Tag Archives: History & Surveys – General

The Gift of Death

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Gift of Death [Amazon (1995), Amazon (2017), Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jacques Derrida, trans. David Wills.

Derrida Wills The Gift of Death 1995

Derrida Wills The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret

The principal text of reference for Derrida’s Gift of Death is the piece “Is Technological Civilization a Civilization in Decline, and If So Why?” from Jan Patočka’s Heretical Essays on the Philosophy of History, a text concerned to establish a European sense of “responsibility” dependent on Christianity and imperiled in the alleged contemporary Western return to an orgiastic operation of mystery. Derrida highlights the role of the “concern for death” (or “practice of death”: Plato’s melete thanatou) as a linchpin of the individual awareness of responsibility. 

Not overtly siding with Patočka’s diagnosis of modern malaise, Derrida is very attentive to the sort of dialectic genealogy in Patočka’s essay. He particularly focuses on the ways in which the development of this sense of responsibility is also a maintenance and iterative encryption of a secret, through its orgiastic/daemonic, Platonic, and Christian stages. “Because of this incorporation that envelops demonic or orgiastic mystery, philosophy remains a sort of thaumaturgy even as it accedes to responsibility” (15). 

The second chapter has Derrida turning more often directly to Heidegger as a direct influence on Patočka, as well as to Levinas as a critic in the same tradition. In its third chapter, The Gift of Death spends a great deal of attention on Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and sacrificial responsibility in the context of Patočka’s essay. Derrida comes closer, I think, than Kierkegaard does to the real mystery of “the sacrifice of Abraham,” as a failed transmission of the initiation of Isaac. But he uses Kierkegaard’s language to bootstrap into the fourth and final chapter.

Derrida drives toward his conclusion with a set of reflections on the nature and significance of invisibility–the same invisibility of the Greek lord of the dead (aides-Haides), the unspeakable issuer of commands to Abraham, and the “Father” of Jesus “who sees in secret.” Attentive Thelemites may glean some important perspective here on the doctrine of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel in the place of “the heart.” And there is also, here and earlier, worthwhile integration of the concepts of sacrifice, secrecy, and the sacred. 

At various points in the book, Derrida seems temporarily to accept some sort of theological claims, but he is careful to allow not to demand such acceptance from the reader (e.g., 69). And at the very end he invokes Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals (which was always behind Patočka’s genealogy of responsibility) as a background for observations about “the reversal and infinitization” that exalts the other (“God,” if you must) into mystery (115). There is, after all, no law beyond Do what thou wilt. The Christian God sacrifices himself “from love (can you believe it?)” taunts Nietzsche. And Derrida drops the mocking tone to ask whether one truly can, leaving me to wonder what such a possibility of dis/belief can portend if love is the law. 

“What does it mean to share a secret?” Derrida asks more than once. Only those who know how to die could tell, and they won’t say.

Prophets of Dissent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Prophets of Dissent: Essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche and Tolstoy [Amazon, Bookshop, Project Gutenberg, Local Library] by Otto Heller.

Heller Prophets of Dissent

Otto Heller was a native of Bohemia who immigrated to the US in 1883. He had a lifelong career as an academic, including a doctorate from the University of Chicago. He wrote Prophets of Dissent during World War I, while he was Professor of Modern European Literature in Saint Louis. It collects four essays on “the foremost literary expositors of important modern tendencies” (vii). There is little or no mutual reference among the component essays on Maeterlinck, Strindberg, Nietzsche, and Tolstoy, even when one mentions a figure treated by another; each will stand on its own for a reader. In each there is a good overview of the literary figure including both biographical details and bibliographic notes.

Of the four writers treated here, Maurice Maeterlinck is the one whom I have read the least and am most likely to read in the future. Heller’s treatment of Maeterlinck, whom he classes as a “mystic,” was encouraging in this regard. He also characterizes Maeterlinck as working within the “new romanticism” of his period (13). The features of Maeterlinck’s work that Heller observes to have been off-putting or even risible to early readers are all attractive to me: a preoccupation with transcendent realities expressed through subtle and enigmatic symbols.

Heller’s study of August Strindberg–whom I have read extensively, but long ago–glosses the notorious Swede as an “eccentric.” I think the observations here are incisive and accurate, if often dismaying. For example, “In Strindberg’s case, religious conversion is not an edifying, but on the contrary a morbid and saddening spectacle; it is equal to a declaration of complete spiritual bankruptcy” (100). The essay necessarily treats Strindberg’s eventual keynote of misogyny, his self-torment, and his apparent ideological fickleness, and gives him credit for “the extraordinary subjective animation of his work” (104).

Friedrich Nietzsche features as the “exalted” figure in Heller’s treatment. As a reader of Nietzsche, Heller would not have been dependent on other translators, and I assume the quotes and fragments that he presents in English are his own translations. These compare favorably with other translations on my shelf. For example, he quotes Also Sprach Zarathustra: “All great Love seeketh to create what it loveth. Myself I sacrifice into my love, and my neighbor as myself, thus runneth the speech of all creators” (128). Heller is of course at pains to dissociate Nietzsche’s intentions as an author from the Great War policies of his countrymen. He surveys the doctrinal leitmotifs of Neitzsche’s work and scores him as a powerful and admirable advocate of self-realization, if nearly useless as a reference for social reform.

