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.

Lord of the World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lord of the World [Amazon, Bookshop, Gutenberg, Publisher, Local Library] by Robert Hugh Benson.

 Benson Lord of the World

The 1907 novel Lord of the World was reissued by an American Catholic press in 2016 in response to a repeated approbation of the book by Pope Francis, who claimed that it illustrated what he called the threat of “ideological colonization” (ix-x). It has also been held up as a seminal example of dystopian science fiction, and was certainly in part written as a rejoinder to the political imaginings of H.G. Wells.

As “science” fiction, this book does not impress. Propeller-driven aircraft (“volors”) allow for travel from London to Rome in twelve hours’ time and for aerial bombardment. The story anticipates for the early 21st century the “perfection” of telegraphy (252)–but the existence of neither radio nor telephony, let alone television. A cutting-edge means of mass communication is the widespread posting of placards in urban nodes for mass transit. A simple respiratory device for euthanasia has been developed and legitimized both for eugenics and suicide. Along with a peculiar emphasis on rubber carpets, those pretty much exhaust the technological innovation forecast in this book.

Author Robert Hugh Benson’s speculative political history of the 20th century is mostly set forth in a prologue which he himself calls “tiresome” and advises the reader to skip if one is more interested in narrative than exposition. It charts the appearance of Communist governments by democratic means throughout the industrialized Western countries. Nation-states have become consolidated into three great alliances (America, Europe, and the Eastern Empire), which in the course of the novel become departments of the one-world government under the charismatic diplomat-cum-global-sovereign Julian Felsenburgh. The dispossessed royalty of Europe have rallied around Catholic Rome, both ideologically and physically.

Casting the remarks by Pope Francis in a somewhat ironic light, the actual economic and military colonization wrought by 19th-century imperialism goes absolutely unquestioned by Benson; Africa has been subject to a “peaceful partition” (131) among its dominators, and every individual character that appears in the book is white as can be. Even the theoretically significant Eastern powers are abstracted and offstage.

The secular religion promoted by Felsenburgh is called “Humanitarianism,” and it predictably becomes an oppressive and persecuting force. “It is Pantheism; it is developing a ritual under Freemasonry; it has a creed, ‘God is Man,’ and the rest” (10). Judaism has evidently vanished without a trace, and Islam has been prepared for its assimilation to the global cult by becoming “esoteric” (272) through the leaven of Sufism. Protestantism has ultimately dissolved as “nothing more than a little sentiment” (5). Everyone knows that Christianity is stupid.

Although Benson imagined that Catholic organization and administration would be centralized and simplified during a secularizing 20th century, he did not foresee major liturgical reforms, such as those undertaken by the Second Vatican Council. In a telling inversion of the actual turn of Catholicism to a diversity of popular languages, he has even the Catholic laity take up the use of Latin in ordinary speech. This they do in resistance to the invidious Esperanto fostered by international Communism, which has become an official language even in the English government.

Benson was the son of an Archbishop of Canterbury, who ordained him to the Anglican priesthood. He converted to Catholicism a few years after his father’s death, and became a Catholic priest in 1904. He plays with a quasi-autobiographical trope of celebrity conversion in the first section of the novel, where the mother of a prominent English Communist politician converts to Catholicism.

It is easy to conjecture that Benson’s novel might have influenced Charles Williams’ All Hallow’s Eve, which I read last month. But where Williams’ aspiring antichrist never quite attains to the office of “Lord of the World,” Felsenburgh sees his career through to a final battle at Armageddon. This finale–much like the one in Williams’ War in Heaven–leverages a liturgical rhapsody to adumbrate a spiritual victory. The amillenial outcome is a refreshing counterpoint to the premillennialist Left Behind Apocalypse fantasies that littered bookshelves in the actual year 2007!

