From the Legend of Biel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews From the Legend of Biel by Mary Staton.

Staton From the Legend of Biel

I found my way to this 1974 sf novel by way of a commendation in the occultist memoir In the Center of the Fire. The Legend of Biel was author Mary Staton’s first book, used as the re-launch of publisher Ace’s Science Fiction Special series.

The story is framed as a sort of Clarke-style hard sf involving the investigation of mysterious architecture on an exoplanet MC6, with difficult mission constraints and conflicting motives among the explorers. While this setup intimates a “first contact” scenario, the book never actually presents any non-human intelligence other than the possibly posthuman “Thoacdien.” There are however multiple human civilizations brought into view: the terrestrial humans of the frame story, the utopian telepaths of the Thoacdien Federation, and the indigenous Higgite nation of Thoacdien V.

The protagonist of the frame story is UN scientist Howard Scott, but the “Biel” of the title is the central character of the nested narrative, and she is a mutant child of the Thoacdien polity. Especially toward the end of the book, small sections are offered in a first-person voice from Biel, and she is the only character to assume this level of focus. Her story eventuates in a somewhat unsatisfying “and then she woke up” gimmick, which fails to account for much of the third-person detail supplied. Still, as an allegory of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel (per Jim Wasserman’s reading) the “Legend” is provocative.

Issues of “racial” difference (in the US sociopolitical sense) are raised explicitly in the frame story and implicitly in the legend. David Hobart, the black African member of the UN research team “had paid his dues and was grudgingly admitted to the human race” (19). On Thoacdien V the Federation mentor characters are black, while the savage Higgites are conspicuously white.

The evolutionary advances of the Federation society include the obsolescence of viviparity and the removal of dominance and submission from pedagogy. The resulting picture reminded me more than a little of earlier science fiction such as Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X. The rather abstracted scenery of Thoacdien V drafted itself in my imagination in the style of Jean “Moebius” Griaud. Throughout the book there is typography that helps to flag various registers of the narrative, but it results in some infelicities like long chapters entirely in italics and often indulges in expressionistic passages of what looks to be concrete poetry.

I did feel that the resolution of the Biel plot was a bit clumsy, but I received the closing bracket of the Howard Scott frame story more warmly. While I don’t know that I can echo Wasserman’s appraisal of the book as “excellent,” I don’t regret having taken his word that it was “worth reading.”

Samalio Pardulus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Samalio Pardulus by Otto Julius Bierbaum, illustrated by Alfred Kubin, translated by W C Bamberger.

Bierbaum Samalio Pardulus

Samalio Pardulus is named after its principal character, a creature of transcendent decadence and misanthropy in the mode of the earlier Des Essientes of Huysmans or the later Fantazius Mallare of Ben Hecht. Like Huysmans, author Bierbaum was involved in the Symbolist culture that detached itself from Romanticism and contributed to Expressionism, although in this little book the Gothic elements are quite palpable.

Samalio Pardulus was a painter in medieval Albania. Rather than documenting him from an omniscient third-person narrator as in À rebours or through the medium of his own written journals as in Fantazius Mallare, Bierbaum places two narrative frames between the reader and the character. First, there is a “staid philistine” Italian painter Messer Giacomo, imported to instruct Samalio, whose journals form the purported documentary basis of the story in the form of extensive quotations. Then there is the anonymous archivist who introduces and comments on Giacomo’s account. Through the course of the book, this archivist outside of the quotes retreats to invisibility, having left behind only a suitable readerly suspicion regarding Giacomo’s perceptiveness.

Samalio himself is ugly, talented, and blasphemous. He is concerned with making objects out of his imaginings, and to the extent that this work tends to horrify his pious teacher, his explanations of it become theological, deprecating a cosmic demiurge and exalting his own “godly pleasure in the grotesque” (14). Beyond his inchoate gnosticism and solipsism, Samalio defines himself with incestuous ambitions for his beautiful sister. These eventuate in a numinous domestic apocalypse. The interrelation of the principal characters–Samalio, his sister Maria Bianca, their father the Count, an unnamed watchman, and Messer Giacomo–eventually becomes so outre that it awoke in me suspicions of allegory.

