Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity by Elaine Pagels.

Pagels Adam Eve and the Serpent

In her epilogue to Adam, Eve, and the Serpent Elaine Pagels insists that her ambition in this book is neither to discover nor to indicate the nature of the “real Christianity.” In that case, she could have avoided a lot of the confusion raised by her presentation, if only she had been a little bit more skeptical about the original message of “Jesus,” whom she quotes–on the basis of the canonical Gospels–as blithely as she cites the writings of Augustine or any of the other Church Fathers. She knows well enough that “the gospels of the New Testament are neither histories nor biographies in our sense of these terms,” (5) but she still handles them as though they might serve in those capacities.

Still, for a book that is designed to straddle the line between scholarship and popularization, Pagels does a good job. And her topic couldn’t be more interesting. She traces the development of Christian interpretations of the Edenic myth of Genesis, and how they were used to formulate and express ideas about sexuality, politics, free will, and guilt. She accepts the Luke-Acts epic as though it were history, and even so, manages to demonstrate important facts about the history of early Christianity: its diversity (with a chapter on “Gnostic Improvisations”) and its profound difference from the Augustinian orthodoxy that underlies nearly all modern Christianities.

Her treatment of Augustine is fascinating, and she claims to have been as surprised herself by the results of her research as most of her Christian readers will be. Although she was originally sympathetic to Augustine from her readings in his ConfessionsOn the Trinity and The City of God, her effort to reopen a conversation forcibly closed by papal authority in April 418 C.E. led her to the dialogue between Augustine and the Pelagian naturalist Julian of Eclanum. In contrast with the traditional secondary sources, Pagels finds Julian thoughtful and scripturally attentive. Augustine, whose Opus Imperfectum Contra Julianum has never been published in English translation, seems “idiosyncratic” and tendentious in his novel doctrine of congenital human depravity. 

In Pagels’ account, the combination of Augustine’s theological innovations with the establishment of imperial Christianity resulted in the rejection of an earlier Christian ethos of freedom, and its replacement with one of guilt. This study deserves the careful consideration of everyone who thinks that they have read and understood Genesis 3:16-19, since hardly any readers, medieval or modern, have been able to approach the Edenic myth without the long Augustinian shadow of “original sin” cast upon it. Before Augustine, Justin Martyr could say to the prefect who condemned him to death: “Do what thou wilt: we are Christians.” (49)

The Age of Ra

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove.

Lovegrove The Age of Ra

The Age of Ra is a fast-paced, testosterone-laden adventure set in an alternate present where the gods of ancient Egypt have been visibly ruling humanity since the early 20th century. On p. 101, author Lovegrove quickly sketches the global theo-political scenario in which various international blocs have aligned under the principal deities. Priests manage ba energies granted by the gods, and these power a wide range of fanciful military hardware. The alternate history isn’t worked out in great detail, and I failed to find the rationale for it compelling, but the setting is original and well-constructed. The premise of the action is that Egypt (or “Freegypt”)–the world’s only country not under specific divine patronage–incubates a movement against the theocratic system, and the protagonist is a British military officer who gets caught up in the course of events. The plot moves forward satisfyingly through short chapters, with occasional interludes taking place on the plane of the gods. 

The characters are credible, though often a bit stereotyped. Lovegrove is given to the occasional wayward simile, but on the whole, the writing is efficient and palatable. There is a sort of grisly 21st-century action cinematic feel to it. There’s no profound philosophy or psychological insight here, but some appreciable entertainment.

Some suggested music to accompany this novel: 
“Bad Blood” by Ministry 
“Face in the Sand” by Iron Maiden 
“Daughter of the Desert” by Transglobal Underground
“Master of the Universe” by Hawkwind
“Godwhacker” by Steely Dan
“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
“Hem of Your Garment” by Cake
“Veteran of the Psychic Wars” by Blue Oyster Cult

I suspect if you don’t like heavy metal, you wouldn’t much groove on this book anyway. One reviewer remarked that his wife thought the paperback cover looked like game packaging (my Other Reader called it “lurid”), and I’m sure this book could be the basis of a solid MMOFPS.

The Religion of the Semites

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions by W Robertson Smith.

Smith The Religion of the Semites

This influential late 19th-century study of ancient near eastern religion was supposed to have been the first of three courses of lectures on the topic of the religious matrix–or “higher heathenism,” as the author sometimes calls it–against which background the teachings of the Hebrew Bible developed, comparing this matrix to other ancient and primitive cults. As a result, the book is a little less comprehensive than the title might suggest, but it focuses on the important topic of sacrifice

The “Semites” of the title are a broad culture (or “race,” in keeping with the academic jargon of that time) defined chiefly by language, and including Arabs, Hebrews, and Aramaeans. The author discountenances an ancient Babylonian emphasis–which had some vogue in his day and was later to enjoy more–as reflecting a more hybrid and metropolitan set of developments. (The same objection would apply to the Phoenicians.) While certainly referencing and weighing biblical evidence, he prefers to take as his paradigm the indigenous non-Abrahamic religions of Arabia. But his sources for these are largely obscure, and in at least one instance, problematic.

