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.

And the Ass Saw the Angel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave.

Cave And The Ass Saw The Angel

I’ve encountered few narrators more unreliable than Euchrid Eucrow, the principal voice of And the Ass Saw the Angel. He’s a congenital mute who is able to recount his first minutes of life at the age of 28. He claims divine inspiration far more often than he indicates the manner of its onset. He is unschooled and untraveled, yet he exhibits a wide and erudite diction, not to mention a striking ear for poetry; but if you can suspend your disbelief for that much, he is a treat to read–trenchant, funny, and ugly-beautiful. 

Plot-wise, there’s not much to commend here. Euchrid tells his whole life story, and the circumstances of his death are gradually illuminated by it. An omniscient third-person narrator provides a meager diet of supplementary details from outside Euchrid’s knowledge. The book’s epilogue is an obvious necessity, just covering the last open patch on the canvas that the story occupies. 

The religious themes of the book are provocative and intense. God is behind everything, and theologies of different depths are offered by the opportunist preacher Abie Poe, the Ukulite sect that founded and runs the town, and Euchrid himself. There are a handful of mystical experiences, although meteorological phenomena are God’s loudest voice.

This novel will not be engaging for those who avoid the blasphemous, the sordid, the violent, the vulgar, the decrepit, the delusional, or the degenerate. It breeds maggots and stinks of cheap liquor. It hates a lot, although it loves just enough to bring fuel to that hatred.

Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism by Robert Gooding-Williams.

Gooding-Williams Zarathustra's Dionysian Modernism

Gooding-Williams offers an extremely thorough and considered reading of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. As the title indicates, he favors a modernist understanding that stresses an effort to innovate and progress beyond received intellectual and moral frameworks. He confronts and contradicts Paul de Man’s perlocutionary pessimism in the body of his text, while also providing extensive annotations that position Gooding-Williams’s conclusions relative to a vast field of secondary literature.

Throughout his analyses, Gooding-Williams emphasizes the ambivalence and doubt involved with Zarathustra’s aspirations (and thus Nietzsche’s ambitions). He offers the stutter as a key attribute of the text, with incomplete repetitions halting desired advances. And yet he brings out the persistently future-oriented aspect of Zarathustra’s project, along with Nietzsche’s desire to interrupt the repetition of an exhausted Platonic-Christian value system.

The analysis of the doctrine of eternal recurrence makes up a substantial portion of the study. Gooding-Williams helpfully proposes to distinguish among the different forms of recurrence as approached in the context of the “Three Metamorphoses” sketched at the outset of Zarathustra: thus the Camel’s idea of recurrence differs from that of the Lion, which is not the same as the Child’s idea of eternal recurrence. I found a similar disaggregation of the concept of “redemption” to be somewhat less clear–his jargon of redemption1, redemption2, etc. tended to get in the way of his meaning.

Overall, Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism provides an insightful and highly coherent approach to this monumental work of imaginative philosophy.

Max looks up the dark passage. “Tell Max what is there.” “I can’t. Or, I could, but you wouldn’t understand yet. You have to want to know. You have to make the choice yourself.”

Blake Crouch, Summer Frost

Hermetic quote Crouch Summer Frost choice

The Arcanum

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler.

Wheeler The Arcanum

The Arcanum is an occult thriller centered on historical personalities, and set in New York City, 1919. The team of protagonists are brought out of retirement following the assassination of the adept who had first organized them. The heroes themselves are portrayed with varying levels of fidelity to historical detail: Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, Marie Laveau, and H.P. Lovecraft. 

Of the four, Lovecraft gets the roughest handling from author Wheeler: the rationalist skeptic is represented as a credulous “demonologist.” This portrayal is in contrast with real HPL, who expressed his perspective in a letter to Robert E. Howard: “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.” (1932) Or his blunt remark in even earlier correspondence: “The Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE.”

In fact, the occultism of The Arcanum is very non-Lovecraftian; it is centered on a quasi-Biblical sort of Nephilim mythology of the sort often found in comic books or horror movies. Add a dash of Ghostbusters: the “Eltdown Shard” contraption that serves as a convenient demon-detector operated by HPL is made of steampunk fail: it is steam-powered and transistorized, and spits out little Matrix-like glyphs and symbols. The demons and angels which are so central to the story are haplessly corporeal creatures with no real whiff of externality about them. 

Naturally, a tale of the occult set in 1919 New York includes a few appearances by Aleister Crowley. The Beast isn’t exactly treated sympathetically, but he’s not really a cardinal villain either. To the extent that he is relevant, he actually helps the heroes. Wheeler makes Crowley tremendously intelligent and inscrutable, and the only misplaced details are the repetitive description of his “bulging eyes,” and people addressing him familiarly as “Aleister” (rather than “AC”).

This book is the first novel of an experienced screenwriter, and it certainly shows. Nothing in Wheeler’s text could not be done more efficiently and effectively on a screen. That applies especially to the train-centered chase episode near the book’s end! All of the supernatural elements are described as if to provide specs for effects engineers. Still, keeping to such conventions certainly makes the narrative accessible and fast-paced.

A Book of Surrealist Games

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Book of Surrealist Games compiled by Alastair Brotchie, edited by Mel Gooding.

