Lusus serius: The Rosicrucian manifestos and the 'serious joke'
by Mike Jay
[ strangeness - april 02 ]
The anonymous publication of the three Rosicrucian Manifestos, in Germany between 1614 and 1616, was and still remains one of the most explosive political furores ever inspired by a body of esoteric writings. Their call for the "Universal and General Reformation of the Whole Wide World" around the hermetic understanding of man as microcosm of Nature was met with a furious witch-hunt extending across the whole of Northern Europe and promising death by burning to any member of the elusive "Invisible Brotherhood".
The original manifestos were almost immediately swallowed up by torrents of pamphleteering, secret societies and counter-societies, both Protestant and Catholic, agent provocateurs, 'fake' Brotherhoods and spies. By the time the furore died down, it was clear that there was no consensus about what the manifestos actually were. Some believed them to be divinely-inspired revelations; others (including those most closely associated with them) dismissed them as a ludibrium, or 'a bit of fun'; others regarded them as a hoax, or an act of deliberate political mischief - or Horrible Pacts Made Between the Devil and the Pretended Invisible Ones, as one Paris pamphlet put it.
As the seeds sown by the original Manifestos spread, these divisions widened rather than narrowing. Today, Christian Rosenkreuz, the mythical founder of the Brotherhood, is accepted as a divinely-inspired figure by many esoteric groups, including the followers of Rudolph Steiner and most self-confessed Rosicrucians; for most historical scholars, the manifestos are a 'hoax' and the furore a case of paranoid mass hysteria.
It's fairly clear that the anonymous (though not entirely mysterious) authors of the Manifestos regarded both these views as misguided. There is evidence for this both in the manifestos themselves and in the subsequent writings of the interested parties. Johann Valentin Andreae, the Swabian pietist pastor most closely associated with the manifestos (certainly with the final one, 'The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz'), was quite specific: "In vain do you wait for the coming of the Brotherhood - the comedy is at an end."
But "the ficticious Rosicrucian fraternity", as he calls it, was obviously more than the ludibrium he pretends. The manifestos are considerable works, and obviously serious in intent - even if not literally true. It seems likely that Andreae was exasperated into dismissing them as a joke by the literal fundamentalism which was growing up around them, which he was by this stage powerless to stop. Perhaps a better description of the manifestos might be that used as a title by another Rosicrucian apologist, Michael Maier - the Lusus Serius, or 'serious joke'.
It's not hard to understand Andreae's frustration with the public's inability to allow the Manifestos' ambiguities to stand, or to accept that they were to be read on more than one level. It's not as if, by cloaking their message in fictional terms, the authors of the Manifestos were doing anything radically new. The lusus serius was already an established form, with roots in some of the oldest spiritual writings, and has continued to evolve into contemporary forms which we can recognise today.
The Manifestos, in fact, offer an excellent starting point both for an analysis of the effects that can be achieved by the lusus serius, and the techniques which can be used to achieve them They're exciting, tantalising and inspiring writings, achieving the fine balance of revelation and concealment which made the furore possible. Also, they achieve the blend of revelatory message with imaginative fiction in two very different ways. The 'Fama Fraternitatis', as the first manifesto is known, uses the form of a political proclamation to present a fiction as truth; the final manifesto, the 'Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz', uses the form of an allegorical narrative to present truth as fiction.
The Fama is styled as an official announcement, but it's a rallying-call to join the cause of Brotherhood who are 'invisible'. This is an invitation to a meeting with no time or place. Instead, it explains how the Brotherhood have come into being. This is the story of a sage called Christian Rosenkreuz who died 120 years ago, but whose vault - and therewith his secret knowledge and legacy - have been recently rediscovered.
Christian Rosenkreuz's story is a join-the-dots of the influences which those attracted by the rallying-call would be expected to hold dear. His encounters with the wise men of Damascus, Egypt, Fez and Spain speak of the influence of magia, alchemy and kaballah; Paracelsus is mentioned as someone who has been ploughing a similar furrow. Similarly, the description of the Brotherhood sets up an ideal of study, healing the sick, ignoring "the ungodly and accursed gold-making, which hath so much got the upper hand", and working quietly for change in the hearts of men.
