Andras's Reviews > Zanoni: A Rosicrucian Tale

Zanoni by Edward Bulwer-Lytton
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's review
Dec 11, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: currently-reading
Read in August, 1988

** spoiler alert ** Below is the brief synopsis of the book with some side notes. Unfortunately, the novel is written in a very prosaic Victorian English, a style, which modern readers might not have the time or the patience to read. I would love to see a movie or a screenplay made of this story if it kept the original theme, message and esoteric tradition.

Bulwer-Lytton, (1803-73) was a English aristocrat and Earl of Knebsworth.
Knebsworth remained open to the public. He was a pioneer historical novelist, and far more meticulous in his research and accurate in his facts than his contemporaries. The author was a member of the English Rosicrucian society, founded in 1867 by Robert Wenworth Little.
This explains why he was so very knowledgeable in what we now call the Western Esoteric Tradition, and it is said that the famous French occultist Eliphas Levi came to England to visit him, although the tradition of secrecy that veiled these matters in those day was such that it is difficult to ascertain the cause of their meeting or what may have happened as a consequence.

The introductory chapter to the story of Zanoni recounts how the narrator, in his younger days, had been keen to become acquainted with the true origin and tenets of the Rosicrucian order. In his search he visited an obscure bookshop in Covent Garden, where he met an old man who hinted that he might well enlighten him should they happen to meet again. Indeed they do meet very shortly afterwards at the foot of Highgate Hill and the old man invites the young man to his house, in a secluded part of Highgate overlooking London, and instructs him in secret esoteric philosophy.

He tells that the Rosicrucian order still exist, but pursue their profound researches into natural science and occult philosophy in secrecy. Yet however respectable and virtuous they might be, and ardent in the Christian faith, they are but a branch of another more transcendent, powerful and illustrious Order that derives from Plato, Pythagoras and Apollonius of Tyana.

On the death of the old man he bequeaths to the narrator a manuscript in cipher that turns out to be the text of the novel "Zanoni". It is described by its anonymous author as a romance and yet not a romance. The book is written on two levels, a “line between the lines”, as a source of truth for those who can understand it, but wild extravaganza for those who cannot.

The old man, referring to the works of Plato, has already explained that there are four stages for the soul in its return to its first state of happiness in God. The first is music, the second mysticism, the third prophecy, and the fourth love. And it is upon this outline plan that the story of Zanoni is constructed.

Zanoni divides into seven parts, which are entitled: 1. The Musician, 2. Art, Love and Wonder, 3. Theurgia, 4. The Dweller of the Threshold, 5. The Effects of the Elixir, 6. Superstition Deserting Faith, 7. The Reign of Terror. This last section is an evocation of the French Revolution, along with Bulwer-Lytton's close adherence to fact, in which the occult adept Zanoni goes voluntarily to his sacrificial death in an attempt to save the innocent from the guillotine.

Zanoni’s death is of notable philosophical importance, for Zanoni is no ordinary mortal. He was born a star and fire worshipper in ancient Chaldea, and so is some 4000 years old, his occult powers having enabled him to avoid the ravages of time He is one of only two members of a great ancient esoteric Order who survive. The other initiate is named Mejnour and he, choosing a different path from Zanoni, may presumably still be living to this day. Whilst all this may sound fantastic, the esoteric status of Zanoni and Mejnour is much akin to that which is accorded by latter day occultists to Masters of the Wisdom, and what Lytton has to say about these Adepts predates by some forty years the celebrated Mahatmas of Madame Blavatsky or the Secret Chiefs of the Golden Dawn.

The heroine of the novel is Viola, a young Neapolitan girl, ignorant and uneducated but a supremely gifted singer. Its hero Zanoni, the master of mystic and prophetic arts, loves her for her youth, innocence and musical gifts, although his co-initiate Mejnour remains wedded to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake - looking upon human love as a weakness rather than a strength.

