Tag Archives: book

Isis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Isis by Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle Adam, translated by Brian Stableford.

de Villiers de L'Isle Adam Stableford Isis

The proto-decadent short novel Isis was the first published prose composition of Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle Adam, and has only recently been translated to English by Brian Stableford. Although the author’s dedication claims that the title “is the collective formula of a series of philosophical novels” projected to be written, none further followed, and “Isis” clearly alludes to the principal character Marchesa Tullia Fabriana.

It is noteworthy the extent to which this nineteenth-century work (set in the late eighteenth) anticipates and rehearses the tropes of the eventual modern superhero formula. Tullia is preternaturally learned, mystically initiated, and a superlative swordswoman. She has a trusty assistant/protege (recruited from orphaned destitution) and a secretly splendid headquarters. She routinely journeys out at the dead of night to aid the afflicted and heal the sick, under the anonymizing cover of a mask and specially-designed armor.

Unlike later crime-fighting capes tales, this book seems mostly unconcerned with plot, or at least fails to advance one very far. Short as it is, it indulges in some fine architectural description, anatomies of altered states of consciousness, and philosophical digressions. The style is reasonably abstruse, and its matter should be welcomed by those readers willing to tackle and appreciate classics of occult fiction such as Zanoni and Seraphita.

In the traditional Rosicrucian grade system, Tullia seems to be a rather accomplished Exempt Adept, perhaps a Babe of the Abyss. Her advancement to the grade of Master of the Temple in these terms would then be bound up with her encounter of the main viewpoint character Count Strally, a promising young man of parts who seems ready to accept her guidance.

Burning Bright

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier Burning Bright

The historical novel Burning Bright is set in London 1792-3, and features the factual persons of William Blake and Philip Astley. It centers on a family from Dorsetshire transplanted to the (to them) alien urban setting. Although I’m no specialist in the period, I’ve taken away a favorable impression of author Chevalier’s research and verisimilitude. Her characters’ words seem authentic and her narration incorporates their speech and their world smoothly. The device of the country Kellaway family learning about city life is an effective method of developing the setting. The Kellaway paterfamilias has come to London to work for Astley’s circus, and the Kellaway children become acquainted with their neighbors in Lambeth at Hercules Buildings, the Blakes. The innocent Kellaways are also juxtaposed with an experienced London underclass family, the Butterfields.

I would tend to class this story as a “comedy” in an old-fashioned sense: its principal focus is on lower-class protagonists, and the plot eventuates in an upbeat manner–though there are certainly elements that could be taken as subversive of the genre. It’s not overflowing with wit or slapstick, although there are some surprising turns.

Chevalier has developed her characters with generous sympathy, except for a few plain villains. The book reads quickly, with largish chapters named after the months of the period, and numbered subchapters to define digestible episodes. I came to this novel hoping to get a more vivid, storybook sense of the lived context of William Blake, and I think it did its job well. From the title onward, there are many opportunities seized to artfully incorporate Blake’s own words into the substance of the novel. Chevalier also provides a bibliography and overview of her historical sources in a helpful appendix.

Audience of One

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America by James Poniewozik.

Poniewozik Audience of One

James Poniewozik was one of the first writers whose columns I actively followed on the Web, back in the 1990s when he wrote for Salon. Since then, I had lost view of his work as he graduated to more prestigious positions at Time magazine and The New York Times. I was happy to return to his punchy prose and incisive observations in this book on the symbiosis between Donald J. Trump and the American media landscape.

Poniewozik treats Trump’s long history as a media figure as central, not incidental, to his electoral identity and success. Trump was coeval with television itself, and neither of them have been unchanging. The author protests that he is not writing a biography of the human being Trump so much as a history of the character generated and inhabited by Trump as a television personality. The larger thesis and structure of the book he eventually sums up thus: Trump “watched TV, and then he courted TV, and then he starred on TV, and then he became TV. He achieved a psychic bond with the creature, and it lowered its head, let him climb on its back, and carried him to the White House” (236). The narrative of this progress through “businessman” celebrity, reality TV hosting, cable news pugilism, and Twitter demagoguery is filled with astonishing anecdotes that tie the whole thing into a single hyperreal composition.

