Category Archives: T Polyphilus: Vigorous Food & Divine Madness

Mercenaries of Gor

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mercenaries of Gor by John Norman.

John Norman Mercenaries of Gor

Whether John Norman’s “counter-earth” Gor was ever intended to be an innocent sword-and-planet-epic or was always meant as a sprawling masculinist pro-slavery narrative manifesto, it had long ago settled into its character by the writing of this twenty-first volume.

The most notable feature here (relative to other Gor books) is hilarious Lardneresque dialogue that sometimes runs for three or four pages at a go, typically with or concerning the barbarian poet Hurtha who serves as Tarl Cabot’s comic foil. There is some large-scale political intrigue involving Cabot’s disinherited ex-fiancee as a would-be usurper to the throne of Ar, but all of that is left in the background for most of the book, which focuses on the daily doings of Cabot and his ad hoc travel companions. Two principal female characters are a study in contrasts: Feiqa is a heroine for choosing subjugation as a slave in order to express her true nature, while Boabissia is a buffoon for imagining the birthright of her aspiration to be wealth and power.

As I expected that it would, this book made an interesting contrast to the Lin Carter sword-and-planet volume When the Green Star Calls, which I read just before it. The primary difference is pacing, rapid for Carter and virtually plodding for Norman. Ideologically, the chivalry of Carter’s world is only a subtler, less anxious version of the masculine domination in Norman’s. Also like Carter’s book, the story ends with a cliffhanger, or what would have been one if there had been enough narrative tension built to that point to justify the label in this case. [via]


Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Hazard: The Risk of Realization by John G Bennett, with a foreword by A G E Blake.

John G Bennett Hazard

I had been aware of J.G. Bennett’s standing as a teacher in the Gurdjieffian milieu for some decades, but had not had any particular interest in reading his work. A used copy of Bennett’s Hazard fell into my hands serendipitously just after I had encountered the esoteric emphasis on “hazard” in The Magus by John Fowles, and that was sufficient motivation for me to read this brief volume of six lectures, with some audience Q&A after each, and three short appendices.

In the first lecture, Bennett puts forward his definition of hazard as “directed uncertainty” (132), relates it by etymology and concept to games of chance, and offers a preliminary demonstration of the importance of the concept. Over the next three lectures the focus is on showing the value of hazard to individual human fulfillment. In the fifth lecture he discusses the operation of hazard on the level of entire human societies, and in the last he applies it theologically. This final item is especially novel, in that he contradicts the theological traditions—dominant in almost all “world religions”—asserting the omnipotence and omniscience of the godhead. Instead, Bennett says, a power and intelligence greater than humanity should participate in hazard to a correspondingly greater degree.

The appendices set forth in a more systematic way Bennett’s general metaphysical ideas, with reference to hazard, but without it being at the center of focus. The end of the first appendix and the whole of the second are concerned with his philosophy of will, and the third appendix introduces his conception of love as a metaphysical phenomenon.

Bennett’s prose is clear throughout. He coins a small amount of reasonably euphonious jargon to carry his concepts, and his level of “woo” is markedly low for a teacher concerned with spirituality. In the Q&A that follows each lecture he shows a gentle lack of toleration for mystical currency in “pure consciousness,” “selflessness,” and the like. I found no significant conflicts between Bennett’s principles here and my own progressing perspective, and I am certainly open to reading further in his work. [via]

The San Veneficio Canon

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The San Veneficio Canon by Michael Cisco.

Michael Cisco The San Veneficio Canon

The San Veneficio Canon joins under one cover two short novels by Michael Cisco: his lauded 1999 debut The Divinity Student and its 2004 sequel The Golem. These are splendid deployments of the “new weird,” most comparable in my reading history to Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy. San Veneficio is the imaginary city where most of the story here transpires.

The book never clarifies its over-arching title, which allows the word “Canon” to be read either as an approved collection of scripture (the Holy Book which is the chief magical tool of the nameless Divinity Student and/or Cisco’s book bearing the title) or as a minor clergyman (the Divinity Student himself). In his dream-like setting, Cisco has put into the foreground religious signifiers for places and persons: Seminary, Cathedral, Divinity Student, High Priest, etc. But the religion in question, while having some passing features and jargon of Christianity, is never specified in terms of creed or theology.

