Sam Kunkel is a French translator and scholar of 19th century religious literature. You might remember him as the introducer and translator from last year’s weird fiction collection Echoes of a Natural World. Now, Kunkel is back with a major work: A Beam of Sunlight in the Deep Forest—Mystical Prose Works of Édouard Schuré. This collection contains all newly (and in most cases never-before) translated writings by the 19th century French occultist and author. In addition to the translations, Kunkel also wrote an extensive introduction to Schuré, a man well-known in his day who has since nearly fallen through the cracks of cultural history. As part of our ongoing artist interview series, Mike Sack, of Eye 94, spoke with Kunkel about his discovery of Schuré, the occult revival, and the literary context of 19th century France.
E94: Tell me about your personal discovery of Édouard Schuré. How did your fascination grow to the point of undertaking a lengthy translation project?
SK: I discovered Schuré when I was doing research for my dissertation. I was trying to find French authors from the end of the 19th century who wrote novels that tried to give the “average” reader an understanding of mysticism and mystical experiences. I came across his name somewhere, I honestly can’t remember where, and I looked him up and saw the long list of texts that he had published. His non-fiction texts far outweighed his fiction texts, and so I thought there was a good chance that his fiction would be informed by his philosophical works—and that was indeed the case. My desire to translate his writing stemmed mostly from my personal enthusiasm for him, as well as a desire to be able to share it with other people who might find it interesting.
E94: What makes you personally enthused about Schuré’s writing? Can you speak to the style and its effects on the reader?
SK: I suppose that what draws me to Schuré more than anything else is his personality: he is someone who was clearly quite intelligent and well-read, but profoundly human at the same time. There are other writers from that time who were also interested in mysticism or in the relationship between the individual and the Divine, but there are very few who wanted to use their understanding of it to help those around them. In a time when so many people felt bogged-down by an overwhelming pessimism, rather than turning inwards and focusing purely on himself, he decided to take what he had learned, or the conclusions that he had come to, and try to share them with others in the hope of improving things for everyone. As to his actual style—he is definitely very influenced by the Romantic movement, and there is a lot in his writing that draws upon their essential philosophy, but it should also be said that much of his writing was a reaction against the Naturalist movement which had dominated much of his era. At the same time, he is clearly drinking from the same well as the other writers who took part in the “occult revival” of the late 19th century, but is not interested in writing the same sorts of texts as they are. For someone interested in 19th century literature, it’s really a fascinating study because there’s a little bit of everything in there—if you know where to look, of course. To that end, I think the style is unique for its time in that it is certainly refined and reflects the capacities of the author, but it remains on the lighter end of things and is relatively easy to read. I suppose if I had to find a concise way to describe it, I would say that it is poetic, but accessible.
E94: Schuré hasn’t been remembered like his peers (his pen pals in this collection, Mallarmé, Wagner, Nietzsche) or his artistic predecessors (for example, in English, the Romantics Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth). Is he gaining more attention in scholarship outside your work?
SK: Unfortunately, I don't think that is really the case. Not yet, at least. For example, as I mentioned, he was one of the authors that I wrote my dissertation about, and during my defense, several of the members of my committee, all of whom are specialists in the field, mentioned that they were very happy to have had a chance to read my paper because even if people occasionally use him as a reference point, even fewer people have actually read him, and even fewer have actually written about him. Most of my biographical information about him came from his own writings, or from a doctoral thesis that a man named Alain Mercier did in 1971. But that was the last big study about Schuré that had been done. And even prior to Mercier’s dissertation, there were only a few, slim studies about his work, which were done during Schuré’s lifetime.
E94: Do you know if there are any living relatives of Schuré in France?
SK: There aren’t any direct descendants of Schuré that I know of. He never had any children and was an only child. When he died, he left his entire collection of books, notebooks, papers, letters, and all the rest to a friend of his named Alphonse Roux, who was younger by a few decades. Roux, in turn, left them to the municipal archives in Strasbourg, which is very convenient for someone doing research on him, but does not imply that there was much of a family to leave his estate to. There was, for a brief while, an organization named The Society of the Friends of Édouard Schuré, which was founded after his death, but it only lasted for six years, from 1930-1936.
E94: There’s an irony to Schuré being neglected, given his basic artistic mission—to reach the common reader. Do you think he overestimated his linguistic ability to communicate the divine or mystical or occult experience to the uninitiated?
SK: That’s an interesting question. I think the fault doesn’t necessarily lie with his language, but rather with his character. Although he certainly put these texts out there for people to read, he didn’t really make himself accessible as a figurehead, and so I don’t think he stood out in a crowd. There were other, more towering figures, who became the figureheads of the popular occult movement in France—who could be compared to an Aleister Crowley, for example. People like Éliphas Lévi, Papus, or Joséphin Péladan, who called himself Sâr Péladan. They did much more to draw attention to themselves and make themselves known as experts in the field. Schuré, on the other hand, was much more soft-spoken in his approach and I think he was just elbowed into the margins as a result. I think that because of his modest character, and the fact that he didn’t act in the way that one might expect a mystic to act, average people weren’t terribly drawn to him; they were much more interested in people acting and dressing in eccentric ways, like Péladan.