This book is not about policy, and it is about politics only in the broad cultural sense. Alas, no one today can afford not to give a damn about Donald Trump, and that is the measure of his crowning achievement to date. “To live in America post-2016 was to live inside the rattled mind of a septuagenarian insomniac cable-news junkie” (270). Stories of regulatory capture and accelerating ecocide, concentration camps for refugees, egocentric foreign policy, and evisceration of Constitutional norms (beyond the long-abused Bill of Rights) are strangely outside the scope of the present treatment, which–like its subject–sees them mostly as means to an end. That end is an agonistic hypostasis: the “gorilla channel” where every actual problem is just fodder for the virtual conflict that ravenously consumes mass attention.

I recommend Audience of One as a fast, nearly compulsive, read, holding up an unflattering mirror to our reality-TV political culture.

For the Chance of Union

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews For the Chance of Union: Proceedings of the Eleventh Biennial National Ordo Templi Orientis Conference, a selection of papers from the eleventh biennial NOTOCON of the United States Grand Lodge, in Orlando, Florida, 2017.

Ordo Templi Orientis OTO For the Chance of Union

This slender sixth collection of papers presented at the National Conference of OTO USA includes facsimiles of the program materials for the conference and full texts of about a third of the presentations. The ones that are included are a diverse bunch, covering Thelemic culture, occult history, ceremonial ritual, and magical technique, among other topics. There are two papers on Enochian angel magick, one on the editorial history and infrastructure of the Goetia, the Grand Master’s address with reflections on religion and contemporary society, the Deputy Grand Master’s talk on the nature of “success,” Thelemic songs, theory of “magical gender,” and a review of the Crusades relative to Thelemic chivalry. The quality of content here is on a par with previous years, even if this volume has a lower page-count than average.

Delirium’s Mistress

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Delirium’s Mistress by Tanith Lee.

Lee Delirium's Mistress

I am not the only one to have remarked the Arabian Nights quality to the nested and proliferating stories in Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth books. But by this fourth volume, the use of biblical tropes seems to have increased to the point where they help to inform the content as much as Scheherazade does the style. Always subverted in the amoral otherworldly context of Lee’s fantasy, incidents in Delerium’s Mistress include her versions of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain (i.e. Sodom and Gomorrah) and the tempting of Jesus in the wilderness, among others.

Earlier books in this series have not lacked for sexiness, but wow. The coition of the undersea prince Tavir with the witch goddess Azhriaz is quite a textual achievement (281-3). This book also plays up the cosmic in impressive sequences like the creation of the three avenging angels (207-12). On the whole, it is the least capable of standing alone among the books of its series, being especially dependent on the events of Delusion’s Master and also often referencing the other two prior volumes. In fact, it knits together the various threads of previous stories so well, that I wonder if Lee can have had this book, centered on the half-mortal daughter of one of the Lords of Darkness, as a planned destination all along.

My suspicions in this regard are also informed by the strong resonance of Delerium’s Mistress with Lee’s first-published novel for adults, The Birthgrave. There is a shared scale and narrative sensibility, and the parallel roles of the protagonist seem to run in a reversed sequence. The philosophical outcomes are much the same, although a significant maturation of perspective is also present in this later book.

In addition to the attractive and appropriate cover art from Michael Whelan, this original paperback edition includes a handful of interior illustrations by Lee herself.

The Investigators of Arkham Horror

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Investigators of Arkham Horror: Tales of Adventure and Madness by Katrina Ostrander.

Ostrander The Investigators of Arkham Horror

I have argued (unsuccessfully, via a database submission at BoardGameGeek) that this book should be considered a game accessory. As a collection of weird fiction, it is passable at best. But as a “bootstrapping” instrument to orient players to their characters in the Arkham Files games, it is excellent. Each investigator has a vignette, typically four or five pages in length, to supply them with psychological orientation and biographical details. The book is huge, full of art reproduced from the games at a more generous scale on glossy paper, with a sewn binding to keep the thing together. (It’s so heavy that glue binding would surely break in short order.) The cover art is beautiful, but there’s no dust jacket.