Although the book fairly thoroughly maintains a third-person omniscient narrator, there are two tiny uses of the grammatical first person in The Golem: “From horizon to horizon the only light comes from San Veneficio. I feel that spiced breath from mummified lungs once more” (130), and later—more tellingly—”her pointed* lips and nails are scarlet as the red of my binding” (182). The second of these suggests that the speaker is in fact a book; the Holy Book?
* Sic. This “pointed” would make more sense as “painted,” and I suspect a typo.

The imagery of this text is kaleidoscopic. In fact, Cisco twice uses “kaleid” as a verb indicating the revolving transformation of light and vision. The Divinity Student who is—on some level, at least—the protagonist of both novels is occasionally horrifying, and becomes more than a little bit of a necromancer. The closing of The Golem embraces a type of metafiction that I identify with The Neverending Story, though certainly not in the juvenile register used by Ende! Despite that gesture at a summation, nearly any chapter of The San Veneficio Canon could stand alone as an enigmatic short story—no more enigmatic than the composite whole, really. [via]

All Things Are Lights

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews All Things Are Lights by Robert Shea.

Robert Shea All Things Are Lights

This doorstop volume is something like a hipper, sexier version of the medieval novels of Sir Walter Scott. Its protagonist is a troubadour and Cathar sympathizer who goes on crusade to Egypt with Louis IX. Shea is best known for his co-authorship of the 1970s conspiracy romp Illuminatus!, and there are hints here of a great benevolent conspiracy, but the foreground is occupied by malicious conspiracies against the hero and the throne of France.

The pacing of the book is fast, covering six years at the middle of the thirteenth century, and the plot is engaging. The narrative style is pretty transparent, never getting in the way of the story. The historical elements are well-researched and credible. I enjoyed this read a great deal, and I would recommend it to fans of chivalry and/or heresy.

I read a withdrawn library copy in pocket paperback format. The thirty-year-old book was already well worn when I started reading it, and had literally gone to pieces when I finished. All Things Are Lights is out of print, but it has been published online by the author’s estate under a creative commons license. Although not flagged as a sequel, there is a two-volume novel called The Saracen which features the son of the hero of All Things Are Lights. The Saracen is available for free download at Project Gutenberg, and I may eventually read it also. [via]

Conan: The Sword of Skelos

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan: The Sword of Skelos by Andrew Offutt.

Andrew Offutt Conan The Sword of Skelos

I first read this one as a teenager, encountering it as number 3 in the Bantam Conan pastiche novel series. It features a 17-year-old Conan (a while after the events in Robert E. Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant”) who nevertheless has a very complicated immediate backstory, evidently a product of the two previous novels in a Conan trilogy written by Offutt in the 1970s. (The earlier volumes were not published in the Bantam series, though, and I have not read them.) Although the titular Sword of Skelos is rivaled in importance by the Eye of Erlik in this story, the Eye was common to all three Offutt books. The setting is in the desert kingdoms between Stygia and Tauran, with the cities of Arenjun and Zamboula as foci.

The narrative voice varies throughout, although always in an omniscient third person. Some chapters begin with raw description and presume no prior exposition; they might stand on their own as short stories. Others are clearly oriented toward the larger structure of the novel and/or trilogy, and pick up with a presumed reader knowledge of prior developments. Characterizations are fairly vivid, and the pace of the action is fast. Conan does a lot of killing.

Not even in the somewhat skeevy Robert Jordan Conan novels does Conan feature as a rapist. Yet in this book, while Conan insists that he is not a rapist, his competitor thief and eventual ally Isparana contradicts him, but when he insists that his assault of her “was not rape,” she then looks “away in silent admission of the truth” (137). Still, the incident in question is quite clearly rape as described, an act of sexual violence questionably justified by the fact that Isparana had just tried to murder Conan (84-5). The narration also refers to their assailants in the desert as “would-be rapists” (98), as contrasted with the accomplished rapist who is the story’s hero, I suppose. And all of this business is sandwiched in with passages emphasizing Conan’s personal honor.

Actually, I would not be surprised to find out that Jordan’s Conan stories had been consciously modeled on those of Offutt. There are both cosmetic and structural similarities, and in narrative chronology Jordan picks up (with the youngest Conan of his novels, in Conan the Magnificent) immediately after the finale of The Sword of Skelos. So perhaps I should set Offutt at the headspring of the latter-day Conan style perpetrated by Robert Jordan and Roland Green. Offutt’s book does not suffer from the abrupt endings common to Jordan’s later efforts, though.

