The Occult Jew, pt. 5

The great contrast to Lewis and Tolkien, in both his enthusiastic embrace of the occult and his extensive use of the trope of the Occult Jew, was their friend Charles Williams. Williams was a poet, a popular speaker on literature, the author of works on Christian theology and witchcraft, a religious dramatist, and an influential editor at the Oxford University Press. He was a member of the Inklings, the circle of writers that gathered around Lewis to drink, smoke, argue, and share works in progress. Like Lewis and Tolkien, Williams was a man of deep Christian faith who brought that faith into his fictions.

Yet unlike Lewis and Tolkien, Williams was fascinated by the occult. He was a member of Waite’s Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, with its kabbalistic crucifixions. Moreover, the charismatic Williams had his own acolytes, a series of young women with whom he carried out mildly sadomasochistic if unconsummated relationships based on spiritual-erotic teachings that strained normative Christian doctrine.[1]

Lewis and Tolkien evidently did not know the full extent of their friend’s peculiarities yet, when someone remarked that Williams ought to be burnt at the stake, Lewis and Tolkien agreed that their friend was, in Lewis’s words, “eminently combustible.”[2]

Tolkien, Owen Barfield, the “eminently combustible” Williams, and Lewis

Williams remains best known today for his supernatural thrillers. These novels, with their combination of supernatural terror and quirky Englishness, have been characterized as a combination of Dante and P. G. Wodehouse. Lewis, with some reservations, was a fan; Tolkien found them “distasteful” and “ridiculous.”[3]

In the first of these thrillers to be published, War in Heaven (1930), the Holy Grail turns up as the property of an English village church. The Grail is coveted by Gregory Persimmons, a satanist and wealthy London book publisher. His firm’s catalog runs, we hear, to “what you might call occult stuff. Mesmerism and astrology and histories of great sorcerers, and that sort of thing.”[4]

Persimmons has allies in a pair of fellow black magicians, Dmitri and Manasseh, introduced to the reader as “the Greek” and the “the Jew.” Persimmons embodies evil as the will-to-power. Dmitri represents a more nihilistic stage of evil as the will-to-nothingness. Manasseh represents evil as the will-to-destroy. Persimmons wants to exploit the power of the Grail; Manasseh would simply obliterate it:

“Because it has power,” the Jew answered, leaning over the counter and whispering fiercely, “it must be destroyed. Don’t you understand that yet? They build and we destroy. That’s what levels us; that’s what stops them. One day we shall destroy the world. What can you do with it that is so good as that? […] To destroy this is to ruin another of their houses, and another step towards the hour when we shall breathe against the heavens and they shall fall.”[5]

With his sneers, mutterings, and seething hatred, Manasseh seems to have stepped out of some antisemitic medieval passion play, though as someone who enjoys Williams’s novels I can sympathize with Gavin Ashenden’s observation that Manasseh and company “have about them something of the appeal of the pantomime villain […] mainly repugnant, but endearing in their obvious villainy.”[6]

War in Heaven even gestures toward the blood libel, though it is Persimmons, not Manasseh who plans to abduct a four-year-old boy, and not to murder the child but rather to corrupt his soul by teaching him the ways of black magic—a spiritual murder. The Jewish villain is not the instigator of this particular crime, though he is an accomplice and arranges for the boy to be taken out of England to “the East.”[7]

Nor is Manasseh the only instance of the Jew as occult figure in Williams’s novels. In the 1945 All Hallow’s Eve, the villain is a Jewish sorcerer named Simon (the name alludes to the heretic Simon Magus from Christian tradition) who tries to incarnate in himself the anti-Christ by having the Tetragrammaton spoken backwards in a magical ritual. “Only a Jew,” we are told, “could utter the Jewish, which was the final, word of power.”[8]

Simon’s unholy sorcery is presented as the inversion of—and, from his perspective, improvement upon—an earlier work of Jewish magic: the birth of Jesus. In Simon’s telling, the New Testament’s Joseph was a “sorcerer . . . a Jew, a descendant of the house of David,” who “had compelled a woman [i.e., Mary] of the same house to utter the Name, and something more than mortal had been born.” Unfortunately, the result of this ritual “had perished miserably” and it would be “two thousand years before anyone had dared to risk the attempt again.” Now Simon’s goal is the domination of humanity rather than Jesus’s atonement for its sins.[9]

Simon’s unholy sorcery is presented as the inversion of—and, from his perspective, improvement upon—an earlier work of Jewish magic: the birth of Jesus.