Maybe you wouldn’t bother to read four pages of character background for an evening’s play of Elder Sign or Eldritch Horror. But for the multi-session campaign play of Arkham Horror: The Card Game (which requires out-of-play time for deck construction anyhow), the sort of extra consideration given here to individual investigators is terrific.

This book is obviously intended to provide the framework for a narrative canon, and several of the episodes here have provided points of departure for the subsequent novellas. I was especially gratified by some of the stories for investigators who have had little exposure in other Arkham Files fiction, such as Minh Thi Phan and William Yorick. I think my favorite story for the story’s sake out of the dozens here was the one about the prestidigitator and occultist Dexter Drake.

The Immoralist

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Immoralist by André Gide, translated by Richard Howard.

Gide The Immoralist

This product of 1901 was fascinating to me, although its literary renown does not perhaps align with an appeal to a wide audience today. My reading of Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor turned out to be important preparation, since it contains crucial cultural context for tuberculosis as understood in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The fin-de-siècle perception of homosexuality is also pivotal here. 

The book is brief, and consists of an autobiographical narrative, told by a man who, through a period punctuated by his own illness and a trio of deaths (his father’s, his child’s, and his wife’s), has been initiated into a transformed set of values. He has tapped his passional chaos–as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra might say–and discovered himself to be a sort of being that he can only attempt to explain to his old friends in the form of the story that makes up the novel. 

“Art is leaving me, I feel it. To make room for … what? No longer, as before, a smiling harmony … I no longer know, now, the dark god I serve. O new God! Grant that I may yet know new races, unforeseen kinds of beauty.” 

Richard Howard’s 1970 translation was not the first English rendering of this work of Gide’s, but it is certainly clear and striking.

The Serpent’s Gift

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J Kripal.

Kripal The Serpent's Gift

In a 1978 essay in Understanding the New Religions, Robert Bellah mentioned that “religious intellectuals are, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before in American history, cut off from large religious bodies which, theoretically, represent the majority of the religious population,” and he went on to speculate whether academic “religious studies itself is, in a sense, ‘new religion’.” In The Serpent’s Gift, Jeffrey Kripal seems eager to emblemize Bellah’s verdict and to vindicate his speculation. 

Kripal’s book is something of a manifesto on method in religious studies. It is made up of insightful explorations of “eroticism, humanism, comparative mysticism, and esotericism” in religion as approached through academic research. The aggregate effect is to outline what he calls “academic gnosticism.” But it would probably be more accurate to call it “gnostic academicism,” since the institutions and traditions on which it depends are those of the academy, while the themes and perspectives that it champions are the ones Kripal has chosen to gloss as “gnostic.” In contradiction to some 20th-century Neognostics, Kripal appreciates the essentially elitist nature of ancient gnosticism, and he is acutely aware of its initiatory dimension.

As in his earlier work Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, the author takes an intimate and somewhat confessional approach to his material. The endnotes are a rich mixture of textual references and authorial asides, and his conversationally annotated bibliography is matched with a preface on his textual sources of inspiration, called “Digging Up My Library.” This apparatus, and the introductory essay on method and theory, are some of the best parts of the book. No interested reader should overlook them.

The main body of the text is made up of four essays. The first of these is the most conventionally “gnostic” in its historical scope, and it treats a variety of sexualized representations of Jesus that are rarely given a popular hearing. Kripal acknowledges the ordinary celibate Jesus, and introduces readers to the bastard Jesus, the queer Jesus, and even the ‘straight’ Jesus, discussing both the venerability of such assessments and the consequences of the question itself. 

