Category Archives: T Polyphilus: Vigorous Food & Divine Madness

The Angel & The Abyss

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Angel & The Abyss: The Inward Journey, Books II & III by J Daniel Gunther.

J Daniel Gunther The Angel and The Abyss

This sequel volume to Initiation in the Aeon of the Child reveals the larger structure of the “Inward Journey” to which it supplies the second and third parts. The first part, in the earlier book, was concerned with the Outer Order of A∴A∴, treating themes considered in terms of the qabalistic paths in the lower reaches of the Tree of Life. In the second part, which is The Angel & the Abyss (constituting most of the second book), Gunther applies himself to concerns of the Inner Order, as bracketed by the two critical tasks by which aspirants are admitted to and matriculated from its ranks. These are the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel and the Adventure of the Abyss. In the third part, The Hieroglyphic Triad, the ultimate three paths that integrate the supernal triad (to which the grades of the Third Order are attributed) are treated in a set of single-page diagrams with cryptic text.

The book features a glowing introduction from O.T.O. Australian Grand Master Shiva X°. Throughout the body text, there are frequent illustrations pertinent to the symbols and history under discussion. The end matter features several appendices: one on Egyptian writing, one on the Thelemic sacred text Liber Trigrammaton, and finally the “Class D” (official ritual) paper on the ceremonial robes of the Outer Order. This last item features a new set of photo illustrations to replace the drawings that were in the 1996 edition in The Equinox (Commentaries on the Holy Books and Other Papers).

As in the prior volume, Gunther takes a conservative approach to Crowley’s doctrines. Here, though, he makes bolder to contradict the common reception of those doctrines, and he is actually dismissive of some of Crowley’s earlier writings when he finds them superseded by later texts which differ in their understanding. Gunther is most decidedly not among those who believe Crowley to have overshot his mark in 1909 (a perspective variously represented by John Symonds and Alex Owen among others), and he points up the special conditions of the Cefalu period as cause for caution regarding Crowley’s output of that time, while he emphasizes the late writings of Magick Without Tears as a doctrinal standard. Throughout the book, there are useful observations on hermeneutic method, and applications of these to the Holy Books of Thelema, The Vision & the Voice, and the images of the Crowley-Harris Thoth Tarot.

In common with Gunther’s earlier book and with other recent expositors of the A∴A∴ system, this work emphasizes conceptual continuity with Jungian psychology. Despite my estimation of Jung as an adept, I feel like Gunther’s references to “Archetypal perspective” tend to give too much credit to psychological theory for wisdom that was already demonstrated in Crowley’s occult works. Still, Gunther does criticize Jung for selling short the conscious ambitions of traditional alchemists.

The Angel & the Abyss employs an unusual quantity of analysis rooted in the history of religion, when compared to other books professing to address Crowley’s scriptures and initiatory processes. On the whole, Gunther emphasizes the conceptual distinctions between Thelema and historical religions, and he does an admirable job of calling out the redeployment of symbolic material from Egyptian, medieval Christian, and Asian mystical sources.

I was impressed, but not overwhelmed, with the previous part of this work. Seeing it now as a completed whole, I think it fully justifies its imprimatur, and it can be considered essential reading for those investigating the system of A∴A∴, and valuable for Thelemites in general. [via]

Isaac Newton’s Freemasonry

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Isaac Newton’s Freemasonry: The Alchemy of Science and Mysticism by Alain Bauer.

Alain Bauer Isaac Newtons Freemasonry

Alain Bauer quotes André Carvalle regarding Stuartist Masonry with a phrase that might be taken to describe Masonic history in general: “an immense palimpsest where all the writings are tangled together so thickly that the latest writers can no longer even see the color of the paper” (45). In this book, Bauer boasts to stand up for earnest inquiry into the actual origins of Freemasonry, extricated from a mass of myth and fable.

At the original publication of this book, which had the less sensationalistic French title Aux origines de la Franc-maçonnerie: Isaac Newton et les newtoniens, Bauer was the Grand Master of the Grand Orient of France, a national body of Freemasons. The book was published with the imprimatur of the Masonic Authority of France, and a foreword is supplied by the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of France. The relationships among these institutions are not clarified in the book. There are nearly a dozen different Masonic obediences in France, with official recognition between them lacking in most cases. The Masonic Authority of France (IMF), however, founded in 2002 with the object of research and public education, is a joint project of several.

