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.

Out From Boneville

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith.

Smith Out from Boneville

I was recently surprised to find Bone mentioned among a list of indispensable comics works in Neil Gaiman’s introduction to The Best of the Spirit. Remarking this fact to my Other Reader in a local comics shop, along with the circumstance that I had never read Bone and hadn’t ever had it personally recommended to me, multiple store personnel, overhearing, piped up that they followed the title themselves and recommended it strongly. So, now I’ve finished the collection of the first six issues from the early 1990s, and I did enjoy it. It was somewhat different from my expectations. 

Given its origins as a black-and-white underground comic, along with the art style and presentation of the covers, I was expecting something like the early issues of Dave Sim’s Cerebus (at that point a Conan parody featuring an aardvark), and in fact protagonist Fone Bone bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Cerebus as drawn in Sim’s later work. But as I read the Bone comics, I was most reminded of the work of Charles M. Schulz. It was as if the writer/artist of Peanuts at the height of his powers had decided to undertake a fantasy epic. The pacing of the dialogue, the facial expressiveness of the characters, the telescoping of major events into the gutter between two panels, all showed the sort of technique that I associate with Schulz’s best work. 

This first volume introduces a robust set of characters, and sets a dramatic tableau, but it does not complete a plot arc. I’m sure I’ll read at least one more collection.

Nietzsche and the Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche and the Gods edited by Weaver Santaniello, foreword by John J Stuhr.

Santaniello Stuhr Nietzsche and the Gods

Nietzsche and the Gods is a pleasantly diverse assortment of eleven papers on religious themes in Nietzsche’s writing. Editor Santaniello has divided the papers according to religious tradition: Judaism, Hellenic paganism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Although all of these pieces are informed by considerable scholarship, some of them are rather dispassionate analyses, and others are out-and-out sermons for which Nietzsche is the exemplum (positive or negative), while most fall somewhere in between. All but three of the papers (the ones by Sallis, Parkes, and Tillich) are original with this volume.

The two papers in the Judaism section are quite different from one another. Tim Murphy offers an thorough and accessible examination of Nietzsche’s evaluations of Judaism. But the Wyschogrod and Hood paper examining Nietzsche’s influence on the mature work of Martin Buber is extremely recondite, to the point where I wondered if they weren’t “playing” the reader with their post-modern theological erudition.

Unsurprisingly, about half of the section on “The Greek Gods” is given over to discussion of The Birth of Tragedy. It is the primary object of study in John Sallis’ “Shining Apollo,” as well as half of the issue in Lawrence Hatab’s analysis of “Nietzschean Expressions of the Sacred.” But I found more value in Weaver Santaniello’s own “Socrates as the Ugliest Murderer of God,” one of the shortest papers in the collection. 

Both of the papers in the Buddhism section emphasize congruities between Nietzsche’s views and the scholars’ understandings of actual Buddhism, as distinguished from Nietzsche’s largely Schopenhauer-based ideas about Buddhism. From a Thelemic perspective, I was especially interested in the weight placed on horticultural metaphor in both Nietzsche’s writing and the Buddhist sources referenced by Robert Morrison. Graham Parkes’ comparative discussion is oriented to overcome not only Nietzsche’s misunderstandings of Buddhism, but also American preconceptions about Zen–which Parkes faults for being informed by the Soto tradition to the exclusion of the more Nietzschean Rinzai strain.

The most generally useful of the papers in the Christianity section is Thomas Brobjer’s study of Nietzsche’s evolving relationship with Christianity prior to his final overtly anti-Christian phase. Brobjer carefully combs published and unpublished writings, while deflecting Nietzsche’s later anti-Christian reconstructions of his earlier motives. I was rather disappointed in Jerry Clegg’s paper regarding “Nietzsche on Pistis versus Gnosis“; I found its wholesale collapse of Will to Power and Will to Truth into the respective terms of the pistis-gnosis dialectic to be insufficiently substantiated. Paul Tillich’s “Escape from God” was surprisingly palatable to me. I’m not sold on the closeness of the kinship between Luther and Nietzsche offered by Tillich, but his readings of Nietzsche are fair, and his evident aim in this piece is to use Nietzsche’s thoughts in the tempering and refinement of an existentialist theology over and against the “sin of religion.” 