The second essay is centered on the thought of 19th-century German antichrist Ludwig Feuerbach, with an admittedly creative reading to which I am very sympathetic. He sums this reading as “a type of erotic (post)modern gnosis whose final goal ‘is to make God a man and man a God.’” (89)

In the third essay, Kripal addresses the methodological conundrums of comparativism, and the ways in which the comparative enterprise produces “heresy.” Here he rewardingly takes up the neologism ‘mystics’ (c.f. ‘physics’) from de Certeau translator Michael B. Smith. I was also gratified to read here his engagement with Steven Wasserstrom’s assessment of the mid-20th-century comparativism of the Eranos school, since Wasserstrom’s book had been important in my own return to the academy and work on religious studies earlier this decade. 

Kripal cheerfully transgresses the boundary between high culture and popular culture with his fourth essay, which is constructed around a proposal that the X-Men comics be read as an allegory of his idealized vision of the post-secondary study of religion. It is true, as Kripal claims throughout The Serpent’s Gift, that the university setting can and in many cases does incubate the sort of thought he espouses. Indeed, a certain amount of academic training is helpful even to approach Kripal’s book. But the current fragility of the academic institution, especially with respect to the humanities, does not inspire great hope here. Traditional tenured roles are being replaced with more contingent forms of faculty, the economic proposition of the four-year undergraduate degree is increasingly shaky, and there are growing assaults on the academic protections for freedom of speech and opinion (some of which Kripal addresses in his third essay). I came away from the “Mutant Marvels” essay with a renewed belief in the importance of a robust “academic gnosticism” outside the academy: a network of parallel institutions with their roots in various countercultural movements ranging from Freemasonry (18th century) to occultism (19th century) to Human Potential (20th century), and hardly limited to these. 

The book’s conclusion does reach past the confines of the academy to make programmatic statements about Western religious values. I take issue on a basic level with Kripal’s final assertion that “We do not die because we have sex and reproduce.” (179) While I concur with his dismissal of the Augustinian notion that the act of sex in itself is morally culpable and divinely punished, it is nevertheless true that we are programmed for death through a sexual procreative process that makes earlier generations give way for just the sort of future mutations (physical or spiritual) that Kripal exalts. The error is in considering death to be ‘a bad thing.’ I recommend this book strongly to those who have no faith to obstruct their curiosity, and who have the power to imagine their religions–or their universities–going under.

In the Shadow of Columbia’s Library

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 four, the final in this excerpt series, 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

4: In the Shadow of Columbia’s Library

For my part, I introduced Peter to my New York, the cafés of the Village that were open latest and left you undisturbed for hours at your table to sip your espresso and talk and smoke. My favorite was Di Roberti’s, on First Avenue near Twelfth Street, with black-and-white tiled walls and floors, and a few unrepaired bullet holes by the booth where Louie the Fish bought it back in the forties.

The fare at Di Roberti’s was unsubtle but wonderful Sicilian pastry. Around Easter the window would be filled with marzipan lambs, each holding its cross- banner in the crook of its foreleg. In the wall-covering front mirrors of that brightly lit pastry-shop you saw a miniature infinity of toy-like pink identical animals, a vista of childhood delight, multiplied into a likeness of candied eternity.

They also had Poppe di Monaca (“Nun’s Breasts”), the round dome-like cakes, filled with marzipan, topped with a cherry and glazed with white icing, through which the cherry showed, erect and roseate, an angelic and delectable nipple.

I tried to share with Peter the things that interested me, De Sade, Heraclitus and so on, but the only one he really took to was Nietzsche, whom he’d somehow missed out on. Peter treated Nietzsche like a chocolate-box full of ideas to be sampled.

He took a similar view of my conversation. When I look over the pages of TAZ I see a number verbatim phrases I can confidently claim, but I cannot say that he borrowed any of my ideas. Those didn’t really register.