I am puzzled by the insistence of 21st-century Catholics that Benson’s “prophetic” novel is obviously relevant to our current world situation, which is characterized by nationalist fragmentation and rightward political drift far more than the democracy and liberal humanitarianism that Benson found so frightful. And of course he completely misses anything like the surveillance capitalism and ecocide that are the real engines of our existing dystopia. Nevertheless, the novel is interesting as a peculiar development of the species of fin de siècle Catholic paranoia cultivated and exploited by Gabriel Jogand (the notorious “Leo Taxil”), and the fact that it still has the attention of readers after the date to which it assigned the eschaton testifies in its favor. The individual characterizations are effective; Felsenburgh is not a viewpoint character, and the interior treatment of both Christians and Communists is managed with a fair amount of sympathy. I found it a surprisingly fast read.

For I must pass
Desolate into the dusk of things again,
Having risen so far to fall to the abyss,
Deeper for exaltation; I must go
Wailing and naked into the inane
Cavernous shrineless place of misery,
Forgetful, hateful, impotent, except
The last initiation seize my soul,
And fling me into Isis’ very self,
The immortal, mortal.

Aleister Crowley, The Fatal Force

Hermetic quote Crowley The Fatal Force pass desolate dusk fall abyss deeper exaltation wailing naked cavernous shrineless misery initiation soul Isis immortal mortal

Pure War

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pure War [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Mark Polizzotti and Brian O’Keeffe, part of the Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents series.

Virillio Lotringer Pure War

“I am the warrior Lord of the Forties: the Eighties cower before me, & are abased.” CCXX III:46

Pure War is a book-length interview — arbitrarily broken into chapters — of Paul Virilio by Sylvère Lotringer. Urbanist intellectual Virilio is a theorist of the mechanisms by which war drives technology (and vice versa), and the inventor of dromology as the study of how “speed” transforms social relations. His authorities on military theory include J.F.C. Fuller (57, 69). Virilio posits an essential conflict between military and civil society, or more hypostatically, between war and politics. Although the Pure War interview took place in 1983, during what the participants did not know was the twilight of the Cold War, the trends which Virilio describes have only intensified in the following decades. He sees war with the upper hand, and politics teetering on the edge of an exterminating abyss. 

As I reflect on the relevant changes since the publication of Pure War, I observe that the ongoing militarization of society has meant that some technologies of speed (e.g. SST) have been withdrawn from the civil sphere while being advanced in the military one. Virilio contemplated the dromological potential of the orbital laser, but the Internet and the predator drone both suit his model without being instanced by it. Also, the advancing commercialization of the US military (Halliburton food service, Blackwater/XE mercenaries, etc.) vindicates Virilio’s observations, as war further frees itself from politics. The spasm of US militarism during which the President was almost universally referenced as the “Commander in Chief” has subsided somewhat, but not due to any reduction in the dedication of US resources to the military. Virilio’s notions about endocolonization could hardly be more apt to the current American scene, in which the massive military expenditures of the first decade of the century are being exacted from the civil society of the second.

As an interviewer, Lotringer asks few actual questions. His contributions often seem to be attempts to condense Virilio’s theses more pithily, for instance: “The peak of speed is the extermination of space. The end of time is absolute deterritorialization.” (74) These remarks then goad Virilio into clarifications and enlargements.

Virilio offers a genealogy in which civil society (originally the city) was actually twin-born with military society from pre-civilized “tumults” of all-against-all violence. He posits this in contradistinction to the model of trade as the basis for civilization. According to him, war has evolved from tactics (pre-martial violence), through strategy (control of space), to logistics (control of time). The global fruition of logistics is the “pure war” in which humanity is increasingly subject to a non-human technological agenda predicated on abstract, hyperreal conflict. 

