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.

Magic was just something people liked to believe in, something they thought they could feel or sense, something that made everything more than just mechanical certainty. Something that made them more than flesh and bone.

C Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust

Hermetic quote Cargill Sea of Rust more than flesh and bone

The Natural History of Religion

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Natural History of Religion by David Hume.

Hume The Natural History of Religion

Hume’s Natural History of Religion is an early foray into comparative religious studies. As a professed partisan of “genuine Theism and Religion” (21), Hume shows his own implicit theological orientation to be an unsurprising Enlightenment Deism. The “natural history” element of his account emphasizes what he understood to be the chronological priority of polytheism to (mono-) theism, and the general rooting of religious behavior and identity in relatively base fears and appetites.

As editor H.E. Root notes, Hume’s primary historical data are rather incomplete and under-interpreted from the perspective of more recent studies of the same questions. His overall polemical fabric, is, however, nicely woven. While giving greater theological credit to the theists (evidently the Abrahamic religions), he also notes that their loftier virtues are reflected in more significant vices than pagan polytheists ever exhibited. The second major arc of the text is a series of comparisons between polytheism and theism on the counts of “Persecution and Toleration,” “courage or abasement,” “reason or absurdity,” and “Doubt or Conviction.” In this sequence of short chapters, the illustrations grow more and more amusing, climaxing with a series of jokes about the Eucharist in the question of “Doubt or Conviction” (55-7).

After the sets of comparisons, Hume moves on to a pox on both houses section, in which he castigates religions generally on grounds of “impious conceptions of the divine nature” and “bad influence on morality.” These are the most contentious chapters, and likely the ones that especially earned the alarm and reprobation of his contemporaries. But they are soundly argued.

In his “Editor’s Introduction,” Root understands the final gesture of Hume’s text to be one proposing that philosophy be a “substitute for religion” (20). But Root had already observed that Hume “did not believe that religion was a ‘primary’ constituent of human nature” (14) and thus it was in no need of a substitute if philosophers or others were to turn away from it. Root also neglects the intellectual history of the centuries leading up to Hume, in which theology and philosophy were often construed as mutually antagonistic efforts. An empiricist such as Hume could not help but be a partisan of philosophy in this contest, and such partisanship was perhaps the motive guiding this entire text.

Prophet Against Empire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Blake: Prophet Against Empire by David V Erdman.

Erdman Blake

Psychologizing and spiritualizing critics of William Blake’s prophecies have generally taken their giants and fairies as subsisting outside of the continuum of political and social history. At best, they have (like Northrop Frye) allowed a cultural context and a distinctive position in intellectual history for these sui generis and highly opaque texts. Erdman’s Prophet Against Empire is an impressive and effective effort to provide the immediate and evolving political context of Blake’s work as “a poet’s interpretation of the history of his own times.” It was first published in 1954, and the copy I read is the significantly revised and expanded second edition of 1969.

Many sections of Prophet Against Empire were somewhat illuminating to me for their picture of English history generally. Erdman observes some popular support in England for the American Revolution, with a significant presence of republican and anti-imperialist sentiment among the urban working classes. Even passing into Blake’s early 19th century, the militarism of the English government, the neglect of the laboring classes, and the suppression of dissent were themes that seemed up to the minute for 21st-century Imperial US-Americans.

Erdman treats Blake’s entire lifespan, visiting in its course the authorship of all the prophecies, and I read these in tandem with Erdman’s book. While it is certainly true that these texts do have spiritual and psychological dimensions beyond their political enthusiasms, I think it would be a loss to overlook, and a crime to ignore, the palpable political statements they contain.

The full significance of Blake’s “mythological” figures may shift and revolve through the course of the different prophecies, but Erdman persuaded me of such passing identities as Rintrah for William Pitt (202 etc.), Theotormon for John Stedman (230-33), Tharmas for Thomas Paine (298-301), Palamabron for Parliament (424-26), and so forth. The analysis here does not reduce the prophecies tout court to political allegories, but it lays bare the political roots and motives of different figures and tropes as part of the artistic whole, and no incidental part at that.

Decades later, when the eminent historian E.P. Thompson came to write his study of antinomian religion in Blake, he praised Erdman’s prior work to the extent that “On the directly political themes I have (no doubt to the surprise of some readers) little to add” (Witness Against the Beast, xiii). I doubt that Blake: Prophet Against Empire can be much appreciated without a firsthand experience of Blake’s prophecies. But anyone who has that experience can benefit tremendously from Erdmans’ research and conclusions.

the poetry of transgression is also knowledge. He who transgresses not only breaks a rule. He goes somewhere that the others are not; and he knows something the others don’t know.

Georges Bataille, Story of the Eye

Hermetic Quote Bataille Story of the Eye transgression

A Case of Conscience

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Case of Conscience by James Blish.

Blish A Case of Conscience

Although it was the first to be written, author Blish classed his A Case of Conscience as the third of a trilogy. It is the third in terms of chronological setting, although the three do not have a continuous plot, and the mid-21st-century A Case of Conscience could not, in fact, follow after the events described in the 20th-century Devil’s Day. The three books of the trilogy are joined by theme, rather than plot. They each enigmatically address the question of whether “secular knowledge” leads inevitably toward supernatural evil. 

As a piece of thoughtful Golden Age science fiction, A Case of Conscience includes what now stands as an alternate history for the second half of the 20th century. Blish projected a “shelter economy” in which the threat of nuclear war drove all the wealthier countries literally underground, creating an economically committed but psycho-socially unsustainable troglodyte civilization composed of city-states under a UN aegis.