The explanation of sacrificial systems often reverts to a particular anecdote from the late fourth-century Egyptian chronicler Nilus, who reported the habits of Bedouins in his region. This striking story of camel sacrifice was later subjected to significant and justifiable skepticism, but not before it had exerted a widespread influence on the theory of religion. Mircea Eliade in his lecture “Cultural Fashion and the History of Religions” (1965) refers to it as the “Fabulous Camel” of Nilus. Still, although Eliade claimed that scholars who concurred with Robertson Smith “could not–or dared not–discuss the general problem of sacrifice without duly relating Nilus’ story,” it is far from clear to me that the loss of Nilus as a data point entails the collapse of the theory advanced in these lectures.

Throughout the work, Robinson Smith stresses the important point that “in ancient religion there was no authoritative interpretation of ritual. It was imperative that certain things should be done, but every man was free to put his own meaning on what was done.” (399) He thus counters the anachronistic tendency in the study of religion to retroject a modern, credal or doctrinal orientation onto ancient cults. At the same time, the fact that the “certain things” had become imperative implies that they were at least originally informed by an obvious motive, and most of Robertson Smiths’s effort is directed towards discovering and elucidating the motive of religious sacrifice. 

Part of the explanation involves the notion of totemism–conceptualized in a manner that owes much to J.G. Frazer, and nothing at all to Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Ultimately, the claim is that the sacrificial event was ab origine one of communion, with the god and among the people. It was an act of commensality that (re-) established kinship with the god in whose name the sacrifice was performed. Only later, with the development of notions of individual property and differentiated social classes, did it acquire explanations involving merit, guilt, compensation, and expiation. Public sacrifice preceded private sacrifice, and the former was properly religious, while the latter drifted toward magic. Interestingly, this genealogy of sacrifice reverses the common suppositions of Christian theology, according to which the communion of Christian sacramentalism is a late development out of an originally expiatory system of sacrifice. 

Besides the central argument, Robertson Smith does range over a variety of interesting and fundamental topics, particularly in the early lectures of the series. The religious developments of the hospitality code, the conception of holy places, the evolution of altars, and the origin and consequence of demons and jinn are just a few of the subsidiary issues considered. Many of these are given further treatment in appended essay-length notes. Additional Note F, on “Sacrifices of Sacred Animals” was worth the whole book to me, for the two pages devoted to ancient sources regarding the sacrifice of donkeys.


This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part three of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey, continued

3: Klingzor

Peter was working his way free of the constraints of orthodox Islam like a butterfly wriggling out of its chrysalis. The analogy is more precise and less flatering than might seem. There was an awful lot of squirming involved before he raised his drying wings in a display you might mistake for a psychedelic sunrise. Peter took a position that has been commonly adopted by mystics of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These faiths, which embrace historical time as a kind of dour opaque ongoing disclosure of God’s will, all look forward to the Apocalypse as the ultimate restoration of the miraculous to everyday life. But for the mystic, Doomsday has, in some sense, already arrived. He sees the sacred implicit within the secular, the last judgment in every decision, the one-ness in the many, in Blake’s phrase, “the ocean in a grain of sand and eternity in an hour.”

Living, on one level, in a post-apocalyptic world, the mystic finds the rules and constraints that order temporal existence are no longer valid. He has passed beyond attachment to the fruits of action, no longer has any corrupting interest in success or failure. His soul is fully realized and autonomous, he sees reality without any subjective coloring, which puts him “beyond good and evil.” Perhaps the best account of this attainment is western literature is in Dante’s Purgatorio, where he reaches the Garden of Eden atop Mount Purgatory, which I translate:

When we’d run up the stairs to its highest step,
Virgil fixed upon me his eyes and said,

“I brought you this far with what skill and insight
I had: be guided from now on

by your own pleasure, go where you feel drawn.

You’ve left behind the steep and narrow path.
See, the sun shines before you

on tender meadows, sweet flowers, little groves
of pleasant shade, which this unplanted land
spontaneously creates.

Until the glad appearance of her whose lovely eyes,
once, beseeching and tearful, sent me to you,
wander here, rest whenever, wherever you wish,
unhurried at last. {166}

Await no further word or sign from me,
permitting this, ordaining that;
your own judgment now is healthy, correct
and free. The only error possible now
is for you not to do what you think best.

