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The Labyrinth Index

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Labyrinth Index by Charles Stross.

Stross The Labyrinth Index

“We fight on so that something that remembers being human might survive.” (199)

The ninth of the Laundry Files novels allegedly begins a new plot arc, and it does conspicuously shift focus to characters that have previously been more peripheral to the series. But its enjoyment is still highly dependent on prior familiarity with the concepts and broad narrative that Stross has worked up in the previous volumes. Some exposition in the opening chapter is pitched just about right for returning junkies like me, who haven’t had a fix since The Delirium Brief was published a year earlier, but it’s not sufficient to ramp up real appreciation for the setting and character motivations here.

Without serious spoilering, since all of this is clear in the opening chapter, I can say that this book delivered two unexpected features right off. First, the narrating character switches to Mhari Murphy, who was introduced in the very first book, but has never before occupied the role of storyteller-diarist. Second, most of The Labyrinth Index takes place in the United States. I doubt Charles Stross has read The Last Days of Christ the Vampire (and I’m not sure whatever became of my copy, read back in the 1980s), but there are some interesting points of conceptual contact between the two books.

As a commentary on the current state of American politics, the Stross novel is a bit oblique. In the contemporary Laundryverse USA under conditions of ongoing Nazgul-based coup, it is magically forbidden to think of the American Presidency, whereas in the “real” Trumplandia it is required that we think about it all the time. In any case, he still manages to highlight the extent to which the Imperial Presidency of the 21st century has all of the power and most of the institutional and cultural vices of an actual monarchy.

It was no surprise that I wolfed this book down in a couple of days. The story is consistent with the level of increased gloom established in the immediately previous volume, and it is dedicated to the author’s father, who seems to have died while it was being written. The bleakness is not completely unrelenting, though. As usual, there is some real wit in the writing, and in the end the state of affairs is not markedly worse than the beginning. Indeed, under some definitions of the word, the book would qualify as a “comedy.”

The Ear of the Other

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation by Jacques Derrida.

Derrida The Ear of the Other

The Ear of the Other is a heterogeneous mix of texts treating the themes of ears, texts, translation, reflection, and gender. The foremost of the component documents is a Derrida lecture entitled “Otobiographies: The Teaching of Nietzsche and the Politics of the Proper Name.” All by itself, this 35 pages would have been worth the trouble of the book. It is in some ways a sequel to Derrida’s other treatment of Nietzsche in Spurs, but “the Teaching of Nietzsche” refers not only to what Nietzsche taught, but also to the event of Nietzsche’s work being taught by others. The context of Nietzsche’s reception by “the Nazi ideologues” is expressly confronted here. The chief Nietzsche text serving as a point of orientation is Ecce Homo, and its “otobiographical” elements serve to create their author more than vice versa, at least as I understand Derrida’s exposition of the conundrum.

Derrida had given the lecture at a 1979 conference at the University of Montreal, and the following parts of the book consist of transcripts from two subsequent “roundtable” discussions at the same conference, organized respectively around the themes of autobiography and translation. The various scholars in dialogue with Derrida in these sessions basically offer mini-lectures to which he responds at length. So much is this the case that each has its own title: Claude Lévesque offers “That Incredible Terrible Thing Which Was Not” on the autobiography topic, for example, and Christie McDonald’s piece on translation is called “The Passage into Philosophy.”

The book ends with a substantial correspondence interview of Derrida by McDonald from 1981, entitled “Choreographies.” The interview is especially helpful, in that it helps to supply a bridge between Spurs and “Otobiographies.” It also revisits “the Teaching of Nietzsche” in the form of Derrida’s subversively sexualizing readings of Heidegger’s interpretation of Nietzsche.

In both the interview and the roundtables there is a great deal of reference to Derrida’s earlier works, such as The Postcard and Glas. There is also some discussion of Derrida’s relationship to the term “deconstruction,” which had come to serve as a general label for his work, outside of his own intention for it. On the whole, there is a real sense of retrospection in this book, as contrasted with some later Derrida volumes that seem to make fewer demands on the reader for familiarity with Derrida’s oeuvre. This book is not an auspicious point of entry into Derrida’s ideas, but it does contain some powerful and revealing developments of them.

Thelema

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Thelema: An Introduction to the Life, Work & Philosophy of Aleister Crowley by Hermetic Library Fellow Colin D Campbell.

Campbell Thelema

As the title says, this book is an “Introduction” to Thelemic teachings and practices. It assumes no previous knowledge on the reader’s part, and offers only a primer-level treatment of its topics. It is clear and fairly comprehensive, however. Grizzled veterans of Thelemic magick will no doubt find nits to pick, but this book also gets some things correct that are often misrepresented in other books for beginners (e.g. the sequence of the N.O.X. signs). The prose style is informal on the whole, and the book does a respectable job of making its subject matter accessible to an uninformed readership.

