Tag Archives: review

The Immoralist

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Immoralist by André Gide, translated by Richard Howard.

Gide The Immoralist

This product of 1901 was fascinating to me, although its literary renown does not perhaps align with an appeal to a wide audience today. My reading of Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor turned out to be important preparation, since it contains crucial cultural context for tuberculosis as understood in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The fin-de-siècle perception of homosexuality is also pivotal here. 

The book is brief, and consists of an autobiographical narrative, told by a man who, through a period punctuated by his own illness and a trio of deaths (his father’s, his child’s, and his wife’s), has been initiated into a transformed set of values. He has tapped his passional chaos–as Nietzsche’s Zarathustra might say–and discovered himself to be a sort of being that he can only attempt to explain to his old friends in the form of the story that makes up the novel. 

“Art is leaving me, I feel it. To make room for … what? No longer, as before, a smiling harmony … I no longer know, now, the dark god I serve. O new God! Grant that I may yet know new races, unforeseen kinds of beauty.” 

Richard Howard’s 1970 translation was not the first English rendering of this work of Gide’s, but it is certainly clear and striking.

The Serpent’s Gift

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Serpent’s Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J Kripal.

Kripal The Serpent's Gift

In a 1978 essay in Understanding the New Religions, Robert Bellah mentioned that “religious intellectuals are, perhaps to a greater extent than ever before in American history, cut off from large religious bodies which, theoretically, represent the majority of the religious population,” and he went on to speculate whether academic “religious studies itself is, in a sense, ‘new religion’.” In The Serpent’s Gift, Jeffrey Kripal seems eager to emblemize Bellah’s verdict and to vindicate his speculation. 

Kripal’s book is something of a manifesto on method in religious studies. It is made up of insightful explorations of “eroticism, humanism, comparative mysticism, and esotericism” in religion as approached through academic research. The aggregate effect is to outline what he calls “academic gnosticism.” But it would probably be more accurate to call it “gnostic academicism,” since the institutions and traditions on which it depends are those of the academy, while the themes and perspectives that it champions are the ones Kripal has chosen to gloss as “gnostic.” In contradiction to some 20th-century Neognostics, Kripal appreciates the essentially elitist nature of ancient gnosticism, and he is acutely aware of its initiatory dimension.

As in his earlier work Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom, the author takes an intimate and somewhat confessional approach to his material. The endnotes are a rich mixture of textual references and authorial asides, and his conversationally annotated bibliography is matched with a preface on his textual sources of inspiration, called “Digging Up My Library.” This apparatus, and the introductory essay on method and theory, are some of the best parts of the book. No interested reader should overlook them.

The main body of the text is made up of four essays. The first of these is the most conventionally “gnostic” in its historical scope, and it treats a variety of sexualized representations of Jesus that are rarely given a popular hearing. Kripal acknowledges the ordinary celibate Jesus, and introduces readers to the bastard Jesus, the queer Jesus, and even the ‘straight’ Jesus, discussing both the venerability of such assessments and the consequences of the question itself. 

The second essay is centered on the thought of 19th-century German antichrist Ludwig Feuerbach, with an admittedly creative reading to which I am very sympathetic. He sums this reading as “a type of erotic (post)modern gnosis whose final goal ‘is to make God a man and man a God.’” (89)

In the third essay, Kripal addresses the methodological conundrums of comparativism, and the ways in which the comparative enterprise produces “heresy.” Here he rewardingly takes up the neologism ‘mystics’ (c.f. ‘physics’) from de Certeau translator Michael B. Smith. I was also gratified to read here his engagement with Steven Wasserstrom’s assessment of the mid-20th-century comparativism of the Eranos school, since Wasserstrom’s book had been important in my own return to the academy and work on religious studies earlier this decade. 

