Against the Day

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Against the Day

On finishing my read of Against the Day, I believe I have read all of Thomas Pynchon’s published fiction–all his books, anyway: the novels and the Slow Learner collection. This one took two attempts: I halted the first circa 2007 at the midpoint of the novel, and I returned to read the whole thing this year. Straddling the 19th and 20th centuries, I think it is Pynchon’s longest book. It descends from a rarified world of “boys’ adventure” in airships, through anarchist struggle, family revenge, state espionage, sexual compulsion, academic intrigue, and mystical conspiracy, to meditations on light, number, and time.

It is strange that my first attempt at this book was while I was living in Chicago, and my second has been in Colorado. It begins in Chicago at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and several characters travel from Chicago to Colorado–while Colorado is also the disseminating point for the Traverse family, whose various members trace many of the book’s persistent plot threads. Ultimately, the geography of the book is all-encompassing, featuring London, Venice, Vienna, Mexico, Shambahla, and the Hollow Earth, among other locations. It includes a typically Pynchonian cast of thousands, with names like Ruperta Chirpingdon-Groin and Bevis Moistleigh.

The title phrase appears several times in the text, each with a different contextually-driven meaning. In addition to these, I understood it to be an Englishing of contre jour: the technique of giving focus to a backlit subject in photography and painting. This notion relates to inventor-character Merle Rideout’s photographic career with its through-line intersecting both the early and late parts of the novel, and to the physics of light that is centered in many different passages, as well as the sense of opaque futurity in the lead up to the Great War and the subsequent totalitarianisms of the 20th century.

As always, Pynchon is very funny, littering the book with jokes to take the edge off of a palpable anger. Among the many digressive episodes, some exalt genre conventions from less “literary” species of fiction, such as the terrific weird horror passage recounted by the explorer Fleetwood Vibe (138-148). Sex is frequent enough in the early parts of the book, and somewhat surprisingly seems to increase in the later ones. Altered states of consciousness and metaphysical indeterminacy create ambiguities and introduce unreliability into the third-person omniscient narration.

Some quick notes regarding my “completed” and iterative consumption of Pynchon’s works (in no particular order): Having read Inherent Vice I saw the movie during its initial release, and I think Gravity’s Rainbow needs to inspire a grand piece of musical theater. V is at the top of my list of Pynchon to re-read. I have now read Mason & Dixon twice and Against the Day one-and-a-half times–they were each worth it.

But those people, they were killing America. They were killing the dream. They were all the Constitution this and the Constitution that. But they cherished only the parts they liked. They didn’t feel it extended to us.

C Robert Cargill, Sea of Rust

Hermetic quote Cargill Sea of Rust killing the dream

Out From Boneville

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Out From Boneville by Jeff Smith.

Smith Out from Boneville

I was recently surprised to find Bone mentioned among a list of indispensable comics works in Neil Gaiman’s introduction to The Best of the Spirit. Remarking this fact to my Other Reader in a local comics shop, along with the circumstance that I had never read Bone and hadn’t ever had it personally recommended to me, multiple store personnel, overhearing, piped up that they followed the title themselves and recommended it strongly. So, now I’ve finished the collection of the first six issues from the early 1990s, and I did enjoy it. It was somewhat different from my expectations. 

Given its origins as a black-and-white underground comic, along with the art style and presentation of the covers, I was expecting something like the early issues of Dave Sim’s Cerebus (at that point a Conan parody featuring an aardvark), and in fact protagonist Fone Bone bears more than a passing resemblance to the young Cerebus as drawn in Sim’s later work. But as I read the Bone comics, I was most reminded of the work of Charles M. Schulz. It was as if the writer/artist of Peanuts at the height of his powers had decided to undertake a fantasy epic. The pacing of the dialogue, the facial expressiveness of the characters, the telescoping of major events into the gutter between two panels, all showed the sort of technique that I associate with Schulz’s best work. 

This first volume introduces a robust set of characters, and sets a dramatic tableau, but it does not complete a plot arc. I’m sure I’ll read at least one more collection.

Nietzsche and the Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche and the Gods edited by Weaver Santaniello, foreword by John J Stuhr.

Santaniello Stuhr Nietzsche and the Gods

Nietzsche and the Gods is a pleasantly diverse assortment of eleven papers on religious themes in Nietzsche’s writing. Editor Santaniello has divided the papers according to religious tradition: Judaism, Hellenic paganism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Although all of these pieces are informed by considerable scholarship, some of them are rather dispassionate analyses, and others are out-and-out sermons for which Nietzsche is the exemplum (positive or negative), while most fall somewhere in between. All but three of the papers (the ones by Sallis, Parkes, and Tillich) are original with this volume.

The two papers in the Judaism section are quite different from one another. Tim Murphy offers an thorough and accessible examination of Nietzsche’s evaluations of Judaism. But the Wyschogrod and Hood paper examining Nietzsche’s influence on the mature work of Martin Buber is extremely recondite, to the point where I wondered if they weren’t “playing” the reader with their post-modern theological erudition.

Unsurprisingly, about half of the section on “The Greek Gods” is given over to discussion of The Birth of Tragedy. It is the primary object of study in John Sallis’ “Shining Apollo,” as well as half of the issue in Lawrence Hatab’s analysis of “Nietzschean Expressions of the Sacred.” But I found more value in Weaver Santaniello’s own “Socrates as the Ugliest Murderer of God,” one of the shortest papers in the collection. 

Both of the papers in the Buddhism section emphasize congruities between Nietzsche’s views and the scholars’ understandings of actual Buddhism, as distinguished from Nietzsche’s largely Schopenhauer-based ideas about Buddhism. From a Thelemic perspective, I was especially interested in the weight placed on horticultural metaphor in both Nietzsche’s writing and the Buddhist sources referenced by Robert Morrison. Graham Parkes’ comparative discussion is oriented to overcome not only Nietzsche’s misunderstandings of Buddhism, but also American preconceptions about Zen–which Parkes faults for being informed by the Soto tradition to the exclusion of the more Nietzschean Rinzai strain.

The most generally useful of the papers in the Christianity section is Thomas Brobjer’s study of Nietzsche’s evolving relationship with Christianity prior to his final overtly anti-Christian phase. Brobjer carefully combs published and unpublished writings, while deflecting Nietzsche’s later anti-Christian reconstructions of his earlier motives. I was rather disappointed in Jerry Clegg’s paper regarding “Nietzsche on Pistis versus Gnosis“; I found its wholesale collapse of Will to Power and Will to Truth into the respective terms of the pistis-gnosis dialectic to be insufficiently substantiated. Paul Tillich’s “Escape from God” was surprisingly palatable to me. I’m not sold on the closeness of the kinship between Luther and Nietzsche offered by Tillich, but his readings of Nietzsche are fair, and his evident aim in this piece is to use Nietzsche’s thoughts in the tempering and refinement of an existentialist theology over and against the “sin of religion.” 

There is only one paper in the final section on Islam, and I was fairly nonplussed by this piece on “The Consequences of Atheism” by pious Sufi Henry Bayman. While acknowledging Nietzsche’s genius, Bayman chiefly construes him as a culprit in what he sees as the apocalyptically disastrous faithlessness of modernity, as well as a Faustian demonstration of the atheist’s comeuppance. 

Overall, I found this book to offer a great amount of material for reflection, both in connection with the study of Nietzsche’s work, and in the general philosophy of the religious traditions at issue. The impressive variety of the contents should assure readers with corresponding interests that at least a couple of pieces will amount to highly informative reads.