The first sixty pages or so consist of a biography of Aleister Crowley, which is fair enough but has only its relative brevity to recommend it in comparison to others available. A major part on “philosophy” follows, and then finally one on practices. At the end of each short section throughout the book, author Campbell makes recommendations for further study, which are prudent and helpful in a book of this sort. These are usually focused on primary sources written by Crowley or his predecessors.

This book, like many of its type, includes an unauthorized version of the full text of Crowley’s Gnostic Mass, which while common, I don’t think is a great favor to the beginning student, and it comes off seeming like it’s “padding” the author’s own text. I would rather have seen a brief explanation of the often-misunderstood relationship between EGC and OTO, and Campbell’s own (admittedly non-authoritative) take on the purposes of the Gnostic Mass in practice. At the book’s end, he refers interested readers to the legacy institutions of Crowley’s Thelema: OTO and A∴A∴ He gives a nod to the contemporary dilemma of competing A∴A∴ representative-claimants and lists addresses for two of them.

The cover of the trade paperback edition is quite attractive, and combined with its affordable price, I suspect that Campbell’s Thelema may become a point of entry for curious young readers exploring modern occultism. They could certainly do worse. Its reasonable advocacy and rather undemanding exposition would suit it to shelving in public libraries, as far as I’m concerned.

Boneshaker

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Boneshaker: A Novel of the Clockwork Century by Cherie Priest.

Priest Boneshaker

I noted the positive press regarding Boneshaker when it first came out, and I had meant to get around to reading it at some point. Almost a decade later, I tipped my daughter off to it, since she was developing an interest in steampunk. She read it and liked it a lot, and so insisted that I read it in my turn. Set in the late 19th century, it concerns a woman pursuing her runaway son into a walled-off Seattle, Washington full of poison gas and zombies.

It was all right, but I don’t know that I’ll go on to the sequels. The basic adventure story, exploring the ruined city and meeting its denizens, was just fine. Airship battles are fun, but I’m not terribly entertained by zombie swarms. The plot resolution with its final reveal was pretty satisfying, and made sense out of some of the protagonist’s earlier behavior. While the author apologizes for/defends her historical and geographic inaccuracies in an appended note, nevertheless I think that the story might offer extra enjoyment for those more familiar with the 21st-century city of Seattle.

I got the impression that the story as originally drafted may have started more in media res, but that the preliminary exposition was grafted on in order to accommodate a less sophisticated readership. On the other hand, the whole book has more than a little YA about it, and that may just have been the plan all along. I guess I can see why this book is considered exemplary in its sub-genre, but it wasn’t such a stand-out read for me.

On the Secret Teachings and the Hidden Mythos

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gnostic Notebook: Volume Five: On the Secret Teachings and the Hidden Mythos by Timothy James Lambert.

Lambert On the Secret Teachings and the Hidden Mythos

Reviewed on the basis of a complimentary copy from the author. (Nevertheless, this review contains only my usual biases.)

Although the jacket copy refers to a forthcoming “new book” from Timothy James Lambert, this fifth volume of The Gnostic Notebook appears to be the final book of that project. It does successfully take up all sorts of esoteric threads that were left lying in the earlier volumes, in service here to Lambert’s distinctive exegesis of the synoptic gospels, and concluding the discussion of the seven chief parables which has extended through the series. On the Secret Teachings and the Hidden Mythos is structured very much like its immediate predecessor On the Fruit of Knowledge and the Precession of the Ages, moving on from ancient Hebrew scripture to the Greek tales of Jesus. As before, at least half of the book’s text is direct quotation from various translations of the Bible.

An important concept relatively latent in the earlier books, but brought out in great relief early in this volume, is the notion of centuries-long human “breeding programs” among the ancient Hebrews, engineered by a sometimes-secretive goddess cult. The impression provided is something like a cross between the Bene Gesserit of Dune and the Cirinists of Cerebus. This background motivates an intriguing comparative study of the gospel genealogies of Jesus.

One of Lambert’s hermeneutic idiosyncrasies is an insistence on aggregating similarly named but customarily distinct characters of the Gospels. Many Marys are collapsed into one, just as there can be only one Simon, one John, and so forth. The narrative consequences of these identifications tend to be startling, to say the least. Those familiar with Gnostic scriptures should enjoy the solutions offered here for the origins of Christian baptism, the removal of the head of John, and other enigmas. The application of logion 13 from the Gospel of Thomas to clarify the Transfiguration is a clever approach, although I did not find Lambert’s explanation of logion 13 itself to be as compelling as the one that I have received through initiated sources. (“Lord, you are like the most discreet and perceptive bartender.”)

