Sorcerers

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sorcerers by Jacob Needleman.

Needleman Sorcerers

Author Needleman is not known for his fiction, but rather his popularizing efforts on religion and philosophy, as well as academic work in the same fields. Sorcerers was his first novel, and the substance would mark it as young adult literature–a short, digestible coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old protagonist–but the packaging seems to be directed to an adult audience. The story is concerned with magic of at least three kinds: the stage magic of the illusionist’s craft, the magic of supernatural power, and the magic of spiritual realization. 

There is certainly an autobiographical component: Needleman has put his central character Elliot Appleman in the 1950s Philadelphia where the author himself grew up, but the supernatural elements of the story suggest that it is quite fictional. Thaumaturgical characters with names like Irene Angel and Max Falkoner lend it the sense of allegorical fable, which the naturalistic setting helps to ameliorate. 

Needleman’s works are often informed by his embrace of the teachings originating with G. I. Gurdjieff, and that seems to be the case here as well. In particular, the lessons that Elliot receives from Max are concerned with using disciplined bodily movement to break free of psychic automatism, and the ethic emphasized is one of conscience and awakening. But the presentation of these ideas is free of sectarian baggage, and the same story might be read as a Thelemic parable, with a focus on gradual initiation and True Will.

The narrative highlights of Sorcerers are distinctly initiatory in character. There is a quite affective (and effective!) ceremony of Elliot’s induction into the Sorcerer’s Apprentices club for teenage stage magicians. His private instruction from the adult magicians Blake and Falkoner is also a combination of transformative ritual and spiritual filiation. The climax and denouement in the book’s fourth part could be read as a single event in which various characters are undergoing different initiations peculiar to their own grades. 

Unusually, but not inappropriately, the story ends with a benediction on the reader.

The King in the Golden Mask

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob, translated and afterword by Kit Schluter.

Schwob Schluter The King in the Golden Mask

The Wakefield Press edition of The King in the Golden Mask is the first complete English translation of this 1892 collection of short stories in French by Marcel Schwob. Translator Kit Schluter provides an afterword which positions the book in Schwob’s oeuvre and traces the author’s impressive subsequent influence on aesthetic movements and literary writers around the world. Each story is dedicated to one of Schwob’s contemporaries, a range of figures including Anatole France and Oscar Wilde.

The twenty-one stories are all vivid and well-suited to our short 21st-century attention spans. They generally begin in media res and often conclude without much plot resolution, so that they tend to fall towards the vignette within the spectrum of forms. Settings are mostly historical, and the language is often opaquely archaic, an effect that Schluter has been at some effort to sustain. Principal characters range among “lepers, embalming women, eunuchs, murderers, demoniacs, and pirates” and others (3). As Schwob avers in his foreword, the mask is a recurrent (if not ubiquitous) trope among the stories, and he intimates a sort of Derridean trace unifying the superficially fragmented book.

Favorites for me included the eschatological “Terrestrial Fire,” the medieval documentation of “The Sabbat at Mofflaines,” and the science-fictional “Talking Machine.”

Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle by Pierre Klossowski, translated by Daniel W Smith.

Klossowski Smith Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle

Pierre Klossowski’s magisterial reading brings into relief the seductive character of the ordeals involved with Nietzsche’s sicknesses and anti-sociality. Although Nietzsche felt compelled to communicate the circulus vitiosus Deus and thus to clothe it in concepts, it is not chiefly a doctrine. Like the “Kingdom of God” of Jesus, or the “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel” of the Master Therion, the Eternal Return is in fact an experience that overcomes rational identity even as it validates the numinous self. The incoherence of this experience is of a piece with the absurdity of its prophet and his apparent descent into buffoonery and madness.

In discussing such matters as “valetudinary states” (i.e. experiences of illness), the Eternal Return, and the semiotics of the ineffable corporeal impulse, Klossowski makes extensive use of Nietzsche’s private correspondence and manuscript fragments. As he demonstrates, Nietzsche viewed the Eternal Return as a secret knowledge that–in virtue of its very nature–could not be communicated openly, and so these texts from outside of the canonical Nietzsche corpus are indispensable. In the original French edition, these were presented without proper citations, and it was a heroic work of translators Ronald Vouillé and Donald W. Smith (into German and English respectively) to have produced the apparatus which properly identifies their sources in the Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienaufgabe and other posthumous editions.

Klossowski, who did not call himself a philosopher, often seems concerned to rescueNietzsche from his 20th-century rehabilitation in the philosophical discipline. Although Klossowski was a student of Georges Bataille and dedicated Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle to Gilles Deleuze, the text is free of explicit references to or arguments with other Nietzsche scholars. At the same time, it deserves to be read in agonistic contact with the interpretations provided by Martin Heidegger, Walter Kaufmann, and others. This book has evidently had a significant influence on later French theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard.

One unusual merit of Klossowski’s study is the extent to which he takes seriously Nietzsche’s oracular function. More than once, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle pauses to consider the extent to which the world of the middle 20th century had met, and in some cases surpassed, the social and cultural prognostications offered by Nietzsche, who believed that the product of his contemplation might “break the history of humanity in two.” (100, 230) In exercising his “religious, that is to say god-forming, instinct,” Nietzsche contemplated “God as a maximal state, as an epoch.” (209, 107) The perfection of the individual relative to this epoch is to operate unassuaged of purpose. “Nietzsche’s unavowable project is to act without intention: the impossible morality.” (140)

As blurber Graham Parkes remarks, Klossowski’s book is “profound, but extremely taxing.” To profit from it requires prior familiarity with Nietzsche’s biography and writings. It will not serve as an introduction to Nietzsche’s work, but it remains one of the most penetrating examinations of the anti-system which that work adumbrates.

Sidelights on Relativity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sidelights on Relativity by Albert Einstein.

Einstein Sidelights on Relativity

The two brief lectures in this volume are each interesting in their own right, although there is little to unify them beyond concern for the most foundational aspects of the science of physics. 

The first, on “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” treats the now-quaint-sounding topic of the luminiferous ether, which seems to have gone the way of phlogiston and other obsolete scientific topics. Surprisingly, Einstein insists that there is a role for the ether concept in relativistic physics! It is, however, a “gravitational ether” from which every mechanical characteristic has been eliminated, and which is therefore just as easily denominated as space. Although this paper avoids mathematical and experimental details, a certain prior familiarity with the history of modern physics is very useful in appreciating it, since Einstein races through an extensive series of theorists in his summary of the evolution of the ether concept. 

The second paper begins by offering the distinction between geometry as an axiomatic philosophical undertaking, and the empirical physical science of “practical geometry.” Einstein explains that the effort to adjust physical laws to accommodate known events and behaviors to the axiomatic system of Euclidean geometry was in fact a driving force behind the theory of relativity, even though it eventually became necessary to posit non-Euclidean space as a result of that theory. The later part of the paper is concerned to permit novices to acquire an imaginative appreciation of finite but unbounded spaces–in particular spaces curved through the fourth dimension in a hyperspherical fashion.