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Vivo: The Life of Gustav Meyrink

Author: Mike Mitchell

Cover design: Marie Lane  

3. The Occult

It was during the years in Prague that what we might conveniently call ‘the occult’ started to assume the central role it was later to play in Meyrink’s life. Josef Strelka, while not denying his genuine interest, claims he deliberately contributed to the creation of the image of a man with supernatural powers:

No German-language author of this [the 20th] century has attracted to his person such a multitude of legendary and invented, genuine and exaggerated ghost stories as Gustav Meyrink. And he himself encouraged this tendency through both his life and his books. It was not for nothing that, after time spent in Switzerland, England and Scotland, he built the house by Lake Starnberg which he called ‘The House by the Last Lamp’, recalling a ghostly building in Goldmakers Alley in Prague which is said to appear only to some people on certain nights and to be the threshold between two worlds.

As the picture of Madame Blavatsky and the sculpture of a ghost going through the wall in his apartment attest, in his early years the occult provided some of the fashionable trappings of the dandy. For Max Brod the ‘combination of the fourth dimension with the elegance of the dandy’ was one of the most striking characteristics about Meyrink. He provided the hashish which was smoked by the small circle of friends, experiments with table-rapping were carried out, seances with mediums attended. There are numerous stories told by his friends and by Meyrink himself about examples of magic or clairvoyance.
He even, he claimed in ‘Magie und Hasard’ (Magic and Chance), resorted to magic in an attempt to win at poker. He found two methods which were supposed to influence chance in one’s favour. One was to fast and go on a ‘diet’ of castor oil, the other was to tie a string tightly above the knee of one’s left leg until the lower half went numb. The latter seeming less unpleasant, he decided to tie his handkerchief round his left leg before joining in a poker game. He had awful cards. He went out and tied a wet towel round his leg. His cards were even worse, not even a pair. However, as he felt his leg go completely numb, his luck seemed to change, he had a straight flush to the queen. Everyone seemed to have good cards and the betting rose astronomically. Eventually only Meyrink and one other were left. His opponent, of course, had a flush to the king. In the coffee house afterwards he discovered that his opponent was using the castor-oil technique. Meyrink gave up gambling, but when he met the other poker-player again years later he discovered he hadn’t made a fortune gambling, but lost every last penny. He had never, he explained, managed to overcome either his addiction to gambling or his dislike of castor oil. (Latern, 245-6)
One of the component parts of Meyrink’s notoriety during his Prague years was the rumour that he was an alchemist and trying to make gold, a rumour which he confirmed in an article entitled ‘How I Tried to Make Gold in Prague’. ‘It must have been about 1893, when I was still young and had plenty of time and leisure to do all the stupid things, the memory of which now brightens up my old age, that I decided to take up alchemy.’ (Latern, 293)The impulse to attempt practical alchemy came, he said, from a school-friend whose father had a glassworks. This friend told him an old chemist called Kinski, who worked there, added a light grey powder to ordinary glass to turn it into ruby glass, which was usually made with the addition of pure gold. (Britannica says gold chloride.) Kinski refused to divulge the secret of the powder. The only clues were his constant refrain of ‘Gold is shit’ and that he muttered
something about a change of colour in the base matter.
Meyrink sought for the ‘base matter’ in his extensive alchemical library, but found nothing until one day a bookseller sent a book written by Count Marsciano:

I leafed through it and all at once I knew — yes, I knew — what the base matter was: human or animal excrement! Shit, as old Kinski so aptly put it. The following sentence, however, only served to confuse me again: ‘Our materia is yellow like butter, has a heavenly smell and tastes sweet as manna.’ Furious, I threw the book in a corner… When I picked it up again, I saw that it was incomplete; the second part was missing. I wrote to all the antiquarian booksellers I could think of. In vain, no one had heard of it. Then an incredible coincidence intervened. I came across the catalogue of a book auction in Milan. Mechanically I opened it and saw: Onuphrius Marsciano, volume two. I immediately sent a telegram to Milan: Buy whatever the price. A few days later I had the little jewel in my hand and devoured it as the whale did Jonah. Strangely enough, the ex libris was the same as in the first volume I had… Had I been superstitious, I could almost have believed old Kinski had had a hand in it.