The fascination with and prioritization of war does not mean that Virilio sides with it against politics — quite the reverse. Virilio himself is a Christian who opposes theocracy in favor of civil liberty, and in fact he declares, “Pure War is the absolute idol.” (171) All of his prescience is somewhat gloomy in that respect, even if I don’t share his values. He does credit the regime of nuclear deterrence positively with reawakening a religious sense in the secular world; he even calls Nietzschean atheism “the abomination of desolation.” For someone who doesn’t worship the Crowned and Conquering Child, he seems nevertheless to have the number of the Lord of the Aeon.

O nameless splendour of the Gods,
          Begotten hardly of Heaven!
Unspoken treasure of the abodes
          Beyond the lightning levin!
No misery, no despair may pay
The joy to hold thee for a day!

Aleister Crowley, The Argonauts

Hermetic quote Crowley The Argonauts nameless splendour gods heaven unspoken treasure abodes no misery despair pay joy hold thee a day

Century 1969

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 [Amazon, Amazon (Collected), Local Library] by Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, &al.

Moore O'Neill The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969

The bad and the good of the latest regarding Mina Harker and her peculiar company:

Moore’s alternate history in this book is not compelling (“hippy fascism” in the US?)–I thought that Warren Ellis’ Planetary did a far better job of this sort of thing. Unsurprisingly, as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has progressed through the 20th century, it has come more and more to seem like an inferior version of Planetary, which started out doing for the 20th century what The League originally did for the 19th. 

Moorcock “crossover” homages? They’re not exciting to me the way they would have been when I was a teenager. Modeling the villain on Aleister Crowley — as was set up in 1910? Meh. Professed Magus Moore either proves that he has no idea what a moonchild is (and has never bothered to read Crowley’s novel of that name), or he’s gratuitously throwing dust in the eyes of the profane. 

There were lots of fun little in-jokes; the incorporation of Rosemary’s Baby into the plotline was a nice touch. I couldn’t help feeling that I was missing dozens of cameos in O’Neill’s crowded panels. 

The art in the psychedelic sequences is great! I also thought that Moore’s rewrite of “Sympathy for the Devil” was just splendid.

Listen, you! We expect nothing from you…we have burnt our hope as far as you are concerned…we want to speak to the ones who are prepared to stop eating their food. Misery is your food… scum-filth party politics is your food…when will you look down and see what is on the end of your fork – the naked lunch? We give up, you little people, your tenacity, your insistence on little wretched miseries amazes us. Stop reading this now. Because it is highly unlikely that you are one of those able to understand us.

Blood

Hermetic quote TOPY Blood stop reading this little wretched miseries highly unlikely you are one able to understand

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briefing for a Descent Into Hell [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Doris Lessing.

Lessing Briefing for a Descent into Hell

This novel is beautifully written. I felt like it was very demanding of my attention, because although styles and speakers vary in the course of the text, there are no full page-stop chapter breaks. In the absence of dialogue, paragraphs tend to run for multiple pages, and the prose (sometimes breaking into poetry or incantation) has an insistent restlessness in keeping with its subject matter–especially in the first half, where a narcotized sleep is an ambivalent power for desired healing or feared imprisonment.

“I never learned to live awake. I was trained for sleep. Oh let me sleep and sleep my life away. And if the pressure of true memory wakes me before I need, if the urgency of what I should be doing stabs into my sleep, then for God’s sake doctor, for goodness sake, give me drugs and put me back to dreaming again.” (139)

This waking/sleep dialectic is one of the features that insinuates a mystical subtext throughout. Others include the intimation of people destined for companionship, the foreboding of illusion in consensual phenomena, and reflections on the urge to engender praeterhumanity in our children.

There are many different levels of storytelling involved, of which the outermost is a set of clinical notes and correspondence surrounding the hospitalization of a man with what seems to be traumatic amnesia. Within that setting are conversations, and within those are dreams and memories. In one dream an entire governance of the solar system is set forth as background to the protagonist’s sense of dislocation and urgency. In an unreliable memory, guerrilla warfare becomes the setting for a tragic encounter with idyllic nature.

Others have noted that this is a book worth re-reading, and I’m inclined to agree.