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 Lucky Strike

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Lucky Strike by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Robinson The Lucky Strike

This slim book includes the eponymous novella “The Lucky Strike,” a closely-related essay “Sensitive Dependence on Initial Conditions,” and an interview with author Kim Stanley Robinson by Terry Bisson. I would totally recommend it as a chaser for anyone who has just finished Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt and can’t stop thinking about it. (Not that further ideas on those lines will stop anyone thinking.) The story and the essay deal with philosophy of history, and the evolving understanding of the relationship between chance and determinism, under the sign of non-linear dynamics and its “strange attractors,” as well as the relationship of all of this business to any understanding of free will.

The interview was entertaining, and reassured me that despite the prominence of Robinson’s scientific curiosity and social conscience, his ambitions as a writer are primarily literary. I especially enjoyed his angry rejoinder to those who object to the expository elements of his style: “go read Moby Dick, Dostoevsky, Garcia Marquez, Jameson, Bakhtin, Joyce, Sterne–learn a little bit about what fiction can do, and then come back to me when you’re done. That would be never, and I could go about my work in peace” (87).

Cry Silver Bells

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cry Silver Bells by Thomas Burnett Swann.

Swann Cry Silver Bells

I don’t know how I managed to miss the work of Thomas Burnett Swann for all these decades. Cry Silver Bells is the first novel of his I’ve read, and I liked it very much. It is set in ancient Crete, with the matter-of-fact inclusion of various Beasts (Swann’s capital) of ancient myth and fable, such as Harpies, Centaurs, Tritons, and Sphinxes. The title character is a Minotaur. Narration duties alternate between a young Egyptian exile (of Achaean descent) and a Dryad, but the book as a whole is really the Dryad’s story, with the human narrator just supplying a more familiar viewpoint and priming the reader to sympathize with the Dryad Zoe.

George Barr provided the cover art and a small handful of interior illustrations for the DAW paperback, and they are all quite nice. I don’t think it was just Barr’s art, though, that made me think this book would make a wonderful animated feature, although not a Disnified juvenile one by any means. Swann is frank about the erotic motives and activities of his ancient characters. There is a significant plot twist, but enough foreshadowing that an attentive reader will be prepared for a less-than-happy ending.

Cry Silver Bells is a short book, with some interpolated poetry (sung by various characters). The prose style is direct and lucid. I wouldn’t call the book especially edifying, but it was a pleasure to read. I will certainly read more by this author, who died of cancer in his late 40s when I was under ten years old. Although Cry Silver Bells is part of a trilogy (the first of the three in narrative chronology, the last in publication order), I have already acquired a copy of the standalone novel Moondust.

The Coming of the Terraphiles

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles, or Pirates of the Second Aethyr by Michael Moorcock.

Moorcock The Coming of the Terraphiles

Michael Moorcock’s Doctor Who novel has for its protagonists the eleventh Doctor (the one played by Matt Smith) and Amy Pond (but no Rory). The central characterizations are solid, but it doesn’t pick up much else from the Doctor Who narrative other than a couple of references to the Time War and the relatively amicable presence of some Judoon. On the other hand, as the subtitle Pirates of the Second Aethyr indicates, it does connect to Moorcock’s Eternal Champion hyperwork by means of Moorcock’s “Second Ether” trilogy–which I haven’t read. Jerry Cornelius puts in a guest appearance too. I’ve only read thirty or forty of Moorcock’s books, many of them several decades ago, and I felt sure I missed quite a few passing intertextual references.

The “Terraphiles” are fans of and competitors in the “Renaissance Tournaments” of the fifty-second millennium, which purport to revive the sports of Old Old Earth, albeit in a quite muddled and relatively unrecognizable form. There is talk about whether a “broadsword” should be more or less than three feet wide. One of the principal games involves cracking nuts with hammers. And there is a lot of archery, with arrows routinely caught by hand. Moorcock supplies just enough description of these events that I was completely stumped at attempting to visualize them. He did manage to communicate the pacing and drama of the competitions, however. The whole scenario of a far-future affection for a dimly perceived human past also put me a bit in mind of some of my favorite Moorcock books, the “End of Time” series, as well as a number of Doctor Who episodes in which interstellar humanity have distorted understandings of their history.

In The Coming of the Terraphiles, the multiverse is imperiled by the “black tides” unleashed by a defect of the Cosmic Balance. It needs a component restored to it, and the Doctor is sure that it is connected with the Silver Arrow of Artemis that serves as the trophy for the recurrent galactic Terraphile championships. The Doctor joins the Gentlemen, a Terraphile sporting team, in order to travel with them to the grand tournament. . . . . . . . . . . . . (spoilers – hover over to reveal) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This book wasn’t entirely silly, but it was certainly silly enough. Moorcock didn’t let down Doctor Who, nor did he mess up his own sprawling metatext. Still, I wouldn’t suggest it as an introduction to either. It’s the sort of indulgence that a veteran author should be permitted, but one that really needs an experienced fan to appreciate.

