The Conversions begins with a group making preparations for an elaborate race between worms (yes, I said worms!) in the luxurious apartments of eccentric Grent Wayl. The winner takes home a curious prize, a ritual adze, covered in arcane figures and scenes that unravel in meaning as the novel progresses. When Wayl suddenly dies, a different race is on to decipher the adze and answer questions about it in order to win his sizable estate. Through a series of stories within stories that take him around the world, the main character seems to advance toward the prize, traversing the labyrinth of his own psyche along the way. He is beset by doubts as to the nature of what trails he is following, the interesting characters met along the way, and the overwhelming feeling that he has been tricked and that the whole journey is based on a hoax. In his first novel, originally published by Random House in 1962, Harry Mathews’ elegant prose and delight in the construction of the chase carry the momentum of the tale. There is a patchwork quality to the various stops the protagonist makes along the way, and in this you can almost see the author working behind the curtain even though we are told to pay him no attention. In The Conversions, and several of his other novels, Mathews is clearly indebted to the French writer Raymond Roussel, who taught him that what happens between the covers of a book is just what happens between the covers of a book, in other words, that a novel can be appreciated on its own terms and not necessarily on how it relates to the outside world. The novel is its own self-contained world, and whatever transpires through its storytelling supports its own logic, its own “reality.” This frees imagination to really do the work it intends from the outset, to create a work of fiction. In the words of Hassan-i-Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.” [via]
Leaving the Atocha Station follows a young American man abroad in Madrid on a Fellowship to write a series of contemporary poems based on the Spanish Civil War. This project he divides into five parts we never see as we follow his inner journey fueled by obsessions with art, women, travel, social relationships, and general anxiety. His habit of embellishing things in order to observe what effect such behavior might have on those around him, to his amazement and frustration, effects him most of all. This emotional sleight of hand permeates the perspective—there is no “plot” per se—of the book, as the character finds that when one allows an Other the opportunity to also embellish their life story—in order to feign interest in them—this post-projection may or may not overlap with virtual version(s) of his own experience. Eventually, a many-layered dance of dual deception may result in the desired consummate act, which immediately disappoints the self, the Other, or both, or will someday, when it fails or falls short of the ideal that prompted a suspension of belief in the first place. Thereafter (if indeed the ruse has not failed prior to the act) by stages self-reflection reveals only pale shades of the deep coloration the imagined relationship originally promised. The juxtaposition of fantasy colliding and competing with reality runs right up against a random terrorist act that confounds the young man: should he participate directly in History as it unfolds, or simply abstract the event as he imagines it into an emotional response resulting in art as artifice, as he has attempted by way of idiosyncratic survival instinct in his personal relationships? This is the first novel by Topeka, Kansas born Ben Lerner, who has three previous collections of poems to his credit including National Book Award finalist Angle of Yaw (Copper Canyon Press, 2006). Well written and evenly paced, this novel explores the psychological nuances of a gifted young person confronting the multitude of conflicting intellectual responses available to interpret the often confusing and unpredictable possibilities of human experience. [via]
Sometimes conventional labels fail us. This is certainly the case with the hybrid style of the late post-WWII German writer W. G. Sebald. Is it fiction or non-fiction? Narrative? Memoir? Reportage? Biography? Travelogue? A synthesis of all of the above connected at times by the faintest of associations that produce a unique, compelling dream-like effect on the reader might be a workable definition of the Sebald style. The only other writer of the twentieth century who vaguely compares with him might be Thomas Bernhard, who Sebald acknowledged as important, but this similarity is solely based on Bernhard’s more biographical writing. When one experiences what writer Rick Moody calls “textual compulsion” regarding the addictive quality of Sebald’s experimental prose, you see that there is no peer for this author, there is only corpus Sebald. It is, however, a relatively brief corpus, considering that during a lifetime cut short by a fatal automobile accident at the age of 57 in 2001, he produced only four works of what is commonly considered “fiction,” or novelesque prose: Vertigo (1990), The Emigrants (1996), The Rings of Saturn (1998), and Austerlitz (2001)—not counting three volumes of poetry and the excellent posthumous collection of essays, On the Natural History of Destruction (2003). All of his writing in some measure explores an obsession with Germany during World War II and the aftermath of loss and denial on the German people. Sebald artfully uncovers a hidden history of the imagination framed within the architecture of presumed fact and memory. Melancholy, the muse of philosophers and writers of a much earlier time, runs like a black river through the stories retold by characters–including the author himself—who strain to recall a past that just might be real: or not. Time and again he asks us: exactly how well is present reality served by memory? For Sebald, our lives reflect the tenuously connected fragments of experience collected that serve as reminders of who we think we are–or were—or might be—and how this informs the choices we make–or may make—right now. At the time of his death, W.G. Sebald was on a short list of authors being considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature. He has received widespread critical acclaim while at the same time his work remains largely undiscovered by a larger general readership. This is a shame, because it would not be an exaggeration to claim that W. G. Sebald is one of the most interesting and important authors of the 20th century. [via]
Perhaps the persistent image of the tortured artist is a romantic oversimplification. In the case of the late singer-songwriter Elliott Smith, the evolution of this idea as he envisioned it on his sixth [posthumous] album, From a Basement on the Hill is apparent in the last song’s title, “A Distorted Reality Is Now A Necessity To Be Free.” On From a Basement on the Hill this distortion is in ample supply.
