Tag Archives: book

Black Helicopters

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Black Helicopters by Caitlín R Kiernan.

Kiernan Black Helicopters

The “Author’s note for the definitive edition” appended to the paperback of Black Helicopters clarifies that it was written prior to the novel to which it has since been published as a sequel, Agents of Dreamland. Although the Signalman from Agents does make an appearance here, it is only in one chapter, composed after the main text and after Kiernan had decided to connect the stories. Immacolata Sexton does not appear. This book features shoggoths, rather than the mi-go of Agents, but it’s really the humans who are creepiest in both books.

Black Helicopters doesn’t actually feature helicopters very conspicuously, and the narrative is non-sequential and all over the map: jumping between 2001, 2012, 2035, 2114, 2152, and other dates more difficult to decipher. Its ludic theme is grounded in chess, more particularly, the chess of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, while scientific themes include chaos theory, quantum physics, and paleontology. This last topic is one of prior professional interest to Kiernan, who has worked in the field. In fact, she admits to a strong autobiographical streak in the paleontological characters, crediting them with her own scientific achievements (and getting paid back in their glamorous outre narratives).

I think I preferred the shorter and more focused Agents of Dreamland to Black Helicopters, but this book was still a pretty quick read and a lot of fun. It will be best enjoyed by those who can appreciate the author’s scientific and cultural allusions, and who like terse, cautious dialogue among mistrusting interlocutors. The appended “remix” of Chapter 9 supplies the English for a conversation that the body of the book presents only in French. Since the chapter is set in the future relative to most of the rest of the book, non-Francophone readers will appropriately read it only after coming to the end.

Since the “series” relationship of this book to its other seems to have been an organic happenstance rather than deliberate plan, I only hope that it has inspired Kiernan to work on further stories in the same continuum.

I looked to the back of my eyeballs as I tried to drift off in the waking darkness of my insomniac night, and then, it may seem crazy, but I popped out of my body as if on an elastic band.

Parker Gordon, Parallel Lives

Hermetic quote Gordon Parallel out

The Dark Labyrinth

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dark Labyrinth by Lawrence Durrell.

Durrell The Dark Labyrinth

Lawrence Durrell’s second novel The Dark Labyrinth was originally published as Cefalu in 1947. It’s not clear why he uses the name of the Sicilian village for his fictional locale in Crete. An appended author’s note quotes at length the passage from Henry Fanshawe Tozer’s Islands of the Aegean (1875) that he says inspired the book. My Dutton paperback copy touts itself as an “early novel by the author of Justine” rather than an independent interest.

The main concern of the novel is with a sightseeing party from an English cruise, who are lost after an accident in a subterranean labyrinth in Crete. They enjoy a surprisingly wide diversity of fates. There is a flavor of allegory about the book, and the carefully constructed characters include a poet, a shorthand typist, a painter, an evangelist, a spiritualist-occultist, and a married couple. There is also a side story concerning a gentleman veteran rehabilitating his mental health and doing a bit of espionage.

Once I got the rhythm of the book, it was a speedy read. Durrell does not at all belabor the mythological allusions; there is perhaps just one mention of Ariadne, although the Minotaur is an active presence in the form of an indeterminate menace in the labyrinth itself–one which resolves differently for different characters. The Dark Labyrinth is not a genre novel, yet the later chapters swing rather dramatically among such strange attractors as horror and mystical philosophy, without being subordinated to them.

The Gospel of Philip

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gospel of Philip: Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and the Gnosis of Sacred Union by Jean-Yves Leloup, trans Joseph Rowe, and foreword by Jacob Needleman.

LeLoup Needleman The Gospel of Philip

The Gospel of Philip is from the large and important Codex II of the Nag Hammadi Library, and it consists of mystical pronouncements having to do with salvation and the Christian sacraments, notably the nymphon (“bridal chamber”). This edition is one of a set of ancient Gnostic scriptures in double translation being issued by the Inner Traditions imprint; they are translated from the Coptic into French by Orthodox theologian Jean-Yves LeLoup, and in this case Englished by Joseph Rowe. I have previously read and appreciated Leloup’s treatment of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. As in that case, the translated text is printed in parallel with a typeset version of the Coptic original. The sequence of the contents is different than I have seen in other editions of the Gospel of Philip, but it evidently follows the first translation by H.M. Schenke (1960). Leloup provides reference to the original codex pagination, and also supplies a division into 127 numbered logia (“sayings”) that may be original here.

Again, consistent with the presentation in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the English edition of Leloup’s Gospel of Philip features a foreword by American scholar of religions Jacob Needleman. While I had found Needleman’s contribution in the Mary volume to be a bit credulous and underwhelming, I found him more restrained and effective in his remarks leading into Philip.