I crown and consecrate you
emperor of who you are,
by divine right, a law unto yourself.”

Living in an esoteric apocalypse, whatever pleasures, illicit or otherwise, we can get, are the legitimate rewards of the just—and arguably more fully deserved if acquired by stealth and at risk, in defiance of the demonic “powers of this world.”

Peter viewed his personal mystical liberation in political terms as well, and expressed it as a new sort of Anarchism. I cannot here enter into a detailed critique of Peter’s political thinking, where my purpose is only to offer some details of its origins, which I was on hand to witness. The key insight I have is that Peter’s approach was, at first, mystical. Mysticism is private and interior and amoral. The extroverted opposite of mysticism would be prophecy, which is extremely political and very concerned with right and wrong.

Peter came to his realizations, personal and political, from the context of Sufism, from mystical practice. This “privatized” his political thinking, and resulted in his rejection of long-term social action in favor of limited and personal, brief and private (“temporary, autonomous”) activity. There is merit in his position. Without an interior transformation, what we used to call “consciousness raising,” resistance cannot begin. But without concerted outward action, interior realizations, whatever their intrinsic merit, are politically insignificant.

At the beginning, Peter was engaged in a genuinely mystical adventure. Where this finally led him will be discussed in its place, but his original Chaos Broadsheets were sincerely meant. Peter was really and sincerely religious. He began on the antinomian path with awe and trepidation, unsure whether he’d be halo’d or struck down.

I looked with amazement on Peter’s writings. They had fervor, they were genuine, they contained in their confusing profusion authentic messages from the beyond, a somewhat garbled but unquestionably veracious record of renegade illumination. Nietzschean materialist that I was, mine was not a crude reductionism, I was no positivist. I regarded Peter’s mystical terminology as I {167} did the accounts of the gods in Homer: as a florid and poetic but accurate description of reality.

Peter’s vision of every day as the Day of Judgment, with heaven and hell entirely imminent here, was balanced on the razor’s edge of piety and blasphemy. Was he declaring the presence of God in all things, or was he vulgarizing spiritual terms to gussy up his every whim and want? Or both? In the Talmud there’s a tale of four sages who were allowed to enter Paradise while still alive, that is, they were granted an unfiltered vision of God. One of them died, one went mad, one became a scoffing nihilist, and one “entered in peace and departed in peace,” that is, he kept his interior balance—and in fact became a saint. In Jewish tradition, these are the four possible outcomes of a direct encounter with God. Peter was neither dead nor mad; had he become a saint or a scoffer?

In my opinion, he really had acquired baraka (holiness) during his decade of Sufi practice. And now he succumbed to one of the classic pitfalls of the spiritual path. Since Peter was very fond of the Arthurian legends, particularly during his early, poet period, I will take a likeness from that cycle. The Grail knight, Klingsor, best known from Wagner’s Parzival, succumbs to the sensual temptations that beset those on the quest, and in exchange for physical gratifications becomes a black magician. Then he makes a career out of luring others from the spiritual path with his garden of illicit delights. This is admittedly a rather melodramatic description of Peter’s case, but one which does justice to a certain aspect of his character. I loved him for his spirituality, which still shone about him when he returned from Iran, and I watched with dismay and disappointment as this dissipated over the years, till there was nothing left of that young man who dropped out of college for a mystical journey to India, the knight on the quest of the Holy Grail, the chevalier of the Holy Spirit, who rejoiced my soul by his mere existence, proving that such adventures and such adventurers were possible in our world.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake

Iced on Aran

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Iced on Aran by Brian Lumley

Lumley Iced on Aran

This fourth volume of David Hero and Eldin the Wanderer is made up of five disparate stories, rather than a single novel. 

The title story “Iced on Aran” is the first in the book. It’s not very long or very exciting, and has little connection with the later stories of the sequence. It is not a “quest” tale per se; it simply recounts a narrow scrape resulting from bored one-upsmanship between the heroes.

The second tale “Augeren” is perhaps my favorite of all of the Lumley Dreamlands tales. It really gets dreamlike, after the manner of Alice in Wonderland or even Cabell’s The Nightmare Has Triplets, with ample wordplay and preposterous plotting. I especially liked the exposition of soul-shuddering horror inspired by circumstances that–to waking reason–are really just absurd. 

The penultimate story “A-Mazed in Oriab” is a long novelette, and it is flanked by two very short stories that are closely tied to it, to the point where they almost serve as prologue and epilogue. These all center on doings around the island of Oriab, with key plot purposes served by the “seer with invisible eyes” (a.k.a. s.w.i.e.). As a set, these three stories are comparable to the earlier Lumley Dreamlands books, although not quite as long. The dream-sensibility of “Augeren” persists in them, although not as conspicuously.

