New and Collected Poems 1964-2006

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews New and Collected Poems 1964-2006 [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ishmael Reed.

Reed New and Collected Poems 1964-2006

When I was in high school, a critical aside comparing Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus to Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo brought me haphazardly to a public library copy of Reed’s first poetry collection Conjure, which excited me to the point of photocopying nearly a third of it — after resisting the temptation to steal it outright. For about twenty years thereafter, Reed’s work motivated myriad unrewarded searches on my part among the poetry shelves in used bookshops across the country. In 2006, the volume of Reed’s New and Collected Poems 1964-2006 supplied me with the full contents of Conjure, as well as the interim volumes ChattanoogaA Secretary to the Spirits, and Points of View, and a further collection of poetry more extensive than any two of the earlier books combined. 

Conjure still includes several of my all-time-favorite short poems: “There’s a Whale in my Thigh,” “The Piping Down of God,” and “Dragon’s Blood.” According to the author’s micro-vita appended to this volume, “Beware: Do Not Read This Poem” is also an all-time-favorite of literature instructors. Perhaps the best and most representative poem of this earliest set is the exquisite “I am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra,” a houngan’s brag rebuking Christian tyranny with a mixture of Wild West and ancient Egyptian imagery.

The later materials continue in the same vein, with a tiny bit less anger and a little more sorrow, but Reed’s sense of humor is undiminished. Although he no longer foregrounds the blazon of his school of Neo HooDooism, his methods and aims seem quite consistent with what came before. In the later work, his awareness of the (already much-realized) possibility that his poems would serve as musical lyrics more often leads Reed to use repetitive chorus forms and traditional structures, but even in the early pieces, there is a vivid aural sensibility that constantly tempts to reader to declaim them aloud for the benefit of their full force. 

Reed insists that his poetry is not theological in its aims, despite its use of various non-Christian and counter-Christian tropes and images: “The key lesson that I do take from Yoruba religion is from the parable in which a traveler finds himself in a strange country, away from his gods, and the only god that he can depend upon is his own mind” (xix). But he makes no such disclaimers regarding politics. A political piece among the more recent work that I found especially striking as an expression of its own time was the 2001 “America United” (362-372). And one that read with eerie irony in the light of current events (police violence in late October 2011) was “Let Oakland Be a City of Civility” from 1999 (341-345).

After the recent poems, the book concludes with an opera libretto Gethsemane Park, and a prose narrative “Snake War” based on a translation of an excerpt from Fungawa’s Igbo Olodumare (The Forest of God). The former is a sort of Godspell-like displacement of gospel events into the modern American city, in which Jesus is not a human hero but a discorporate orisha.

In an untitled verse from 1992, Reed wrote: “Ever get the / Feeling that your past / Is a hunter who knows the / Woods better than you” (327). In fact I do, and this four-decades-plus collection goes a way toward demonstrating why Reed might as well.

The radical magi encountered a world wherein one world-image was locked in place—not just the geocentric cosmos but the whole Christian orthodox value system that went with it. Their subversive purpose revolved around the project of a free circulation of imagery, a breaking-up of the stasis and the creation of a more responsive model. The single world-view of orthodoxy was seen as stifling, tyrannical, oppressive. Inasmuch as the self interiorized this view it reproduced the oppression on the level of the subjective. The hermeticists opposed the very singleness of this worldview with a contradictory multiplicity, a critical form of “paganism” based on difference.

Hakim Bey, The Obelisk

Hermetic quote Bey Wilson The Obelisk radical magi encountered one world-image locked subversive purpose free circulation imagery contradictory multiplicity critical paganism difference

Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Glenn Alexander Magee.

Magee Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition

Writing very consciously in the vein inaugurated by Frances Yates’ Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition, Glenn Magee details the esoteric contexts and underpinnings of the work of G.W.F. Hegel. This is not a work of tendentious revisionism. The wonder is not that Magee can read Hegel as a Hermetic thinker, but that — in light of the evidence which he marshals — so many others have managed to avoid the obvious conclusion. A review from The International Philosophical Quarterly quoted on the back cover of my copy claims that the work exposes “Hegel’s dark side,” but Magee makes no such judgment. When he writes about indicting and convicting Hegel of Hermeticism in his final chapter, he is very plainly using a cacophemistic rhetorical figure. Hermeticism as Magee defines it (and he does a competent job of doing so) could be “dark” to the conventionally pious Christian, or to the rationalistic secular sorts who may have had the upper hand in the 20th-century study of Hegel, but it wasn’t to Hegel, nor to Magee nor me.

