Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle by Pierre Klossowski, translated by Daniel W Smith.

Klossowski Smith Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle

Pierre Klossowski’s magisterial reading brings into relief the seductive character of the ordeals involved with Nietzsche’s sicknesses and anti-sociality. Although Nietzsche felt compelled to communicate the circulus vitiosus Deus and thus to clothe it in concepts, it is not chiefly a doctrine. Like the “Kingdom of God” of Jesus, or the “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel” of the Master Therion, the Eternal Return is in fact an experience that overcomes rational identity even as it validates the numinous self. The incoherence of this experience is of a piece with the absurdity of its prophet and his apparent descent into buffoonery and madness.

In discussing such matters as “valetudinary states” (i.e. experiences of illness), the Eternal Return, and the semiotics of the ineffable corporeal impulse, Klossowski makes extensive use of Nietzsche’s private correspondence and manuscript fragments. As he demonstrates, Nietzsche viewed the Eternal Return as a secret knowledge that–in virtue of its very nature–could not be communicated openly, and so these texts from outside of the canonical Nietzsche corpus are indispensable. In the original French edition, these were presented without proper citations, and it was a heroic work of translators Ronald Vouillé and Donald W. Smith (into German and English respectively) to have produced the apparatus which properly identifies their sources in the Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienaufgabe and other posthumous editions.

Klossowski, who did not call himself a philosopher, often seems concerned to rescueNietzsche from his 20th-century rehabilitation in the philosophical discipline. Although Klossowski was a student of Georges Bataille and dedicated Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle to Gilles Deleuze, the text is free of explicit references to or arguments with other Nietzsche scholars. At the same time, it deserves to be read in agonistic contact with the interpretations provided by Martin Heidegger, Walter Kaufmann, and others. This book has evidently had a significant influence on later French theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard.

One unusual merit of Klossowski’s study is the extent to which he takes seriously Nietzsche’s oracular function. More than once, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle pauses to consider the extent to which the world of the middle 20th century had met, and in some cases surpassed, the social and cultural prognostications offered by Nietzsche, who believed that the product of his contemplation might “break the history of humanity in two.” (100, 230) In exercising his “religious, that is to say god-forming, instinct,” Nietzsche contemplated “God as a maximal state, as an epoch.” (209, 107) The perfection of the individual relative to this epoch is to operate unassuaged of purpose. “Nietzsche’s unavowable project is to act without intention: the impossible morality.” (140)

As blurber Graham Parkes remarks, Klossowski’s book is “profound, but extremely taxing.” To profit from it requires prior familiarity with Nietzsche’s biography and writings. It will not serve as an introduction to Nietzsche’s work, but it remains one of the most penetrating examinations of the anti-system which that work adumbrates.

Sidelights on Relativity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sidelights on Relativity by Albert Einstein.

Einstein Sidelights on Relativity

The two brief lectures in this volume are each interesting in their own right, although there is little to unify them beyond concern for the most foundational aspects of the science of physics. 

The first, on “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” treats the now-quaint-sounding topic of the luminiferous ether, which seems to have gone the way of phlogiston and other obsolete scientific topics. Surprisingly, Einstein insists that there is a role for the ether concept in relativistic physics! It is, however, a “gravitational ether” from which every mechanical characteristic has been eliminated, and which is therefore just as easily denominated as space. Although this paper avoids mathematical and experimental details, a certain prior familiarity with the history of modern physics is very useful in appreciating it, since Einstein races through an extensive series of theorists in his summary of the evolution of the ether concept. 

The second paper begins by offering the distinction between geometry as an axiomatic philosophical undertaking, and the empirical physical science of “practical geometry.” Einstein explains that the effort to adjust physical laws to accommodate known events and behaviors to the axiomatic system of Euclidean geometry was in fact a driving force behind the theory of relativity, even though it eventually became necessary to posit non-Euclidean space as a result of that theory. The later part of the paper is concerned to permit novices to acquire an imaginative appreciation of finite but unbounded spaces–in particular spaces curved through the fourth dimension in a hyperspherical fashion.

The Last Camel Died at Noon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters.

Peters The Last Camel Died at Noon

The sixth volume of Amelia Peabody’s adventures swerves somewhat from the criminal mystery precedent of the earlier books. This episode is instead concerned with the Emerson-Peabody family’s discovery of (and captivity in) a lost civilization in the Sudan, where Cushite-exported pharaonic customs have survived into the late 19th century. There is, however, plenty of intrigue and skulduggery, not to mention the most plain violence on display in any of the series’ books thus far.

Despite the emphasis on action, there is something especially bookish about this volume, with notable attention given to popular 19th-century English literature. The author confesses that The Last Camel Died at Noon is an homage to the work of H. Rider Haggard, and there are many references throughout the novel to Haggard’s books She and King Solomon’s Mines, both of which are fodder for the central narrative. In addition, Wilkie Collins’ seminal 19th-century mystery The Moonstone is given a part to play. 

