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The Stages of Higher Knowledge

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Stages of Higher Knowledge by Rudolf Steiner.

Steiner The States of Higher Knowledge

This small book contains a series of essays first published in the German-language Theosophical organ Lucifer-Gnosis during the first decade of the twentieth century. According to the preface by Steiner’s widow, the series, which took as its point of departure the text of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds and Its Attainment, was aborted by the cessation of Lucifer-Gnosis and the transfer of Steiner’s organizing efforts to his new vehicle Anthroposophy.

The stages invoked in the title are Imagination, Inspiration, and Intuition, corresponding in Theosophical jargon (not much used here) to the Astral, Etheric, and Causal planes. This sequence involves increasing abstraction from the empirical world of matter, along with a refinement of psychic processes and a turning-inward of the senses. A certain amount of implied standardization in this account may be misplaced. For example, Steiner writes that “Astral beings can also be ‘tasted’ or ‘smelled.’–Only what constitutes in the actual sense the physical element of tone and sound is almost wholly lacking in the real imaginative world” (51). Yet in one of the most significant visionary accounts from Steiner’s own period, it is written: “And there cometh an interior voice, which sayeth to the seer that he hath trained his eyes well and can see much; and he hath trained his ears a little, and can hear a little; but his other senses hath he trained scarcely at all, and therefore the Aethyrs are almost silent to him on those planes” (Liber CDXVIII, 4th Aethyr).

Both the preface by Marie Steiner and a supplementary piece of front matter by Rudolf Steiner–the latter copied from the preface of the 1914 reissue of Knowledge of the Higher Worlds–are concerned to mitigate and downplay these articles’ emphasis on the importance of firsthand instruction from an accomplished occult practitioner. Even in the body of the original text, this issue is raised with some sense of tension:

“As has been frequently mentioned, it is owing to the special conditions of our time that these things are and must be published. But also, on the other hand, it must be ever again emphasized that while it has thus been made easier to acquire occult knowledge, sure guidance through an experienced occult teacher is not yet to be dispensed with.” (46)

That “yet” suggests that Steiner was already looking forward to the position taken in the later writings of the front matter, where he hopes that an occult mentor “will assume the same position in spiritual schooling as a teacher occupies, in conformity with modern views, in any other field of knowledge” (xiv). Still, if my experience is any guide, the autodidact in occultism is at a great disadvantage compared to those with personal instruction and proper initiation. The traditional emphasis on a preceptor is understandable, even if it carries its own hazards in a secular world where authentication of such figures is bound to be dubious. [via]


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews AcceptanceVanderMeer Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer.

The first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy is a first-person journal written by the biologist. The second book is a not-so-omniscient third person narrative centered on the actions and perceptions of the character Control. In this final book, the protagonist function is distributed across an assortment of characters at different points in the overall timeline, including Control, the lighthouse keeper Saul Evans, Ghost Bird (the clone of the biologist), and the penultimate Director of the Southern Reach (a.k.a. the psychologist of the twelfth expedition). The last of these characters is addressed in the second person, i.e. the reader is made to identify with her by a narrator who tells “you” what “you” are doing and thinking in her role.

This narrative fragmentation and mixing allows VanderMeer to answer many of the questions raised in the previous books, while raising a few more. The expanded perspective of Acceptance accounts for both the origins of Area X and the fates of the principal characters already introduced, so it serves as both sequel and “prequel.” Much of the story consists of episodes on the “Forgotten Coast” prior to the advent of Area X, and these are mixed in with the history of the development of the Southern Reach, along with stories of the survivors of its destruction.

In each of these books there is a singular epiphanic confrontation that rises in sublime intensity above the surrounding events. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . This third book, although it has a few episodes that are in their own way more conventionally frightening, has less of an overall trajectory of genre horror than the ones that have come before. The title is accurate — I don’t know that it would be fair to call this book’s resolution a “happy ending,” but it wasn’t horrific to me. Veteran readers of Lovecraft might consider a comparison to the coda of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”: shudderingly scary to some, inspirational to others.