In exposition that slips between Simon’s views and Williams’s authorial voice, we are told that the purpose of the Jews was to produce Jesus. When the Jews unwittingly condemned to death their own God in human form, they sealed their doom: “the race which had been set for the salvation of the world became a judgment and even a curse to the world and to themselves.” For two thousand years the Jews would be alienated from God and humanity both. Meanwhile, Christian Gentiles would resent the Jewish familial connection to their savior, an envy expressed in anti-Jewish persecution. “Bragging themselves to be the new Israel,” Christians “slandered and slew the old, and the old despised and hated the bragging new.”[10]

This would be the history of Jewish-Christian relations until Nazism, when “there rose in Europe something which was neither, and set itself to destroy both.” Yet Hitler, just defeated when Williams’s novel was published, was not the anti-Christ. “Oh, the war!” says Simon contemptuously. “The war, like Hitler, was a foolery. I am the one who is to come, not Hitler!”[11]

The real anti-Christ can only be brought by a Jew, just as two thousand years ago it had been Mary, “a Jewish girl who . . . uttered everywhere in herself the perfect Tetragrammaton.” At the end of the novel, though, Simon fails to bring about this “second climax” of Jewish magical potential.[12]

“Only a Jew could utter the Jewish, which was the final, word of power.”

His most successful work of sorcery in the novel is, appropriately for a Jewish magus, the creation of a golem (though not named as such). Combining ordinary dust with his own saliva and animating breath—a parody of God’s creation of Adam in Genesis—Simon fashions a grotesque homunculus: “It was faintly repellent, as an actual doll might be if it were peculiarly deformed or ugly.” Meant to assist Simon’s ascension, the golem, though, is finally undone, becoming “damp mud” and then “only a lump” dissolving in the London rain.[13]

Williams was not known to be anti-Jewish in his personal behavior. His Jewish villains seem not to reflect animosity toward actual Jews but rather his fascination with the occult and with esoteric forms of Christianity. In a number of places in his novels he sounds a critical note about antisemitism, mocking a Jew-baiting mob in Shadows of Ecstasy (1933) and having the iniquitous heel Sir Giles Tumulty give voice to anti-Jewish snobbery in the two novels in which that character appears.

Moreover, as we have already seen, Williams frequently focuses on the fact of Jesus’s being a Jew, while the heroine of the novel Many Dimensions (1930) has a mystical vision that includes benign sages with “boxes fastened to their foreheads and wrists . . . . Their faces were Jewish, and mostly very old and lined with much thought . . . but astonishingly full and clear and happy.”[14]

“Their faces were Jewish, and mostly very old and lined with much thought . . . but astonishingly full and clear and happy.”

At the same time, the only Jews in Williams’s novels who are not directly connected with magic or the supernatural are the decidedly unpleasant Ezekiel and Nehemiah Rosenberg in Shadows of Ecstasy, described as fanatics with “old, bearded, and violent faces” and who “abominate the Gentiles of London.” Otherwise, Williams’s Jews are all occult creatures, linked to objects and figures of mystical power. Even the “gipsies” of Williams’s Tarot novel, The Greater Trumps (1932) possess hints of Jewishness, with the main antagonist bearing the more Jewish than Romani name of Aaron Lee and having an ancestor who “had fled to England from the authority of the King of Spain.”[15]

Williams’s sorcerous Jews are joined by those in the bestselling potboilers of Dennis Wheatley, whose best-known novels, lacking the intellectual depth and literary quality of Williams, feature the occult as part of their improbable cloak-and-dagger plots.

Dennis Wheatley

In Wheatley’s The Devil Rides Out (1934), the heroic Duke de Richleau, a Russian-born aristocrat and occultist loyal to his adopted country of England, has to rescue his friend, the Jewish financier Simon Aron, who has been seduced by a group of evil occultists. Simon is to be corrupted in a Black Mass and renamed Abraham, after “Abraham the Jew” from the Flamel manuscripts discussed previously.

Based on a real-life friend of Wheatley’s, Simon is by far the most positive of his Jewish characters. In The Devil Rides Out, Simon voluntarily faces down the evil occultists alone, in order to keep his friends out of danger and to rescue a kidnapped child. At the same time, he is described in terms of Semitic racial features such as his “full, sensual mouth” and “the beaky nose, the bird-like head, the narrow-stooping shoulders.”[16]

“I discovered that the whole business is bound up with the Cabbala so, being Jewish, I began to study the esoteric doctrine of my own people.”

