Tag Archives: book

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.

The Golden Ass

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Golden Ass by Apuleius, translated by Robert Graves.

Apuleius Graves The Golden Ass

Although the vulgar take the donkey as a symbol of ignorance and stupidity, occultists and magicians know better. Cornelius Agrippa, in his Vanity of the Arts and Sciences, praises the ass as a paradigm of virtue. Giordano Bruno, whose heliocentrism was wedded to his hermetic magic, made the donkey a symbol of the highest mystical state in his personal cabala, declaring it to be the Triumphant Beast. 

The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, better known as The Golden Ass, is funny and wise; and despite its unrepentant status as a fiction, its later chapters are probably one of the most accurate and detailed accounts from the period regarding the operation of mystery cults in late antiquity. The “Golden” of the title refers to the value of the text. It was written in a florid, storytelling style of Latin, and has a brisk, episodic pace. There are nonetheless many digressions, including the splendid and famous fable of Eros and Psyche, which falls near the center of the text.

Known in his own day as an orator and Platonist philosopher, Apuleius is also important as a reference regarding the status of magic in the ancient world; he was himself accused of criminal sorcery, although he denied it. The central enchantment of the story is the transformation of the protagonist into a donkey.

The literary progeny of these Metamorphoses are countless, as befits a donkey’s instrument! Apuleius’ story has influenced everything from Augustine’s Confessions to Beauty and the Beast. But the original still deserves pride of place.

Peter Lamborn Wilson

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 one 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

1: Peter Lamborn Wilson

About the time I “woke to the world,” that is when I went down in fames on entering the atmosphere of the modernity, Charles Potter, my old French teacher from Columbia, with whom I was on friendly terms, told me he had someone to introduce me to. This was Peter Lamborn Wilson, who was one of Potter’s old friends from when they’d both attended Columbia. Potter finished his degree and went on to study medieval French literature in Europe. Peter had dropped out of Columbia and made the “Journey to the East”—looking for enlightenment in India. He finally wandered into Iran where he was able to talk his way into a job at Tehran’s only English-language newspaper, largely on the strength of his native, literary English. Other qualification needed he none. He parlayed this into a place in the court of the Shah, friendship with the Empress, and a central role in the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy. The Shah wanted to cast the mantle of culture over his tyranny, and funded all sorts of interesting projects.

Peter spent years in Iran, during which he converted to Islam and seriously pursued the Suf path under the direction of a traditionalist spiritual master. Peter’s life there was a decade-long oriental adventure, during which he enjoyed the hashish and caviar that can be had so cheaply on the shores of the Caspian Sea, collected magnificent rugs (which he shipped steadily back to America to be stored) and explored traditional mystical Islam, siting crosslegged on fine rugs, sipping sweet tea and smoking with the Sufis.

Peter is gay, and his turn to Islam was in part an attempt to cure himself of his condition with the help of Allah. It was not a great success. I speak this sympathetically, since I undertook a similar project, though in the ambiance of Jewish New York intellectualism, the “church of Freud,” rather than in the shadow of the Koran.

Over the centuries there have been countless defections from Western Christianity to Islam, and almost none in the opposite direction. Whence this eagerness to “turn Turk?” A part of the appeal of Islam for the West has always been its comparative tolerance of homosexuality. Though this is forbidden in the Koran, it is so, like wine, in a somewhat ambiguous way. In fact, wine and boys are promised as rewards to be enjoyed in heaven, the later being appealingly described in one of the surahs as “pale youths, scattered like pearls across the lawns of paradise.” Despite periods of {153} reformist rigor, homosexuality (and for that mater drinking) has generally been regarded in the Islamic world as a minor and somewhat amusing sin, much as adultery is in the West. One may see this from even a desultory reading of the medieval Arabic classic, The Arabian Nights, where wine freely flows and boys promptly comply. In fact, Sufism includes among its more arcane byways a platonic meditation on beautiful youths, the “contemplation of the unbearded.” The reader of Yehuda Halevi’s poetry from Islamic Spain will be well familiar with the romantic praise of adolescent boys, who are described as “gazelles”—as common and conventional a trope in context as the nymphs and shepherds of Elizabethan poetry.