Having helped Viola to become a star of the Neapolitan opera, Zanoni, although he loves her, tries to divert her natural love for him by encouraging her courtship by a young Englishman, Glyndon. His grounds for this are that he, being virtually an immortal, cannot realistically form a lasting loving relationship with a young girl who will grow old wither and die in the natural course of life, whilst he himself remains relatively unaffected by the passage of time.

The young Englishman (Glyndon) aborts his selfless plans however, an amateur artist of some talent but of solid respectable middle class stock, who cannot come to terms with taking a poor Italian girl for wife. How would she fit in on the English social scene? How would she be received by his parents or by his business associates? He yearns instead after the mysterious powers of Mejnour and Zanoni.

After some heart searching by all concerned Glyndon is eventually accepted for initiatory instruction under the adept Mejnour at a hidden temple in the mountains. In the meantime Zanoni marries Viola, hoping that perhaps he may be able to instruct her sufficiently in his secret sciences so that she too may avoid the march of time. Both these schemes founder in the test of hard reality and human fallibility. Glyndon, although spurred on in his mystic quest by having an alchemist as a distant ancestor, proves himself to be lacking in the qualities required of an initiate. The Dweller on the Threshold proves too much for him. He cannot resist the lure of idle curiosity or the temptations of the flesh - tests that have been arranged by Mejnour. He is accordingly rejected and returned to the world, but having evoked the wind he reaps the whirlwind, and undergoes a slow moral degeneration. This manifests at first as drunken self-indulgence and social ineptitude, and passes in the end to lust and betrayal.

Viola, on the other hand, is a simple, provincial Neapolitan girl. The local priest, who condemns her involvement with a man who practices the occult arts, disastrously influences her. Despite the exemplary conduct of her husband she begins to fear his knowledge and his background, and refuses all thought of him teaching her any of his esoteric powers. So fearful does she become, for their child as much as herself, that she leaves Zanoni - an instance of what is described as "superstition deserting faith" in Bulwer-Lytton’s section headings - the superstition of the ignorant priest over the faith in her wise and loving husband. By force of circumstances she ends up in Paris at the time of the worst excesses of the Revolution. Here, partly through the treacherous act of Glyndon, she is denounced and condemned to the guillotine. Zanoni arrives and, in a desperate attempt to save her, sacrifices his own life in the process but goes to his death with a new realisation of the meaning of human life, and above all of human death. Despite his efforts, by a quirk of fate (Karma?), Viola also dies, and their child is left an orphan in the prison cell, although the book ends with the strong hint that he will grow up safely as "the fatherless are in the care of God".

The books final message seems to be the futility of mundane life but the Universal power of Love. It is as if the book’s message to all secret 4000-year-old wizards are – “do not do this because attempts to change and speed up ones Karmic life is futile.” Karmic Family and the mundane world should be “killed off”, crucified, metaphorically speaking and replaced with Spiritual family and a Higher Realm. Zanoni could, presumebly reincarnate and hopefully would have learned the lesson the book’s story offers to all of us.

Throughout all these colourful events the author stresses the theme of the quest of the ideal in the arts, as opposed to the servile imitation of nature, for nature is not to be copied but exalted. The aim of the arts should be to lift the perceptions of the beholder to the level of the gods, to the highest potential of mankind.
Yet the natural world is not to be rejected. Man's spirit is like a bird and cannot always be on the wing. They who best evoke the ideal also enjoy the most real. For true art finds beauty everywhere, in the street, the market place, or even a dingy room.

The educational importance of the novel, among other aspects is the concept of the Dweller of the Threshold. It is a manifested, menacing entity, a sum of all Darkness in a person, accumulated throughout all the lifetimes he or she had lived. The Dweller gets manifested at the time of Initiation when the participant or neophyte is ready to cross the threshold from the mundane world to the Higher Esoteric Arts. The Dweller would do anything to hinder the persons crossing, from guile to temptations. The Biblical reference of this phenomenon is the temptation of Jesus by the devil.
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Wreade1872 Go watch Hancock and tell me it isn't an adaptation of this :).

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