The body of this text is a little meandering. Bauer explains that there has been a scholarly invalidation of the traditional narratives of the development of Freemasonry out of the “operative” craft guilds of the middle ages. But what he offers to replace that narrative is largely tenuous. The focus is on the points of intersection between the nascent Grand Lodge of London and the Royal Society. Isaac Newton is a key figure as the president of the Royal Society during the establishment of the Grand Lodge, while his secretary John Desaguliers was the third Grand Master in this same period.

Without its framing guest-contributions, appendices, and apparatus, Bauer’s text has only eighty pages in this large-font English edition. There are twenty-five pages dedicated to four appendices in the form of timelines of Masonic history. Some of these raise more questions than they supply answers. An example is the item in the second part of Appendix 1 (“Summary of the History of Freemasonry: The Scientific Version”) for 1929: “Invention of the landmarks” (89). The main text does not discuss the “landmarks” of Freemasonry, a term of art that significantly predates the twentieth century, although ill-defined then, and still contested today. A quick search on my part to discover the 1929 event in question suggests perhaps the adoption by the United Grand Lodge of England of a set of eight “Basic Principles for Grand Lodge Recognition.” A little ways up the page, there is a provocative typographical error: Morin’s Rite of Perfection is said to have been introduced with 256 degrees! (It was in fact 25.)

Bauer draws on a wide variety of sources for Masonic history, some of them quite recent, and where I have read them, they seem sound for the most part, although I’m no particular fan of Robert Lomas. Bauer’s references for the English Enlightenment and history of science are solid ones. The book is a reasonable introduction to the state of conversation in Masonic historiography at the outset of the twenty-first century, spanning both Francophone and Anglophone researches. But it really doesn’t supply any compelling conclusions. [via]

The Devil’s Own Dear Son

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devil’s Own Dear Son by James Branch Cabell.

James Branch Cabell The Devils Own Dear Son

The Devil’s Own Dear Son was Cabell’s fiftieth book (by his own count), and, I think, his last novel. He wrote it as the third of his “It Happened in Florida” trilogy, and the book has a lot to say about “the tourist trade” in St. Augustine, based presumably on knowledge gathered by the then-septaugenarian Cabell as a “winter resident” of the “Nation’s Oldest City.”

Cabell remarks in an introduction that the early drafts of this novel were written in the first person narrative voice, in the words of Diego de Arredondo Dodd, the progeny referenced in the title. Possibly as a trace of that compositional feature, the published text has a recurrent idiomatic use of the grammatical second person, useful here to get the reader to identify with the perspective of the morally-dubious (though reputable and affable) Diego. This usage may also represent a lapse into the tone of Diego’s father, the keeper of the Bide-A-Way Tourist Home, whose shortcomings and wisdom form a central conundrum of the book. As he finally sums it up, “For everybody has dreams, Diego, just as everybody has measles. But we get over both of them by-and-by” (206).

Although this book finishes “It Happened in Florida,” it is not especially reliant on the preceding two volumes, merely alluding to their contents in a few places. It fact, it is equally (i.e. somewhat nominally) connected to the earlier Biography of Manuel, with a brief journey for Diego through Poictesme and Ecben (124) astride the silver stallion Kalki, whose name is not given, but who has aged into “an infirm and discredited animal” (118). This novel is very much the sort of ironical fantasy for which Cabell became known for writing in books like Jurgen and The High Place.

The subtitle “A Comedy of the Fatted Calf” alludes to the parable of the prodigal son, and it is an open question as to which of Diego’s fathers should be identified with the father in the parable. Should it indeed be the human stepfather Bartholomew Burton Dodd, who “held to the ways of his forefathers” and counseled Diego returned from long adventures beyond St. Augustine to embrace a comfortable mediocrity? Or should it be Diego’s infernal sire Red Samael, who welcomed him to a belatedly-realized supernatural birthright, and offered a fatted calf and then some, for nothing but the asking of it?