Islam never had Christianity’s ambivalence towards material existence and the body, so it was more tolerant of sex in general. Chastity was not considered a virtue. (“There’s no monkery in Islam” is a saying attributed to the Prophet.) The puritanism of present day Islamic fundamentalism is the rigor mortis of a religion already dead under the onslaught of modernism—exactly the confrontation that produced the Puritans and the “reign of the saints” in seventeenth-century England. This situation, “the faith purified into a caricature of itself,” in Peter’s phrase, is late, anomalous and terminal.

While Peter was in Iran, the forces of religious puritanism were held in check by the Shah, and Peter was able to enjoy the last hours of “decadence” before the neo-barbarians took control. Not that Peter was getting laid. The permissiveness of the old Islamic world was certainly off limits to him. A convert to any religion is always held to a higher standard of observance. I mentioned the ambiguity of Islamic attitudes to homosexuality only as a factor which made this religion unconsciously more appealing to Peter, and which would fascinate and preoccupy him, in a totally intellectual and inhibited way, for years.

I met Peter when he had just returned from Iran. He had made a timely fight from the already begun revolution, and now rented a room in an apartment on the corner of 107th Street and Amsterdam, a situation which he referred to a “Major Hoople’s Boarding House” (after a comic from the twenties about a boarding house full of eccentric types). The leaseholder of the apartment was a crank who brought home all sorts of junk and broken machinery from the street. The living room was impassible with dusty, unidentifiable and certainly non-functional equipment. He was quite litigious and had legally changed his name to “Joe Friendly” in the expectation that this would produce a mollifying effect on judges and juries. I only saw Joe once or twice in passing, a tall man, casually dressed, with an enormous beard. The other resident, besides Peter, was an alcoholic who lay in bed, the door to his tiny room open, coughing sepulchrally when he {154} wasn’t in a deathlike stupor. He usually lay outstretched on the bed, with glazed eyes and a gray crewcut, looking at nothing.

Peter was easily the most fascinating person I had ever met. I use the term fascinating quite precisely. He had the ability to charm anyone. When he addressed you he showed a pleased attention, and in conversation he asked far more questions than he answered, and seemed genuinely interested in all your particulars, difficulties, and events. Though he spoke of his own ideas, reading and adventures, very entertainingly and at length, it was always in response to something you had said, in amplification of whatever topic interested you. He had a way of making it seem as though he included you in his plans, that he looked on you as an equal and ally. I’ve never seen anyone who didn’t promptly capitulate to Peter’s charm, and he used it on everyone. He seemed to be more interested in you than he was in himself, and no one could resist this. And it wasn’t insincere. Nor was it something he had any control over. There are persons who need very much to be liked by everyone, who develop this brilliant sociability. Charisma is a gift, but like all gifts, it comes at a price.

He was amazingly unforthcoming about himself. He never really opened his heart or told his troubles. And not just to me. He was of an old and distinguished family, and traced his ancestors back to the Mayflower, so I think this was some sort of aristocratic white guy thing.

Once Peter had gotten his bearings in New York, he held continuous court, and has to this day a continuous stream of visitors. This is rather less of an achievement when you reckon in how uncritical his friendship is. Though he fully appreciates intelligence and expertise, and can hold his own in conversation with anyone on any subject (so vast and curious is his reading and his experience), he is equally content with the company of utter fools.

In part, Peter is a classic gay male type, of whom Bret and Harry Smith are likewise exemplars. Masters of monologue. They can go on illimitably, and if you never pipe up they will. They’re brilliant and fascinating, whether they’re telling you rare facts from Beethoven’s biography or what awful thing they saw on the way to the grocery store. I think the origin of this condition is bachelorhood. You live alone long enough, and you start talking to yourself, perhaps not aloud, but you do by imperceptible degrees become your own company. In my day, being gay and smart was plenty isolating for an adolescent to begin with: you were on the outside of life from middle school on. Then instead of having escalating series of involvements that ended with a long-term relationship, you had casual sex, or more likely no sex at all, until you were out on your own as an adult, and by then you were well used to going to museums or operas or restaurants with yourself as {155} your only company. The interior monologue develops into the exterior monologue, and thus you arrive at the Quentin Crisp-like persona, assuming you have the gray mater to carry it of.

