Category Archives: The Hermetic Library

The Hermetic Library

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

The Stages of Higher Knowledge

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Stages of Higher Knowledge by Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner The States of Higher Knowledge

This small book contains a series of essays first published in the German-language Theosophical organ Lucifer-Gnosis during the first decade of the twentieth century. According to the preface by Steiner’s widow, the series, which took as its point of departure the text of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, was aborted by the cessation of Lucifer-Gnosis and the transfer of Steiner’s organizing efforts to his new vehicle Anthroposophy.

The stages invoked in the title are Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition, corresponding in Theosophical jargon (not much used here) to the Astral, Etheric, and Causal planes. This sequence involves increasing abstraction from the empirical world of matter, along with a refinement of psychic processes and a turning-inward of the senses. A certain amount of implied standardization in this account may be misplaced. For example, Steiner writes that “Astral beings can also be ‘tasted’ or ‘smelled.’–Only what constitutes in the actual sense the physical element of tone and sound is almost wholly lacking in the real imaginative world” (51). Yet in one of the most significant visionary accounts from Steiner’s own period, it is written: “And there cometh an interior voice, which sayeth to the seer that he hath trained his eyes well and can see much; and he hath trained his ears a little, and can hear a little; but his other senses hath he trained scarcely at all, and therefore the Aethyrs are almost silent to him on those planes” (Liber CDXVIII, 4th Aethyr).

Both the preface by Marie Steiner and a supplementary piece of front matter by Rudolf Steiner–the latter copied from the preface of the 1914 reissue of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds–are concerned to mitigate and downplay these articles’ emphasis on the importance of firsthand instruction from an accomplished occult practitioner. Even in the body of the original text, this issue is raised with some sense of tension:

“As has been frequently mentioned, it is owing to the special conditions of our time that these things are and must be published. But also, on the other hand, it must be ever again emphasized that while it has thus been made easier to acquire occult knowledge, sure guidance through an experienced occult teacher is not yet to be dispensed with.” (46)

That “yet” suggests that Steiner was already looking forward to the position taken in the later writings of the front matter, where he hopes that an occult mentor “will assume the same position in spiritual schooling as a teacher occupies, in conformity with modern views, in any other field of knowledge” (xiv). Still, if my experience is any guide, the autodidact in occultism is at a great disadvantage compared to those with personal instruction and proper initiation. The traditional emphasis on a preceptor is understandable, even if it carries its own hazards in a secular world where authentication of such figures is bound to be dubious. [via]


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews AcceptanceVanderMeer Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer.

The first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy is a first-person journal written by the biologist. The second book is a not-so-omniscient third person narrative centered on the actions and perceptions of the character Control. In this final book, the protagonist function is distributed across an assortment of characters at different points in the overall timeline, including Control, the lighthouse keeper Saul Evans, Ghost Bird (the clone of the biologist), and the penultimate Director of the Southern Reach (a.k.a. the psychologist of the twelfth expedition). The last of these characters is addressed in the second person, i.e. the reader is made to identify with her by a narrator who tells “you” what “you” are doing and thinking in her role.

This narrative fragmentation and mixing allows VanderMeer to answer many of the questions raised in the previous books, while raising a few more. The expanded perspective of Acceptance accounts for both the origins of Area X and the fates of the principal characters already introduced, so it serves as both sequel and “prequel.” Much of the story consists of episodes on the “Forgotten Coast” prior to the advent of Area X, and these are mixed in with the history of the development of the Southern Reach, along with stories of the survivors of its destruction.

In each of these books there is a singular epiphanic confrontation that rises in sublime intensity above the surrounding events. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . This third book, although it has a few episodes that are in their own way more conventionally frightening, has less of an overall trajectory of genre horror than the ones that have come before. The title is accurate — I don’t know that it would be fair to call this book’s resolution a “happy ending,” but it wasn’t horrific to me. Veteran readers of Lovecraft might consider a comparison to the coda of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”: shudderingly scary to some, inspirational to others.

