The Book of Starry Wisdom

The Book of Starry Wisdom, edited by Simon Berman and illustrated by Hermetic Library Anthology Artist Valerie Herron, has arrived at the Reading Room, the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Simon Berman Valerie Herron The Book of Starry Wisdom

Strix Publishing recently started to tease a crowdfunding campaign for a follow-up companion volume, The Book of Three Gates, that will be starting up in early October.

The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Christian Myth: Origins, Logic, and Legacy by Burton L Mack.

Burton L Mack The Christian Myth

This volume summarizes the state of studies of early Christianity by Burton Mack at the outset of the 21st-century. Mack’s previous work had included research into the hypothetical Q sayings text of primitive Christianity as well as the mythic basis for the gospel of Mark, and in The Christian Myth he sets forth his principles of academic method for the study of Christian origins and advances a theory of social interests driving the formulation of Christian myth, while denying any explanatory power to the Luke-Acts narrative as such. Much of the content of this book was originally written in connection with a seminar under the auspices of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and an offshoot in the North American Society for the Study of Religion (NAASR).

Although this book is fairly short, and (in my view) accessible in style, it really is addressed to fellow scholars. There is no coddling of “Christian belief,” and a fairly robust argument is supplied as to why having done so has undermined the entire intellectual enterprise of New Testament studies. A lot of the book is dedicated to demonstrating the relevance of questions about the origins of Christianity to contemporary American society, but it often presumes that the reader will share Mack’s views on contemporary social justice. Reading Mack more than a decade later, I fear that much of his assessment of the pluralistic state and direction of our society was a little over-optimistic—not that he didn’t recognize hazards.

The key precedent studies repeatedly referenced by Mack are Jonathan Z. Smith’s excellent monographs Drudgery Divine and To Take Place. Mack’s method includes application of the ideas of Durkheim’s sociology, and he thoroughly rejects notions of “Christianity” oriented to the interior relationship of individuals to their God. He indicts (in passing) Rodney Stark’s account of Christian origins as blinkered by modern assumptions considering Christianity to be a mode of individual salvation. In general, this book makes Mack’s relations to other scholars highly transparent, and there is assorted end matter where these connections are dealt with even more explicitly.

I have a terminological quibble with Mack, in that he often uses the word traditional—which implies a sort of legitimacy conferred by a tradition—in cases where the more diffident customary would suffice. I’m sure the implication to which I object is not really what he intends, though. On the whole, I enjoyed this book a great deal, and I would recommend it to scholars of religion, clergy (Christian or not), and social activists. [via]

Conan the Indomitable

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan the Indomitable by Steve Perry.

Steve Perry Conan the Indomitable

This review might turn out to be a little lengthy, and I don’t want to keep readers in any suspense about my opinion of Conan the Indomitable. It is easily the worst Conan novel I’ve ever read.

In my other reviews, I’ve observed that the short story is the paradigmatic narrative form for Robert E. Howard’s Conan, and with the vast number of novels about the character written by later authors, they have often developed new forms and styles, or used ones originating with their fellows, rather than attempting to work on the lines set down in Howard’s one Conan novel. I have inferred a stylistic genealogy from Andrew Offutt to Robert Jordan to Roland Green, for example, while finding Karl Edward Wagner fairly faithful to Howard’s original approach in the short stories. If Steve Perry had a model for his writing of this Conan yarn, I think it must have been the Marvel Comics Conan writings of Roy Thomas. Thomas, though, was often taking his plots from Howard’s original stories (Conan and otherwise, following the lead of DeCamp and Carter), and he had the benefit of art from Barry Windsor-Smith and John Buscema.

An additional influence for Perry might have been some sort of 1980s fantasy role-playing game supplement, since the action of the novel literally precipitates Conan into a “dungeon” of the sort that was the stereotypical site of the action in such games. This environment—roughly at the intersection of the Hyborian realms of Corinthia, Zamora, and Brythunia, which are otherwise irrelevant to the story—is called the “Grotterium Negrotus,” and is under the divided and competing regimes of a wizard and a witch, each of whom becomes magically convinced of the need to capture Conan. This subterranean political setup reminded me even more of the 21st-century board games Dungeon Lords and Dungeon Pets by Vlaada Chvátil! Parallel to the adventures of Conan and his accumulating band, the exotic monster species (cyclopes, giant worms, blood-bats, blind cave apes) dominated by the dungeon lords of this book find their collective will to revolution.

The cover of my copy (the trade paper edition that was the book’s first issuance) has Kirk Reinert’s art, which is both very faithful to the story and perfectly hilarious, as it shows Conan confronting the vaguely-inhuman sorceress Chuntha (yes, that’s her name), herself riding a giant worm whose open maw is an unmistakable vagina dentata. All of the chief villains in this story are conspicuously defined by their gender. According to the sequence and difficulty of their overcoming, the greatest of these is the male wizard, followed by the impressively lascivious female witch, and finally a fairly contemptible sorcerous gynander.

The tone throughout is predominantly comic, with obvious foreshadowings and mechanical parallels in the development of the plot. The style includes the sort of feigned archaicisms that you’ll never find in a Robert E. Howard story. (He was more prone to an occasional anachronism, in fact.) It also includes “translations” of adages and idioms like, “One cannot make mushroom wine without crushing a few toadstools” (227), and features a character (I can hardly help thinking of him as an “NPC”) who is under a curse to insult everyone he addresses, while his face is frozen in a smile.

Honestly, I cannot recommend this book to even the most indiscriminate of sword and sorcery readers. [via]

The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Thomas: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus by Marvin W Meyer, with interpretation by Harold Bloom.