There is only one paper in the final section on Islam, and I was fairly nonplussed by this piece on “The Consequences of Atheism” by pious Sufi Henry Bayman. While acknowledging Nietzsche’s genius, Bayman chiefly construes him as a culprit in what he sees as the apocalyptically disastrous faithlessness of modernity, as well as a Faustian demonstration of the atheist’s comeuppance. 

Overall, I found this book to offer a great amount of material for reflection, both in connection with the study of Nietzsche’s work, and in the general philosophy of the religious traditions at issue. The impressive variety of the contents should assure readers with corresponding interests that at least a couple of pieces will amount to highly informative reads.

Nietzsche

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche by Lou Salomé, translated and edited by Siegfried Mandel.

Salomé Mandel Nietzsche

This book is principally a 1988 translation of Lou Salome’s Friedrich Nietzsche in seinen Werken (“Friedrich Nietzsche in His Works,” 1894). The original text is one of the earliest pieces of scholarship on Nietzsche, but is curiously hybridized with elements of memoir, since Salome was a personal student of Nietzsche’s during his late “formerly professor, and now a wandering fugitive” phase of work. This circumstance, amplified by Nietzsche’s affection for her (he proposed a marriage which she declined) entitles her to a certain privileged perspective on the ideas of a thinker whose paradoxical core involved a vigorous interplay of the objective and the idiosyncratic. “Unforgettable for me are those hours in which he first confided to me his secret, whose inevitable fulfillment and validation he anticipated with shudders.” (130)

Salome identifies “the conflict between the need for God and the compulsive need to deny God” as the cornerstone of Nietzsche’s struggle, which made him into a “sacrificial animal,” the remains of which were then “a dual figure–half-sick and suffering; half-saved, a laughing and superior human.” (89) In all of this, however, she surprisingly takes him to have missed his destiny rather than realized it. Writing of the break with Wagner and Nietzsche’s academic resignation, she remarks, “One cannot escape the feeling that the greatness reserved for him passed him by.” (56)

Translator Siegfried Mandel provides a lengthy introduction, focused on a late-20th-century appreciation of Nietzsche’s biography, both prior to and during his association with Salome. In particular, Mandel takes some pains to arrive at conclusions about Nietzsche’s sexual identity and experiences. Mandel also repudiates the allegations that Nietzsche was syphilitic, and works to dissociate the actual man from the rumors that helped to inspire Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus. (xli)

The translation leaves out many of Salome’s original annotations, a considerable portion of which consisted solely of extensive quotes from Nietzsche’s published works. But Mandel also reinserts [in brackets] some omitted language in correspondence reproduced within Salome’s text. Mandel’s own endnotes are largely explanatory, and imply that he is addressing himself to a readership with little prior familiarity with Nietzsche. Indeed, as a basic introduction to Nietzsche’s thought, the book is serviceable, although its peculiar perspective and unique judgments also give it great interest to those who have already studied Nietzsche at length.

50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship by Salvador Dalí, trans. Haakon M Chevalier.

Dali Chevalier 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship

This book on magical methods was justifiably recommended by O.T.O. Frater Superior Hymenaeus Beta for the study of Thelemic occultists. Although many of the secrets concern pigments and paintings, the most important of them have to do with perception, imagination, and discipline, and will be useful in any art, including sorcery. 

The economical Dover edition even retains the original color plates, moving them to the inside covers; and of course the book is full of wonderful black and white illustrations by the author.

Glory Road

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Glory Road by Robert A Heinlein.