Dante’s Divine Comedy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation by Seymour Chwast.

Chwast Dante's Divine Comedy

Seymour Chwast shows no small ambition in attempting a “graphic novel” adaptation of Dante’s Commedia, but unfortunately, the results are not that impressive. The poetic elements of Dante’s work are almost entirely obliterated, as the language is reduced to narrative prose, simplified dialogue, and an assortment of fragmentary captions and labels. Chwast uses aggressively anachronistic visual designs, making Dante a tall fellow in a trenchcoat and sunglasses, while Virgil wears a bow tie and a bowler. 

The pace is quite fast, with approximately one page devoted to each of the hundred cantos of the Commedia, and many of the pages having only a single panel of illustration. There is a lot of creative and effective variety in the hand-lettering of the text, although a few grammatical and spelling errors (e.g. “Cerberus … allows we poets to enter the circle” on p. 21) take a little of the joy out of that too. 

Some of the most effective panels are the ones that are schematic–although when it comes to the maps of the three realms, Chawast’s deliberately simplified style cannot hold a candle to the intricate triptych by Paul Laffoley. And this sort of competition is one of the reasons that this book faces an uphill battle among readers. Given that the story is unchanged from, and the words less engaging than, its original; it becomes Chwast’s task to captivate us with image and visual design. And he is hardly the first to undertake this very specific task. Gustave Dore’s engravings illustrating the Commedia are one longstanding and well-known example of an accomplished execution of the graphic form for this work. An even better (though unfinished) version was produced by one who could be considered a principal creator of the “graphic novel” in Western culture: William Blake. 

In the end, Chwast’s adptation seems deficient in the sort of grandeur and gravity readers want (and for many centuries, have gotten) from Dante’s work. It strikes me like nothing so much as a brilliant student’s notebook, drawn while hearing the poet recite his age-defining vision.

Judgment Night

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Judgment Night by C L Moore.

Moore Judgment Night

This book includes the short novel Judgment Night, plus several longish short stories, all written in the period 1943-50. Besides putting the novel first, there’s no evident rhyme or reason to the sequence of the contents.

The title novel would make a good science fiction movie today. It could indulge CGI scenery creation to an exorbitant level, and it would leverage to much better effect the space opera tropes everyone knows from Star Wars. The protagonist is the butt-kicking amazon daughter of the galactic emperor, and the story is set on and around the imperial capital planet Ericon. Because there are “gods” living on Ericon–i.e. an ancient praeterhuman race–and because there is some significant personal and political intrigue–the story actually reminds me more of Dune than other space empire tales.

“Paradise Street” is a space Western in full form, much like Joss Whedon’s Firefly television series, but written fifty years earlier.

“The Code” is the outlier of the volume: not a futuristic science fiction tale at all. It has the sort of psychological conjecture that I would expect from a Ted Sturgeon story, and it also reminded me a little of Machen’s The Great God Pan. The central premise is an experimental rejuvenation treatment that has some unexpected side effects.

The remaining two stories are both set in a single future history in which terrestrial humanity has undertaken to deliberately speciate itself, creating “Thresholder” mutants, in order to be able to colonize other planets. I found these to be the least of the volume’s contents, but they were still pretty good.


This is an extract, provided by the author, from Blame It On Blake: a memoir of dead languages, gender vagrancy, Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso & Carr by Jacob Rabinowitz, “a memoir of the Beat generation authors I knew, and my own explorations of Witchcraft, Egyptology, Voodoo, gender confusion and mind-altering drugs, authorized (more or less) by William Blake.” This is part two of chapter six, and is a personal narrative about the author’s acquaintance with Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey.

VI: Hakim Bey, continued

2: TAZ

Shaken from without as much as he was troubled from within, Peter determined to make no further payments to the immensely overpaid account of contrition for his sexual disposition. He thought out his liberation in terms of the theology and symbolism of mystical Islam. Meanwhile I was trying to think my way to reality with Nietzsche and de Sade. The really important thing we had in common was that we were both poets and were looking for a new poetic vision, one that could express what was meaningful and real in our experience, after having put vast energy into trying to live in archaizing dreams. Whether we blamed Omar Khayyám or Baudelaire, we had both been blinkered by books and wandered blind till we were well lost.

Our conversations were endless. Typically I’d be in his tiny, tobacco-cloudy room, talking to him from seven in the evening till five the next morning. It was a real intellectual romance. I’d never met anyone who knew so much, or was so willing to talk, and also to listen!