I think this third volume had the most far-reaching ideas of the three, and it was in a position to make some impressive gestures on the basis of what had already been established in the prior books. But I suspect that a typical reader will be most impressed by the innovations of the first volume, and I really enjoyed the pacing and riddles of the second. For all the diversity of approach across the individual books, they are definitely pieces of a whole worth reading. [via]


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Authority by Jeff VanderMeer.

VanderMeer Authority

This second volume of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy starts in media res and ends with a cliffhanger. It displaces the focus to a new character and out of Area X proper to the Southern Reach facility where the investigations are based. The new protagonist is referenced mostly by the nickname “Control,” and he is in a nominally executive position, but the story has him constantly at the mercy of greater and more obscure forces.

Compared to Annihilation, this sequel emphasizes the espionage dimension more. It reminds me somewhat of a grimmer Laundry Files–not for the yog-sothothery, but for the Kafkaesque intelligence bureaucracy with degraded resources, hidden factions and compromised leadership. Like Annihilation, it’s very character-driven, with some clever ideas and limpid, evocative prose. It also has some startling and horrific surprises.

A physical feature of the book I read was at the start of each of the four major sections, where the text-free facing pages were progressively darkening shades of gray. It suited the theme nicely. [via]

Robert A Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 1

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century: Volume 1: Learning Curve 1907-1948 by William H. Patterson.

Patterson Robert A Heinlein In Dialogue with His Century Volume 1

The first volume of William H. Patterson’s magisterial authorized biography of science fiction patriarch Robert A. Heinlein covers an immense amount of ground, including all of Heinlein’s life prior to his work as a writer, work that he came to out of need as a third career. He had previously retired from the US Navy and worked as a political campaigner, primarily with the socialist EPIC movement in California associated with Upton Sinclair. This book spans all three of Heinlein’s marriages, his complete writing career in the pulps, his Manana Literary Society, his engineering work for the military in World War II, and his entry into the “slicks” and book authorship.

In a very minor point, I was amused at Patterson’s being stumped by a private Heinlein manuscript that mentions “Bljdf” (57), which is to my mind certainly “Alice” (a simple substitution cipher with the second letter evading encryption), i.e. Alice Catherine McBee (45).

The chief nugget I was seeking in the deep mine of this hefty tome is on page 374, where Patterson recounts Heinlein’s attendance at an Agape Lodge (Pasadena) O.T.O. Gnostic Mass in December 1945. There is a little sloppiness of detail here–Patterson characterizes the Gnostic Mass uncharitably as “a theatrical piece, rather than a true religious rite” and manages to botch every one of his three direct quotes from Liber Legis in a long explanatory endnote (569-70). But his access to Heinlein’s archives inspires confidence in his un-sourced remark that Heinlein kept “for research” the congregational missal sheet and copy of The Book of the Law he had received from the lodge.

I’m honestly feeling a fair amount of relief at having finished both hefty volumes of this work. I wish they were in my local public library for the convenience of my ongoing research, but now that I’ve read them and taken my notes, they’ve both been returned to the interlibrary system that furnished them to me. They were not quite so compelling or obviously useful that I’ll want to acquire them for my own durable collection. [via]

Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili: Re-Cognizing the Architectural Body in the Early Italian Renaissance by Liane Lefaivre.

Lefaivre Leon Battista Alberti's Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Liane Lefaivre’s 1997 book criticizes the traditional attribution of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili to Fr. Francesco Colonna of Treviso, as well as the alternative ascription to Prince Francesco Colonna of Palestrina (97-109). Her skepticism regarding Colonna’s authorship rests primarily on what she presumes to be his intellectual incapacity. She points out that he was not ordained until age thirty, and that he didn’t receive his bachelor’s degree in theology for another decade afterwards. But certainly the Hypnerotomachia demonstrates that its author’s chief preoccupation was not Christian theology. His slow academic advancement might well have been a product of his distraction from the Dominican curriculum, which Lefaivre derides as “still in the medieval scholastic mode” (100), Nevertheless, some of the medieval scholastic techniques that Colonna would necessarily have acquired in his Dominican training are evident in the Hypnerotomachia.