But the core dilemma of the book has to do with humanity’s first contact with an alien intelligence. FTL interstellar travel has been recently invented, and the exoplanet of Lithia has been found to harbor a race of intelligent bipedal reptiloids with utopian social and material harmony, and no god-notions at all. The principal characters of the novel are the four members of the first exploratory team to Lithia, to which is added the Lithian Egtverchi, brought back to Earth as an egg. More than half of the narrative centers on the Jesuit exo-biologist Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez.

There are two plot arcs in the book, with the first taking place on Lithia, and the second on Earth. The Lithian part–culminating in the joint decision of the exploratory team regarding future human relations with Lithia–was originally a stand-alone short story, and many reviewers seem to prefer it, and to be uncomfortable with the transition to the second arc. The second part is to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as King Kong is to Tarzan

The most artful feature of the novel is an ending that ties both plot arcs together, and justifies the supernaturalist dogmas of the Jesuit father without violating the materialist presuppositions of the other characters. Ultimately, though, no matter how sympathetically drawn Ruiz-Sanchez might be, I found his intricately stabilized doctrines to be unsound, and ludicrously based on an unwarranted privileging of humanity, to say nothing of their wrongheaded affirmation of what Jan Assman calls the Mosaic distinction, elevated this time to the far reaches of outer space.

The Great Game

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Scarlet Traces: The Great Game by Ian Edginton, illustrated by D’Israeli.

Edginton  D'Israeli Scarlet Traces The Great Game

This sequel to Scarlet Traces is more conclusive and satisfying than the original. In this volume, the Earth-Mars war (or more accurately, the British-Martian war) reaches its climax. Two characters–a hero and a villain–from the first volume provide continuity of plot as well as setting. The protagonist in The Great Game is a woman photojournalist, who infiltrates an interplanetary military expedition in order to find out what’s really happening on the Martian front. The art is consistent with the first volume, although artist d’Israeli has gone all in for CGI modeling techniques in the interim, with rewarding results for architecture, spaceship design, and so forth. Particularly in the final sections of the story, it seemed like the facial expressions of shock and horror got really extreme.

And the Ass Saw the Angel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave.

Cave And The Ass Saw The Angel

I’ve encountered few narrators more unreliable than Euchrid Eucrow, the principal voice of And the Ass Saw the Angel. He’s a congenital mute who is able to recount his first minutes of life at the age of 28. He claims divine inspiration far more often than he indicates the manner of its onset. He is unschooled and untraveled, yet he exhibits a wide and erudite diction, not to mention a striking ear for poetry; but if you can suspend your disbelief for that much, he is a treat to read–trenchant, funny, and ugly-beautiful. 

Plot-wise, there’s not much to commend here. Euchrid tells his whole life story, and the circumstances of his death are gradually illuminated by it. An omniscient third-person narrator provides a meager diet of supplementary details from outside Euchrid’s knowledge. The book’s epilogue is an obvious necessity, just covering the last open patch on the canvas that the story occupies. 

The religious themes of the book are provocative and intense. God is behind everything, and theologies of different depths are offered by the opportunist preacher Abie Poe, the Ukulite sect that founded and runs the town, and Euchrid himself. There are a handful of mystical experiences, although meteorological phenomena are God’s loudest voice.

This novel will not be engaging for those who avoid the blasphemous, the sordid, the violent, the vulgar, the decrepit, the delusional, or the degenerate. It breeds maggots and stinks of cheap liquor. It hates a lot, although it loves just enough to bring fuel to that hatred.

Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism by Robert Gooding-Williams.

Gooding-Williams Zarathustra's Dionysian Modernism

Gooding-Williams offers an extremely thorough and considered reading of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. As the title indicates, he favors a modernist understanding that stresses an effort to innovate and progress beyond received intellectual and moral frameworks. He confronts and contradicts Paul de Man’s perlocutionary pessimism in the body of his text, while also providing extensive annotations that position Gooding-Williams’s conclusions relative to a vast field of secondary literature.

Throughout his analyses, Gooding-Williams emphasizes the ambivalence and doubt involved with Zarathustra’s aspirations (and thus Nietzsche’s ambitions). He offers the stutter as a key attribute of the text, with incomplete repetitions halting desired advances. And yet he brings out the persistently future-oriented aspect of Zarathustra’s project, along with Nietzsche’s desire to interrupt the repetition of an exhausted Platonic-Christian value system.

The analysis of the doctrine of eternal recurrence makes up a substantial portion of the study. Gooding-Williams helpfully proposes to distinguish among the different forms of recurrence as approached in the context of the “Three Metamorphoses” sketched at the outset of Zarathustra: thus the Camel’s idea of recurrence differs from that of the Lion, which is not the same as the Child’s idea of eternal recurrence. I found a similar disaggregation of the concept of “redemption” to be somewhat less clear–his jargon of redemption1, redemption2, etc. tended to get in the way of his meaning.

Overall, Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism provides an insightful and highly coherent approach to this monumental work of imaginative philosophy.

Max looks up the dark passage. “Tell Max what is there.” “I can’t. Or, I could, but you wouldn’t understand yet. You have to want to know. You have to make the choice yourself.”

Blake Crouch, Summer Frost

Hermetic quote Crouch Summer Frost choice