Category Archives: Hermetic Library Reading Room

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition, Hermeticism in a broad sense, and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

The Terrible Threes

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Terrible Threes by Ishmael Reed.

Ishmael Reed The Terrible Threes

I read Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos some twenty years ago, and this sequel to it picks up with very little pause. So I guess I wasn’t an ideal reader in this case. This surreal satire, mostly about US politics and religion in the 1990s, written in 1988, is still hilarious. The ways in which Reed fails as a prognosticator are in some measures consoling, and in others alarming. One that particularly stood out for me was the vilification of Ronald Reagan by the Neo-Christian successors to the Republican Party, on the grounds that he was a liberal who bargained with the Soviets. In our “real” world, of course, Reagan was a “liberal” according to the standards of 21st-century politics, but he is still the beloved saint/mascot of the ever more reactionary Republicans.

The book is an incredibly fast read, full of thinly-disguised parodies of public figures and clever twists on cultural tropes. It is also, like its predecessor, a Christmas story. Reed points out that the name “Dickens” actually comes from “Nicholas” somehow, and he makes a fair try at redeeming an assortment of characters more vile than Ebeneezer Scrooge. But in the end, things still look to be deep in “the Terribles,” i.e. the episodes of public shock that commenced with the assassination of President Kennedy. Aye, they are that. [via]

Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls by Matthew Lowes.

Matthew Lowes Dungeon Solitaire

Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls is the book-length successor to author Matthew Lowes’ previous game design “Tomb of the Four Kings” (available for free on his website). The original game was playable with a standard pack of playing cards, and it is preserved nearly unchanged as the “basic game” of the “Labyrinth of Souls.” The new game, however, calls for a tarot deck, and the author has collaborated with illustrator Josephe Vandel to create a new deck for it, which includes 10 “extra arcana” or additional trumps.

The rules supplied in Labyrinth of Souls include the basic game (uses 53 cards—a standard playing card deck with a single joker), the expert game (uses 78 cards—a standard tarot deck), the advanced game (uses the 88-card custom deck OR a standard tarot deck plus a ten-sided die), and eight official variants of the advanced game. One of these variants (“Cartomancy”) can be used for divination, and the supplementary “Arcana” and “References” sections provide some useful pointers regarding divinatory meanings for the cards.

I had played “Tomb of the Four Kings” before acquiring this book, and found it to be a quick and fairly difficult solitaire game with a strong narrative element. The expert mode in Labyrinth of Souls expands the game elegantly by adding companions (the tarot page cards), mazes (a new encounter type), blessings, corruptions, and several new magic items. I’ve now played it over a dozen times, and I have yet to win, although I have managed to score: i.e. I have escaped the dungeon with some treasures and companions, but not with the three “heavenly jewels” needed for victory in the expert game. I’m holding off on the advanced game until I score an expert win.

The rules for the various modes of the game are all written quite clearly. The basic game includes a very detailed example of play that was not part of the “Tomb of the Four Kings” rules, and goes a long way toward eliminating any ambiguities in the rules. It gives the reader a very clear idea of game play. An assortment of reference tables and blank recording forms are present for copying and play convenience.

All of the trumps and court cards of the Lowes/Vandel Labyrinth of Souls deck are reproduced at or near full size in black and white throughout the book and especially in the “Arcana” section of the text. These seem to constitute a pretty passable deck, and the designs of the “extra arcana” are certainly interesting, but they just don’t “grab” me aesthetically or symbolically. I have been using the Luis Royo “Dark Tarot” to play the Labyrinth game, and I’m liking it a lot for that purpose. I have not handled a production copy of the Lowes/Vandel deck itself, and I’m unlikely to acquire one. I do like and recommend the rule book and the game, and I would be interested to see other artists’ realizations of the “extra arcana” invented by Lowes. [via]

The Green Woman

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Green Woman by Peter Straub, Michael Easton and John Bolton.

Peter Straub Michael Easton John Bolton The Green Woman

As I was reading this hallucinatory horror graphic novel of murder and occult compulsion, I couldn’t help noticing: Damn, that principal character looks just like the actor Peter Capaldi. When I was about two-thirds of the way through, I flipped back to the front, intending to review some items from early in the story. I found myself instead looking at the dedication, where artist John Bolton had in fact dedicated his work here “To my friend the actor Peter Capaldi for being the perfect villain.” He couldn’t have known in 2010 that Capaldi would go on to be cast in the Doctor Who lead! Now I find that Bolton has cast him in the role of Peter Straub’s serial killer Viet Nam vet Fielding Bandolier—who had appeared in earlier work by Straub.

