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 Celestial Bed

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Celestial Bed by Irving Wallace.

Irving Wallace The Celestial Bed

The Celestial Bed is a “contemporary issues” novel from the mid-1980s. The dramatic vector of the book is shifting and ambivalent. It often seems as if it is going to be a sex-therapeutic riff on Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, but there are also threads that appear to be weaving a grave tragedy in which clinic founder Dr. Freeberg will serve as a Christlike sacrifice. In the end, all of the evils are overcome, the story turns out to be As You Like It with sex surrogacy in place of cross-dressing, and Dr. Freeberg is merely Duke Senior.

The book is very plot-driven, with characterizations that are strong but not particularly deep. The prose is clear and rather journalistic, and the book reads quite quickly. There is a strong moral tone in support of the therapeutic use of sex surrogacy, along with lots of explicit sex that avoids being gratuitous by virtue of the central topic of the novel. It’s certainly no literary work of art, but it does afford some entertainment and a view of the “bestseller” genre of its time. [via]

The Port-Wine Stain

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Port-Wine Stain by Norman Lock.

Norman Lock The Port-Wine Stain

I have read perhaps a half-dozen stories and novels in which the writer H.P. Lovecraft features as a character. None of them, however, actually felt like a story that Lovecraft might have written. In Norman Lock’s The Port-Wine Stain, it is Lovecraft’s predecessor in American horror, Edgar Allan Poe, who is a principal character. But this one has the constitution and many of the trappings of an actual Poe tale.

The cover of my ARC, which appears to be retained in the trade paperback edition, is based on the Thomas Richard Williams daguerreotype stereoscope image “The Sands of Time.” It’s attractive, and certainly suits the mood of the book. But I think the cover designer could have gone one better by exploiting some detail from the Thomas Eakins painting of The Gross Clinic, which is used in the outermost frame of the novel to draw the reader into an imagining of 19th-century American medicine as a site of horror.

The novel is constructed in the form of a reminiscing monologue by Doctor Edward Fenzil, who had in his youth been under the dual influences of Poe and the medical researcher Thomas Dent Mütter. The reader is addressed in the person of “Moran,” a one-eyed soldier serving under General Custer in 1876, but Fenzil’s story centers on the winter of early 1844. It is a narrative that he claims to have never before confessed in its entirety, and certainly one that does not cast a favorable light on the storyteller.

Theorist Massimo Cacciari writes of Poe’s stories, “In an analytical manner, passage by passage, without leaps, without discoveries, madness—by recovering its past and coordinating it with the present and planning a series of specific resolutions–reveals its own logic.” This same appraisal might be made of The Port-Wine Stain. The book is short, with the pacing of Part One being fairly sedate, while Part Two is comparatively brisk. It includes in its metafictional array the full text of an unfinished story “by Poe” called “The Port—Wine Stain,” and it is ultimately the links between this story and the experiences of the young Fenzil that constitute the logic of madness in Lock’s novel.

If you like Poe’s work, this book is worth seeking out. [via]

The Mindful Geek

The librarian John Griogair Bell reviews The Mindful Geek by Michael W Taft.

Michael W Taft The Mindful Geek

I picked up The Mindful Geek by Michael W Taft because Al Billings, librarian emeritus, was talking about it. After finishing it, I feel like up until now I’ve been lied to about the purpose, techniques, and outcomes of meditation. I mean, that’s okay, but, if you’re not seriously into meditation and already have had this epiphany long ago, I can recommend this is as a great practical compelling introduction to revolutionize something you probably think you already know about. I feel like my understanding of the purpose, techniques, and outcomes of meditation has been revolutionized.

You can pick up a free copy of this book, and find downloadable audio of the exercises, at the author’s site The Mindful Geek. After reading the book and awkwardly doing the exercises on my own with half an eye on the text, I made a playlist of the audio files. I shuffle the playlist when I set aside time, so I get a random exercise each time I sit during daily practice. But, the important point is that the book and audio files are all free. Check them out, and consider enhancing, or adding this to, your daily practice.

The amply supported discussion of the outcomes for mindfulness meditation described by Taft are grounded neurobiological improvements in concentration and depth of the complex interconnections between physical human sensations, thoughts and emotions. The crux is that Taft details how mindfulness practice has been shown to actually and practically grow the part of the human brain that allows for greater focus and deeper, broader human experience. This is entirely different than the outcomes I have heard espoused in the past. This is an entirely more welcome outcome than I have heard espoused in the past. This revelation alone is enough to recommend this book.

I admit most of my experience has been with the idea that meditation was a tool to clear the mind of thoughts. The techniques outlined by Taft in this book are clear and concise methods to practice focus and depth with thoughts, emotions and feelings. This isn’t mindlessness practice. This isn’t a practice to stop the mind. This isn’t a practice of body hate or combat to kill sensation or volunteering for deliberate extended body torture. This is a set of practices that increase skills with and capacity for focus and depth with one’s mind, body, and emotions.

Even Crowley when talking about “awareness, one-pointedness, mind-fullness” in On Concentration still suggests, and frankly kind of muddling what Hatha Yoga actually was as a precursory practice to prepare the body for and not the same as meditation, “to stop the mind altogether. That is Yoga.” And suggests the idea is to “sit down in Asana to quiet your mind.” However, the discussion of focus in this volume seems to me quite in line with other supporting statements that come to my mind about concentration and focus.