In Leloup’s thirty-page interpretive introduction, he is at pains to present the Gospel of Philip as standing in a mutually illuminating dialogue with the gospels of the biblical canon, rather than a heretical deviation or more authentic alternative. His reading (followed by Needleman) is that the nymphon is a mystically enhanced approach to the conjugal act of human sex. To arrive at this perspective, Leloup draws on more recent kabbalistic materials, including Abulafian doctrines, as interpreted by Charles Mopsik. Leloup reads a number of logia as enjoining what I would characterize as magical eugenics.

This understanding is at variance with an interpretation of the Gospel of Philip I have previously encountered in the work of Kurt Rudolph, who took the nymphon to be the site of “the union of the gnostic with his ‘angel image’.” I think the translation provided by Leloup can equally support either reading. Furthermore, I think that both readings are likely to be of value to esoteric practitioners of my own neo-gnostic stripe.

Odd Jobs: so called not because they were varied or petty but because they could only be collectively described as odd; Missions into a world of mysticism, the occult and sometimes even the horrific and nightmarish. A world beyond a war, beyond man and his understanding.

Nikolai Bird, Cthulhu – Something in the Mud

Hermetic quote Bird Cthulhu jobs

The Wizard and the Witch

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Wizard and the Witch: Seven Decades of Counterculture, Magick & Paganism by John Sulak, foreword by Carl Llewellyn Weschcke.

Sulak Weschcke The Wizard and the Witch

The Wizard & the Witch is a dual biography of Oberon and Morning Glory Zell, constructed as an oral history. John C. Sulak interviewed over fifty different people in order to assemble the firsthand accounts that make up the body of the book. Although most were almost certainly interviewed separately, the editorial process has set them into dialogue with each other as Sulak works through chronological and topical segments of the book. With one conspicuous holdout, he was able to garner input from a great range of family members, lovers, and creative collaborators. Not all of the accounts are complimentary, but all have the ring of sincerity.

The earliest sections reach back into the childhoods of the two subjects, and the story is told up to 2009. It traces the religious vocations of the Zells and the vicissitudes of the Church of All Worlds of which Oberon was a founder, and with which they are identified. Although first developed as a science-fiction-inspired “grok flock,” CAW became a vanguard of public-facing neopaganism in the United States. Oberon later gained some notoriety for his cryptozoological efforts concerning unicorns and mermaids, and these are treated here also. Morning Glory Zell is commonly credited with coining the word polyamory, and the book provides ample detail on the Zells’ unconventional sexual ethics, their amorous involvements, and the developments of their various households.

I was a personal acquaintance of at least one person named in this book, and I can recall having attended a modest-sized pagan festival in central Texas where Morning Glory was present, so I understand myself to be two degrees of separation at most from the people in this book. Although I am a generation younger than the Zells, I found it easy to appreciate their life experiences by relating my own to some of the accounts given here. Certainly, many readers might consider this story to be an exotic one, but the motives, ideals, and foibles characteristic of the people involved are ones that I recognize, and in most instances, respect. The book is an enjoyable read, and even for those who may understand themselves to have less of a personal interest in the events and persons described, it vividly recounts a valuable perspective on the development of new religious expressions in twentieth-century America.

Echoing all that has been written on and in favor of women, I am only trying to say that in the mystical and initiatory world “they do exist” also.

Hélène Bernard, Great Women Initiates

Bernard Women exist

Hermetic History — Erase It or Face It

LeGrand Cinq-Mars reviews Ecstatic transformation: Transpersonal Psychology in the Work of Mechthild of Magdeburg by Ulrike Wiethaus and a dissertation The Kabbalistic thought of Eliphas Levi and its influence on modern occultism in America by Robert L Uzzel [see] in the archive of Caduceus: The Hermetic Quarterly.

Wiethaus Ecstatic Transformation

Esotericism, “hermetism,” hermeticism, even magic — there is something of a vogue for these now, it seems, in the world of the official academies. Anthropologists do their field work among urban ceremonial magicians, and textual scholars assess the transmission of grimoires and books of shadows. Their publications are not sold only to large research libraries: the editions of the Nag Hammadi texts, or even the edition and translation of the Greek magical papyri, are not read only, or even largely, by academic specialists. Magicians add the special mojo of philology to their bags of tricks, and magical orders produce critical editions of the works of their founders.

Yet this interpenetration is somewhat less than mutual. These subjects are often approached, from the academic side, with the handy medusa’s head of theory to protect against the possibility of “going native,” or the bland assurance that such things have long since passed from the world to protect against the possibility that any large lecture class may contain devotees of rehabilitated deities for whom monotheism and atheism are equally implausible.

But there is no guarantee of distance, nowadays. A class on Druse or Tibetan religion may well contain Druse or Tibetan students. Nor is there any guarantee that theoretical constructs of the social sciences have been developed only in the hydroponic purity of the academy.

