Tag Archives: biographies

In the Center of the Fire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews In the Center of the Fire: A Memoir of the Occult 1966-1989 [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by James Wasserman.

Wasserman in the Center of the Fire

This “warts and all” account of an American Thelemite’s personal quest also chronicles the axial development of the Thelemic movement in the second half of the 20th century, as well as the New York City occult scene of the 1970s. It reads very quickly. The prose is occasionally transparent as the factual condensation of diary data, but the honesty concerning events described is positively bracing. When I first heard announcement of this book’s impending publication, I knew I would need to have a copy. And now that I’ve read it, that knowledge is thrice-confirmed by the way that it ties together its fascinating matter through the integral experience of a true magician. Br. Wasserman doesn’t hesitate to relay his personal judgments of those characters — living and dead — with whom he has interacted, and in those cases where I have my own personal acquaintance with them, I concur with his verdicts. As rewarding as the text is, the many glossy pages of photos are especially gratifying. My Other Reader considered at least one of them “scandalous,” and they provide an important set of images to complement the narratives I have been gradually learning for the last two decades.

The Hundred Tales of Wisdom

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hundred Tales of Wisdom [Amazon, Bookshop, Local Library] by Idries Shah

Shah the Hundred Tales of Wisdom

The Hundred Tales of Wisdom mostly consists of extracts from the principal medieval hagiography of the 13th-century Sufi master Jalaludin Rumi, supplemented by some teaching stories attributed to Rumi, or consistent with his milieu. The general run of the teaching stories is content typical of the many volumes on Sufism by Idries Shah. 

The old stories about Rumi (who is here called by his name Moulana) most often involve miraculous feats (or tricks?) and penetrating insights by which the Sufi wins disciples to his following. In these, and other didactic scenarios, the virtues emphasized are humility, courtesy, forgiveness, and rejection of material care. 

My favorite tales from the collection include the simple thaumaturgy of “The Miracle of the Candles” and the enigmatic allegory of “The King’s Slave.”

Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher [Amazon, Abebooks, Publisher, Local Library] by Eugene Sheppard, part of The Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry.

Sheppard Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile

I have only ever read one text by Leo Strauss (Persecution and the Art of Writing) and this is the first secondary work focused on him that I have read. Eugene Sheppard’s Leo Strauss and the Politics of Exile: The Making of a Political Philosopher distinctly shows traces of its origin as a doctoral dissertation in Jewish intellectual history. The meat of the book is, for all that, very interesting. Sheppard examines Strauss’s biography and intellectual development only prior to his attainment of celebrity at the University of Chicago. He traces the philosopher’s origins among conservative rural Jews in Germany, his iconoclastic relationship to Weimar politics, the relationships that he formed with conservative scholars in Germany, and his difficult orientation to the academic scene in the US. The anecdotes and quotes from Strauss’s long friendship with Gershom Scholem were particularly notable, from my perspective.

Persecution and the Art of Writing is the climax and turning point of this narrative, where Strauss anchors his work in relationship to “the ramifications of multilevel writing as the philosophical response of one resigned to live in an imperfect society yet not fully willing to surrender a noble vision of the perfect regime” (80). Not only does Strauss write about the use of this technique in the Middle Ages and antiquity, along with its extinction in early modernity, he also writes using the technique, and dissimulating his atheist, anti-theological convictions while supporting the worldly authority of religious doctrines. 

Like Sheppard, I find myself in disagreement with what I understand of Strauss’s mature politics. But I appreciate the extent to which Strauss seized on the dilemmas of liberal modernity, and I observe an essential congruity between the Jewish galut (condition of exile) and the Gnostic sense of alienation, in that both fuel the dynamics of esoteric expression. This book is fascinating and has only further encouraged me to read more Strauss.

The Best Ghost Stories of H Russell Wakefield

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Best Ghost Stories of H. Russell Wakefield [Amazon, Local Library] by H Russell Wakefield, ed Richard Dalby.