We both viewed writing as a tool for psychic exploration, and both wanted to bring it into play as we explored the new world of the physical, and now permissible, in the wake of our respective personal liberations, his from sexual repression, mine from a no less crippling cultural traditionalism, which amounted to the same thing in many ways. Even though I was getting spectacularly laid, I kept that whole side of my life entirely secret from any but my closest friends, and certainly never wrote poetry about any of it.

Peter had censored his sexuality and his drug use from his poems, and narrowed his range of permissible topics to literary and conventional ones. He gave me his book of verse, Winter Calligraphy, which greatly impressed me. I no longer have my copy to refer to, but I recall it as owing a lot to Ezra Pound and Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat Orientalism. Elegant and repressed. I had word-painted myself into a similar corner with the Baudelaireanism that had commanded my energies and for some time provided the pattern for my life.

Now, we both agreed, the only poetry worth writing was that which expressed maters so urgent, important and meaningful that we couldn’t not write it. No more pretty verses and elaborate artistry! We wanted poetry that was as powerful as pornography, and if it in fact was pornography, be it so!
Having set aside my old-fashioned notions of what was properly poetic subject mater, I wanted to do away with all the transitional, framing material that makes up a story, and have it be nothing but “the good parts.” I took as my model Ovid’s Metamorphoses, only instead of just having the characters shift shape, the setting morphed as well. Contexts dissolved and {159} transmuted as each narrative structure was annihilated by its own ever-amplifying content. The hero would be propelled from scene to scene by a series of poetic explosions. The scenes transformed, with dreamlike transitions reminiscent of Buster-Keaton, I would let the content create the form and the order.

The result was Blurred Person Singular, which I thought of as an omnisexual science-fiction epic poem and map of the world. I had meant it to be my Hamlet. It was actually more like Titus Andronicus. It had maximum sexual and violent content, by turns offensive and hilarious, though one would be hard put to say where it was going or why. The best of it was the energy and enthusiasm, the sheer puppy-play of genius released, yipping and barking and chasing its own tail.

Peter began by writing prose poetry that dealt frankly with his gay interests, and though personally significant, this was not a course he long pursued, nor the one that gained him fame under the name Hakim Bey. I will consider his poetico-political writings in some detail, but first the stage must be set.

In our forays around Manhattan Peter would stop at all the shops that carried zines. Usually these were hip music stores that, in addition to CDs and cassettes of obscure punk and indie bands, carried a small selection of books on weird sex, weird politics and weird religion, a taste exemplified by RE/Search magazine, founded by V. Vale in 1980. The writings of William Burroughs and J. G. Ballard, sado-masochism and body modification, anarchism and neo-Paganism, these were the sorts of things that interested hip, aware twenty-somethings in the eighties. Zines were tiny handmade magazines, usually three 8.5×11 xeroxed pages folded over and saddle-stitched to make a booklet, circulating in well under a thousand copies, on whatever curious topic interested the publisher. The genre had developed out of punk rock fanzines. In 1982, Mike Gunderloy began publication of Factsheet Five, which was three-sentence abstracts of all the zines people sent him, listing price and address. Factsheet Five rapidly became the nerve-center of the zine scene, which lasted through the eighties, and was done in, like the rest of independent print, by the rise of the internet.

In the early eighties, real estate was on its way to becoming the speculative commodity it is today, and Manhattan, like all the “destination cities” in America was losing its hip neighborhoods to gentrification, becoming a live-in mall for out-of-town yuppies. I had noted this peripherally. Lucien had picked up his loft on Great Jones Street, a few blocks south of Cooper Square, for a song at the end of the seventies. By the mid eighties, when UPI’s change of headquarters moved him to Washington, he sold it for a huge profit. When I applied to grad schools, I didn’t even {160} consider one in NYC. I couldn’t afford anything there except movies and cheap Cuban-Chinese restaurants. The bohemias of America were disappearing, a process that wouldn’t be completed till around 2010. But even then, forty years ago, you couldn’t just move to NYC, get a part-time job washing dishes, and live in the Village to pursue your art. You needed full work and had to share an apartment with several other people.

But the ever-less-expensive Xerox machines, which every office and most homes now had, and the US mail, which was then dead cheap and still the best in the world, made for a new bohemia by mail.
While print had been the world’s primary entertainment medium, from roughly 1850 to 1950, it had sustained a certain amount of eccentric, literary publishing on its periphery. Grove Press, City Lights and the like, who had made the success of Ginsberg and Burroughs possible. I grew up thinking that this was an institution, a necessary part of society. It was more like a colorful patch of weeds that thrives at the edge of a uniform and cultivated field, which is the actual “cash crop.” As print yielded its market share to TV, avant-garde and small press publishing got starved out, though it did survive, barely, into the nineties, on the last crumbs to fall from the shrinking mainstream table.
In the early nineties, the internet existed, but was accessible only through the old DOS shell, just lines of glowing green type, half of them code, on a dull screen. No easy interface, no mouse to click. You needed a dictionary of commands to use it, so it wasn’t much of a contender.

