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.

Don’t Hide the Madness

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Don’t Hide the Madness: William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg by William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, edited by Steven Taylor; due October 16th from Three Rooms Press.

I like the title of this book, but it’s not really transparent to the volume’s content. More lucid choices might have been The Exorcism of William S. Burroughs, or Old Beatniks with Guns, or most accurately Reminiscing and Cat Fancying with Bill and Al. It’s a carefully edited full transcript of about sixteenBurroughs Ginsberg Taylor Don't Hide the Madness hours of conversation between William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, at Burroughs’ place in Kansas over the course of four days in March 1992. The Naked Lunch movie release in England and Japan was the impetus for an “interview” that grew into the more relaxed-yet-ambitious project of capturing the conversations in this book, as sponsored by the London Observer magazine. Within the text, this circumstance isn’t mentioned until two days and over one hundred transcript pages into the visit, and it only occupies the foreground of a single conversational session. The transcripts were prepared from the tapes and edited by musician Steven Taylor, who had been working as Ginsberg’s assistant and a contributor to his performances.

Burroughs was pleased by Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, so that forms a focus for some of the discussion. During the course of Ginsberg’s visit, the two of them and some friends go to a local screening of the movie. Another principal activity is a brief trip to fire a few of Burroughs’ guns. But probably the most significant event during the visit was Burroughs undergoing an exorcism of the “Ugly Spirit” (so identified by Brion Gysin) that Burroughs believed had been responsible for making him shoot his wife to death in Mexico in 1951. The exorcism was performed by a Native American shaman named Melvin Betsellie. Discussion often returns to the health concerns of the two men. They review various mutual acquaintances and old experiences, and discuss a number of literary figures and social scenes. Occasionally one will read out loud from a book or an article, and Ginsberg and Burroughs both recite poems from memory. Burroughs very frequently breaks off to address himself affectionately to one of his six cats.

The lack of an index is disappointing in a book that is practically an orgy of name-dropping, and includes a fair amount of trivial conversational context. Some topical metadata to reference persons discussed are in Ginsberg’s synopses of the tapes, used as chapter headers and reproduced in the table of contents. But if you want to find the four mentions of Harry Smith for instance, you’ll just have to read right through. Likewise, a key to the abbreviations used for attributing speech would be very helpful. WSB and AG are obvious enough, but identifying the other speakers from their abbreviations may require careful reading of the editor’s introduction and the synopses. I was reading an advance review copy (via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program), so either or both of these failings of the editorial apparatus might be addressed in the actual first edition.

The cover art by R. Crumb is a lovely portrait of the two men, and there are some black-and-white photos of Burroughs taken by Ginsberg on the weekend of the conversation, along with some other photos of the men that are not credited.

I enjoyed this read, and it renewed my interest in reading some of Burroughs’ later novels. It’s definitely a book for someone who can bring to it an existing appreciation for Burroughs, at least. The reader also needs an ability to savor the conversational minutiae of old men, or failing that, some talent for skimming.

“No, Billy, Lucifer Morningstar is my true and given name.”

“That’s rough,” Billy says. “Hippie parents?”

“Not exactly.”

Jeremy P Bushnell, The Weirdness: A Novel

Hermetic quote Bushnell Weirdness hippie

Mephisto

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mephisto by Klaus Mann.

Mann Mephisto

Klaus Mann’s Mephisto is a roman à clef written in 1936 and covering a period of about a decade in Germany leading up to that point, during the ascendance of Nazi power. It furnishes a vivid picture of the times and a withering assessment of the integrity of those who “adapted themselves” to tyranny.

The story is centered on Mann’s onetime theatrical collaborator and former brother-in-law Gustaf Gründgens, under the name “Hendrik Höfgen.” Höfgen is a success in Hamburg and then achieves celebrity in Berlin. When the Nazis come to rule, he worries about his past of left-wing sentiments and associations, but after some adroit and unscrupulous networking, he wins the favor of Hermann Göring, eventually becoming the head of the German National Theater under the Nazis. This character arc does not reflect well on the memory of Gründgens, whose estate successfully sued to keep the book banned from publication in Germany for several decades.