A “Conclusion” sums up Lambert’s between-the-lines revision of the gospel story in a mere three pages! If he were to revisit the material of this book in a different style, presenting it as a straightforward but detailed story in which his readings were made obvious (rather than the long Bible quotes with often obliquely hinting interpretive expositions of the Notebook series), I think it would be more accessible, and at least as likely to blow the minds of any readers with conventional orientations to the Bible. There could be a Gnostic Gospel of Timothy James perhaps, maybe with a supplementary Secret Book of Timothy James to cover his version of key Hebrew scriptures.

Lambert professes disinterest in establishing facts about an objective historical Jesus. He is instead supplying a provocative variant reading of the biblical texts, undertaking what Ioan Couliano characterized in The Tree of Gnosis as a characteristically Gnostic activity of creative misprision with respect to scripture. Lambert neither proves nor even claims that he is in receipt of any perspective authoritatively transmitted outside of the texts, but the work demonstrated in these books shows that the Bible can still support the sort of hair-raising doctrinal experimentation found among the ancient Gnostics.

Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker.

Pinsker Sooner or Later Everything Falls into the Sea

This collection of Sarah Pinsker’s stories includes several with a minimum of near-future speculation, set in the likely advances of technology and the unraveling of our civilization. There are a few outright fantasies riffing on established mythemes: golem, sirens, costumed superheroine. There is one story set on an interstellar generation ship, and one is a locked-room murder mystery at an inter-dimensional hotel conference.

Pinsker is a musician, and this attribute is key to several of her protagonists, particularly in the longer stories. The murder mystery “And Then There Were (N-One)” has the author’s identity reflected into the prohibitive majority of its many characters, and thus may serve as an allegory of her writing process. The emotional richness of her stories must be a projective result of introspection. In the generation ship story “Wind Will Rove,” music serves as an emblem of the complex relationship between cultural continuity and creativity.

The focus on the moral dilemmas of characters in transformed worlds was central to many of these stories. “Remembery Day” is one I could easily imagine being written by James Morrow. Although there is a recurrent sense of whimsy, all of these stories are within reach of a deep vein of sadness. I was especially impressed with the piece “In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind,” for the way that it managed to evoke a positive emotional tone at the end of a tale of sorrow compounded through reminiscence.

On the whole, this is an admirable assortment of stories. I think they will speak powerfully to any intelligent reader, not just genre fans.

The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse by Elaine K Gazda.

Gazda The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii

I borrowed this book as a byproduct of a failed library search for Vittorio Macchioro’s Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii (1931). The Villa of the Mysteries: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse turns out to be a collection of scholarship organized around an exhibition at the Kelsey Museum of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the autumn of the year 2000, including a full exhibit catalog. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a set of watercolor reproductions of the frescoes from Room V of the Villa of the Mysteries, commissioned from Italian artist Maria Borosso in the 1920s. In addition to related antiquities, the show included work by contemporary artists inspired by the murals of the Villa.

The Villa of the Mysteries is on the outskirts of Pompeii, and was a relatively late archaeological find, coming to light only in 1909. The impressive paintings on the walls of Room V have a hieratic quality and appear to be related to some sort of mystery cult. A conspicuous central figure is evidently Bucchus (a.k.a. Liber or Dionysus), although the female figure with whom he is paired has been partly effaced, and there is little agreement on whether she is meant to represent Semele, Ariadne, Aphrodite/Venus, or even an initiand of the rite being depicted. Several of the papers in this collection are concerned to supply a more focused historical context in first century B.C.E. Campania for the interpretation of the ancient images. Others are concerned to enter the discussion about the actual function of Room V within the Villa. There are also studies of women’s roles in classical mystery cults, imitation and artistic originality in the frescoes, and the modern reception of these works.

Most useful to me were a set of three papers treating the general state of knowledge regarding the ancient Roman cults of Bacchus. Especially informative was Elizabeth de Grummond’s “Bacchic Imagery and Cult Practice in Roman Italy,” which uses archaeological and art historical resources in efforts to understand the operation of the ancient religion. De Grummond reproduces a table of titles taken from a roster of over three hundred cult personnel engraved into a plinth at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I found quite illuminating.

I’m sure I would have enjoyed the actual exhibit immensely, but I probably learned more by means of my relatively quick read of this volume.

Tales of the Knights Templar

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tales of the Knights Templar, edited by Katherine Kurtz.

Kurtz Tales of the Knights Templar

Here’s an odd little book that I picked up for a song at a Friends of the Library book sale. Although LibraryThing lists it as the fourth book of Katherine Kurtz’s Adept series, that applies to only one of the stories collected here. Similarly, although the entire volume is included as the third book of the Knights Templar series by Kurtz and Deborah Turner Harris, this book appears to be the first of those to have been published, and its contents span a full range of Templar history, quasi-history, and pseudo-history from the twelfth century to the present. The individual tales all have their first publication in this book, and they were written by what appears to be a loose cabal of contemporaneous authors, many with social ties beyond their collaboration on this project.

