Interview: In 'The Art of the Occult', Author S. Elizabeth Reveals the Power of the Hidden
"You do punch Nazis and you definitely do not put their art in your book."
by Tom Blunt
Confession: sometimes I go over to S. Elizabeth’s Instagram profile just to re-read her bio: “Stinker, Scribe, Frou Frou Fantôme & Frillseeker & Goth Radish.”
And of course, while I’m there, I pick through her recent artistic obsessions, which hew so closely to my own that it can be almost maddening… because she presents them so much better, and more thoughtfully, and more consistently, than I ever could. And that’s before you factor in her prolific posts at Haute Macabre, where she’s currently stationed as a lifestyle informant and purveyor of dark inspiration (and where, full disclosure, she once interviewed me about reprinting Elsa Lanchester’s memoir). She also tends a personal blog, These Unquiet Things, “for kindred glooms.”
Thus, I was overjoyed to hear the news that my favorite Goth Radish would be blessing us with a book release in 2020 The Art of the Occult: A Visual Sourcebook for the Modern Mystic, coming October 13th, currently available for pre-order.
This interview served as an opportunity for us to bond over so many shared influences, such as D’Aulaires Book of Greek Myths (which Mme. Elizabeth described in chat as “a little bit silly, but I think it’s the one that got everything started”)
Every artist and/or occultist has those books, the ones that nourished our blooming obsessions, serving as an access point to a secret world that seemed to hover somewhere just beyond our eyelids.
For many, The Art of the Occult will end up serving as just such a book. The artworks are well organized and richly presented (alternating between black and white backgrounds) and accompanied by insightful commentary by the author. It’s far from a comprehensive text, but that’s sort of the point — as access to occult information and artwork has improved thanks to the internet, curation and context are now more important than ever, as is the aesthetic experience of holding an object that’s created to be enjoyed by human hands.
Which brings us back to that inspiration factor: I spent my youth clawing through so many dead words and pictures, lifelessly presented for posterity, and had to manufacture more than my share of the meaning that was meant to go into them.
While there’s no substitute for the novice’s own imagination or diligence in their occult practice, the right artistic influence can truly send one aloft. In this interview, S. Elizabeth shares some of the personal struggles and victories that arose throughout the process of creating this useful and beautiful tool.
photo via S. Elizabeth on Instagram
TOM BLUNT: In the introduction of The Art of the Occult, you welcome readers to use the book as a tool for their mystical or artistic journeys, and to "incorporate [these artworks] into your personal search for the truth." From what I've seen of your work, I get the sense that this describes exactly how we ended up with a person like you. What do you believe you're searching for, through art?
S. ELIZABETH: Though I am a massive enthusiast and supporter of the arts, I’m afraid I am not much of an artist myself. I come from a family of artists and musicians and architects, but I’ve either not got the raw material to work with or I’ve just never tried to cultivate and grow it. I know it’s in there, somewhere. I just can’t/won’t/don’t even begin to know how to go after it. So, I drink deeply of it and write about it instead.
Through my writing, I’m exploring themes in the various works of art that I’m focusing on, and delving into the individual artists themselves, their thoughts and beliefs and philosophies, their inspirations and influences, what they might be searching for... but, I think, in addition to satisfying my curiosity about the art and artists that intrigue me and wanting to share these findings with like-minded souls, I am searching for myself in there, as well. Some bit of resonance, some kindred vibration. I guess in examining the art that speaks to my soul, I’m trying to connect to and unlock my own potential?
Ultimately I think that potential something that is found within, not without, but knowing doesn’t stop me from trying.
TB: Inevitably people who enjoy this book are going to be curious about your own personal magickal practice, or might assume things about it, based on what you've presented. Instead of asking you to comment on your specific beliefs or practices, I'd rather hear what it's like to open up to the world about your serious interest in these subjects, on such a large scale.