I think this third volume had the most far-reaching ideas of the three, and it was in a position to make some impressive gestures on the basis of what had already been established in the prior books. But I suspect that a typical reader will be most impressed by the innovations of the first volume, and I really enjoyed the pacing and riddles of the second. For all the diversity of approach across the individual books, they are definitely pieces of a whole worth reading. [via]


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Authority by Jeff VanderMeer.

VanderMeer Authority

This second volume of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy starts in media res and ends with a cliffhanger. It displaces the focus to a new character and out of Area X proper to the Southern Reach facility where the investigations are based. The new protagonist is referenced mostly by the nickname “Control,” and he is in a nominally executive position, but the story has him constantly at the mercy of greater and more obscure forces.

Compared to Annihilation, this sequel emphasizes the espionage dimension more. It reminds me somewhat of a grimmer Laundry Files–not for the yog-sothothery, but for the Kafkaesque intelligence bureaucracy with degraded resources, hidden factions and compromised leadership. Like Annihilation, it’s very character-driven, with some clever ideas and limpid, evocative prose. It also has some startling and horrific surprises.

A physical feature of the book I read was at the start of each of the four major sections, where the text-free facing pages were progressively darkening shades of gray. It suited the theme nicely. [via]

Summary for the week ending May 20, 2018

Here’s a summary of activity for the week ending May 20th, 2018.

Still looking for help and others to join me in a working community around the library, of course.

Lots of new pages and work on old pages on the site, which is pretty much every week, really. You can always check the front page of the site which shows the most recent changes and new pages, or check out the Recent Changes special page for a full list.

Want to join me on this blog and create new art or writing for Hermetic Library? Pitch your Idea.

Help get some conversations started over on the BBS and Chat.

Be sure to check out the actual Hermetic Library, and drop a buck in the tip jar or become a Patron.

Consider also checking out what I’m up to on my personal blog and at Odd Order.

Here’s a summary of posts on the blog from last week

Some top pages at the library

Some top posts on social media

Robert A Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 1

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948 by William H. Patterson.

Patterson Robert A Heinlein In Dialogue with His Century Volume 1

The first volume of William H. Patterson’s magisterial authorized biography of science fiction patriarch Robert A. Heinlein covers an immense amount of ground, including all of Heinlein’s life prior to his work as a writer, work that he came to out of need as a third career. He had previously retired from the US Navy and worked as a political campaigner, primarily with the socialist EPIC movement in California associated with Upton Sinclair. This book spans all three of Heinlein’s marriages, his complete writing career in the pulps, his Manana Literary Society, his engineering work for the military in World War II, and his entry into the “slicks” and book authorship.

In a very minor point, I was amused at Patterson’s being stumped by a private Heinlein manuscript that mentions “Bljdf” (57), which is to my mind certainly “Alice” (a simple substitution cipher with the second letter evading encryption), i.e. Alice Catherine McBee (45).

The chief nugget I was seeking in the deep mine of this hefty tome is on page 374, where Patterson recounts Heinlein’s attendance at an Agape Lodge (Pasadena) O.T.O. Gnostic Mass in December 1945. There is a little sloppiness of detail here–Patterson characterizes the Gnostic Mass uncharitably as “a theatrical piece, rather than a true religious rite” and manages to botch every one of his three direct quotes from Liber Legis in a long explanatory endnote (569-70). But his access to Heinlein’s archives inspires confidence in his un-sourced remark that Heinlein kept “for research” the congregational missal sheet and copy of The Book of the Law he had received from the lodge.

I’m honestly feeling a fair amount of relief at having finished both hefty volumes of this work. I wish they were in my local public library for the convenience of my ongoing research, but now that I’ve read them and taken my notes, they’ve both been returned to the interlibrary system that furnished them to me. They were not quite so compelling or obviously useful that I’ll want to acquire them for my own durable collection. [via]

Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: Re-Cognizing the Architectural Body in the Early Italian Renaissance by Liane Lefaivre.

