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.

“Throughout my life, I have always wanted to speak the truth, but speaking wasn’t my forte. My mouth would open to utter something and my brain would demand my mouth to shut immediately, lest I make a fool of myself. I possessed a profound inability to articulate my thoughts verbally.”

—Tom Taylor, Aphorisms to the Individual: Notes for my Sons

Kitsch

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste by Gillo Dorfles.

Kitsch: The World of Bad Taste is an anthology of scholarly essays overseen, introduced, and summarized by Gillo Dorfles in the 1960s. It is profusely illustrated, albeit mostly in black and white. The contributions are of varying quality, and Dorfles himself does not shine among them. The book has aged strangely. It is clear that mid-20th century intellectuals felt a much greater anxiety about kitsch than is evident anywhere today, despite the fact that kitsch has been in no way contained or controlled. One of the more effective contributors, Aleksa Celebonovic, writes, “Kitsch has found it easy to impose itself on the uneducated and the ingenuous who have not yet chosen their cultural requirements and have only made superficial attempts to find out about the possibility of satisfying them, and who have still less acquired fixed tastes; kitsch thus infiltrates into the mind like an infection in an organism that is incapable of resisting it” (282-3).

I got this book used for a song, and it’s been sitting on my shelf gathering dust for years. The boggling gaucherie of Trump pseudo-royalty impelled me to finally read it, especially as it promised a chapter explicitly about kitsch in politics. And indeed, the 1939 Clement Greenberg piece collected here had some interesting things to say–of its own historical moment–about “The Avant-Garde and Kitsch” relative to authoritarian states. There is also a gratifyingly caustic essay on “Christian kitsch” by Catholic intellectual Karl Pawek.

It seems clear that the resistance and opposition to kitsch must have some ideological basis, but few of the contributors manage to be explicit about their own ideological grounding. One exception is Greenberg, who observes the impulse of “Capitalism in decline” to block and destroy any advances in culture, concluding, “Today we no longer look toward socialism for a new culture … Today we look to socialism simply for the preservation of whatever living culture we have right now” (126). Another is Ugo Volli, who concludes his essay on “Pornography and Pornokitsch” by calling for kitsch to be “definitely wiped out by a profound revolution, a socialist one, at its roots” (250). With that quote in view, it is a little odd to read the jacket copy with clips of praise from Newsweek and The New York Times. This, although Dorfles and company approach kitsch as a socio-aesthetic problem. [via]

“If you were less pretty I think I should be very much afraid of you”

—Joseph Sheridan le Fanu, Carmilla

The Serpent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Serpent by Jane Gaskell.

Given my subgeneric interests, it’s surprising I took so long to discover Jane Gaskell’s Atlan books. The Serpent is the first of them, and I just read it in its original US paperback edition (1968), a text which was later broken into two volumes: The Serpent and The Dragon. The novel takes the form of a personal journal kept by the protagonist Cija. She is the “Goddess” of the title for the book as it appeared in German translation: “The Tower of the Goddess.” The tower is left behind in the first chapter, though, and Cija is rarely treated as the goddess that she had been raised to believe herself to be.

The story is set in an antediluvian civilization hostile to “Atlan” (the home of the “Atlanteans”). There are no clear-cut supernatural events in the course of the story, although Cija becomes haunted and eventually undergoes an exorcism of sorts, and there are some uncanny events involving animals. The general tech level is vaguely medieval, but there are large cities and instances of fantastic materials technology.

A notable feature removing Cija’s world from ours is the use of phorusrhacidae (perhaps physornis?) as military mounts–these prehistoric flightless “terror birds” were apex predators, and their domestication for warfare is represented as being a difficult and dodgy business. The military setting is central to the book, as much of it concerns Cija’s travels with the army of the Northern Kingdom, which is under the command of General Zerd, himself the “Serpent” of the title. He seems to be descended on one side from reptilian ancestry, giving him a dark, scaled complexion.

Cija is an evidently reliable if occasionally unlikable narrator. There are some strangely contemporary turns of phrase (“OK” e.g.), for which Gaskell apologies in her introduction. She deploys the documentary conceit and actually claims that the novel is a translation of an ancient document. Still, the voice of the diary manages to project the character writing it, and to ring her through some changes of perspective. Besides Cija’s native culture, from which she had been sheltered by imprisonment in a tower for her entire childhood, she is introduced to at least four further realms over the course of the book, allowing Gaskell ample room for world-building. The filter of the diary format, however, keeps the protagonist’s concerns dominant, with little in the way of heavy-handed exposition about the setting. The preservation of the material diary itself through Cija’s numerous captivities, escapes, flights, and mishaps is maybe the unlikeliest feature of the story! [via]