Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873) has become obscure, although at the height of his fame as an author in the nineteenth century he was second only to Dickens, who was a close friend, in publication. In addition to writing prolifically, he was a member of parliament and secretary of state of the colonies, and was also a friend and protege of Benjamin Disraeli. He was a founding member of the English Rosicrucian Society and is supposed to have initiated Eliphas Levi during a mysterious visit to his estate in England.
His anachronistic victorian prose have made him largely unread and even the subject of ridicule in our time. San Jose State University holds a contest for the worst beginning to a novel, called the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, inspired by the much maligned opening line-“It was a dark and stormy night...” , from his novel Paul Clifford.
Bulwer-Lytton coined many phrases which are still familiar today, such as; “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, and “The pen is mightier than the sword”. His name is forgotten, but his words have endured.
I've recently read Edward Bulwer-Lytton's occult transformational novel Zanoni- A Rosicrucian Tale. This book might include a warning label such as "may cause disturbing hallucinations". An occult initiation in novel form, this book incorporates an exercise which can cause a personality split in which the fear and desire of the id and ego(to use Jungian terms) become manifest as a malevolent being called The Dweller On The Threshold. To cross the "threshold" it is necessary to annihilate the ego and overcome fear. Talk about a literary device, this monster can jump out of the book to menace you in...reality! The process for summoning the dweller on the threshold is explained in Rudolf Steiner’s textbook for initiates, Knowledge Of The Higher Worlds. The biblical parallel to this phenomenom is the temptation of Jesus in the book of Matthew. Sometimes called a fire trial, this exercise has been used as a test of courage and character since ancient times. Some form of this test exists in many mystic traditions. It is described in Buddhist and Sufi literature. A similar test was used by the ancient cults of Eleusis and Isis and by the legendary cult of assassins.
Once released this fiendish spectre haunts the rest of the novel causing individual tragedy and death and influencing events as an underlying evil principal at work in the reign of terror of Robespierre. The dweller uses fear and hatred to control the mob and Robespierre himself. Thus evil is portrayed as an active force using men unawares to create the hell on earth that was the reign of terror.
The novels hero is Zanoni, an immortal 4000 year old sage . He voluntarily gives his life in an attempt to save his wife and child. His christ like self sacrifice brings an end to the reign of terror. In this way love triumphs over evil.
This novel illustrates brilliantly the way in which the principals of good and evil struggle for dominance in each individual and how these internal struggles within each individual influence events in society collectively. Where men are not motivated by noble purpose, evil finds an opportunity to bring violence and chaos into the world.
This theme of evil as an active principal in society causing violence and war is also explored in Alfred Kubin’s disturbing novel The Other Side and in Gustav Meyrink’s novel Walpurgisnacht in which the mob of Prague rise in revolt to the beat of a drum made of human skin.
If the students and faculty of San Jose State University could stop giggling at the unfamiliar literary style of another century and get over their own egoism, they might discover some valuable truths in the work of Bulwer-Lytton.