The Labyrinth Index

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross.

Stross The Labyrinth Index

“We fight on so that something that remembers being human might survive.” (199)

The ninth of the Laundry Files novels allegedly begins a new plot arc, and it does conspicuously shift focus to characters that have previously been more peripheral to the series. But its enjoyment is still highly dependent on prior familiarity with the concepts and broad narrative that Stross has worked up in the previous volumes. Some exposition in the opening chapter is pitched just about right for returning junkies like me, who haven’t had a fix since The Delirium Brief was published a year earlier, but it’s not sufficient to ramp up real appreciation for the setting and character motivations here.

Without serious spoilering, since all of this is clear in the opening chapter, I can say that this book delivered two unexpected features right off. First, the narrating character switches to Mhari Murphy, who was introduced in the very first book, but has never before occupied the role of storyteller-diarist. Second, most of The Labyrinth Index takes place in the United States. I doubt Charles Stross has read The Last Days of Christ the Vampire (and I’m not sure whatever became of my copy, read back in the 1980s), but there are some interesting points of conceptual contact between the two books.

As a commentary on the current state of American politics, the Stross novel is a bit oblique. In the contemporary Laundryverse USA under conditions of ongoing Nazgul-based coup, it is magically forbidden to think of the American Presidency, whereas in the “real” Trumplandia it is required that we think about it all the time. In any case, he still manages to highlight the extent to which the Imperial Presidency of the 21st century has all of the power and most of the institutional and cultural vices of an actual monarchy.

It was no surprise that I wolfed this book down in a couple of days. The story is consistent with the level of increased gloom established in the immediately previous volume, and it is dedicated to the author’s father, who seems to have died while it was being written. The bleakness is not completely unrelenting, though. As usual, there is some real wit in the writing, and in the end the state of affairs is not markedly worse than the beginning. Indeed, under some definitions of the word, the book would qualify as a “comedy.”

The Ear of the Other

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation by Jacques Derrida.

Derrida The Ear of the Other

The Ear of the Other is a heterogeneous mix of texts treating the themes of ears, texts, translation, reflection, and gender. The foremost of the component documents is a Derrida lecture entitled “Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name.” All by itself, this 35 pages would have been worth the trouble of the book. It is in some ways a sequel to Derrida’s other treatment of Nietzsche in Spurs, but “the Teaching of Nietzsche” refers not only to what Nietzsche taught, but also to the event of Nietzsche’s work being taught by others. The context of Nietzsche’s reception by “the Nazi ideologues” is expressly confronted here. The chief Nietzsche text serving as a point of orientation is Ecce Homo, and its “otobiographical” elements serve to create their author more than vice versa, at least as I understand Derrida’s exposition of the conundrum.

Derrida had given the lecture at a 1979 conference at the University of Montreal, and the following parts of the book consist of transcripts from two subsequent “roundtable” discussions at the same conference, organized respectively around the themes of autobiography and translation. The various scholars in dialogue with Derrida in these sessions basically offer mini-lectures to which he responds at length. So much is this the case that each has its own title: Claude Lévesque offers “That Incredible Terrible Thing Which Was Not” on the autobiography topic, for example, and Christie McDonald’s piece on translation is called “The Passage into Philosophy.”

The book ends with a substantial correspondence interview of Derrida by McDonald from 1981, entitled “Choreographies.” The interview is especially helpful, in that it helps to supply a bridge between Spurs and “Otobiographies.” It also revisits “the Teaching of Nietzsche” in the form of Derrida’s subversively sexualizing readings of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche.

In both the interview and the roundtables there is a great deal of reference to Derrida’s earlier works, such as The Postcard and Glas. There is also some discussion of Derrida’s relationship to the term “deconstruction,” which had come to serve as a general label for his work, outside of his own intention for it. On the whole, there is a real sense of retrospection in this book, as contrasted with some later Derrida volumes that seem to make fewer demands on the reader for familiarity with Derrida’s oeuvre. This book is not an auspicious point of entry into Derrida’s ideas, but it does contain some powerful and revealing developments of them.

Thelema

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Thelema: An Introduction to the Life, Work & Philosophy of Aleister Crowley by Hermetic Library Fellow Colin D Campbell.

