesus the Christ, or something, and cannot possibly also be named Hermes or Gautama or Ningishzida or Isis, when actually, if there is only One Thing, it doesn't need a name.

He describes this Interior Church as if it were a mystical Order of those called to the Light, complete with descriptions of degrees, but then disclaims that there is any actual organization to it, other than the fact that God sometimes causes members to recognize each other, and that at any moment there is one Head of the Interior Church. This can be read as written, as Waite and most people would, or as a description of a secretive order that one can find and join, as Crowley did. I recommend that people of all traditions forgive von Eckartshausen his naïveté and his Jesus fixation long enough to read some of his work with suspended judgment. Certainly it can serve as a gentle introduction to those who have not read much Christian mystical writing and possibly will read very little more of it.

This is not the fault of the present volume, but when are we going to actually get the message? It is both amusing and depressing to see the von Eckartshausens and the A. E. Waites of the world drone on about the virtues, indeed the necessity, of Christianity when it is clear that von Eckartshausen's enlightenment is universal and his ways of expressing it in limited language come straight from the Neoplatonists and Hermeticists, even where those reached him through the filter of other Christians.