Kripal cheerfully transgresses the boundary between high culture and popular culture with his fourth essay, which is constructed around a proposal that the X-Men comics be read as an allegory of his idealized vision of the post-secondary study of religion. It is true, as Kripal claims throughout The Serpent’s Gift, that the university setting can and in many cases does incubate the sort of thought he espouses. Indeed, a certain amount of academic training is helpful even to approach Kripal’s book. But the current fragility of the academic institution, especially with respect to the humanities, does not inspire great hope here. Traditional tenured roles are being replaced with more contingent forms of faculty, the economic proposition of the four-year undergraduate degree is increasingly shaky, and there are growing assaults on the academic protections for freedom of speech and opinion (some of which Kripal addresses in his third essay). I came away from the “Mutant Marvels” essay with a renewed belief in the importance of a robust “academic gnosticism” outside the academy: a network of parallel institutions with their roots in various countercultural movements ranging from Freemasonry (18th century) to occultism (19th century) to Human Potential (20th century), and hardly limited to these. 

The book’s conclusion does reach past the confines of the academy to make programmatic statements about Western religious values. I take issue on a basic level with Kripal’s final assertion that “We do not die because we have sex and reproduce.” (179) While I concur with his dismissal of the Augustinian notion that the act of sex in itself is morally culpable and divinely punished, it is nevertheless true that we are programmed for death through a sexual procreative process that makes earlier generations give way for just the sort of future mutations (physical or spiritual) that Kripal exalts. The error is in considering death to be ‘a bad thing.’ I recommend this book strongly to those who have no faith to obstruct their curiosity, and who have the power to imagine their religions–or their universities–going under.

Adam, Eve, and the Serpent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity by Elaine Pagels.

Pagels Adam Eve and the Serpent

In her epilogue to Adam, Eve, and the Serpent Elaine Pagels insists that her ambition in this book is neither to discover nor to indicate the nature of the “real Christianity.” In that case, she could have avoided a lot of the confusion raised by her presentation, if only she had been a little bit more skeptical about the original message of “Jesus,” whom she quotes–on the basis of the canonical Gospels–as blithely as she cites the writings of Augustine or any of the other Church Fathers. She knows well enough that “the gospels of the New Testament are neither histories nor biographies in our sense of these terms,” (5) but she still handles them as though they might serve in those capacities.

Still, for a book that is designed to straddle the line between scholarship and popularization, Pagels does a good job. And her topic couldn’t be more interesting. She traces the development of Christian interpretations of the Edenic myth of Genesis, and how they were used to formulate and express ideas about sexuality, politics, free will, and guilt. She accepts the Luke-Acts epic as though it were history, and even so, manages to demonstrate important facts about the history of early Christianity: its diversity (with a chapter on “Gnostic Improvisations”) and its profound difference from the Augustinian orthodoxy that underlies nearly all modern Christianities.

Her treatment of Augustine is fascinating, and she claims to have been as surprised herself by the results of her research as most of her Christian readers will be. Although she was originally sympathetic to Augustine from her readings in his ConfessionsOn the Trinity and The City of God, her effort to reopen a conversation forcibly closed by papal authority in April 418 C.E. led her to the dialogue between Augustine and the Pelagian naturalist Julian of Eclanum. In contrast with the traditional secondary sources, Pagels finds Julian thoughtful and scripturally attentive. Augustine, whose Opus Imperfectum Contra Julianum has never been published in English translation, seems “idiosyncratic” and tendentious in his novel doctrine of congenital human depravity. 

In Pagels’ account, the combination of Augustine’s theological innovations with the establishment of imperial Christianity resulted in the rejection of an earlier Christian ethos of freedom, and its replacement with one of guilt. This study deserves the careful consideration of everyone who thinks that they have read and understood Genesis 3:16-19, since hardly any readers, medieval or modern, have been able to approach the Edenic myth without the long Augustinian shadow of “original sin” cast upon it. Before Augustine, Justin Martyr could say to the prefect who condemned him to death: “Do what thou wilt: we are Christians.” (49)

The Age of Ra

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Age of Ra by James Lovegrove.

