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Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Taboo A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Sævius Nicanor, with Prolegomena, Notes, and a Preliminary Memoir by James Branch Cabell

Cabell Taboo

Cabell’s novel Jurgen was the subject of an obscenity case brought in 1919 by Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, then headed by John H. Sumner. After two years of highly-publicized trial, the court found in favor of the defendants, Cabell and his publisher Robert M. McBride and Company. In 1921, McBride published a short work by Cabell in hardcover. This book Taboo: A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Saevius Nicanor was dedicated to Sumner, with the claim that the notoriety conferred by the prosecution had rescued Cabell’s commercial prospects as a writer. He called Sumner a “philanthropic sorcerer” whose “thaumaturgy” had not only generated public interest in Jurgen, but resurrected prospects for the author’s other books (11-13). The hilarious little story of Taboo is set in the country of Philistia where it is the height of indecency to speak of eating, and a writer is accused of the “very shameless mention of a sword and a spear and a staff,” culpable since “one has but to write ‘a fork’ here, in the place of each of these offensive weapons, and the reference to eating is plain” (26).

The sword and spear and staff were in reference to Chapter 22 of Jurgen, “As to a Veil They Broke,” which Cabell had in large measure lifted from the Gnostic Mass of Aleister Crowley, and Cabell also mentioned these weapons in his later “Judging of King Jurgen” episode, where the tumblebug Philistine prosecutor indicted Jurgen as “indecent for reasons of which a description would be objectionable to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal to anybody.”

The entirety of Taboo is an attack on hypocritical pearl-clutching regarding sex. Its satire is constructed around a conceit in which eating (a human activity no more essential than sex, if perhaps more frequent) receives the sort of conversational proscription that Cabell’s contemporaries sought to impose on sex. Still, an appreciative reader must admit that such constraints led Cabell to write some very entertaining prose. These are not limited to the absurdities of Taboo and the literature around Jurgen, and they include the clever and hilarious encounters with the cult of the Holy Nose of Lytreia and that of the shaggy goddess Koleos Koleros in Something About Eve.

Anthony Comstock figures in the tale as “St. Anthony Koprologos” and Sumner is himself “John the Scavanger.” The set-upon protagonist of Taboo is not Jurgen but the Cabell alter-ego Horvendile, whose writings are “suspected of encroachment upon gastronomy” (30). Throughout the text, the reader may profit further by converting references to eating back into references to sex, for another, more familiar-seeming, but still equally absurd story.

Even though it concludes with a lament for the persistence of moralistic censorship, Taboo was a very amusing victory lap for Cabell and McBride.

The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano and the Cabbala by Perle Epstein.

Epstein The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry

Since its publication in 1969, Perle Epstein’s book-length study The Private Labyrinth of Malcolm Lowry: Under the Volcano and the Cabbala has served as a point of reference for scholars interested in Lowry’s cabbalistic ideas. Unfortunately, she barely touches on the works of Lowry’s cabbalistic instructor Charles Stansfeld Jones, and she fails to discuss the aspects that made him distinctive as a cabbalist.

The one book by Jones that Epstein refers to by name in the body of her text is The Anatomy of the Body of God, and this book she painfully mis-characterizes as dealing “primarily with forecasting and manipulating the course of world events” (100). The only political language in Jones’ entire book is in the course of the last few pages, which include an exhortation to “those in whose charge is the Civil destiny of the Nations,” among other potential readers. There is no discussion of any sort of divination or prediction, regarding world events or otherwise. The Anatomy of the Body of God is in fact concerned primarily (and almost exclusively) with the geometric aspects of the diagram of the Tree of Life, its projection in scale and dimension, and the symbolic corollaries of Jones’ innovations in this regard, applied to alphabetic and numerical correspondences.

Epstein does devote a fair amount of attention to drawing a line between Jewish cabbalistic traditions and their Christian and hermetic derivatives, in order to point out that Jones and by extension Lowry were in the latter camp (14-44). (William H. New calls this section of Epstein’s book “factual, earnest and flat.”) But perhaps even more significant than the religious and doctrinal differences that distinguish what Epstein calls “The Two Cabbalas,” is the epistemological divide between these expressions of traditional mysticism and the modern hermetic cabbala of Jones and his instructor Aleister Crowley. For such Thelemic cabbalists, the purpose of the elaborate system of the Tree and the Paths is to afford heuristics by which any and all knowledge can be interrelated, with extrapolations to higher states of consciousness. Accordingly, it needs to be personalized with reference to individual experience in order to function.