Lefaivre Leon Battista Alberti's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Liane Lefaivre’s 1997 book criticizes the traditional attribution of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili to Fr. Francesco Colonna of Treviso, as well as the alternative ascription to Prince Francesco Colonna of Palestrina (97-109). Her skepticism regarding Colonna’s authorship rests primarily on what she presumes to be his intellectual incapacity. She points out that he was not ordained until age thirty, and that he didn’t receive his bachelor’s degree in theology for another decade afterwards. But certainly the Hypnerotomachia demonstrates that its author’s chief preoccupation was not Christian theology. His slow academic advancement might well have been a product of his distraction from the Dominican curriculum, which Lefaivre derides as “still in the medieval scholastic mode” (100), Nevertheless, some of the medieval scholastic techniques that Colonna would necessarily have acquired in his Dominican training are evident in the Hypnerotomachia.

As Lefaivre’s title indicates, Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili champions authorship by the noted Florentine philosopher and architect. She came to this conclusion independently from Emanuela Kretzulesco-Quaranta (who has also offered it as a hypothesis), and Lefaivre’s book is a valuable study in various other respects, but I am unpersuaded regarding her Alberti thesis. The simplest and strongest point against Alberti’s authorship is internal to the text. Lefaivre points out repeatedly that Alberti was a virtually peerless engineer and architect of the quattrocento, and that he merited the title of geometra egregio (“distinguished geometer”) given to him by a patron (116, 120). Yet, pace Lefaivre, Poliphilo is not altogether professional when it comes to his architectural descriptions. Lefaivre notes one such instance herself, where the Doric and Corinthian orders of architecture are confused, only to unaccountably dismiss it as “an Albertian joke” (162). Another example is contained in the measurements of the great composite pyramid-obelisk. Joscelyn Godwin provides a discussion of these flawed numbers, as an example of the mathematical and architectural error that leads him to call Colonna a “very well-informed amateur of classical architecture.” He also observes that while the Hypnerotomachia author certainly must have studied and drawn terms and ideas from Alberti’s De re aedificatoria of 1450 (a point that is uniformly conceded by scholars), he often mixes Albertian and Vetruvian nomenclature for the same object. This practice is in marked contrast to Alberti’s agenda in De re aedificatoria, which, as Lefaivre states, “was to establish a clear terminology,” and to purge Greek vocabulary from the Latin treatment, substituting Latin neologisms as needed (36). Indeed, such a lexical approach could hardly contrast more strongly with the one in the Hypnerotomachia, with its superabundance of Greek neologisms prodigally mixed with Latin in a Tuscan broth.

Lefaivre also fails to situate the writing of the Hypnerotomachia convincingly in Alberti’s biography. She observes that it was longer than any of the writings attributed to Alberti, and spends the largest portion of her “biographical” discussion explaining how it would have been possible for Alberti to have lost the manuscript (178, 146-52). She points to the presence of “musical musings” in the book as distinctively “Albertian,” while having previously noted the role of music in the Dominican studies of Colonna (99, 155). Her observation that Poliphilo wears a cassock and skullcap in the woodcut illustrations may militate against the authorship of Prince Francesco, but it seems to support the monk Colonna at least as well as it does Alberti (in the latter’s uniform as a papal abbreviator). In fact, Poliphilo’s description of himself as being “like a crow among white doves” suggests the characteristic black habit of the medieval and Renaissance Dominicans. While Colonna’s biography implies that he may have earned a reputation for lustfulness or even philandering, Lefaivre admits that it is difficult to reconcile Poliphilo’s admiration of feminine forms and features with the “well-known misogyny” of Alberti (160).

Above and beyond the authorship dispute, Lefaivre is concerned to establish the Hypnerotomachia as the vehicle of a presciently modern perspective on architecture and sexuality. Her study explores its relationship to the culture of the Italian Renaissance and is a significant contribution to the understanding of Poliphilo’s adventures.

(This review is mostly excerpted from my thesis on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, “A Renaissance Seduction of Memory.”) [via]