I watched puzzled as Peter went to those hip stores and dug through cardboard boxes stuffed with tiny, badly produced, blurry illiterate zines. I couldn’t imagine what the interest was. Peter intuited that there was something important happening there. He obviously didn’t understand that this was the last hurrah for literary print: no one did. In those days, the people involved in the zine scene imagined that it was a kind of literary of-of-Broadway, that success here could translate into a contract with a “real” publisher. But however he viewed it, he did view it, while everyone else walked on by.
Peter was buying the zines that had interesting literary and political content. He himself had done considerable reading and maintained a sincere interest in Anarchism and radical politics. Mild political dissatisfaction was the mood of the time among Generation X, the twenty-somethings of the eighties. Twenty-somethings are a particularly significant age group, because they’re old enough to be living independently, but not so old that they realize they have to settle down if they want retirement plans that don’t include suicide. They’re still open to new ideas, full of hope, willing to take risks, and can afford a few experiments and failures. Reagan had been {161} elected president, and would remain so for two terms. Classic punk was over, new wave and other derivatives were on the rise.

I was from the tail of the Baby Boom generation; I was born in 1958 when Eisenhower was president, so I was more of an observer than a participant in Generation X. My childhood was the sixties, not the seventies. From my perspective, it looks as though Gen X came up after the 1960’s party was over, to find they’d been left the fat beer and pizza crusts. The hippies had disappeared, many of them having morphed into yuppie entrepreneurs, adding an additional sting to the sense of betrayal and defrauding. The feeling of malaise expressed itself primarily by various shades of irony, typically retro fashion and mild transgression. Betty Page was in many ways the poster girl for Generation X.

They defined themselves in contrast to the hippies, generally despising the “peace and love” naiveté of their predecessors whose wide eyes (with their THC-dilated pupils) now appeared vacant and cartoonlike. There was of course a good deal of unacknowledged continuity, and the cultural interests of the eighties, sexual, political and spiritual were (in hindsight) recognizably hand-me-downs from 1960s. The enthusiasm for general sexual liberation had turned into a fascination with S&M; communal utopianism had skewed towards anarchism; far-eastern enlightenment and occultism had been replaced with “joke religions” like the Church of the Subgenius and Discordianism, which allowed one all the fun of running around in robes while giving piety a shrewd tweak.

This was the context in which Peter began writing essays, communiqués as he liked to call them, under the pen name Hakim Bey, which he mailed out to friends and the publishers of the zines he liked. Originally it was just a way of joining in the general conversation. His own preoccupations serendipitously matched the Gen X Zine scene tastes, so his mailouts were immediately popular, and regarded as copyright-free syndicated columns ready for anyone to paste into their xeroxed zine for instant cred and content.

Finding an enthusiastic audience for what were then halfway between prose poems and political manifestos, Peter plunged in, and gave them what they wanted, backpedaling the gay content and pushing the anarchism and the jocose religiosity of the Moorish Orthodox Church (of which more below). Soon he had enough for a book. I talked Peter up, and introduced him, to Bret Rutherford, who by then had moved across the Hudson to cheaper Weehauken NJ. Between my recommendation, the interest Peter’s work was starting to generate, Peter’s personal magnetism and the exotic qualities of his writing, Bret was easily persuaded to published a deluxe oversized book of Peter’s Hakim Bey screeds, hand-bound, in opulent William Morris-like style. I suggested the cover illustration, a “chaotic” form {162} sketched by Odilon Redon. Thus Chaos, The Broadsheets of Ontological Anarchism first came to print. Bret viewed the whole thing as kind of a brilliant literary hoax. Pseudo-politics dressed up in nineteenth-century Orientalism, a (marijuana) smoke-and-mirrors phantasmagoria, presenting fabulous and false mystical visions tinged with gay decadence, all of it rendered nearly believable by genuine poetry and philosophy jargon shamelessly combined. Bret’s edition was a labor of humor and love: he deliberately crafted a suitably grandiose setting for this dazzling paste gem, which he regarded as a literary jape. Bret’s assessment was not incorrect, though it did not do full justice to Peter’s achievement, nor would it account for the popular success of this work, which in its expanded edition from Autonomedia, TAZ, The Temporary Autonomous Zone, was taken quite seriously by Gen X and to some extent the Millennials.

