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Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle by Pierre Klossowski, translated by Daniel W Smith.

Klossowski Smith Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle

Pierre Klossowski’s magisterial reading brings into relief the seductive character of the ordeals involved with Nietzsche’s sicknesses and anti-sociality. Although Nietzsche felt compelled to communicate the circulus vitiosus Deus and thus to clothe it in concepts, it is not chiefly a doctrine. Like the “Kingdom of God” of Jesus, or the “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel” of the Master Therion, the Eternal Return is in fact an experience that overcomes rational identity even as it validates the numinous self. The incoherence of this experience is of a piece with the absurdity of its prophet and his apparent descent into buffoonery and madness.

In discussing such matters as “valetudinary states” (i.e. experiences of illness), the Eternal Return, and the semiotics of the ineffable corporeal impulse, Klossowski makes extensive use of Nietzsche’s private correspondence and manuscript fragments. As he demonstrates, Nietzsche viewed the Eternal Return as a secret knowledge that–in virtue of its very nature–could not be communicated openly, and so these texts from outside of the canonical Nietzsche corpus are indispensable. In the original French edition, these were presented without proper citations, and it was a heroic work of translators Ronald Vouillé and Donald W. Smith (into German and English respectively) to have produced the apparatus which properly identifies their sources in the Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienaufgabe and other posthumous editions.

Klossowski, who did not call himself a philosopher, often seems concerned to rescueNietzsche from his 20th-century rehabilitation in the philosophical discipline. Although Klossowski was a student of Georges Bataille and dedicated Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle to Gilles Deleuze, the text is free of explicit references to or arguments with other Nietzsche scholars. At the same time, it deserves to be read in agonistic contact with the interpretations provided by Martin Heidegger, Walter Kaufmann, and others. This book has evidently had a significant influence on later French theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard.

One unusual merit of Klossowski’s study is the extent to which he takes seriously Nietzsche’s oracular function. More than once, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle pauses to consider the extent to which the world of the middle 20th century had met, and in some cases surpassed, the social and cultural prognostications offered by Nietzsche, who believed that the product of his contemplation might “break the history of humanity in two.” (100, 230) In exercising his “religious, that is to say god-forming, instinct,” Nietzsche contemplated “God as a maximal state, as an epoch.” (209, 107) The perfection of the individual relative to this epoch is to operate unassuaged of purpose. “Nietzsche’s unavowable project is to act without intention: the impossible morality.” (140)

As blurber Graham Parkes remarks, Klossowski’s book is “profound, but extremely taxing.” To profit from it requires prior familiarity with Nietzsche’s biography and writings. It will not serve as an introduction to Nietzsche’s work, but it remains one of the most penetrating examinations of the anti-system which that work adumbrates.

Sidelights on Relativity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sidelights on Relativity by Albert Einstein.

Einstein Sidelights on Relativity

The two brief lectures in this volume are each interesting in their own right, although there is little to unify them beyond concern for the most foundational aspects of the science of physics. 

The first, on “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” treats the now-quaint-sounding topic of the luminiferous ether, which seems to have gone the way of phlogiston and other obsolete scientific topics. Surprisingly, Einstein insists that there is a role for the ether concept in relativistic physics! It is, however, a “gravitational ether” from which every mechanical characteristic has been eliminated, and which is therefore just as easily denominated as space. Although this paper avoids mathematical and experimental details, a certain prior familiarity with the history of modern physics is very useful in appreciating it, since Einstein races through an extensive series of theorists in his summary of the evolution of the ether concept. 

The second paper begins by offering the distinction between geometry as an axiomatic philosophical undertaking, and the empirical physical science of “practical geometry.” Einstein explains that the effort to adjust physical laws to accommodate known events and behaviors to the axiomatic system of Euclidean geometry was in fact a driving force behind the theory of relativity, even though it eventually became necessary to posit non-Euclidean space as a result of that theory. The later part of the paper is concerned to permit novices to acquire an imaginative appreciation of finite but unbounded spaces–in particular spaces curved through the fourth dimension in a hyperspherical fashion.