Obscure as it is, relative to the larger Cabell oeuvre, The Devil’s Own Dear Son is still hilarious, and this more mature venture into the sardonic world of Cabell’s magical stories shows that Kalki could still take readers for the ride they had come to look for in this author’s writing. [via]

A Fire Upon the Deep

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge.

Vernor Vinge A Fire Upon the Deep

I’ve been pretty tardy getting around to this lauded novel from the early 1990s, despite my efforts in recent years to “get current” with respect to science fiction. (My Other Reader read it in 2005.) This doorstop space opera is full of great ideas, not the least of which are the premises of “zonology” and “applied theology.” According to the first of these, important sf technologies such as faster-than-light travel and superhuman artificial intelligences are only possible in the outer reaches of the galactic volume. The second is concerned with “Powers,” i.e. the results of sapient races transcending into relative omnipotence from advanced positions in the outer zone of the Beyond.

Zonological conditions facilitate a galaxy-spanning communications network, and the novel updates the larger context with bulletins in the form of news posts to this network. At that scale, the story concerns the awakening of a malefic power (the Blight), and the ensuing wars and persecutions. Humans are peripheral at best to the larger galactic polity, but because it was humans who unleashed the Blight, they are rather central to this episode.

A parallel plot concerns a backwater “medieval” world populated by pack sophonts: dog-like creatures that maintain their human-or-greater intelligence on the basis of four or more acoustically-interlinked pack members, who are each of merely high animal intelligence, without reflective consciousness. Humans fleeing the initial outbreak of the Blight chance to crash on the world of these creatures, and there is a contest among the natives for possession of the human technology that the pack factions hope to use in their ongoing rivalries and intrigues.

Ultimately, these plots converge because the crashed ship houses the “countermeasure” usable to defeat the Blight. The end of the book has very little to offer in the way of revelations or surprises, but it does provide reasonably satisfying closure to the long story. The plot is perhaps the weakest aspect of the book, while characters (particularly various non-human sophonts) are better realized, and most significant of all are the inventive concepts informing the space opera setting.

While far less imposingly styled (and commensurately more accessible) than M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books, I felt like this earlier work had a similar grasp of the ultimately contingent quality of human culture and consciousness, even if we should transcend our solar system. Vinge has since written two more books in this fictional universe, and I will probably read them someday, but I feel no urgency about tracking them down. This one has taken a big chunk of my reading bandwidth lately! [via]

Running with the Devil

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music by Robert Walser.

Robert Walser Running with the Devil

This scholarly monograph regarding heavy metal music and culture deserves the praise it has received from academics and journalists alike. It is methodologically clear, intellectually responsible, enthusiastic, and insightful. Since it was written at the cusp of the 1990s, it only covers the first quarter century or so of the music and its subculture. It is now more of a historical study, since the metal scene has shifted and (to some extent) diversified in the subsequent decades. The late 1980s were probably a high point for heavy-metal-as-such in terms of its popular accessibility and influence, so this illuminating book is certainly worth the attention of any reader interested in the topic.

The first chapter is the one in which Walser spends the most time grappling with prior evaluations of heavy metal, and it is a pleasure to see him dismember the judgmentalism and dismissive caricatures that dominated the critical discourse to that point (and even since, alas). But he doesn’t let pass shoddy work even by scholars sympathetic to to the subculture, such as sociologist Deena Weinstein.

A musician himself, Walser points out repeatedly that considerations of the music ought to be concerned with the music, rather than treating it as noise obstructing the signal of social dynamics or cultural signification. To understand the social effects or cultural substance of a sort of music, he rightly insists, involves a discursive approach to the musical sounds and the idioms and rhetorics to which they contribute, how they interact with lyrical texts, and how they affect listeners. Walser goes to the trouble to reproduce music scores for chief examples through much of the book, and these are fascinating. But I felt the need to supplement them with repeated turns to YouTube, where both live-performance and studio versions of the various songs that he discusses are easily available in audio.

The “Power, Gender, and Madness” of the subtitle reference the third, fourth, and fifth chapters respectively. “Power” references a central identifier of heavy metal’s auditory quality, but also the notion of virtuosity that Walser traces in the work and self-characterization of the musicians. This chapter supplies a number of provocative comparisons with “classical” music, and these are fully grounded in the conscious understandings of many heavy metal musicians.

