Category Archives: The Hermetic Library

The Hermetic Library

Archiving, Engaging and Encouraging the living Western Esoteric Tradition, Hermeticism & Aleister Crowley’s Thelema

Hermetic Library Reader’s Theatre 1dec2019

For Hermetic Library Reader’s Theatre on 1dec2019, I read Liber B vel Magi sub figûra I.

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The Immoralist

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Immoralist by André Gide, translated by Richard Howard.

Gide The Immoralist

This product of 1901 was fascinating to me, although its literary renown does not perhaps align with an appeal to a wide audience today. My reading of Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor turned out to be important preparation, since it contains crucial cultural context for tuberculosis as understood in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The fin-de-siècle perception of homosexuality is also pivotal here. 

The book is brief, and consists of an autobiographical narrative, told by a man who, through a period punctuated by his own illness and a trio of deaths (his father’s, his child’s, and his wife’s), has been initiated into a transformed set of values. He has tapped his passional chaos–as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra might say–and discovered himself to be a sort of being that he can only attempt to explain to his old friends in the form of the story that makes up the novel. 

“Art is leaving me, I feel it. To make room for … what? No longer, as before, a smiling harmony … I no longer know, now, the dark god I serve. O new God! Grant that I may yet know new races, unforeseen kinds of beauty.” 

Richard Howard’s 1970 translation was not the first English rendering of this work of Gide’s, but it is certainly clear and striking.

The Serpent’s Gift

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J Kripal.

Kripal The Serpent's Gift

In a 1978 essay in Understanding the New Religions, Robert Bellah mentioned that “religious intellectuals are, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before in American history, cut off from large religious bodies which, theoretically, represent the majority of the religious population,” and he went on to speculate whether academic “religious studies itself is, in a sense, ‘new religion’.” In The Serpent’s Gift, Jeffrey Kripal seems eager to emblemize Bellah’s verdict and to vindicate his speculation. 

Kripal’s book is something of a manifesto on method in religious studies. It is made up of insightful explorations of “eroticism, humanism, comparative mysticism, and esotericism” in religion as approached through academic research. The aggregate effect is to outline what he calls “academic gnosticism.” But it would probably be more accurate to call it “gnostic academicism,” since the institutions and traditions on which it depends are those of the academy, while the themes and perspectives that it champions are the ones Kripal has chosen to gloss as “gnostic.” In contradiction to some 20th-century Neognostics, Kripal appreciates the essentially elitist nature of ancient gnosticism, and he is acutely aware of its initiatory dimension.

As in his earlier work Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, the author takes an intimate and somewhat confessional approach to his material. The endnotes are a rich mixture of textual references and authorial asides, and his conversationally annotated bibliography is matched with a preface on his textual sources of inspiration, called “Digging Up My Library.” This apparatus, and the introductory essay on method and theory, are some of the best parts of the book. No interested reader should overlook them.

The main body of the text is made up of four essays. The first of these is the most conventionally “gnostic” in its historical scope, and it treats a variety of sexualized representations of Jesus that are rarely given a popular hearing. Kripal acknowledges the ordinary celibate Jesus, and introduces readers to the bastard Jesus, the queer Jesus, and even the ‘straight’ Jesus, discussing both the venerability of such assessments and the consequences of the question itself. 

The second essay is centered on the thought of 19th-century German antichrist Ludwig Feuerbach, with an admittedly creative reading to which I am very sympathetic. He sums this reading as “a type of erotic (post)modern gnosis whose final goal ‘is to make God a man and man a God.’” (89)

In the third essay, Kripal addresses the methodological conundrums of comparativism, and the ways in which the comparative enterprise produces “heresy.” Here he rewardingly takes up the neologism ‘mystics’ (c.f. ‘physics’) from de Certeau translator Michael B. Smith. I was also gratified to read here his engagement with Steven Wasserstrom’s assessment of the mid-20th-century comparativism of the Eranos school, since Wasserstrom’s book had been important in my own return to the academy and work on religious studies earlier this decade. 

Kripal cheerfully transgresses the boundary between high culture and popular culture with his fourth essay, which is constructed around a proposal that the X-Men comics be read as an allegory of his idealized vision of the post-secondary study of religion. It is true, as Kripal claims throughout The Serpent’s Gift, that the university setting can and in many cases does incubate the sort of thought he espouses. Indeed, a certain amount of academic training is helpful even to approach Kripal’s book. But the current fragility of the academic institution, especially with respect to the humanities, does not inspire great hope here. Traditional tenured roles are being replaced with more contingent forms of faculty, the economic proposition of the four-year undergraduate degree is increasingly shaky, and there are growing assaults on the academic protections for freedom of speech and opinion (some of which Kripal addresses in his third essay). I came away from the “Mutant Marvels” essay with a renewed belief in the importance of a robust “academic gnosticism” outside the academy: a network of parallel institutions with their roots in various countercultural movements ranging from Freemasonry (18th century) to occultism (19th century) to Human Potential (20th century), and hardly limited to these. 

