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.

Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

Coomaraswamy Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art

The slender Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art (originally issued as Why Exhibit Works of Art?) consists of four lectures and five brief papers, representing what is probably the cream of the polemical writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. The author was one of the original proponents of the Traditionalist school of comparative religion, and he spent the later decades of his career as curator of the Indian collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The writings collected here do not so much exercise the discipline of art history, which barely existed as such in the Anglophone world at that time, as much as they propound a theory of material culture, and advocate an idealist philosophy.

Coomaraswamy uses the word “aesthetic” as a pejorative, insisting on the intellectual value of artwork, and he champions the dignity of what museums call “decorative” arts, over and against the “fine” arts which try to segregate expression from utility. He is as likely, or more, to cite Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure as he is to refer to the Upanishads or other Indian texts, but he claims that these equally reflect a “Unanimous Tradition.” For Coomaraswamy, the name of the ideological enemy is the humanist, whom he characterizes as “a sentimentalist, materialist, or cynic.” (63) His perspective on the history of European culture–in favor of antiquity and the middle ages, and contemptuous of the renaissance and modernity–is in keeping with that of Guénon and other Traditionalists, and the essay on “Folklore” (originally written for a Traditionalist journal) presumes the rectitude of the Indian Chatur Varna so beloved of European Traditionalists who discourse on political themes. (136-7)

Students of the work of Aleister Crowley may be familiar with Coomaraswamy as a figure cuckolded–willingly, to all appearances–by the Beast with Coomaraswamy’s second wife Alice (a.k.a. Ratan Devi). In fact, Crowley’s ostensible review of Coomaraswamy’s book The Dance of Shiva in the 1919 Equinox journal consists of nothing but a rehearsal of their personal interactions, framed by an unfriendly biography of Coomaraswamy. Ironically, the later writings of Coomaraswamy collected in Christian & Oriental Philosophy of Art often emphasize certain elements that are sympathetic to Crowley’s doctrines. 

In particular, the first talk “Why Exhibit Works of Art?” includes a long argument for individual vocation that is an excellent fit with the Thelemic notion of True Will. “[W]hen each man makes one kind of thing, doing only that kind of work for which he is fitted by his own nature and for which he is therefore destined…a man at work is doing what he likes best, and the pleasure that he takes in his work perfects the operation.” (15) And in the second lecture, which lends its title to the whole volume, there is a discussion of what Crowley calls the Holy Guardian Angel: “No man, considered as So-and-so, can be a genius: but all men have a genius, to be served or disobeyed at their own peril.” (38)

In his paper on “Beauty and Truth,” Coomaraswamy draws on medieval theory of rhetoric to support his more general ideas about art, and the author is indeed no mean rhetorician. “Industry without art is brutality.” (92) These essays at the very least make provocative reading for anyone interested in the course of what he calls the “museum militant.” (22)

Ship of Dreams

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ship of Dreams by Brian Lumley.

Lumley Ship of Dreams

You know that dream where you’re fighting zombie saboteurs in the machinery bowels beneath the city, and you’re naked? Or the one where the cadaverous old man teaches you to charm the giant woodlouse with song? Or the one where you and your best friend have to defeat the skyborne naval forces of the evil queen? Well, they’re in this book anyway. 

This second volume of Lumley’s series set in the “lands of Earth’s dreams” carries over the main protagonists from the first book. The story reads very quickly, and has more of an integrated plot system than the previous volume, which seemed more episodic. In addition to taking over the setting from H.P. Lovecraft, Lumley here increasingly shows a debt to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories, even going so far as to title the first chapter “Ill Met in Celephais.” 

Like much of the Lumley I’ve read, this book is “empty calories,” but the aftertaste is nothing but pleasant.

Master of the Temple

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Master of the Temple by Eric Ericson.

Ericson Master of the Temple

The cover of this occult potboiler bears the pointless assertion: “a novel is not necessarily a work of fiction.” This one certainly is, though. The author (I suspect “Ericson” is a nom de plume) is educated, though not always accurately so, regarding the 20th-century history of magical orders and initiates, and shows a certain level of insight regarding magical practice and ritual design. He even provides a set of appended notes to document certain alleged facts on which he drew in writing the book, which seems like a little too much protestation to me. 

