Tag Archives: Reading Room

When the Green Star Calls

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews When the Green Star Calls by Lin Carter.

Lin Carter When the Green Star Calls

I found this second of Lin Carter’s “Green Star” books more enjoyable than the first in all respects but one. The characters were more interesting, including the protagonist, who this time did not have the conveniently preserved soul-less body of a mighty-thewed hero to inhabit. Instead, he took on the life of an orphaned savage. There were elements of ancient civilizations and super-science which helped leaven the sword-and-planet a bit. As before, it is a straightforward action story where the interstellar travel is of a sort of old-fashioned psychic variety. I especially enjoyed an apparently gratuitous trip to Earth’s moon, where the narrator witnessed an enigmatic artifact.

The one feature I didn’t so much like was the cliff-hanger ending. There is, however, an editorial epilogue, where Carter applies the traditional documentary conceit of the genre, and explains that the next volume will pick up directly from this arbitrary break in the narrative. I was, in fact, slightly consoled.

I was very unimpressed by Luis Dominguez’s interior illustrations to this edition, although his cover art is sort of fun. [via]

On Christian Teaching

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana) by St Augustine.

St Augustine On Christian Teaching

There are two possible aims implied in the title of this work: “On Christian Teaching”: to distinguish the Christian from the pagan—“a manifesto for a particularly Christian culture” (translator Green, viii, dismisses this idea—but see my remarks below on Book III), OR “On Christian Teaching”: to identify and communicate the pedagogical process (per Augustine’s preface). Augustine here works in four connected fields of thought, roughly one in each of the Books I through IV of the treatise: ethics, semiotics, hermeneutics, and rhetoric.

The treatise is sometimes understood as consisting of two parts, according to its compositional history. There was an interruption of two or three decades at III.78. Green indicates “a certain bittiness” in the later part of Book III (xi). Many readers, including Green, seem to understand the first three books as properly about learning rather than teaching, while leaving the real doctrina to Book IV. They take that division as reflecting Augustine’s initial distinction between discovery (inventio) and presentation (I.1, IV.1).

I seem to detect a tension between the conception of evil as absence/nonquality on the one hand, and the implication of (original) sin as a positive condition on the other.

At the end of Book III, Augustine credits Tyconius (and downplays the latter’s Donatism), but his frequent citations from Cicero are all tacit. Is this discrepancy in his treatment of Christian and pagan sources a demonstration of how to “spoil the Egyptians”? [via]

Holy Feast and Holy Fast

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women by Caroline Walker Bynum, part of the The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics series.

Caroline Walker Bynum Holy Feast and Holy Fast

The nature of Bynum’s analysis in Holy Feast and Holy Fast is decidedly synchronic. She both compares and contrasts medieval sensibilities regarding food with those of the twentieth century, tending to emphasize the extent to which modern readers will find the medieval perspectives “alien” (246). But her concern is not to demonstrate any causes or mechanisms by which the earlier state was transformed to the later one. Even within the relatively broad time-frame that she has chosen—three centuries or more during the later Middle Ages—she emphasizes a relatively uniform set of ideas governing consistent expressions of female religiosity (6-7). While she provides explicit disclaimers admitting the reality of historical change and difference, she seems only to demonstrate the process by which European religious culture, like the exceptional women whom she studies, does not change through reversal or disruption, but only intensifies its own given character.

In contrast with her critique of Victor Turner’s concept of liminality, Bynum elsewhere praises his proposals regarding “dominant symbols,” with “their many facets.” Although it is more understated here, the metaphor is the same as the one that she employs in the “crystalline structure” in her female saints’ lives. And the nature of that gem may actually be most clearly explained by Turner’s predecessor Clifford Geertz, who had written,

“Our double task is to uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts, the ‘said’ of social discourse, and to construct a system of analysis in whose terms what is generic to those structures, what belongs to them because they are what they are, will stand out against the other determinants of human behavior.” (The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays, 1973, p. 27)

These “conceptual structures” are the “dominant symbols,” arrayed and anchored in such a fashion as to create what Geertz with his own natural and geometric metaphor calls “webs of significance.” Their exposure and explication can create an assurance of integrated meaning sufficiently compelling as to make a specific cultural matrix seem not only lucid, but inevitable. The theoretical danger and difficulty for the historian lies in becoming frozen in the crystal or trapped in the web. There is a hazard of being confined by a “synchronic” sensibility, which, if it has the virtue of avoiding stereotyped storylines, may not be able to accommodate or account for the transformative events of history.

(excerpted from my brief 2006 paper on “The Concept of Structure in Bynum’s Holy Feast and Holy Fast”) [via]

The Magus

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Magus by John Fowles.