The book’s conclusion does reach past the confines of the academy to make programmatic statements about Western religious values. I take issue on a basic level with Kripal’s final assertion that “We do not die because we have sex and reproduce.” (179) While I concur with his dismissal of the Augustinian notion that the act of sex in itself is morally culpable and divinely punished, it is nevertheless true that we are programmed for death through a sexual procreative process that makes earlier generations give way for just the sort of future mutations (physical or spiritual) that Kripal exalts. The error is in considering death to be ‘a bad thing.’ I recommend this book strongly to those who have no faith to obstruct their curiosity, and who have the power to imagine their religions–or their universities–going under.

In the Shadow of Columbia’s Library

This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part four, the final in this excerpt series, of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey, continued

4: In the Shadow of Columbia’s Library

For my part, I introduced Peter to my New York, the cafés of the Village that were open latest and left you undisturbed for hours at your table to sip your espresso and talk and smoke. My favorite was Di Roberti’s, on First Avenue near Twelfth Street, with black-and-white tiled walls and floors, and a few unrepaired bullet holes by the booth where Louie the Fish bought it back in the forties.

The fare at Di Roberti’s was unsubtle but wonderful Sicilian pastry. Around Easter the window would be filled with marzipan lambs, each holding its cross- banner in the crook of its foreleg. In the wall-covering front mirrors of that brightly lit pastry-shop you saw a miniature infinity of toy-like pink identical animals, a vista of childhood delight, multiplied into a likeness of candied eternity.

They also had Poppe di Monaca (“Nun’s Breasts”), the round dome-like cakes, filled with marzipan, topped with a cherry and glazed with white icing, through which the cherry showed, erect and roseate, an angelic and delectable nipple.

I tried to share with Peter the things that interested me, De Sade, Heraclitus and so on, but the only one he really took to was Nietzsche, whom he’d somehow missed out on. Peter treated Nietzsche like a chocolate-box full of ideas to be sampled.

He took a similar view of my conversation. When I look over the pages of TAZ I see a number verbatim phrases I can confidently claim, but I cannot say that he borrowed any of my ideas. Those didn’t really register.

I was the great beneficiary in our friendship. Peter taught me about Islamic civilization, a vast gap in my education, as it is in that of most westerners to this day. This ignorance forms a particularly appalling chasm, since Middle Eastern politics are now part of ours. Islamdom covered twice the territory (it extended from Spain to India) and lasted twice as long as the Roman empire, and was responsible for such international intellectual projects as medieval philosophy and medicine, modern algebra and chess. Algebra was created when the Arab mathematicians combined Greek geometry and the Indian concept of zero with their own system of writing numbers, which is the one we use today. Chess was an Indian board game not much better than checkers before Moslem merchants carried it across continents.

Typically Peter and I would talk all night. At five the next morning. I would go home to sleep, and then walk up to the Columbia library to get the books he’d mentioned. Thus I obtained a truly splendid education at Columbia, without Columbia’s assistance. It was in effect a graduate tutorial in Islamic {169} civilization from an expert whose knowledge had come from living in the midst of it.

Peter was also the first to tell me about Gnosticism—the antinomian heresy that beset early Christianity. This was just then becoming a modish subject due to Elaine Pagel’s vulgarization, the best-selling 1979 Gnostic Gospels. At about this time Gnosticism was also trickling into the popular culture via the last novels of P. K. Dick: The Divine Invasion, Valis, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Later on gnosticism would tinge such hits as The Da Vinci Code and the movie The Matrix. But when I met Peter, Gnosticism was still a topic largely unknown to anyone outside of academia and, on a deeper level, such it really remains. Although a few people have cashed in on it, it has largely been by citing the rediscovered gnostic scriptures to appeal to anti-Catholic feeling—never a bad bet in a Protestant country. The idea here is that the evil Catholic Church has been hiding the true scriptures so as to protect its monopoly. This ploy has been selling books since Gutenberg printed Luther’s Bible. It’s literally the oldest game in publishing.

Real knowledge of Gnosticism remains an esoteric rarity, and the book Peter referred me to, Hans Jonas’ 1958 The Gnostic Religion, remains the most valuable study of the subject available, though interested persons should now also acquire Bentley Layton’s splendid 1987 The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations, which has for the first time made the primary documents accessible to the non-specialist.

Peter was interested in Gnosticism for the same reason he embraced Islamic heresy, because it was a source of hoary authorities and tragic antecedents to legitimize his homosexuality and anarchism. He had invested far too much of his life in the spiritual path to reject religion wholesale, to be simply irreverently gay and atheistically anarchist. That might do if your only exposure to religion was a crude fundamentalism, but Peter was deeply read in mystical literature, and had considerable experience of spiritual practice.