SE: It’s an intensely vulnerable feeling, that’s for sure! Though I am at a place where in my personal writing I share — and enjoy sharing — a great deal of my life, there was a point on my timeline where this was not always so.
That’s a story for another time, but my point is, while there is a lot I share, there are some things I am fiercely private about as well. I think it’s of no surprise (and I’ve certainly never kept it a secret!) that I have a serious interest in the arts, and the occult, and the endlessly intriguing intersection of the two... but my own beliefs and practices in that might be a little unexpected, I guess. Or at least not necessarily what people might assume. Although as I have already confessed above — I am no artist, ha! But as to my beliefs and practices, they are solitary in nature and very incredibly private.
I don’t think things like spirituality should become topic for debate. In many ways, and after many years, I am still figuring out my path and my practices and I don’t need the Disruptive Witchsplaining Energies of Judgement on my ass about... whatever. And so my practices remain my own.
TB: You also remind readers that the true meaning of "occult" is "hidden" and merely relates to concealment. We live in an unprecedented time of revelation and widely abundant information, which makes it easy for young witches to imagine that it's valuable to uncover, un-hide everything as much as possible. But concealment is a dedicated part of magickal tradition, and possibly even an essential one — as we see outlined in Eliphas Levi’s “Powers of the Sphinx” (which instruct practitioners "to Know, to Will, to Dare and to Keep Silent").
So, how do you feel about the relationship between concealment/revelation, whether as it pertains to magick, writing, artwork, or any other sensitive work? How do you decide what's appropriate to share widely?
SE: Ha! When I mentioned another story for another time in the question above, I guess I meant NOW.
I was a very private person for a very long time; I felt isolated, imprisoned, silenced — and that’s because I was. I was in a mentally and emotionally abusive relationship with a very controlling, manipulative person for almost a decade. He cut me off from everyone. And so even though I lived through that and am in a remarkably different place in my life now, in some ways I am still rebelling against that suffocating way of living and want to holler from the rooftops about everything.
But magic — whatever form your magic might take, writing, art, spellwork, whatever — is often steeped in secrecy. Whether its secret ritual under cover of darkness or secret words to unlock hidden doors, or secret knowledge bestowed by angels or Spirit or I don’t know what. You might keep these things to yourself because others don’t share your beliefs or don’t believe your assertions, and you don’t want to be judged/harmed for your beliefs.
Secrecy gives the secret-keeper a sense of control and empowerment. And for me, well. I think of my practices and beliefs, largely unspoken of and unshared, in the way that you might think of a liquid in which herbs are steeping: you keep the vessel covered, undisturbed, tucked back in a cupboard away from prying eyes and grabby hands so that the qualities of the plant material can properly and thoroughly infuse the oil or alcohol and the resulting glunk is a potent brew. I don’t think you can successfully do that with a bunch of looky-loos and rubber-neckers asking questions and making judgments and casting doubt every step of the way. They know it’s there and you’re working on it — because you shared — and they have got opinions! No thank you!
What’s appropriate is really in the eye of the beholder, and my answer is naturally going to be different than someone else’s, but I need to have consent from everyone involved in a thing in order to even want to share it, and sometimes I am the last to give that consent, even in my own projects where I’m the only factor involved. That’s very telling, I think.
This is a very long-winded way of saying: “You do you, I’ll do me, and you probably won’t hear about me doing me until long after the fact.”
TB: In some ways, compiling historical examples of art is an easier job because we already know what is considered important, and why. So I was impressed by the book's inclusion of more contemporary pieces, and wondered how you decided which examples deserved to be showcased. (And did you feel additional pressure, knowing that putting someone's art in a book is one of the ways we gradually shape what ends up being considered "historical"?)
SE: I think it boils down to some very personal choices. I have been sharing art online for a long time and I have gotten a good sense for what resonates with me as well as what will speak to other people. With The Art of the Occult, I had a unique opportunity to channel that sensibility and experience into choosing art that appeals on an aesthetic level as well as embodies the concept I’m hoping to illustrate, and, most importantly to me, to arouse the curiosity of the viewer. I want the person reading this book to feel the compulsion to seek more and learn more!
