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 Spiritual Life of Children

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Spiritual Life of Children [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Robert Coles.

Coles The Spiritual Life of Children

Child psychiatrist and author Coles strongly identifies himself with a liberal humanitarian ethic, which isn’t what draws me to his work. In fact, it’s part of what defeated an earlier attempt of mine to read a different book by him, The Call of Service. Even so, I held out hope that The Spiritual Life of Children would be an entertaining and/or informative read for me, since it purports to offer intimate accounts of the religious and spiritual perspectives of children aged six to thirteen, a range which includes my own daughter at its lower end. While the book did have some value for me, it was mostly disappointing. 

In the end, it seemed like the book was really about Robert Coles: how he negotiated his condition as a secular, skeptically-conditioned intellectual vis a vis pious and spiritually curious children. I did not object to (enjoyed, actually) the first chapter on the vexed and shifting status of the psychoanalytic tradition’s judgments about religion. Similarly, I appreciated the authorial reflexivity in the second chapter on method, describing his conflicts, hesitancies, and difficulties in eliciting children’s real views on matters important to them. But that matter became an unceasing refrain throughout the book while recounting his interviews with children, e.g. “I began thinking of some words to speak…” (50), “I found myself wondering…” (102), “I gave myself an inward lecture…” (214), “Now I felt impelled to speak” (282). Perhaps this mode of reportage is an inevitable byproduct of Coles’ psychoanalytic orientation, but I got seriously tired of it.

Also, despite Coles’ evident efforts to devote attention–entire chapters, even–to Jewish, Muslim, and vaguely secular children (plus one Hopi girl), there were far too many pages dedicated to kids talking on and on about Jesus. Certainly, this is no invalidation of the book relative to its likely readership. But while I was once a Christian child myself, Christian children are something I neither have nor want, and so their clearly dominant presence in the book became another source of fatigue for me as a reader. 

In his effort to focus on “spirituality not religion,” Coles avoided any substantial discussion about children’s experiences of religious ritual or worship, and only glancingly addressed the issue of religious instruction. At the same time, all of the accounts in the book were overtly circumscribed by the religious affiliation (or lack thereof) of the children involved. The omission of their ceremonial and catechumenal lives was a significant loss, as far as I was concerned.

I didn’t regret holding on for the final chapters, one on “Secular Soul-Searching” and the last on “The Child as Pilgrim.” These had some of the more interesting conversations, as well as more general applicability to my own situation. The endnotes are constructed to direct readers to a wider range of texts that engage some of the important questions that could only receive passing attention in this one, and there may be two or three books there that I will pursue.

The “music of decline” had sounded, as in that wonderful Chinese fable; like a thrumming bass on the organ its reverberations faded slowly out over decades; its throbbing could be heard in the corruption of the schools, periodicals, and universities, in melancholia and insanity among those artists and critics who could still be taken seriously; it raged as untrammeled and amateurish overproduction in all the arts.

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Hesse Glass  Bead Game music decline sounded over decades corruption schools periodicals universities melancholia insanity artists critics raged all arts

The Sacrament of Language

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Adam Kotsko.

Agamben Kotsko The Sacrament of Language

I have no prior orientation to the larger Homo Sacer project of Giorgio Agamben, in which The Sacrament of Language constitutes part II.3, and it might be argued that this brief text–a mere 72 pages in Adam Kotsko’s translation from the Italian–should have been published with other sections in order to justify its standing as an independent volume. But the topic, sufficiently attractive to get me to read this book, does stand on its own, and Agamben’s treatment is fascinating, albeit distinctly chewy

Rather than accepting the centuries-long tradition of viewing the oath as a rhetorical artifact of a primitive “magico-religious” culture, Agamben insists that the discursive spheres of religion and law were themselves produced by reactions to an essential experience of the oath, which he characterizes as “verediction.” (57) Although unremarked as such by Agamben, this state is also the point of departure for “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable” in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: “I, Plato, am the truth.”

The Sacrament of Language is crucially concerned with the coeval origins of law and religion; it contemplates the tripartite anatomy of the oath as invocation, affirmation, and curse; it details the relationship of the oath to the archaic functions of [con]sacratio and devotio; and it presents the oath and blasphemy as the two sides of a single coin. The theological observations of the book should be of great interest to Thelemites: among other interesting notes about pagan and Abrahamic religions, Agamben references Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas regarding the deity (qui es) invoked in the original anthem of the Gnostic Mass (53).

The supposed context for this entire discussion of the Archaeology of the Oath is a claim advanced by Paolo Prodi in a 1992 work (Il sacramento del potere) that recent generations of the West are participating in “the irreversible decline of the oath” (1). In the final sections of Agamben’s book, he outlines a scenario in which the postmodern condition dissolves the substance of Western ethics, and he proposes “philosophy” as the locus of instruction regarding our possible escape from the dilemma. I certainly appreciate and recommend his speculative philosophy, but it will be in vain unless it is seized by ones who are in fact consecrated and devoted, and put to use in the operative philosophy better known as magick.

In its simplest form, actions performed for no measurable reason, or contrary to linear logic, might indicate such underlying motives as love or friendship or trust. But great care had to be exercised, because identical actions could derive from hate, insanity, or blackmail. Moreover, in the case of love, the nature of the action seldom helps to identify its motivational impulse. Particularly difficult is separating love from blackmail.

Trevanian, Shibumi: A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Trevanian Shibumi action no reason contrary linear logic love friendship trust identical actions hate insanity blackmail