Tag Archives: Classics

Father, interrupted Manfred, I pay due reverence to your holy profession; but I am sovereign here, and will allow no meddling priest to interfere in the affairs of my domestic. If you have aught to say, attend me to my chamber – I do not use to let my Wife be acquainted with the secret affairs of my state; they are not within a woman’s province. My lord; said the holy man, I am no intruder into the secrets of families. My office is to promote peace, to heal divisions, to preach repentance, and teach mankind to curb their headstrong passions.

Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Walpole The Castle of Otranto sovereign here no meddling priest interfere secret affairs state holy man secrets families office promote peace heal division preach repentance teach mankind

The White People and Other Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The White People and Other Stories [Amazon, Bookshop, DriveThruRPG, Local Library] by Arthur Machen, ed and introduction by S T Joshi, volume 2 of the Best Weird Tales of Arthur Machen.

Machen Joshi The White People and Other Stories

This second book is far more uneven than The Impostors and Other Stories, editor Joshi’s first volume of collected weird Machen. It begins with “The Red Hand,” a story featuring Machen’s old duo Dyson and Phillips, and consistent with his earlier works. After that, it’s off to very different material. The imagistic “Ornaments in Jade” are described by Joshi as “prose-poems,” and whatever the merits of that description, they are wonderful stuff. None of them is more than a few pages long, and they are nearly plotless, but highly evocative.

The lauded story “The White People” caught me quite by surprise. I had been expecting something more along the lines of Machen’s earlier weird work; in fact I worried that it might be something of a re-tread of “The Shining Pyramid” or “The Novel of the Black Seal.” But it turned out to be more like “Ornaments in Jade”: light on plot, and thick with psychotropic sensory detail. One thing that impressed me was its extreme (yet subtle) nesting of narratives: the interlocutors Cotgrave and Ambrose form the outermost story, but the main tale is in the green MS book full of a girl’s personal reminiscences, which themselves include stories, sometimes containing further stories. E.g. the girl’s nurse recounts having been told certain things by her great-grandmother, which then become a story-within-within-within-within-within… This method of dropping through narrative frames is actually a reliable technique for hypnotic induction, and it shouldn’t be surprising that it literally entrances readers, and possibly has an effect on their dreams! Other trance induction methods prominent in “The White People” include chants and nonsense rhymes, physical spinning and dancing, and solitude. The narrative voice of the girl in the story is surprisingly convincing and effective, considering that Machen seems to have shed none of his earlier misogyny. I was struck by this remark from Ambrose early on:

“We should [feel horror in the presence of true evil] if we were natural: children and women feel this horror you speak of, even animals experience it. But with most of us convention and civilization and education have blinded and obscured the natural reason.” (66)

If “The White People” surprised me, “A Fragment of Life” totally bowled me over. Reading this story on its own seemed to give me all the evidence I could want that Machen had actually attained to some sort of mystical adeptship, in order to be able to relate the experiences he attributes to his protagonist Darnell, who at the story’s outset “lived in the grey phantasmal world, akin to death, that has somehow, with most of us, made good its claim to be called life.” (121)

The wartime fantasies of The Angels of Mons (including “The Bowmen”) had slight literary merit in their own right. But their inclusion was totally necessary because of the odd reflexive impact that the accidental hoax of the “angels” had on Machen’s work as a writer. (People who believed the “urban legend” generated by Machen’s story strongly resisted his attempts to deflate it.) In all of his subsequent fiction, the authorial voice of the fantasist is strangely knotted up with the conscientious journalist. This syndrome is especially apparent in “The Great Return,” but that 1915 story was most interesting to me for its precocious deployment of mescaline effects as a device to explain mystical states (223-224). The brief “Out of the Earth” is in many ways a recreation of Machen’s earlier “The Shining Pyramid,” but in the style of the new, war-era Machen, while “The Coming of the Terror” manages to foster quite an aura of mystery and terror, but lacks the sense of numinous wonder that brings me back to Machen’s work. “The Happy Children” contains elements of “The Great Return” packed into the brief fictional legend format of the stories from The Angels of Mons

So, while the war-era works were worth reading, they didn’t impress me deeply. But “The White People” and “A Fragment of Life” cemented for me Machen’s status as a literary exponent of true esoteric initiation.

