“Experts often possess more data than judgment” – Colin Powell
Politics is a kind of mysticism, in so far as the public imagines that union with the whole leads to apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect (“he says what I think”), a solution to life’s miseries (“she cares about my kind of people”), and an ushering in of a benign state of grace (“when my guy is elected, things will change). This is undoubtedly why so many political movements take on a fervency and worshipfulness, as we find confidence in the illusion that if only the right person can be put in the right place, our utopian dreams will finally be realized. Thus a successful political movement is as much quasi-mystical as it is political, and why we frequently embed fears regarding nefarious goings on, secret societies and occult associations into our political discourse (e.g. Hillary Clinton is a member of the Bilderberg Group – themselves the pawns of the Illuminati; Donald Trump is a Russian mole or engaged in a bizarre publicity stunt). Only our fellow travelers and the truly enlightened can achieve the understanding that we have in committing ourselves to a given precept or ethos. Everyone else is a dupe or a fool.
The rhetoric of the 2016 U.S. presidential election shocked us in not only its vitriol and vehemence, but in its outcome, which the political and media luminaires had long dismissed as a conceivable possibility. What we saw were the counter-revolutionary politics that invariably arise in a climate of intellectualized disdain – when sober and rational “experts” neglect the power of mysticism as a social force and smugly regard the public as objects of simple stimulus and response. When you cannot rationally explain the state of your universe and when all around “hidden truths” seem to be suppressed, regardless of their reality, the appeal of a philosophy, theology, or person who seems to transcend a gamed or unresponsive system is undeniable, their every rejection of polite and empathic culture a sign of awakening, their violations of every norm a signal that they are not beholden to the existing order. This is not an attempt at an apologetics of neo-fascism (and lacking concrete notions about what will result, I’m not sure it even applies), rather amidst the post-election rending of garments, breast-beating, and soul-searching that the self-appointed intellectual elite are engaged in, they positively refuse to recognize that a mystical movement (for truly we know nothing of what will actually happen, as no specifics were ever given; we were simply reassured that all would be “terrific” and “great”) has swept the board. A culture of disdain for the rural, for the uneducated, for local vs. global orientation, for those who are uniformly regarded as backwards and superstitious, for those who weighed self-interest against the community, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “mistake an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one”, prompted a backlash.
This is not the apocalypse. This is a repetition of history. Revolutions occur. In 2008, we may very well have seemed to be poised on a new age of inclusion, globalization, and a death blow to generations of racism. But there is always a counter-revolution, and its quality and character is often determined by that which precedes it. In the U.S., we elected our first African-American president, who, like him or hate him, enacted significant changes, undeniably improving the lives of many, and raising hopes for a more equitable future. But in many ways, this created a battleground, where Republicans and Democrats alike no longer regarded each other as “the loyal opposition”, rather ascribed demonic qualities to those who did not share their beliefs. The Democrat regarded the Republican as a redneck racist, religious nutjob, and mysoginist; the Republican regarded the Democrat as a pencil-necked, smoothie drinking liberal willing to sell off the American Dream and teaching the next generation a brand of post-modern ambivalence couched as social justice. Consequently, the counter-revolution elected a mystic, and it remains to be seen what the results of such a decision will be. Rest assured, the world will not end. No state need secede. Yet, there are lessons to be learned. Although, we have not learned from history as of yet, so no reason to be especially optimistic.
Luckily, we can rifle through the unmentionables of our forefathers, both here and abroad, and conclude that as insane as our world looks now, this too shall pass, albeit like a gallstone, but pass it will. Mysticism and politics have always been intertwined. Perhaps we can learn something from the case of Eugene Vintras and the Saviours of Louis XVII in so far as sometimes the mystic themselves doesn’t understand the purposes for which they are used or the currents of thought that brought them to power, and similarly the intellectual elite are oblivious to the reasons mysticism hold such an undeniable appeal.
The political and social upheaval of the French Revolution (1789-1799), overthrew an ancient monarchy, declared the Rights of Man and established a republic, and culminated in a dictatorship by Napoleon that promised a Greater Expanding Sphere of Prosperity that was France. Them’s the breaks, repeated again and again throughout history. Benevolence is supplanted by mysticism, invariably supplanted by authoritarianism and insanity until the next revolution. The spasm of violence and executions that marked the infamous 1793 “Reign of Terror”, the guillotining of Louis XVI of France, and the expressed desire of the National Convention to export revolution had Europe worried, and a coalition of Spain, Naples, Great Britain, and the Netherlands joined Austria and Prussia in an effort to contain the spread of the new ideologies. By 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte had staged his coup, reversed many of the revolutionary policies, and been declared Emperor, albeit constitutionally, and thrown all of Europe into war. With his 1814 exile to Saint Helena following defeat at Waterloo, the royalist Bourbon Restoration got underway. This turn back towards monarchy was a struggle between liberal royalists who believed in the crown, but wanted a more moderate constitutional monarchy and the reactionary ultra-royalists who envisioned turning the clock back to pre-1789 absolutism and making France great again. Sound vaguely familiar?