The Christian gnostics offered a kind of liberation, but because of Christianity’s underlying ambivalence to material existence, their ventures into sacred sex and strange politics took a particularly blasphemous form. In fact, a kind of satanism. They regarded the god of the Old Testament with his list of prohibitions as the evil, stupid overlord of the physical world only, who had invented sexual morality as a further fetter upon the spirit. Thus gnosticism has always had a certain appeal for Christendom’s sexual dissidents. This excerpt from the Nag Hammadi hymn Thunder, Perfect Mind, will give an idea. Here the spirit of Holy Wisdom says {170}

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.

With scriptures like this, it’s pretty easy to see how you could have whatever quantity or character of sex you please and still end up holier than the pope!

Peter wasn’t particularly attracted to the Gnostic path; “gloomy libertines” was how he described them. But he found in them an instructive parallel to Islamic heresies, which offered pretty much the same validation of this-worldly pleasure and total individual freedom, but without the melodrama. The dualism that underlies the Islamic version of gnosticism is largely neutralized by the stricter monotheism of Islam.

Dualism may be a term too concise to be clear. It’s the notion that mater and spirit are opposed principles, forever at war in the cosmos, as light versus darkness, good versus evil, &c. Peter explained to me that, whatever gnosticism’s metaphysical shortcomings—the fact it defines the material world as evil—its dualist ideology provides a splendid tension for a novel’s plotline. Peter was particularly interested in how this appeared in science fiction: here P. K. Dick is the parade example. I would extend Peter’s insight to say that dualism is the only, though crucial, Christian element in Tolkien’s otherwise pagan Lord of the Rings, and that the entire genre of detective novel can be viewed as a secularized version of the same plot structure. The archetype of Saint Michael (the patron saint of police officers) fighting the Antichrist is always somewhere present in the roman policier.

It was through Peter that I rediscovered science fiction. I’d read a certain amount of it while a teenager, but had figured it was one of those childish things one puts away when one becomes a man. Peter made a quite compelling, though somewhat self-serving argument that SF was the modern “literature of ideas,” comparable to the didactic poetry of old, like Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, the great first-century BC epic poem about physics. I wasn’t, and am not, persuaded that the alternate futures and imaginary worlds of this particular genre fiction are really dealing with serious questions. Not even to the same degree as the satiric fantasy Gulliver’s Travels—at least they have not done so yet, to my knowledge. Yet Peter’s insight is to this degree valid: science fiction would be ideally suited to presenting philosophic concepts in narrative form. At present, its exponents seem satisfied if now and then they can propound a grotesque moral conundrum.

Peter would go through bales of SF novels, and refer me to the very best of what he found. In this manner I read a number of intensely enjoyable books which would have otherwise eluded me. Dick’s Divine Invasion was a {171} particular favorite, as was Gibson’s Neuromancer, both of which I read several times. I recall trying to interest Bret in this later. I thought the opening line was rather grabby: “The sky was the color of TV tuned to a dead channel.” Bret, profoundly unimpressed, responded with,

“I suppose that’s the cyberspace equivalent of it was a dark and stormy night.”

Both of these books dealt with gnosticism. Divine Invasion did so very literally, incorporating the myth of a mental breakdown in the godhead which caused the emanation of our universe. Neuromancer, with its visions of cyberspace as a disembodied network of twinkling information extending through the black non-space of pure consciousness, gave a very up-to-date version of the traditional, disembodied heaven of Christianity.

Peter was my psychopomp through all this literature, from Arabic and Persian classics to SF. He had read seemingly everything and could discuss it all in intelligent detail. There was no one teaching at Columbia remotely comparable to him in breadth of knowledge or literary sensitivity. Though Allen and Bill were immeasurably better writers, compared to Peter’s, their literary culture was limited and provincial. I’m not being a bitch: compared to Peter’s range and agility, just about about anyone looked limited and provincial. It was thanks to Peter that my cultural compass points included Confucius, the Tale of Genji, the Mahabharata and Rumi. Peter was the whole silk route (which he’d in fact traveled in person as much as through books.)

Peter also introduced me to food. My parents had taught me nothing about cooking or dining beyond some rather out-of-date table manners. As a boy, I couldn’t leave before the formal end of the meal without saying “may I please be excused.”

My mother didn’t really cook. Her culinary accomplishments were almost encompassed by meatloaf and tuna-noodle casserole. My father’s only participation in dining was grilling steaks. Were it not for our ethnicity, which vouchsafed us delicatessen food once a week, I would never have guessed that food could be good.