The second volume of Marsciano’s work reveals that excrement that has been under the ground for a long time sometimes turns into the matter described in the first volume. Meyrink made enquiries of chemists as to whether that was possible, with no result, apart from a challenge from a chemistry student who belonged to a duelling fraternity. However, chance intervened once more:

One night I was going home late from a rowing-club party, dressed in white flannels and blue blazer, my athlete’s chest decorated with countless medals won at regattas glittering in the moonlight. The main street in Prague had been dug up and a terrible miasma was floating up from the bowels of Mother Earth, for ancient sewers were being torn from their age-old sleep. Galvanised by this opportunity, I climbed a wall and shouted down into the yawning depths, ‘Ahoy!’ The flip-flop noise of a pump was replaced with deathly silence and soon the king of the night appeared from the abyss, a little lamp on his forehead, like some deep-sea fish. I stuck a twenty-crown note on the ferrule of my walking stick and thus passed it to the king. The following dialogue then took place:
Me: ‘Your Pungency, have you, in the field of your endeavours, ever come across matter which is yellow as butter, fragrant and sweet to the taste?’
King of the Night: ‘Not matter, no, but shit, yes. But only very rarely. A curiosity. If you look out for it you can find some. I know what you’re after, of course, squire. They say it brings luck.’
Me: Excellent! Bring me some, my dear sir, as soon and as much as you can and you will be handsomely rewarded.’
Months passed. Summer had spread its fragrance over the city, for that was before there were motor cars. I was in my office entertaining some elegant and beautiful ladies when the door suddenly opened quietly and an old man came in, one hand stroking his silvery beard, the other carrying a gleaming copper bucket of shit… With a graceful gesture the venerable old man placed the bucket on a chair, at which the ladies bent forward, lorgnettes at the ready.
With a triumphant expression, the silverbeard removed the bucket lid. What happened next was like a speeded-up film: a herd of antelopes fleeing from a roaring lion could not have taken flight more quickly than my fair guests. I waited, wordless, for the terrible ancient to break the silence. ‘For a long time I was afraid to come, but since it’s such a lovely day… Look, squire, a lump the size of your head. And I didn’t clean it up, so you can see it’s genuine…’
Following the instructions, I heated the base matter for weeks at a constant low temperature and, to the great surprise of both myself and my chemical adviser, the inexplicably beautiful changes in colour took place right up to the peacock sheen. One day, while I was standing by the retort, it exploded and the ‘matter’ flew in my face. I repeated the experiment, but with an open retort… It is completely incomprehensible why that one should explode as well — and at precisely the moment when I was standing in front of it.
When I tried to repeat the experiment a third time I went down with a horrible disease, which is considered incurable and only slowly got better after many years. Since then I have refrained from practical alchemy; better superstitious than unhappy. (Latern, 298-301)

How much truth can one accord such a story? Meyrink was certainly interested in alchemy, it forms an important theme in his final novel, The Angel of the West Window, and the author mentioned, Onuphrius Marsciano certainly existed; there is a similar but more matter-of-fact version of the story in his introduction to his translation of St Thomas Aquinas’s book on the philosopher’s stone. He also suffered from a serious illness, from which it took him years to recover, but the timing does not fit; elsewhere he says his serious illness broke out in 1897. The ironic tone of the narration makes the reader suspicious and it was written at a time when Meyrink was in serious financial difficulties, which accompanied him for much of his life: he was forced to sell The House by the Last Lamp in October 1928; ‘How I Tried to Make Gold in Prague’ was published in December of that year, ‘Magic and Chance’ in 1931.
Even if these stories are invented, there are others, recounted both by Meyrink himself and by apparently reliable and sober acquaintances, which have the ring of truth. One can well imagine that, given his notorious reputation in Prague, Meyrink might — might — write a spurious account of the alchemical or gambling exploits of his younger days, but there seems no reason to invent an episode such as the vision of a clock tower he recounts in ‘Meine Erweckung zur Seherschaft’ (The Awakening of my Clairvoyant Faculty). It is to this more serious side of his interest in the occult that we will now turn.

The Pilot

Meyrink’s transformation from dandy to serious seeker after esoteric truth took place gradually during the 1890s, but the event that initiated it was dramatic. His account may have a touch of self-dramatisation, but the result was certainly genuine. There is another, very similar version of the event to the one below in ‘The Awakening of my Clairvoyant Faculty’, in which he says he was twenty-three at the time and suffering from a ‘disappointment in love’. That, and the date he gives in ‘The Transformation of the Blood’ suggests the experience occurred in 1891, a year before his first marriage.