Kurtz serves as the editor, and presents the stories in a roughly chronological sequence–albeit somewhat muddled by instances of prophetic precognition, astral consultation of the past, and straight-up science fictional time travel. In between the stories, she supplies bridging “interludes” that address themselves to the broad outlines of Templar history as conventionally understood. She also wrote the story “Obligations” that is part of the continuity of her Adept series.

The quality of the tales is rather variable, but mostly quite good. Easily my favorite is “Choices” by Richard Woods, which affords a very informed take on holy orders and heresy in fourteenth-century Paris, with Meister Eckhart as a principal character. Tanya Huff’s “Word of Honor” was a slick trans-Atlantic ghost story. I was also impressed with the Nazi quest for Templars in Scott MacMillan’s “1941,” which reminded me of my recent read of Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, transposed to the register of a weird horror short story. The dog of the bunch was “Stealing God,” a Templar-flavored espionage urban fantasy that was basically a shorter version of Charles Williams’ War In Heaven with massive infusions of Hollywood-style stupid.

Although the facing-title page contains a small advertisement for the Templar-claimant chivalric and benevolent SMOTJ, I think this book should be entertaining on some level to Masonic and occultist neo-Templars as well. Although I’m hardly anxious to read them, I would pick up another book in either of the related Kurtz series on basis of the virtues in this one.

The Centauri Device

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Centauri Device [also] by M John Harrison.

Harrison The Centauri Device

Harrison The Centauri Device SF Masterworks

The jacket copy on the back of this book begins “Bastard son of a port whore …,” and gives an impression of this book’s contents that is unusually accurate among 1970s SF paperbacks. Its setting is a twenty-fourth century in which an interstellar cold war is heating up, and the rival superpowers are both terrestrially-based: the Israeli World Government and the Union of Arabic Socialist Republics. Protagonist John Truck is an alienated loser, who the reader soon finds out is also descended from an alien survivor of human-perpetrated genocide. The “device” of the title is an enigmatic find from the ruined Centauran homeworld, which the agents of the competing powers each think will give them the edge. Other players in the game where Truck seems to be a pawn include a cabal of space anarchists led by a aesthete, an interstellar drug business and its kingpin, and the evangelical cult of the Openers, who have windows surgically installed to reveal their innards.

Although Harrison seems not to be especially proud of this early effort, saying it was from before he “learned to write,” it still stands out as bucking the trends of space opera in interesting ways. The antihero John Truck is not too unusual in the new wave science fiction set that Harrison participated in. I enjoyed the surprising passel of Swinburne references, especially to Atalanta in Calydon, along with allusions to Huysmanns and other decadents. Admittedly, most of what Harrison does well in this book, he does again far better in the more recent Kefahuchi Tract novels.

The Theatre of the Occult Revival

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Theatre of the Occult Revival: Alternative Spiritual Performance from 1875 to the Present by Edmund Lingan, part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History series.

Lingan The Theatre of the Occult Revival

Edmund Lingan’s scholarly monograph on The Theatre of the Occult Revival treats a worthwhile topic. The specific case studies which account for the bulk of the book concern the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society headed by Katherine Tingley, the Anthroposophical Society of Rudolf and Marie Steiner, Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, the Rosicrucian Order Crotona Fellowship of Alex Mathews, and Gerald Gardner’s witchcraft. A final chapter also explores the theatrical aspects of more recent neopagan and occultist scenes.

The author uses a contemporary academic framework for his understanding of “the Occult Revival,” crediting Faivre and Hanegraaff for much of his information on Western esotericism, and Hutton and Barker for Wicca and neopagan movements. He has also done a lot of valuable archival research on the subtopics with which I was least familiar, such as Tingley’s theatre and the ROCF. In addition, he took the praiseworthy step of “field research” interviewing contemporary participants and auditing performances in the persisting occultist milieus of Anthroposophy, Thelema, and Wicca.

Lingan emphasizes and reiterates throughout the book that the founders and societies of occultism have had an important orientation to theater as a modality for religious expression, instruction, and integration with the larger exoteric culture. He does not enter in to the question of whether this makes them more or less like other, more well-known religious bodies and traditions. He does a reasonable job of distinguishing the spectrum from ritualistic theater–for which his paradigm is furnished by Symbolists like Maeterlinck–to theatrical ritual produced by occultists. But he is fuzzier regarding any possible boundary between theatrical composition and religious liturgy, an issue that might have been brought into greater relief if he had used traditional Christianity as a comparandum.

Despite the inherent interest of the material, the prose style of the book is not especially engaging. It is useful for someone who has an existing curiosity trained on one aspect or another of its subject matter, but it is unlikely to serve to cultivate such interest. I found this book well worth my time, but I would only recommend it to others who share the intensity of my research focus touching on its contents.