Author Archives: John Griogair Bell

Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

Coomaraswamy Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art

The slender Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art (originally issued as Why Exhibit Works of Art?) consists of four lectures and five brief papers, representing what is probably the cream of the polemical writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. The author was one of the original proponents of the Traditionalist school of comparative religion, and he spent the later decades of his career as curator of the Indian collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The writings collected here do not so much exercise the discipline of art history, which barely existed as such in the Anglophone world at that time, as much as they propound a theory of material culture, and advocate an idealist philosophy.

Coomaraswamy uses the word “aesthetic” as a pejorative, insisting on the intellectual value of artwork, and he champions the dignity of what museums call “decorative” arts, over and against the “fine” arts which try to segregate expression from utility. He is as likely, or more, to cite Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure as he is to refer to the Upanishads or other Indian texts, but he claims that these equally reflect a “Unanimous Tradition.” For Coomaraswamy, the name of the ideological enemy is the humanist, whom he characterizes as “a sentimentalist, materialist, or cynic.” (63) His perspective on the history of European culture–in favor of antiquity and the middle ages, and contemptuous of the renaissance and modernity–is in keeping with that of Guénon and other Traditionalists, and the essay on “Folklore” (originally written for a Traditionalist journal) presumes the rectitude of the Indian Chatur Varna so beloved of European Traditionalists who discourse on political themes. (136-7)

Students of the work of Aleister Crowley may be familiar with Coomaraswamy as a figure cuckolded–willingly, to all appearances–by the Beast with Coomaraswamy’s second wife Alice (a.k.a. Ratan Devi). In fact, Crowley’s ostensible review of Coomaraswamy’s book The Dance of Shiva in the 1919 Equinox journal consists of nothing but a rehearsal of their personal interactions, framed by an unfriendly biography of Coomaraswamy. Ironically, the later writings of Coomaraswamy collected in Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art often emphasize certain elements that are sympathetic to Crowley’s doctrines. 

In particular, the first talk “Why Exhibit Works of Art?” includes a long argument for individual vocation that is an excellent fit with the Thelemic notion of True Will. “[W]hen each man makes one kind of thing, doing only that kind of work for which he is fitted by his own nature and for which he is therefore destined…a man at work is doing what he likes best, and the pleasure that he takes in his work perfects the operation.” (15) And in the second lecture, which lends its title to the whole volume, there is a discussion of what Crowley calls the Holy Guardian Angel: “No man, considered as So-and-so, can be a genius: but all men have a genius, to be served or disobeyed at their own peril.” (38)

In his paper on “Beauty and Truth,” Coomaraswamy draws on medieval theory of rhetoric to support his more general ideas about art, and the author is indeed no mean rhetorician. “Industry without art is brutality.” (92) These essays at the very least make provocative reading for anyone interested in the course of what he calls the “museum militant.” (22)

Ship of Dreams

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ship of Dreams by Brian Lumley.

Lumley Ship of Dreams

You know that dream where you’re fighting zombie saboteurs in the machinery bowels beneath the city, and you’re naked? Or the one where the cadaverous old man teaches you to charm the giant woodlouse with song? Or the one where you and your best friend have to defeat the skyborne naval forces of the evil queen? Well, they’re in this book anyway. 

This second volume of Lumley’s series set in the “lands of Earth’s dreams” carries over the main protagonists from the first book. The story reads very quickly, and has more of an integrated plot system than the previous volume, which seemed more episodic. In addition to taking over the setting from H.P. Lovecraft, Lumley here increasingly shows a debt to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, even going so far as to title the first chapter “Ill Met in Celephais.” 

Like much of the Lumley I’ve read, this book is “empty calories,” but the aftertaste is nothing but pleasant.

Master of the Temple

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Master of the Temple by Eric Ericson.

Ericson Master of the Temple

The cover of this occult potboiler bears the pointless assertion: “a novel is not necessarily a work of fiction.” This one certainly is, though. The author (I suspect “Ericson” is a nom de plume) is educated, though not always accurately so, regarding the 20th-century history of magical orders and initiates, and shows a certain level of insight regarding magical practice and ritual design. He even provides a set of appended notes to document certain alleged facts on which he drew in writing the book, which seems like a little too much protestation to me. 

The “Noble Order” which forms the centerpiece of the novel is an imaginary schism and reform of O.T.O., instituted by a German named Frick. Sexual magic is presented as a wholesome esotericism, but Aleister Crowley is supposed to have succumbed irrevocably to demonic forces in the Algerian desert, as per the accounts of John Symonds or Alex Owen. The order maintains a level of secrecy comparable to the early Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; its existence and name are not to be revealed to the profane. Somewhat like Crowley’s reform of the latter, the Noble Order has unpacked certain practical techniques suited to inner order adepts and distributed them among earlier grades, as well as furnishing aspirants with individual instructors. 

The story’s protagonist Jonathan Rawlings is an advanced initiate of this order, and a globe-trotting sales executive for an English biscuit manufacturer. As a “Seventh” of the Noble Order, he is evidently supposed to be the equivalent of a Major Adept. The preponderance of the twenty-five chapters adhere to a straightforward formula, in which Rawlings visits a new city, does some mundane business there, meets key members of the local lodge of his order, and performs (usually with them) a magical ceremony (usually sexual in character). These chapters consistently deploy tissue-thin stereotypes about the various countries and American regions in Rawling’s itinerary. 