I was the great beneficiary in our friendship. Peter taught me about Islamic civilization, a vast gap in my education, as it is in that of most westerners to this day. This ignorance forms a particularly appalling chasm, since Middle Eastern politics are now part of ours. Islamdom covered twice the territory (it extended from Spain to India) and lasted twice as long as the Roman empire, and was responsible for such international intellectual projects as medieval philosophy and medicine, modern algebra and chess. Algebra was created when the Arab mathematicians combined Greek geometry and the Indian concept of zero with their own system of writing numbers, which is the one we use today. Chess was an Indian board game not much better than checkers before Moslem merchants carried it across continents.

Typically Peter and I would talk all night. At five the next morning. I would go home to sleep, and then walk up to the Columbia library to get the books he’d mentioned. Thus I obtained a truly splendid education at Columbia, without Columbia’s assistance. It was in effect a graduate tutorial in Islamic {169} civilization from an expert whose knowledge had come from living in the midst of it.

Peter was also the first to tell me about Gnosticism—the antinomian heresy that beset early Christianity. This was just then becoming a modish subject due to Elaine Pagel’s vulgarization, the best-selling 1979 Gnostic Gospels. At about this time Gnosticism was also trickling into the popular culture via the last novels of P. K. Dick: The Divine Invasion, Valis, and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer. Later on gnosticism would tinge such hits as The Da Vinci Code and the movie The Matrix. But when I met Peter, Gnosticism was still a topic largely unknown to anyone outside of academia and, on a deeper level, such it really remains. Although a few people have cashed in on it, it has largely been by citing the rediscovered gnostic scriptures to appeal to anti-Catholic feeling—never a bad bet in a Protestant country. The idea here is that the evil Catholic Church has been hiding the true scriptures so as to protect its monopoly. This ploy has been selling books since Gutenberg printed Luther’s Bible. It’s literally the oldest game in publishing.

Real knowledge of Gnosticism remains an esoteric rarity, and the book Peter referred me to, Hans Jonas’ 1958 The Gnostic Religion, remains the most valuable study of the subject available, though interested persons should now also acquire Bentley Layton’s splendid 1987 The Gnostic Scriptures: A New Translation with Annotations, which has for the first time made the primary documents accessible to the non-specialist.

Peter was interested in Gnosticism for the same reason he embraced Islamic heresy, because it was a source of hoary authorities and tragic antecedents to legitimize his homosexuality and anarchism. He had invested far too much of his life in the spiritual path to reject religion wholesale, to be simply irreverently gay and atheistically anarchist. That might do if your only exposure to religion was a crude fundamentalism, but Peter was deeply read in mystical literature, and had considerable experience of spiritual practice.

The Christian gnostics offered a kind of liberation, but because of Christianity’s underlying ambivalence to material existence, their ventures into sacred sex and strange politics took a particularly blasphemous form. In fact, a kind of satanism. They regarded the god of the Old Testament with his list of prohibitions as the evil, stupid overlord of the physical world only, who had invented sexual morality as a further fetter upon the spirit. Thus gnosticism has always had a certain appeal for Christendom’s sexual dissidents. This excerpt from the Nag Hammadi hymn Thunder, Perfect Mind, will give an idea. Here the spirit of Holy Wisdom says {170}

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.

With scriptures like this, it’s pretty easy to see how you could have whatever quantity or character of sex you please and still end up holier than the pope!

Peter wasn’t particularly attracted to the Gnostic path; “gloomy libertines” was how he described them. But he found in them an instructive parallel to Islamic heresies, which offered pretty much the same validation of this-worldly pleasure and total individual freedom, but without the melodrama. The dualism that underlies the Islamic version of gnosticism is largely neutralized by the stricter monotheism of Islam.

Dualism may be a term too concise to be clear. It’s the notion that mater and spirit are opposed principles, forever at war in the cosmos, as light versus darkness, good versus evil, &c. Peter explained to me that, whatever gnosticism’s metaphysical shortcomings—the fact it defines the material world as evil—its dualist ideology provides a splendid tension for a novel’s plotline. Peter was particularly interested in how this appeared in science fiction: here P. K. Dick is the parade example. I would extend Peter’s insight to say that dualism is the only, though crucial, Christian element in Tolkien’s otherwise pagan Lord of the Rings, and that the entire genre of detective novel can be viewed as a secularized version of the same plot structure. The archetype of Saint Michael (the patron saint of police officers) fighting the Antichrist is always somewhere present in the roman policier.