I came to this book after reading a good deal of the “Young Hegelian” Ludwig Feuerbach, for whom Hegel figures as the culmination of an obsolete crypto-theology, and I was open to the possibility of heightening my intellectual sympathy for Hegel. Magee pulled that off quite nicely. After reading his treatment of The Phenomenology of Spirit as an initiatory rite (!) I found myself for the first time ever actually considering a full read of that forbidding tome.

Magee has a lot to say about the kabbalah, which he understands to have been influential on Hegel both directly (in Rosenroth’s Kabbalah Denudata and the like) and via the work of Jacob Boehme. Most of his points are fairly sound, but he did not impress me as a scholar of kabbalistic history. He seemed thoroughly dependent on Gershom Scholem. And his transliterations were distractingly erratic; for instance, he wrote Ayin for AIN, although the same word was elsewhere Ein (in Ein Sof).

Likewise, Magee’s appreciation of the history of alchemy seems adequate for his task, but not thorough. In this case, I think he errs (in a way he does not with the Kabbalah) in deeming alchemical methods to be all of a sort. When he declares that “there is no way to decide if the alchemical opus is intended to be entirely figurative or symbolic, or if there is both a literal, physical operation of some sort coupled with a mystical doctrine” (209), it seems clear that he could benefit from the work of recent researchers into alchemy in the history of science, such as Lawrence Principe.

I have no such complaints about Magee’s efforts to contextualize Hegel with reference to the development of Rosicrucianism in Germany. In this case, he draws on appropriate and reliable scholarship in a way that has apparently been neglected by earlier Hegel scholars. Merely in passing, I was delighted to note Magee’s observation about the genesis of the phrase “immanentize the eschaton” in The New Science of Politics by Eric Voegelin (1952), where he is discussing the effects of Joachimist prophecy. 

I was cumulatively impressed with Magee’s thesis, which at one point he puts like this: “Hegel’s speculation, as I have characterized it, is a sophisticated, post-Kantian reappropriation of the memory magic and ‘active imagination’ of Hermetic thinkers such as Bruno and Boehme” (103). He covers Hegel’s ideas about magic, and the essential identity between Hegel’s “speculative philosophy” and esoteric (or mystical) religion. I strongly recommend this book to those who enjoy readings in the history of ideas, and who want to be able to appreciate the aquifer feeding a wellspring of 19th-century philosophy.

“I am all goodness, love, truth, mercy, health. I am a necessary part of God’s universe. I am a divine soul, and only good can come through me or to me. God made me, and He could make nothing but goodness and purity and worth. I am the reflection of all His qualities.” This is the “new” religion; yet it is older than the universe. It is God’s own thought put into practical form.

Ella Wheeler Wilcox, The Heart of the New Thought [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Wilcox The Heart of New Thought goodness love truth mercy health necessary part universe divine soul only good purity worth reflection qualities new religion thought practical form

Outer States

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Outer States [Amazon, Local Library] by Enki Bilal

Bilal Outer States

Outer States is a collection of eight science-fiction comic shorts by Enki Bilal, ranging from two to ten pages each. A couple of them express loose continuity by alluding to a single extraterrestrial race, but mostly they stand alone on the basis of generic SF conventions of interstellar exploration and conquest. 

The full-color production on glossy paper is pretty good, although there are instances where there has been a failure to fully efface the French text beneath the English translations. Bilal’s art is gritty and effective. On the whole, the view presented is a bleak one, and the final page of each story typically involves the gory demise of one or more principal characters.

Weishaupt’s concept of virtue stems from his Rousseauian influences. Jean-Jacques Rousseau equated true virtue with the purity of mankind in its infancy before it was corrupted by civilization. This virtue was still apparent in the “savage” races still being encountered by explorers in the forests and jungles of North and South America. By comparison, the despotism of western culture, with its class structures and inherent inequality, was considered inferior and contemptible.

Terry Melanson, Perfectibilists: The 18th Century Bavarian Order of the Illuminati [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Melanson Perfectibilists Weishaupt virtue Rousseauian purity mankind infancy corrupted civilization despotism western culture class inequality inferior contemptible