I’m not entirely exempt from this condition, as this present feat of nattering attests. I found the talent particularly handy as a teacher. There are times when you have half an hour left on a Friday afternoon, you’re as tired of the lesson as the kids are, and though they can be extremely entertaining if you draw them out, it takes effort and attention to keep them on topic and prevent them from just talking to each other in private knots instead of making it a class-wide dialogue. So I’ve sometimes just told stories about myself, suitably edited of course. It can be quite entertaining for me to see what I’ll say next—and a bit of a tightrope walk as well, since I’m addressing a roomful of adolescents and I have to make sure I say nothing that will come back to bite me if repeated to Mom and Dad over dinner.

So, I do kind of “get” the tendency to monologue. I think I missed out on fully developing this myself because I was too interested in seeing what I could learn. A precondition of monologorrhea is the belief you already know everything. And also at a critical moment in my life’s journey, I found myself with a woman, and no conversation with a member of that gender will be entirely one-sided!

Peter didn’t know everything, but he sure knew a lot of it, and want of self-confidence was not one of his failings. What balanced out Peter’s verbosity was a particular personality type which I have seen in a number of iterations. For convenience I will call this the Don Juan persona. Such persons cannot be alone. They positively require the company and approbation of others. It is a disposition common among actors. Al Jolson and Marilyn Monroe seem to have been particularly extreme examples of this special desperation.

The secret of pleasing is the desire to please. The practice is really as simple as asking people about their favorite subject, themselves, and then staying on topic by talking about things they’re involved with. If you’re not obviously trying to get into their pants or part them from their funds, this will always work. Finesse will come with practice, but you really can’t do it too crudely. Peter was very, very good.

He could devote himself to professional sociability while working full-time as a writer since his father had fixed him up with a trust fund which gave him enough to get by on, albeit with a narrow margin. His father, Douglas Wilson, was a retired army man, a desk general who had risen through the ranks of military bureaucracy, and was quite well of. Peter was his only child. A cultivated man, whose passion was proofreading, and who had supervised inter alia critical editions of Chaucer and Emerson, Peter’s {156} father was entirely sympathetic to Peter’s literary career, and never pushed him towards conventional employment.

I met Douglas on a number of occasions. I made the mistake of trying to draw him out on Chaucer, discussing the Knight’s Tale with him. He was utterly flummoxed. Though he had read every line of Chaucer with, as it were, a magnifying glass, what really interested him was the punctuation and orthography. He was breathtakingly dull. He had had a go at being an English professor, but had been so colorless, his supervisor suggested he grow a big mustache to give himself some personality. Though he was offended at the time, he did take the suggestion. When I met him he was a great tall substantial man with a bald head and a handlebar mustache. He looked every inch the retired general.

I met Peter’s mother as well. She was a retired high school English teacher, and she’d divorced from her husband, never to remarry, when Peter was a boy. She lived down in Maryland, a warm and cordial hostess, and an excellent adventurous cook. On one of our visits she splendidly prepared muskrat which she’d purchased from a local hunter with a roadside stand.

Peter supplemented his income by dealing pot on a small scale, enough to keep himself supplied and cover occasional luxuries and nonessential expenses. He was stoned for the entire time I knew him. It was only a few years ago that a medical condition finally required him to cut out grass and cigarettes. But for the first thirty years of our friendship he moved in a fog of reefer smoke, a bearded Jove ensconced in his happy personal cloudbank. I recently asked him about what he remembered of our early acquaintance, his first years back in Manhattan. He demurred. At first I thought it was perhaps some Waspy diffidence about discussing himself directly, but I finally concluded that all that grass had prevented him from coding all the events into memory. I have rather the same difficulty regarding the periods when I was drinking. That’s the one thing they always forget to tell you about drugs. They steal your memory.