Marvin W Meyer The Gospel of Thomas

I think this is the third translation of the Gospel of Thomas I’ve read, and possibly the most recently published (1992). Translator Marvin Meyer’s introduction conspicuously suspends judgment about the “gnostic” character of the text, and thus side-steps the terminological morass surrounding “Gnosticism.” Instead, he emphasizes a shared culture with the Cynic philosophers of antiquity.

This “gospel” is one of the most significant components of the Nag Hammadi Library discovered in Egypt in the mid-20th century. It differs from the canonical gospels by entirely lacking a narrative spine, and consisting solely of purported teachings of Jesus. It thus provides another point of reference for the text-critical approach that postulates a Q (Ger. Quelle, “source”) text to serve as a prior reference common to Matthew and Luke, as well as demonstrating that a document of this form did exist among Christians of the first centuries. The text in this edition is printed with a typeset Coptic original on facing pages, and there are endnotes for each logion (“saying”). The notes supply alternate readings of the Coptic, along with parallels in canonical and extra-canonical Christian scriptures, ancient theological writings, and other literature of the period.

Appended to this edition is “A Reading” of the gospel by literary critic and academic Harold Bloom. I found myself fairly sympathetic to most of this “sermon” from Bloom, although it does repeatedly advert to his idiosyncratic identification of American Protestantisms and Mormonism as “gnostic.” The one point at which he lost me altogether was when he wrote, “What is surely peculiar is the modern habit of employing ‘gnosis’ or ‘gnosticism’ as a conservative or institutionalized Christian term of abuse” (120). Bloom overlooked Irenaeus and Hippolytus somehow, along with the many centuries of theologians who took them as authorities, I guess.

Both Meyer and Bloom drew my attention to logion 13, which had not arrested me in previous readings of this gospel. Jesus rewards Thomas with three secret “sayings” or “words,” not themselves reproduced in the text. Meyer’s notes about other references to three secret words are intriguing (75); they include “IAO IAO IAO” from Pistis Sophia 136, and other non-canonical gospels intimate identities with divine father, mother, and son. Hippolytus offered what seem to be corrupted forms of the three instructions “precept upon precept,” “line upon line,”and “here a little, there a little” from Isaiah 28. Bloom’s highly speculative and metaphysical explication did not persuade me, but there are Thelemic doctrines which I think can be curiously enhanced by reference to this logion. [via]

Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World’s Pain

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Michael Moorcock: Fiction, Fantasy and the World’s Pain by Mark Scroggins.

Mark Scroggins Michael Moorcock

Mark Scroggins supplies a very accessible chronological survey of the many novels of Michael Moorcock, with an emphasis on the unifying themes and continuity devices that tie them—even the “literary,” non-fantastic ones—into a single oeuvre. The study covers a lot of ground rather quickly, so there is not so much deep analysis involved, but the characterizations and summaries of the books are very accurate, by my readings. Scroggins, while clearly a fan of Moorcock’s work, is a professor of English, and provides even-handed criticism of the books, pointing out failings more often than I would have.

There are six chapters, each covering a period in Moorcock’s development as an author. As someone who has read most of these books over the course of some four decades, I was grateful for Scroggins’ accounts of the omnibus editions published in the 1990s in the UK and US: which texts were included and in what sequences, and the nature of the revisions implemented by the author at that juncture.

I appreciated the view that Scroggins provided, suspending judgment on the apparent identities of character, artifact, and place across the settings of Moorcock’s multiverse, and treating these as recurrent motifs rather than simply antecedent and succedent appearances of durable entities. I recommend it as a reader’s strategy in approaching Moorcock’s work.

Moorcock has admitted an admiration for James Branch Cabell’s talents as a writer (with reservations about how he applied those talents), and although Scroggins doesn’t make this observation, he musters all the necessary detail to demonstrate that Moorcock’s Eternal-Champion-Multiverse-Moonbeam-Cosmic-Balance hyperwork is woven on a loom manufactured on the lines of the one Cabell used to create the Biography of Manuel. (Ironically, another author who ended up creating a similar fabric from scores of stories, also under the influence of Cabell, was Robert A. Heinlein, a particular bête noire of Moorcock’s.)

Having just read a trio of 1970s Moorcock novels (the Bastable books) to warm up for this volume, I have to say that it has only increased my willingness to return to the books I have overlooked, and perhaps even do a little re-reading. I’m certainly interested in Moorcock’s current trilogy, the first volume of which was published just last year. [via]

City of Truth

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews City of Truth by James Morrow.

James Morrow City of Truth

City of Truth is one of the shortest of James Morrow’s novels, but it has as much conceptual heft as any of them. The setting is a near-future dystopia in which the denizens are conditioned for absolute honesty and candor. I was reminded of many other books, from Zamiatin’s We to The Physiognomy of Jeffrey Ford, in terms of the way that an imagined totalitarianism and its resistance are conceived. Even outside of the satirical fantasy genre, however, the book is unusual for placing a father’s relationship to his son at the center of the main character’s motivation.

Morrow is best known for his autopsies and parodies of religious themes, and there is certainly much relevant to theology in a book which refers repeatedly to “putative souls” and where examples of lies include “God protects the innocent” and “Love is eternal.” But the heart of this book is an exploration of philosophical matters that have an equal “secular” importance. The name of the protagonist Jack Sperry reads to me as derived from spero (Lat. “I hope”), which points to the ethical business of the story, and the epistemological issue is mentioned in passing by one of Sperry’s insurgent (“dissembler”) acquaintances as “the confusion of the empirical with the true” (87).

The book has many moments that are terribly funny, but it revolves around personal tragedy as well as the systematic cruelty of a society extrapolated from benevolent rational motives. It is short and quick-to-read, but not for the faint of heart. [via]