Wakefield The Best Ghost Stories

This collection of Wakefield’s stories is very good. Although there is a slightly larger range of supernatural horror than might be suggested by the title’s category of “ghost stories,” most are in fact about spectral hauntings and the effects of genii locorum — always malign. “The Red Lodge” and “Blind Man’s Buff” are, for example, almost painfully traditional haunted house tales in terms of plot, but told with great skill and effect. Wakefield’s curses and ghosts are never exorcised; at best (and that rarely), the living characters manage to flee and escape their further influence.

A couple of the stories are concerned with sport. “The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster” drew on the author’s own long-term enjoyment of golf, and is in many ways a solid example of his work in the ghost story genre. As usual, the origin and nature of the spirits are much murkier than their effects. “Professor Pownall’s Oversight” is a chessghost story, and not only a good one, but perhaps the best chess ghost story possible.

Another notable feature is in the two stories featuring characters modeled on the magus Aleister Crowley. In “He cometh and he passeth by …” Crowley is made over into the homicidal sorcerer Oscar Clinton, while in “A Black Solitude” Apuleius Charlton is based on an older and more benign Beast: “He was sixty odd at this time and very well preserved in spite of his hard boozing, addiction to drugs and sexual fervour, for it was alleged that joy-maidens or temple-slaves were well represented in his mystic entourage. (If I were a Merlin, they would be in mine!)” (128)

The stories are a rough mix between those in which evildoers meet some justified comeuppance, and others where the supernatural afflicts characters merely mediocre or already cursed with unusual talent. In several cases, there are both, or it is left to the reader to judge which of these categories applies. Wakefield’s work had the admiration of M.R. James and H.P. Lovecraft alike, and it is easy to see why.

The Empty Space

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Peter Brook.

Brook The Empty Space

This short book from 1968 is one I should have read as an undergraduate in the 1980s. It is the first book by famed director Peter Brook, collecting a series of four lectures on the state of theater and its possibilities. The pieces do progress and build upon one another, moving from the critical viewpoint, through theory and history, to more practical concerns and perspectives.

The first part is “The Deadly Theatre,” and in it Brook discusses all the ways in which theatrical works fail. “All through the world theatre audiences are dwindling” (10). There is a doom loop in which conventionality in writing, acting, and production, along with criticism and economic pressures, lead to lowered audience expectations, which in turn foster lackluster performances. The deadly theater is not integral to society, it is a superfluous appendage which can be profitably ignored.

In “The Holy Theatre” Brook addresses the ambition of the theater to make les Invisibles visible. He introduces the “illuminated genius” Antonin Artaud as the touchstone of this ambition, and recounts some of Brooks’ own experiments in a “theatre of cruelty.” For further demonstrations of the “holy” trajectory, he outlines the work of Merce Cunningham, Samuel Beckett, and Jerzy Grotowski.

Brook’s paragon of “The Rough Theatre” is Bertolt Brecht. The rough in some senses opposes the holy: rather than being drawn out of themselves by the holy, participants are thrown back into themselves by the rough. It is a theater of examination and exposure, rather than exaltation and ecstasy. But Brooks insists that these two are complements that can and should inform each other, as they do–he claims–in the work of Shakespeare.

“The Immediate Theatre” brings the focus to the actual work of theatrical production, eventually settling on a (provisional) formula in the Francophone terms of repetition (rehearsal), representation (performance), and assistance (spectatorship). That these are all to some degree false cognates Brook does not explicitly make a matter of concern. He concludes with questions about whether theater can have enduring transformative effects for either its producers or its consumers.

Throughout this book, the prose is beautiful and eminently quotable. “It is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep children good” (46). “As I continue to work, each experience will make these conclusions inconclusive again” (100). “Today, it is hard to see how a vital theatre and a necessary one can be other than out of tune with society–not seeking to celebrate the accepted values, but to challenge them” (134).

More than half a century after its composition The Empty Space is certainly valuable to students of 20th-century theater history, but also, I think, to anyone still concerned to generate and appreciate living performances in stage environments.