As with the other books in this Bantam series, there are interior line art and a wonderful map by Tim Kirk. [via]

The Shadow Club

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Shadow Club: The Greatest Mystery in the Universe—Shadows—and the Thinkers Who Unlocked Their Secrets by Roberto Casati.

Roberto Casati The Shadow Club

This engaging book is written at a mature level of verbal sophistication, but presumes a philosophically and mathematically inexpert reader. For example, author Casati explains Plato’s Myth of the Cave in a way that clearly assumes the reader will have had no acquaintance with it.

The bulk of the book surveys a history of science trained on shadows, and the resulting contributions to geography, astronomy, and other disciplines. It also draws on psychology of cognition and perception in an effort to understand what shadows are and why people interact with them in the ways that they do. There is no mention of the Jungian notion of the shadow archetype. Still, Casati does touch on the uncanniness of shadows, and the extent to which they elude our conscious object inventories and categories.

Despite the title, the book features no “club” as such, but presents a long string of personalities throughout history who were scientifically and philosophically engaged with shadows. Also, in later chapters, it includes a good bit of art history. Although Casati calls the 17th century—however metaphorically—the era of “the shadow wars,” I never got a clear sense of opposing sides in the alleged conflict.

After exploring the evolution of solar timekeeping, Casati mentions, “If you open up a wristwatch, under the face you’ll find balance wheels and gears. If you open up a sundial, you’ll find a planet and its star” (86-87). I can recommend this section of the book in particular to practitioners of (or aspirants to) Batrachophrenoboocosmomachia. The Shadow is in the Light, not the light in the Shadow. Worship then the Shadow, and behold my light shed over you. [via]

Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe by Thomas Ligotti, foreword by Jeff VanderMeer.

Thomas Ligotti Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe

This volume collects Thomas Ligotti’s first two books of short fiction: Songs of a Dead Dreamer (1985) and Grimscribe: His Life and Works (1991), with a new introduction by Jeff VanderMeer. These stories are all in the vein of supernatural horror, but with a distinctive tenor of pessimistic surrealism. VanderMeer notably compares Ligotti to Franz Kafka, Angela Carter, and David Lynch.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer is divided into three sections: “Dreams for Sleepwalkers,” “Dreams for Insomniacs,” and “Dreams for the Dead.” Each of these ends with a story which involves critical reflexivity regarding the horror genre: “Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story,” “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Horror,” and “Vastarien,” respectively. This first collection shows many of the tropes that Ligotti uses to communicate disquiet and the uncanny: puppets, masks, vegetable growth, insects, and others. The central section “Dreams for Insomniacs” has a few tales that work in well-defined weird subgenres, such as the Christmas ghost story of “The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise,” the vampire story in “The Lost Art of Twilight,” and sword & sorcery in “Masquerade of a Dead Sword.”

“The Sect of the Idiot,” opening with a quote from The Necronomicon, shows Ligotti’s familiarity with the Lovecraftian corpus and its virtues, but is neither a pastiche nor an instance of Yog-Sothothery per se. More Lovecraftian in its overall texture is the longest Grimscribe story “The Feast of Harlequin,” which is overtly dedicated to HPL. The things that most tie Ligotti’s work to this predecessor are a preoccupation with dreams, a philosophical pessimism, and a general effort to portray the violation of metaphysical norms.

Ligotti’s occasional representations of contemporary occultism and secret societies are highly credible, despite the anti-naturalism of his style. He affords addictive tomes, obscure ceremony, and exotic drugs, often with libidinal contexts/subtexts. Like Lovecraft, he prefers his grimoires to be as invented as his characters, but he does show a familiarity with actual occult tradition by invoking Austin Osman Spare (in “In the Shadow of Another World”). The magic employed by sorcerers in these stories is sometimes grounded in powerful hypnotic suggestion.

The stories of Grimscribe are all told in the first person by unnamed narrators, and an introduction establishes the conceit that these are received texts, drawn from a pool of consciousness through an authorial function personified by Ligotti as “Grimscribe.” These are then grouped into “Voices” characterizing the specific narrators, such as “The Voice of the Demon” (culpable narrators) and “The Voice of the Child” (juvenile narrators). The final section “The Voice of Our Name” contains only the single story “The Shadow at the Bottom of the World.” This last tale seems especially suited to seasonal reading, for those who want an elegant text to instill horror into Hallowe’en observances.

I would be hard-pressed to select a favorite from this book. There is not a dud among the 33 stories assembled here. [via]

Living Thelema

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Living Thelema: A Practical Guide to Attainment in Aleister Crowley’s System of Magick by David Shoemaker.