Heinlein Glory Road

Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) was certainly his most read and most influential novel. The one that followed next, Glory Road (1963), was perhaps his least. In terms of basic literary substance and quality, it represented no slackening on his part, but it fell afoul of a genre-oriented readership that expected Science Fiction from a writer who had done as much as anyone to define the form in the mid-20th century. Instead, Glory Road most nearly approximates heroic fantasy, albeit in a subversive manner consistent with the Cabellesque, satirical inclinations already on display in Stranger in a Strange Land.

If it were to be given a Cabell-style subtitle, Glory Road might well have been called “A Comedy of Vocation.” Heinlein’s not-thoroughly-sympathetic protagonist “Easy” Gordon is a young US army veteran of the “police action” in Southeast Asia. As he is trying to sort out his future, it seems as if he might have a winning sweepstakes ticket that will put him through college. It turns out that he himself is a winning ticket (a.k.a. “hero”) for a sorceress from another dimension who needs his help to reclaim an invaluable artifact from a hostile world. So roughly the first two thirds of the book is the gradual disclosure and accomplishment of this quest for the “Egg of the Phoenix.”

But the final third of the book is far too much for a “happily ever after,” and even exceeds what might be classed as a denouement. In this structural respect, as in several others, the book reminded me of Fleming’s Casino Royale from about a decade earlier. (Substitute fencing for baccarat in this case.) Gordon discovers that being a “retired hero” does not suit him, and that having achieved greater rewards and higher luxury than he could have possibly imagined, he is dissatisfied without work to suit his character. The resolution of this dilemma, complicated through personal relationships and extradimensional migration, is the concern of the final arc of the story.

Like Stranger, Glory Road is sure to offend some 21st-century shallow readers who want to collapse the sexual prejudices of its protagonist onto its author–despite the protagonist overcoming some of those prejudices, and despite the story upending a variety of gender preconceptions within both the ‘fairy tale’ and ‘fantasy adventure’ paradigms. A few of Heinlein’s personal fetishes (sexual or otherwise) are likely on display, but these are gestures I wouldn’t begrudge any author. An epigram from George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra is the first instance of a leitmotif regarding cultural difference and moral relativism that is sounded throughout the book, not just in the later sections that portray the social commerce of a multiverse.

But “cultural pluralism” (as it is called in the Samuel Delany essay about the book appended to my 2004 Tor edition) is not the central conundrum of the book. As noted before, it is about the necessity of finding and cleaving to a calling, despite convention, cowardice, and any sort of distracting appetite. Gordon discovers what is needful in order to do that one thing which is the true purpose of his sojourn, and that makes him a hero.

The Origin of Satan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics by Elaine Pagels.

Pagels The Origin of Satan

Elaine Pagels’ Origin of Satan has surprisingly little to say about Satan as such. She notes in her introduction that she doesn’t intend to enter the crowded field of existing scholarship regarding the cultural, symbolic, literary and psychological genealogies of Satan (xviii). Her ambition instead is to examine the social motives and consequences of the Satan figure in the formation of ideas in early Christianity and related movements. The way she pursues this goal is by using Satan’s appearance in Hebrew apocalypses and apocrypha, Christian gospels, and patriarchal writings as an index of enmity. The identification of Satan with particular figures in these literatures allows Pagels to trace the self-definition of Christianity by its opposition to Jews, pagans, and heretics.

She starts with the context of the imperial war in Palestine at the start of the Christian era, highlighting the objectively surprising fact that the Romans do not appear as the chief villains in the Gospel of Mark. Her interpretive work on the four canonical gospels accounts for about half of the book, and serves to adumbrate the development of Christian identities within, against, and in lieu of Judaism. Naturally, these same scriptural facts account for the intractability of anti-Semitism in subsequent Christian history.

Pagels writes of the four gospels that “everyone who interprets the texts has to sort out the tradition to some extent, and to reconstruct, however provisionally, what may have happened, and correspondingly, what each evangelist added, and for what reasons” (94). She’s wrong here. It’s not at all necessary to identify a factual model when interpreting and evaluating parallel (or reiterated) narratives. Pagels is obviously comfortable with the notion that the Christian Satan is a product of mythopoeia. Why wouldn’t this be the case of his opponent Jesus, who is defined within the same literature–and who, in the earliest texts, appears just as vaporous and metaphysical as Satan or the Essene Prince of Light? Pagels is quite evidently a Liberal Christian, who needs a “real Jesus” to buttress her interpretations, and she demonstrates this shortcoming in the conclusion of the book, where she invokes this character as a teacher of reconciliation and an explicit and overriding alternative to a champion in the fight against evil powers.