Similar to Kurt Cobain’s wish on In Utero to return Nirvana to it’s Bleach-era state of punk-rock purity, Elliott Smith approached what would be his last project with an all-consuming passion to recapture his d.i.y. Indie roots. An audiophile perfectionist who shared Cobain’s obsession with recorded detail—every mistake placed exactly where it is supposed to be—Smith recorded and re-recorded the songs on From a Basement on the Hill ad infinitum (who knows if he was truly finished tinkering with any of the recordings)? Reportedly disgusted with the slick production on his DreamWorks label releases X/O and Figure Eight, he systematically “degraded” From a Basement on the Hill tracks such as “Shooting Star” “Coast to Coast” “Don’t Go Down” and “Strung Out Again.” All of these at times sound jumbled up and muddy, but ultimately the mix works: everything tumbles beautifully into place on the brink of total collapse. These rockers are juxtaposed with some of the songwriter’s best trademark gorgeous, intimate acoustic guitar/vocal tracks like “Let’s Get Lost” “Twilight” “The Last Hour” “A Fond Farewell” and “Little One.”
But it is three songs in particular that otherwise defy description other than perfect, that put this cd over the top as Smith’s personal best. The first, “Pretty (Ugly Before)” is an affirmation of faith in the absolute notion that we can never truly love ourselves except in the abstract, that our utterly human acts are unconscionable, and the only forgiveness is found in the mirror of a soul we cannot be sure exists at all. “Is it destruction, that you’re required to feel? Or does someone want you, someone who’s more for real.”—He sings, reminding us of the last photos of Smith taken with bold self-inflicted ink calligraphy on his arms proclaiming KALI THE DESTROYER. The second, “King’s Crossing” begins with a schizophrenic’s head babble segueing into sustained feedback and an unearthly chorus of hell’s angelic choir, who transform into anguished blues Beach Boys… “…they tell me whisky works better than beer. The judge is on vinyl, decisions are final, and no one gets a reprieve…” The tension builds to a stomping drum break, crescendo, then back down, up again… “this is the place where time reverses, dead men talk to all the pretty nurses.” Truly spooky, epic, monumental, worthy of Carson McCullers stuff, with enough self-references to lead some to conclude its all one long suicide note. Now, you could just as easily say that was this guy’s life, so don’t dismiss it as a death trip without also flipping on the yin-yang…
The third, and most perfect among the three perfected songs is “A Passing Feeling” which easily explains what we all do naturally, and unnaturally for that matter: go ahead and live our lives while waiting for something to happen. The hook is “stuck here waiting for a passing feeling” delivered as if there is nothing else to do, nothing as important as grasping after those fleeting precious moments that never last long enough, that descend and depart like ghosts, leaving unrepeatable memories that we want to live over and over again anyway, often despite our resolve to do something else, maybe something considered more constructive or responsible. “took a long time to stand, took an hour to fall…”
Smith recorded much of the album at David McConnell’s Satellite Park studios; Satellite Park is located on a hill, hence the title From a Basement on the Hill. McConnell states that Smith wanted to use “Shooting Star” as the album’s opener, and considering that Smith’s remaining family oversaw the selection of the fifteen tracks used out of fifty total recordings, criticism that they “sanitized” what Smith conceived of as a double-album of 30 tracks, taking otherwise excellent songs with references to self-destruction like “Suicide Machine” out of the loop, may mean that their distorted reality is now a necessity to be free of guilt.