Lovegrove The Age of Ra

The Age of Ra is a fast-paced, testosterone-laden adventure set in an alternate present where the gods of ancient Egypt have been visibly ruling humanity since the early 20th century. On p. 101, author Lovegrove quickly sketches the global theo-political scenario in which various international blocs have aligned under the principal deities. Priests manage ba energies granted by the gods, and these power a wide range of fanciful military hardware. The alternate history isn’t worked out in great detail, and I failed to find the rationale for it compelling, but the setting is original and well-constructed. The premise of the action is that Egypt (or “Freegypt”)–the world’s only country not under specific divine patronage–incubates a movement against the theocratic system, and the protagonist is a British military officer who gets caught up in the course of events. The plot moves forward satisfyingly through short chapters, with occasional interludes taking place on the plane of the gods. 

The characters are credible, though often a bit stereotyped. Lovegrove is given to the occasional wayward simile, but on the whole, the writing is efficient and palatable. There is a sort of grisly 21st-century action cinematic feel to it. There’s no profound philosophy or psychological insight here, but some appreciable entertainment.

Some suggested music to accompany this novel: 
“Bad Blood” by Ministry 
“Face in the Sand” by Iron Maiden 
“Daughter of the Desert” by Transglobal Underground
“Master of the Universe” by Hawkwind
“Godwhacker” by Steely Dan
“War Pigs” by Black Sabbath
“Hem of Your Garment” by Cake
“Veteran of the Psychic Wars” by Blue Oyster Cult

I suspect if you don’t like heavy metal, you wouldn’t much groove on this book anyway. One reviewer remarked that his wife thought the paperback cover looked like game packaging (my Other Reader called it “lurid”), and I’m sure this book could be the basis of a solid MMOFPS.

The Religion of the Semites

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Religion of the Semites: The Fundamental Institutions by W Robertson Smith.

Smith The Religion of the Semites

This influential late 19th-century study of ancient near eastern religion was supposed to have been the first of three courses of lectures on the topic of the religious matrix–or “higher heathenism,” as the author sometimes calls it–against which background the teachings of the Hebrew Bible developed, comparing this matrix to other ancient and primitive cults. As a result, the book is a little less comprehensive than the title might suggest, but it focuses on the important topic of sacrifice

The “Semites” of the title are a broad culture (or “race,” in keeping with the academic jargon of that time) defined chiefly by language, and including Arabs, Hebrews, and Aramaeans. The author discountenances an ancient Babylonian emphasis–which had some vogue in his day and was later to enjoy more–as reflecting a more hybrid and metropolitan set of developments. (The same objection would apply to the Phoenicians.) While certainly referencing and weighing biblical evidence, he prefers to take as his paradigm the indigenous non-Abrahamic religions of Arabia. But his sources for these are largely obscure, and in at least one instance, problematic.

The explanation of sacrificial systems often reverts to a particular anecdote from the late fourth-century Egyptian chronicler Nilus, who reported the habits of Bedouins in his region. This striking story of camel sacrifice was later subjected to significant and justifiable skepticism, but not before it had exerted a widespread influence on the theory of religion. Mircea Eliade in his lecture “Cultural Fashion and the History of Religions” (1965) refers to it as the “Fabulous Camel” of Nilus. Still, although Eliade claimed that scholars who concurred with Robertson Smith “could not–or dared not–discuss the general problem of sacrifice without duly relating Nilus’ story,” it is far from clear to me that the loss of Nilus as a data point entails the collapse of the theory advanced in these lectures.

Throughout the work, Robinson Smith stresses the important point that “in ancient religion there was no authoritative interpretation of ritual. It was imperative that certain things should be done, but every man was free to put his own meaning on what was done.” (399) He thus counters the anachronistic tendency in the study of religion to retroject a modern, credal or doctrinal orientation onto ancient cults. At the same time, the fact that the “certain things” had become imperative implies that they were at least originally informed by an obvious motive, and most of Robertson Smiths’s effort is directed towards discovering and elucidating the motive of religious sacrifice. 

Part of the explanation involves the notion of totemism–conceptualized in a manner that owes much to J.G. Frazer, and nothing at all to Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Ultimately, the claim is that the sacrificial event was ab origine one of communion, with the god and among the people. It was an act of commensality that (re-) established kinship with the god in whose name the sacrifice was performed. Only later, with the development of notions of individual property and differentiated social classes, did it acquire explanations involving merit, guilt, compensation, and expiation. Public sacrifice preceded private sacrifice, and the former was properly religious, while the latter drifted toward magic. Interestingly, this genealogy of sacrifice reverses the common suppositions of Christian theology, according to which the communion of Christian sacramentalism is a late development out of an originally expiatory system of sacrifice. 