The “Noble Order” which forms the centerpiece of the novel is an imaginary schism and reform of O.T.O., instituted by a German named Frick. Sexual magic is presented as a wholesome esotericism, but Aleister Crowley is supposed to have succumbed irrevocably to demonic forces in the Algerian desert, as per the accounts of John Symonds or Alex Owen. The order maintains a level of secrecy comparable to the early Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn; its existence and name are not to be revealed to the profane. Somewhat like Crowley’s reform of the latter, the Noble Order has unpacked certain practical techniques suited to inner order adepts and distributed them among earlier grades, as well as furnishing aspirants with individual instructors. 

The story’s protagonist Jonathan Rawlings is an advanced initiate of this order, and a globe-trotting sales executive for an English biscuit manufacturer. As a “Seventh” of the Noble Order, he is evidently supposed to be the equivalent of a Major Adept. The preponderance of the twenty-five chapters adhere to a straightforward formula, in which Rawlings visits a new city, does some mundane business there, meets key members of the local lodge of his order, and performs (usually with them) a magical ceremony (usually sexual in character). These chapters consistently deploy tissue-thin stereotypes about the various countries and American regions in Rawling’s itinerary. 

As the jacket copy makes plain, the larger plot arc is a faustian tragedy, and the very last chapters are concerned with Rawlings’ comeuppance. In parallel with the libelous background narrative about Crowley, Rawlings is supposed to fail in “crossing the Abyss,” and his method in attempting it certainly seems weak enough. (He anticipates that he might need a whole weekend to recover!)

The frequency of error among the purportedly factual elements of this book leads me to caution readers against believing them. But for those already well-studied in this material, and particularly experienced initiates of O.T.O. or A∴A∴, Master of the Temple is still an entertaining curiosity that hits its target as often as it misses.

The X-Rated Bible

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The X-Rated Bible: An Irreverent Survey of Sex in the Scriptures by Ben Edward Akerley.

Akerley The X-rated Bible

I was a little disappointed by this book, even though it delivers exactly what its subtitle promises: “An Irreverent Survey of Sex in the Scriptures.” Akerley is a confirmed atheist with a Protestant upbringing, whose gay identity compounds his antagonism for the mores that Christians claim to base on their Bible. Throughout The X-Rated Bible, his goal seems to be simply to mock the Bible, by demonstrating its incoherence and evident immorality. The fact that he neglects some of the most obvious questions about his chosen passages makes him look like a weak polemicist, rather than an iconoclastic researcher. For example, he offers a really impressive concatenation of texts mentioning those “that piss against the wall,” (165-167) but only as examples of the “scatological tradition” in the Bible. He never explores who such pissers might have been, or why they would be called out in so many passages. Implicitly, he makes a case that there’s something inherently wrong with mentioning piss or dung, which seems to be at odds with his own professed stance against the “unspeakably barbaric and draconian Hebrew moral code.” (223)

This second edition of The X-Rated Bible provides sixty chapters of Bible badness, divided into seventeen broad topics. Akerley’s usual style is to provide glosses on the Bible text, and follow it up with the direct quotation from scripture. With very few exceptions, he quotes the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. Other than discussing the likelihood that James I of England was gay (xxii), he provides no background on the context of the KJV translation, the motives in its production, its difference from other versions, or the locus that it occupies in English literature. 

I was especially eager to read Part VIII (“Prostitution and Phallic Worship”), but was fairly nonplussed by it. Akerley addresses no texts that were not already familiar to me in this context. He also accepts the typical Christian assumption that the Jahwist cult was only and always in opposition to phallic worship, instead of having its own phallicist root. He doesn’t even mention the indigenous Hebrew goddess Asherah. 