This book is very much a graphic novel, with the full content and pacing of a novel. It is not a stitched-together series of episodic comics. The intensity of violence and sex is reasonably high, and Bolton’s rich painted art is a good fit for the narrative style and content. Co-authoring with Straub is Michael Easton, a writer with more experience in the graphic medium. There are a lot of scenic shifts and impressionistic representations with a minimum of expository hand-holding. The plot isn’t what I’d call clever, but the story still held my attention. As with other things I’ve read by Straub, I get the impression that a second read would garner details that eluded me on my initial pass. [via]

When the Green Star Calls

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews When the Green Star Calls by Lin Carter.

Lin Carter When the Green Star Calls

I found this second of Lin Carter’s “Green Star” books more enjoyable than the first in all respects but one. The characters were more interesting, including the protagonist, who this time did not have the conveniently preserved soul-less body of a mighty-thewed hero to inhabit. Instead, he took on the life of an orphaned savage. There were elements of ancient civilizations and super-science which helped leaven the sword-and-planet a bit. As before, it is a straightforward action story where the interstellar travel is of a sort of old-fashioned psychic variety. I especially enjoyed an apparently gratuitous trip to Earth’s moon, where the narrator witnessed an enigmatic artifact.

The one feature I didn’t so much like was the cliff-hanger ending. There is, however, an editorial epilogue, where Carter applies the traditional documentary conceit of the genre, and explains that the next volume will pick up directly from this arbitrary break in the narrative. I was, in fact, slightly consoled.

I was very unimpressed by Luis Dominguez’s interior illustrations to this edition, although his cover art is sort of fun. [via]

On Christian Teaching

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana) by St Augustine.

St Augustine On Christian Teaching

There are two possible aims implied in the title of this work: “On Christian Teaching”: to distinguish the Christian from the pagan—“a manifesto for a particularly Christian culture” (translator Green, viii, dismisses this idea—but see my remarks below on Book III), OR “On Christian Teaching”: to identify and communicate the pedagogical process (per Augustine’s preface). Augustine here works in four connected fields of thought, roughly one in each of the Books I through IV of the treatise: ethics, semiotics, hermeneutics, and rhetoric.

The treatise is sometimes understood as consisting of two parts, according to its compositional history. There was an interruption of two or three decades at III.78. Green indicates “a certain bittiness” in the later part of Book III (xi). Many readers, including Green, seem to understand the first three books as properly about learning rather than teaching, while leaving the real doctrina to Book IV. They take that division as reflecting Augustine’s initial distinction between discovery (inventio) and presentation (I.1, IV.1).

I seem to detect a tension between the conception of evil as absence/nonquality on the one hand, and the implication of (original) sin as a positive condition on the other.

At the end of Book III, Augustine credits Tyconius (and downplays the latter’s Donatism), but his frequent citations from Cicero are all tacit. Is this discrepancy in his treatment of Christian and pagan sources a demonstration of how to “spoil the Egyptians”? [via]

Holy Feast and Holy Fast

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women by Caroline Walker Bynum, part of the The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics series.

Caroline Walker Bynum Holy Feast and Holy Fast

The nature of Bynum’s analysis in Holy Feast and Holy Fast is decidedly synchronic. She both compares and contrasts medieval sensibilities regarding food with those of the twentieth century, tending to emphasize the extent to which modern readers will find the medieval perspectives “alien” (246). But her concern is not to demonstrate any causes or mechanisms by which the earlier state was transformed to the later one. Even within the relatively broad time-frame that she has chosen—three centuries or more during the later Middle Ages—she emphasizes a relatively uniform set of ideas governing consistent expressions of female religiosity (6-7). While she provides explicit disclaimers admitting the reality of historical change and difference, she seems only to demonstrate the process by which European religious culture, like the exceptional women whom she studies, does not change through reversal or disruption, but only intensifies its own given character.

In contrast with her critique of Victor Turner’s concept of liminality, Bynum elsewhere praises his proposals regarding “dominant symbols,” with “their many facets.” Although it is more understated here, the metaphor is the same as the one that she employs in the “crystalline structure” in her female saints’ lives. And the nature of that gem may actually be most clearly explained by Turner’s predecessor Clifford Geertz, who had written,

“Our double task is to uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts, the ‘said’ of social discourse, and to construct a system of analysis in whose terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determinants of human behavior.” (The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 1973, p. 27)

These “conceptual structures” are the “dominant symbols,” arrayed and anchored in such a fashion as to create what Geertz with his own natural and geometric metaphor calls “webs of significance.” Their exposure and explication can create an assurance of integrated meaning sufficiently compelling as to make a specific cultural matrix seem not only lucid, but inevitable. The theoretical danger and difficulty for the historian lies in becoming frozen in the crystal or trapped in the web. There is a hazard of being confined by a “synchronic” sensibility, which, if it has the virtue of avoiding stereotyped storylines, may not be able to accommodate or account for the transformative events of history.

(excerpted from my brief 2006 paper on “The Concept of Structure in Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast”) [via]