Report on the ESSWE7 Conference in Amsterdam, July 2–4, 2019 (Part I)
The ESSWE7 conference titled Western Esotericism and Consciousness: Visions, Voices, Altered States in Amsterdam (July 1–4, 2019) was our first joint activity on an international scale. Seven of our research subprojects were presented in two panels, both under the title “New Age in Russia“, although our primary research area reaches beyond geographical and political borders and is not specifically Russian but rather “Soviet” or “post-Soviet”.
The European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE), founded in 2005, is the first international academic organization of this kind, which currently has members from about 36 countries. Biannual conferences are organized and held, in accordance with the ESSWE board, in different European cities (Tübingen, Strasbourg, Szeged, Gothenburg, Riga, Erfurt). The proceedings of most of these conferences have been published by Brill/Boston. There are 11 regional and thematic networks of ESSWE in various countries (see the ESSWE website https://www.esswe.org/Networks).
Amsterdam as the place of this year’s ESSWE7 conference, the largest of all so far, was deliberately chosen, because it coincided with the 20th anniversary of the Center for the History of Hermetic Philosophy and related Currents. This was celebrated with a reception in the Bibliotheca Philosophica Hermetica (Ritman Library), and, above all, with the publication of an anniversary volume titled Hermes explains: Thirty Questions about Western Esotericism (2019), edited by Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Peter J. Forshaw and Marco Pasi, all three leading staff members of the Amsterdam chair. Each participant was handed this volume as a gift from the hosts.
Three keynote lectures were attended by all participants and had a major impact on the quality of the conference: Sonu Shamdasani, the London-based historian of psychiatry and psychology and editor of C. G. Jung’s writings, espеcially The Red Book, with his lecture on ’A Faint Rumour Left Behind’: Fragments from a History of Concepts of Consciousness; Yulia Ustinova, professor for ancient history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev/Israel. In her lecture Ecstatic Wisdom in Ancient Greece, she presented a fascinating interpretation of altered states of consciousness (ASC) of a number of Greek philosophers, which will be challenging for the related academic community. Based on a cautious new reading of the source material, field work (visiting caves) and applying results of cognitive neuroscience, Ustinova showed, how many texts were most likely backed by mystical experiences of the well-known philosophers. The historian of religious studies from the University of Vienna Karl Baier presented new material about the early history of chemical psychedelics. In his lecture Early Psychonauts: Albert Hofmann’s Occultic Network, he presented especially some well-known German intellectuals, writers (Ernst Jünger (1895–1998)), and publishers including right-wing thinkers and representatives of the conservative revolution as members of a circle around Albert Hofmann (1906–2008), thus connecting LSD with milieus quite different from the hitherto known countercultural ones. Luckily, all keynote lectures, as well as selected panels, including the second one of our cluster, were recorded by the private French TV-group and will be, as the organizers promised, posted open access on the ESSWE website within the next months.
Clearly, even seven members of our project could not attend most of the forty-seven panels, in which 188 participants presented their papers in eight sessions during these four days. But some cluster sessions, outside of our own German-Russian ones on New Age of Russia, were attended, so that some impressions about trending topics and research can be shared here. One more session on Russian consciousness offered diverse presenters and fascinating talks, including altered states of consciousness and mystical experiences by Russian freemasons (Konstantin Burmistrov), Andrei Bely’s hermetic symbolism (Angelika Schmitt), and possession and mental disorder (exorcism) in contemporary Russian Orthodoxy (Pavel Nosachev). All three presentations were based on new archival and unpublished topical material. There were three sessions on Sufism reflecting the current popularity of this topic (also a thematic network within ESSWE), both as part of New Age and Islam revival, but also as part of anti-Islamic political ideology (Razoul Namazi on Leo Strauss). Two panels on Anthroposophy reflected critical etic as well as rather apologetic emic positions. Compared to previous conferences, there were reoccurring panel topics, such as Kabbalah, though less prominent than at previous ones, Theosophy, Gurdjieff, sexuality and gender. In line with the subject of the conference, psychedelics were a prominent cluster of panels, with excellent scholars of, among others, the psychedelic Western counterculture (Eric David, Christopher Partridge). But also aspects of psychiatry and psychical research were presented in several panels.
There was only one panel dedicated to art (theater and music) at this conference. Generally, the history of ideas was more prominently presented and discussed than contemporary political implications. And ASC-related topics in the English-speaking world were naturally prevailing (Alister Crowley, Golden Dawn, Magic/Magick, science fiction). In spite of the multidisciplinary approaches and the conference call for an application of cognitive scientific approaches, it is our impression (with all due gaps of attendance) that issues of theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of esotericism could have been addressed more often and more in-depth (a fine theoretical panel was chaired by Egil Asprem).