This idea that the cabbala is a set of generic conventions to hold individualized contents accords quite well with Lowry’s description of the Consul’s ability to “dodge about in the rigging of the Cabbala like a St. Jago’s monkey.” It also accounts for the manner in which Lowry was able to seize on Jones’ cabbala as a mechanism for literary composition. It is, however, at odds with Epstein’s reading of the Volcano as employing a “Christian Cabbala” as a set of codified (if haphazardly syncretized) doctrines under symbolic coverings. To the extent that mystical doctrines are included in Lowry’s Volcano, they are Thelemic ones about the Adventure of the Abyss and the Black Brothers, alien to Epstein’s learning. Although she notices Lowry’s attention to black and white magicians, her explanation of that distinction (8) cites no authority and provides no clarity.

(My own study of Lowry’s cabbalism and his relationship to Charles Stansfeld Jones can be found under the title “Bizarre Sons” in the volume Success Is Your Proof.)

Antagonists in the Church

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Antagonists in the Church: How To Identify and Deal With Destructive Conflict by Kenneth C Haugk.

Haugk Antagonists in the Church

This manual on management of “antagonists” in church settings was listed in a bibliography of leadership resources for my own religious body. I saw it objected to as “fascist” by other clergy, and a claim was circulated that its influence was to blame for the decline of a kindred sect. Naturally, I had to read it to make up my own mind. It was a fast read, with clear writing and straightforward structure.

By “antagonists,” the author means oppositional personalities who engage in disintegrative attacks within a group, usually aimed at the leadership. Anyone who has been involved with religious or social organizing for a decade or two is sure to have seen this phenomenon. At the same time, the nature of such work lends itself to an idealistic outlook where such hazards tend to be downplayed or ignored. Leaders often assume a commonality of motive among their membership, which is belied by the behavior of individuals who gratify themselves by vilifying their own associates, staging confrontations, and initiating whispering campaigns.

Nearly half of the book is dedicated to diagnosis, the identification of genuine antagonists within environments where constructive conflict is presumably welcomed. Author Haugk details twenty symptoms or “red flags,” none of which are conclusive in themselves, but which in combination can help to highlight individuals who warrant cautious interaction. The risk in this approach is to motivate paranoia and witch-hunts, but the text is leavened with caveats, and the innate tendencies of sincere leaders will be to under-diagnose this problem, not the reverse. Although I was not so keen on the use of psychiatric nosology in the section “Personality Characteristics of Antagonists,” the practical aspects of this part of the book were sound.

Likewise, I was impressed with the pragmatic details of the sections on “Preventing Antagonism” and “Dealing with Antagonism.” Contrary to the rumors I had heard about this book, none of the tactics recommended here seemed in any way coercive to individuals or likely to undermine the coherence of a group. They are explicitly tailored to the antagonistic setting, and wouldn’t be optimal for routine interactions with membership or fellow leaders. But the likelihood of abusive behavior arising from these procedures seems to me rather minimal.

The book is written by a Christian for fellow Christians, and it occasionally has recourse to theological justifications. As a non-Christian myself, I found it easy to elide the Jesus talk and to substitute my own religious symbols and ideology without in any way disrupting the practical advice of the book. In fact, Haugk has to struggle at several points to interpret and mitigate the Christian ideological imperatives of “forgiveness” and “turning the other cheek,” but these are moot in my own religious circumstance.

There is no discussion of digital forums or online behavior in this book, as it was written before religious groups had taken to the Internet in the way that they now do. Unfortunately, “social media” are in some ways optimized for the expressions and activity of antagonists. If a comparable text were written today, it would certainly give some attention to that dimension of the problem.

In sum, I found this book to be more helpful than not. In addition to the value of its practical advice, it supplies encouragement to organizers and group members who are faced with antagonism, to address it rather than avoid it. Such workers and their organizations should benefit from that approach.

The Power of the Serpent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Power of the Serpent by Peter Valentine Timlett.

Timlett The Power of the Serpent

This second of Peter Valentine Timlett’s archaic occult fantasies is set many ages after the first. It does include a visionary reminiscence featuring the sacred Atlantean emigrants of The Seedbearers. But the immediate setting of this sequel is a conflict between the Druids of prehistoric England and their predecessor solar cult the Wessex Priests, who have fallen into degenerate practices.