When Potter introduced us, Peter had been out of America for more than a decade. He had missed Punk and arrived at the beginning of the greed-is-good Reagan eighties. The connections he had made for the advancement of his literary career were in Iran, and London, where he’d spent four years on the Saudi’s nickel, on retainer to organize an Islamic cultural festival that never got of the ground. Happily for him, he was in London when Khomeini took over. When Peter arrived in New York, he was at loose ends and desperate to network. I was still at Columbia, never integrated into, and still disconnected from, student life, and desperately lonely. {157}

Peter was going through a spiritual crisis. Long before the revolution in Iran, major cracks had appeared in Peter’s cosmos. He had attempted to fully enter into traditional Islam, and in half-modern Tehran, this was still not impossible. The motivation was, originally, a sincere quest for enlightenment, the authentic spiritual hunger that gave the sixties in America its nobility. Peter had joined a Sufi order, and accepted the guidance of a pir (spiritual master), but the exotic charm wore of and then began the wearisome work of keeping the faith—which Peter described to me as “protecting our common failures of awareness.”

Sufi practice hadn’t freed Peter from desire either. (In the words of the Gita, “As a man’s nature is, so must he be. How could repression help?”) And Peter finally concluded, quite reasonably, that the problem wasn’t the quality of his faith, but the faith itself.

Peter gave considerable attention to the interesting antinomian heresies that had arisen within Islam. Particularly the Assassins, a heretical Shiite sect whose use of hashish in their devotions gave them their name. Peter was also fascinated by Caliph Hakim, the eleventh-century Ismaili lord of Egypt who, depending on who you ask, was either the mad Caligula of medieval Islam or a Shiite messiah. I needn’t go into detail on these interesting topics, for Peter himself has done so in a number of books. For our purposes it will suffice to say that these extreme mystics believed that the disclosures of the apocalypse and the rewards of paradise were to be enjoyed, or at least tasted, now. The initiates felt this insight entitled them to take their pleasures as a defiant sacrament—a program which was rendered even more effective if those pleasures were in fact prohibited by the religious law. No doubt Peter was to some degree aware of how prurient was his interest in these themes, but on the other hand historical research into thousand-year-old heresies doesn’t amount to much of a sin.

Peter was impelled to deep reflection and bold decision by his experience of mystical Islam, which transfigured Peter’s reality, but not his sexuality. And of course he was shaken, even shaken awake, by the fall of Iran, which had landed him in a Manhattan rented room like a man awoken from a long exotic dream. It was all sort of parallel to my crisis precipitated by the failure of the affair with Robert, when I was casting off the traces of Neoplatonism and traditional Western culture in favor of a new and radical magical materialism.

We only really reconsider our course when things utterly fail to work. It seems probable that we’d keep all our illusions and pass our lives in sweet stupidities if only everything went smoothly on and on.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake

Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale by Ibn Tufayl, translated with an introduction and notes by Lenn Evan Goodman.

ibn Tufayl Hayy ibn Yaqzan

Ibn Tufayl was a medieval thinker and an heir to the oriental philosophy of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and the scholarship of Algazel (Al-Ghazali). His work Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is a fable treating the life of an ideal man who comes to physical, intellectual, and spiritual maturity outside any human community. Only in the final pages of the tale does Hayy encounter society, culture, and religious tradition, and the encounter is a disappointing one in many respects.

The narrative itself is reasonably compact, but the University of Chicago 2009 edition of the English translation includes a great deal of useful apparatus. Translator Lenn E. Goodman supplies two prefaces and an introduction. The 2009 preface is primarily concerned with the historical context of the original work, outlining the Almohad patronage for Ibn Tufayl’s work, but it also concludes with a view of the change in philosophical context for Goodman’s work, since the 1960s when he first read Ibn Tufayl. The 2003 preface is shorter and more autobiographically focused. The 91-page introduction includes far-ranging comparisons and a theory of religion as a tripartite phenomenon that appears to be original with Goodman, and is definitely food for thought in its own right.

Goodman’s end-notes are extensive, and so useful to the contemporary reader that they made me resent (again) the 21st-century publishing preference for end-notes over footnotes. I’d prefer to read with a single bookmark, thanks. He calls out likely sources, Quranic citations and allusions, and comparisons to medieval, classical, and modern philosophy. Wide prior reading is necessary in order to make the most of these.

Ibn Tufayl’s story has been compared to Kipling’s Mowgli from The Jungle Book: Hayy is raised by a doe rather than a wolf, and his feral nature is correspondingly peaceable. There are no large predators on the island where he is the only human. Even more interesting comparisons can be drawn with Robert Heinlein’s 20th-century science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, itself consciously derived from the Mowgli archetype. Like the Martian protégé Valentine Michael Smith, Hayy discovers a religious vocation when introduced to society. He hopes to “save” others by orienting them to the mystical appreciation of the human condition that he was able to achieve in his exotic circumstance.