Brotchie Gooding A Book of Surrealist Games

“[T]he game became a system, a method of research, a means of exaltation and stimulus, a mine, a treasure-trove and finally, perhaps, a drug.” –Simone Collinet (144)

In this very little volume, editor Mel Gooding describes and compiler Alastair Brotchie demonstrates the centrality of games to the Surrealist enterprise. An inventory of ludic methods indicate how texts, images, discursive events, and other objects are produced through the application of automatism, chance, and the absorption of individual efforts into transpersonal aggregates. 

The fourth of the four sections consists primarily of source notes and commentaries, and even includes a list of the “known” Surrealist games which are not represented among the recipes and samples in the collection. There are two useful bibliographies: one an abridgement of Kurt Seligman’s 1943 bibliography of Surrealist works (133), the other Brotchie’s own pointers for “Further Reading in English.” (164) In the very end of the volume, seven pages are occupied by “The Little Surrealist Dictionary.” 

A Book of Surrealist Games is admirably designed, with a built-in bookplate on the inside front cover, many black-and-white reproductions of Surrealist visual works, and portraits of key 20th-century Surrealists. The game instructions are in most cases perfectly lucid, and ready for practical application.

I had my own mantra: “Always look for the enchanted dildo.” It was one of those things that sounded wise if you didn’t over-think it.

Janus Lovecox, The Enchanted Dildo

Hermetic quote Lovecox The Enchanted Dildo mantra

In life there are wounds that, like leprosy, silently scrape at and consume the soul, in solitude

Sadegh Hedayat and Naveed Noori, The Blind Owl

Hermetic quote Hedayat Noori The Blind Owl wounds

Pasadena Babalon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pasadena Babalon by George D Morgan.

Morgan Pasadena Babalon

Pasadena Babalon is George Morgan’s 2009 dramatic depiction of the life of rocketry pioneer and occultist Jack Parsons. As such, it was preceded by the 47-minute Jet-Propelled Antichrist (2006) of Ackerman and DuQuette and followed by the ongoing Strange Angel (2018- ) television series of Mark Heyman. Pasadena Babalon debuted onstage at the California Institute of Technology in 2010, and my copy of the book represents the “12/15/2014 draft” of the script.

Most of the play’s characters are historical persons, and the fictional ones are carefully distinguished in the “character breakdown” prefaced to the text. Given the facts that Mason gets right and some of the emphases of his presentation, I suspect that he relied heavily on the 2005 Parsons biography Strange Angel by George Pendle. Like Pendle, Mason starts the story with the explosion in which Parsons died.

The play uses a few “FBI-ish” interrogation scenes with Jack as a suspected Communist to create narrative framing. One invented character is Madam B, a clairvoyant boarder at Parsons’ Pasadena mansion who supplies dramatic irony by accurately telling their fates to those she encounters. There are a few scenes with cleverly-written fugues and montages to represent such developments as the Arroyo Seco rocketry experiments and Jack’s stint at JPL. Another effective dramatic element consists of astral colloquies between Jack and and his spiritual father Crowley.

The script’s representations of Thelemic occultism are largely shallow and unpersuasive. Despite the mention of sex magick, Jack’s ritual praxis is reduced to chants in dog Latin more suited to Harry Potter. The repeated references to “the Babalon Goddess” are clinkers in Thelemic argot. Another is having Helen refer to “the Laws of Thelema.”

In my own reading, I was in part concerned to evaluate the text as a possible candidate for readers theater within a private study group. Ultimately, I decided that it would not serve this purpose well, in part because of the aforementioned fugues, and in part because of the extent to which visual staging elements are intrinsic to the presentation. I did find the read entertaining, and I certainly would go out of my way to attend a full staging of the play.

The Dionysian Vision of the World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dionysian Vision of the World by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, trans. Ira J Allen, introduction by Friedrich Ulfers.

Nietzsche Allen Ulfers The Dionysian Vision of the World

Die dionysische Weltanschauung” is an 1870 essay by Nietzsche, here translated by Ira J. Allen on the basis of the text published in 1928. Portions of it were incorporated wholesale into Nietzsche’s 1872 first book The Birth of Tragedy, and there are elements in it that foreshadow his later works such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I had expected that it might be more conventionally philological, a work of mere classicist erudition, but it already shows Nietzsche attempting to break with mainstream notions of language and psychology, and responding to Hegel and Schopenhauer regarding the nature of the Will and its relationship to things evident and existent.

The essay develops into a tight orbit around the notion of Ton (“tone,” tonos, etc.), carefully kept in view by the translator in his translation and notes alike. This edition uses s p a c i n g for emphasis, rather than bold or italics, as did the original text, and Allen relates this feature to the sense of “stretching” in tonos. The emphasis on the “Dionysian demand” of music (50) was doubtless related to Nietzsche’s involvement at the time with Richard and Cosima Wagner, and was further developed in The Birth of Tragedy.

Nietzsche’s strident philhellenism in this essay made an interesting contrast with another text I happened to read during the same interval: the prologue to Blake’s Milton, which conspicuously sides with Jerusalem over Athens. Of course, Blake was championing the spirit of prophecy in creative originality over against the derivative neo-classicism of his contemporaries. One might legitimately ascribe to Nietzsche a participation in the prophetic spirit as well, although not so plainly here as it came to be in his later works.

In addition to the translator’s forward and notes, this edition includes an interpretive introduction by Friedrich Ulfers that highlights Nietzsche’s engagement with Heraclitus, tacit in this essay but explicit in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. It also traces other important themes in the essay, any of which might be helpful to novice readers of Nietzsche.