As Lefaivre’s title indicates, Leon Battista Alberti’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili champions authorship by the noted Florentine philosopher and architect. She came to this conclusion independently from Emanuela Kretzulesco-Quaranta (who has also offered it as a hypothesis), and Lefaivre’s book is a valuable study in various other respects, but I am unpersuaded regarding her Alberti thesis. The simplest and strongest point against Alberti’s authorship is internal to the text. Lefaivre points out repeatedly that Alberti was a virtually peerless engineer and architect of the quattrocento, and that he merited the title of geometra egregio (“distinguished geometer”) given to him by a patron (116, 120). Yet, pace Lefaivre, Poliphilo is not altogether professional when it comes to his architectural descriptions. Lefaivre notes one such instance herself, where the Doric and Corinthian orders of architecture are confused, only to unaccountably dismiss it as “an Albertian joke” (162). Another example is contained in the measurements of the great composite pyramid-obelisk. Joscelyn Godwin provides a discussion of these flawed numbers, as an example of the mathematical and architectural error that leads him to call Colonna a “very well-informed amateur of classical architecture.” He also observes that while the Hypnerotomachia author certainly must have studied and drawn terms and ideas from Alberti’s De re aedificatoria of 1450 (a point that is uniformly conceded by scholars), he often mixes Albertian and Vetruvian nomenclature for the same object. This practice is in marked contrast to Alberti’s agenda in De re aedificatoria, which, as Lefaivre states, “was to establish a clear terminology,” and to purge Greek vocabulary from the Latin treatment, substituting Latin neologisms as needed (36). Indeed, such a lexical approach could hardly contrast more strongly with the one in the Hypnerotomachia, with its superabundance of Greek neologisms prodigally mixed with Latin in a Tuscan broth.

Lefaivre also fails to situate the writing of the Hypnerotomachia convincingly in Alberti’s biography. She observes that it was longer than any of the writings attributed to Alberti, and spends the largest portion of her “biographical” discussion explaining how it would have been possible for Alberti to have lost the manuscript (178, 146-52). She points to the presence of “musical musings” in the book as distinctively “Albertian,” while having previously noted the role of music in the Dominican studies of Colonna (99, 155). Her observation that Poliphilo wears a cassock and skullcap in the woodcut illustrations may militate against the authorship of Prince Francesco, but it seems to support the monk Colonna at least as well as it does Alberti (in the latter’s uniform as a papal abbreviator). In fact, Poliphilo’s description of himself as being “like a crow among white doves” suggests the characteristic black habit of the medieval and Renaissance Dominicans. While Colonna’s biography implies that he may have earned a reputation for lustfulness or even philandering, Lefaivre admits that it is difficult to reconcile Poliphilo’s admiration of feminine forms and features with the “well-known misogyny” of Alberti (160).

Above and beyond the authorship dispute, Lefaivre is concerned to establish the Hypnerotomachia as the vehicle of a presciently modern perspective on architecture and sexuality. Her study explores its relationship to the culture of the Italian Renaissance and is a significant contribution to the understanding of Poliphilo’s adventures.

(This review is mostly excerpted from my thesis on the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, “A Renaissance Seduction of Memory.”) [via]

Grimoire of the Necronomicon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Grimoire of the Necronomicon by Donald Tyson.

Tyson Grimoire of the Necronomicon

I have praised occultist Donald Tyson’s Necronomicon pastiche as one of the best of its class. I was therefore a little disappointed with what I found in his book of practical cthulhvian magick Grimoire of the Necronomicon. On the whole, this text represents a hermetically domesticated approach to such sorcery, rife with concessions to make it accessible to the vulgar. Tyson has elaborated a conspicuously tidy pantheon of chaos deities, and burdened it with a quasi-Gnostic theology of his own devising, regarding the redemption of the goddess Barbelzoa, daughter of Azathoth.