Peter introduced me to real dining, which I maintain is usually the same as cheap dining. I haven’t yet been to an expensive restaurant where the food was really tastier than the fare in a good inexpensive one, be it an ethnic establishment or a plain old American diner. There’s no earthly reason to ever pay fifty dollars a plate, unless someone else is paying, and even then, it’s a bore to be beholden while someone literally shoves their success down your throat. {172}

With Peter I learned to frequent the Cuban-Chinese places that were then so common on the Upper West Side near Columbia. I learned how excellent even an ordinary dish of rice and beans can be, and what delight there is in a simple cup of coffee, when it’s Café Bustelo made in an espresso machine and topped with steamed milk to make a café con leche. Henceforth it was with a grimace that I sipped the thin biter stuff Americans like, which even they have to excuse with copious doses of sugar and cream. I ate roast goat and oxtail soup, chicharrones de pollo, deep-fried morsels of chicken, and crispy sweet fried sweet plantains. All of it cheap, all of it excellent, and always served in a relaxed and courteous atmosphere without a trace of “attitude.”

On our forays into Chinatown we usually ended up at Lin’s Garden on Bayard Street. This magnificent hole-in-the-wall closed around 1990. It was famous for its deliciously greasy chow fun (broad rice noodles) which were served with the meat of your choice mixed in. Best of all was the duck chow fun. To my amazement Peter would order half a roast duck on the side to eat along with his. I’d never seen anyone consume such quantities of admittedly savory but quite rich avian fat. Although I never followed Peter as far as he led into gourmandise, it was a revelation to me that fat wasn’t bad. I’d grown up carefully trimming the white from the strips of steak on my plate. Now I realize this had been the carnivore equivalent of scraping all the butter from your toast.

Peter also opened to me the world of botanicas. These are shops that sell religious and magical supplies to practitioners of Santeria, which is West African paganism syncretized with Roman Catholicism. Santeria is the universal folk religion of Latino communities in America. It’s the Spanish and Portuguese equivalent of Voodoo, and no doubt very similar to the popular Catholicism of Europe in the Dark Ages, in its mixture of scriptural religion and uneffaced paganism.

Santeria flourishes throughout the Americas, and is in fact a highly evolved initiatory religion, with its own music, mythology and ecstatic rites. In 1980 few but professional anthropologists had even heard of it, despite there being a botanica on every block in the Hispanic areas of Manhattan. Peter’s apartment, on 107th and Amsterdam, was right on the border of a large Dominican community, and he had a botanica literally on his doorstep.

With Peter I explored these stores, full of holy cards and plastic statues of saints, as well as herbs, tinctures, novena candles in their tall glass jars wrapped with bright labels printed with Spanish prayers for every purpose, from gaining the favor of one’s guardian angel to winning a court case. Among the standard catholic statues were some genuinely odd-looking ones, like Chango, the seated Santeria Zeus, a crowned, bejeweled but mostly {173} naked human figure with shiny ebony skin and a delirious grin, like an occult Uncle Ben. He is identified with Saint Barbara, who holds a sword and a communion cup, in which the Santeros see a symbol of the mortar and pestle with which Chango produces thunder as he grinds out lightning. A storm appears above a castle in the background of St. Barbara’s image, and this seals the identification. An image of Barbara may thus be used for prayers and offerings to Chango, and indeed the two spirits more or less fuse, so no contradiction or inconsistency is perceived. For the believers in Santeria, the gods, on the most profound level, are the saints. Thus they all consider themselves good Catholics and would be horrified to hear themselves characterized as pagans. Their notion of Catholicism is simply a bit more, well catholic, (universal and comprehensive) than that espoused by the Roman Church.

Then there’s Elegua, the equivalent of Janus, god of doorways, beginnings and endings. He’s represented by a grey truncated cone-like head, like what you’d get if you used a child’s sand-bucket as a mold for concrete. Cowries are pressed in with the nubbly slots facing outwards for eyes, mouth and ears. Beyond these details the head is eerily featureless.

Peter was making collages of Santeria deities with holy cards, marbled paper, hand-watercolored gay porn and frames from “tijuana bibles.” I was edified by his appreciation of crude popular religious art, and the way he swept all the ephemera he enjoyed into the artistic mix.

As regards the Santeria imagery and Catholic kitsch, on my own I would have dismissed it as the unskilled and slightly creepy expression of vulgar, ignorant superstition, but Peter would look at the images on the magic candles or the bottles of hoodoo oil and delight in the errors of anatomy and perspective. In fact, the aesthetic shock of an untutored rendering frequently enhanced the power of the imagery. This was artistic information of a kind undivulged at Columbia’s art history classes. Being with Peter seemed to give me new senses.

Peter’s conversation had a certain acrobatic method to it. Whatever the topic, he would take up an opposite, devil’s advocate position. Not one of outright contradiction, but one that encouraged you to define your own position more clearly. The talk was a kind of genial sparring, which no one ever really “won.” Peter always made you feel like you and he were together getting to the bottom of something interesting.

He did however have a consistent theme that goes through his conversation, at least when any really interesting subject is being discussed. In a way it is the very opposite of that which preoccupied Socrates — though Peter’s method was indeed socratic. The Greek was forever testing for an underlying absolute, the ideal. Peter on the other hand always advocated the {174} mongrel and mixed over the pure, and focused on the detail rather than the pattern.

