Tag Archives: Reading Room

Mail call 18aug2022

Let’s open this envelope that’s arrived at the Reading Room!

Hermetic Library mail call 18aug2022 Walter Cambra donation

Donation of $20 from Hermetic Library Fellow Walter C Cambra! Thanks!


Also, as a reminder, if you want to participate in postal exchange with me, I occasionally send stuff out to certain Patrons as a perk; but, even if you aren’t able to be a Patron, if you send something I’ll send something back! It’s that easy!

Mail call 14jul2022

Let’s open this envelope that’s arrived at the Reading Room!

Hermetic Library Mail Call 14jul2022

It’s stuff for Postal Exchange!


Also, as a reminder, if you want to participate in postal exchange with me, I occasionally send stuff out to certain Patrons as a perk; but, even if you aren’t able to be a Patron, if you send something I’ll send something back! It’s that easy!

Mail call 11jul2022

Let’s open this envelope that’s arrived at the Reading Room!

Hermetic Library Mail Call 11jul2022

It’s a very much appreciated donation from Hermetic Library Fellow Walter C Cambra!


Also, as a reminder, if you want to participate in postal exchange with me, I occasionally send stuff out to certain Patrons as a perk; but, even if you aren’t able to be a Patron, if you send something I’ll send something back! It’s that easy!

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]