David Shoemaker Living Thelema

Living Thelema is a brand that David Shoemaker has developed through a website and podcast segments by that name, and in this book which collects essays on a fairly wide range of topics within the field of orthopractic Thelemic magick. Many of these were previously published elsewhere, and despite revisions for this volume, they don’t always seem to be addressing a consistent audience. In his introduction, the author claims that the book is intended as a primer, but with idiosyncratic insights to benefit more experienced practitioners. Many of the essays conclude with short bibliographies of “recommended reading.”

As soon as I got into the first essay, I started to encounter some problems. In this “Introduction to the Qabalah” Dr. Shoemaker defines “The Qabalah” simply as “the mystical branch of the Jewish tradition” (4). A few pages later, he begins referring to “the Hermetic Qabalah” (9), but at no point does he clarify any relationship or distinction between the Jewish Qabalah and the Hermetic Qabalah, let alone their relationship to Thelema. Such sloppiness in the history of religions, along with the faulty translation of sephiroth as “spheres” (4), may be par for the course in occult manuals, but when the chapter opens with a note boasting that “A different version of this essay appeared in the instructor’s manual of … an undergraduate psychology textbook” (3), the errors are cause for added dismay.

Although there is an “Introduction to the Qabalah,” there is no corresponding “Introduction to Thelema” in this volume. Readers are clearly assumed to be familiar with the existence of an occult movement that recognizes Aleister Crowley as a founding teacher, orients itself to The Book of the Law as sacred writ, and manifests through O.T.O. and A∴A∴ along with newer esoteric orders. The modern history of occultism receives no treatment here—besides the author’s autobiographical introduction.

The “beginner” materials on establishing a magical regimen and fundamental practices are generally clear, and compare favorably to other books of this type, both the explicitly Thelemic ones, and more generic ones on ceremonial magick. The self-helpy tone is reasonably suited to this content, so it doesn’t get in the way here. With this substance in view, the book may in fact be best suited to Thelemites working in ad hoc groups or in solitary circumstances. It has doubtless been welcomed by the author’s own students and others who already view him as an authority.

I guess it’s too much to expect doctrinal insight from a book that claims only to be a “practical guide,” but Living Thelema does seem to offer itself as a primary demonstration of Dr. Shoemaker’s qualities as a “claimant” (his preferred term) to administrative authority in A∴A∴. The book has a colophon containing the A∴A∴ seal, but no assertion of a full imprimatur. The key passages of the book in this respect can be found in the second of its three major sections, which is headed “Perspectives on the Path of Attainment.” I’m afraid that I failed to derive any real insight or inspiration from the content most relevant to this issue, and—without any wish to be drawn into argument—I must confess deep reservations about the picture of O.T.O.’s relationship to A∴A∴ drawn at the end of the chapter on “The Methods and Tools of A∴A∴”

I actually found the language of the doctrinal sections somewhat off-putting in its frequent chattiness, and its ubiquitous use of the abbreviation “K&C of the HGA” to reference that Knowledge and Conversation which is the first critical task of adeptship. Further, I was puzzled by the essay on “The Formulas of L.V.X. and N.O.X.,” which seemed to lack real depth, and to be at pains to counter particular misconceptions that I’ve never seen circulated.

Besides his esoteric credentials and experience, Dr. Shoemaker is a clinical psychologist with a Jungian orientation. His integration of Jungian theory with magical doctrines is, I think, exemplary. He avoids the common pitfall of using Jung’s work to legitimize occultism, as if 20th-century psychological theories were somehow more objectively valid than a body of initiatic practice and esoteric teachings. A strong case can be made for Jung’s de facto standing as an esoteric adept, but to the extent that one accepts that case, it is necessary to see his writings as an exotericization of what he learned in his attainment. They are therefore most useful in providing alternative, confirmatory views of occult processes. The chapter on “The Role of the Ego in the Great Work” in Living Thelema is an admirable use of Jungian ideas in the context of Thelemic initiation. Dr. Shoemaker’s clinical experience is on display chiefly in the third section of the book, which supplies advice regarding mental hygiene and relationship issues for Thelemites. This material seemed unobjectionable in itself, but it did lend something of a remedial, therapeutic flavor to the conclusion of the text.