This tendency to take the most conventional Christian reading as a strawman for the meaning of a Bible passage is evident throughout The X-Rated Bible. Going even further, Akerley repeatedly gloats over the contradiction between the alleged omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God, a conundrum that is actually extrinsic to the Bible, having developed in the medieval philosophies of monotheism. (There are certainly foreshadowings of it in the book of Job, but Akerley doesn’t go there, because a full discussion of theodicy would distract from his central topic!) The result of this capitulation to Christian premises is a book that does a somewhat better job of lambasting Christianity than it does of exploring the Bible. Still, as a “survey” it’s not bad, and it does provide a convenient digest of Bible passages that will repay study far beyond the discussion that Akerley affords them.

The Second Sin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Second Sin: Some iconoclastic thoughts on marriage, sex, drugs, mental illness, and other matters by Thomas Stephen Szasz

Szasz The Second Sin

The “Sin” of Szasz’s title is that of Genesis, chapter 11: attempted clarity in human communication. The book is written in short chapters composed entirely of aphorisms which outline an iconoclastic approach to contemporary society, organized around broad subjects such as “Family,” “Education,” “Freedom,” and “Mental Illness.”

The author is a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry who is sharply critical of the institutional setting of his profession, as well as the professionalization of his vocation. He advocates (although not until the last dozen pages of the book) for what he calls “autonomous psychotherapy,” and against the therapeutic paradigm as a whole. If that sounds a little paradoxical, it is. 

Philosophically, Szasz is a modern resisting postmodernism. He aligns himself with Emerson, Mill, and Adler, against Rousseau, Marx, and Freud. (20-21) He is a fierce (small-l) libertarian, and profoundly anti-paternalistic. The chapters on “Significance” and “Control and Self-control” should be of special value to Thelemites.

False Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews False Gods: The seeds of heresy are sown by Graham McNeill.

False Gods is the second of dozens of Horus Heresy novels that supply background to the Warhammer 40,000 gothic space-opera gaming universe. It made an interesting contrast to the previous volume Horus Rising. Where I found the plot and content of this second book much more interesting, I felt like the prose was noticeably less polished and evocative. 

The “starch-ass” space marine captain Garviel Loken continues to be the sympathetic hero for most of this novel, while many passages detail events well removed from his knowledge. Some of the enigmas posed in the first book are clearly resolved in this one, and the secular virtues of the Imperium of Man start to erode rapidly in the face of the burgeoning cult of the Emperor as well as the corrupting influence of Chaos. 

The centerpiece of the book was the seduction to Chaos of the Warmaster Horus in a set of visionary experiences in the Warp while he is convalescing in the temple of the Lodge of the Serpent. I found this passage entertainingly reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: a tour of Imperium Future, Imperium Past, and Imperium Present, with the Word Bearer Chaplain Erebus as the Jacob Marley psychopomp. The final chapter of the book makes the stakes for the upcoming volumes crystal clear. 

As I mentioned, the writing in this book was a little step down from the previous one, and while there may be some artful Warhammer 40,000 literature out there, I’d say that the Horus Heresy series is one that will appeal to fans of the games, and few others.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson.

Johnson The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

The short novel The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is Kij Johnson’s 21st-century rejoinder to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath by H.P. Lovecraft. Johnson’s story features a college professor who is tasked with a quest in which she must journey to the “waking world,” so-called by its natives like Randolph Carter, who consider Kadath, Ulthar and its environs, Hatheg-Kla, Serranian, and the like to be “the lands of dream.” The story titles are not perfectly parallel: Unknown Kadath is a place, but Vellitt Boe is a protagonist.

Although far from uncritical of Lovecraft’s dreamlands, this story is also a fond homage to them, fully congruent with the narrative continuity established in Grandpa Cthulhu’s own tales, although taking place in a later period. By making her protagonist a native of the otherworld in quest of our own, Johnson put me a little in mind of Katherine Valente’s The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, but while that book offers its sojourn in the mundane quite early, Johnson’s takes almost the whole book to achieve it for Vellitt Boe. 