At the end, Ibn Tufayl claims that his story of Hayy is the heritage of “a hidden branch of study” (165), as he had promised at the outset in intending to “unfold … the secrets of the oriental philosophy” (95). It is esoteric in both the colloquial and the Straussian senses, though it is not occultist. I am grateful to the fellow initiate who directed my attention to it, and I expect to return to the study of this text in future years.

The Swordsman of Mars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Swordsman of Mars by Otis Adelbert Kline.

Kline The Swordsman of Maars

I had known of Otis Adelbert Kline as a rival for the pulp mantle of exotic adventure accorded to Edgar Rice Burroughs, and was for some years interested to read his Martian sword-and-planet contributions. I expected them to seem derivative from ERB. What I discovered instead is that they appear to have been a significant model for the early Flash Gordon stories. There is a non-trivial extraterrestrial “yellow peril” element (although the yellow Ma Gongi aliens are shown in the cover art of my copy as green), and romantic intrigue with the daughter of the evil despot. (The chronology fits, with Swordsman of Mars published throughout 1933 and the earliest Flash Gordon strips appearing in 1934.)

The voyage to Mars is of the esoteric mind-transfer sort, additionally including time travel, so that like the Martian adventures of Leigh Brackett, it is set in the planet’s past. Kline surprisingly makes no mention of the lower Martian gravity, which even serves as a plot point for ERB’s John Carter. Martian fauna here include a lot of oversized insects, but also some strange vertebrates that I often found difficult to picture. There are giant birds used for mounts, a staple of the sword-and-planet subgenre, here called gawrs.

The book is a fast read, with frequent cliff-hanger chapter endings reflecting its genesis as a pulp serial. The prose is serviceable. I feel I have done my duty by including this book in my readings of Martian tales, and I’d read its sequel to kill some time, but it’s not something I’ll be in a hurry to seek out. I would recommend it to those who are fond of the old Flash Gordon stories.

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges.

Hedges War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Chris Hedges wrote War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning after the events of September 2001, but before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the 21st century that make it all the more painful to read today. About two thirds of the text is memoir, but in the form of anecdotes pressed into service for a war correspondent’s reflections about the perennial nature of war and what it does to societies and individuals. Many of these stories are grueling to read, and Hedges very consciously straddles a line on which he hopes to make patent the attractions of war without himself glamorizing it.

There are many literary references in this book, especially to the classics of antiquity which Hedges studied at Harvard during a hiatus in his work as a journalist. He gives these their due as evidence of the enduring attributes of war, but he avoids elevating them into sanction for it. He also returns at various points to his own need for literary sustenance in the midst of war (e.g. 90, 169).

In his introduction, Hedges disclaims a pacifist agenda. He writes that his aim is “a call for repentance” in the face of growing US military hubris. The book is concerned with the ways in which war is fostered by the dehumanizing falsehoods of nationalism, destroying culture and erecting an abstract “cause” to which life must be subordinated. Hedges proposes memory and love as the antidotes to the martial impulse, where these are rooted in lived contact with others, particularly across ethnic and religious divides. Unfortunately, this book is as timely now as when it was first published, and there is no real likelihood that it will become irrelevant in the foreseeable human future.

And Go Like This

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews And Go Like This: Stories by John Crowley.

Crowley And Go Like This

Of all the Early Reviewers books I’ve received through LibraryThing, my copy of John Crowley’s And Go Like This was most like a bound proof, rather than a finished book. The author’s foreword is only an excerpt, and the acknowledgements page says only “TK” (i.e., to come). However, with one exception, all of the dozen stories here are previously published, and so there’s no reason to think that the body of the book is incomplete–though it still shows some widows and orphans in its page layouts.

I had previously read the stories “In the Tom Mix Museum,” “And Go Like This,” and “This Is Our Town” in the earlier and shorter collection Totalitopia. Each of these is a sound tale with Crowley’s reliably beautiful prose, but none of them would necessarily be motive to pursue this volume. “And Go Like This” has more than a whiff of shaggy dog about it, while “This Is Our Town” is highly nostalgic all the way to its closing evocation of Julian of Norwich. “In the Tom Mix Museum” is similarly a child’s-perspective confection but only a one-page vignette.

