Mail call 18aug2022

Let’s open this envelope that’s arrived at the Reading Room!

Hermetic Library mail call 18aug2022 Walter Cambra donation

Donation of $20 from Hermetic Library Fellow Walter C Cambra! Thanks!


Also, as a reminder, if you want to participate in postal exchange with me, I occasionally send stuff out to certain Patrons as a perk; but, even if you aren’t able to be a Patron, if you send something I’ll send something back! It’s that easy!

The Gospel of Judas

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Judas [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] eds Rodolphe Kasser, Marvin Meyer, and Gregor Wurst, in collaboration with François Gaudard.

Kasser Meyer Wurst Gaudard The Gospel of Judas

This volume presents a full English translation of the surviving text of the Gospel of Judas from the Codex Tchacos, with evaluative and interpretive essays by several conspicuous modern scholars of Gnosticism, all of whom (except for Ehrman) were party to the edition presented. That word “surviving” is key, because, as Rodolphe Kasser details in his contribution, the Codex Tchacos was subjected to the most pernicious effects of antiquities speculators in the 20th century. Much of the text is now missing or illegible as a result of damage sustained in the last few decades. 

Like the Nag Hammadi Codices, to which it is clearly kin, the Codex Tchacos appears to consist of Coptic translations of Greek texts. The Gospel of Judas is the third of these, and represents an expression of Sethian Gnosticism. Gregor Wurst, in his useful essay making the case for identifying this text with the “Gospel of Judas” mentioned by the ancient heresiologist Iranaeus of Lyon, suggests that it is one of the earliest such texts available to us today. In fact, I think he sets a false limit on how early it could be. He writes that it could not have been written earlier than the canonical Acts of the Apostles (ca. 93 C.E.), because it refers to the event of Judas’ replacement among the twelve apostles. But surely this overlooks the possibility that Judas and Acts could share a narrative source — or even (though I doubt it) both be grounded in prior facts! The earliness of the Gospel of Judas and its likely translation from a Greek original are reasons to hold out hope that a more complete version may someday be recovered. 

Bart Ehrman’s essay is a primer of wide scope regarding the contents of the Gospel of Judas, which presumes a minimum of prior knowledge on the part of the reader. (One conspicuous feature of the text that Ehrman fails to note is its strident rejection of ritual sacramentalism.) The concluding essay by Meyer is more sophisticated, and helpfully draws comparisons with other literature of ancient Gnosticism, as well as Hellenized Judaism and Middle Platonism. All of the essays are very accessible, and the whole book can be read in just a few sittings. 

Even in its degraded present condition, the Gospel of Judas is treasure comparable to the most provocative of the Nag Hammadi texts, or to the Bruce Codex materials, preserving scripture that was valued by the Gnostics who were eventually suppressed by what became Christian orthodoxy. This book serves as a well-constructed introduction for popular audiences to the good news of the man who sacrificed Jesus. May they go and do likewise.

Finding the Mother Tree

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Suzanne Simard.

Simard Finding the Mother Tree

This volume should stand as the magnum opus text of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard. It’s hard to estimate the relative proportions of narrative memoir and silvicultural science here, in part because one of Simard’s themes is to challenge mechanistic-exploitative science divorced from narratives recognizing the agency of trees and forests.

The book’s most obvious theme is cooperation as a paradigm for forest growth and health. Simard communicates this idea very effectively. Despite her decades of efforts to get this perspective to inform policy and industrial practices, she still struggles for it to have traction in forestry management. She has been more successful among academics and the general public. It’s clear that there are actual elements of competition in natural ecology, but the conceptual exclusion of cooperative mechanisms is a debilitating fault that Simard’s work has consistently sought to address. (She doesn’t much bother to explain, but it is hideously obvious, that this feature in her field is derived from industrial capitalism and entrenched in neoliberal outlooks that create analogous damage on many other levels as well.)

On the philosophical level–again, inextricable from the memoirist content–I was reminded of Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble, although the emphasis here on unrecognized complexity and interdependence strikes me as more sophisticated than Haraway’s slogan of “Make kin, not babies.” Simard’s trees seem to understand that they need to make kin (in Haraway’s sense) in order for their babies to thrive, and to make babies in order to perpetuate their constructive relationships with their kin.

The key (but far from only) scientific takeaway of the common mycorrhizal network as the material stratum of a forest’s collective intelligence is pretty thrilling. In other venues, she has referred to this collaborative vegetable-fungal matrix as an “underworld.” It is easy for me to imagine cultural evolution of local humans to appreciate this reality without the benefit of the sort of alienating experimental science that Simard has needed to use in validating and justifying her hypotheses. She claims that First Nations lore tallies with her discoveries.