The Three Dangerous Magi

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Three Dangerous Magi, The: Osho, Gurdjieff, Crowley by P T Mistlberger:

P T Mistlberger's The Three Dangerous Magi


The Three Dangerous Magi exceeded my expectations. As it was subtitled “Osho, Gurdjieff, Crowley,” I expected a book that would discuss the notion of a dangerous magus, and then provide an account of each of the three men named in order to demonstrate the phenomenon in the 20th century. The actual structure of this text is a lot more complex (some might accuse it of lacking focus), and I’ll describe it below.

Author Mistlberger is a therapist and workshop facilitator who has studied and practiced the teachings of all three of his titular magi. Of the three, his earliest but loosest connection seems to be to Crowley. As a reader, that was fine with me. I expected to be relatively critical of his treatment of Crowley, but I was interested in learning about the other two. The book is big — a 700-page doorstop — and it took me a while to get around to reading it after I picked it up.

The book is addressed to a popular audience, rather than a scholarly one, to the point where I sometimes found it a bit condescending. (Was it really necessary to define “neologism” for the reader?) Still, the prose is accessible, and it’s clear that the author has done his homework. There are three bibliographies in the end matter: an annotated listing of the main doctrinal texts produced by the magi themselves, followed by a catalog of relevant biographies with extensive commentary, and finally a general bibliography of works referenced. There are extensive endnotes, but alas, no index.

After an introduction in which he establishes his credentials and characterizes his interest in the material, Mistlberger jumps right into short biographies, one per chapter, for each of his three figures. Then he provides another triad of chapters to summarize the teachings of each of these three roguish spiritual leaders. I found these summaries pleasantly concise and accurate to my current understanding. The third and longest section of the book is called “Commentaries,” and it consists of nine thematically-oriented comparative studies of all three men, on such topics as sex, drugs, rivalry, community, and legacy. A further section provides a chapter for each magus describing the practical work they prescribed. And the last three chapters fade out towards the end matter (there’s no bracing conclusion) with discussions of cultural precedents for the three teachers’ work. There are a few appendices that supply more restricted and tangential comparative essays: Crowley-Osho parallels, Crowley and chess, Gurdjieff and Zecharia Sitchin, and Osho’s bibliomania.

While the comparative treatments were more ample and detailed than I had anticipated, my own knowledge of Crowley’s work enabled me to draw many connections that Mistlberger overlooked, especially in the “historical influences” section. The chapter on “Magical Warfare” includes a thorough and critical account of the personal interactions between Crowley and Gurdjieff, which I found quite interesting and useful.

Throughout the book, Mistlberger takes care not to minimize the faults and failings of these “dangerous” men, but his general gist is clearly sympathetic. His overall project is to popularize and rehabilitate these obscure and/or notorious figures, and he does credible work in that vein. As I got a better sense of how these three magi (and Mistlberger cops to the biblical allusion on p. 449) interrelated in the author’s mind, I couldn’t help but imagine Osho as a spiritual phallus for whom Crowley and Gurdjieff were the testes! [via]



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Reviewer sounds bitter and maybe needs some love

Reviewer sounds bitter and maybe needs some love at “Aleister Crowley: The Biography Review“.

“It is the belief of Tobias Churton that a perverse ‘hatred of bourgeois attitudes’ is what motivated Aleister Crowley until the very end of his days.

I’m not so sure. Crowley liked his creature comforts and his zany posturing would fit in well with upper-class dilettante life. Crowley lived off family money for as long as he could and, when the inheritance expired, tried to raise funds by suing everyone for defamation of character. Such were his delusions of grandeur one of Crowley’s aliases was Count Vladimir Svareff and, after graduating from Cambridge, he bought a castle near Loch Ness. There was also a villa in Sicily where Crowley presided over his orgies like a Victorian patriarch.”

And, check out the masthead for the Express, for a bit of synchronistic symbolism:

If you’re interested in biographies of Aleister Crowley, you may want to check out Aleister Crowley: The Biography: Spiritual Revolutionary, Romantic Explorer, Occult Master and Spy by Tobias Churton.