The sections of the book that I found most rewarding were the chapters on paganism and Gnosticism. Despite my familiarity with the subject matter, there were any number of new details and realizations prompted by viewing the material through this lens. These two sets of enemies are the stigmata of key developments in Christianity: the shift from radicalism to establishment and the formation of orthodoxy. The account of Tertullian’s promotion of mental heat death is as mortifying as the picture of Valentinian heresiarchy is inspiring.

The Origin of Satan is a short book in a popular style (albeit with scholarly end-notes and references to more academic works). I enjoyed it, but I learned less from it than I had from the author’s earlier work Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Both books have similar scopes and concerns in the effort to relate early Christian teachings to social problems at a profound historical level. Considering how quickly they read, they are both worth the bother.

Religion and the Decline of Magic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England by Keith Thomas.

Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic

Although scholarly interest in the topic has only increased in the subsequent decades, Religion and the Decline of Magic has not become obsolete. It is a voluminous history of magic in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, with particular attention to its social and religious context. The style is that of a sort of old-fashioned documentary history, with copious references to primary and near-primary sources.

The first sections of the book establish the context, with an empirical attitude and a lot of careful observation. Author Keith Thomas weighs issues of elite and popular cultures, as well as Catholic, Protestant, and dissenting religion. He notes, “The conventional distinction between a prayer and a spell seems to have been first hammered out, not by the nineteenth-century anthropologists, with whom it is usually associated, but by sixteenth-century Protestant theologians” (69).

General areas of inquiry within “magic” for this book include healing, prophecy, astrology, ghosts, fairies, omens, and witchcraft. A large section towards the end provides a thorough summation of the English witch-craze, how it differed from its Continental counterpart, and how it subsided. Thomas is no fan of Murray-style theories of pagan survival for the witchcraft of this period. His analysis also shows up how accused witches’ subaltern status and their justified ressentiment of those they had supposedly hexed were considered culpable in the theory that defined and indicted them.

Thomas observes that skepticism about magic was never entirely absent, even while larger cultural trends saw its credit wax and wane. The Elizabethan period seems to have been part of a long peak of magical operation in the early modern era. But “By 1655 Meric Causabon could go so far as to declare that every case of religious ecstasy was no more than ‘a degree and species of epilepsy'” (172). The “decline” that began in the 17th century hit its nadir in the 18th, and the modern occultism of our contemporary world had its practical origins in the 19th, a larger course that Thomas treats briefly in his final chapters.

Those final chapters include an analysis in which he concludes that magic was not, in fact, made obsolete by scientific and technological achievement. On the contrary, there was a shift toward naturalistic explanation and against magic that preceded the significant advances of experimental science, and may have helped to make them possible. The shift in mentality may well have been a byproduct of the religious conflicts of the age. “Many post-Reformation writers busied themselves establishing the criteria by which one might distinguish a divine intimation from a diabolical imposture or the effects of indigestion” (151). Ultimately, systematization of efforts to “test the spirits” may have led to their banishment from intellectual culture.

This book is big–about 800 pages of expository, academic prose–and it took me a long while to read it all the way through, as it had to compete with an assortment of other current reading projects. At many points during my read, though, I was reminded of two works of fiction. The Aegypt cycle of John Crowley (where Thomas is one of several historians credited with influence in a prefatory note) is a tale about the decline of magic that evokes parallels between the 17th century described by Thomas and the demise of the 20th-century counterculture. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a story about a spectacular rebirth of magic immediately following the historical decline outlined by Thomas. Readers who enjoyed either of those could find a lot to engage them in the manifold details of this factual account.