Höfgen (like Gründgens) won great acclaim for his Berlin portrayal of Mephistopheles in Faust, but the novel presents him as being subjected to the dilemma of Faust himself–though without the heroism given to the sorcerer by Goethe. “The fat general” Göring effectively serves as the devil of the pact, supplying Höfgen with fame, power, and wealth, to be paid for by forfeiting his conscience and his liberty.

The book is not just a portrait of Gründgens, however. Although Mann seems to have written himself entirely out of the story, his sister appears as Barbara Bruckner, and many of the characters in Hamburg are drawn with such clarity that I’m sure they were based on actual acquaintances of Mann’s. The actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr was certainly inspired by Pamela Wedekind, to whom Mann was at one point affianced. A curious feature of the text is complete circumspection regarding the names of the Nazi chiefs: Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels, who all appear in the course of the story, are identified only by their roles, titles, and attributes.

Also removed from the story is the homosexual element in the milieu on which it was based. Mann was himself gay, and consensus has it that Gründgens was as well. So Höfgen’s disloyalty to socialism has as its further subtext a betrayal of the gay subculture of 1920s Germany. Mephisto does supply Höfgen with a sexual vulnerability, though, in the form of the black dominatrix Juliette who is his guilty secret beginning in the earliest passages of the novel.

Already in 1936, Mann was very aware of the official violence of the Nazis. He was able to write of concentration camps and the wide supposition of death camps, as well as political prisoners tortured to death. He knew, and “Höfgen” knew, but they took different courses in response. In the twenty-first century, Americans know that we have a government that has tortured people to death, one whose uniformed agents kill with impunity unarmed “suspects,” and one that imprisons a greater number and portion of our people than in any other society past or present. What courses will we take in response? Can we avoid the doom that the reader now sees hanging over the Germany of Mann’s novel?

Delusion’s Master

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

Lee Delusion's Master

The titular character of Delusion’s Master is Chuz, Prince of Madness, but as with the previous two Tales of the Flat Earth books by Tanith Lee, it is the demon lord Azhrarn who is the power at the heart of the story as much as any. The pacing and structure of this volume of the series is closer to the first (that entirely revolved around Azhrarn) than it is to the second book Death’s Master. Again, Azhrarn allows himself to love a mortal, this time with very different consequences.

This book is brimming over with narratives. Lee riffs on legends and folklore from the Tower of Babel to Rumpelstiltskin. There are background tales for various characters (though not for Prince Chuz) and for particular locations. My favorite part of the book might have been the little digressive story of the origin of cats (155-7).

I will be sure to read the remaining two books of this series.

Muelos

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Muelos: A Stone Age Superstition About Sexuality by Weston La Barre.

La Barre Muelos

Although American psychological anthropologist Weston La Barre doesn’t reference their work, he is clearly advancing the tradition of the 19th-century phallicist scholars of religion. The title of his monograph Muelos is a Greek word for “marrow,” referencing a single substance in primitive physiological thought, the pith or spunk, which is cerebro-spinal fluid, semen, and bone marrow alike, supposed to be the material basis of vital generation. Although this book is short, it displays an impressive diachronic arc throughout the existence of the human species to the present from the paleolithic–and even earlier, when he speculates that cerebrophagous Australopithecene erectus may have had “the belief that semen is held in the head” (131).

As the author emphasizes from the outset, the ubiquity of the ideas that he’s treating here is notable only in combination with their empirical falsity. He proposes that they be considered an archosis–the term formed by analogy to “neurosis” and “psychosis”–an inherited pathology of cultural ideation. This particular archosis is supposedly responsible for anti-sexual moralities, but also for tribal headhunting, Platonic philosophy, and Hindu Tantrism. The connections are not as far-fetched as may at first appear.