Several of the longer stories in the volume, “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines” along with the triptych of stories that make up “Mt. Auburn Street,” center their attention on aging, reminiscence, and disability. Crowley has certainly had some practice with these themes, and his handling of them here is engaging and deeply humane.

The three stories that I found most gratifying were suitably placed at the end of the book. “Flint and Mirrors” is framed as a fantasy of the Renaissance by Fellowes Kraft, the author of the nested fictions within Crowley’s Aegypt novels. It features Doctor Dee briefly, but it centers on the Irish chieftain Hugh O’Neill. It evokes the paradoxes of empire as well as a persistence of magic that reminded me even more of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell than it did of the Dee material in Aegypt.

“Conversation Hearts” seems to have some strong autobiographical inflections, with a principal character who shares his given name with the author John. It is somewhat metafictional, nesting a juvenile fantasy in the adult literary short story, but connecting them through theme and moral. Even more autobiographical is the final story “Anosognosia,” the only one to appear for the first time in this book. It is dedicated to Paul Park, whose “Roumanian” fantasy Crowley had praised in an essay for the Boston Review (reprinted in Totalitopia). Crowley noted the autobiographical features of Park’s portal fantasy and admired the way that it gave higher ontological status to the magic-imbued alternate history than it did to the one that resembled our quotidian world. In “Anosognosia” Crowley turns the same trick, giving the protagonist John C. an awareness of his two parallel lives and a choice between them. This story also connected for me with the alternative history of Kim Stanely Robinson’s “Lucky Strike” and the author-as-character twists of Sarah Pinsker’s “And Then There Were (N-One).” With significant parts of it in the form of psychological counselor’s notes and session transcripts, it also recalled to me the shifting realities of Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell.

On the whole I enjoyed this book, though not as much as any of Crowley’s novels.

Laws of Form

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Laws of Form by G Spencer-Brown.

Spencer-Brown Laws of Form

Prior to the vogue of fractal geometry, Laws of Form was conceded by many to be the trippiest math book around. Reading a passage at random out of context might leave one wondering whether the text was political theory, aesthetics, or some other form of philosophy. In his efforts to explicate a Boolean arithmetic underlying the algebra of formal logic, Spencer-Brown works in a conceptually “degenerate” environment where one must attempt to understand the sparest ideas without any systemic framing. The results are positively mystical. 

“[F]or any boundary, to recross is not to cross.” Thelemites will recognize a more rigorous exposition of what Aleister Crowley attempted to express by 0 = 2.

Mason & Dixon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Mason Dixon

Mason & Dixon is the only Pynchon book I’ve read twice: once on my own, and once aloud with my Other Reader. It’s a downright hilarious tome, and only funnier if you’re familiar with the larger Pynchon oeuvre for the coy references that start with the parabolic trajectory in the opening sentence. If the rocket of Gravity’s Rainbow is merely a snowball in this novel, that’s a wonderful thing. Despite the book’s heft, it has a real intimacy, and–in many senses of the word–domestication. The Pynchonian playfulness works itself out on a more human level, and while there are still views of social and cosmic tragedy that strike hard and chill, this weave of historical improbabilities and personal yarns leaves the savvy reader with a flushed and slushy sense of satisfaction. 

Pynchon offers Mason and Dixon as a pair of characters that are almost a diagrammatic odd couple: the mournful encompassing astronomer, and the cheerily square land-surveyor. But for all that, they are never mere allegorical poles. Unlike earlier Pynchon protagonists, who seem to dissolve under the force of the author’s manifold micro-plots, Mason and Dixon actually become more coherent and characterful from start to finish. 

This volume doesn’t even pretend to be anything but fiction within fiction, but I give it more points for capturing the likely weirdness of its place(s) and period than any number of naive or revisionist pictures of the nascent United States. And if the worth of history is to give us a sense of the origin of our own perspectives and values, Pynchon seems to have done real historical work here. All of the crazy anachronisms and supernatural oddities just help the reader maintain the sort of healthy and happy skepticism such enterprises should always have at hand.