E94: Were there difficult translation decisions concerning potentially archaic language? You write in your introduction to The Angel and the Sphinx, “care and attention have been paid in an attempt to recreate the authentic feel of Schuré’s prose in English, rather than producing a literal translation of each word.” This approach seems ideal for the reader of English but leaves the translator with a practically infinite set of choices. Did you tend toward 19th/early 20th century English usage, or present day?
SK: What I meant by that sentence was more that I took the liberty, when I felt that it would strengthen the text, to change some words slightly in order to preserve a certain image or literary effect so that the sentence would feel as fluid or elegant in English as it did in French. For example, in the French version, one of the chapters of The Angel and the Sphinx is entitled “Le Rêve dans les Ruines,” which, translated literally, would be “The Dream in the Ruins," which is a perfectly fine translation if the goal is to produce a literal translation. My goal, however, was to recreate the same reading experience in English that I had when reading the text in French. With that in mind, a translation like “The Dream in the Ruins” wouldn’t have sat well with me because it feels much clunkier than the original: not only would you lose the alliteration from the original, but also because the accents on the words are totally different. I ended up translating the title of the chapter as “The Vision in the Vestiges” which preserves the image at the heart of the original chapter title while also—hopefully—reproducing the poetic effects as well. Overall, I would say that, for the most part, Schuré’s prose was not any more elaborate than any other “poetic” prose text from the late 19th century. He certainly was not attempting to recreate a text that would read, line for line, as if it were from the late Middle Ages, when the novel is set. To that end, most of the archaic language came from proper nouns—words for clothing from the time, or dances that they danced, things like that. The prose itself is, as a whole, elegant but also simple at the same time. The goal, I believe, was to create a very enjoyable, reading experience which would set his novel apart from other, more popular or pedestrian novels from the time, but also to not have the language itself be an obstacle to the understanding of the ideas that it is trying to convey.
E94: Schuré wrote primarily in French, but he was also fluent in German, correct? Can you talk about how his geographical surroundings may have influenced his thought, his art, and the company he kept?
SK: Yes, Schuré was French in both heart and mind, so to speak, but born and raised in Strasbourg and fluent in German as a result of the city’s proximity to Germany. I think certainly one of the big ways that it influenced him was that he had an earlier access to—and a deeper understanding of—many of the major German philosophers and artists from the time—Wagner and Nietzsche, certainly, but also people like Hegel or Schopenhauer. It took a long time for translations of German philosophical works to appear in France, and often when they appeared for the first time, it wasn’t in the form of a complete translation, but rather a sort of reader of key passages from a given text. Because of this, not many of the members of the French artistic community had actually read the philosophers they were interested in. Many of the members of the French Symbolist movement, who founded their whole artistic and existential outlook upon German idealism, were, for the most part, unable to distinguish between the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Hegel—and they were fairly unconcerned with the distinctions between the two, as well. I don’t mean to imply that Schuré was a master of German idealist thought, but rather that he was someone who was deeply interested in a wide range of ideas and in figuring things out on his own, so being able to speak German fluently allowed him to go directly to the source for all of these new ideas that were just starting to catch on in France, while also doubling the number of texts he had access to.
E94: Were any of Schuré’s philosophical writings focused on epistemology?
SK: I don’t think his works deal with epistemology per se, but rather build off of many of the tenets of epistemological thought. He is much more concerned with the connection between the mind and the soul than with the mind itself.
E94: You mention M.H. Abrams’s Natural Supernaturalism in your introduction to the collection. In the preface to that book, Abrams wrote that his main concern was “the secularization of inherited theological ideas and ways of thinking.” How far from a definition of The Occult is that quote, in your opinion? Where do Schuré’s writings figure between the secular, the theological, and the occult?
SK: Well, I guess if you look at the term “The Occult”, it applies, first and foremost, to things that are hidden or unseen. In the realm of religion, then, it’s used as a point of contrast to “visible” or “exoteric” or “popular” religions, like Christianity. Schuré, as I mention in the introduction, was not anti-Christian, per se, but he was opposed to the dogma of the Church as it existed in his time (and in ours too, probably) which he viewed as being stale and useless. To that end, his goal was to remind people that there are religious texts out there with information that is actually useful and salvatory, but it’s not going to be found within the confines of a church. So I would say that his texts are always anchored within the secular (because that is the world of the reader), and they then walk a fine line that wavers between the theological and the occult, without ever dipping too far into either—not only because that might bore or overwhelm an average reader, but also because there’s a place and a time to get into true theological studies, but a novel probably isn’t either. Schuré’s novels are meant to place the key within the hands of the reader, but they allow them to decide whether or not they want to open the door and walk through.
