Tag Archives: john crowley

Four Freedoms

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Four Freedoms: A Novel by John Crowley.

John Crowley Four Freedoms

Heading into my read of an advance review copy of John Crowley’s forthcoming Four Freedoms, I was unsure what to expect. The publisher’s blurb told me that it was a book about “a disabled man…among a crowd of women” at “the height of World War II.” It didn’t seem obvious that this scenario would be a setting suited to the artful exploration of ideas I had enjoyed in the author’s AEgypt cycle, a set of four novels that develop a complexly interwoven text about the human experience of magic and the magic of human experience. I needn’t have worried.

The Four Freedoms of the title are the ones articulated in FDR’s 1941 State of the Union speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear. The fact that the novel is divided into four parts suggests a correspondence, but there’s no obvious one-to-one relationship between those parts and the freedoms. They seem more like the four movements of a symphony, and here is the key to the esoteric dimension of Four Freedoms: the Théorie des quatre mouvements et des destinees generales (1808) of Charles Fourier. Crowley is very coy about this element of the novel—unlike his free admission of the historical and scholarly grist for his mill in AEgypt—he never even mentions Fourier by name, either in the novel or in the afterword that discusses his research sources. Still, the unavoidable fact is that Four Freedoms character Pancho Notzing’s “Bestopianism” is Fourierist though and through: a magical ur-socialism founded in “Passionate Series” generating “Harmony” through the satisfaction of dynamic and heterogeneous desires. Pancho himself is even a biographical cipher for Fourier. Where Fourier was the son of a prosperous cloth merchant and had a career as a traveling salesman, Pancho is retiring from a career as a traveling salesman of luxury cloths.

The Theory of Four Movements is Fourier’s earliest and most bewildering exposition of his system. The movements themselves are enumerated only in a footnote and some brief glossary material, where they are given as social, human, animal, and organic—in descending order. The hierarchy of the Fourierist movements perhaps accounts for the sparing but curious use of the first-person plural in the frame of Four Freedoms. The “we” narrating the novel could be the collective identity of the quasi-phalanx of the Van Damme Aero manufacturing plant, a “Temporary Harmonious Zone”—cousin maybe to Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zone.

Both the little society of the Ponca City plant and the greater society of WWII America with its socialized command economy are especially worth readers’ attention at a time when the US is confronted with a need to fundamentally reorganize its material and industrial bases. The historical setting of Four Freedoms is bracingly topical while we confront a “great recession” or even “greater depression” that seems bound to displace what “postwar” generations have been taught to consider the American “way of life.” A gasoline ration of four gallons per week? That was a reality of the home front.

I cried once in the course of reading this book. If it has that effect on anyone else, I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to be at the same place: there’s a lot emotional power distributed through many personal stories over the course of the novel. As I have come to expect from Crowley, his narrative voice is sure—both efficient and beautiful—and his characters are compelling. The plot is largely subordinate to the characters, and tends to fan out from them in individual tributaries of memory, told to one another or simply recalled.

Crowley’s AEgypt (especially as read backwards from the final realizations of Endless Things) can be considered a meditation on “neurodiversity”: the idea that there are many necessarily partial and complementary ways of perceiving and understanding the world. Four Freedoms can be read as a corresponding exploration of physical diversity expressed through sex, age, disability, and race. But this is no moralizing, didactic exercise. I recently had a conversation with a literal fellow traveler on an airplane, regarding the importance of storytelling in the learning process. The stories in Four Freedoms can remind us of the kind of learning we all need to do, and that we will do whenever we remember our diverse radical passions. [via]


Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel by Susanna Clarke.

Susanna Clarke Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell from Bloomsbury

I thoroughly enjoyed this hugely popular novel about supernatural magic and magicians in early nineteenth-century England. The descriptions of magic seem to suggest that the author has some first-hand experience of significant thaumaturgy, or perhaps good drugs; they present a sort of genuine psychedelia (“mind opening”), as contrasted with the hackneyed tropes of occultist and drug subcultures. But the sorcery is in many ways subordinate to the characterizations and interpersonal plots of the novel, which are rich and satisfying, showing a profound insight into just the sort of motivations and tensions that emerge among colleagues and competitors in magical craft.