I have collaborated with Dr. Shoemaker in person on projects under the aegis of O.T.O., and in our interactions I have found him to be personable, perceptive, and prudent. I had high hopes for his first book-length work on magick, but I cannot say they were quite fulfilled. [via]

The Kingdom of Evil

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Kingdom of Evil: A Continuation of the Journal of Fantazius Mallare by Ben Hecht.

Ben Hecht The Kingdom of Evil

When I first read it, I would not have guessed that Ben Hecht’s Fantazius Mallare would have a sequel. Nevertheless, The Kingdom of Evil is it. This more interior and symbolic story from deep in Mallare’s derangement at first supplies more cues about the modernity of Mallare’s “real world.” Storefronts blaze with electricity, and traffic shines headlamps (9). But the bulk of the text is excerpted from Mallare’s journals, in which the misanthropic decadent has fully immersed himself in the fantasy Kingdom of the book’s title.

The flavor, and some of the substance, of this book put me in mind of Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy. I didn’t find the Anthony Angarola illustrations as affecting as the ones by Wallace Smith in Fantazius Mallare, but they did seem to track more closely to the text, and they suggested to me the idea of the Kingdom of Evil in an animated format, which influenced my imaginings from the story.

The end had more conclusiveness to it than that of the original volume, but still raised more questions than it answered. [via]

Natural Right and History

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Natural Right and History by Leo Strauss.

Leo Strauss Natural Right and History

This book was developed out of a set of lectures given by Leo Strauss at the University of Chicago in 1949. It still has the character of three texts in six chapters, more than a monograph, although they share a common subject matter and are set in a reasonable sequence.

A strange feature of the edition that I read is the cover design, which incorporates as background the title of the American Declaration of Independence. Although the idea of “natural right” may be wedded in American imagination to “truths” that “we hold … to be self-evident,” Strauss at no point references that document, or Thomas Jefferson, or US history at all. The Declaration of Independence is no more relevant to Strauss’ discussion here than is Liber LXXVII vel Oz, and it was more out of engagement with the latter that I undertook to read this book.

Strauss is notorious as an intellectual mentor for some of the senior figures in the neoconservative faction of American politics, and I realized while reading this book that he may be ultimately to blame for the neocons’ popularization of the term “regime (change),” inasmuch as he very carefully and conspicuously chooses “regime” to translate politeia as it appears in classical texts (136f.). However, the neocon usage signifies a particular government considered as individuals and the institutions they dominate, e.g. “the Netanyahu regime.” This meaning is not in keeping with the larger sense of politeia as the socio-political integrity of a society. Strauss also observes that the traditional concept of “regime” has been superseded in modernity by the less coherent idea of a “civilization” (138).

Neocons’ reading of Strauss is likely to have found some gratification in his treatment of Edmund Burke, the last of four figures surveyed here in the development of “modern natural right.” Burke, now viewed as a philosophical founder of Anglo-American conservatism, gets some applause from Strauss for his valuing of practice over theory, and his recovery of a measure of the Ciceronian concept of political virtue. Even so, he is still shown as a sort of “last gasp” of such a sensibility, and his acceptance of individualism as a political principle places him on the same path of descent as the wider intellectual culture (323).

Throughout the book, and especially in its opening chapters, Strauss can be seen taking a stand (both with and against Nietzsche, see p. 26) in opposition to the sort of “historicism” that thoroughly relativizes political values, and thus dismisses the concept of natural right. He takes for a proponent and representative of the historicist school the sociologist Max Weber. I was fascinated in passing at a number of quotes from Weber, such as “Become what thou art” (44ff.), that seem highly Nietzschean, if not even Thelemic.

Strauss composed Natural Right and History (1953) at around the same time as Persecution and the Art of Writing (1952), and the method of a hermeneutic of esoteric writing, as understood by Strauss, is on display here. For example, in discussing Locke, the first of his four modern figures, Strauss remarks, “The fact that he is generally known as a cautious writer shows that his caution is obtrusive, and therefore perhaps not what is ordinarily understood as caution” (206). A more overt and detailed application of the method of esoteric reading is given in a long footnote discussing the possibility of Hobbes’ atheism, where Strauss observes, “Many present-day scholars … do not seem to have a sufficient notion of the degree of circumspection or of accommodation to the accepted views that was required, in former ages, of ‘deviationists,’ if they wished to die in peace” (198-199n.).

Glossing Plato and classical thinkers generally, Strauss tells us, “Philosophizing means, then, to ascend from public dogma to essentially private knowledge” (12). [via]