The Muse of Secrecy: A Qabalistic Examination of Symbolist Poetry and the Music of Claude Debussy

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Macleod, Norman J

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Weston, Donna M

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The Qabalah played an important role to a number of esoteric and cultural groups in Paris from the 1840s through to the end of the 19th century. This Qabalistic brand of esotericism was spearheaded by Eliphas Lévi who combined facets of the Cabala of the Renaissance that held a Christian view of ancient Jewish Kabbalah, with Gnostic, Hermetic, Pythagorean, and Neoplatonic sources. Initiates sought the hidden and cryptographic meaning of Qabalistic texts and were attracted to the concept of a Divine language and its evocatory potential. This thesis shows how esoteric ideas were circulated though networks and clubs, including Le Chat Noir, Librairie de l'Art indépendant, and Mallarmé’s Tuesday salons. It argues that the Qabalah was especially important in these circles through the influence of Lévi, Gérard Encausse (Papus), and Joséphin Péladan. Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Verlaine, and Debussy, along with other Symbolist poets and composers such as Villiers de l’Isle Adam, J.-K. Huysmans, André Gide, Pierre Louys, Paul Adam, and Erik Satie, frequented these clubs and were confidants of Levi, Péladan, and Papus. While their interests in the Qabalah have been well documented, its doctrine and symbolic systems have not been used as the basis for the analysis of their poetry or music. This thesis offers the first detailed and extended analysis of poetry by Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, and Paul Verlaine, and music by Claude Debussy, based on their deep immersion in Qabalistic knowledge. The Qabalah assigns numerical and symbolic value to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and employs cryptographic methods in order to both encrypt and decipher its wisdom in texts. The thesis develops a methodology for reading poetry in this Qabalistic context by transliterating French letters into Hebrew and their designated numbers. For example, the Latin script letter u translates to the Hebrew letter vav with a numerical value of 6. Similarly, a method for transliterating Debussy’s music is developed according to the ouroboros, an esoteric symbol customary to 19th-century esotericists. Using methods employed by Qabalists, the thesis then calculates the Qabalistic “meaning” of words, lines, and poems, in three Symbolist poems, and in the music notation and structural components in two of Debussy’s works. The thesis then illustrates how each work’s “Qabalistic signature” relates to the broad symbolic meaning of the poetry and music as interpreted by critics. In demonstrating this, it takes up the Symbolist argument about the correspondence between language and the Divine and shows how this actually works in terms of the Qabalistic themes. The poems examined are Baudelaire’s “Correspondances”, Verlaine’s “Clair de lune”, and Mallarmé’s L'après-midi d'un faune; the music scores are Debussy’s “Clair de lune” and Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune. Baudelaire’s poem was chosen given his determinative influence on later Symbolists, and both Debussy’s “Clair de lune” and Prélude were selected as they were composed following his awareness of Verlaine and Mallarmé’s poems. The thesis illustrates how the language itself “manifests” the themes, once it is understood in Qabalistic terms. The results reveal symbolic and synchronistic consistencies among the numerical calculations and thematic content that go beyond the realm of coincidence. Although no archival evidence has yet come to light to show that the poets and composers actually wrote according to the principles of the Qabalah, the textual evidence revealed by the thesis indicates that such a possibility needs to be explored in further research.

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Thesis (PhD Doctorate)

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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


School of Hum, Lang & Soc Sc

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reading poetry

Qabalistic context


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