Letters from the Earth

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Letters from the Earth [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mark Twain, ed Bernard DeVoto.

Twain Letters from the Earth

The cover of my paperback copy of Letters from the Earth boasts “new uncensored writings by Mark Twain” with a little more significance than such labels usually hold. The contents of this volume were the very first to be edited for posthumous publication by the Twain literary estate, but Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens’ misgivings denied publication to the book until 1962, after the editor’s own death! By then, several of the individual texts included had seen individual publication in periodicals and a book of Twain scholarship.

Although she gave as her motive the concern that the book’s contents would misrepresent Twain’s actual ideas as she understood them, a reader will readily infer that Clara’s fear was chiefly about offending against conventional piety. Nearly half of the book consists of satires grounded in biblical mythology: the title piece (largely in the voice of the angel Satan), the “Papers of the Adams Family” thus organized and titled by editor Bernard DeVoto, and the brief “Letter to the Earth.” The first of these, and apparently the most finished in Twain’s own manuscript, is clearly modeled on Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, in which a traveler from a distant land reports back to his own people on the bewildering and exotic features of the culture shared by the reader and the actual author of the text.

“Letters from the Earth” at one point refers to sex as “the Supreme Art. They practiced it diligently and were filled with contentment. The Deity ordered them to practice it. They obeyed, this time. But it was just as well it was not forbidden, for they would have practiced it anyhow, if a thousand Deities had forbidden it” (25). Satan supplies a sober and accurate appraisal of the Christian revelation: “… as the meek and gentle Savior he was a thousand billion times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament–oh, incomparably more atrocious than ever he was at the very worst in those old days!” (46)

The “Papers of the Adam Family” treat antediluvian society with attention to the premise that the long lifespans of characters in Genesis–even assuming that they waited a few extra decades before parenthood–made for a society many living generations deep, and thus strangely dense and hierarchical. Several of these “translations from the Adamic” are in the voice of Eve, “the Most Illustrious, Most Powerful, Most Gracious, Most Reverend, her Grandeur, the Acting Head of the Human Race” (91-2). There is also a focus on the early tenth century as clocked from Eden, consisting mostly of thinly-veiled satire on Twain’s own time, which certainly had catastrophe imminent.

A number of short pieces include a whimsical cat-focused story (where Twain in passing vaunts his own “conscience torpid through virtuous inaction,” 113), a merciless criticism of the prose style of James Fenimore Cooper, a reasonably funny parody of etiquette instructions, some travelogue from England, and a few other essays.

The book concludes with its longest and strangest item. “The Great Dark” (title furnished by the editor) is a horror story that hinges on its protagonist’s efforts and failures to assign reality to his actual circumstances after being subjected to a dream-world of simulation. Latter-day readers might see this piece as a precocious Matrix sort of story. (Who needs wetware and full-body VR when you have a Victorian microscope?) But of course the central conundrum goes back to Chuang Tzu and probably to the dawn of reflective thought.

but I see, at a great distance, a new world stirring in the ruins, stirring clumsily but in hopefulness, seeking its lost and legendary treasures. And they will all be here, my son, hidden behind the mountains in the valley of Blue Moon, preserved as by miracle for a new Renaissance

James Hilton, Lost Horizon [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Hilton Lost Horizon great distance new world stirring ruins clumsily hopefulness seeking lost legendary treasures hidden preserves miracle new renaissance

Marching diverts men’s thoughts. Marching kills thought. Marching makes an end of individuality. Marching is the indispensable magic stroke performed in order to accustom the people to a mechanical, quasi-ritualistic activity until it becomes second nature.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Huxley Brave New World Revisited marching diverts kills thoughts end individuality indispensable magic stroke performed accustom people mechanical quasi-ritualistic second nature

2001: A Space Odyssey

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews 2001: A Space Odyssey [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Arthur C Clarke, book 1 of the Space Odyssey series.

