“All genius is interdisciplinary,” says Eric Weiner, author of The Geography of Genius. Factors that go to create geniuses and “genius clusters” — the emergence of numerous influential figures, in different fields, living in the same place and time — Weiner says, include a relatively wealthy city open to new people and ideas, the sharing and mixing of those ideas, and healthy tension and competition between individuals, e.g., to be the best artist, writer, engineer, and so on.
I think we should add that genius, great art, and so on, also depends on the individual taking his work, and its tradition, seriously. Experimentation for its own sake has produced very little. Breakthroughs, discoveries, new movements and expressions in art emerge when an individual or group develops the foundational skills to such a degree that they realize the limitations and push beyond them.
But, I want to talk about genius clusters in regard to spirituality.
Although it is probably true to say that there is a higher percentage of creative practitioners (painters, authors, independent publishers, belly dancers, etc.) among occultists than among the general population today, from the late 19th century through the middle of the 20th century, there emerged many of the most active and influential figures in Western esotericism — Mme. Helena Blavatsky, William Wynn Westcott, S. L. MacGregor Mathers, and Rene Guenon, among others.
Among the more “interdisciplinary,” though, were Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) and Aleister Crowley (1875-1947):
Steiner was an author and practitioner of Western esotericism, and the father of the philosophy of Anthroposophy. He also developed his own education system and his own method of farming (biodynamics), and worked in the fields of medicine, theater, and architecture.
Crowley was a mountaineer, poet, artist (though perhaps not a very good one), author, and one of the most influential occultists of the last couple of hundred years. The English magus also set up his own short-lived healing clinics, as well as his own commune — the Abbey of Thelema — at Cefalu, Sicily.
If we go further back in time we encounter such figures as Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781), a philosopher, dramatist, and art critic; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), composer of the “Masonic opera” of the Magic Flute among many others; and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), statesman, scientist (especially in the realm of color), and dramatist, perhaps best known for his work Faust.
These last three figures give us a clue to what is going on.
There is no doubt that these figures lived in dynamic places during dynamic times, which, as Weiner tells us, is essential for the emergence of geniuses. They also satisfy other criteria — interdisciplinary, well-traveled in many cases, and mixing with different types of people.
Yet, if we look at Lessing, Mozart, and Goethe, they all have something else in common. All three were Freemasons at a time when Freemasonry itself was very dynamic, with composers (including Mozart) composing works to be played in the Masonic Lodge, when artists were painting symbolic works to be used in rituals, and when rituals — often reminiscent of theatrical performances, with acting, props, scenery, and so on — and Rites were being developed at an extraordinary rate. Philosophy and spirituality played a very, very large role as well, not only in the teachings articulated in the Masonic rituals, but in the discussions and catechisms that followed them, usually during the Lodge dinner.
In other words, Freemasonry itself provided a highly interdisciplinary and mentally and creatively stimulating experience. Since the fraternity was not standardized, as it is today, there was also a great freedom to explore, to contemplate, to borrow, and to invent. Another society we should mention is the Hermetic Order fo the Golden Dawn — whose members included MacGregor Mathers, Westcott, Crowley, and the poet W. B Yeats.
What does this mean for our own age?
There are several factors that make the emergence of such groups less likely than perhaps even a decade ago, within our own society, at least in terms of important cultural figures emerging from them.
Warnings against the evils of “cultural appropriation” (belly dancing, yoga, etc.) are becoming normal, defying how cultures actually work and develop. The intelligentsia insists that more and more cultural works from over the last few thousand years cannot be read. Fields of study are becoming ever increasingly insular and detached from other fields, and art is becoming ever more meaningless. Another, very peculiar factor is resistance. In a culture that aims for maximum consumerist freedom, yet rewards the banality of soundbites, there is less and less apparent need to, or possibility of, defying the status quo in any meaningful sense.
The controversial esotericist Julius Evola thought of the few awakened to the reality of the time as men among the ruins. We might make a more positive assessment and see ourselves, as well, as men or women among the rituals. That is, we can choose to be interdisciplinary still, like the esoteric societies of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, exploring spirituality, art, music, clothing, ritual, myth, ancient texts, poetry, meditation, and so on, connecting with and inspiring each other toward creativity in an age increasingly consumerist, and to experiencing the sacred in an age increasingly profane.