The two works reviewed here both ride this wave of renewed academic interest. Yet they do so on very different trajectories. One is published by a university press, the other extracted from the hoard of University Microfilms; one is a study of a respected mystic, the other a study of someone whose work was described (by no less an authority than Gershom Scholem) as “supreme charlatanism”; one assumes various postures in the heady, non-ordinary world of modern cultural and literary theory, while the other does not give any indication that the author knows such a world exists. The first may not seem to have much connection with the interests of this journal; the other is firmly connected with them. But they both deal with these interests, and the way in which they do so casts light on each other, and on different approaches to studying the history of esoteric traditions.

Wiethaus, for her part, sets out to study the work of Mechtild of Magdeburg in the light of the transpersonal psychology, with extra references to the realm of cultural theory, especially feminist theory and a certain related idea of spirituality. This psychological approach has roots in the work of Abraham Maslow, who, in the early 1950s, in opposition to the largely behaviorist trend in academic psychology, became interested in the study of experience, especially what he came to call “peak experience.” He came to regard peak experiences as characteristic of a stage of development that followed the successful accomplishment of a hierarchy of developmental tasks aimed at satisfying biological and interpersonal needs. Other important, though later, figures in the movement are Stanislav Grof, a psychoanalytically-oriented psychiatrist whose early work developed from his experience in Czechoslovakia with the clinical use of LSD, Ken Wilber, a theoretician rather than a clinician, who has a strong interest in the transformative potential of human consciousness.

The term ”transpersonal psychology,” often used for the work of these and similar writers, indicates a psychology that is oriented beyond the personal and toward the more-than-personal. Although in one sense this development promises a kind of de-mystified mysticism, in another sense (like generic “core shamanism”) it offers a mysticism unmoored from any developed social and community context, and permeated with assumptions (for example, about the need to satisfy needs hierarchically) that are not in fact shared by many mystical traditions.

The enterprise of transpersonal psychology is complicated by the connections, many of them far from explicit, of various transpersonal psychologists with various forms of spiritual practice. These carry with them clear philosophical, theological, or ideological positions, which are often re-packaged in the guise of psychological formulations.

Now, whenever one puts a topic through the mill of an interpretive approach, one risks finding the object of one’s study to be an illustration of the interpretive apparatus one has brought to bear on it. This is a danger that Wiethaus seems to take no pains to avoid. She demonstrates, oddly, no sense that the systems and thinkers she uses in her approach have a history, or that there is anything problematic about them. She accepts her theoretical authorities simply as given, with a lack of critical appraisal that leads her into anachronism and self-undermining judgments.

For example, in an extended discussion of R. M. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness, she criticizes his “hierarchical” and “elitist” understanding of the kind of person who could achieve the experience of cosmic consciousness — the kind of person that he understood as being closest to the cutting edge of evolution. Wiethaus objects that he has not integrated his mystical experience (which, because mystical, must have been non-hierarchical and non-elitist) with a critical assessment of the values of his patriarchal culture. (Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs is not, somehow, as objectionable.)

Wiethaus shows no awareness of the ways in which evolutionary schemes had been merged with ideas of mystical achievement during the Nineteenth century, so that spiritual achievement was often seen (certainly not just by Bucke) as an almost biological progress up the Great Chain of Being. And she supposes that “mysticism” is everywhere and always universalist and non-hierarchical, because her modern authorities counterpose “spirituality” and “oppression” (and since hierarchy is oppression, and oppression hierarchy, spirituality must be apart from either). Any acceptance of hierarchy, then, especially on the part of a female mystic, becomes a clear sign of an incompletely realized spirituality, and especially an incompletely realized female spirituality.

She uses approaches and formulations developed by writers affiliated with such enterprises as Oscar Ichazo’s Arica Foundation, the Gurdjieff movement, Vedanta, and modern magico-political religious movements, without any indication that these authors and their ideas did not spring full-grown from eternity — and without any sense that there might be something problematic in using them to understand a medieval Catholic mystic (male or female). This is rather like using the thought of (say) Ian Paisley as a basis for understanding the work of James Joyce, because they are, after all, both Irish.

Even more piquantly, for someone who speaks against the erasure of women’s voices from history, Wiethaus discusses the psychosynthesis of Roberto Assagioli without once giving any sign of recognizing his place in the history of esotericism. Assagioli founded a movement of “psychosynthesis” that became a tributary current of transpersonal psychology. He also was translator for Alice A. Bailey in her European speaking tours. Bailey, who claimed to write as an amanuensis for a telepathic Tibetan, was herself following in the footsteps of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in her elaboration of a decidedly hierarchical, evolutionary, and even elitist scheme of spiritual development. Assagioli was also one of the first to publish systematic expositions of the kind of imaginal work commonly used in occult circles nowadays.