There are a couple of subtle digs at Lovecraft’s racism, but the main conundrum of this Dream-Quest is gender: “Did women have dream lands? In all her far travelling, she had never seen a woman of the waking world nor heard of one” (50). Randolph Carter is supposed to have said it was on account of the “tiny,” domesticated dreams of women. But again, this book is not picking a fight with Lovecraft, so much as collaborating with his shade to build a framework that can open onto “another dream land, built from the imaginings of more powerful women dreamers” (72).

And it holds to the love for crystal cliffs and luminous sea-deeps, zoogs and gugs, subtle priests and sapient cats.

The Phallic Quest

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Phallic Quest: Priapus and Masculine Inflation by James Wyly

Wyly The Phallic Quest

In keeping with the series of monographs by Jungian therapists in which it appears, this work by Wyly is more concerned with pathology and its cure than suits my interests. Nevertheless, the “background” materials that make up the first of the two parts are helpful and interesting. The sources cited have also led me to further inquiry.

The History of the Nude in Photography

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The History of the Nude in Photography by Peter Lacey.

Lacey The History of the Nude in Photography

Given the purpose of the book, I suppose it’s no indictment to say I enjoyed the pictures far more than the text. Still, it’s despite the fact that the mass paperback page format is probably not conducive to best enjoyment of the images. Here’s a typical and telling sample of the prose: 

“Photographic revelations of the nude will never be exhausted as long as both photographers and their audience are determined to find the meaning of the nude wherever and however she may manifest herself.” (209)

Despite such allusions, Lacey provides very little “meaning” for a reader to take away from this volume. “The nude” is always “she,” and no male nudes are included or mentioned. Similarly, the reproductions are all in black and white, presumably from black and white originals, although the author never discusses the issue. Perhaps color photography is an innovation beneath his notice? 

This book claims to be the first ever dedicated to its topic. The whole is organized as a chronological survey, providing samples of the work of about twenty photographers from the mid-19th century through the mid-20th. The styles of composition and production vary dramatically, and Lacey does include some helpful discussion of the changes in technique, as well as the cultural setting of the photographic enterprise.

The Double Vision

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Double Vision: Language and Meaning in Religion by Northrop Frye

Frye The Double Vision

The subtitle of The Double Vision is misleading: it should have been Language and Meaning in Christianity (or perhaps in Biblical Religion, a phrase to which Frye resorts in its pages). He does advert briefly to Oriental “cults” imported into North America in the 20th century, and to the paganism of the ancient near east and Hellenistic antiquity, but only in order to frame his own religion. Considering the origins of the volume, such provincialism (not a word I expected to use of Frye!) is unsurprising; the original audience for this material were his fellow alumni of Emmanuel College, the theological faculty of Victoria University.

The four chapters were originally given as three lectures and a paper. The third chapter “The Double Vision of Time” is the best of the lot; I would be profoundly impressed to hear it given as a sermon. (Frye was an ordained minister of the Methodist-descended United Church of Canada, even if his only pulpit was in a university English department.) “The Double Vision of God” at the end is the worst. It is full of terribly wrongheaded historical claims, such as the one that the solar element only “enters Christendom with the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV of France.” (61) This badness is also unsurprising in light of Frye’s own earlier emphasis on the distinction between Weltgeschichte and Heilgeschichte

“That the literal basis of faith in Christianity is a mythical and metaphorical basis, not one founded on historical facts or logical propositions.” (17)

Frye’s strength is obviously in myth and metaphor, not history. The ambition of this book to make more accessible his earlier works on literary hermeneutics of the bible (The Great Code and Words with Power) is thus frustrated by his insistence on attempting to connect with the historical context of modern secular culture. There is considerable intellectual value in those earlier books from a critic who views the Bible “not as a source of doctrine but as a source of story and vision.” (3) But in The Double Vision, he is snared in a paradox, coming too close to repeating the very procedure he derides: “Most Protestantism … turned to history rather than metaphysics as an infrastructure for revelation.” (69) What is lost in the process is what made the revelation sacred, and the history that results tends toward the valorization of ignorance.