Press reviews have attempted comparisons with many other authors of fantasy literature, as well as “literary” authors. (The book was not issued under a genre imprint.) I cannot help making two of my own. The story often reminded me of the deservedly lauded Little, Big by John Crowley. Although separated by the Atlantic Ocean and more than a century, it is easy to imagine Clarke’s and Crowley’s stories taking place in the same universe: the human and non-human dynamics of magic are similar, and the characters are equally vivid and engaging. The chief distinction between the two books is one not of scale, but of scope. Little, Big covers more time, but its concern is essentially a single household and family. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is oriented nationally, toward the condition of England and “English magic.”

The other resemblance that struck me was to Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Obviously, there is the “odd couple” of the titular characters, brought together for professional reasons, and subject to the stresses of difficult lives. But the deft use of metafictional elements in a historical framework, along with a vivid sense of humor, makes these two books into close kin. Unlike Pynchon’s protagonists, though, neither Gilbert Norrell nor Jonathan Strange is an actual historical person. While Clarke was perfectly willing to conscript Lord Byron and the Duke of Wellington into her novel, the magicians are all thoroughly fictional. An odd consequence of this approach is that she offers many glimpses of a history of “English magic” from which have been deleted England’s various legended, alleged, and actual magicians: no Roger Bacon, no John Dastin, no John Dee, no Edward Kelly, no Robert Fludd, no Simon Forman—even Merlin barely rates passing mention. In their stead, she details with high verisimilitude the received histories and legends of such de novo characters as John Uskglass, Jacques Belasis, Gregory Absalom, and Martin Pale. And she single-handedly generates a bibliography of imaginary tomes that easily competes with the Lovecraft circle’s notorious catalog.

Early on in the book, I found myself nonplussed by Portia Rosenberg’s illustrations. They are charcoal renderings in a loose style, reminiscent of nothing so much as late twentieth-century children’s literature, putting them at odds with the archaic spellings, footnotes, and other period elements of the text. The drawings did not seem to manifest a creative imagination, other than at least one case (p. 632) in which there were details that uselessly contradicted the text. The fact that Clarke explicitly referenced caricaturists of the period, and at one point devoted an entire chapter to a story about the engravings prepared to illustrate Strange’s History and Practice of English Magic, just added to the sense of Rosenberg’s drawings as inappropriate and superfluous.

To conclude, I’ll offer some thoughts regarding the plot that might be considered spoilers. Somewhere past the midpoint of the book, the level of dramatic irony got so high that I was almost discouraged from reading on account of sadness for the characters. I also started to suspect that the story would ultimately be an account of how magic had been eradicated from England. Not only was I wrong in that suspicion, but I have seldom been so pleasantly surprised by a happy ending. [via]

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Endless Things

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Endless Things: A Part of AEgypt by John Crowley:

John Crowley's Endless Things

 

Months before Rowling’s fans were able to blog their disappointment or outrage over the terminal Harry Potter book, my Other Reader was expressing her rue and quiet lamentation over Endless Things, the fourth and final volume of John Crowley’s Aegypt. These books have been published over a twenty-year period, and I read the first volume myself in the late 1980s, taking in the second and third each within a year of their issuance. In light of my intelligent wife’s evident dissatisfaction, it was with some trepidation that I finally embarked upon the last of them.

Crowley’s prose is gorgeous as always, and littered with wonderful observations. The scholars of esotericism who have so informed the writing of the three previous books actually begin to intrude as characters in this one; the brief appearances of Frances Yates and Gilles Quispel were special treats for those who are familiar with the academic underpinnings of Aegypt. And protagonist Pierce’s gnostic attainment in the antepenultimate chapter is a very wise and beautiful passage.

But it’s not a happy ending—not as I reckon them anyhow. How can you expect a happy ending from a work with an explicit structure that works its way through the astrological houses from Birth to the Prison? Crowley metafictionally tips his hand in describing a manuscript within the novel that does not provide linear or cyclic resolution, nor even the sense of a completed part of an adumbrated whole: “It was without end but it was finished.” Finishing Aegypt involves a great deal of calculated disenchantment that can feel like betrayal to those of us who have been so under the spell of the earlier volumes. Once or twice too often for my taste, the numinous is reduced to the neurotic.