When the novel starts, the two priesthoods are already at war. As the story progresses, the Wessex demonstrate their depravity by embarking on efforts to incarnate a powerful inhuman “Dark One” through a ceremony combining incest and human sacrifice. The Druids have an alliance with the Egyptian priesthood, and receive emissaries from Egypt who join them in opposing the Wessex villainy. The main viewpoint character seems to be the visiting Egyptian priest Ramin, but the third-person omniscient narrative oscillates between the good Druids and the evil Wessex.

Rituals in this book are even more patently drawn from twentieth-century occultism that those of the prior volume, with fragments of the Golden Dawn pentagram ritual and the adoration from the Neophyte temple opening. Timlett was an initiate of an order in that tradition. At one point, the Egyptian high priest Menahotep and Druid Elders Druin and Vaila make a spiritual visit to the “Universal Inner Lodge,” which is effectively von Eckartshausen’s Interior Church, or the Council Chamber of the City of the Pyramids in Thelemic parlance. There they are informed that the universe requires a balance of opposing forces, so that good must not triumph over evil.

For all their melodrama and violence, these books are good fun, and I’m a little sad that there’s only one of them left for me to read.

Claiming Knowledge

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age by Olav Hammer.

Hammer Claiming Knowledge

Author Olav Hammer doesn’t seem awfully sympathetic to his subject matter in this turn-of-the-millennium volume, and often appears to be making a somewhat strenuous effort not to call New Age believers a pack of idiots and frauds. He insists, though, that “truth claims” (i.e. factual validity of doctrine) are incidental to his main investigation in this book, which is trained on textual primary materials produced by modern proponents of esoteric religions. (He is very much standing on the shoulders of Wouter Hanegraaff, whose New Age Religion and Western Thought is clearly precedent research with respect to both matter and method.) Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age is not really a book about epistemologies, it’s about “strategies of epistemology,” which turn out to be tropes and structures of epistemological rhetoric.

Hammer’s usage of “the Modern Esoteric Tradition” to designate a hand-picked set of religious cultures from Theosophy through the late 20th-century New Age is unfortunate. Not only does it exclude significant parallel phenomena such as Gurdjieffian schools, but even within the scope of the “post-theosophical” it omits the modern Hermetic current in which I participate, i.e. the one running from Anna Kingsford and Gerard Encausse through A.E. Waite, Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie and others. (Kingsford does get some acknowledgement in connection with Hammer’s discussion of the history of reincarnation doctrine in Theosophy.) Besides Theosophy and the New Age, the book does train its sights on Anthroposophy, the works of Edgar Cayce, the I AM activity of Guy Ballard, and the Church Universal and Triumphant. But this limitation of scope doesn’t keep the book from being worthwhile on its own terms.

The three strategies around which the text is organized are tradition, scientism, and personal experience. The first of these would probably often have invoked the phrase “cultural appropriation” if it had been written in a later decade. Admittedly, though, appropriating the supposed culture of Atlantis or other “imaginary utopias” is a little different than supplying modern teachings with a specious Tibetan or indigenous American provenance, although both of these tactics are treated in this section. Hammer also discusses perennialism and the melioristic emphases of “emic historiography.” Initiatory catenas figure into Hammer’s account of modern Esoteric movements only in connection with Reiki, and here as elsewhere, he is interested in demonstrating gaps between etic and emic accounts–effectively, between Weltgeschichte and Heilgeschichte.

“Scientism as a language of faith” also combines disparate tactics under a single strategic approach. One such is what I would call praeternatural regularity, that is to say, the assumption “that miracles are created within the boundaries of the regular laws of nature, but that these laws differ significantly from those recognized by conventional scientists” (320). The other is a willingness to borrow language and images from current natural sciences (increasingly physics) in order to buttress essentially distinct religious ideas–call it “scientistic appropriation.”

An emphasis on personal experience, as Hammer admits, is not especially unique to his designated “Esoteric positions.” It is in fact a conspicuous feature of modern religion in general, and notably introduced as an intellectual preoccupation of Protestantism by the work of Schleiermacher. Moreover, it is a powerful fit for individualist ideologies and empiricist inclinations in modern culture. Hammer demonstrates how these features are realized in different sorts of individualized narratives in Esoteric movements, and he observes how these create models and motives for religious cognition, finally suggesting that “one reason for the success of many Esoteric doctrines” is that “socially reinforced predilictions of the readers are elevated to the status of ancient wisdom and scientific truth” (505), thus tying this third strategy back to the first two.

