As the indispensable historian Frances Yates writes in The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, the words “Rosicrucian” and “Enlightenment” seem mortally opposed, the first tending toward “strange forms of superstition” while the latter toward a “critical and rational opposition to superstition.” She defines the Rosicrucian movement as being “concerned with a striving for illumination, in the sense of vision, as well as for enlightenment in the sense of advancement in intellectual and scientific knowledge.” For Rosicrucians, illumination and understanding were one. Enlightenment meant exploding the boundaries of natural human capacity, and transcending them. It makes perfect sense, then, that they would head straight into the realm of the supernatural to do so. The first real Rosicrucian novel is thought to be St. Leon, written by Shelley’s idol and would-be father-in-law William Godwin. At the center of St. Leon — like St. Irvyne, Frankenstein, and the many Rosicrucian romances it inspired — is the outcast, the discontent wanderer searching for meaning. Generally, the malcontent is so because he is spiritually bereft and feels that the limits of human existence are an impediment to greatness — great knowledge mostly, but the wanderer is also usually looking for great wealth and/or power. The Romantics were disgusted by these rationalist pursuits. Becoming immortal in a Romantic tale is, thus, always a curse. In St. Leon, the eponymous protagonist’s house is burnt down, his son abandons him, his servant and his favorite dog are killed, his depressed wife dies, and he is imprisoned in the dungeons of the Inquisition until, at last, the marriage of his son makes him realize that “there is something in this world worth living for.”
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