The twentieth century’s premier sex magician Aleister Crowley set himself overtly against latter-day manifestations of this archosis, writing that “The misunderstanding of sex, the ignorant fear like a fog, the ignorant lust like a miasma, these things have done more to keep back humanity from realization of itself, and from intelligent cooperation with its destiny, than any other dozen things put together” (commentary on CCXX I:52), and in the same passage specifically opposing the perennial idea of muelos as finite capital: “But physiology informs us that we are bound to waste it, no matter what be our continence, so long as we are liable to sleep; and Nature, whether by precaution or by prodigality, provides us with so great an excess of the substance that the reproduction of the human race need not slacken, though the proportion of men to women were no more than 3 to the 1000.”

And yet the complex of notions and forms connected with the muelos archosis are themselves unflaggingly efficacious instruments of magick: the sacred head, the mysticism of the spine, the cult of the genius, the leverage of the general ideal over the particular phenomenon, the worship of the sun, and many others. Indeed, the “fiery talisman” is not itself a superstition, but rather the object of superstitious claims–errors in biological and metaphysical understanding alike. Nor should we assume that our current knowledge has exhausted its mystery. Lege! Judica! Tace!

Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner.

Cooke Conner Before Watchmen Minutemen Silk Spectre

This volume collects two of the Before Watchmen series that DC commissioned and published against the wishes of Watchmen author Alan Moore. The first series is the six-issue Minutemen, chronicling the WWII-era predecessors to the Watchmen, and the second is four numbers of Silk Spectre, with a story about Laurie Jupiter in the 1960s. Darwyn Cooke serves as auteur for Minutemen, both writing and drawing throughout, and he gets a co-writer credit on the Silk Spectre issues by Amanda Conner. I wasn’t interested in the individual issues when they were on comic shop shelves about five years ago, but curiosity got the better of me when I saw this book at the public library.

The opening of Minutemen is clever and effective. Cooke imitates Moore’s portentous voice and the panel designs from Watchmen (i.e. stacked full-width panels, with a repeating geometric motif–in this case the centered circle that turns out to be a clock), only to pull the perspective back and reveal Hollis Mason (the original Nite Owl) frustrated with his own prose style as he composes his memoirs. That breaks the tension and assuages the anxiety of influence so that Cooke can get down to work telling a story that really does share the ethos of Watchmen in exploring the interactions of deeply flawed costumed vigilantes and their efforts to work together as a team. Cooke’s visual characterizations are very different than those of Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, but still suited to the material.

I was not as pleased with the shorter Silk Spectre story. It has Laurie running away from home and going to San Francisco to fall in with the sixties counterculture. It cast Owsley Stanley as a villain, collaborating to use hallucinogenic mind-control to re-instill materialistic consumerism in hippies. Neither Laurie nor her mother Sally were especially likable characters–the general approach of highlighting their personal flaws seemed to backfire here. I did enjoy Amanda Conner’s art, though. It has a polished 21st-century comics ambiance, and she did excellent work depicting the retro-psychedelic subject matter.

Taboo

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Taboo A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Sævius Nicanor, with Prolegomena, Notes, and a Preliminary Memoir by James Branch Cabell

Cabell Taboo

Cabell’s novel Jurgen was the subject of an obscenity case brought in 1919 by Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, then headed by John H. Sumner. After two years of highly-publicized trial, the court found in favor of the defendants, Cabell and his publisher Robert M. McBride and Company. In 1921, McBride published a short work by Cabell in hardcover. This book Taboo: A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Saevius Nicanor was dedicated to Sumner, with the claim that the notoriety conferred by the prosecution had rescued Cabell’s commercial prospects as a writer. He called Sumner a “philanthropic sorcerer” whose “thaumaturgy” had not only generated public interest in Jurgen, but resurrected prospects for the author’s other books (11-13). The hilarious little story of Taboo is set in the country of Philistia where it is the height of indecency to speak of eating, and a writer is accused of the “very shameless mention of a sword and a spear and a staff,” culpable since “one has but to write ‘a fork’ here, in the place of each of these offensive weapons, and the reference to eating is plain” (26).

The sword and spear and staff were in reference to Chapter 22 of Jurgen, “As to a Veil They Broke,” which Cabell had in large measure lifted from the Gnostic Mass of Aleister Crowley, and Cabell also mentioned these weapons in his later “Judging of King Jurgen” episode, where the tumblebug Philistine prosecutor indicted Jurgen as “indecent for reasons of which a description would be objectionable to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal to anybody.”