Campbell Thelema

As the title says, this book is an “Introduction” to Thelemic teachings and practices. It assumes no previous knowledge on the reader’s part, and offers only a primer-level treatment of its topics. It is clear and fairly comprehensive, however. Grizzled veterans of Thelemic magick will no doubt find nits to pick, but this book also gets some things correct that are often misrepresented in other books for beginners (e.g. the sequence of the N.O.X. signs). The prose style is informal on the whole, and the book does a respectable job of making its subject matter accessible to an uninformed readership.

The first sixty pages or so consist of a biography of Aleister Crowley, which is fair enough but has only its relative brevity to recommend it in comparison to others available. A major part on “philosophy” follows, and then finally one on practices. At the end of each short section throughout the book, author Campbell makes recommendations for further study, which are prudent and helpful in a book of this sort. These are usually focused on primary sources written by Crowley or his predecessors.

This book, like many of its type, includes an unauthorized version of the full text of Crowley’s Gnostic Mass, which while common, I don’t think is a great favor to the beginning student, and it comes off seeming like it’s “padding” the author’s own text. I would rather have seen a brief explanation of the often-misunderstood relationship between EGC and OTO, and Campbell’s own (admittedly non-authoritative) take on the purposes of the Gnostic Mass in practice. At the book’s end, he refers interested readers to the legacy institutions of Crowley’s Thelema: OTO and A∴A∴ He gives a nod to the contemporary dilemma of competing A∴A∴ representative-claimants and lists addresses for two of them.

The cover of the trade paperback edition is quite attractive, and combined with its affordable price, I suspect that Campbell’s Thelema may become a point of entry for curious young readers exploring modern occultism. They could certainly do worse. Its reasonable advocacy and rather undemanding exposition would suit it to shelving in public libraries, as far as I’m concerned.

Boneshaker

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Boneshaker: A Novel of the Clockwork Century by Cherie Priest.

Priest Boneshaker

I noted the positive press regarding Boneshaker when it first came out, and I had meant to get around to reading it at some point. Almost a decade later, I tipped my daughter off to it, since she was developing an interest in steampunk. She read it and liked it a lot, and so insisted that I read it in my turn. Set in the late 19th century, it concerns a woman pursuing her runaway son into a walled-off Seattle, Washington full of poison gas and zombies.

It was all right, but I don’t know that I’ll go on to the sequels. The basic adventure story, exploring the ruined city and meeting its denizens, was just fine. Airship battles are fun, but I’m not terribly entertained by zombie swarms. The plot resolution with its final reveal was pretty satisfying, and made sense out of some of the protagonist’s earlier behavior. While the author apologizes for/defends her historical and geographic inaccuracies in an appended note, nevertheless I think that the story might offer extra enjoyment for those more familiar with the 21st-century city of Seattle.

I got the impression that the story as originally drafted may have started more in media res, but that the preliminary exposition was grafted on in order to accommodate a less sophisticated readership. On the other hand, the whole book has more than a little YA about it, and that may just have been the plan all along. I guess I can see why this book is considered exemplary in its sub-genre, but it wasn’t such a stand-out read for me.

On the Secret Teachings and the Hidden Mythos

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gnostic Notebook: Volume Five: On the Secret Teachings and the Hidden Mythos by Timothy James Lambert.

Lambert On the Secret Teachings and the Hidden Mythos

Reviewed on the basis of a complimentary copy from the author. (Nevertheless, this review contains only my usual biases.)

Although the jacket copy refers to a forthcoming “new book” from Timothy James Lambert, this fifth volume of The Gnostic Notebook appears to be the final book of that project. It does successfully take up all sorts of esoteric threads that were left lying in the earlier volumes, in service here to Lambert’s distinctive exegesis of the synoptic gospels, and concluding the discussion of the seven chief parables which has extended through the series. On the Secret Teachings and the Hidden Mythos is structured very much like its immediate predecessor On the Fruit of Knowledge and the Precession of the Ages, moving on from ancient Hebrew scripture to the Greek tales of Jesus. As before, at least half of the book’s text is direct quotation from various translations of the Bible.

An important concept relatively latent in the earlier books, but brought out in great relief early in this volume, is the notion of centuries-long human “breeding programs” among the ancient Hebrews, engineered by a sometimes-secretive goddess cult. The impression provided is something like a cross between the Bene Gesserit of Dune and the Cirinists of Cerebus. This background motivates an intriguing comparative study of the gospel genealogies of Jesus.