The Pilot
Tomorrow is the twenty-fourth anniversary of that day, the Feast of the Assumption. Sitting at my desk in my bachelor’s room in Prague, I put the farewell letter I had written to my mother in an envelope and picked up the revolver on the desk in front of me. I intended to set off on my journey across the Styx, to cast away a life that seemed shallow and worthless, with no prospect ever of solace.
At that moment the ‘Pilot with the mask of invisibility over his face’, as I have since called him, boarded the ship of my life and swung the helm round. I heard a rustling at the door onto the landing and when I turned round I saw something white being pushed under the door across the threshold into the room. It was a printed pamphlet. That I put the revolver down, picked up the pamphlet and read the title was due neither to a stirring of curiosity, nor to some secret desire to postpone my death — my heart was empty.
I read: ‘On Life after Death’.
‘Strange coincidence!’ The thought tried to stir in my mind, but the first word scarcely reached my lips. Since then I have not believed in coincidence, I believe in the Pilot.
With trembling hand — earlier it had not trembled for one moment, neither when writing the farewell letter to my mother, nor when I picked up the revolver — I lit the lamp, for it had grown dark, and read the pamphlet — obviously pushed under the door by my bookseller’s delivery boy — from beginning to end, my heart pounding. It was all about spiritualism, mainly describing the experiences those who had done important research in that area — William Cookes, Prof. Zöllner, Fechner and others — had had with various mediums: Slade, Eglinstone, Home etc.
I sat awake the whole night through until the first light appeared and burning thoughts, until then alien to me, were going round and round in my brain. Could such outstanding scientists as the aforementioned be mistaken? It was almost inconceivable. But in that case what strange, incomprehensible laws of nature, which made a mockery of all known norms of physics, had manifested themselves?
During that night the searing desire to see such things with my own eyes, grasp them with my own hands, to check their genuineness and comprehend the secrets that must lie behind them, burnt until it glowed with an inextinguishable white-hot flame.
I took the revolver, for the moment redundant, and locked it in the drawer; I still have it today. It has died of rust, the cylinder won’t revolve any more, never will revolve again. (Latern, 286-7)

The result of this was an outburst of frenetic activity:

I was obsessed with the idea of experiencing spiritualist phenomena. Any visionary, prophet or fool on the loose in Bohemia attracted me as an electrostatic rod attracts scraps of paper. I invited dozens of mediums and held seances lasting half the night at least three times a week with a few friends I had infected with my monomania. (Latern, 289)

It was not only frenetic, it was sustained; Meyrink called these activities a ‘labour of Sisyphus’ lasting seven years.
There was plenty for Meyrink to investigate. The advances in science and technology plus what many saw as the increasing materialism of the 19th century had triggered off a counter-interest in spiritual matters. Much of this had its focus outside the established churches and there arose a plethora of small groups, religious conventicles (such as Meyrink portrays in The White Dominican), secret societies, mystic orders. The second half of the 19th century also saw the appearance of mediums who promised clairvoyant visions and messages from the ‘other side’. Spiritualism became popular, indeed fashionable — Meyrink himself called it a ‘spiritual epidemic’. (Latern, 230) Many country-house parties of the time played at table-rapping, ouija board seances or calling up spirits.
Meyrink tried them all. It was a remarkable search in which he displayed determination and stamina. Although he was keen to discover occult truths, he retained his critical faculties, quickly seeing through false mediums and religious cranks. An acquaintance says that when he attended a seance in the house of Baron Schrenck-Notzing, a wealthy and credulous amateur of psychical research, he snipped of a tiny piece of the ectoplasm the medium gave off to have it analysed. Later he warned, ‘Today there are more clairvoyants that ever before; unfortunately their clairvoyance is mainly directed at how to get money out of their credulous and uncritical neighbours.’ (Latern, 245)
Despite his disappointments, however, Meyrink also retained his belief that there was something beyond — or other than — everyday reality. And this belief was eventually rewarded. In ‘Das Zauberdiagramm’ (The Magic Diagram) he said:

For years I held seances in Prague — probably several hundred — with the best mediums that were to be had. Always without success; everything I saw and experienced could be explained as conscious or unconscious delusion on the part of the subject. I was about to abandon my experiments when, by ‘chance’… I witnessed such clear physical events produced by a medium in a haunted house in Levico that it was impossible for me to doubt any longer: there are, if only rarely, phenomena which completely overturn everything science claims to know about the laws of matter. Since then I have conducted no more experiments in spiritualism; what I have seen is sufficient for me. (Latern, 264)

He also seems to have continued his riotous living. The article on ‘The Pilot’ continues:

My blood became hotter and hotter, all kinds of cravings ate away at me, a lust for life that I can hardly comprehend today reared up inside me, but when I woke up late in the morning after a night of wild dissipation (strangely enough, these usually followed directly on from spiritualist seances, as if psychic batteries of the worst kind had transferred their power to me), I was never affected by the bleakness of everyday life, was never struck with revulsion, di.sgust, or remorse: during the hours of sleep the mysterious bellows of the underworld of the soul had fanned the flames of longing for the world beyond the Styx into new life. (Latern, 290)

It is perhaps hardly surprising that the decade ended in serious illness.
He bought and read any books about spiritualism and similar topics he could get his hands on: ‘Fate, in the form of booksellers, deluged me with specialist tomes.’ Eventually he built up an extensive library of the occult. His willingness to buy almost anything and everything must have made him a favourite customer of antiquarian booksellers who would doubtless welcome such instructions as those for the second volume of the treatise on alchemy in the catalogue of an auction in Milan: ‘Buy whatever the price.’ One suspects that his ‘money’s no object’ attitude applied to other things as well and at least in part explains why his
substantial inheritance had disappeared by 1902.
Just as he tried out every medium he could find, Meyrink joined many of the occult societies and mystic orders that sprang up, many in England, around the end of the century like mushrooms after autumn rain. He was admitted to a French order in 1892 and in 1893 was in correspondence with John Yarker, who had left the Freemasons and founded the English Ancient and Primitive Rite of Masonry, and with the Supreme Magus of the Societa Rosicruciana in Anglia, who told him, ‘it is an absolute despotism, and one can only ask and never claim anything in the order.’ In the same year he was received into the ‘Mandale of the Lord of the Perfect Circle’, the letter attesting ‘that Brother Gustav Meyer of Prague be constituted one of the seven Arch censors’ and giving him the ‘Spiritual and Mystic name Kama’. In 1895 ‘Charubel’, of Sefton St., Earl St., Manchester, informed him of his acceptance into a mystic brotherhood, which had its own alphabet. Meyrink was given the name ‘Theaverel: this name, when translated in English, would be expressed thus: I go; I seek; I find.’ A further letter included the formula for a mystic rite: ‘It brings you dear Brother face to face with terrible reallities [sic].’ In 1897 he was accepted into the Order of the Illuminati with the name of Dagobert. A letter from the Bruderschaft der alten Riten vom Heiligen Gral im Großen Orient von Patmos (Brotherhood of the Ancient Rites of the Holy Grail in the Grand Orient of Patmos) is undated.
In ‘What’s the use of white dog shit’, a piece first published in 1908, Meyrink wrote:

There can’t be a single fraternity left that I haven’t joined, and if I were to go through all the profoundly meaningful secret signs and emergency signals that I learned one after the other, I’d be carted off to the asylum for sure, suspected of having contracted St Vitus’ dance. (Opal, 158)

Despite that, Meyrink resumed his interest in this kind of society in the 1920s, as is attested by letters from a member of the Alt-Gnostische Kirche Eleusis (Old Gnostic Church of Eleusis) and (eight long letters) from a Meredith Starr of Wadebridge, Cornwall, about his acceptance into the Aquarian Foundation and the White Brotherhood. He was also still (or once more) in contact with G. R. S. Mead of the Theosophical Society, which he left only three months after having joined in 1891.
To the modern reader and, it seems clear, to Meyrink himself, many of these correspondents were obvious cranks. (I have to confess that my notes on these letters in the Meyrinkiana archives in Munich frequently have the comment: ‘Mad!’) But as with the mediums, he was always prepared to try in the hope that he might find what he was looking for. In the event, he left the societies, orders and brotherhoods almost as quickly as he joined them.
Whether the Theosophical Society consisted of cranks is a matter of opinion, but no one can deny its importance as a cultural phenomenon and its influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Meyrink was one of the founder members of the Theosophical Loge zum blauen Stern (Lodge of the Blue Star) in Prague in 1891. He met the general secretary of the European section of the Society, G. R. S. Mead, in Vienna the next year. In a letter about a month later Mead tells ‘My dear Meyer’, ‘I judged then [in Vienna where they first met] that you were a man not of words but of action.’ It is perhaps an odd description, given Meyrink’s voluminous correspondence and his reputation in Prague as a raconteur, but then Mead was asking him to help in setting up a lodge in Budapest. However, Meyrink’s description of his activities during his time as a member of the Society fully justifies Mead’s description:

I joined the Theosophical Society, founded a lodge in Prague and went round like a roaring lion to recruit members; I gave talks to a small group from English siftings and pamphlets [in English in the original]. The only lasting reward for all my efforts was that I eventually acquired an ability to translate extempore, so to speak, so that today I can read out aloud from an English book as if it were in German. Annie Besant rewarded me for my zeal by accepting me into a certain inner circle, the centre of which is in Adyar in India. I received a number of letters from her with instructions about yoga. From that moment until my resignation some three months later I led the life of man who was almost mad. I existed on nothing but vegetable matter, hardly slept at all, ate a tablespoon of gum arabic dissolved in soup twice a day (it had been most warmly recommended to me by a French occult order for the purpose of awakening astral clairvoyance) performed asana exercises (Asiatic sitting positions with crossed legs) for eight hours night after night, at the same time holding my breath until I was shaking fit to die. Then, at the new moon, I rode out in complete darkness to a hill known as the Cave of St Procopius outside Prague and stared at a point in the sky until it began to grow light. (Fledermäuse, 212-3)

He quickly became disappointed with the Theosophical Society. Annie Besant’s evasive replies to his questions about yoga convinced him her knowledge was superficial and some of the material he found in the Theosophical siftings he described as ‘dreadful kitsch’. (Fledermäuse, 227) He talked of a ‘Theosophical fashion’ and in the archives is a plan for a ‘Theosophical comedy’ which would have made fun of the Society. In ‘Fakirpfade’ (The Paths of the Fakirs) he talks of the modern fashion for the occult in the course of which ‘a cubic kilometre of mouldy manna in the form of Theosophical literature has fallen from the heavens.’ (Latern, 232)
An interesting sidelight on his experiences with Theosophy is Meyrink’s relationship with Rudolf Steiner. Meyrink met Steiner once and it is likely he heard (or at least heard of) the lectures he gave in Munich. Yet despite similarities in their outlook, for Meyrink Steiner seems to have been tarred with the Theosophical brush (he almost always uses the word ‘Theosophy’ for both that and for Anthroposophy). The minor character of Brother Ezekiel in The Green Face is based on Rudolf Steiner. A manuscript with Meyrink’s notes says, ‘Ezekiel becomes a medium, or a swindling exploiter… Becomes famous as a prophet and bogus medium, or healer (Model: Steiner).’ In his satirical grotesquerie Meine Qualen und Wonnen im Jenseits (My Torments and Delights in the World Beyond) he portrayed Steiner as Dr Schmuser (flatterer, lickspittle, toady):

I was still wandering through the meadows when the sight of a wondrous fata Morgana swept away the rest of my disgruntlement. It was the precise reflection of an earthly occurrence, only even more uplifting, if that were possible: Dr Schmuser, the incorrigible prophet-in-ordinary and founder of the theosophical-anthroposophical-rosicruci-pneumatotherapeutic society was taking his constitutional in the clouds, correcting with the one hand the galley proofs of the Akashic records the foreman of the cosmic works had entrusted to him, whilst tirelessly waving the other in greeting to the gods. Behind him was his guard of honour: twelve exquisitely affluent old ladies. Once more, I realised, he was leading the faithful; presumably he was escorting them to nirvana…’ (Fledermäuse, 148)

Steiner, it has to be said, displayed tolerance and a sense of humour. Instead of hitting back, as some of his supporters would have liked him to, he retained his positive attitude towards Meyrink as a man who had extraordinary access to the spiritual world.


RRP: £9.99

No. of pages: 225

Publication date: 05.11.2008

Re-print date: 01.01.2018

ISBN numbers:
978 1 903517 69 7
978 1 909232 14 3

Spain (Aurora Dorada Ediciones)