Enter Eugene Vintras and the Saviours of Louis XVII. Rumor had spread that Louis-Charles, Dauphin of France (son of the executed King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette), imprisoned from August 1792 until his death from illness in 1795 at the age of 10, had actually escaped and was waiting in the wings to be restored to the throne. A political movement that dubbed itself the “Saviours of Louis XVII” emerged. Almost 100 “false dauphins” appeared over the years as rival claimants. It was a very confusing time. How exactly the restoration of the monarchy under Louis-Charles would have ushered in a glorious era of prosperity for France was never made explicit, but the mystical cachet of a surviving heir to the throne held great appeal, particularly as a main quasi-religious supporter in the form of devout French laborer Eugene Vintras of Normandy appeared to lend the mandate of heaven. There is a great deal of debate as to whether Vintras was a prophet or a gullible dupe manipulated by savvy politicians, but his support for the “Saviours of Louis XVII” lent an air of theological inevitability to the cause.
The year was 1839. Vintras was sitting in his room, expecting a workman to arrive. There was a knock on the door, and there he saw an old man, dressed in rags. This apparition addressed Vintras as Pierre Michel—names which he thought nobody knew were his. The visitor complained that everyone thought him a thief, that he was weary, and so on. Vintras, touched, handed him ten sous, with a reassuring word. He left, but Vintras did not hear him go downstairs. He searched the house, but could not find him. He later found that there was a mysterious letter, with the coin which he had given to the stranger on top of it, on his table. This letter, by its contents and ‘supernatural’ appearance, made Vintras (probably with some other inspiration of a similar kind) a protagonist of Louis XVII. Now Vintras appears as a sort of seer and prophet, carrying on propaganda for Louis in a field where it could do a great deal; in the twilight of supernatural belief. (Daraul, 1961, p127).
Politics is the art by which we try to realize our collective dreams and stave off our shared nightmares, thus it is no wonder that there is a high degree of overlap between the political and the mystical. All our polling, our expert analysis, and confidence that an arid rationality will win the day seems to pale in comparison to millennial and messianic expectations we invest in leaders. We repeatedly turn away from timeworn notions that empathy, understanding, and an ambiguous “justice” will win out, and that our better angels are universally the same angels. Our institutions invest themselves in explaining our world to us, but the explanations ring hollow in the face of our everyday lives, and when we tire of the alien realities of the arbiters of knowledge, folks begin to realize that there is no intersection between our lived experience and what we are told. As Bram Stoker wrote, “Do you not think that there are things which you cannot understand, and yet which are; that some people see things that others cannot? But there are things old and new which must not be contemplated by men’s eyes, because they know – or think they know – some things which other men have told them. Ah, it is the fault of our science that it wants to explain all; and if it explain not, then it says there is nothing to explain.” Mysticism offers a shortcut, and hence its appeal. From rejectionism and chaos, a mystic always arises to offer guidance, and we want to believe for our own reasons that cannot offer themselves up to logic, empiricism, or other mechanisms by which we feel ourselves controlled. The Saviours of Louis XVII needed more than a child Dauphin amidst the tumultuous Bourbon Restoration. They needed a sign.