The Last Camel Died at Noon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Last Camel Died at Noon by Elizabeth Peters.

Peters The Last Camel Died at Noon

The sixth volume of Amelia Peabody’s adventures swerves somewhat from the criminal mystery precedent of the earlier books. This episode is instead concerned with the Emerson-Peabody family’s discovery of (and captivity in) a lost civilization in the Sudan, where Cushite-exported pharaonic customs have survived into the late 19th century. There is, however, plenty of intrigue and skulduggery, not to mention the most plain violence on display in any of the series’ books thus far.

Despite the emphasis on action, there is something especially bookish about this volume, with notable attention given to popular 19th-century English literature. The author confesses that The Last Camel Died at Noon is an homage to the work of H. Rider Haggard, and there are many references throughout the novel to Haggard’s books She and King Solomon’s Mines, both of which are fodder for the central narrative. In addition, Wilkie Collins’ seminal 19th-century mystery The Moonstone is given a part to play. 

The longish story is broken into two parts: first the archeological expedition to the Sudan and the circumstances that drew them to the Holy Mountain in the desert wilderness, and then the events of their stay and eventual escape. This book, unlike its predecessors, also benefits from a small handful of maps and line illustrations. The latter tend to depict relevant art and artifacts, of which a typically amusing example is the carved relief of a “Queen of Meroe spearing captives with girlish enthusiasm.” (312) 

The final chapter of the book seems to intimate an impending change to the scope and arrangements of Peabody’s family, but I suppose it will be necessary to read the next installment to find out whether and how that comes to pass.

Devil-Worship in France

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Devil-Worship in France: with Diana Vaughn and the Question of Modern Palladism by Arthur Edward Waite, introduction by R A Gilbert.

Waite Devil-Worship in France

Arthur Edward Waite wrote Devil-Worship in France in 1896, before Gabriel Jogand (“Leo Taxil”) exposed the great hoax he and his confederates had perpetrated regarding a supposed Luciferian Palladian Order at the heart of global Freemasonry. Although Waite gets a few details wrong, he was correct in casting the most thorough suspicion on this particular constellation of anti-Masonic literature. He was not the first to do so; the noted esotericist and Theosophist C.C. Massey had already voiced his objections. But Waite’s criticisms were more substantial and extensive, and received more attention than Massey’s had. 

The micro-genre of Palladian conspiracy literature produced under the bylines of Leo Taxil, Dr. Bataille, and Diana Vaughan enjoyed a considerable vogue in late 19th-century France. Its popularity among the credulous invites comparison with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code and its concomitant cottage industry in the early 21st century–although the valence was exactly the opposite as far as the Roman Catholic Church was concerned. (That is to say, that church’s fond welcome for the anti-Masonic revelations of Taxil matched in scope its offended distaste for The Da Vinci Code.) The fact that Brown’s novel is an overt fiction–albeit bearing an appeal to some alleged underlying facts–does not skew the parallel. Much of the material about Palladian Freemasonry was published in the Penny Dreadful periodical format associated more with Victorian Gothic than sober journalism.

Designed as it was for a French Catholic readership, the Taxil material also vilified the English, and in passing, Americans. Waite observes this trend throughout, but reserves special outrage for Dr. Bataille’s slander against HRH the Queen! (172-3) Waite’s knowledge of the US is a bit limited, though. For instance, he refers to Scottish Rite organizer Albert Pike’s role in “[t]he admission of Arkansas into the confederation of the United States,” which while strictly accurate, is likely to sound a muddled note for American readers. (28)

Although Waite is notorious for his plodding and convoluted prose, Devil-Worship in France is a comparatively lively exercise, perhaps because it was a matter of such great currency when he wrote it. In several cases, he references personal statements from his own associates and acquaintances, such as W. Wynn Westcott and John Yarker. And I am certain that I detected deliberate, though bone-dry, wit at various points in the book. The several chapters dedicated to summarizing Bataille’s Le Diable au XIXe Siecle are quite entertaining. Having cast sufficient doubts on the tales of the Palladium, Waite concludes Devil-Worship in France with an encomium regarding the virtues of Freemasonry, and its points of functional intersection with mysticism.