These two creations, Christian Rosenkreuz and the Brotherhood, have proved to have a longevity which a more prosaic tract could never have achieved - a longevity which quickly turned into a life of its own. Within a few generations most followers of the Rosicrucian ideal were required to believe in the literal truth of these stories; by the time Shelley wrote his juvenile novel 'The Rosicrucian', the image of the Invisible Brotherhood of gold-making adepts was a free-floating feature of popular consciousness, its source long forgotten: Shelley shows no signs of being aware that the Manifestos ever existed.
But this 'literalisation' of the Manifestos by the public, and their condemnation as evil lies by the authorities, may have come as a surprise to their authors in view of the tradition in which they were writing. Many of the works which most inspired them were 'archaised', i.e. presented in a form which suggested that they were older than they were. This wasn't regarded as a 'hoax' - merely an elegant way of stressing the roots and tradition of the writing.
The most famous example of this was, of course, the 'Corpus Hermeticum', the neo-Platonist body of magical and cosmological dialogues which was, ironically enough, taken literally in its claims to have been handed down from Hermes Trismegistus, the legendary sage of pre-Classical times. It was this belief that the 'Corpus' was hundreds of years older than it really was which was responsible for the rise of the Hermetic movement from the time when the dialogues were first translated by Ficino in 1463, and also for the dramatic waning of interest in the same movement after they were correctly dated by Isaac Casaubon in 1614. Once this discovery became generally known, only the most diehard hermetic apologists like Fludd and Kircher continued to maintain its literal truth. But, as the Manifestos themselves make clear, the hermetic tradition should hardly stand or fall on the archaist presentation of the texts.
Such archaism was widespread in the Hellenistic period, where revivals (or reinventions) of the ancient religions were commonplace. Many of the prophetic Jewish apocalypses written at the same time showed the same archaising tendency: 'Jubilees', for example, was ascribed to Moses, '1 Enoch' to a patriarch from the dawn of time. This technique was, of course, eminently suited to prophecy: the author could reveal a series of uncannily accurate details about the supposed future, which would confer greater authority on the revelation which followed.
It would be ungenerous and perverse to call this method of presentation a 'hoax' or a lie: authors may believe in the literal truth of their own archaism (nowadays called 'channelling'), or may be presenting their revelation as allegory and offering the archaic source as a key to decode it. Or, again, they may be using the device for literary means.
There are plenty of examples of all these approaches from closer to our own time, many of which have succeeded in kick-starting major spiritual movements. H P Blavatsky's 'Stanzas of Dzya', for example, to which her books 'Isis Unveiled' and 'The Secret Doctrine' form an extended commentary, are claimed as fragments of "the oldest book in the world", presented to her on imperishable palm leaves by her Tibetan Invisible Masters. In the absence of any corroborating evidence, most non-Theosophists are reluctant to accept the literal truth of this, though Blavatsky steadfastly refused to cop the ludibrium plea. Like her contemporary Joseph Smith, whose 'Book of Mormon' materialised in a similar way, the grumblings of sceptics had little effect on the ensuing movement. (But since the 'Donation of Constantine', the document which confers divine authority on the Pope, is now acknowledged to be a 9th-century forgery, we must realistically regard the authenticity of doctrinal revelation as a luxury rather than a necessity.)
A similar feat was accomplished in reverse by the horror writer H P Lovecraft, who evolved his ancient book of forbidden wisdom, the 'Necronomicon', in the course of developing the cosmic underpinning of his 'Cthulhu Mythos' tales. He enjoyed the process of embellishing it enough to produce a fictitious publishing and translation history, a ludibrium which, like the Manifestos, went on to develop a life of its own, with persistent belief in the literal existence of the book and a subculture of ritual magic dedicated to invoking its cosmic spawn. Lovecraft himself, who took every opportunity to avow his thoroughgoing materialism, would doubtless be either amused or appalled by this turn of events. For him, the 'Necronomicon' was a conceit which concretised the allure of ancient and forbidden texts, much as the Christian Rosenkreuz story in the 'Fama' concretised the ideal of the enlightened hermetist. The proponents of Lovecraftian magick can, however, point to his undeniably vivid dream-life as a source of 'unconscious channelling' from beyond the wall of sleep.