After reading the book, I watched one of Simard’s successful TED Talks on YouTube, where I saw her rehearse some of the powerful anecdotes included in this book. She’s an adequate public speaker, although she confides in writing that she finds it an unpleasant ordeal. What holds the attention is the awareness she has to impart, and for me, the book medium was more effective. Not only did it supply a fuller explanation of the scientific ideas, but it also put her personal stories into the context of a life arc of professional challenges, intimate relationships, personal survival, and family affections.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Declare [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tim Powers

Powers Declare

I came to Tim Powers’ Declare on the strength of a friend’s recommendation, and also Charles Stross’ comparison to his own work in The Atrocity Archives. Although the subject matter of espionage plus supernatural elements was certainly similar to Stross’ “Laundry” novels, I was surprised to find myself comparing Declare to a very different, and altogether more popular book: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. Both are bulky, character-oriented novels rooted in the socio-political frames of particular periods; both are self-consciously English; both have emotional depth; both mix in some real historical persons as characters; both introduce their central supernatural elements in a gradual manner; and in both cases those elements are anchored in archaic intelligences and their complex relations with humanity. I would even compare the narrative role that Powers assigns to T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) to that occupied by the Raven King in Clarke’s book. And both Powers and Clarke are performing a comparable sort of transcendent pastiche: adding magic to the LeCarre spy thriller on the one hand and to the Austen saga of realist satire on the other. Powers gets more points for fidelity to history, Clarke for verisimilitude of magic.

Comparisons aside, I did very much enjoy Declare. It was not a flawless book. There was a certain attribution of supernatural efficacy to Christian piety and sacraments that was never properly justified, and I occasionally found a sentence in laughable need of easy repair. (An example of both from p. 486: “He opened his mouth to speak the first words of the Our Father, but realized that he had forgotten them.”) But there is a healthy and profitable use of dramatic irony — attentive readers can stay a half-step ahead of the central characters — and Powers manages to instill a real numinosity into the higher orders of espionage that he invents for World War II and the Cold War. The psychology of double-agency is a long-standing interest of mine, and Powers makes it central to his novel in a way that I appreciated. The recruitment and induction of spies (“agent-runners”) is presented through an explicitly initiatory framework that should be accessible and engaging to those who share those interests with me as well.

Logan’s Run

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Logan’s Run [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by William F Nolan and George Clayton Johnson.

Nolan Logan's Run

This short novel was the basis for the 1976 film, subsequent television show, and sequel novels: a dystopian action-adventure in the twenty-second century very much along lines laid down by Huxley’s Brave New World. The principal addition to the scenario is the idea of dealing with population pressure by using the global technocratic state to impose a maximum lifespan of twenty-one years. The protagonist Logan is a “Sandman”: a policeman/executioner assigned to eliminate “Runners” who fail to report for their scheduled euthanasia. Contrary to the jacket copy and many synopses, Logan is not a desperate Runner himself, but is in fact a thoroughly ambivalent character, attracted to a Runner whom he accompanies in order to infiltrate the Runner network and reach the rumored Runner destination of Sanctuary and its architect Ballard. 

A sense of impending climax is structured into the novel with chapter numbers that count down from ten. There are two plot twists at the end of the book, neither of which was ever translated into the screen adaptations. One concerns the location of Sanctuary, and the other is about the identity of Ballard. The first works fine, but the second I did not find compelling after the contrary setup. 

The book is very fast-moving, with plenty of sex and violence — though not quite so much that it seems like a mere pretext for them — and seems to have been written with the intention of inspiring screen adaptations. The film and television show actually made from it were toned down by setting it another century further into the future, and raising the age of “Lastday” from twenty-one to thirty. They also added the spectacular euthanasia ceremony of Carousel, to replace the simpler “Sleepshops” of the novel. Another film version is apparently in the works with a projected release date of 2014, and rumor has it that they’ve brought several points of the scenario (most notably the maximum personal age) back in line with that of the book. 

This is not a philosophical work by any stretch of the imagination, and yet it includes interesting material for meditation. The idea of engineered neoteny as a response to socio-economic and political stresses is not so very far-fetched. Certainly, in the 1970s wake of the youth counterculture it must have seemed very credible. It is doubtless one of several such programs available to the Crowned and Conquering Child.