Tyson’s introduction is written earnestly in his own voice, but the rest of the book is portentously styled as formal instruction from the (non-existent, when he wrote it) Order of the Old Ones. This postulated organization is a strange case of aspirational invented religion. The author expresses his undisguised hope that practitioners will adopt the codes of ceremony, community, and rank that he sets forth here, but also seems unwilling to admit to any efforts on his part to realize such an eventuality beyond writing the book in hand. His chapter on “The Order of the Old Ones” says it “shall be established” using the imperative tone of a constitutional document and supplies plausible mechanisms by which his proposed system could generate the Order stochastically. There are in fact traces of bloggery and facebooking from professed representatives of the Order of the Old Ones from 2010 forward, including an alleged Temple of Azathoth, but if any real organizing has been done, it has had little visibility on the ‘net. (So much the better for them, if they do exist.)

The four sections of the text are concerned with theology, material trappings, basic practices, and initiatory attainment. The material demands of the system are unambitious, and full of allowances for the limitations and convenience of the practitioner. The routine ceremonies of Nightly Obeisance and daily Rites (cycling through the seven pseudo-planetary Lords of the Old Ones) have a jarringly pious sensibility. The equinoctial Rite of the Dancing Gods has the sterile synthetic feel of much neo-Golden-Dawn-style ceremony. But the operation of “Opening the Gate” is a considered mechanism for private attainment drawing significant inspiration from Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House.” It also reminds me somewhat of Stephen Sennitt’s “Liber Koth,” a more interesting astral itinerary for sorcerers of Yog-Sothoth.

A curious internal contradiction of the system of attainment set forth in Grimoire of the Necronomicon involves the requirement that “Lords” of the Order’s highest grade must specialize in one of seven paths. The author does not overtly identify with any of them, and how he could write about them with authority is thus a puzzle.

Tyson has composed an Enochian “Long Chant” for use in his system. I give him good marks for his Enochian proficiency, and the commingling of Enochiana with yog-sothothery is well justified, but the content of the chant is so intrinsically “Barbelzoist” that I am unlikely to find any use for it. In the introduction, Aleister Crowley is mentioned in a discussion of the apparent moral valence of the system, but Tyson wisely avoids any attempt to implicate Crowley himself in yog-sothothery. The only detectable trace of actual Thelemic technique or doctrine in the body of the text is the “93 steps to the Black Throne of Azathoth” repeatedly invoked as a central image of the process of attainment.

For purposes of genuine magical work in a Lovecraftian mode, the Grimoire of the Necronomicon is inferior to Hine’s Pseudonomicon and even to the relevant parts of LaVey’s Satanic Rituals. In my library, this book’s main value will be to document the plan for an esoteric invented religion which seems not to have manifested. [via]

On the Fruit of Knowledge and the Precession of the Ages

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gnostic Notebook: Volume Four: On the Fruit of Knowledge and the Precession of the Ages by Timothy James Lambert.

Lambert The Gnostic Notebook: Volume Four: On the Fruit of Knowledge and the Precession of the Ages

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

In this fourth volume of his Gnostic Notebook series, Timothy James Lambert starts in earnest to apply the tools assembled in the first three volumes to the project that he initially forecast. Most of On the Fruit of Knowledge consists of a somewhat digressive exegesis of the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus in terms of the astrological symbolism of equinoctial precession. Lambert begins with the Age of Leo and works forward to Aries. This topic is one to which I have myself given serious attention, although I have prioritized a modern Hermetic symbol system, rather than the “Gnostic” biblical one–with its occasional odd reference to the I Ching–deployed by Lambert. (My work is in part reflected in an essay available online.) The broad outlines of our conclusions on the topic are not too dissimilar.

Throughout this work, Lambert emphasizes the ruling planet of the sign of the vernal equinox. He also includes, as a supplementary characterization, the other sign traditionally ruled by the planet in question. Thus for the Age of Taurus he stresses the symbolic attributes of Venus and also the second Venusian sign of Libra. In my experience it is more customary and more sound to orient to the vernal equinoctial sign of the age and to its complement in the autumnal equinoctial sign–which for Taurus would be Scorpio.