I don’t think I can pick just one example because all of these works feel so meaningful to me, but Rik Garret’s eerie photography and Juliana Huxtable’s exultant self-portrait in the witchcraft chapter, Mark Ryden’s precocious depiction of the elements, Avraham Loewenthal’s colorful 100 Sounds of the Shofar — I can’t imagine catching a glimpse of these breathtaking and not wanting to see more, to know more. It’s not even important that they saw it in this book; the significance lies in that x/y/z artist that became a fascination, and then a favorite, and then remained so.
I think that’s what endures. That’s what people will remember. And hopefully what will one day be considered historical.
“Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm)” by Juliana Huxtable, 2015
TB: I was very happy to see examples of Nicolas Roerich's work in this book, as I have lost many an afternoon in the very tiny (yet shockingly comprehensive) Nicolas Roerich Museum in New York City. Truly a fascinating example of a seeker and an artist whose artwork and spirituality were inseparable! And we've also talked in the past about William Blake and how affecting his work can still be, centuries later.
So who are the artists who've served as portals like this, for you? Which artworks (I'm assuming they're in the book) are the ones which arrested you at some point and gradually led you to this moment, and to creating this book?
“Issa and the Skull of the Giant” by Nicholas Roerich, 1932
SE: Ah! There’s a fair bit of Nicolas Roerich in The Art of the Occult, I guess we are both fans of this marvelous seeker.
For the most part, you would think the artists which have affected me deeply and which perhaps led me to the creation of this book… would most certainly be in the book? And I promise, where possible, I tried to make that happen.
Waterhouse’s Circe Individiosa, for example. I have loved this painting for what feels like all of my life. Visually, it’s a treasure, with those dark, rich blues, the gorgeous texture of her robe, the details of the bubbling ripples as the poison being tipped from the bowl hits the surface of the water…
But it’s Circe’s face that has long held me in thrall. It’s so monstrously... human. It’s a terrible glower fraught with human emotions, borne of human feeling. On the official John William Waterhouse site, of this painting, they note: “Circe, like many of the Greek deities, was not known for being forgiving or kind; she would often turn her enemies into animals, even if all they did was offend her.”
Even if all they did was offend her? Isn’t that enough? It’s like saying “don’t take this personally,” but what the hell? What other way is there to take it? I kinda want to rename this painting to Circe Individiosa: This Time It’s Personal.
This mythic work is for me, so impactful and so unforgettable precisely because it is so steeped in humanity.
On the other hand, many years ago I discovered the work of Rosaleen Norton. This would have been around 2000 or so; at that time I was working for my former stepfather (he and my mom had divorced by then but we all remained friendly). He owned a rare and used occult book business and I worked there full-time for a number of years processing, packing, and shipping orders, running the eBay auctions, stocking shelves, doing customer service, that sort of thing.
I have never had a job since that has made me so happy. It was not a brick and mortar shop, we did all of our business through mail and online, and since he was mostly not there, I frequently worked alone. It was glorious. And as you can imagine, I read a great deal of the inventory. At that time I stumbled upon Neville Drury’s Pan’s Daughter, a biography of Rosaleen Norton, and holy cats, I had never seen such imagery — it was wild and daring and utterly magnificent.
I would have loved to have Norton’s Lilith work in The Art of the Occult, but in an image-heavy book like this there’s a lot that goes into it that one might not realize. Obviously you must obtain permission from the artists whose work you wish to include… but it turns out that is not at all a straightforward process. Between tracking down contact information for the artist (if they are still alive — otherwise, you might be dealing with galleries, estates, etc.) and actually finding them and receiving those permissions, you then have the concern of whether or not the artist can provide a high-enough resolution of the work, whether it fits with the layout of the book, and to backtrack a bit, whether or not the publisher even agrees that the images you’ve suggested will be appropriate for the overall project.