In literature he always preferred the late, the decadent, the mannerist over the classical and golden-age exemplar. In Latin, which was his major at Columbia before he dropped out to wander across India, he had no interest in Virgil or Horace, except as sources of ideas and myths that might illustrate his ideas. The author he admired and has translated is the fifth century AD poet Dracontius, of Vandal North Africa, whose works are generally considered an arid expanse of abstruse Biblical and Classical allusions, varied only by stale rhetorical tricks. Dracontius is typical of a poet of decadence, capable only of scribbling derivative imitations of the masterpieces written centuries before.

Similarly, in Greek, Homer bores Peter and the dramatists mean nothing to him, but he has read with attention the voluminous Dionysiaca, written in Greek by the Egyptian Nonnius in the fifth century AD. I don’t recall what gold Peter succeeded in panning out of that Nile mud.

The point is that Peter is interested in the moment when classical culture is melting into its barbarous surroundings. You can see this in late Roman sarcophagi, where the execution of classical motifs, say a scene from the life of Hercules or the signs of the zodiac, are becoming a crude repetition of visual formulae whose meaning is being lost at the same rate as the visual realism. Yet it has a certain barbaric energy, a power which wasn’t there when it was all still careful and correct. As the imagery yields to pattern, geometry charges the art with an energy unfelt in Classical sculpture for centuries. At the despised margins of culture Peter discerned lawless new forms, just as he fnds at the margins of society, in the dispossessed and naive, a creativity which is lost to society’s respectable circles. From the Moorish Science Temple to the hoboes to trailer trash to the die-hard hippies of failed communes, Peter took a Whitman-like pleasure in culling the fowers that grow in the ruins.

In religion, he was always interested in the heresies, the syncretisms, the crackpots and apostates. The aberrations and the byways Peter considered to be of importance equal to that of the royal road and highway of knowledge.

To give Peter his due, our sense of cultural peaks, progress and purity are rather subjective. A case can be made for everything being a mongrel admixture. The most pristine examples of cultural continuity known to history are in fact streams so polluted they catch fire by themselves twice a year. But the merits of this point of view can be overstated, as I hope I just have.

I once challenged him, “You think the incidental detail as important as the overall pattern. For you, a camel would be as essential to Islam as the {175} Koran.” Peter proceeded to maintain exactly this position, and not by connecting the camel to Ibn Khaldum (the sixteenth-century Arab historian whose great thesis was that civilization is motivated by the tension between the nomadic and the settled). No, Peter maintained the centrality of the camel on purely aesthetic grounds. Did he mean to suggest that the picture on the iconic American cigarette pack was the equivalent of a surah (chapter of the Koran)? In its way, yes!

As a primary intellectual orientation, Peter’s perspective led to some questionable conclusions, particularly evident to me when he ventured on the deep waters of archaeology and ancient history.

It was from Peter that I learned to be a scholarly trespasser, ignoring the signs that said “private property, keep out!” to draw cross-cultural comparisons, and look beyond my own specialty. Peter’s intellectual agility and really remarkable insights can all be traced to one great understanding. From a certain point of view, mutability is the rule, everything flows, fixed forms are an illusion. This is the perception that made Peter take to Nietzsche.

Change is the very life-blood of reality. Transitions and intermediate phases are more common than full development and complete realization, and they’re never neatly separated. The outmoded past survives just under the surface of the present, superstition lives hardily on within religion, repressed impulses contribute to our noblest acts.

It is not by coincidence that a Luddite love of bygone ways, sympathy for naive superstition and a trust in spontaneous desire are key features of Peter’s worldview. Peter is a partisan of the undercurrents which belie the placid surface.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity by Elaine Pagels.

Pagels Adam Eve and the Serpent

In her epilogue to Adam, Eve, and the Serpent Elaine Pagels insists that her ambition in this book is neither to discover nor to indicate the nature of the “real Christianity.” In that case, she could have avoided a lot of the confusion raised by her presentation, if only she had been a little bit more skeptical about the original message of “Jesus,” whom she quotes–on the basis of the canonical Gospels–as blithely as she cites the writings of Augustine or any of the other Church Fathers. She knows well enough that “the gospels of the New Testament are neither histories nor biographies in our sense of these terms,” (5) but she still handles them as though they might serve in those capacities.

Still, for a book that is designed to straddle the line between scholarship and popularization, Pagels does a good job. And her topic couldn’t be more interesting. She traces the development of Christian interpretations of the Edenic myth of Genesis, and how they were used to formulate and express ideas about sexuality, politics, free will, and guilt. She accepts the Luke-Acts epic as though it were history, and even so, manages to demonstrate important facts about the history of early Christianity: its diversity (with a chapter on “Gnostic Improvisations”) and its profound difference from the Augustinian orthodoxy that underlies nearly all modern Christianities.

