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.

The Last London

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Last London: True Fictions from an Unreal City by Iain Sinclair

Sinclair The Last London

I know I once read, and I suppose it may still be true, that London is the most surveilled city in the world, based on the number of CCTV cameras per person. An awareness of this reality is one of many that hovers in the margins of Iain Sinclair’s Last London, but the lines of the pages are Sinclair’s own indefatigable observation, overhearing, trailing, tailing, and cultural auditing, as he orbits through Olympicopolis, “Shardenfreude,” and a variety of other psychogeographical states and locales. The text combines his own stream-of-consciousness flâneur experiences with kledomancy, graffiti transcription and exegesis, literary anecdote and gossip, and historical research.

In the 1925 story “He,” H.P. Lovecraft wrote of New York City “the unwhisperable secret of secrets—the fact that this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life.” In the twenty-first century New York’s unlife has since spread to cities throughout the United States, and through the neoliberal metastases of capital it now spans the world, infecting even the London and Paris that Lovecraft used to supply a contrasting sense of durable urban vitality. (Not that HPL himself ever visited either city.) Arriving at this conclusion independently, Sinclair seeks in this book to preserve his observations of the “last London” as it succumbs to the virus.

The press of gentrification, speculative property redevelopment, and globalized real estate investment all contribute to the sense of expiration here. It’s the sterility and expropriation that are so fatal, not the decay and mutation. The book’s not sad, though. “I love it,” Sinclair writes of the “panoramic edgeland vista” he encounters in his effort to walk to Barking, under the spectre of the US Presidential election of Donald Trump (241). The final chapter is festive in a manner that might take less artistic people 20 to 40 micrograms to achieve. Also notable throughout is Sinclair’s network of fellow creatives, who accompany him and serve as rests, termini, and haunters of his walks. 

Many allusions to contemporary literature, politics, business, and so on are made at a rapid pace with little assistance to the reader’s comprehension. I guess that’s what search engines are for, when it seems important. The book is longish for its style, but Sinclair’s elliptical rants and musings all add up to a worthwhile read. He’s an author I’ve been curious about for many years, and I’m glad to have finally gotten around to reading this very current work.

The Mystery of Numbers

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mystery of Numbers by Annemarie Schimmel.

Schimmel The Mystery of Numbers

The Mystery of Numbers was developed by Annemarie Schimmel from an earlier text in German by Franz Carl Endres. Presumably, Schimmel’s version (for publisher Ulf Diedrichs) was originally in German also. No translator is credited here, but Miriam Rosen was the editor, whether in English or German is unclear. Schimmel uses “components” (e.g. on page 14) to mean factors, which is a little confusing in US mathematical idiom, and possibly an artifact of translation from German. German folklore and poetry does loom a little large in a book that on the whole makes serious efforts to be a wide-ranging cross-cultural survey. 

There are seven chapters of “Introduction” discussing the history of number systems and evolution of number symbolism. Generally, depth is sacrificed for breadth, in an effort to touch on systems throughout Western history, and also in Asia and pre-Columbian America. The historical essays are followed by “A Little Dictionary of Numbers,” organized in numerical order starting at 1. The highest value to receive an entry is 10,000, but even below 50, many numbers significant to me are not represented with their own articles, such as 23, 31, 34, and 44. 

On the whole, the book is a decent introduction to its topic, and it can be a useful supplement to other more specialized treatments.

Death’s Master

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Death’s Master by Tanith Lee.

Lee Death's Master

This second of Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth novels is very good, but not as cover-to-cover amazing as the first. The hectic fabulism of the previous book slows down to a pace more similar to Lee’s earlier novels, such as The Birthgrave. Azhrarn, the demon monarch of Night’s Master, is still important in this book anchored by his peer Lord of Darkness Uhlume, who is Death himself. The real protagonists of the book, though, are the ambiguous heroes Zhirem and Simmu. 

My favorite part was probably the wonderfully-imagined undersea adventure of Zhirem, well toward the end of the book.

Anyone who destroys more than he creates must be miserable beyond expression. Question what you see by all means, but believe in something first.

Ramsey Campbell, Demons by Daylight

Hermetic quote Campbell Demons believe

In Bad Faith

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With The Opium Of The People by Andrew Levine.

Levine In Bad Faith

Andrew Levine not only supports what scholars of religion call the “secularization hypothesis,” according to which religions are in a gradual and global state of social decline, but he also subscribes to what one might term a secularization agenda: approving that decline and hoping that it proceeds swiftly. In this brief volume, he traces a line of investigation through a set of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Continental thinkers: Feuerbach, Durkheim, Nietzsche, and Freud. The question at issue for these four presumes the falsehood of conventional religion, and seeks to understand why it persists. 

Although I was in many respects entertained by and sympathetic to the treatment of the nineteenth-century figures, there was little new to me here. The one point in this book where I actually felt I was getting some fresh education was in Levine’s history of the emergence of liberal Judaism (175-180). This passage was set within a more general chapter on “The Liberal Turn” that provides accounts of liberalizing developments in Protestantism, Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam. 

The focus is exclusively on the European history of religion, along with its radiation to colonial and post-colonial environments. The book has nothing useful to say about Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, or other religions outside of the “Abrahamic” traditions. At several points it offers and uses an explanation of Deism that seems to make theism a specialization of the more general Deist principles (20, 130). While this might be a way of characterizing their relationship in the logical space of theology (with credit to Ioan Culianu for that paradigm), it is misleading in terms of their genealogy and intellectual history. The Deist creed–to which hardly anyone any longer subscribes as such–was an early effort at liberalizing Western religion, a fact which is obscured in this book where it ought to be highlighted. 

Categorically hostile to religion, Levine is willing to dismiss all mystical experience as pathology. In this, I think he errs. For example, he takes drug-based instances of religious ecstasy as demonstrating that mystical raptures generally have “no cognitive import” (120). The fact (supported by drug evidence) is that mystical experience is not theologically probative. However, the similarities and interplay between religious and psychopharmaceutical phenomena are worth more serious consideration. Ethnobotanical theories of religious origins are not trivial, and lie well beyond the Feuerbachian and Freudian concepts of god-formation. 

The moral of Levine’s story is that full secularization–the extinction of religion–is needed and inevitable, but may not come soon enough. The engaging and somewhat ironic dimension of his analysis is that the liberalized religious communities will be the hardest to break of their delusions, weak tea though they may be. Liberalism may serve as a vaccine against the godlessness needed to achieve human freedom.

Unfortunately, it is human nature to seek simple solutions to complex problems, and when a “solution” is found that is not immediately disastrous, it is often embraced with enthusiasm far outstripping its actual merit.

Robert Kroese, Starship Grifters

Hermetic quote Kroese Grifters solutions

It is hard, in fact, not to imagine the Angelic Conversations as a kind of Elizabethan sitcom—the records are as much a comedy of errors as they are fearsome divine revelation, with Dee and Kelley gossiping around their scrying board, angels drifting through the room and sternly lecturing them, political intrigues, an annoyed Elizabeth hovering, and walk-on bits from demons and European nobles, all set against the backdrop of the imminent Eschaton.

Jason Louv, The Angelic Reformation: John Dee, Enochian Magick & the Occult Roots of Empire

Hermetic quote Louv Reformation sitcom