Category Archives: Hermetic Library Reading Room

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition, Hermeticism in a broad sense, and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Paul Gauguin’s Intimate Journals (aka The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin) [Amazon (Routledge), Amazon (Art/Books), Amazon (Dover), Bookshop (Dover), Bookshop (Art/Books), Bookshop (Routledge), Publisher (Dover), Publisher (Art/Books), Publisher (Routledge), Local Library] by Paul Gauguin.

Gauguin The Intimate Journals of Paul Gauguin Routledge

Gauguin Gauguin's Intimate Journals Dover

Gauguin Paul Gauguin's Intimate Journals Art/Books

Paul Gauguin’s second prose work was called by him Avant et Aprés, and saw its first publication posthumously as a bound facsimile of the manuscript in 1918. These so-called Intimate Journals are the English translation, first published in 1921 with a preface by Gauguin’s son Emil. It would be reasonable to suspect that the shorter Noa Noa, subtitled The Tahitian Journal, was an excerpt from this Intimate Journals work, but they are entirely distinct. Emil Gauguin writes that this later work better captured his father’s spirit than did the more heavily edited Noa Noa; I certainly found it a livelier and more entertaining read.

The English title doesn’t really do justice to the text, the last of which was written in the last year of Gauguin’s life, while he was living in the Marquesas. To call it digressive would suggest a central course that is missing from a work that is “not a book,” as Gauguin declares at the outset and repeats many times. “I could exist without writing this; but then, why should I not write it?–since I have no other aim than to amuse myself” (161). The book wanders through reminiscences and anecdotes, offers opinions, philosophizes, and cracks wise by turns. Gauguin recounts high points from his personal experiences with Vincent van Gogh, he vituperates against the Catholic Church, he discusses fencing and boxing, he gives vent to his animus against Denmark, he tells stories of his youth and family, he criticizes the colonial police of French Polynesia, and he praises the lost arts of the Marquesans.

The book includes drawings and sketches reproduced from the manuscript, along with a variety of black-and-white reproductions of Gauguin paintings from the holdings of various museums. Inserted by Gauguin into the flow of the text are various letters and articles: one from August Strindberg declining to contribute to an exhibit catalog for Gauguin (42-49), one by Achille Delaroche “Concerning the painter Paul Gauguin, from an aesthetic point of view” (49-55), and several letters by Gauguin himself to the colonial authorities.

“I believe that life has no meaning unless one lives it with a will, at least to the limit of one’s will. … No one is good; no one is evil; everyone is both, in the same way and in different ways. It would be needless to point this out if the unscrupulous were not always saying the opposite.” (240)

The Tindalos Asset

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Tindalos Asset [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Caitlín R Kiernan, book 3 of the Tinfoil Dossier series.

Kiernan The Tindalos Asset

The Tindalos Asset is the third and likely final slender novel in Kiernan’s Tinfoil Dossier series. It introduces a new central character, while pulling along several from the earlier books. This character Ellison Nicodemo is the “asset” of the title, a subordinate agent of the deep black intelligence directorate referred to as “Albany” in this series. Usage in this book shows that the “Dreamland” of the previous volume’s title does also denominate this same outfit. (I had noted its ambiguity there.)

I was startled that the title of the first chapter was a quote from Leah Hirsig–but Kiernan seems to have received it via its use as a song title by Coil: “Paint me as a dead soul.” In the appended author’s note, they list all the music that was integral to the composition of the story (168). It’s no secret that these books are built around neo-Lovecraftian yog-sothothery, and this one is as much as anything an updated and re-imagined “Call of Cthulhu,” with generous bits of “Dagon” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” is of course a significant source as well, and Kiernan ties its notions to the Manhattan Project, among other space-time problems.

Following the precedent in Black Helicopters, this book’s chapters are episodes presented under dates that are not in linear sequence, ranging from 1956 to 2151. The chronological core of the story is in January 2018, around the time it was written. This sort of time-loose montage effect has a self-similar relationship to the entire Tinfoil Dossier series, and I think the books could be read with enjoyment in any order. Indeed there seems to be some confusion among readers about the sequence of the first two books, since Black Helicopters, the one Kiernan calls “first,” was expanded and re-published as a series element after Agents of Dreamland.

Looking back on the series as a whole, its mixture of the weird horror Lovecraft canon with espionage and a certain measure of sympathy for the “monsters” is a common ground with other recent/current series: the Laundry Files of Charles Stross and the Innsmouth Legacy of Ruthanna Emrys. Kiernan’s more experimental style definitely makes these books distinctive, though. There really aren’t any of the comedic elements that Stross uses, and there’s more of a high-tragic sensibility despite the fact that the Tinfoil Dossier books are much shorter than their comparanda.

This work is rife with extra-textual and inter-textual allusions, which supply a lot of the enjoyment. Given its manageable size and convoluted presentation, I think there is a good chance I could return to it in the future for a profitable re-read.

Most pornography—the books discussed here cannot be excepted—points to something more general than even sexual damage. I mean the traumatic failure of modern capitalist society to provide authentic outlets for the perennial human flair for high-temperature visionary obsessions, to satisfy the appetite for exalted self-transcending modes of concentration and seriousness. The need of human beings to transcend “the personal” is no less profound than the need to be a person, an individual. But this society serves that need poorly. It provides mainly demonic vocabularies in which to situate that need and from which to initiate action and construct rites of behavior.

Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye [Amazon, Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Bataille Story of the Eye pornography traumatic failure capitalist society authentic outlets human flair visionary obsessions self-transcending demonic vocabularies

Big Dark Hole

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Big Dark Hole: and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeffrey Ford.

Ford Big Dark Hole

Big Dark Hole is a collection of fantasy and horror stories by Jeffrey Ford. Comparing it to his previous collection A Natural History of Hell, I find that the Hole is more this-worldly in its choices, with only two stories (“The Inn of the Dreaming Dog” and “Sisyphus in Elysium”) set in realities that do not at least seem to be our world within the possible stretch of living memory.

In fact, there are a number of stories where the speaker is Jeffrey Ford, an aging writer of stories and teacher of writing, one who likes to spend the evenings at his Ohio farm house drinking wine on the porch with his wife Lynn. But these stories, which notably include “The Match,” “The Bookcase Expedition,” and “Five-Pointed Spell,” are not a bit less weird in the events they recount than the bizarre carnival story narrated by a man with two faces (“Hibbler’s Minions”) or the one in which a perennial dinner guest turns out to be no one’s friend or relation and perhaps not human at all (“Thanksgiving”).

There’s a bit of additional self-referentiality in “Five-Pointed Spell” where a Hex Doctor tells “Ford” that “In real life, the supernatural declines to explain” (186). This refusal is supposedly different than in fiction, where “it must” explain. Yet in most of Ford’s stories here, the characters grope for explanations, largely in vain, when confronted with horrors and wonders outside the scope of the mundane. If the reader is able to settle on a rationale, Ford’s touch is light enough that it will seem like a discovery.

These pieces are largely reprints from multi-author collections and periodicals, but I had not read any of them before. This book confirmed Ford as a favorite of mine among twenty-first century writers of weird fantasy.

While he wasn’t capable of taking his mind off something like a human would, he could certainly experience things that gave him peace and enjoyment to counterbalance uncomfortable knowledge.

Karen Traviss, The Best of Us [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Traviss Best of Us taking mind off experience peace enjoyment counterbalance uncomfortable knowledge

Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Dion Fortune, edited by Gareth Knight.

Knight Fortune Dion Fortune's Rites of Isis and Pan

Dion Fortune’s Rites of Isis and of Pan is a slender book, but one with a lot of valuable content. As the title suggests, it is constructed around a pair of liturgical texts by the eminent early twentieth-century occultist Dion Fortune. These appear to have been her only forays into dramatic ritual for public audiences or untutored congregations, and they were produced by her at “the Belfry,” a converted church building in the Belgravia district of London. The full rituals are included, and framed by four chapters of editorial text from Gareth Knight, who provides a history of these rituals and delves into the manner in which they were epitomized in Fortune’s principal occult novels: The Winged Bull, The Goat-foot God, The Sea Priestess, and Moon Magic.

Fortune’s rituals with Knight’s study and commentary constitute roughly the first half of the book, and the second is a set of a half-dozen papers and addresses by Fortune that are relevant to her rites. Three of these were originally published as articles in The Inner Light Magazine, but a couple of them seem to be from previously unpublished records of the Society of the Inner Light that Fortune founded, and the very first appendix is the significant 1933 essay “Ceremonial Magic Unveiled” that originally appeared in The Occult Review.

Although Knight avoids crediting Aleister Crowley with any influence on Fortune’s dramatic rites, “Ceremonial Magic Unveiled” provides ample circumstantial confirmation that Crowley’s Rites of Eleusis were a significant model for her (at least as much as the 1899 “Rite of Isis” by Mathers cited by Knight, 8). In that article, Fortune classes herself with Crowley and Regardie as the “unholy trinity of revealers of the Mysteries” (86). She praises the contents of Crowley’s Equinox, which included his Rites of Eleusis, and even calls on Regardie to perform the editorial work by which he would later produce the digest Gems from The Equinox (91). She writes:

“To speak any word in mitigation of the general condemnation of Crowley is a thankless task, for panic-stricken people immediately conclude that one is in league with the devil. Nevertheless, Mr. Regardie has had the courage to do this, and I should like to add my voice to his. To make use of a man’s work without acknowledgement is no better than picking pockets.” (Ibid. That final sentence would become ironic a few years later, when Regardie would quote a full page of text from Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah in his own The Middle Pillar, attributing it only to “One very clever expositor.”)

Like Crowley in his Rites, Fortune drew poetic passages in her own from the work of Swinburne, specifically “The Last Oracle” (14). Her original contributions as a poet are decidedly less sure than those of the Beast. I suppose I winced physically when I encountered her end rhyme of “path” and “Daath” (74).

Other articles among the appendices supply Fortune’s own extensive analyses of the esoteric infrastructure of her fiction. “In an attempt to compromise between the symbolic and the rational modes of presentation I decided to avail myself of the form of fiction as being a mode of presentation which could approach the subconscious levels of the mind, which think in images, without losing touch with the conscious levels of the mind which think in words, thus making contact once again with those potent levels of the mind that have fallen into disuse in modern civilisation” (103). Her discussion of The Winged Bull in particular highlighted the magical potency of English places in ways that put me in mind of the psychogeography of Iain Sinclair (115-6).

Fortune’s dramatic rituals and her novels alike rely on sexual polarity as the chief engine of magic, and she has the lector of her Rite of Isis declare, “All the Gods are One God, and all the Goddesses are one Goddess” (70). The God can evidently be summarized as Pan and the Goddess as Isis, with these two rituals (each of which features officers of both genders) sufficient for her purpose–which aims more at integration than analysis.