The main thing Peter pushed was Anarchism, which he made at once wider and shallower than it had ever been. He extended the definition of Anarchism to include everything from Taoism to old-time grog drinking pirates to seventeenth-century religious radicals (Ranters, Diggers) to racial and economic groups in America (like New Jersey’s “Jackson Whites”) who were so marginalized geographically and economically as to fall below the radar of societal control. And Peter defined resistance in such general terms that playing hookey from school or gold-bricking on the job ranked as revolutionary actions. It’s pretty easy to see that this would play well to white middle-class slackers, who Peter thus empowered to imagine themselves as politically engaged and as on an equal footing with fetishized minorities.

Which leads us to Peter’s Moorish Orthodox Church. This was based on the Moorish Science Temple, a fanciful African-American version of Islam founded around the turn of the century. It was a make-pretend religion, with “scriptures” borrowed from Levi Dowling’s 1908 Aquarian Gospel of Jesus, appropriated unaltered, save that every occurrence of the word “God” was replaced by “Allah,” and republished as The Circle Seven Koran. Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam arose from one of the splinter groups that formed when the Moorish Science Temple dissolved with the death of its founder, Noble Drew Ali, in 1929.

Peter had invented the Moorish Orthodox Church as a kind of private joke and pot-smoking club back in the sixties when he was at Columbia. Rents were so cheap back then that he was able to rent a storefront on the Upper West Side, which he dubbed The Moorish Science Reading Room, with facetious reference to the “reading rooms” of Christian Science. Here he and his friends burned their incense, hung their posters, smoked weed, and talked about mysticism and politics. Peter revived the Moorish Orthodox {163} Church when he became a zines celebrity, presenting it as a joke in earnest. It was a win-win-win proposition. It made fun of religion, it allowed the moral “validation” of make-believe identification with impoverished African Americans, and it was a vehicle for Peter’s insights into Islamic mysticism.

Another mater worth noting was Peter’s never-abandoned opposition to the internet. He didn’t foresee any of its actual dangers: the appropriation of private information by governments and corporations, the manipulation of news by the medium that had replaced print journalism, its role in eliminating small “brick and mortar” businesses in favor of monopolistic giants like Amazon, the death-blow it administered to literary publishing.

Peter has never operated so much as a cell phone, so his view of the internet was, in a negative sense, science fiction. He warned that the internet would further the atomization and alienation of people into discrete consumers, everyone experiencing life at second-hand through the screen. The computer age, he claimed, offered a gnostic false heaven, where even sex would be experienced without the messy complication of emotion or physical contact, an afterworld of pure image, rarefied into desire desiring itself! This prophecy bore no relationship to the facts, where the sex and shopping were realized so effectively over the internet as to replace shopping malls and pickup bars. The atomizing effect of the internet on “the social” was no more than that of the xerox machine. If we look for what destroyed the local community, we needn’t hunt further than the automobile and the speculative market in real estate. I mention Peter’s failures of prophecy here because Peter wrote about the digital age with such passionate obscurity that he was viewed by many as an authority on the age of cyberspace. Amazingly few of his admirers realized he was a luddite opponent of the digital. Difficult books, such as Peter wrote, though they may sell, aren’t usually read. Just having them makes people feel smart.

There is much in Peter’s writing that is of very substantial value. His accounts of travel through India and central Asia are mesmerizing. His writing on the mystical byways of Islam are accurate, insightful and explore in depth subjects the academics don’t dare to even discuss. His witty, sophisticated and scathing critiques of popular culture, from cop movies to food fads, are worthy of Mencken. But these things weren’t what put him on the map or gained him a decade of limited fame.
And then came the internet, covering the planet like a shallow sea. Unlike Peter, I view it as an entirely neutral tool. I believe it is our society of capitalism triumphant that has turned the Net into a global shopping mall. In the democracy of the dollar, what sells to the greatest number dominates. The result is a utopia of the utterly ordinary, producing a cultural erosion as

dramatic as the melting of the ice-caps. The internet speeded things up, but it was old-fashioned greed and stupidity that set the agenda.

Nowadays Peter’s success would be quite unimaginable. Had Peter debut’d his writings in a blog, I doubt he would have been heard from. Today Islam, even mystical Islam, is viewed as anything but cool, and “culturally appropriating” the pathos of an African-American pseudo-religion, would surely be a non-starter. But for the slackers of the eighties, the Moorish Orthodox Church and Peter’s screeds seemed the clever expression of many an unarticulated longing.

It’s no great feat to coldly dissect it now, thirty years later, and to do so gives a misleading impression of how aware anyone, most of all Peter, was of what he was doing. I was impressed and non-plussed; his reading public was awed by the kaleidoscope of his writings. He himself was quite baffled though very pleased by his burgeoning micro-celebrity. Now let’s go back to 1981, to that tiny filled Upper West Side room with the manual typewriter and SF books and fanzines piled high on the floor, where Peter was creating Hakim Bey.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake

Fantasy Encounter Games

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Fantasy Encounter Games by Herbert A Otto.