Walser observes that the fan base for heavy metal transitioned over the course of the 1980s from a thorough sausage fest to a state of rough gender parity. He readily acknowledges the patriarchal overtures of heavy metal bands and songs, while refusing to divorce them from the context of a larger patriarchal culture. He discusses distinctive gender tropes in heavy metal—exscription, misogyny, romance, and androgyny—as reactions to that context.

The final chapter, which treats themes of madness and the occult, is Walser’s venue to respond to moralistic crusaders against heavy metal, just as the first allowed him to engage intellectual and aesthetic critics. He demonstrates handily enough, I think, that metal musicians and fans are more often than not using the music to air their own moral outrage, rather than merely frolicking in some sort of moral void. Although this chapter ends on a powerful note, there is no final summing up of the book as a whole.

A couple of appendices present “Heavy Metal Canons” (as determined by Hit Parader magazine) and the questionnaire used by Walser when contacting fans for his field research. [via]

The Terrible Threes

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Terrible Threes by Ishmael Reed.

Ishmael Reed The Terrible Threes

I read Ishmael Reed’s The Terrible Twos some twenty years ago, and this sequel to it picks up with very little pause. So I guess I wasn’t an ideal reader in this case. This surreal satire, mostly about US politics and religion in the 1990s, written in 1988, is still hilarious. The ways in which Reed fails as a prognosticator are in some measures consoling, and in others alarming. One that particularly stood out for me was the vilification of Ronald Reagan by the Neo-Christian successors to the Republican Party, on the grounds that he was a liberal who bargained with the Soviets. In our “real” world, of course, Reagan was a “liberal” according to the standards of 21st-century politics, but he is still the beloved saint/mascot of the ever more reactionary Republicans.

The book is an incredibly fast read, full of thinly-disguised parodies of public figures and clever twists on cultural tropes. It is also, like its predecessor, a Christmas story. Reed points out that the name “Dickens” actually comes from “Nicholas” somehow, and he makes a fair try at redeeming an assortment of characters more vile than Ebeneezer Scrooge. But in the end, things still look to be deep in “the Terribles,” i.e. the episodes of public shock that commenced with the assassination of President Kennedy. Aye, they are that. [via]

Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls by Matthew Lowes.

Matthew Lowes Dungeon Solitaire

Dungeon Solitaire: Labyrinth of Souls is the book-length successor to author Matthew Lowes’ previous game design “Tomb of the Four Kings” (available for free on his website). The original game was playable with a standard pack of playing cards, and it is preserved nearly unchanged as the “basic game” of the “Labyrinth of Souls.” The new game, however, calls for a tarot deck, and the author has collaborated with illustrator Josephe Vandel to create a new deck for it, which includes 10 “extra arcana” or additional trumps.

The rules supplied in Labyrinth of Souls include the basic game (uses 53 cards—a standard playing card deck with a single joker), the expert game (uses 78 cards—a standard tarot deck), the advanced game (uses the 88-card custom deck OR a standard tarot deck plus a ten-sided die), and eight official variants of the advanced game. One of these variants (“Cartomancy”) can be used for divination, and the supplementary “Arcana” and “References” sections provide some useful pointers regarding divinatory meanings for the cards.

I had played “Tomb of the Four Kings” before acquiring this book, and found it to be a quick and fairly difficult solitaire game with a strong narrative element. The expert mode in Labyrinth of Souls expands the game elegantly by adding companions (the tarot page cards), mazes (a new encounter type), blessings, corruptions, and several new magic items. I’ve now played it over a dozen times, and I have yet to win, although I have managed to score: i.e. I have escaped the dungeon with some treasures and companions, but not with the three “heavenly jewels” needed for victory in the expert game. I’m holding off on the advanced game until I score an expert win.

The rules for the various modes of the game are all written quite clearly. The basic game includes a very detailed example of play that was not part of the “Tomb of the Four Kings” rules, and goes a long way toward eliminating any ambiguities in the rules. It gives the reader a very clear idea of game play. An assortment of reference tables and blank recording forms are present for copying and play convenience.