The longish story is broken into two parts: first the archeological expedition to the Sudan and the circumstances that drew them to the Holy Mountain in the desert wilderness, and then the events of their stay and eventual escape. This book, unlike its predecessors, also benefits from a small handful of maps and line illustrations. The latter tend to depict relevant art and artifacts, of which a typically amusing example is the carved relief of a “Queen of Meroe spearing captives with girlish enthusiasm.” (312) 

The final chapter of the book seems to intimate an impending change to the scope and arrangements of Peabody’s family, but I suppose it will be necessary to read the next installment to find out whether and how that comes to pass.

Devil-Worship in France

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Devil-Worship in France: with Diana Vaughn and the Question of Modern Palladism by Arthur Edward Waite, introduction by R A Gilbert.

Waite Devil-Worship in France

Arthur Edward Waite wrote Devil-Worship in France in 1896, before Gabriel Jogand (“Leo Taxil”) exposed the great hoax he and his confederates had perpetrated regarding a supposed Luciferian Palladian Order at the heart of global Freemasonry. Although Waite gets a few details wrong, he was correct in casting the most thorough suspicion on this particular constellation of anti-Masonic literature. He was not the first to do so; the noted esotericist and Theosophist C.C. Massey had already voiced his objections. But Waite’s criticisms were more substantial and extensive, and received more attention than Massey’s had. 

The micro-genre of Palladian conspiracy literature produced under the bylines of Leo Taxil, Dr. Bataille, and Diana Vaughan enjoyed a considerable vogue in late 19th-century France. Its popularity among the credulous invites comparison with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and its concomitant cottage industry in the early 21st century–although the valence was exactly the opposite as far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned. (That is to say, that church’s fond welcome for the anti-Masonic revelations of Taxil matched in scope its offended distaste for The Da Vinci Code.) The fact that Brown’s novel is an overt fiction–albeit bearing an appeal to some alleged underlying facts–does not skew the parallel. Much of the material about Palladian Freemasonry was published in the Penny Dreadful periodical format associated more with Victorian Gothic than sober journalism.

Designed as it was for a French Catholic readership, the Taxil material also vilified the English, and in passing, Americans. Waite observes this trend throughout, but reserves special outrage for Dr. Bataille’s slander against HRH the Queen! (172-3) Waite’s knowledge of the US is a bit limited, though. For instance, he refers to Scottish Rite organizer Albert Pike’s role in “[t]he admission of Arkansas into the confederation of the United States,” which while strictly accurate, is likely to sound a muddled note for American readers. (28)

Although Waite is notorious for his plodding and convoluted prose, Devil-Worship in France is a comparatively lively exercise, perhaps because it was a matter of such great currency when he wrote it. In several cases, he references personal statements from his own associates and acquaintances, such as W. Wynn Westcott and John Yarker. And I am certain that I detected deliberate, though bone-dry, wit at various points in the book. The several chapters dedicated to summarizing Bataille’s Le Diable au XIXe Siecle are quite entertaining. Having cast sufficient doubts on the tales of the Palladium, Waite concludes Devil-Worship in France with an encomium regarding the virtues of Freemasonry, and its points of functional intersection with mysticism.

The 2003 Red Wheel/Weiser reissue of Waite’s book appends his previously-unpublished sequel, Diana Vaughan and the Question of Modern Palladism. Much shorter than the first work, it merely supplies updates after feuding among the fabulists and Jogand’s public admission of the hoax. Waite takes the opportunity to correct a few incidental errors from Devil-Worship. In particular he admits that Pike did plagiarize considerably from Eliphas Levi, but he also praises a specific text in which Pike did so: the lecture for the 32° in Morals and Dogma.

The Palladian episode is not only a cautionary tale regarding an anti-Masonic scare; this very thorough treatment of it has much to hold the attention of anyone interested in the esotericism of the period. The Taxil collaborator “Jean Kostka” was in fact Jules Doinel, founding patriarch of the French Gnostic Church from which today’s Gnostic Catholic Church (E.G.C.) descends. He comes off fairly pitiably in Waite’s account, and it is hard to see him as a hero during the early 1890s. Even more importantly, much of the outrage intended to be stoked by the stories of the Palladium had to do with its initiation of women into a secret society. Waite, concurring with Pike, indicates that women are excluded from Masonry, but doubts whether they should be. Of course, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was initiating men and women on equal terms at the time, the Grand Loge Symbolique Eccosais Mixte which was to eventuate in Theosophical Co-Masonry had been founded in 1893, and a short decade after Diana Vaughan O.T.O. would apply Masonic techniques of initiation to women as well as men. 

And as a final enticement to those who might benefit from reading this book, I quote from page eighty-four: “Who would possess a lingam which was an Open Sesame to devildom and not make use thereof?”