Otto Fantasy Encounter Games

This little book is a “how-to” for dozens of activities that are intended to be entertaining and enlightening. Most of the games are conversational, although some involve non-athletic physical activity. They were documented in the early 1970s on the basis of experimentation and research at universities and “growth centers” associated with the human potential movement. Although they are called “encounter” games, a significant subset of them are susceptible to individual play, and a few of them seem primarily intended for such. The main divisions of the games in the book are games for two, sensory games, and group games. 

Although it was written before the development of the tabletop fantasy roleplaying game, many of the games described here do have roleplaying elements–though of course without many of the conventions that later came to characterize that specific game type. Otto’s roleplaying games also draw on many of the narrative genres that have become fantasy roleplaying staples, such as science fiction, fairy-tale magic, and horror. A number of the games in the book are effectively improvisational theater exercises, and most others closely border on that sort of activity. 

Dr. Otto’s volume invites comparison with a similar book published at about the same time: Mind Games by Robert Masters and Jean Houston. Two chief characteristics distinguish the latter from the former. First, Masters & Houston take the cultivation of trance as essential to their game process, whereas Otto does not discuss that dimension at all. He only characterizes “fantasy” by comparison to and contrast with sleeping dreams and daydreams, writing that it is an expressly “conscious” use of imagination. Second, Mind Games is explicitly structured around a goal of gradually more profound and non-ordinary experiences, with games sequenced for effect. Otto’s book does include some games that are flagged as “advanced,” where players are advised not to attempt them until succeeding with some other games first, but there is nothing like the tightly structured curriculum, nor the sense of theoretically-driven system, evident in Mind Games. Throughout Fantasy Encounter Games, there is a hydrodynamic metaphor of consciousness. Dr. Otto writes frequently of the “flow of fantasy” or the “total fantasy stream.” 

There is a fair amount of inadvertent entertainment value for 21st-century readers. The book is pervaded by an uneasy accommodation of popular culture and youth vernacular, shown in the deployment of terms like “cop-out,” “grooving,” “out of sight,” and “freak out.” Dr. Otto also sometimes includes bizarre little practical instructions that seem to imply a substandard real-world functioning among his readers. For example, in “The Fantasy News Game,” he advises players that radio broadcasts news “every half-hour or on the hour on most stations.”(29) In another game where he recommends using a timer, he counsels that “Egg timers are available for a small sum at most variety stores.”

Some of these games might be useful ancillary activities for small groups who are usually involved in more “serious” activity, such as business development, charitable work, or occult study.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mercury: An Official Organ of the Societas Rosicruciana in America [also], by editor-in-chief George Winslow Plummer & al.

Plummer Societas Rosicruciana in America Mercury

“Rosicrucianism is a definite wave of human mentalism that, in its forward activity, has carried the human intellect higher with each progressive impulse, not for the purpose of intellectual development as such, but simply that by such development we can enter more fully into comprehension of what constitutes true spiritual insight and power,” writes Dr. George Winslow Plummer as chief editor of the Mercury, the organ of the Societas Rosicruciana in America. This statement, accompanied by the evident conviction that it is supposed to be meaningful to the curious and skeptical reader, abundantly displays the frequent weakness of this material. 

The Mercury certainly showcases some earnest esoteric researches on the part of its order’s membership. Many of the articles, however, like Helena Folkening’s essays, tend to address interesting topics with little but sentimental platitudes. Others are curious quasi-scientific speculation involving vital forces, morphogenesis, and the like. Francis Mayer contributes a variety of articles on alchemical topics that seem erudite, but are ultimately too opaque to benefit most readers. 

Most issues contain several pieces on astrology: personal, judicial, “incarnational,” “inductive,” etc. Plummer claims to support skepticism and accountability in astrology, and actually suggests in the March 1927 issue his support for a proposed New York state law to put all professional astrologers under a $5000 bond. In June 1927, the Mercury also became the official organ of the American Academy of Astrologians (sic). 

Each issue includes several pages of book reviews. It is especially interesting to read the favorable reviews offered on original publication to books like The Egyptian Revival by C.S. Jones (Frater Achad), and E. Valentia Straiton’s Celestial Ship of the North

I thot the spelling reform in their editorial policy left something to be wisht for, but it was certainly a symptom of their “progressive” attitude, which also came through in other ways. Plummer’s rants against “Churchianity” are all good fun, and sometimes take a puzzlingly hilarious turn, such as when he quotes Benito Mussolini (!) against facial hair (June 1927).