“Your nail must be hard, smooth, fine-pointed, or it will not move swiftly in the direction willed. Imagine then a nail of tinder-wood with twenty points—it is verily no longer a nail. Yet nigh all mankind are like unto this.”—Liber CL, De Lege Libellum

This further revelation of the practical neurobiological outcomes of this practice for me is even more important, I think. The outcome of increasing depth and breadth of being human potential for thought, sensation, and emotion revealed here should hearten every practitioner. But, specifically, as part of leading toward an overall clear, concise and unobfuscated practice of sex magick, the outcome of strengthening the neurobiological capacity for focus and sensation should be obviously desirable.

“Wisdom says: be strong! Then canst thou bear more joy. Be not animal; refine thy rapture! If thou drink, drink by the eight and ninety rules of art: if thou love, exceed by delicacy; and if thou do aught joyous, let there be subtlety therein! But exceed! exceed!”—Liber AL, II, 70–71

Taft has offered here a practical discourse that is quite literally and precisely “the method of science, the aim of religion”, a phrase familiar to readers of Crowley material and here reified. All obfuscation and frou-frou of superstition is keenly stripped from the nitty-gritty details and a case is made clear that practical application of the techniques will bring about outcomes worthy of one’s work.

I was surprised to connect the discussion in this book to New Thought. If one ignored the cruft and superstition, New Thought’s admonition to breathe deeply and engage in positive thinking are, interestingly to me, quite well supported by the practical techniques and proven neurobiological outcomes discussed here.

Another thing I found myself thinking about is a personal hypothesis I’ve long had that damaged people are more interesting, and tend, I think and feel, to be the only people worth talking to. People who have not struggled, not faced hardship and setback, seem to me to be exquisitely boring and useless. As I was reading this book, it occurred to me that the inward facing reaction to strife, the self-examination and inherent reflective practice of hardship in life might be seen as a practice of mindfulness and that creates, as discussed as an outcome of mindfulness practice, an actual neurobiological depth of capacity for thought and emotion and sensation. That which does not kill us, actually does (with apologies to Nietzsche and The Cure) make us stronger; bigger and sleeker and wider and brighter.

The Lévitikon

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Levitikon: The Gospels According to the Primitive Church by Donald Donato, introduction by Jordan Stratford.

Donald Donato Jordan Stratford The Levitikon

This slim softcover book is the first English translation (so far as I know) of a reasonably hoary French curiosity, but its title appears to be an error. The text is purportedly a Christian gospel of antique provenance. It was first circulated within the Église Johannites des Cretiens Primitif of Bernard-Raymond Fabré-Palaprat at the start of the 19th century. Fabré-Palaprat claimed to be the heir to the Apostolic Succession of John the Divine, and it was on this authority that he founded the “Johannite Church,” primarily to serve as an ecclesiastical vehicle for his Templar revival. The Johannite Church used a variant version of the Fourth Gospel, called the Evangelikon, as its scripture, and it is this document that forms the principal substance of the current book. The Lévitikon was the title of an companion text that asserted a transmission of mysteries from Jesus through the beloved disciple and eventually to the Knights Templar. Its contents are not present in the current volume bearing that name.

Neither the Johannite Church nor the associated Templar Order seem to have survived Fabré-Palaprat’s death in 1838, but members of the Johannite clergy appear to have continued to exercise their ecclesiastic prerogatives in other venues. The 21st-century Lévitikon is issued under the imprimatur of the Apostolic Johannite Church, a Neognostic sect operating in the French tradition for which Jules Doinel was a major founding figure. The current AJC Patriarch Iohannes IV offers a foreword here, and the introduction and translation are supplied by other AJC clergy. Although there is an international reach claimed by this church, the main figures of the hierarchy represented in this volume appear to be in western Canada.

AJC Prefect Jordan Stratford’s introduction seeks to place the enigmatic Johannite gospel in a historical context, discussing its etiology (subject to an “official” discovery yarn similar to that of the Golden Dawn cipher manuscripts in England later in the 19th century), contemporary scholarship on the orthodox Fourth Gospel (to which this one bears a closer similarity than the synoptic gospels do to one another), and the historical phenomena of initiatic transmission and Templarism addressed in the original Lévitikon (again, a text not actually furnished under the current use of that title). Stratford’s conclusions (“Possibilities”) are reasonably skeptical, and include a comparison between the Evangelikon and the successful fraud of the Donation of Constantine.

The gospel itself is a pleasant and interesting read. Like the French original, it lacks the verse numberings of modern bibles, but the biblical pericopes sit squarely in the chapter structure parallel to its canonical model or cousin. As Stratford remarks, it emphasizes the alien quality of Jesus and his teachings, often implying or stating his relationship to Greek and Egyptian culture. With these small additions, some of the features of the canonical John stood out for me. For example in John 8:33 (as in the present text), the “Jews who had believed” Jesus say, “We are the seed of Abraham, and we have never been slaves to any man: how sayest thou: you shall be free?” So these Jews and/or the gospel author seem to have been ironically ignorant of the substance of the first half of Exodus. There is no resurrection narrative in this gospel, but there is a concluding attestation.

This book is published chiefly as an inspirational text for Christian Neognostics. I do not fall within that classification, but I found it worthwhile for my interest in the history of modern Neognosticism. [via]

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]