Hammer is himself a rather blinkered mechanistic materialist. He derides the idea of formative experiences in infancy as a “legend element,” because “experiences … cannot possibly register in long-term memory since the brain of the infant has not developed sufficiently” (364, n.68). After glossing Rudolf Steiner on the cultivation of “thought freed from any links to the brain and the physical senses,” he calls the notion “seemingly absurd” and only tolerable in the context of what he says are related ideas about subtle bodies and para-physical planes (424). Nevertheless, Hammer is a responsible historian of ideas, and his theoretical tools are indeed apt for analyzing the “discursive positions” expressed by writers and schools in 19th- and 20th-century alternative religions.

In addition to the general theory and history that Hammer supplies for each of the three strategies around which he has organized Claiming Knowledge, he gives some very useful “case histories” applying his theoretical frame to selected topics salient in the Esoteric movements. These topics include the chakra system, the New Age “Course in Miracles” curriculum, and reincarnation theories and narratives. All of these are well-researched and illuminating studies. No one will expect light reading from a book issued by venerable academic press Brill with the subtitle Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age. And indeed, this volume is both physically and mentally heavy. I can recommend it to those who are seriously interested in the dynamics of recent and contemporary esoteric schools, approached with a critical and deeply-investigated perspective.

The Cassini Division

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Cassini Division by Ken MacLeod.

MacLeod The Cassini Division

In many ways, the plot of Ken MacLeod’s third “Fall Revolution” novel is like that of a Star Wars movie: it features a protagonist with a painful family history seeking out and recruiting a necessary sage, a further “side quest” that turns out to be integral to the resolution of the main challenge, and a climactic space battle. Even the fact that the main character is a black woman doesn’t much distinguish it from the latter-day Star Wars pictures, with their increasingly diverse central cast. What really sets it apart is a genuinely speculative sensibility, as contrasted with the reactionary space fantasy of the Forced films. Replacing the Rebel Alliance with a Cassini Division who protect the anarcho-socialist Solar Union against a post-human presence on Jupiter makes for a very different story. MacLeod’s socialist heroes subscribe to what they call “the true knowledge,” which is identified–by a “non-cooperative” character who doesn’t accept it–with Aleister Crowley’s Law of Thelema (albeit with surplus capitalization, 86).

Nor has MacLeod abandoned the complementary anarcho-capitalist setting he has developed on New Mars, at the far side of the wormhole gate created by the ancestors of the Jovians. The theme of disputes over personhood for post-human individuals is carried forward in this book, but where it centered on the notion of slavery in The Stone Canal, it is tied more directly to the issue of genocide in The Cassini Division (as in the first book of the series, The Star Fraction). This book is clearly part of the vanguard of a species of post-cyberpunk space opera for which MacLeod is one of the best representatives.

The chief protagonist is Ellen May Ngewthu, and she is the first-person narrator throughout the book. Ellen is an interesting character, and not a profoundly reliable narrator. McLeod does not offer a documentary rationale for her role as the book’s speaker as he has for points-of-view in other novels. It’s just a narrative convention, and part of the fast-reading package. Despite the surfeit of new ideas in this book, they build cleanly on the previous volumes, and I read the whole thing with pleasure in a little over two days.

Cassilda’s Song

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cassilda’s Song by Joseph S. Pulver.

Pulver Cassilda's Song

Here’s an intriguing premise for an anthology. This collection of jauniste tales is written by a wide assortment of contemporary authors, but they are all women, whom editor Joe Pulver calls “the Sisters of the Yellow Sign.” Cassilda, Queen of Carcosa, is thus referenced in the book title and becomes or overshadows a central character in many of the stories.

The quality of the work here is consistently high. In addition to displacing perspective from Chambers’ precedent masculinity, the writers often vault away from his whiteness (as in “Yellow Bird,” “In the Quad of Project 327,” and “Pro Patria!”) and even his human species (i.e. the canine protagonist of “Old Tsah-Hov”). These are all standout contributions, and so is Selena Chambers’ quasi-scholarly and meta-literary “The Neurastheniac.”

In keeping with the general trends of work inspired by The King in Yellow of Robert W. Chambers, there is no narrative continuity that joins these pieces together, just themes, motives and mechanisms. Corruption, towers, masks, artistry, compulsion, dual suns, black stars, multiple moons, the indecipherable sign, the dreadful play, the ruined city, and the fathomless king are all brought forth in passage after passage.

Ancient Evenings

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer.