This first English edition is illustrated with many full-page charcoal drawings by Alfred Kubin that appeared in the original 1911 German edition. Some of these depict Samalio’s paintings, but most are scenes from the novel.

Omnium Gatherum: 23mar2020

An irregular hodgepodge of links gathered together … Omnium Gatherum for March 23, 2020

I hope you and yours are all doing well and weal in these times. I’m going to go ahead and make this particular Omnium Gatherum available for everyone, not just Patrons of any particular perk. Be safe and sane out there!

I wanted to mention that Crisis Text Line is an organization providing free, confidential support to people in crisis. Anxious about coronavirus? Text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor. In Canada, text 686868. In the UK, 85258. If you or anyone you know might be in need of someone to talk to about, about not just specifically about novel coronavirus, but other things that may be coming up right now, keep that number handy. I’m sure there are other resources available to you, but I know about that one and that is just a text away, in case you’re in need.

Here’s some things I’ve found that you may be interested in checking out:

What have you been seeing around and thinking about lately?! What have you seen that caught your eye? Thinking about something lately, or reading something interesting, or have a project you’re working on? Share your own Omnium Gatherum items in the comments for everyone else to gander at with you!

Winter Tide

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys.

Emrys Winter Tide

This novel was written as a sequel-by-popular-demand to the justly-acclaimed novella “The Litany of Earth,” itself a narrative development from the Lovecraft story “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Of “The Litany of Earth,” I remarked, “In retrospect, this tale seems to me almost necessary somehow. I’ve read so very many (literally dozens of) stories elaborating on the events of ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth,’ and this is the first one that actually followed an Innsmouth native as a sympathetic survivor of the government raids and arrests. Emrys’ comparanda are not just the WWII interment of Japanese-Americans, but (in the revelations about Aphra’s mother and Charlie’s subsequent reference to Nuremburg) Nazi Versuchspersonen.” I was also impressed with the sensitivity regarding occult magic evident in the story, as well as the moral trajectory of its protagonist, especially against the backdrop of Lovecraft’s original.

Winter Tide did not give me the sense of textual destiny fulfilled that I found in its immediate predecessor. It is a full novel, first published in April 2017. While the observations about the oppressive propensities of the US government in “The Litany of Earth” had become even more topical, the author’s treatment of them seemed less nuanced. The book builds a cadre of outsiders under the nominal supervision of FBI agent Ron Spector and the actual leadership of Innsmouther Aphra Marsh, and the interactions in this ensemble are interesting, but the development of the subaltern theme is taken in so many directions that it starts to exude whiffs of tokenism and didacticism.

The occult elements are still treated capably on the whole, but the entire feel of the story seemed shifted markedly in the direction of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files books: the protagonist team working under the aegis of an intelligence agency, the mathematical rationales for magical phenomena, and the fears about authority, all on a carrier wave of neo-yog-sothothery. The mid-20th-century setting is different than Stross’ frighteningly-up-to-date 21st, and Stross’ sarcastic hilarity is replaced with lucid griefs and affections, but the books now feel to me like very close cousins to one another.

My favorite parts of Winter Tide, for both entertainment and philosophical value, were the ones relating to the actual Yithian that Aphra discovers among the Miskatonic faculty and who becomes a key participant in the central plot. I also enjoyed the in-person appearances of mature Deep Ones. Emrys manages to construct the narration so that the reader can appreciate Aphra’s reverent affection for her relatives as well as the horror that they would present to a naive observer. But these accounts of exotic beings palpably manifesting in the story cause it to leave behind some of the subtlety that I found so affecting in “The Litany of Earth.”

I already own a copy of the next volume of Aphra’s story, Deep Roots, and I expect to enjoy it eventually. I wonder if it will signal as great a change from Winter Tide as that one did from the prior novella. Certainly the pace of current events and the author’s evident woke sensitivity to them will have brought more forces to bear on its composition.

The Mass Psychology of Fascism

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mass Psychology of Fascism by Wilhelm Reich.