The 2003 Red Wheel/Weiser reissue of Waite’s book appends his previously-unpublished sequel, Diana Vaughan and the Question of Modern Palladism. Much shorter than the first work, it merely supplies updates after feuding among the fabulists and Jogand’s public admission of the hoax. Waite takes the opportunity to correct a few incidental errors from Devil-Worship. In particular he admits that Pike did plagiarize considerably from Eliphas Levi, but he also praises a specific text in which Pike did so: the lecture for the 32° in Morals and Dogma.

The Palladian episode is not only a cautionary tale regarding an anti-Masonic scare; this very thorough treatment of it has much to hold the attention of anyone interested in the esotericism of the period. The Taxil collaborator “Jean Kostka” was in fact Jules Doinel, founding patriarch of the French Gnostic Church from which today’s Gnostic Catholic Church (E.G.C.) descends. He comes off fairly pitiably in Waite’s account, and it is hard to see him as a hero during the early 1890s. Even more importantly, much of the outrage intended to be stoked by the stories of the Palladium had to do with its initiation of women into a secret society. Waite, concurring with Pike, indicates that women are excluded from Masonry, but doubts whether they should be. Of course, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was initiating men and women on equal terms at the time, the Grand Loge Symbolique Eccosais Mixte which was to eventuate in Theosophical Co-Masonry had been founded in 1893, and a short decade after Diana Vaughan O.T.O. would apply Masonic techniques of initiation to women as well as men. 

And as a final enticement to those who might benefit from reading this book, I quote from page eighty-four: “Who would possess a lingam which was an Open Sesame to devildom and not make use thereof?”

He never trusted nondrinkers. They either didn’t know how to enjoy life or they were self-righteous. Either way meant they were difficult to work with.

Andy Weir, Randomize

Hermetic quote Weir Randomize nondrinkers

The Best of the Spirit

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner, introduction by Neil Gaiman.

Eisner The Best of the Spirit

Eisner’s Spirit is generally recognized as a landmark in the comics medium. I have admittedly reached the real thing by a backwards process that included the 2008 feature film and Darwyn Cooke’s 21st-century reboot of the comic. But, having now read this convenient anthology of some of Eisner’s key work from the 1940s, I do see what all of the fuss is about.

There’s no special attraction to the plots, characters, or setting: The Spirit is basically straightforward fantasy detective fiction that seems to be a synthesis between Bob Kane’s Batman and Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy. What makes Eisner’s Spirit special is the storytelling: his inventive use of both graphic and narrative perspectives. These features are thrown into relief in the format of the eight-page weekly comics supplement syndicated to various newspapers, where all of the stories in this anthology were originally published. 

These stories include the Spirit origin episode, tales of the chief femmes fatales of the series (Silk Satin, P’Gell, and Sand Saref), and most importantly, many of the stories in which the Spirit himself only appears in a few of the final panels, just to provide external continuity for what is otherwise a free-standing parable of crime and punishment. 

At eight pages per story, this collection is able to include over twenty tales of The Spirit, and they are worth savoring. It amply demonstrates why Eisner’s work has been inspirational to comics creators for generations.

Modern Occult Rhetoric

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Modern Occult Rhetoric: Mass Media and the Drama of Secrecy in the Twentieth Century by Joshua Gunn.

Gunn Modern Occult Rhetoric

In Modern Occult Rhetoric, Joshua Gunn asks a lot of worthwhile questions regarding some of my most fond subject matter. But his answers tend to be frustratingly ill-informed. Gunn develops and illustrates his theoretical positions by means of several case studies in a historical sequence: these concern the writings of H.P. Blavatsky, the work of Aleister Crowley, Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan, the Satanism scare of the late 1980s and 90s, and Roman Polanski’s film The Ninth Gate. He concludes that occultism has been irrevocably disrupted by modern mass communications, but that its core rhetorical mechanisms continue to operate in other fields, most particularly theory in the humanities. 