Mailer Ancient Evenings

This novel is a heady re-imagining of the magical perspective of the Pharaohs, full of intense, smaller narratives ranging from the quotidian to the mythic. I recently noticed that Wilbur Smith had written more volumes in his ancient Egyptian series, but I’d rather spend the time re-reading Mailer’s monumental book.

The Gnosis and Christianity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gnosis and Christianity by William Kingsland.

Kingsland The Gnosis and Christianity

William Kingsland’s treatment of esoteric Christianity was written in the early decades of the twentieth century under the title Gnosis in the Christian Scriptures. It was first published posthumously in 1936 as The Gnosis or Ancient Wisdom in the Christian Scriptures. My copy is a 1975 paperback reissue under the title The Gnosis and Christianity. Although the early Christian gnosis (as heresiologically defined) receives some attention from Kingsland, he chiefly uses the term “Gnosis” to indicate a philosophia perennis. The essentialist “religion” (versus “religions”) that Kingsland identifies with the perennial current of initiation is also referenced as “cosmic religion,” and contrasted with the religion of a personalized deity.

Inasmuch as classical Gnosticism is represented in this volume, the chief textual reference is the Pistis Sophia, cited in the edition by Theosophist G.R.S. Mead. Kingsland classes the Essenes as “Gnostics” in his sensu lato. (He was writing prior to the discovery of the Nag Hammadi texts and the Dead Sea Scrolls alike.) Buddhism is also taken to reflect “the Gnosis,” and represented through a profusion of quotes from Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia. Other comparanda for purposes of elucidating the perennial wisdom include the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine–or rather The Stanzas of Dzyan of which Blavatsky’s work purports to be the exposition.

The Hebrew scriptures are presented here as the work of genuine initiates, albeit ones pandering to the sensibility of a provincial and debased Bronze Age audience. The canonical writings of the “New Testament” are held to contain esoteric teachings, but obscured by later editorial impositions. The avowed purpose of this book is to clarify the biblical texts in the light of true initiated knowledge.

Kingsland’s frequently caustic treatment of exoteric Christianity is fair enough, and his promiscuous use of scare quotes keeps the integrity of his exposition in view. He stops at the verge of affirming Gospel mythicism, although he allows it as a reasonable position. Instead, he prefers the hypothesis that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical initiate–indeed, an Essene–who had attained to the status of “Christ” by manifesting the logos. He also gives props to Paul and the author of the fourth Gospel as ones writing from the perspective of “the ancient wisdom.” Redemption through faith, vicarious atonement, and original sin are all derided in his analysis, and such doctrines are attributed to the later machinations of priestcraft. Teachings of metempsychosis and apotheosis are adduced in both the canonical scriptures and those of the Christian Gnostics.

Although it is dated in many respects, I still found The Gnosis and Christianity a surprisingly lively read, with trenchant criticism of popular Christianity. I was not sympathetic to the anti-ritualism and iconoclasm expressed by Kingsland, although I could see their fit with the Platonist and Buddhist-inflected Theosophical model of attainment that he wrote this book in order to advance. Most satisfying is the repeated presentation of esoteric religion as a matter of individual spiritual conquest, contrasting strongly with the pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by of those who adhere to the Christian “faith.”


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pan: From the Papers of Lieutenant Thomas Glahn by Knut Hamsun.

Hamsun Pan

Pan is an 1894 novel set in Nordland (the north of Norway). Its first-person protagonist Thomas Glahn seems to be a Romantic embracing a rustic natural life as a hunter, but he has a vague military background as a lieutenant, and his place in the forest seems perhaps most determined by his alienation from cultured society. His rhapsodies over details of the forest are perhaps a little insincere, a cover-story for the amorous pain that he experiences with the reminiscences offered in this memoir-styled tale.

Erotic jealousy is a keynote of the story with its multiple love-triangles, and there is no assurance that Glahn is being honest with himself or with the reader. The epilogue “Glahn’s Death” is written about Glahn in the third person, but anonymously, and its preoccupations are suspiciously similar to those in the body text, although the colonial Indian setting of the epilogue furnishes an altogether more biting and “modern” tone.

The book is short, even with the translator’s introduction, which is divided between biographical information on author Knut Hamsun and interpretive concerns regarding Pan which would probably be better appreciated after reading the novel. This 1998 Penguin edition, translated by Sverre Lyngstad, also includes some explanatory notes and editorial annotations tracing the reconciliation of the Norwegian first edition and later issuance in Hamsun’s Collected Works.