Her treatment of Augustine is fascinating, and she claims to have been as surprised herself by the results of her research as most of her Christian readers will be. Although she was originally sympathetic to Augustine from her readings in his ConfessionsOn the Trinity and The City of God, her effort to reopen a conversation forcibly closed by papal authority in April 418 C.E. led her to the dialogue between Augustine and the Pelagian naturalist Julian of Eclanum. In contrast with the traditional secondary sources, Pagels finds Julian thoughtful and scripturally attentive. Augustine, whose Opus Imperfectum Contra Julianum has never been published in English translation, seems “idiosyncratic” and tendentious in his novel doctrine of congenital human depravity. 

In Pagels’ account, the combination of Augustine’s theological innovations with the establishment of imperial Christianity resulted in the rejection of an earlier Christian ethos of freedom, and its replacement with one of guilt. This study deserves the careful consideration of everyone who thinks that they have read and understood Genesis 3:16-19, since hardly any readers, medieval or modern, have been able to approach the Edenic myth without the long Augustinian shadow of “original sin” cast upon it. Before Augustine, Justin Martyr could say to the prefect who condemned him to death: “Do what thou wilt: we are Christians.” (49)

The Age of Ra

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove.

Lovegrove The Age of Ra

The Age of Ra is a fast-paced, testosterone-laden adventure set in an alternate present where the gods of ancient Egypt have been visibly ruling humanity since the early 20th century. On p. 101, author Lovegrove quickly sketches the global theo-political scenario in which various international blocs have aligned under the principal deities. Priests manage ba energies granted by the gods, and these power a wide range of fanciful military hardware. The alternate history isn’t worked out in great detail, and I failed to find the rationale for it compelling, but the setting is original and well-constructed. The premise of the action is that Egypt (or “Freegypt”)–the world’s only country not under specific divine patronage–incubates a movement against the theocratic system, and the protagonist is a British military officer who gets caught up in the course of events. The plot moves forward satisfyingly through short chapters, with occasional interludes taking place on the plane of the gods. 

The characters are credible, though often a bit stereotyped. Lovegrove is given to the occasional wayward simile, but on the whole, the writing is efficient and palatable. There is a sort of grisly 21st-century action cinematic feel to it. There’s no profound philosophy or psychological insight here, but some appreciable entertainment.

Some suggested music to accompany this novel: 
“Bad Blood” by Ministry 
“Face in the Sand” by Iron Maiden 
“Daughter of the Desert” by Transglobal Underground
“Master of the Universe” by Hawkwind
“Godwhacker” by Steely Dan
“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
“Hem of Your Garment” by Cake
“Veteran of the Psychic Wars” by Blue Oyster Cult

I suspect if you don’t like heavy metal, you wouldn’t much groove on this book anyway. One reviewer remarked that his wife thought the paperback cover looked like game packaging (my Other Reader called it “lurid”), and I’m sure this book could be the basis of a solid MMOFPS.

The Religion of the Semites

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions by W Robertson Smith.

Smith The Religion of the Semites

This influential late 19th-century study of ancient near eastern religion was supposed to have been the first of three courses of lectures on the topic of the religious matrix–or “higher heathenism,” as the author sometimes calls it–against which background the teachings of the Hebrew Bible developed, comparing this matrix to other ancient and primitive cults. As a result, the book is a little less comprehensive than the title might suggest, but it focuses on the important topic of sacrifice

The “Semites” of the title are a broad culture (or “race,” in keeping with the academic jargon of that time) defined chiefly by language, and including Arabs, Hebrews, and Aramaeans. The author discountenances an ancient Babylonian emphasis–which had some vogue in his day and was later to enjoy more–as reflecting a more hybrid and metropolitan set of developments. (The same objection would apply to the Phoenicians.) While certainly referencing and weighing biblical evidence, he prefers to take as his paradigm the indigenous non-Abrahamic religions of Arabia. But his sources for these are largely obscure, and in at least one instance, problematic.

The explanation of sacrificial systems often reverts to a particular anecdote from the late fourth-century Egyptian chronicler Nilus, who reported the habits of Bedouins in his region. This striking story of camel sacrifice was later subjected to significant and justifiable skepticism, but not before it had exerted a widespread influence on the theory of religion. Mircea Eliade in his lecture “Cultural Fashion and the History of Religions” (1965) refers to it as the “Fabulous Camel” of Nilus. Still, although Eliade claimed that scholars who concurred with Robertson Smith “could not–or dared not–discuss the general problem of sacrifice without duly relating Nilus’ story,” it is far from clear to me that the loss of Nilus as a data point entails the collapse of the theory advanced in these lectures.

Throughout the work, Robinson Smith stresses the important point that “in ancient religion there was no authoritative interpretation of ritual. It was imperative that certain things should be done, but every man was free to put his own meaning on what was done.” (399) He thus counters the anachronistic tendency in the study of religion to retroject a modern, credal or doctrinal orientation onto ancient cults. At the same time, the fact that the “certain things” had become imperative implies that they were at least originally informed by an obvious motive, and most of Robertson Smiths’s effort is directed towards discovering and elucidating the motive of religious sacrifice. 