It was through Peter that I rediscovered science fiction. I’d read a certain amount of it while a teenager, but had figured it was one of those childish things one puts away when one becomes a man. Peter made a quite compelling, though somewhat self-serving argument that SF was the modern “literature of ideas,” comparable to the didactic poetry of old, like Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, the great first-century BC epic poem about physics. I wasn’t, and am not, persuaded that the alternate futures and imaginary worlds of this particular genre fiction are really dealing with serious questions. Not even to the same degree as the satiric fantasy Gulliver’s Travels—at least they have not done so yet, to my knowledge. Yet Peter’s insight is to this degree valid: science fiction would be ideally suited to presenting philosophic concepts in narrative form. At present, its exponents seem satisfied if now and then they can propound a grotesque moral conundrum.

Peter would go through bales of SF novels, and refer me to the very best of what he found. In this manner I read a number of intensely enjoyable books which would have otherwise eluded me. Dick’s Divine Invasion was a {171} particular favorite, as was Gibson’s Neuromancer, both of which I read several times. I recall trying to interest Bret in this later. I thought the opening line was rather grabby: “The sky was the color of TV tuned to a dead channel.” Bret, profoundly unimpressed, responded with,

“I suppose that’s the cyberspace equivalent of it was a dark and stormy night.”

Both of these books dealt with gnosticism. Divine Invasion did so very literally, incorporating the myth of a mental breakdown in the godhead which caused the emanation of our universe. Neuromancer, with its visions of cyberspace as a disembodied network of twinkling information extending through the black non-space of pure consciousness, gave a very up-to-date version of the traditional, disembodied heaven of Christianity.

Peter was my psychopomp through all this literature, from Arabic and Persian classics to SF. He had read seemingly everything and could discuss it all in intelligent detail. There was no one teaching at Columbia remotely comparable to him in breadth of knowledge or literary sensitivity. Though Allen and Bill were immeasurably better writers, compared to Peter’s, their literary culture was limited and provincial. I’m not being a bitch: compared to Peter’s range and agility, just about about anyone looked limited and provincial. It was thanks to Peter that my cultural compass points included Confucius, the Tale of Genji, the Mahabharata and Rumi. Peter was the whole silk route (which he’d in fact traveled in person as much as through books.)

Peter also introduced me to food. My parents had taught me nothing about cooking or dining beyond some rather out-of-date table manners. As a boy, I couldn’t leave before the formal end of the meal without saying “may I please be excused.”

My mother didn’t really cook. Her culinary accomplishments were almost encompassed by meatloaf and tuna-noodle casserole. My father’s only participation in dining was grilling steaks. Were it not for our ethnicity, which vouchsafed us delicatessen food once a week, I would never have guessed that food could be good.

Peter introduced me to real dining, which I maintain is usually the same as cheap dining. I haven’t yet been to an expensive restaurant where the food was really tastier than the fare in a good inexpensive one, be it an ethnic establishment or a plain old American diner. There’s no earthly reason to ever pay fifty dollars a plate, unless someone else is paying, and even then, it’s a bore to be beholden while someone literally shoves their success down your throat. {172}

With Peter I learned to frequent the Cuban-Chinese places that were then so common on the Upper West Side near Columbia. I learned how excellent even an ordinary dish of rice and beans can be, and what delight there is in a simple cup of coffee, when it’s Café Bustelo made in an espresso machine and topped with steamed milk to make a café con leche. Henceforth it was with a grimace that I sipped the thin biter stuff Americans like, which even they have to excuse with copious doses of sugar and cream. I ate roast goat and oxtail soup, chicharrones de pollo, deep-fried morsels of chicken, and crispy sweet fried sweet plantains. All of it cheap, all of it excellent, and always served in a relaxed and courteous atmosphere without a trace of “attitude.”