More significantly, Simon is the weak link in de Richleau’s inner circle because of his stereotypically Jewish character traits. Simon fell into the company of the evil occultists because he became interested in the possibility of using alchemy to create gold. Subsequently, he tells the Duke: “I discovered that the whole business is bound up with the Cabbala so, being Jewish, I began to study the esoteric doctrine of my own people,” including “the Sepher Ha Zoher [sic].” Furthermore, the leader of the black magicians is the sinister Mocata, who though not specified to be Jewish, shares a name with England’s prominent Jewish Mocatta family.[17]

Three decades later, in Wheatley’s World War Two thriller They Used Dark Forces (1964), the British spy Gregory Sallust undertakes a series of dangerous missions inside Nazi Germany where, in order to bring down Hitler (who makes an extended appearance in the novel), he is forced to work alongside a Jewish sorcerer. This Polish Jew, Malacou, has sold his soul to the Devil and rapes his own daughter in satanic rituals.

First edition cover of They Used Dark Forces (1964)

Wheatley describes Malacou’s “big dark hook-nosed face with its sensual mouth and clever, slightly slanting eyes.” Yet desperation makes strange bedfellows, and Sallust teams up with Malacou, even allowing the Jew to forge a telepathic bond with him that allows the two to survive and escape imprisonment in a concentration camp and, with the help of a kindly Hermann Goerring, to finish off Hitler and bring down the Nazi regime.[18]

As Sallust reflects: “Malacou might be guilty of murder, incest and practising the Black Art, but his blood made him a deadly enemy of the Nazis and he possessed powers which, although their source might be evil, were granted to few.”[19]

Coming up: fantasy literature and the occult from the mid-twentieth century to the 1990s

Sources:

Ashenden, Gavin. Charles Williams: Alchemy and Integration. e-book, Kent State University Press, 2008.

Baker, Phil. The Devil is a Gentleman: The Life and Times of Dennis Wheatley. Dedalus, 2011.

Hutton, Ronald. The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft. e-book, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Lewis, C. S. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume II: Books, Broadcasts, and the War, 1931-1949. Ed. Walter Hoope. e-book, HarperCollins, 2009.

Lindop, Grevel. Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. e-book, Oxford University Press, 2015.

Wheatley, Dennis. The Devil Rides Out. Bloomsbury Reader, 2013a.

–. They Used Dark Forces. e-book, Bloomsbury Reader, 2013b.

Williams, Charles, War in Heaven. Grand Rapids, MI and Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 1967.

–. The Greater Trumps. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1976a.

–. Many Dimensions. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, reprint 1976b.

–. Shadows of Ecstasy. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, reprint 1980.

–. All Hallows’ Eve. e-book, Open Road Integrated Media, 2015.

Zaleski, Philip and Carol. The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.


[1] See Lindop 2015 and Ashenden 2008. Some of my overview of Williams in these first paragraphs is taken from a 2016 review I wrote for the Jewish Review of Books.

[2] Lewis 2009, 283.

[3] The Dante-Wodehouse characterization is Lewis’s, see Ashenden 2008, ch. 10. Tolkien is quoted in Zaleski 2015, 269.

[4] Williams 1967, 12.

[5] Op. cit., 144.

[6] Ashenden 2008, ch. 5.

[7] Williams 1967, 152.

[8] Williams 2015, 37.

[9] Op. cit., 38.

[10] Op. cit., 36.

[11] Op. cit., 36-37, 35.

[12] Op. cit., 36.

[13] Op. cit., 111, 148.

[14] Williams 1976b, 167.

[15] Williams 1980, 20, 18; Williams 1976a, 45.

[16] Wheatley 2013a, 9, 99. For biographical background on Wheatley and his attitudes towards Jews, see Baker 2011, especially chapter 26, and Hutton 2005, chapter 13. In the 1970s, Wheatley lent his name to a series of reprints of novels and books of occult interest and gothic horror, including works by Williams, Crowley, Sax Rohmer, Lord Dunsany, John Buchan, Helena Blavatsky, and others.

[17] Wheatley 2013a, 135. Baker makes the point about the name Mocata.

[18] Wheatley 2013b.

[19] Wheatley 2013b.

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