My friend Grier Conley recently wrote an article on genre theory for magicians, in which they propose using the techniques of genre theory from the field of literature to evaluate magical texts–including The Kybalion, which I have my own history with. When I was a Religion undergraduate and grad student, I encountered a lot of critical theory lenses; but this one was new to me.
Grier approaches the topic with the question of how such a diverse array of sources and texts from the Corpus Hermeticum through Agrippa and the Golden Dawn can be authentically considered Hermetic, and posits genre theory as an approach to understanding this conundrum. Simply put, the concept of genre involves a “horizon of expectations”, or a set of assumptions and expectations that we bring to a particular genre of work. Diverge too far afield of those assumptions and expectations, and you have transgressed the limitations of the genre’s horizon.
Western esotericism is a tricky thing to define: Antoine Faivre ended up using a cluster definition, with a set of mandatory and additional traits that characterize the western esoteric current. This is not entirely dissimilar, it seems to me, from a genre-based treatment. The form of Faivre’s cluster definition is for all practical purposes a codified articulation of the horizon of expectations comprising the western esoteric tradition. Hermeticism is scarcely less diverse in its manifestations than is western esotericism in general, and I feel the same approach can greatly enrich the discourse.
Where Grier’s work really benefits us is in enabling us to engage in an ongoing conversation about what the horizon of expectations entailed in Hermeticism consists of, without approaching the matter with an a priori definition already in mind. We can, for example, discuss the expectations and assumptions of piety and gnosis inherent in Hermeticism, and see how The Kybalion diverges from these expectations. There are a great many depths to be plumbed just in applying genre theory to this one problematic text, but I believe Grier is really on to something here. Check out their blog post on the subject for more, and look for me to be bringing it up whenever I talk about The Kybalion in the future!