For an avowed and credentialed rhetorician, Gunn’s diction is annoying as hell. He refers time and again to “the popular imaginary,” once even setting it in opposition to “the individual imagination.” He does not admit himself to be drawing on some other theorist’s use of this odd phrase, nor does he offer his own rationale for it. He uses “presence” as a transitive verb (44). He says “great white chief” (as Chief Seattle is supposed to have addressed the President of the U.S.), when he evidently means a secret chief of the Great White Brotherhood (86). He says we are “trapped in our own symbolicity” (211). And after all this, he has the vapid effrontery to mock Aleister Crowley for using “sublime” correctly—if metaphorically—as a verb (95). Most significantly, Gunn presents the word “occultic” as his original coinage to refer to a secularized rhetorical form possessing devices originally characteristic of occultism. In making this poor choice, he seems ignorant of the fact that “occultic” has already been in wide use among Americans, especially evangelical Christians, as a merely pejorative synonym for the adjectival form of occultist. He also seems not to appreciate that 19th-century occultism itself was already a significantly secularized form of earlier esoteric traditions. In fact, his definition of occultism as a “theological form” is never presented clearly, and he considerably overemphasizes the etymological sense of “secrecy,” without ever discussing the matter and boundaries of the traditional occult sciences. 

This failure to clarify his own usage of “occultism” does not keep him from wrongly and repeatedly announcing the demise of whatever he thinks it was. He insists at the outset that occult and occultism “no longer exist as terms for a coherent tradition,” an expiry that he bewilderingly assigns to the end of the 20th century (xxii). He does provide what he calls a “traditional origin narrative” of occultism (8 ff.), but he doesn’t indicate the narrating representatives of the tradition in question. He cites a small handful of non-occultist scholars, while occultism itself is perennially rife with alternate and competing histories. Gunn’s appeal to such an “origin narrative” ultimately seems to be a mere license for violating positive history and an excuse for sloppy research. For example, he is confused about the status of magic in antiquity, and fails to explain how it relates to the origins of occultism. In his gloss on Renaissance magic, he badly misconstrues the context and motivation of John Dee and Edward Kelly (13-14). 

Unfortunately, the errors are not confined to this contextualizing preamble, but continue with his case studies. The section on the “occult poetics” of Madame Blavatsky is not too bad, and started to reassure me–after the dismal “traditional origins” section–that there might be a lot of worth in this book. But the following chapters on Aleister Crowley dashed this hope soundly. Biographically, Gunn buys into the great myth of Crowley’s “sad and lonely” senescence (162). He builds a poor case for Crowley’s sexual chauvinism on the basis of incompetent readings, and with such false details as the “inability [of women] to master the highest grades of the A∴A∴” (297 n. 20 & 280-1 n. 51). 

Gunn’s incapability as an exegete of Crowley’s writing becomes painfully evident when he explains a passage that refers to Parzival a.k.a. O.I.V.V.I.O. and Hilarion (i.e. Charles Stansfeld Jones and Jeanne Foster) as referring to Aleister and Rose Crowley. In the same section, Gunn offers readers such clueless observations as “Frater, or brother … is a grade in Crowley’s secret order, the ‘Silver Star,’” and that O.I.V.V.I.O. is what you get “[w]hen ‘Parzival’ is phonetically translated into Hebrew” (131). The fellow is clearly out of his depth. I have no pity, though, when Gunn neglects essential and easily-obtained sources with respect to the questions that he seeks to raise regarding epistemology, authority, and rhetoric in Crowley’s works. Most egregiously he betrays no knowledge of the existence of Crowley’s Book of Lies or of “Liber Oz.” Gunn’s efforts to correlate Crowley’s writings with postmodern and poststructuralist theory could have been considerably improved if he had bothered to read Scott Michaelsen’s various essays in that vein in the latter’s Portable Darkness: An Aleister Crowley Reader.