Part of the explanation involves the notion of totemism–conceptualized in a manner that owes much to J.G. Frazer, and nothing at all to Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Ultimately, the claim is that the sacrificial event was ab origine one of communion, with the god and among the people. It was an act of commensality that (re-) established kinship with the god in whose name the sacrifice was performed. Only later, with the development of notions of individual property and differentiated social classes, did it acquire explanations involving merit, guilt, compensation, and expiation. Public sacrifice preceded private sacrifice, and the former was properly religious, while the latter drifted toward magic. Interestingly, this genealogy of sacrifice reverses the common suppositions of Christian theology, according to which the communion of Christian sacramentalism is a late development out of an originally expiatory system of sacrifice. 

Besides the central argument, Robertson Smith does range over a variety of interesting and fundamental topics, particularly in the early lectures of the series. The religious developments of the hospitality code, the conception of holy places, the evolution of altars, and the origin and consequence of demons and jinn are just a few of the subsidiary issues considered. Many of these are given further treatment in appended essay-length notes. Additional Note F, on “Sacrifices of Sacred Animals” was worth the whole book to me, for the two pages devoted to ancient sources regarding the sacrifice of donkeys.

Klingsor

This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part three of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey, continued

3: Klingzor

Peter was working his way free of the constraints of orthodox Islam like a butterfly wriggling out of its chrysalis. The analogy is more precise and less flatering than might seem. There was an awful lot of squirming involved before he raised his drying wings in a display you might mistake for a psychedelic sunrise. Peter took a position that has been commonly adopted by mystics of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These faiths, which embrace historical time as a kind of dour opaque ongoing disclosure of God’s will, all look forward to the Apocalypse as the ultimate restoration of the miraculous to everyday life. But for the mystic, Doomsday has, in some sense, already arrived. He sees the sacred implicit within the secular, the last judgment in every decision, the one-ness in the many, in Blake’s phrase, “the ocean in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.”

Living, on one level, in a post-apocalyptic world, the mystic finds the rules and constraints that order temporal existence are no longer valid. He has passed beyond attachment to the fruits of action, no longer has any corrupting interest in success or failure. His soul is fully realized and autonomous, he sees reality without any subjective coloring, which puts him “beyond good and evil.” Perhaps the best account of this attainment is western literature is in Dante’s Purgatorio, where he reaches the Garden of Eden atop Mount Purgatory, which I translate:

When we’d run up the stairs to its highest step,
Virgil fixed upon me his eyes and said,

“I brought you this far with what skill and insight
I had: be guided from now on

by your own pleasure, go where you feel drawn.

You’ve left behind the steep and narrow path.
See, the sun shines before you

on tender meadows, sweet flowers, little groves
of pleasant shade, which this unplanted land
spontaneously creates.

Until the glad appearance of her whose lovely eyes,
once, beseeching and tearful, sent me to you,
wander here, rest whenever, wherever you wish,
unhurried at last. {166}

Await no further word or sign from me,
permitting this, ordaining that;
your own judgment now is healthy, correct
and free. The only error possible now
is for you not to do what you think best.

I crown and consecrate you
emperor of who you are,
by divine right, a law unto yourself.”

Living in an esoteric apocalypse, whatever pleasures, illicit or otherwise, we can get, are the legitimate rewards of the just—and arguably more fully deserved if acquired by stealth and at risk, in defiance of the demonic “powers of this world.”

Peter viewed his personal mystical liberation in political terms as well, and expressed it as a new sort of Anarchism. I cannot here enter into a detailed critique of Peter’s political thinking, where my purpose is only to offer some details of its origins, which I was on hand to witness. The key insight I have is that Peter’s approach was, at first, mystical. Mysticism is private and interior and amoral. The extroverted opposite of mysticism would be prophecy, which is extremely political and very concerned with right and wrong.

Peter came to his realizations, personal and political, from the context of Sufism, from mystical practice. This “privatized” his political thinking, and resulted in his rejection of long-term social action in favor of limited and personal, brief and private (“temporary, autonomous”) activity. There is merit in his position. Without an interior transformation, what we used to call “consciousness raising,” resistance cannot begin. But without concerted outward action, interior realizations, whatever their intrinsic merit, are politically insignificant.

At the beginning, Peter was engaged in a genuinely mystical adventure. Where this finally led him will be discussed in its place, but his original Chaos Broadsheets were sincerely meant. Peter was really and sincerely religious. He began on the antinomian path with awe and trepidation, unsure whether he’d be halo’d or struck down.

I looked with amazement on Peter’s writings. They had fervor, they were genuine, they contained in their confusing profusion authentic messages from the beyond, a somewhat garbled but unquestionably veracious record of renegade illumination. Nietzschean materialist that I was, mine was not a crude reductionism, I was no positivist. I regarded Peter’s mystical terminology as I {167} did the accounts of the gods in Homer: as a florid and poetic but accurate description of reality.