In a few cases, he makes some questionable leaps or contradicts himself. For example, having identified the eruption of Santorini (ca. 1628 B.C.E.) as the ultimate cause of the various plagues of Moses’ Egypt, he suggests that the guiding pillars of cloud and fire of Exodus 13 were “the active volcano in the distance, marked by its massive plume by day and lit by the glow of the molten lava at night” (129). Yet earlier, he had noted accurately, “It is unlikely that the volcanic plume being from a volcano over seven hundred miles away caused the darkness as reported in [Exodus 10:21-29]” (118), and it is no more probable that the lava’s glow would be visible at such a distance. On the whole, I think he is a little more rationalizing than the biblical narrative demands. Still, I share his essential recurring suspicions about ergot-based pharmacopoeia and venereal germ intrigue among the ancient Hebrews.

There is some fuzziness in the chapter on the Age of Gemini regarding regarding the angels or “Sons of God” who had productive congress with the daughters of men. Lambert quite forthrightly raises the question of the objective nature of these entities, and seems dismissive of Sunday School notions about them. But he doesn’t give a clear answer of his own. Are we to suppose that they were merely specially inspired humans? Spirits of psychedelic plants? Extraterrestrial intelligences? I wonder.

If you have already made an unprejudiced exploration of the first books of the Hebrew Bible with an eye to their significance in the evolution of human culture and consciousness, then this book may be a quick read on the whole. Easily half of the text consists of review of key passages from that scripture. If you have not made such study, it may be a challenge, and many of the author’s asides are likely to puzzle you. In any case, the overall thrust of the treatment is to emphasize a hidden Hebrew lore that Lambert takes to have been perpetuated in the Christian tradition represented by the Gospel of Thomas and the Synoptics. He sees this tradition as countered and concealed by the Platonizing Johannine school expressed in the Fourth Gospel and the Apocryphon of John.

The principal theological divide between Lambert’s Thomasines and Johannines is essentially one of serial monotheism versus absolute monotheism. According to the Gnostic Notebook, “Jehovah” is simply a title for the presiding god of the age, and so the Marcionite concept of a Christian god distinct from the Hebrew god is extended with multiple iterations going back through the ages, a notion supposedly affirmed within Thomasine circles. The Johannines, by contrast, had a Platonist opposition to the idea that the true God could be in any way subject to change. Thus the Apocryphon of John removes God from creation entirely, abstracting Him out of the field of tangible existence, and devolving the creator role onto a debased Demiurge spawned from the menses of Sophia (164-6). Exoteric Christianity, according to Lambert, split the difference, maintaining that a single continuous God changed His character from age to age. Though Lambert doesn’t remark the fact, a vivid albeit superstitious elaboration of this doctrine can be found in modern Dispensationalism.

When viewed in the astrological terms advanced by Lambert, the precession of the equinoxes can in fact be seen as the evolution of single deity, the godhead being the sun in its changing relationship to the earth and the fixed stars. In early Platonism, the sun is closely identified with the true world and with the Demiurge, a more benevolent figure than the (Johannine) Gnostic Demiurge. An exploration of esoteric heliolatry that makes an interesting counterpoint and/or supplement to Lambert’s work is the admirable Jesus Christ: Sun of God by David Fideler, with its emphasis on neo-Pythagorean elements in Christian scripture.

Lambert does not advance under this cover to present his view of the Age of Aquarius, which he dates from 1914. (What’s a decade’s difference in twenty-one-and-a-half centuries?) Perhaps he will make some disclosures in that direction in his next volume, where he promises to treat “deeper and darker secrets” of Thomasine Gnosticism, including those contained by the Gospel of Phillip. [via]

Aldus and his Dream Book

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Aldus and his Dream Book: An Illustrated Essay by Helen Barolini.

Barolini Aldus and His Dream Book

It would be going too far to concur with Helen Barolini’s assessment that the whole story of the Hypnerotomachia is “clearly autobiographical,” although George Painter speculates credibly that the second book may entirely be a veiled autobiography in which the priestess of Diana represents the prioress of a nunnery, and the priestess of Venus a bawd. … I am ultimately unpersuaded by Barolini’s defense of the thesis that Aldus Manutius was the author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, preferring myself the more conservative and straightforward attribution to the monk Francesco Colonna. But Barolini’s book is full of useful research and observations on the Hypnerotomachia, and makes for enjoyable reading. [via]