Clarke 2001 A Space Odyssey

This read of 2001: A Space Odyssey was my first, and I last watched the film over thirty years ago. The edition in hand is the 1999 “millennium” pocket paperback, with retrospective front matter by Arthur C. Clarke discussing the authorial process. In light of that introduction, I’m a little surprised that Stanley Kubrick didn’t get a byline on the novel as a co-author. The book was plotted as a stage of the development of the screenplay, drawing on earlier stories by Clarke and incorporating Kubrick’s ideas and ambitions for the film. Then the two parallel media products were completed in dialog with each other. In the end there are some significant differences between the novel and the movie, but the book certainly exposes and clarifies many of the ideas behind the film.

Clarke wrote “hard” sf, with an effort to maintain scientific and social plausibility. So, with the passage of time, his projected world of “2001” now set a generation in our past has come to represent an alternate history, and it’s one that makes me nostalgic for turns not taken in our cultural and technological paths. Clarke’s 2001 has a manned moon base, and in general space exploration has progressed in preference to the technologies of simulation and social control that have come to dominate our 21st century to this point. He imagined a better diversion of the military-industrial complex into the work of peaceful extraterrestrial inquiry than we have been able to achieve. His geopolitical scenario failed to foresee the collapse of the USSR, but credibly made the USA and USSR allies in tension with China, as the USA and Russia arguably were in our actual 2001.

It was interesting to reflect that one of the conceits of this novel has come to dominate a lot of 21st-century sf: a “first contact” with extra-solar intelligence that is mediated by some sort of archaeological remains. I see this trope in a lot of recent space opera, including MacLeod’s Newton’s Wake, Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract books, the Expanse series, and even Wells’ Murderbot books. I wonder if my library catalog needs an “exo-archaeology” tag to tie these works together.

Another notable feature was the epistemological feint in Chapter 15, where . . SPOILER hover over to reveal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . This passage stands as a foil for the protagonist’s later alien-curated experiences in the final section of the book, and together they offer a sfnal interrogation of human subjectivity that is not quite phildickian but still savory.

2001 has very short chapters; I usually read three or more in a sitting. These in turn are grouped into six parts: Primeval Night, TMA-1, Between Planets, Abyss, The Moons of Saturn, and Through the Star Gate. The structure suggests an initiatory ascent according to the symbol systems of modern Hermetic Kabbala: Malkuth/Earth (Neophyte), path of tav to Yesod/Luna (Zelator), path of samekh to Tiphareth/Sol (Adeptus Minor), path of gimel and Da’ath (Babe of the Abyss), Binah/Saturn (Magister Templi), and Chokmah/Zodiac (Magus). The initiand in this case would be humanity as a whole, and the viewpoint characters differ from section to section in the first half of the book.

The relationship of Clarke and Kubrick’s 2001 to Homer’s original Odyssey is not fully obvious. It seems to have been widely understood merely in the sense of episodic adventure over a journey, but my reading of the novel reassured me that the more specific sense of a homeward journey was intended, and this gist is consistent with the mystical progression that I inferred from the divisions of the text. . . SPOILER hover over to reveal . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I plan to read further in Clarke’s “Odyssey Sequence,” and I am curious to see whether the esoteric themes are perpetuated in the later books.

The “music of decline” had sounded, as in that wonderful Chinese fable; like a thrumming bass on the organ its reverberations faded slowly out over decades; its throbbing could be heard in the corruption of the schools, periodicals, and universities, in melancholia and insanity among those artists and critics who could still be taken seriously; it raged as untrammeled and amateurish overproduction in all the arts.

Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game: (Magister Ludi) A Novel [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Hesse Glass  Bead Game music decline sounded over decades corruption schools periodicals universities melancholia insanity artists critics raged all arts