The entirety of Taboo is an attack on hypocritical pearl-clutching regarding sex. Its satire is constructed around a conceit in which eating (a human activity no more essential than sex, if perhaps more frequent) receives the sort of conversational proscription that Cabell’s contemporaries sought to impose on sex. Still, an appreciative reader must admit that such constraints led Cabell to write some very entertaining prose. These are not limited to the absurdities of Taboo and the literature around Jurgen, and they include the clever and hilarious encounters with the cult of the Holy Nose of Lytreia and that of the shaggy goddess Koleos Koleros in Something About Eve.

Anthony Comstock figures in the tale as “St. Anthony Koprologos” and Sumner is himself “John the Scavanger.” The set-upon protagonist of Taboo is not Jurgen but the Cabell alter-ego Horvendile, whose writings are “suspected of encroachment upon gastronomy” (30). Throughout the text, the reader may profit further by converting references to eating back into references to sex, for another, more familiar-seeming, but still equally absurd story.

Even though it concludes with a lament for the persistence of moralistic censorship, Taboo was a very amusing victory lap for Cabell and McBride.

The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano and the Cabbala by Perle Epstein.

Epstein The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry

Since its publication in 1969, Perle Epstein’s book-length study The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano and the Cabbala has served as a point of reference for scholars interested in Lowry’s cabbalistic ideas. Unfortunately, she barely touches on the works of Lowry’s cabbalistic instructor Charles Stansfeld Jones, and she fails to discuss the aspects that made him distinctive as a cabbalist.

The one book by Jones that Epstein refers to by name in the body of her text is The Anatomy of the Body of God, and this book she painfully mis-characterizes as dealing “primarily with forecasting and manipulating the course of world events” (100). The only political language in Jones’ entire book is in the course of the last few pages, which include an exhortation to “those in whose charge is the Civil destiny of the Nations,” among other potential readers. There is no discussion of any sort of divination or prediction, regarding world events or otherwise. The Anatomy of the Body of God is in fact concerned primarily (and almost exclusively) with the geometric aspects of the diagram of the Tree of Life, its projection in scale and dimension, and the symbolic corollaries of Jones’ innovations in this regard, applied to alphabetic and numerical correspondences.

Epstein does devote a fair amount of attention to drawing a line between Jewish cabbalistic traditions and their Christian and hermetic derivatives, in order to point out that Jones and by extension Lowry were in the latter camp (14-44). (William H. New calls this section of Epstein’s book “factual, earnest and flat.”) But perhaps even more significant than the religious and doctrinal differences that distinguish what Epstein calls “The Two Cabbalas,” is the epistemological divide between these expressions of traditional mysticism and the modern hermetic cabbala of Jones and his instructor Aleister Crowley. For such Thelemic cabbalists, the purpose of the elaborate system of the Tree and the Paths is to afford heuristics by which any and all knowledge can be interrelated, with extrapolations to higher states of consciousness. Accordingly, it needs to be personalized with reference to individual experience in order to function.

This idea that the cabbala is a set of generic conventions to hold individualized contents accords quite well with Lowry’s description of the Consul’s ability to “dodge about in the rigging of the Cabbala like a St. Jago’s monkey.” It also accounts for the manner in which Lowry was able to seize on Jones’ cabbala as a mechanism for literary composition. It is, however, at odds with Epstein’s reading of the Volcano as employing a “Christian Cabbala” as a set of codified (if haphazardly syncretized) doctrines under symbolic coverings. To the extent that mystical doctrines are included in Lowry’s Volcano, they are Thelemic ones about the Adventure of the Abyss and the Black Brothers, alien to Epstein’s learning. Although she notices Lowry’s attention to black and white magicians, her explanation of that distinction (8) cites no authority and provides no clarity.

(My own study of Lowry’s cabbalism and his relationship to Charles Stansfeld Jones can be found under the title “Bizarre Sons” in the volume Success Is Your Proof.)