Tag Archives: Criticism interpretation etc

The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: How a Spectacular Hoax Became History [Amazon, Abebooks, Local Library] by Peter Lamont.

Lamont the rise of the indian rope trick

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud so many times reading the front matter of a history book. Peter Lamont is witty as hell. 

His history of the Indian rope trick traces the modern legend from its 19th-century origins through various 20th-century controversies, and also offers an epilogue-cum-travelogue which brings the subject into the present. Along the way, he offers a wild assortment of historical tidbits, including Charles Dickens’ turn as an Orientalized performing conjuror, the origins of the pay toilet, and Chicago newspaper wars. He also highlights the contexts provided by stage magicians’ guilds, the Society for Psychical Research, and the Theosophical Society, as well as the overarching dynamics of Western disenchantment and the British Empire.

The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick is a very fast and enjoyable read. Lamont’s attitude toward his historical subjects is strongly skeptical, but richly humane. I recommend the book to anyone with an interest in its topics: the history of magical performance, modern rumors and controversies, and the Western appropriation of Asian culture.

Apocalypse of the Alien God

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Apocalypse of the Alien God: Platonism and the Exile of Sethian Gnosticism [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Dylan M. Burns, part of the Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion series.

Burns Apocalypse of the Alien God

The “apocalypse” in the title of this book refers to both a genre of religious writings and to the more fundamental unveiling or revelation of the “alien God,” who is the Great Invisible Spirit of Sethian Gnosticism. Not only was this godhead metaphysically alien to the created world of matter, it was culturally alien to the Hellenistic society of intellectuals gathered around the Neoplatonist philosopher Plotinus in third-century Rome. The latter framing is the point of departure for this study of a specific school of ancient Gnosticism in its social context.

Author Dylan Burns perpetrates careful scholarship, and the early chapters offer a fairly slow start with orientation to the cultural factors involved in the historical scenario that he uses the final chapters to set forth. He avoids anachronistic conceptions of Christianity and Judaism. For example, he doesn’t see the unorthodox or even negligible jesuschristology (my ad hoc coinage) of the Sethians as a reason to distance them unnecessarily from the phenomena of early Christianity.

The theme of alienation is present in a sort of holographic manner in this study. Burns points out the religious trope of valorizing exile under the figures of the sojourn and the stranger as a peculiar attribute of Sethian Gnosticism that it held in common with many Christianities, some Judaisms, and virtually no Hellenism. Among the several sections of the book concerned to elucidate Sethian doctrines on the basis of the surviving writings, the one treating this theme was the most interesting to me not only for its socio-cultural implications, but for the disputable value of the actual religious ideas concerning the sojourn.

The study concludes that the floruit of Plotinus ultimately represented a “closure” of dialogue between Hellenic Platonism and the Gnosticisms rooted in Semitic scriptural traditions. This event is the second sense of the “Exile” in Burns’ subtitle, as the Sethians were exiled from the Roman Platonist milieu. Platonist dialectic withdrew from engaging Gnostic apocalyptic and vice versa. Still, he suggests that some forms of sympathy persisted, with the theurgy of Iamblichus as a notable possible instance.

Some attention to the possible practices at stake in Gnostic texts leads to helpful discussions of baptism, “angelification,” and the rite of the Five Seals (but not the Bridal Chamber, which seems not to have figured in Sethianism). I was interested in the implications of the designation of “Perfect Individuals” in the Protophanes Aeon of Sethian eschatology. “Perfect” is a conventional translation of a Greek term that can also mean “initiated,” and I inferred that the mode of transmitting knowledge through secret initiatory ceremony might have been another barrier between the Sethians and their Platonist peers.

On the whole, this book makes real demands on the attention of a serious reader, and it is not addressed to the idly curious. But it demonstrates that work in this field can advance beyond the wrangling over definitions and categories that has been a preoccupation of recent decades, and illuminate more of the historical realities regarding these ancient religious phenomena.

Horror Films of the 1990s

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Horror Films of the 1990s [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by John Kenneth Muir

Muir Horror Films of the 1990s

I read this beefy volume after Clark and Senn’s similarly ambitious Sixties Shockers. While the 1960s were a transitional decade for horror movies, the 1990s were allegedly an ebb tide, in which horror was little-produced and hardly marketed as such. Muir does indeed cast a wide net, including such films as Jurassic Park (1993). “Interloper” and “police procedural” themes are among the elements that characterize the typical horror movies of the decade.

The central reviews section of the book is organized by year, and each year’s chapter begins with a timeline inventorying events of major cultural significance for that year. The critical emphasis is on the relationship of cinematic themes to then-current events. So much is this the case, that the reviews tend to omit comparisons to earlier films, except for the most overt sequels and remakes. For example, the review of Body Parts (1991) does not mention the seminal Hands of Orlac (1924, 1960) Nor does discussion of The Masque of the Red Death (DTV 1991) bring up Roger Corman’s magisterial 1964 version of the Poe tale. The stand-out exception is “Appendix D: Movie References in Scream,” which catalogs dozens of film allusions that occur in that 1996 post-modern meta-movie.

The reviews are fully equipped with star ratings and opinionated verdicts, which seemed awfully “accurate” to me, when I was in a position to compare my own views. I was especially pleased with the glowing review of The Ninth Gate (1999) — often the object of critical derision — Muir even placed it at number five in his “Ten Best” list for the decade.

That list is one of a number of clever and useful apparatus elements placed as appendices. “1990s Horror Conventions” provides an index of movies by common tropes, such as “Car Won’t Start,” “H.P. Lovecraft,” and “Vampires.” (The absence of my favorite “Girl on Altar” is sadly due to its general neglect in the movies themselves.) “The 1990s Horror Hall of Fame” is an inventory of notable performers. Having noted that theater horror features were at a disadvantage in the 1990s because of small-screen competition from The X-Files, Muir backs up his claim by tabulating about thirty matches of central plot elements between 1990s horror films and individual X-Files episodes as “Appendix E.” 

On the whole, this book accomplishes its goals capably and with a fair amount of style.