Sadly, for one or more of these reasons, Rosaleen Norton’s work, and a handful of others that I absolutely would describe as arresting on every level, did not make it into The Art of the Occult. I am very happy with the ones we have included, though, and there are many favorites amongst them!
“Lilith” by Rosaleen Norton
TB: Obviously the witches are all on Instagram and TikTok etc. now, seducing the world with their a e s t h e t i c. But one thing I've noticed is, the stuff that strikes me the deepest just isn't necessarily stuff that speaks to other people, and my private obsessions and inspirations certainly would not make me look cool or glamorous if I shared them. (I know this from experience, sadly!)
All I know is that I feel a profoundly stirring connection to something when I stare at, for example, John Collier's Pythia. And while I can share that painting, I can't necessarily share that feeling. Plus, social media doesn't let an image just stand on its own, it's expected that you will provide a steady stream of images, artfully curated to provide an overall effect.
So I guess what I'm saying is, we are still capable of connecting to individual artworks in that profound, singular way. But the way art is presented has changed so drastically! How do you think we can use art to reach people or connect meaningfully, when sharing reduces everything to a e s t h e t i c?
“Priestess of Delphi” by John Collier, 1891
SE: Ah. This is something that in a sense I’ve been banging a drum about for a long time, something I’m fairly certain in some circles makes me seem profoundly uncool. (Speaking of uncool, I am not even on TikTok and I kinda hate it, but it’s in that somewhat illogical and unreasonable way that old people are automatically hateful about new things, so shame on me.)
But I know what you mean, and I think, in my own way, I first experienced what you are talking about over on Tumblr. Although I can’t blame Tumblr, it’s really all over the place, but especially on microblogging platforms where one might “curate” content. And people who have been following my writing for a long time will no doubt guess what I am going to say next and are going to shout “OH GOD NOT THIS OLD CHESTNUT” and maybe tune out, but too bad!
Anway, I’ll get to the point: art must be shared with artist credit. It wasn’t born in a vacuum, it didn’t spring fully formed from the collective forehead of Pinterest or WeHeartIt. That piece of art was created by a human being with thoughts and dreams and desires and yeah, I know your first thought is to reblog it or repost it because it’s pretty, but it caught your eye for a reason, right? Don’t you want to see more by this artist who slowed your scroll and held your attention for a second? Maybe the original poster marked it as “artist unknown” but I maintain that 99% of the time that artist can totally be known if you take two seconds to do a reverse image search! Have some curiosity! Learn more! Connect more fully to that piece of art that appeared on your Instagram feed by learning more about the artist, by perusing their portfolios, by reading their interviews, by supporting them and buying a print! By providing this sort of context for yourself, you’ll experience the art in a richer, more meaningful way and I don’t think you’ll ever look at art the same way again. You might even become as annoying as I am about it one day!
Of course, this leads into discussions along the lines of “well, what if the piece of art I love was created by a complete dirtbag?”
There was a painting that was almost included in The Art of the Occult — “The Four Elements: Fire, Earth, and Water, Air” (1937) by Adolf Ziegler and... well, that guy was a Nazi. No one wants a Nazi in their book, obviously. (Although it would have added another page to that chapter, which I’ll admit, I’m pretty sure I needed at that time.)
But was this bland depiction of pseudo-Classical Aryan nudes in a kitschy triptych which may have hung over Hitler’s fireplace something I even wanted people to connect with? Uh... no, it was not. I still don’t have an answer as to what we do with our love for problematic artists but I do know the answer to life’s most basic questions. You do punch Nazis and you definitely do not put their art in your book.
I think in order to reach people with art, to create meaningful connections... we can’t leave the artist out of it. Our love (or hatred!) of art is such a personal thing. And coincidentally, it was created by a person. Crazy! Who knew?! Credit = context = connection = meaning.
S. Elizabeth’s The Art of the Occult: A Visual Sourcebook for the Modern Mystic can be pre-ordered here.