John Fowles The Magus

I went into this novel with some trepidation. I was not intimidated by its doorstop size, nor by its reputation as sophisticated metafiction. But it had received a solidly negative review from my Other Reader, and the book’s own author John Fowles lamented it as “haphazard … a novel of adolescence written by a retarded adolescent” (6, 9). These worries were mitigated by two factors. First, the version I read was a “more than … stylistic revision” (5) perpetrated over a decade after its initial publication. Second, I had encountered the two-page “fairy story” of “The Prince and the Magician” excerpted in the “Magic Shows” issue of Lapham’s Quarterly (Summer 2012), and found it wonderful. I can now report that it loses none of its luster in its original context (550-552). There was a big twist at the end of part two (562), which I had seen coming for at least 200 pages, so that was underwhelming.

Like any “novel of adolescence,” The Magus is a story of initiation, but more explicitly so than most. The fact that the ceremonial aspects of the rite are largely non-consensual, and that the candidate (i.e. the first-person narrator Nicholas) is so profoundly unlikable, were perhaps contributing factors to my Other Reader’s thorough disgust with the book. There is an explicit Sadean element here, with or without sadism. It is in some respects a more naturalistic approach to the content of Bernard Noel’s Castle of Communion.

In the course of the novel, an elite conspiracy perpetrating a system of “experimental” initiation has as its upshot an opposition between freedom and faith. “There is no god but man,” and “Love is the law, love under will” (none of these quotes from the book). The closing epigram reminded me of the words of Liber CLXVI: “This Path is beyond Life and Death; it is also beyond Love; but that ye know not, for ye know not Love.” Aleister Crowley gets one solitary name-check here, when . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . [Spoiler: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The magus of the title is the inscrutable psychopomp character Maurice Conchis, whom I found more reminiscent of Gurdjieff than of Crowley. The most esoteric influence mentioned by Fowles in a discussion of his sources is C.G. Jung, but it is possible that there was a Gurdjieffian element. The metaphysical concept of “hazard” emphasized by Conchis was key in the work of John G. Bennett, who was active in England promoting Gurdjieff’s teachings during the extensive period of the composition of The Magus. (I synchronistically stumbled across a cheap used copy of Bennett’s book on Hazard on the same day I finished reading The Magus.)

I did enjoy this book, although it does tend to have the weaker side of the comparisons in which I find myself most likely to include it, whether with Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Pynchon’s Vineland, or Irwin’s Satan Wants Me. I’ll still plead for the virtues of “The Prince and the Magician,” though, a teaching story on a par with the Bektashi parable of “The Shrine.” [via]

The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While by Catherynne M Valente.

Catherynne M Valente The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland for a Little While

I read this novella (with my daughter) after all four of Valente’s fairyland novels. I think it would have been good to read it after the first, which seems to have been the publication sequence. It doesn’t really spoiler anything in the other three books, it precedes all four in narrative chronology, and it sets up some of the important events of the third and fourth. Reading it this way worked all right, though. It made it possible to guess where things were going in the plot, although there was still a surprise or two. The imaginative intensity is certainly of a piece with the other stories. [via]

The Dosadi Experiment

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert.

Frank Herbert The Dosadi Experiment

Here’s a book I looked at with interest when I was a teenager who had read and enjoyed Herbert’s Dune. I believe I passed it over then because it was the sequel to a book I hadn’t read (Whipping Star), and which wasn’t in the public library collection where I found The Dosadi Experiment. Since then, Dosadi has gone from being the second of a series to being the fourth, in the narrative chronology of Herbert’s ConSentiency novels. Still not having read the others all these decades later, I went ahead and tackled this one, inspired by praise I had read for it on LibraryThing.

It may be that I would have enjoyed it more if I had been already acquainted with the ConSentiency milieu and the protagonist (Jorj X. McKie, Saboteur Extraordinary) established in Whipping Star, but I did like it all the same. It certainly has a number of themes in common with the original Dune books, most especially the idea of a eugenic program transforming humanity. But even more it reminded me of the later Charles Stross novel Glasshouse. Both are far future espionage stories where the protagonist must infiltrate an experimental world in an effort to discover its true purpose, knowing only that there is some great culpability involved. In both cases, the world being investigated is more like the reader’s world than the somewhat utopian future of the novel’s larger scenario. In Dosadi, “The whole thing reminded McKie of stories told about behavior in Human bureaucracies of the classical period before deep space travel” (222). There are other interesting similarities between the books that would be spoilers to detail.

Unique to Herbert’s tale is the focus on the exotic legal system of the frog-like Gowachin aliens, an important peer-race of humanity within the ConSentiency. McKie is the only human credentialed as a “legum” in the jurisprudence of their “courtarena,” where both lawyers and litigants are routinely exposed to mortal hazard. Far from a crude gladiator’s brawl, however, the operations of this system depend on great subtlety and creativity, demanding both a reverence for tradition and the power to upend precedents and conventions.