It's interesting to compare this archaising technique with another variant which has developed this century to become a familiar leitmotif of contemporary writing: the fictionalised document received not from the past but from the future. This was largely established by H G Wells in his early novels such as 'War of the Worlds' and 'The Time Machine'; although the device had been used before, it had typically been an excuse either for a utopian tract or light satire on contemporary mores. In using it as a device to make prophecy more credible, Wells' stylistic 'innovation' can be seen in a direct line of descent from the Old Testament and Jewish apocalypses - and, of course, in the form of Orson Welles' radio broadcast, it produced this century's greatest lusus serius and subsequent furore. (Welles himself went on to produce 'F for Fake', a film apologia for the lusus serius and postmodern perversity in general.)
Perhaps the closest contemporary equivalent to the form of the Fama is the works of the Church of the SubGenius, the anonymous surrealist antinomians who propagate their message in the style of today's religious clarion-call, the mail-order exhortations of evangelical churches. Although their parody is (one would hope) too broad for anyone to take literally, they insist on the underlying seriousness of their message: "Well, if you thought this Church was a joke, then you'll by God never get the PUNCHLINE!". But despite several laudable attempts, a furore on the scale of the Rosicrucians remains something they can only dream of.
If the Fama was part of a continuing tradition of fiction dressed as truth, the 'Chemical Wedding' occupies a position in the even more widespread tradition of truth under the cloak of narrative allegory. But it was the combination of the two which is perhaps unique, and was certainly uniquely effective. The 'Fama's clarion-call was a list of grandiose claims and promises which urgently begged the kind of substance which the 'Chemical Wedding' provided; in turn, the Fama's insistence on the "Universal and General Reformation of the Whole Wide World" made sure that the allegory of the 'Chemical Wedding' was combed assiduously for its hidden meaning.
Eager students of the 'Chemical Wedding' were rewarded not only with a narrative which has deservedly gained the reputation as a classic of esoteric literature, but one in which the spirit of the lusus serius was continued. Also backdated (to 1459), it tells the story of seven days in the life of its protagonist who is invited to a Royal Wedding and makes a fantastical journey to a castle where a dead king must be magically resurrected for his own marriage.
The 'Chemical Wedding' is among the most enjoyable and easily readable works of its type, quite remarkably so among its German neighbours. The fluid transitions from reality to fantasy, via dreams, plays-within-plays and alchemical workings, propel the reader through a vivid and fast-moving narrative where nothing is as it seems. Even its protagonists are allowed to enjoy themselves in the course of their serious spiritual quest: during the pivotal "Fourth Day" they are all assembled to watch a play, which itself has light interludes ("First Interlude: here a lion was set to fight a gryphon, and the lion won; which was very good to watch").
The 'Chemical Wedding', roughly contemporaneous with Shakespeare's later and more hermetic work, more or less delineates the approaching high-water mark of esoteric allegory. Even more than the archaism of the Fama, the allegorical form would have been immediately recognisable to its contemporary readers. Within the German tradition, it followed recognisably from medieval classics like von Eschenbach's 'Parzifal': much has been made of the parallels between the Grail Knights, the Invisible Brotherhood and the 'Chemical Wedding's 'Knights of the Golden Stone', and also between the miraculously preserved Titurel and the unconsumed body of Christian Rosenkreuz in his vault. Within the broader esoteric tradition, its form recalls Sufi narratives such as Farid ud-Din Attar's 'Conference of the Birds', or the climax of the neo-Platonic contemporary of the Corpus Hermeticum, Apuleius' 'Golden Ass'.