One of Lambert’s hermeneutic idiosyncrasies is an insistence on aggregating similarly named but customarily distinct characters of the Gospels. Many Marys are collapsed into one, just as there can be only one Simon, one John, and so forth. The narrative consequences of these identifications tend to be startling, to say the least. Those familiar with Gnostic scriptures should enjoy the solutions offered here for the origins of Christian baptism, the removal of the head of John, and other enigmas. The application of logion 13 from the Gospel of Thomas to clarify the Transfiguration is a clever approach, although I did not find Lambert’s explanation of logion 13 itself to be as compelling as the one that I have received through initiated sources. (“Lord, you are like the most discreet and perceptive bartender.”)

A “Conclusion” sums up Lambert’s between-the-lines revision of the gospel story in a mere three pages! If he were to revisit the material of this book in a different style, presenting it as a straightforward but detailed story in which his readings were made obvious (rather than the long Bible quotes with often obliquely hinting interpretive expositions of the Notebook series), I think it would be more accessible, and at least as likely to blow the minds of any readers with conventional orientations to the Bible. There could be a Gnostic Gospel of Timothy James perhaps, maybe with a supplementary Secret Book of Timothy James to cover his version of key Hebrew scriptures.

Lambert professes disinterest in establishing facts about an objective historical Jesus. He is instead supplying a provocative variant reading of the biblical texts, undertaking what Ioan Couliano characterized in The Tree of Gnosis as a characteristically Gnostic activity of creative misprision with respect to scripture. Lambert neither proves nor even claims that he is in receipt of any perspective authoritatively transmitted outside of the texts, but the work demonstrated in these books shows that the Bible can still support the sort of hair-raising doctrinal experimentation found among the ancient Gnostics.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker.

Pinsker Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea

This collection of Sarah Pinsker’s stories includes several with a minimum of near-future speculation, set in the likely advances of technology and the unraveling of our civilization. There are a few outright fantasies riffing on established mythemes: golem, sirens, costumed superheroine. There is one story set on an interstellar generation ship, and one is a locked-room murder mystery at an inter-dimensional hotel conference.

Pinsker is a musician, and this attribute is key to several of her protagonists, particularly in the longer stories. The murder mystery “And Then There Were (N-One)” has the author’s identity reflected into the prohibitive majority of its many characters, and thus may serve as an allegory of her writing process. The emotional richness of her stories must be a projective result of introspection. In the generation ship story “Wind Will Rove,” music serves as an emblem of the complex relationship between cultural continuity and creativity.

The focus on the moral dilemmas of characters in transformed worlds was central to many of these stories. “Remembery Day” is one I could easily imagine being written by James Morrow. Although there is a recurrent sense of whimsy, all of these stories are within reach of a deep vein of sadness. I was especially impressed with the piece “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” for the way that it managed to evoke a positive emotional tone at the end of a tale of sorrow compounded through reminiscence.

On the whole, this is an admirable assortment of stories. I think they will speak powerfully to any intelligent reader, not just genre fans.

The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse by Elaine K Gazda.

Gazda The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

I borrowed this book as a byproduct of a failed library search for Vittorio Macchioro’s Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii (1931). The Villa of the Mysteries: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse turns out to be a collection of scholarship organized around an exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the autumn of the year 2000, including a full exhibit catalog. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a set of watercolor reproductions of the frescoes from Room V of the Villa of the Mysteries, commissioned from Italian artist Maria Borosso in the 1920s. In addition to related antiquities, the show included work by contemporary artists inspired by the murals of the Villa.

The Villa of the Mysteries is on the outskirts of Pompeii, and was a relatively late archaeological find, coming to light only in 1909. The impressive paintings on the walls of Room V have a hieratic quality and appear to be related to some sort of mystery cult. A conspicuous central figure is evidently Bucchus (a.k.a. Liber or Dionysus), although the female figure with whom he is paired has been partly effaced, and there is little agreement on whether she is meant to represent Semele, Ariadne, Aphrodite/Venus, or even an initiand of the rite being depicted. Several of the papers in this collection are concerned to supply a more focused historical context in first century B.C.E. Campania for the interpretation of the ancient images. Others are concerned to enter the discussion about the actual function of Room V within the Villa. There are also studies of women’s roles in classical mystery cults, imitation and artistic originality in the frescoes, and the modern reception of these works.

Most useful to me were a set of three papers treating the general state of knowledge regarding the ancient Roman cults of Bacchus. Especially informative was Elizabeth de Grummond’s “Bacchic Imagery and Cult Practice in Roman Italy,” which uses archaeological and art historical resources in efforts to understand the operation of the ancient religion. De Grummond reproduces a table of titles taken from a roster of over three hundred cult personnel engraved into a plinth at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I found quite illuminating.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed the actual exhibit immensely, but I probably learned more by means of my relatively quick read of this volume.