Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Architecture and Nihilism: On the Philosophy of Modern Architecture by Massimo Cacciari, trans. Stephen Sartarelli.

Cacciari Architecture and Nihilism

This volume collects earlier writings by noted critical theorist Massimo Cacciari. A longish introduction by Patrizia Lombardo puts these into an intellectual and political context in the Europe of the 1970s and 1980s. What they demand from the reader, however, is an extensive familiarity with a great deal of Continental text and culture from the beginning of the 20th century. In particular, the history of Vienna and its intellectual luminaries is the basis for much of Cacciari’s discussion. The German sociologist Georg Simmel is a focus of Part I (“The Dialectics of the Negative and the Metropolis”), while Parts II and III are constructed with constant reference to Austrian architect Adolf Loos.

Stephen Sartarelli’s translation from the Italian only gets the anglophone reader just so far, alas. For one thing, Cacciari used prodigious amounts of German for technical purposes in reference to various German thinkers and their ideas. While these terms are usually glossed parenthetically in their first instances, there are so many of them that even I, with quite a few years of German language study to my credit, found them confusing and hard to follow after a while. They are, after all, abstruse rather than quotidian verbiage even in their own language. Beyond this difficulty, there are an assortment of neologisms and coinages that are deployed without explicit definitions. Maybe you already know what “transcrescence” means—if so, you are likely the audience for this book!

Of the three parts, I best liked Part III “Loos and His Angel,” but found it the hardest to follow despite its shorter chapters and closer approach to my own interests and concerns. In Cacciari’s epilogue, I found confirmation that this book did indeed belong in the universe of ideas that I often navigate, with references not just to Nietzsche, but to Derrida, Guenon (!), and Corbin (!!).

I can recommend this book only with the gravest of reservations regarding its intellectual accessibility. [via]

Conan The Guardian

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan The Guardian by Roland Green.

Roland Green Conan the Guardian

This Conan novel by Roland Green is one of those following on the Conan books by Robert Jordan far more closely than the original stories by Robert E. Howard. It is set in the mercantile kingdom of Argos, where sorcery has been forbidden and neglected for centuries. There are two human villains in this story, a scheming nobleman and an ambitious sorcerer. Their activities in turn accidentally awaken a couple of dormant magical monsters to supply Conan with a stereotypical “boss battle” or two at the end of the book.

Although the plot of the novel is heavy on intrigue, there are no particularly surprising turns. The prose is clear enough, and the pace is definitely brisk. The plot indulges Conan in the sexual favor of every desirable woman whose path he crosses, and despite likely jealousies (and even possibilities regarding offspring), no one holds it against him.

For overall quality of story and storytelling, I’d say this one is firmly lodged in the mid-range of the overall spectrum of Conan pastiche. [via]

The Nightmare Stacks

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross.

Stross The Nightmare Stacks

At the outset, the Laundry Files series by Charles Stross consisted of a latter-day mash-up of two well-defined genres: Cold War espionage and Lovecraftian weird horror. And for several volumes it continued thus. As the focus has shifted off of the original protagonist Bob Howard, elements of other genres have been introduced. For example, the vampires of more traditional gothic horror were the crux of the last book Bob narrated, The Rhesus Chart. When Bob’s wife Mo took over as the narrator for The Annihilation Score, the caped superhero genre contributed to the central plot. In this seventh book, narrator duties have passed to junior recruit Alex Schwartz, and it is the high fantasy genre that gets tapped for its oddness. A chief character in this book is in point of fact the King of Elfland’s daughter (in quiet homage to Dunsany among many others), so that Alex/Alveric’s romancing of the unearthly “princess/assassin of the Unseelie Court” sits in a rich inter-textual tradition, complete with frequent references to the works of Tolkien and a Laundry operative named the Dungeon Master (or DM).

The return of vicar Pete in a more conspicuous role was something I already expected, and it’s a neat fit somehow to make him Alex’s mentor. However, I did not imagine that Pete would turn out to be [Spoiler! Hover over to see . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .]

Despite foreshadowings regarding bureaucratic fallout, as well as family and public comeuppances, this book is entirely bereft of denouement. It gallops to the climax and then stops. I guess that’s a little more forgivable for the seventh entry in a series, inasmuch as readers can expect to get some resolution of loose ends in the now-assured further installment.

I did enjoy this one very much, laughing out loud at it repeatedly, despite the frequently macabre events described—all of which is par for the course in this series. I’m not sure how well it would hold up as a point of entry, but with the benefit of all the foregoing books, I found this one to be among my favorites so far. Like the others, the fast pace of the action makes it a compelling read, and the character chemistry was quite endearing from my perspective. [via]

Dear NSA

The librarian John Griogair Bell reviews Dear NSA by Harmon Cooper.

Harmon Cooper Dear NSA

Dear NSA by Harmon Cooper is a collection of more or less purely insane short stories. Stand outs “Pedo Drew” and “Feeding Governor Christie” are worth the sticker price alone for sheer amphetamine wackiness, but there’s more! These are quick reads that have rapid fire internal pacing. Basically, this is a series of fitful indigestion-fueled dreams of a pre-therapy John Cleese funny-walking through your brain.

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M Valente.