For some people, it is worth risking your life in order to create great art. Some seem to have no choice but to do so: go ask Vincent Van Gogh, he’s hanging out down at the bar with Elliot Smith. And the drinks are on the house. [via]
In less than a decade, Peter Kingsley has produced three books, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford, 1995); In The Dark Places of Wisdom (Golden Sufi Center, 1999); and Reality (Golden Sufi Center, 2003). If that weren’t impressive enough, considering the extraordinary research, insight, and raw talent required for such an undertaking, we must also consider this: the author has managed to literally revision how we view and understand the ancient world that has been the basis for our entire Western Civilization. He has thoroughly traced the transmission of a living Pythagorean tradition through Egypt into mystical aspects of Islam, and beyond, bringing this sacred knowledge into present-day reality.
Reality is a summation work incorporating and extending core concepts and research culled from the first two books while also introducing entirely new areas of inquiry and multiple dimensions of original insight.
The author takes as his starting points the fragmented remains of works by Parmenides and Empedocles, 5th century B.C. fathers of philosophy, science, reason and logic, rhetoric, medicine, chemistry, biology, astronomy, cosmology, psychology, religion, and modern education. With passion verging on obsession, Kingsley meticulously explicates, corrects, and debunks prior translations and commentaries stretching back over 2,500 years. As he deconstructs Plato and Aristotle, and unearths Plotinus’ misunderstandings, he also reveals how a master such as Gorgias was able to preserve the tradition by seeming to destroy it. For Dr. Peter Kingsley, who graduated with honors from the University of Lancaster, England, went on to receive the degree of Master of Letters from King’s College Cambridge, and earned a PhD from the University of London, is also a seasoned mystic. Through his open-hearted approach to the source material—the very basis and whole substance of his research—he has learned how to utilize the same seemingly paradoxical mystical methodology as his subjects: something the ancients understood and called metis. These fathers, Parmenides and Empedocles, were not what we seem to think they were, they were healers and sorcerers of a concealed magical tradition who used their metis to trick us into accepting life-sustaining gifts.
Indeed, metis permeates Reality like a strong perfume: an attar, an essence. “The real axis around which Empedocles’ teaching revolves…It’s metis – the single principle running through the universe that we either learn to use or reconcile ourselves to becoming victims of.” (Reality, p 455)
Fixed in reality mixed up so fast with illusion, possessing metis means that we must acquire “razor sharp awareness” in order to act appropriately within the moment, the waqt, the kairos of Gorgias. Metis “…embodies all the qualities of subtlety and cunning and alertness that are essential if we want to avoid being caught in a world of endless deceptions.” (Reality, p 455)
Reality is a journey of re-discovery. It is a “roots” document, an over-long meditation on poems Peter Kingsley’s invisible mentors would have never thought necessary for initiates of a secret Pythagorean tradition in which “…the emphasis was placed less and less on being given teachings and more and more on finding the inner resources to discover your own answers inside yourself.” (In The Dark Places of Wisdom, p 189).
But Peter Kingsley acknowledges his own shortcomings as well as those of his contemporary audience. Until he painstakingly uncovered it, this tradition was lost to most if not all of the people in the world for centuries. It takes every ounce of his unusual gifts and resources as disciplined academic scholar and intuitive mystic endowed with strong metis to unveil the miracle of Parmenides and Empedocles teachings. And that miracle is nothing less than the revelation of the secret knowledge of who we are, what we are doing in this apparent universe, and how it all came into being. As onlookers, if not as initiates, we are enormously indebted to Peter Kingsley for sharing his life’s work. It has been an experiential as well as an intellectual struggle for him, one that has clearly changed him.
The whole of Reality contains the feeling of deep self-discovery. If you approach this book openly and honestly, it will change you as well. Its wisdom will enter you like a zikr, a remembrance of things so familiar it will make you wince with recognition and cry out with longing. It will convince you that you are not who you think you are.
Right in the middle of everything, in the midst of the illusion of time and movement, is where Reality is found. All you’ve ever done all of your life is try to escape it. And this book proves it. You have moved farther and farther away—in your beliefs, your hopes, and especially in your dreams. The illusion is so thick, so pervasive, that it is also the Real, indeed, there is no separation, no illusion, no reality. And yet there it is. And it is you. [via]
Help me welcome the newest Fellow, John Eberly to the Hermetic Library!
You may recognize the name of the newest Fellow, either from his other extensive credits, or as a contributor to the pages of the Caduceus journal; but, either way, I am pleased to publicly announce the initial selection of work on the site, to which we plan to continue adding in future.
Please take a gander at The Shotgun Hermeticism of John Eberly