Yet Assagioli, like the others, is presented as a neutral “thinker” or “scientist”, with no suggestion that he might have had a history, allegiances, training, or beliefs, or that he might have been one of the sources for the kinds of practices in which Starhawk (one of Wiethaus’ authorities on feminist spirituality) was trained. Perhaps such avoidance is necessary in order to be able to mount a critique of the “male” hierarchical aspect of Assagioli’s approach; perhaps it is merely a matter of not knowing any better.

The great problem with this book is that one constantly gets the impression that the aim is less to achieve a clearer insight into Mechtild of Magdeburg than it is to appropriate her work as an exemplification of various current ideas about such Good Things as “the female”, “the mystical”, “the spiritual”, and “the marginal” — with no particular interest in the actual, historical people to whom those adjectives might be applied.

Uzzel, on the other hand, takes a much more conventional approach. He is simply interested telling us what he has learned about the influence in America of Eliphas Levi’s ideas about Kabbalah. First he tells us about Levi, relying largely on the prior work of other historians and biographers, as well as on Levi’s own work.

He sketches Levi’s influence in France and Britain, on the Golden Dawn and (in part via P. B. Randolph) on what became the Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO), and thus on Aleister Crowley, whose magical career, and continuing fascination with Levi, Uzzel summarizes fairly enough. He does not hesitate to discusses Randolph’s sexual magic and its later influences in the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and the OTO; nor does he omit to mention Crowley’s magical use of sex and drugs.

He goes on to describes Levi’s influence in Nineteenth century America, with a special focus on the mediation of that influence through the extensive appropriations of Albert Pike and thus through American Freemasonry. He also traces Levi’s influence on Blavatsky and her Theosophical Society, and a series of other American movements and organizations, including various magical and esoteric groups like the Ordo Templi Orientis, the Builders of the Adytum, and Order of the Temple of Astarte (OTA). He concludes with a summary of what he takes to be Levi’s influence in this century and the last.

Uzzel addresses the vexed question of Pike’s racism with fraternal forbearance, but does not flinch away from reporting clearly the evidence that Pike’s views were not all that one might hope for from someone pledged to universal brotherhood. Similarly, he discusses the shifts and conflicts in Levi’s thoughts and attitudes as ways into appreciating Levi as a human being, and not simply as a plaster magus.

Uzzel has consulted the relevant works, even the most recent histories of Nineteenth century occult movements. But he has gone further. He wrote to various contemporary organizations, including the OTO and the OTA, and also had telephone conversations with various responsible officials in those organizations. He reports this correspondence, and these conversations, because it makes sense to him to ask people what they think, and to take their answers seriously (though sometimes not without a certain deadpan irony).

The sober biographical note that inevitably accompanies doctoral dissertations informs us that Uzzel is an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the chairman of the Department of Religion at an AME college in Dallas, and that he is an active member of various branches of Prince Hall Freemasonry. He is, in a sense, writing both as an insider and an outsider to traditions that shaped Levi, and that Levi, in various ways, shaped. Uzzel’s Christianity is not Levi’s Catholicism, but the traditions of theological debate make the well-formulated differences a royal road to understanding the issues at stake. Uzzel’s Freemasonry is not (as no real Freemasonry could be) Levi’s idealized initiatic mystery school, but it has had to define itself and defend itself from both admirers and detractors, and bears the scars of these conflicts as badges of honor.

Perhaps the major gap in Uzzel’s treatment of Levi’s influence is his lack of attention to Levi as a stylist. He says little about the influence of Levi’s particular wit and style, with its delight in paradox, and in the insight that paradox brings. (One might say that the idea of the conjunction and interplay of opposites was explored in the German manner by Nicholas of Cusa, in the Swiss manner by C. G. Jung, and in the French manner by Eliphas Levi.) It was Levi’s spirit of paradox and serious play, of delight in the deception that reveals and the revelation that re-veils, that so many have found so attractive in his writing, and that has had a literary and stylistic influence far beyond the influence of specific ideas or concepts. It was Levi, too, who did not shrink from donning the mantle of charlatanism as a fashion statement, and making of it a master’s gown.

Wiethaus, for all her official daring, can only see the respectable side of her subject; for all her admiration for the margins, she ultimately wants to make the margins respectable, and marginalize what to her is dubious or suspect. Uzzel, on the other hand, perhaps because of the conventionality of his approach, shows no signs of anxiety. He examines the sectarianism, the scandal, the sexual magic, and the often peculiar allegiances of his subjects, without batting an eyelash.

If the contrast seems ironic, it is worth remembering that official daring is first of all official, and official interest in the margins is almost always associated with a colonizing agenda.