All of the trumps and court cards of the Lowes/Vandel Labyrinth of Souls deck are reproduced at or near full size in black and white throughout the book and especially in the “Arcana” section of the text. These seem to constitute a pretty passable deck, and the designs of the “extra arcana” are certainly interesting, but they just don’t “grab” me aesthetically or symbolically. I have been using the Luis Royo “Dark Tarot” to play the Labyrinth game, and I’m liking it a lot for that purpose. I have not handled a production copy of the Lowes/Vandel deck itself, and I’m unlikely to acquire one. I do like and recommend the rule book and the game, and I would be interested to see other artists’ realizations of the “extra arcana” invented by Lowes. [via]

The Green Woman

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Green Woman by Peter Straub, Michael Easton and John Bolton.

Peter Straub Michael Easton John Bolton The Green Woman

As I was reading this hallucinatory horror graphic novel of murder and occult compulsion, I couldn’t help noticing: Damn, that principal character looks just like the actor Peter Capaldi. When I was about two-thirds of the way through, I flipped back to the front, intending to review some items from early in the story. I found myself instead looking at the dedication, where artist John Bolton had in fact dedicated his work here “To my friend the actor Peter Capaldi for being the perfect villain.” He couldn’t have known in 2010 that Capaldi would go on to be cast in the Doctor Who lead! Now I find that Bolton has cast him in the role of Peter Straub’s serial killer Viet Nam vet Fielding Bandolier—who had appeared in earlier work by Straub.

This book is very much a graphic novel, with the full content and pacing of a novel. It is not a stitched-together series of episodic comics. The intensity of violence and sex is reasonably high, and Bolton’s rich painted art is a good fit for the narrative style and content. Co-authoring with Straub is Michael Easton, a writer with more experience in the graphic medium. There are a lot of scenic shifts and impressionistic representations with a minimum of expository hand-holding. The plot isn’t what I’d call clever, but the story still held my attention. As with other things I’ve read by Straub, I get the impression that a second read would garner details that eluded me on my initial pass. [via]

When the Green Star Calls

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews When the Green Star Calls by Lin Carter.

Lin Carter When the Green Star Calls

I found this second of Lin Carter’s “Green Star” books more enjoyable than the first in all respects but one. The characters were more interesting, including the protagonist, who this time did not have the conveniently preserved soul-less body of a mighty-thewed hero to inhabit. Instead, he took on the life of an orphaned savage. There were elements of ancient civilizations and super-science which helped leaven the sword-and-planet a bit. As before, it is a straightforward action story where the interstellar travel is of a sort of old-fashioned psychic variety. I especially enjoyed an apparently gratuitous trip to Earth’s moon, where the narrator witnessed an enigmatic artifact.

The one feature I didn’t so much like was the cliff-hanger ending. There is, however, an editorial epilogue, where Carter applies the traditional documentary conceit of the genre, and explains that the next volume will pick up directly from this arbitrary break in the narrative. I was, in fact, slightly consoled.

I was very unimpressed by Luis Dominguez’s interior illustrations to this edition, although his cover art is sort of fun. [via]

On Christian Teaching

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana) by St Augustine.

St Augustine On Christian Teaching

There are two possible aims implied in the title of this work: “On Christian Teaching”: to distinguish the Christian from the pagan—“a manifesto for a particularly Christian culture” (translator Green, viii, dismisses this idea—but see my remarks below on Book III), OR “On Christian Teaching”: to identify and communicate the pedagogical process (per Augustine’s preface). Augustine here works in four connected fields of thought, roughly one in each of the Books I through IV of the treatise: ethics, semiotics, hermeneutics, and rhetoric.

The treatise is sometimes understood as consisting of two parts, according to its compositional history. There was an interruption of two or three decades at III.78. Green indicates “a certain bittiness” in the later part of Book III (xi). Many readers, including Green, seem to understand the first three books as properly about learning rather than teaching, while leaving the real doctrina to Book IV. They take that division as reflecting Augustine’s initial distinction between discovery (inventio) and presentation (I.1, IV.1).

I seem to detect a tension between the conception of evil as absence/nonquality on the one hand, and the implication of (original) sin as a positive condition on the other.

At the end of Book III, Augustine credits Tyconius (and downplays the latter’s Donatism), but his frequent citations from Cicero are all tacit. Is this discrepancy in his treatment of Christian and pagan sources a demonstration of how to “spoil the Egyptians”? [via]