The chapter on Leo Tolstoy the “revivalist” marks him as a spiritual successor to Jean Jacques Rousseau, and possessed of a similar “inconsistency between principles and conduct” (205). Heller rates Tolstoy highly as a social critic, while pointing out the unworkability of the author’s proposed solutions in light of actually existing society. (For myself, I see Tolstoy as a puissant modern agent of the Great Sorcery, and I find his moral aspirations somewhat noxious.)

Throughout the book Heller’s own prose is full of little gems. He was clearly a perceptive reader and skillful writer, confined to criticism and academic study through want of his own determining inspiration. This book (along with a separate study of Ibsen) seems to be his principal intellectual legacy, and it is a pleasant and informative read for those of us interested in its subject matter.

The Roots of Philosophy

John Opsopaus reviews Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Peter Kingsley at The Roots of Philosophy in the Caduceus archive.

Kingsley Ancient Philosophy Mystery and Magic

Peter Kingsley has written an important book that should be high on the reading list of anyone interested in the roots of magic, alchemy and the mysteries in Western civilization. It is Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and the Pythagorean Tradition.

Kingsley presents a wealth of evidence for a dense network of interrelationships among a number of ancient beliefs and practices, including Pythagoreanism, the Orphic and Dionysian Mysteries, alchemy, the Hermetica, the Greek Magical Papyri, Hecate magic, the Persian Magi, Sufism, Platonism, neo-Platonism and neo-Pythagoreanism. Described in this way, Kingsley’s account sounds like many other occult “histories,” which fabricate monolithic, hidden esoteric tradition. But there is a difference. Kingsley, until recently a Fellow at the Warburg Institute (where Yates also worked) is a true scholar, with both technical skill and good sense. It is through his exercise of the latter that Kingsley is able to see what has been missed (or ignored or repressed) by preceding generations of scholars. For Kingsley shows how these scholars have been blinded by their assumption that “real” philosophers and scientists could not have been interested in magic (and certainly would not have practiced it!). Especially they could not imagine that the heroes of Greek philosophy and science (such as Pythagoras, Empedocles and Plato), who were seen as founders of the rationalist tradition, could have any connection with “irrational” magic, alchemy or mystery-mongering. This bias has forced them into contorted interpretations of texts whose plain meaning they were unwilling to accept.

In the best tradition of scholarly writing, Kingsley documents all his sources, so interested readers can follow them up and form their own opinions. Reading his extensive footnotes is an education in itself, following them will keep you busy for months. (The reader will discover that reading Kingsley’s journal papers, published both earlier and later than the book, is especially rewarding.) Yet, for all his attention to detail, Kingsley is not pedantic. His text is very readable, and its snappy, almost breathless pace conveys the excitement of the exploration of a newly opened tomb, or of a mystery being solved (which is precisely what it is).

Many of the connections demonstrated by Kingsley have been intuitively apparent to many of us working in the esoteric traditions, but he documents them and also reveals other, less obvious connections. His book will also familiarize a wider readership with important, but neglected earlier studies that would otherwise remain buried in an immense scholarly literature, which is often hostile to esotericism of any kind.

Kingsley begins with an analysis of the four elements, which Empedocles introduced into western cosmology. Empedocles mentions four Gods corresponding to the elements:

Now hear the fourfold roots of everything: Enlivening Hera, Hades, shining Zeus And Nestis, moistening mortal springs with tears. (my translation.)

but since ancient time there has been disagreement about which Gods corresponded to which elements. Kingsley argues persuasively that fire must be associated with Hades, which seems unlikely until he reveals the ubiquitous ancient tradition of a central fire, that is, a fire under the earth, which creates change in the elements above it. The result is a typical Jungian quaternity, with Hades and Persephone (Nestis) corresponding to fire and water, and Zeus and Hera corresponding with air (or, more accurately, aether) and earth. It has the ring of truth.

This brings us into the proximity of alchemical doctrines of the central fire (such as we find in the Aurea Catena Homeri), but also Underworld rites centered around the volcanoes of Sicily and Italy. Now we understand the legend that Empedocles ended his life by jumping into the crater of Etna, which in turn ejected a single bronze sandal. For volcanic craters were sites of underworld initiation and rebirth, and the single bronze sandal is a standard symbol of Hecate worship. (Empedocles himself tells us that he had escaped from the cycle of rebirth and was ending his last incarnation on earth.) Indeed, the crater (mixing bowl) is a familiar symbol in the Orphic literature, and volcanic regions dramatically demonstrate the union of fire and water central to alchemy.

The 24 chapters deal with the riddle posed by Empedocles and especially with the replacement of aether by air; volcanic cosmology; craters (in both senses); the Phaedo myth; the central fire; the Magi tradition; the transmission of these ideas from Sicily to Egypt; rebirth of Orphic, Dionysian and other underworld cults; Pythagoreanism and Neo-Pythagoreanism; the connections between magicians, “root-cutters,” and healers; the transmission of wisdom from master to disciple; and finally the influence of Empedocles, Hermeticism and alchemy on the Sufis. Three appendices address the close connections between the Gilgamesh epic and Parmenides’ poem, which describes an underworld journey; the parallels between Nergal (Erragal) and Heracles; and the influence of Empedocles’ ideas on the Isma’ilis.

I cannot recommend this book too highly; even if one doesn’t agree with all of Kingsley’s conclusions, it sets the terms for future investigations of ancient esotericism.