Reich The Mass Psychology of Fascism

Wilhelm Reich wrote The Mass Psychology of Fascism in 1930-33 and revised and expanded it in 1942. He thus began it in an effort to explain the rise to power of the Nazis and other fascist parties of the interwar period, and developed it with a view to the likely demise of these particular governments and concern about what would succeed them. He also discussed the development of the Soviet system towards authoritarianism and away from its original socialist ideals. When I first read the book in the 1980s, it was fascinating as a piece of firsthand history, but my 2019 reread found me and contemporary society back in the position faced by Reich: the perplexing ascendancy of authoritarian governments throughout the “developed” world.

Reich is not a fan of “great man theories”–how could he be, when confronted with the “failed house painter” at the helm of Nazism? (How can we be, with our failed casino operator?) Nor does he attribute causal primacy to ideology or party programs; “National Socialism” was even more incoherent than the neoliberal capitalism of the Republican party. For Reich, the blame rests squarely with the mass population and their “character structure,” formed and reproduced through conditioning in the patriarchal home, the superstitious church, and the exploitative workplace. Such people possess a pervasive fear of freedom which is channeled into authoritarian politics. All other things being equal, then, fascism could be expected to regrow after the defeat of the Axis powers:

“Viewed with respect to man’s character, ‘fascism’ is the basic emotional attitude of the suppressed man of our authoritarian machine civilization and its mechanistic-mystical conception of life. It is the mechanistic-mystical character of modern man that produces fascist parties, and not vice versa.” (xiii, ital. in original)

Reich has an idiosyncratic use of the word translated here as “mysticism.” He seems to treat it as a synonym for metaphysical and superstitious thought, and rather than being a neighbor or subset of religion, it serves as a superset embracing various irrationalisms. At some points, though, he expressly defines it as sexual abstinence (140 e.g.). When using it in a more conventional sense, he scare-quotes the term:

“… religion’s attitude toward sexuality underwent a change in patriarchal society. Originally, it was a religion of sexuality; later it became an anti-sexual religion. The ‘mysticism’ of the primitives who were members of a sexually affirmative society is partially direct orgastic experience and partially animistic interpretation of natural processes.” (138)
“When sexual feelings and religious feelings became separated from one another, that which is sexual was forced to become the bad, the infernal, the diabolical.” (148)

Reich’s program for escaping the abiding hazard of totalitarianism is thus not focused on politics but pathology, what he calls the “emotional plague” of sexual self-revulsion that expresses itself in imperial projects of enslavement and war. In his own time, he endorsed and supported a campaign for “sex hygiene” that would affirm and protect the sexuality of children, believing that only a generation raised in this fashion could instigate the real social changes needed to transcend the cycle of internalized and projected hatreds. He found opposition to this effort in all established social factions, of course.

“‘Away from the animal; away from sexuality!’ are the guiding principles of the formation of all human ideology. This is the case whether it is the communist form of proletarian class honor, the Christian form of man’s ‘spiritual and ethical nature,’ or the liberal form of ‘higher human values.’ All these ideas harp on the same monotonous tune: ‘We are not animals; it was we who discovered the machine–not the animal! And we don’t have genitals like the animals!‘” (339) When Reich wrote that “Race ideology is the pure biopathic expression of the character structure of the orgastically impotent man” (xiv), he was discussing the racist social theories that “can have meaning only to a numbskull” (78). But the same ideological germ can be seen in mass monoculture farming, antibiotic abuse, and other blunders of our teetering civilization.

Reich’s social ideal is one that he insists is already extant in the fabric of everyday life, even though in some respects it seems as utopian as the anticipated socialism of Fourier or communist future of Marx. What Reich calls “work democracy” is the “voluntary association and self-government” that he claims to have been prevalent “in pagan society” (238) and persistent in practical work at the scale of the individual shop. He refuses to reduce it to a political ideology or an economic theory, instead asserting that it is nothing other than the proper organic social expression of humanity through meaningful participation.

“More than anything else it is a matter of changing the nature of work so that it ceases to be an onerous duty and becomes a gratifying fulfillment of a need.” (286, i.e. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”)