But the worst of Gunn’s mistreatment of Crowley comes in the form of what he assures us is a “sympathetic close reading” of The Book of the Law. An overview that begins by declaring The Book of the Law to be “a short work of verse“ generally goes downhill from there (86 ff.). Although the entire text of The Book of the Law is reproduced accurately in an appendix to Gunn’s book, he makes multiple errors in quoting specific passages (90). And his “sympathetic” conclusion is that Crowley was either lying or deluded about the authorial circumstances of the book, the text of which is furthermore “clichéd … overwrought … overdone” and “very ugly” (91, 97). It is unintentionally ironic that Gunn should refer to “The Book of the Law and its metacommentaries.” (104, my underscore) First, Gunn really means “commentaries,” and the “meta” is just a typical perversion of vocabulary on his part. But there is in fact a key metacommentary to The Book of the Law which Gunn very efficiently and culpably ignores: the Tunis or “Short” Comment. Although it accompanies most texts of The Book of the Law, it is omitted from Gunn’s appendix. This 102-word comment admonishes the reader that “The study of this Book is forbidden,” and proceeds to offer further challenges that undermine many of Gunn’s shallow claims about the dangers of “undemocratic occult pedagogy” in Crowley’s work. 

Moving on to his treatment of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan and the subsequent Satanism scare, Gunn seems to have done somewhat better homework with the details, but his larger argument is still weak. He neglects to provide an adequate rationale for focusing on the Church of Satan as the paradigm of occultism in the late 20th century. Why not look at pop ceremonialist magic, or at Wicca, or at neo-Tantra? The answer seems to be that Satanism gives him what he perceives as a clear case in which an image of occultism became detached from its initial producers and returned to falsely indict them. But not only is this phenomenon of questionable application to a wider spectrum of contemporary occultism, it is also not the least bit historically unprecedented. A particularly parallel instance can be found in 19th-century anti-Masonic scares. 

The “death of the Magus” that Gunn assigns first to the end of the 1900s, and then slides around to various points of the 20th century, is incredibly overplayed. He imagines a 19th-century naïveté regarding occult phenomena that is belied by such signal events as the famous SPR investigation of Blavatsky. The use of quasi-occultist lore as an entertainment commodity, of which he makes so much in connection with the putative extinction of occultism, was amply evinced in the 1800s in Victorian Gothic novels and a sea of Penny Dreadful periodical literature. Far from killing occultism, such commodifications—then and now—help to ensure its cultural currency. 

In general, Gunn’s treatment of the topic of secrecy is hobbled by an assumption that the essence of secrecy consists of privation and mystification. He thinks of secrets as the property of others. But those who have benefited from involvement in doctrinal societies that employ formal secrecy know better: effective initiation makes secrets into something more profound for their possessors. He could have learned this fact from Crowley, even in the particular texts that he cites. As far as his rhetorical theory goes, Gunn is on much firmer and more productive ground when he identifies irony as the “master trope of occultism” (215).

As the book nears its conclusion, Gunn offers an “allegorical” exegesis of the Roman Polanski movie The Ninth Gate, intended to read it as a parable regarding the status of occultism after its demise. Many of Gunn’s individual observations about The Ninth Gate are reasonably cogent, but it is annoying that he should repeatedly call it a “failed film”—either on the grounds of its poor box-office returns for the clumsily-promoted theatrical release or a polling of professional critics. It is also curious that Gunn missed the widespread lore connecting Anton LaVey with Polanski—evidently a false rumor started by LaVey or his partisans in order to use the success of Rosemary’s Baby to augment the prestige of the Church of Satan.