'Esoteric fiction', like the lusus serius, is something of a contradiction in terms. It involves two different things at the same time: revealing a spiritual message and constructing a drama of characters and action. Since both these have their own dynamics, it's often necessary to choose between them. Authors may wear their esoteric intentions on their sleeve, proclaiming the revelatory nature of the work up front and abandoning the narrative where necessary to pursue their 'serious' purpose; or they may focus their skills on embedding the narrative imperceptibly with their occult subtext.
If we include this second approach as 'esoteric fiction', then prior to the 18th century, most of the greats from Dante to Shakespeare to Milton (and later Goethe) fall into the category; in fact, it might be simpler to compile a list of authors who didn't encode their fiction with esoteric schemata. But from the Enlightenment onwards, 'esoteric fiction' becomes distinctly more marginalised, emerging again as a popular genre only in the 19th century. In this Victorian movement, however, the spirit of the lusus serius is largely forgotten, and the light touch of the 'Chemical Wedding' is traditionally missing. Bulwer Lytton's 'Zanoni: A Rosicrucian Tale', for example, remains impenetrable to most modern readers, its narrative hamstrung by his Illuminated Invisibles' tendency to stop the story to deliver lengthy and rather pompous sermons and also, in a way which is dramatically irritating, to be always right.
In real life, Lytton was a sensible and perceptive occult scholar, but his 'esoteric' fiction (e.g. 'Vril: The Coming Race, The Haunter and the Haunted') continued to suffer from these defects. Still, there are honourable exceptions from the period, such as Jan Potocki's unfinished 'Saragossa Manuscript', a work in the lively, irreverent and pacy style of the 18th-century picaresque, which is a delight to read and reminiscent of the 'Chemical Wedding' in enough specific ways to suggest that Potocki was familiar with it. 'Saragossa Manuscript' is similarly divided into numbered days in the life of the protagonist, most of which, like the 'Chemical Wedding', include both waking incidents and a dream (with deliriously confused shifts of reality in between), and features a Kabbalist in search of a divine revelation which parallels the protagonist's own experiences.
Although the legacy of Lytton-style 'esoteric fiction' has survived through to the present day, the influence of the 'Chemical Wedding' and the lusus serius has moved on into two distinct schools of contemporary writing. On the one hand, the ideas of the Manifestos have been explored by esoteric literati, who have dealt intelligently with occult conspiracy (e.g. Eco in 'Foucault's Pendulum') and the metaphysical implications of the lusus serius (e.g. Borges in 'Orbis Tertius'). But these are works about the issues raised by the Manifestos, rather than their true successors. The form of the manifestos - the revelatory work in the clothing of fiction - is more clearly to be seen in bestsellers like Castaneda's Don Juan series, Paolo Coelo's 'The Alchemist' and sequels, 'spiritual quests' like 'The Celestine Prophecies' and the massive subculture of 'channelled' narratives from aliens and angels. These share with the Manifestos the pretension to being 'more than fiction', not to be read for their literary merit alone. We may feel that there is little literary merit to read them for, and that in contrast the Manifestos are literary masterpieces and more besides, but we can recognise the legacy in form if not in quality.
Perhaps the closest contemporary writers to bridge these two schools are Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, whose 'Illuminati!' series deal with the historical issues of the Manifestos while also presenting themselves half-seriously as 'books to live by' and revelations of occult wisdom. At their best, they achieve the lusus serius in its modern counterculture form: are these books which only paranoid hippies will take seriously, or is that exactly what They want you to think?
Of course, to search for precise modern equivalents of the Manifestos is to fall into the trap of literalism which has always been to miss the point. As Goethe said of the 'Chemical Wedding', "there will be a tale to tell at the right time, but it will have to be reborn - it can't be enjoyed in its old skin". We are no longer in the original authors' position of Christian mystical pietists attempting a revolution of church and politics: that was indeed a serious game, and one which was to sweep the Invisible Brotherhood away in full-scale military conflict. But the Manifestos succeeded in transmuting their message from ludibrium to legend; and the weapon of the lusus serius is still there to be deployed by anyone who can adapt its sensibility to the world they find around them.