The sect of Louis XVII consists more especially of persons belonging to the service of the legitimate royalty, and when Vintras became their medium, he was the faithful mirror of their imaginations filled with Romanesque memories and obsolete mysticism. In the visions of the new prophet there were everywhere lilies steeped in blood, angels habited like knights, saints disguised as troubadours. Thereafter came hosts affixed on blue silk. Vintras had bloody sweats, his blood appeared on hosts, where it pictured hearts with inscriptions in the handwriting and spelling of Vintras; empty chalices were filled suddenly with wine, and where the wine fell the stains were like those of blood. The initiates believed that they heard delightful music and breathed unknown perfumes; priests, invited to witness the prodigies, were carried away in the current of enthusiasm. One of them, from the diocese of Tours, an old and venerable ecclesiastic, left his cure to follow the prophet. We have personally seen this priest; he has narrated the marvels of Vintras with the most perfect accent of conviction; he has shown us hosts intincted with blood in a most inexplicable manner; he has communicated to us copies of official proceedings signed by more than fifty witnesses, all honorable persons, occupying positions in the world—artists, physicians, lawyers, a Chevalier de Razac and a Duchesse d’Armaille. Doctors have analysed the crimson fluid which flowed from the hosts and have certified that it was human blood; the very enemies of Vintras, and he has cruel enemies, do not dispute the miracles, but refer them to the devil. “Now,” said the Abbe Chavoz, the priest of Touraine whom we have mentioned, “can you tolerate the notion of the demon falsifying the blood of Christ Jesus on hosts which have been regularly consecrated?” Abbe Chavoz is a real priest, and the signs in question appeared in hosts which had been hallowed by him (Lévi, 1913, p464-465).
Humanity endures, but never trusts those classes that position themselves as “elites”, either intellectually, politically, socially, or theologically. Is it any wonder that when we can invest a mystical figure with the “common spirit”, the appeal to many is as obvious as the blindness of the governing system, the media apparatus, and the institutionalized edifices of our ideologies as to how what they held to be the core beliefs and zeitgeist of the age are caricatures rooted in wishful thinking. Adherents of the new mysticism are summarily excoriated and excommunicated from polite discourse in disbelief, only they in turn declare themselves enlightened and their perceived persecutors as apostates.
Vintras seems to have been a similar product in France to Andrew Jackson Davis in America. In order to hear him with some show of seriousness, we have to accept it as a fact, firstly, that he was wholly uneducated, on which point we have indeed the authority of independent French criticism; and, secondly, that the notions which he disseminated were quite beyond his own unaided possibility. There are certain respects in which he must have outrun even the sanguine enthusiasm of the King’s Saviours, and, as time went on, his frenzy lost sight altogether of the Dauphin and the Due de Normandie, for Vintras posed ultimately as the religious prophet of a new sacerdotal order. What he preached was the Coming of the King and the King’s Rendering, but in a manner so perfervid and so exalted that it lost touch with the true legitimacy, and became identical with the doctrine of the second advent. We have no statistics to show how he was received or what proportions were attained by the sect of which he was the head. One would think that it must have been, numerically at least, more important than might be inferred from its character, or from any available records, from the simple fact that it was worthwhile for a Pope to condemn it, as already mentioned, in the brief published by Pope Gregory on November 8, 1843. This was possibly on account of the thaumaturgic phenomena and the priestly pretensions of Vintras, who, without any episcopal consecration, as need scarcely be said, took upon himself the ecclesiastical function and celebrated mysterious masses in which the hosts had miraculous properties and exhibited strange stigmas, while the sacramental wine was given up by the atmosphere itself, and was seen, in the presence of the worshippers, to distil by drops into the chalice. The church which dispenses the sacraments could not, of course, tolerate this Eucharist which flouted apostolical succession and yet offered such miraculous signs of efficacy. When Vintras was excommunicated, he did what other arch-heretics had done of old before him; he excommunicated the Pope in return, and, further, clothed himself with pontifical garments of a pattern received in his revelations. As a consequence probably of the papal brief, the sect appears to have been proscribed shortly afterwards in France, and the self-constituted pontiff betook himself to London, where his miraculous masses continued in the prosaic region of Marylebone Road (Waite, 1906, p107-108).
When the new boss, same as the old boss ultimately fails to deliver enlightenment and usher in paradise on earth, a base level of sanity and compromise returns, at least for a little while, until the next upheaval and a new mystic appears to don the mantle. We can expect the post-mortem of the 2016 U.S. election to drag on without the necessary self-flaggelation, as experts scramble to justify their titles, having learned nothing from their abject failures, arrogant assumptions, and postures as bellwethers where we see only sheep. Pundits will argue with theological precision as to how we reached the current state of affairs, sadly missing the intrinsic connection between mysticism and politics. As Mesiter Eckhart said, “Theologians may quarrel, but the mystics of the world speak the same language.”
Daraul, Arkon. A History of Secret Societies. [1st U.S. ed.] New York: Citadel Press, 1961.
Lévi, Eliphas, 1810-1875. The History of Magic: Including a Clear And Precise Exposition of Its Procedure, Its Rites And Its Mysteries. London: W. Rider & Son, 1913.
Waite, Arthur Edward, 1857-1942. Studies in Mysticism And Certain Aspects of the Secret Tradition. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1906.