Valente The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home is the fifth and concluding volume of Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series. I would only recommend it to those who had read the previous books, because the prior investment in the characters is essential in order to appreciate this one. For those who have already taken in the earlier stories, though, this is a very exciting and satisfying wrap-up. It has some real surprises, not the least of which is the admission of September’s adult relatives into Fairyland. It’s clear from this book that Fairyland is not “childish things” to be put away with maturity, but rather a genuine otherworld that answers to human aspirations.

In light of the way this book works out, I wonder about comparing this series to Brook Hansen’s wonderful work The Chess Garden. I think that they have a lot of conceptual common ground, but where The Chess Garden is a rather splendid tragedy, these Fairyland books turn out to be a delightful romance.

There is some meta-discourse in the closing pages where Valente, in her Narrator persona, insists that stories don’t really end, they just stop with greater or lesser amounts of grace. This stop is a graceful one, emphasizing the possibility of continuation without creating the need for it, “without end, but … finished,” as John Crowley’s Endless Things put it. My daughter, to whom I have read all of these Fairyland books aloud, expressed dismay that there might well be no more of them to come. But the Narrator also explicitly invites re-reading, and I think my daughter may well enjoy a return to these years from now. [via]

The Weirdness

The librarian John Griogair Bell reviews The Weirdness by Jeremy P Bushnell.

Jeremy P Bushnell The Weirdness

The Weirdness by Jeremy P Bushnell is a terrific twisty toboggan ride of a read. Good thing the author is an instructor because this is a well-crafted writing masterclass in fun fiction.

The protagonist is jerked through a shocking, surprising character arc. There are fun plot twists that change everything. There are several bites of fine, healthy wisdom folded within this narrative confection, but also mixed with some zesty flavor grains of good surreal absurdity. Fun little nods to actual esotericism are just enough chocolate sprinkles on top, but not too much or too literal. The main antagonists have Zelazny’s Amber-level meta-capability compared to the protagonist, and yet, somehow, like Heinlein’s Job, the hero soldiers on through hell, food-service hell, even public-speaking hell, and back, and all with a tidy satisfying aftertaste beyond.

The Gnostic Notebook: Volume Three: On Plato, the Fourth Dimension, and the Lost Philosophy

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gnostic Notebook: Volume Three: On Plato, the Fourth Dimension, and the Lost Philosophy by Timothy James Lambert.

Lambert The Gnostic Notebook Volume Three

Reviewed on the basis of a complimentary copy received from the author. (Nevertheless, this review contains only my usual biases.)

In this third volume of Timothy James Lambert’s Gnostic Notebook, I was pleasantly surprised to find him executing a version of a project I had contemplated undertaking myself some years ago. To wit: He revisits the theory of matter from Plato’s Timaeus and relates it to the ideas of Buckminster Fuller’s Synergetics (particularly the closest-packing of spheres and consequent formation of polyhedra), all viewed under the influence of esoteric correspondences. Oddly, Lambert doesn’t credit Fuller’s work with closest-packing of spheres, although he does use an evocative quote from Critical Path to illustrate one of the correspondences that he asserts.

Most of Lambert’s text is concerned to ground these ideas in an unlikely textual synthesis of the Genesis creation account and the I Ching. He admits on his final page that he hasn’t provided any narrative to support his claim that the authors of Genesis had the I Ching at their disposal as a key for coding ideas, but he says he’ll be picking up this thread in a later volume. Another tease for future work is the promise (150) that the next book will undertake a reading of the I Ching as chiefly concerned with enlightened human procreation, which would perhaps capitalize on the occasional broad hints at sexual symbolism in volumes II and III of the series so far.

Throughout the book, Lambert intuits and adduces a multi-layered system of correspondences which he insists are “falsifiable” and inductively robust. I didn’t have trouble maintaining my skepticism toward them, however. One point of especial weakness was his “correction” of the traditional meanings of two of the I Ching trigrams on the basis of relationship within a hypothetical octahedron with planetary attributions to the vertices (in turn corresponding to yin and yang hexagram lines). It’s ironic that he takes this revision to indicate the utility of his theory here, as well as suggesting that Hakuin Ekaku (an 18th-century Zen master) composed the “one hand clapping” koan specifically to serve as a clue to this supposed secret (132-5).

There is constant reference to an astrological diagram, “an image which I call the tree of life” (76, fig. 69), which is not the Etz Chaim of the qabalah. It has the planets in a central column, ranging from Earth at the bottom, up through the days of the week from Sol (Sunday) to Saturn (Saturday). While this arrangement is useful for his exposition of the Genesis creation story, he makes an unjustified pivot at the book’s end to assert that it maps on to the sat chakras of esoteric human anatomy. The result is one that I personally consider “falsified” on the basis of esoteric instruction I’ve received, as well as my personal practice.

Despite the “Fourth Dimension” in the title and some discussion in the early parts of the book, there was disappointingly little hypergeometry here. And while Lambert has promised to revisit Salvador Dali’s Crucifixion (Corpus Hypercubus), he intends to do so in the context of the Platonic-Christian connection, rather than that of hypergeometry. This volume was as long as the previous two put together, but held my attention less efficiently. Perhaps a more magisterial tone would better suit the material than Lambert’s chatty exploratory approach? Yet these are titled as a “Notebook,” and the style reflects that: a tentative groping on the page for the content that will deserve to be summed up in the exposition of a “divine system.” [via]