E94: In reading your introduction, many authors of all kinds of writing came to mind, if only for superficial reasons: poet Peter Cole, novelist Marilynne Robinson, Philip K. Dick, William James, Julian Jaynes, Ranier Maria Rilke, and on and on. What writers do you associate with Schuré, however direct or indirect the association(s) may be?
SK: Oh, that’s a big question. I would say that Rilke was definitely already on that list; I hadn’t necessarily thought of the other ones, but I think the comparisons are definitely justifiable. I think he could be compared in many respects to writers like Dion Fortune, Charles Williams, Algernon Blackwood, Gustave Meyrink, Fyodor Sologub or even Arthur Machen—all of whom had similar writing projects. As I mentioned in the introduction as well, there’s a lot in Schuré’s writing that lends itself to comparison with the writings of the Romantic movement (in both England and France)—namely in the way that the protagonist sets out to discover truths about themself and their place in the world through their own efforts. To that end, I think that if you wanted to, you could even compare a novel like The Angel and the Sphinx to Arthurian romances, which Machen himself once defined as “tales of adventure of the spirit.”
E94: In several of the translated sections from Proses mystiques as well as in his novel The Angel and the Sphinx, the characters are desperately seeking knowledge, seemingly willing to make any sacrifice necessary if it will remove the burden and torment of the unknown. It is often not ‘book’ knowledge they seek, but the identity of a supernatural being. Rilke, for instance, left behind a wife and child to pursue a life of solitude and writing. Did Schuré have to sacrifice to make his art the way he wanted?
SK: I suppose the primary sacrifice that he made during his life and career was that of popularity. Even though he produced an incredible volume of works which were published with major publishing houses, he was not terribly successful, on the whole, from a commercial standpoint. That said, there are letters from individuals thanking him for his texts, and I think he really valued those quite a bit—and they deserve to be viewed as markers of success. There are also other letters from his peers that are equally enthusiastic. I included translations of the letters that Stéphane Mallarmé sent him precisely because I think it’s important to show that a poet as legendary as Mallarmé had such positive and complementary things to say about Schuré’s work—both the quality of his writing, as well as the mastery of the philosophy behind it.
E94: In the acknowledgments to A Beam of Sunlight in the Deep Forest you reference a Jacques Favier, writing: “By his own admission, Jacques cannot stand the writings of Édouard Schuré. However, it is my hope that reading these texts in a different language will provide him with the critical distance necessary to make him a believer. If this book is to be dedicated to anyone, it is to Jacques.” Who is he? Why does Schuré drive him mad? Has he read your translation?
SK: Hah! Jacques is a retired professor of English literature here in France, who also happens to also be both my landlord and my friend. In addition to being an avid reader, he is, more specifically, very interested in science-fiction and fantasy literature. I met him my second year in France, I believe, because I had loaned a book of stories by H. P. Lovecraft to a girl I was dating, and she had brought it along on vacation with her. Her grandma saw her reading it and said something like, “Oh, you know who likes that kind of book? My friend Jacques.” So we were put in touch that way. As time went on, not only did he recommend a tremendous number of books to me, but he also proofread the papers I had to write for my Master’s program at the Sorbonne—so he was very helpful to me, in multiple ways, throughout the beginning of my graduate studies, as well as my time in France in general. When I began my doctorate, however, he saw that I wanted to write about Édouard Schuré and wrote me a very well-intentioned email telling me that he didn’t think it was a good idea because Schuré isn’t respected or known within academic circles in France and that people wouldn’t take my dissertation seriously if I did. This is perhaps true in part, but it should also be stated that Jacques doesn’t like religious themes in his fantastic literature—he wants something pure and imaginative, devoid of any sort of spiritual sub-text and so he would never have encouraged me to write about a religious author anyway. In any case, I decided to ignore his advice and went on with the project anyway, but stopped soliciting his help—which I think he took personally. When my dissertation was done, he read it and told me that I had managed to make Schuré seem interesting. I decided to dedicate the book to him as a way of first and foremost apologizing if he felt like I had shut him out of my academic endeavors, but also because I think he would enjoy reading it in English since it’s enjoyable for him, and that might make him more open to the experience of reading his works—sort of like a linguistical Trojan Horse.
E94: What’s up next?
SK: At the moment, I am nearing the end of a new translation for First to Knock of a novel by a Symbolist poet named Gustave Kahn entitled The Solar Circus. It was published in 1897 and has not only never been reissued, but it has never been translated into English, either. The text is an incredible hybrid of traditional narration and prose poetry. I’m really excited about it.