On our forays into Chinatown we usually ended up at Lin’s Garden on Bayard Street. This magnificent hole-in-the-wall closed around 1990. It was famous for its deliciously greasy chow fun (broad rice noodles) which were served with the meat of your choice mixed in. Best of all was the duck chow fun. To my amazement Peter would order half a roast duck on the side to eat along with his. I’d never seen anyone consume such quantities of admittedly savory but quite rich avian fat. Although I never followed Peter as far as he led into gourmandise, it was a revelation to me that fat wasn’t bad. I’d grown up carefully trimming the white from the strips of steak on my plate. Now I realize this had been the carnivore equivalent of scraping all the butter from your toast.

Peter also opened to me the world of botanicas. These are shops that sell religious and magical supplies to practitioners of Santeria, which is West African paganism syncretized with Roman Catholicism. Santeria is the universal folk religion of Latino communities in America. It’s the Spanish and Portuguese equivalent of Voodoo, and no doubt very similar to the popular Catholicism of Europe in the Dark Ages, in its mixture of scriptural religion and uneffaced paganism.

Santeria flourishes throughout the Americas, and is in fact a highly evolved initiatory religion, with its own music, mythology and ecstatic rites. In 1980 few but professional anthropologists had even heard of it, despite there being a botanica on every block in the Hispanic areas of Manhattan. Peter’s apartment, on 107th and Amsterdam, was right on the border of a large Dominican community, and he had a botanica literally on his doorstep.

With Peter I explored these stores, full of holy cards and plastic statues of saints, as well as herbs, tinctures, novena candles in their tall glass jars wrapped with bright labels printed with Spanish prayers for every purpose, from gaining the favor of one’s guardian angel to winning a court case. Among the standard catholic statues were some genuinely odd-looking ones, like Chango, the seated Santeria Zeus, a crowned, bejeweled but mostly {173} naked human figure with shiny ebony skin and a delirious grin, like an occult Uncle Ben. He is identified with Saint Barbara, who holds a sword and a communion cup, in which the Santeros see a symbol of the mortar and pestle with which Chango produces thunder as he grinds out lightning. A storm appears above a castle in the background of St. Barbara’s image, and this seals the identification. An image of Barbara may thus be used for prayers and offerings to Chango, and indeed the two spirits more or less fuse, so no contradiction or inconsistency is perceived. For the believers in Santeria, the gods, on the most profound level, are the saints. Thus they all consider themselves good Catholics and would be horrified to hear themselves characterized as pagans. Their notion of Catholicism is simply a bit more, well catholic, (universal and comprehensive) than that espoused by the Roman Church.

Then there’s Elegua, the equivalent of Janus, god of doorways, beginnings and endings. He’s represented by a grey truncated cone-like head, like what you’d get if you used a child’s sand-bucket as a mold for concrete. Cowries are pressed in with the nubbly slots facing outwards for eyes, mouth and ears. Beyond these details the head is eerily featureless.

Peter was making collages of Santeria deities with holy cards, marbled paper, hand-watercolored gay porn and frames from “tijuana bibles.” I was edified by his appreciation of crude popular religious art, and the way he swept all the ephemera he enjoyed into the artistic mix.

As regards the Santeria imagery and Catholic kitsch, on my own I would have dismissed it as the unskilled and slightly creepy expression of vulgar, ignorant superstition, but Peter would look at the images on the magic candles or the bottles of hoodoo oil and delight in the errors of anatomy and perspective. In fact, the aesthetic shock of an untutored rendering frequently enhanced the power of the imagery. This was artistic information of a kind undivulged at Columbia’s art history classes. Being with Peter seemed to give me new senses.

Peter’s conversation had a certain acrobatic method to it. Whatever the topic, he would take up an opposite, devil’s advocate position. Not one of outright contradiction, but one that encouraged you to define your own position more clearly. The talk was a kind of genial sparring, which no one ever really “won.” Peter always made you feel like you and he were together getting to the bottom of something interesting.

