Gustav Meyrink’s The Golem. A Sensationalist Shlock Novel or an Esoteric Vision of the World?

Sten Wistrand


Gustav Meyrink lived in a time when the interest in spiritism, theosophy and occult phenomena was widespread. He joined about every esoteric society available, attended séances, experimented with diets and drugs, and practiced alchemy and yoga. But he also, in a way, was a sceptic. In some circles, he still has a reputation as a man with deep insights in the true nature of being and has even been seen as a man with prophetic gifts. Controver- sial in his lifetime, his reputation as an author is still disputable. Jorge Luis Borges praised his works, while Ernst Pawel, in his Kafka-biography, dismisses The Golem as »a shlock novel«.

In The Golem Meyrink transforms the Prague legends of Rabbi Loew’s creature of clay into a book of esoteric wisdom putting into play Kabbalistic and alchemist thinking, tarot cards and metempsychosis. The novel also has been both referred to, and rejected, as a story of horror or Gothic fiction, and described as purely fantastic. I would like to discriminate between effect and function and maintain that Meyrink takes advantage of Gothic effects in order to convey his spiritual vision of the world. That aside, it is reasonable to argue that his foremost interest, as an author of fiction, was to tell us a good and interesting story. For that reason you might also question if his references to esoteric traditions are to be taken wholly seriously or rather are to be seen as motifs in the hands of a quite self-indulgent novelist.

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