Gunn’s materialist economic class analysis of 21st-century occultists (I thought there were no such creatures?) is broadly accurate, but his attempt to contrast it with earlier periods is typically undiscerning (170-1). He is evidently unfamiliar with the socio-economic origins and circumstances of key occultists like P.B. Randolph, Jules Doinel, MacGregor Mathers, and Theodor Reuss. The book’s repeated mischaracterization of Crowley as an “aristocrat” in a literal sense just doesn’t make it so. (Crowley was distinctly a product of the affluent bourgeoisie.) And this same inaccuracy is attached to what seems to be a willfully obtuse insistence that Crowley was being “disingenuous” when he called for a spiritual and moral aristocracy in contradiction to the prevailing system of social class (155-160). Further, when Gunn tries to relate his notions of occultism to racial contexts and rhetoric, the results are shockingly boneheaded (225-6).

Ultimately, I found much of this book to reflect a disappointingly narrow perspective. For all his liberal secular jargon, there’s something basically Protestant about Gunn. (He does confess his Evangelical upbringing on pp. 109-110.) That’s how he can affirm with Kierkegaard that “religious authority is ultimately rooted in something manifestly absent” (118-9). It’s also why he accepts and deploys an implicitly universal distinction between “[t]he two main rhetorical traditions—the Hellenistic, represented by the ancient Greeks, and the Hebraic, represented by the Old Testament prophets,” (123) which made me feel like I was reading scholarship that was a couple of centuries old. 

Gunn has a valid point, illustrated at the outset, and reiterated in the conclusion of his study, that there are similar rhetorical strategies involved in the construction and deployment of authority in both occultism and academia. In fact, modern occult traditions and the academy are both doctrinal institutions formed under related social and economic conditions. Correctly supported, Gunn’s basically apt thesis about their congruence should inspire a sense of legitimately uneasy kinship between these two fields, as well as better understandings of the operation of secrecy and irony as relational functions rather than classes of discursive objects. Considering the ubiquitous weaknesses of this study, however, I for one would never cite Gunn to advance even those generalizations where I happen to think he is correct. All too often, the results of Gunn’s research seem to reflect the admission he makes with respect to a fieldwork encounter with some contemporary Theosophical types: “I never listened … convinced I knew what I would hear” (34).

Then I am alone, he told himself. I am the last of the Jedi. He seemed to hear Ben’s voice, faint and indistinct, as if from a great distance. “Not the last of the old Jedi, Luke. The first of the new.”

Timothy Zahn, Heir to the Empire

Hermetic quote Zahn Heir to the Empire first of the new

The Star-Crowned Kings

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Star-Crowned Kings by Robert Chilson.

Chilson The Star-Crowned Kings

This old gold-spine DAW paperback faked me out with its packaging. The jacket copy on the back cover uses chess as an extended metaphor to the point where I thought that it would be an ingredient of the novel itself, and I was thus hoping to add this book to my survey of “living chess” in fantasy and sf literature. The Kelly Freas art on the cover shows a gigantic (scale supplied by a passing spaceship) naked girl in golden manacles and chains on a starry background, which suggested that the book might be one of the salaciously-inclined sword-and-planet titles of its era. But the art was also a false cue.

The novel is set in a far future after widespread interstellar colonization by post-terrestrial “Starlings”–a speciated mutation of humanity whose telekinetic abilities form the basis of faster-than-light transport. “Mere” humans continue to outnumber Starlings and have been settled on the colonized worlds as a subordinated workforce. The protagonist Race (his name, “Race”) is a supremely rare human “latent” who develops Starling powers at adolescence, and the book concerns his struggle to rise above his inherited human station.

It’s not a long book, and it’s a fairly fast read. It does end without resolving many of the dilemmas in which the author had placed the main characters, and there may have been some unfulfilled intention to issue sequels. Characterization isn’t very sophisticated, and an awful lot of attention is spent inside Race’s head as he worries about his problems. The main merit of the book is its world-building. But it wasn’t such a fascinating setting that I’d recommend it on that basis alone.