The Project

Seekers of the New: Esotericism and the transformation of religiosity in Finland during the era of modernisation, 1880-1940 is a multidisciplinary research project that explores the cultural history of esotericism in Finland from the 1880s to the 1940s.

Our aim is to open new perspectives into the historical representation of Finland by drawing attention to people and phenomena previously left outside the canon, as well as by examining well-known figures in the light of new source material and new interpretational frameworks that have emerged in recent scholarship. We seek to illuminate an aspect of cultural history that has remained under the radar within many academic disciplines. The wide-spread interest in esotericism among cultural elites around the turn of the 20th century has been recognised on a general level in literary and historical scholarship, religious studies, and art research. Yet, the more specific implications of this phenomenon on the level of individual actors and its wider cultural impact have not been properly analysed.

Through an examination of personal material, such as letters and diaries, as well as public resources like newspapers and journals, works of art and literature, we seek to expose the wide scope and longevity of the interest in esotericism that gained in popularity towards the end of the 19th century. At the same time, we will reveal a network of individual actors that has never before been under scholarly investigation. Esotericism brought together different groups within Finnish cultural elites and also facilitated international contacts. Our approach makes it possible to analyse the meanings of Finnish esotericism on a broad scale, not only from the viewpoint of modern religiosity and the formation of national identities but also as part of the transformations of modern art, science, and subjectivity that took place during this period.

The project brings together a multidisciplinary group of Finnish researchers who have carried out pioneering work on esotericism and charted material resources in their previous studies. This gives us the advantage of being able to conduct in-depth thematic analysis while at the same time producing wide-ranging synthetic interpretations based on special expertise drawn from different scholarly traditions.

The project is funded by the Kone Foundation for a period of three years beginning in 2018. The Foundation’s goal is to advance bold initiatives in research and the arts. To us this means the following:

We are rewriting the cultural history of modern Finland. The impact of the wave of esotericism that emerged at the turn of the 20th century has been more far-reaching and complex than what the Finnish fields of art, politics and culture have been willing to acknowledge. For the first time in Finnish intellectual history, we seek to develop a broad conceptual understanding of esotericism that is based on analysis of archival material and is not exclusive to a specific esoteric movement. Through this approach we create a novel perspective into what it was actually like to live, feel, and believe within the context of a nation that was in the process of political and cultural transformation.

We wish to encourage dialogue on subjects that have previously been deemed overly sensitive and difficult and have often been completely silenced, such as the cultural elite’s ties to freemasonry and theosophy, mystical experiences, spiritual encounters, and the pursuit of developing heightened sensory abilities. To achieve this goal, we will produce scholarly publications intended for a variety of audiences, arrange seminars, symposia, exhibitions and other events open to public, and advance artistic practices. Our aim is to conduct research that is ethically valid and that can give a broader audience the means of coming to terms with experiences of ‘otherness’ and marginality. We feel that these goals are of particular importance in the current culture of opposition and the ambience of fear. We will not stigmatise individuals who are interested in esotericism, branding them as immoral, pathological, or marginal eccentrics – as often has been the case in recent popular discussions on the subject. In addition, these discourses have typically been excessively masculine and heteronormative. The aim of this project is to problematise these dominant interpretations by demonstrating how esotericism at the turn of the 20th century was intermingled with the culture of the period in a number of significant ways, ranging from everyday life and grass-root phenomena to wild cosmological visions. Moreover, our purpose is to unravel the mythical interpretations of the history of Finnish esotericism through a cultural analysis that is sensitive in terms of gender positions and sexualities and considerate towards individual actors.

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