This book read quickly, even though there were passages that were written with such verbal economy that they became ambiguous to the reader. That style is thematically consistent with the book, which attributes it to the inhabitants of Dosadi themselves. I don’t know how far in our future The Dosadi Experiment is supposed to be set, and it glances lightly over many technological details, but it has aged pretty well for forty-year-old science fiction. I’m glad to have finally read it, and I appreciate the recommendations that got me to do so. [via]

The Book of Starry Wisdom

The Book of Starry Wisdom, edited by Simon Berman and illustrated by Hermetic Library Anthology Artist Valerie Herron, has arrived at the Reading Room, the result of a successful crowdfunding campaign.

Simon Berman Valerie Herron The Book of Starry Wisdom

Strix Publishing recently started to tease a crowdfunding campaign for a follow-up companion volume, The Book of Three Gates, that will be starting up in early October.

Pandora by Holly Hollander

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pandora by Holly Hollander by Gene Wolfe.

Gene Wolfe Pandora by Holly Hollander

As a fan of Gene Wolfe’s fantasy and science fiction, I couldn’t pass up a free copy of Pandora by Holly Hollander, which I picked out of the detritus of a folded secondhand bookshop. This book, however, belongs very self-consciously to a different genre: the murder mystery. The titular Hollander is a teenage girl who serves as the narrator. The story is set in a tony Chicago suburb in the mid-1980s, and though it was written as a contemporary fiction, the absence of cell phones and the Internet now marks it as a period piece.

Holly fancies herself the principal sleuth of the story, but she’s not the only one investigating the crime, and there’s no guarantee that she’ll be the one to solve the mystery. She’s an avid mystery reader and a child of privilege, and she seems to get along well with people, but knowing Wolfe’s fondness for unreliable narrators, I had to wonder if she weren’t a “mean girl” or somehow papering over her own faults in the course of the story.

The novel is parsed into short, fast-reading chapters, with frequent asides and reflections on the authorial process by Holly, whose “first book” Pandora is. The foreword also serves well as an epilogue, and can be re-read with the pleasure of context after finishing the chapters. Pandora would serve well enough as YA literature, and my tween daughter is certainly welcome to read it if it takes her interest. [via]

The Nomad of Time

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Nomad of Time by Michael Moorcock.

Michael Moorcock The Nomad of Time

Eisenhower is reported to have said privately: “Before the bomb was used, I would have said yes, I was sure we could keep the peace with Russia. Now, I don’t know. Until now I would have said that we three, Britain with her mighty fleet, America with the strongest air force, and Russia with the strongest land force on the continent, we three could have guaranteed the peace of the world for a long, long time to come. But now, I don’t know. People are frightened and disturbed all over. Everyone feels insecure again.”

The Nomad of Time is a book club omnibus of Michael Moorcock’s three Oswald Bastable novels. These books first published in the 1970s are sometimes characterized as seminal steampunk, on account of their re-imagining of the technological development of the early 20th century, the conspicuous presence of airships, and the Edwardian character of the protagonist. (Bastable’s name is borrowed from that of a child narrator in several Victorian books by E. Nesbit.) Each of the three novels presents a variant of 20th-century history, in which geopolitical and technological conditions vary. In all, however, Bastable finds himself near the center of critical events concerning global warfare, and he comes to feel a considerable guilty responsibility for his role, although he is more victim than perpetrator.

Although the titles may evoke Edgar Rice Burroughs, if these books contain pastiche or homage to another author, it is certainly H.G. Wells, for both the scientific and political elements as well as the period setting. There is a documentary conceit established in The Warlord of the Air, according to which Bastable was an acquaintance of Moorcock’s grandfather, and the first two novels are simply presentations of text found among the papers of the older Moorcock’s estate. The third novel purports to be a Bastable manuscript delivered directly to grandson Michael through a more fantastic agency.

In this series, Moorcock gives actual historical personalities new roles in the variant histories that he presents. For instance, in The Land Leviathan Mahatma Gandhi features as the president of the idyllic South African republic of Bantustan. The “Steel Tsar” of the third book is (unsurprisingly) an otherworld variant of Lenin. The Ukranian revolutionary Nestor Makhno is conscripted to serve as a mouthpiece for some of Moorcock’s own Kropotkin-inflected political views toward the close of the third book. The 20th-century event that seems to have the greatest metaphysical significance in The Nomad of Time is the first detonation of a nuclear fission bomb. In fact, the atomic bomb is to this trilogy pretty much what the Death Star is to the original Star Wars trilogy, although Moorcock’s political sensibilities are quite different than those of George Lucas!

Bastable connects with Moorcock’s Eternal Champion hyperwork primarily through some incidental appearances in the Jerry Cornelius stories and the End of Time books. But the only intruder from Moorcock’s fantasy multiverse in The Nomad of Time is Temporal Adventurer Una Persson, who figures in all three of the Bastable books. There is one solitary mention of the dialectic of Law and Chaos in the third Bastable novel, but throughout the three, the forces of Empire and Revolution seem to be the masks worn by Moorcock’s cosmic polarity. Bastable is a professedly non-introspective character, a dogged survivor who prefers to be in the role of a man of action, but the books brim with moral anxiety and confused loyalties. [via]