Peter’s vision of every day as the Day of Judgment, with heaven and hell entirely imminent here, was balanced on the razor’s edge of piety and blasphemy. Was he declaring the presence of God in all things, or was he vulgarizing spiritual terms to gussy up his every whim and want? Or both? In the Talmud there’s a tale of four sages who were allowed to enter Paradise while still alive, that is, they were granted an unfiltered vision of God. One of them died, one went mad, one became a scoffing nihilist, and one “entered in peace and departed in peace,” that is, he kept his interior balance—and in fact became a saint. In Jewish tradition, these are the four possible outcomes of a direct encounter with God. Peter was neither dead nor mad; had he become a saint or a scoffer?

In my opinion, he really had acquired baraka (holiness) during his decade of Sufi practice. And now he succumbed to one of the classic pitfalls of the spiritual path. Since Peter was very fond of the Arthurian legends, particularly during his early, poet period, I will take a likeness from that cycle. The Grail knight, Klingsor, best known from Wagner’s Parzival, succumbs to the sensual temptations that beset those on the quest, and in exchange for physical gratifications becomes a black magician. Then he makes a career out of luring others from the spiritual path with his garden of illicit delights. This is admittedly a rather melodramatic description of Peter’s case, but one which does justice to a certain aspect of his character. I loved him for his spirituality, which still shone about him when he returned from Iran, and I watched with dismay and disappointment as this dissipated over the years, till there was nothing left of that young man who dropped out of college for a mystical journey to India, the knight on the quest of the Holy Grail, the chevalier of the Holy Spirit, who rejoiced my soul by his mere existence, proving that such adventures and such adventurers were possible in our world.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake

Iced on Aran

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Iced on Aran by Brian Lumley

Lumley Iced on Aran

This fourth volume of David Hero and Eldin the Wanderer is made up of five disparate stories, rather than a single novel. 

The title story “Iced on Aran” is the first in the book. It’s not very long or very exciting, and has little connection with the later stories of the sequence. It is not a “quest” tale per se; it simply recounts a narrow scrape resulting from bored one-upsmanship between the heroes.

The second tale “Augeren” is perhaps my favorite of all of the Lumley Dreamlands tales. It really gets dreamlike, after the manner of Alice in Wonderland or even Cabell’s The Nightmare Has Triplets, with ample wordplay and preposterous plotting. I especially liked the exposition of soul-shuddering horror inspired by circumstances that–to waking reason–are really just absurd. 

The penultimate story “A-Mazed in Oriab” is a long novelette, and it is flanked by two very short stories that are closely tied to it, to the point where they almost serve as prologue and epilogue. These all center on doings around the island of Oriab, with key plot purposes served by the “seer with invisible eyes” (a.k.a. s.w.i.e.). As a set, these three stories are comparable to the earlier Lumley Dreamlands books, although not quite as long. The dream-sensibility of “Augeren” persists in them, although not as conspicuously.

Dante’s Divine Comedy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation by Seymour Chwast.

Chwast Dante's Divine Comedy

Seymour Chwast shows no small ambition in attempting a “graphic novel” adaptation of Dante’s Commedia, but unfortunately, the results are not that impressive. The poetic elements of Dante’s work are almost entirely obliterated, as the language is reduced to narrative prose, simplified dialogue, and an assortment of fragmentary captions and labels. Chwast uses aggressively anachronistic visual designs, making Dante a tall fellow in a trenchcoat and sunglasses, while Virgil wears a bow tie and a bowler. 

The pace is quite fast, with approximately one page devoted to each of the hundred cantos of the Commedia, and many of the pages having only a single panel of illustration. There is a lot of creative and effective variety in the hand-lettering of the text, although a few grammatical and spelling errors (e.g. “Cerberus … allows we poets to enter the circle” on p. 21) take a little of the joy out of that too. 

Some of the most effective panels are the ones that are schematic–although when it comes to the maps of the three realms, Chawast’s deliberately simplified style cannot hold a candle to the intricate triptych by Paul Laffoley. And this sort of competition is one of the reasons that this book faces an uphill battle among readers. Given that the story is unchanged from, and the words less engaging than, its original; it becomes Chwast’s task to captivate us with image and visual design. And he is hardly the first to undertake this very specific task. Gustave Dore’s engravings illustrating the Commedia are one longstanding and well-known example of an accomplished execution of the graphic form for this work. An even better (though unfinished) version was produced by one who could be considered a principal creator of the “graphic novel” in Western culture: William Blake. 

In the end, Chwast’s adptation seems deficient in the sort of grandeur and gravity readers want (and for many centuries, have gotten) from Dante’s work. It strikes me like nothing so much as a brilliant student’s notebook, drawn while hearing the poet recite his age-defining vision.