MIT Literature Section presents, Lara Cohen “‘To Drop beneath the Floors of the Outer World’: Paschal Beverly Randolph’s Occult Undergrounds”

Presented by: Lara Cohen
Associate Professor in English Literature Swarthmore College

When: Thursday, March 9th @ 5:15PM
Where: Building 14, Room 14E-304

Abstract: This talk focuses on Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875), self-described “angular and eccentric” writer, Freedmen’s Bureau teacher, occultist, and sex magician. Antiblackness thwarted Randolph at every turn in his short life, but he contended that his experiences of alienation and hyperawareness had cultivated spiritual sensitivities that allowed him to access an unseen universe. Randolph wrote numerous handbooks, pamphlets, novels, memoirs, newspaper articles, and manifestos expounding his occult thought. He also sought to build clandestine communities around it, founding a series of secret societies and circulating a subterranean repertoire of pamphlets, handwritten manuscripts, formulas, and correspondence that taught the curious how to use their bodies to make contact with the spirit realms through sex, drugs, and ritual. While Randolph’s in-person and textual undergrounds seem mostly to have failed in practice, his writings offer an extraordinary theory of the underground, which envisioned it as a portal to a cosmos whose forces might be brought to transform the order of things on earth. In this talk, I highlight the political dimensions of Randolph’s esoteric theories and consider how his dreams of other worlds, above and below our own, reflect the unfulfilled promises of Emancipation.

Bio: Lara Langer Cohen is Associate Professor of English at Swarthmore College. She is the author of Going Underground: Race, Space, and the Subterranean (Duke University Press, 2023) and The Fabrication of American Literature: Fraudulence and Antebellum Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), and co-editor, with Jordan Alexander Stein, of Early African American Print Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

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