At a couple of points in Endless Things, Crowley seems to intimate that genuine, world-transforming magic was only possible during the 1970s. Perhaps that was really true for him, although it would be a genuine shame if so. After reading the exercise in disenchantment of Endless Things, on behalf of 21st-century magicians, conventicled and unconventicled, I feel I may—in all readerly friendliness—rebuke him as a splitter. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

Doctor Sleep

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doctor Sleep by Martin Smartt Bell, from Penguin Books:

Martin Smartt Bell's Doctor Sleep from Penguin Books

 

Adrian Strother isn’t a doctor, and he hasn’t slept for some time. Nor can he for the three days that make up this novel. The reader is deposited in media res into Adrian’s 1980s London world, which seems to have his American past catching up with him, and his inchoate future dwindling to the indivisible point which hath no points nor parts nor magnitude. He’s a talented hypnotist with aspirations to the divine magic of Marsilio Ficino and (more particularly) Giordano Bruno. For much of this book he struggles with whether and how to care about the people closest to him, while his professional engagements produce surprising results, and his carefully-constructed interior world reaches its full momentum.

Doctor Sleep isn’t a “thriller” as the HBJ jacket copy claims. It’s more of a “love story” after the fashion of the two M. John Harrison novels I recently read as Anima. It combines the modern hermeticism of John Crowley’s Aegypt books with the gonzo introspection of a Robert Irwin novel. Layer on the chatty readability and pell-mell plotting of an early Palahniuk book, and you’ll about have it. But enough of comparisons.

The fast-reading story darkens severely towards its dawn. I caution interested readers against any alleged plot summaries, because although the story itself is given in a perfectly sequential first-person narrative, it all hinges on circumstances that are revealed in an elliptical manner to give them their greatest effect. One of the chief topics of the novel (and the title of the second of its three days) is the art of memory, and what a haphazard glosser might see as background is just as likely to be payoff.

There is certainly a Faust tale here, and much that can be read as allegory. It was the first book of Bell’s I have read, but since he could deliver “more light” in this fashion, I won’t make it the last. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.

The Occult Mind

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Occult Mind: Magic in Theory and Practice by Christopher I. Lehrich:

Christopher I Lehrich's The Occult Mind from Cornell University Press

 

I’m so profoundly impressed with Lehrich’s The Occult Mind that I hardly know where to start reviewing it. Perhaps I should point out that the title (as contrasted with the borrowed subtitle Magic in Theory and Practice) is not much reflected by the contents. This book is not about psychology (“mind”), nor does the word “occult” appear in the text as a technical term, or very frequently at all. It is a book about magic as signifying the occult sciences, taking the early modern cases of Bruno, Dee, and Kircher as paradigmatic. But the operation performed throughout the book is theory (in a sense indistinguishable from the “practice” of intellectuals), and the Renaissance magi are treated as theoreticians on a comparative footing with their twentieth-century reader/successors Frances Yates, Mircea Eliade, and Claude Levi-Strauss.

Lehrich stares down and embraces the difficulties and necessities of comparativism and historicism, using these (and other) highly enigmatic and suspect figures as his points of exploration. In the process, his reflections on theory engage subjects ranging from Noh drama to tarot divination to musical composition. He does not (could hardly) claim to have delivered a new historical or comparative method, but only to have explicated his gropings towards one.

Among the book’s many other positive features, it deserves applause for harvesting theoretical perspective (and a piece of indispensable jargon) from the fiction of John Crowley. It is no casual read: prior familiarity with structuralist anthropology and Derridean deconstruction are useful, and it is hard to imagine it holding the attention of a reader unversed in any of the modern scholars with whom Lehrich enters into conversation. For those who are mentally equipped to consume it, however, it offers the nearest possible thing to proof that rather than being a history of “nonsense,” the legacy of the occult sciences is in fact a history of the sense of sense, a record of skilled attempts (however unproductive) to grapple with the very nature of meaning and its creation.

Superlative. [via]

 

 

The Hermetic Library Reading Room is an imaginary and speculative future reification of the library in the physical world, a place to experience a cabinet of curiosities offering a confabulation of curation, context and community that engages, archives and encourages a living Western Esoteric Tradition. If you would like to contribute to the Hermetic Library Reading Room, consider supporting the library or contact the librarian.