As the jacket copy makes plain, the larger plot arc is a faustian tragedy, and the very last chapters are concerned with Rawlings’ comeuppance. In parallel with the libelous background narrative about Crowley, Rawlings is supposed to fail in “crossing the Abyss,” and his method in attempting it certainly seems weak enough. (He anticipates that he might need a whole weekend to recover!)

The frequency of error among the purportedly factual elements of this book leads me to caution readers against believing them. But for those already well-studied in this material, and particularly experienced initiates of O.T.O. or A∴A∴, Master of the Temple is still an entertaining curiosity that hits its target as often as it misses.

The X-Rated Bible

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The X-Rated Bible: An Irreverent Survey of Sex in the Scriptures by Ben Edward Akerley.

Akerley The X-rated Bible

I was a little disappointed by this book, even though it delivers exactly what its subtitle promises: “An Irreverent Survey of Sex in the Scriptures.” Akerley is a confirmed atheist with a Protestant upbringing, whose gay identity compounds his antagonism for the mores that Christians claim to base on their Bible. Throughout The X-Rated Bible, his goal seems to be simply to mock the Bible, by demonstrating its incoherence and evident immorality. The fact that he neglects some of the most obvious questions about his chosen passages makes him look like a weak polemicist, rather than an iconoclastic researcher. For example, he offers a really impressive concatenation of texts mentioning those “that piss against the wall,” (165-167) but only as examples of the “scatological tradition” in the Bible. He never explores who such pissers might have been, or why they would be called out in so many passages. Implicitly, he makes a case that there’s something inherently wrong with mentioning piss or dung, which seems to be at odds with his own professed stance against the “unspeakably barbaric and draconian Hebrew moral code.” (223)

This second edition of The X-Rated Bible provides sixty chapters of Bible badness, divided into seventeen broad topics. Akerley’s usual style is to provide glosses on the Bible text, and follow it up with the direct quotation from scripture. With very few exceptions, he quotes the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Other than discussing the likelihood that James I of England was gay (xxii), he provides no background on the context of the KJV translation, the motives in its production, its difference from other versions, or the locus that it occupies in English literature. 

I was especially eager to read Part VIII (“Prostitution and Phallic Worship”), but was fairly nonplussed by it. Akerley addresses no texts that were not already familiar to me in this context. He also accepts the typical Christian assumption that the Jahwist cult was only and always in opposition to phallic worship, instead of having its own phallicist root. He doesn’t even mention the indigenous Hebrew goddess Asherah. 

This tendency to take the most conventional Christian reading as a strawman for the meaning of a Bible passage is evident throughout The X-Rated Bible. Going even further, Akerley repeatedly gloats over the contradiction between the alleged omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God, a conundrum that is actually extrinsic to the Bible, having developed in the medieval philosophies of monotheism. (There are certainly foreshadowings of it in the book of Job, but Akerley doesn’t go there, because a full discussion of theodicy would distract from his central topic!) The result of this capitulation to Christian premises is a book that does a somewhat better job of lambasting Christianity than it does of exploring the Bible. Still, as a “survey” it’s not bad, and it does provide a convenient digest of Bible passages that will repay study far beyond the discussion that Akerley affords them.

The Second Sin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Second Sin: Some iconoclastic thoughts on marriage, sex, drugs, mental illness, and other matters by Thomas Stephen Szasz

Szasz The Second Sin

The “Sin” of Szasz’s title is that of Genesis, chapter 11: attempted clarity in human communication. The book is written in short chapters composed entirely of aphorisms which outline an iconoclastic approach to contemporary society, organized around broad subjects such as “Family,” “Education,” “Freedom,” and “Mental Illness.”

The author is a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry who is sharply critical of the institutional setting of his profession, as well as the professionalization of his vocation. He advocates (although not until the last dozen pages of the book) for what he calls “autonomous psychotherapy,” and against the therapeutic paradigm as a whole. If that sounds a little paradoxical, it is. 

Philosophically, Szasz is a modern resisting postmodernism. He aligns himself with Emerson, Mill, and Adler, against Rousseau, Marx, and Freud. (20-21) He is a fierce (small-l) libertarian, and profoundly anti-paternalistic. The chapters on “Significance” and “Control and Self-control” should be of special value to Thelemites.

False Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews False Gods: The seeds of heresy are sown by Graham McNeill.

False Gods is the second of dozens of Horus Heresy novels that supply background to the Warhammer 40,000 gothic space-opera gaming universe. It made an interesting contrast to the previous volume Horus Rising. Where I found the plot and content of this second book much more interesting, I felt like the prose was noticeably less polished and evocative. 

The “starch-ass” space marine captain Garviel Loken continues to be the sympathetic hero for most of this novel, while many passages detail events well removed from his knowledge. Some of the enigmas posed in the first book are clearly resolved in this one, and the secular virtues of the Imperium of Man start to erode rapidly in the face of the burgeoning cult of the Emperor as well as the corrupting influence of Chaos. 

The centerpiece of the book was the seduction to Chaos of the Warmaster Horus in a set of visionary experiences in the Warp while he is convalescing in the temple of the Lodge of the Serpent. I found this passage entertainingly reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: a tour of Imperium Future, Imperium Past, and Imperium Present, with the Word Bearer Chaplain Erebus as the Jacob Marley psychopomp. The final chapter of the book makes the stakes for the upcoming volumes crystal clear. 

As I mentioned, the writing in this book was a little step down from the previous one, and while there may be some artful Warhammer 40,000 literature out there, I’d say that the Horus Heresy series is one that will appeal to fans of the games, and few others.