He did however have a consistent theme that goes through his conversation, at least when any really interesting subject is being discussed. In a way it is the very opposite of that which preoccupied Socrates — though Peter’s method was indeed socratic. The Greek was forever testing for an underlying absolute, the ideal. Peter on the other hand always advocated the {174} mongrel and mixed over the pure, and focused on the detail rather than the pattern.

In literature he always preferred the late, the decadent, the mannerist over the classical and golden-age exemplar. In Latin, which was his major at Columbia before he dropped out to wander across India, he had no interest in Virgil or Horace, except as sources of ideas and myths that might illustrate his ideas. The author he admired and has translated is the fifth century AD poet Dracontius, of Vandal North Africa, whose works are generally considered an arid expanse of abstruse Biblical and Classical allusions, varied only by stale rhetorical tricks. Dracontius is typical of a poet of decadence, capable only of scribbling derivative imitations of the masterpieces written centuries before.

Similarly, in Greek, Homer bores Peter and the dramatists mean nothing to him, but he has read with attention the voluminous Dionysiaca, written in Greek by the Egyptian Nonnius in the fifth century AD. I don’t recall what gold Peter succeeded in panning out of that Nile mud.

The point is that Peter is interested in the moment when classical culture is melting into its barbarous surroundings. You can see this in late Roman sarcophagi, where the execution of classical motifs, say a scene from the life of Hercules or the signs of the zodiac, are becoming a crude repetition of visual formulae whose meaning is being lost at the same rate as the visual realism. Yet it has a certain barbaric energy, a power which wasn’t there when it was all still careful and correct. As the imagery yields to pattern, geometry charges the art with an energy unfelt in Classical sculpture for centuries. At the despised margins of culture Peter discerned lawless new forms, just as he fnds at the margins of society, in the dispossessed and naive, a creativity which is lost to society’s respectable circles. From the Moorish Science Temple to the hoboes to trailer trash to the die-hard hippies of failed communes, Peter took a Whitman-like pleasure in culling the fowers that grow in the ruins.

In religion, he was always interested in the heresies, the syncretisms, the crackpots and apostates. The aberrations and the byways Peter considered to be of importance equal to that of the royal road and highway of knowledge.

To give Peter his due, our sense of cultural peaks, progress and purity are rather subjective. A case can be made for everything being a mongrel admixture. The most pristine examples of cultural continuity known to history are in fact streams so polluted they catch fire by themselves twice a year. But the merits of this point of view can be overstated, as I hope I just have.

I once challenged him, “You think the incidental detail as important as the overall pattern. For you, a camel would be as essential to Islam as the {175} Koran.” Peter proceeded to maintain exactly this position, and not by connecting the camel to Ibn Khaldum (the sixteenth-century Arab historian whose great thesis was that civilization is motivated by the tension between the nomadic and the settled). No, Peter maintained the centrality of the camel on purely aesthetic grounds. Did he mean to suggest that the picture on the iconic American cigarette pack was the equivalent of a surah (chapter of the Koran)? In its way, yes!

As a primary intellectual orientation, Peter’s perspective led to some questionable conclusions, particularly evident to me when he ventured on the deep waters of archaeology and ancient history.

It was from Peter that I learned to be a scholarly trespasser, ignoring the signs that said “private property, keep out!” to draw cross-cultural comparisons, and look beyond my own specialty. Peter’s intellectual agility and really remarkable insights can all be traced to one great understanding. From a certain point of view, mutability is the rule, everything flows, fixed forms are an illusion. This is the perception that made Peter take to Nietzsche.

Change is the very life-blood of reality. Transitions and intermediate phases are more common than full development and complete realization, and they’re never neatly separated. The outmoded past survives just under the surface of the present, superstition lives hardily on within religion, repressed impulses contribute to our noblest acts.

It is not by coincidence that a Luddite love of bygone ways, sympathy for naive superstition and a trust in spontaneous desire are key features of Peter’s worldview. Peter is a partisan of the undercurrents which belie the placid surface.

Rabinowitz Blame It On Blake

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)