Besides the central argument, Robertson Smith does range over a variety of interesting and fundamental topics, particularly in the early lectures of the series. The religious developments of the hospitality code, the conception of holy places, the evolution of altars, and the origin and consequence of demons and jinn are just a few of the subsidiary issues considered. Many of these are given further treatment in appended essay-length notes. Additional Note F, on “Sacrifices of Sacred Animals” was worth the whole book to me, for the two pages devoted to ancient sources regarding the sacrifice of donkeys.

Iced on Aran

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Iced on Aran by Brian Lumley

Lumley Iced on Aran

This fourth volume of David Hero and Eldin the Wanderer is made up of five disparate stories, rather than a single novel. 

The title story “Iced on Aran” is the first in the book. It’s not very long or very exciting, and has little connection with the later stories of the sequence. It is not a “quest” tale per se; it simply recounts a narrow scrape resulting from bored one-upsmanship between the heroes.

The second tale “Augeren” is perhaps my favorite of all of the Lumley Dreamlands tales. It really gets dreamlike, after the manner of Alice in Wonderland or even Cabell’s The Nightmare Has Triplets, with ample wordplay and preposterous plotting. I especially liked the exposition of soul-shuddering horror inspired by circumstances that–to waking reason–are really just absurd. 

The penultimate story “A-Mazed in Oriab” is a long novelette, and it is flanked by two very short stories that are closely tied to it, to the point where they almost serve as prologue and epilogue. These all center on doings around the island of Oriab, with key plot purposes served by the “seer with invisible eyes” (a.k.a. s.w.i.e.). As a set, these three stories are comparable to the earlier Lumley Dreamlands books, although not quite as long. The dream-sensibility of “Augeren” persists in them, although not as conspicuously.

Dante’s Divine Comedy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation by Seymour Chwast.

Chwast Dante's Divine Comedy

Seymour Chwast shows no small ambition in attempting a “graphic novel” adaptation of Dante’s Commedia, but unfortunately, the results are not that impressive. The poetic elements of Dante’s work are almost entirely obliterated, as the language is reduced to narrative prose, simplified dialogue, and an assortment of fragmentary captions and labels. Chwast uses aggressively anachronistic visual designs, making Dante a tall fellow in a trenchcoat and sunglasses, while Virgil wears a bow tie and a bowler. 

The pace is quite fast, with approximately one page devoted to each of the hundred cantos of the Commedia, and many of the pages having only a single panel of illustration. There is a lot of creative and effective variety in the hand-lettering of the text, although a few grammatical and spelling errors (e.g. “Cerberus … allows we poets to enter the circle” on p. 21) take a little of the joy out of that too. 

Some of the most effective panels are the ones that are schematic–although when it comes to the maps of the three realms, Chawast’s deliberately simplified style cannot hold a candle to the intricate triptych by Paul Laffoley. And this sort of competition is one of the reasons that this book faces an uphill battle among readers. Given that the story is unchanged from, and the words less engaging than, its original; it becomes Chwast’s task to captivate us with image and visual design. And he is hardly the first to undertake this very specific task. Gustave Dore’s engravings illustrating the Commedia are one longstanding and well-known example of an accomplished execution of the graphic form for this work. An even better (though unfinished) version was produced by one who could be considered a principal creator of the “graphic novel” in Western culture: William Blake. 

In the end, Chwast’s adptation seems deficient in the sort of grandeur and gravity readers want (and for many centuries, have gotten) from Dante’s work. It strikes me like nothing so much as a brilliant student’s notebook, drawn while hearing the poet recite his age-defining vision.

Judgment Night

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Judgment Night by C L Moore.

Moore Judgment Night

This book includes the short novel Judgment Night, plus several longish short stories, all written in the period 1943-50. Besides putting the novel first, there’s no evident rhyme or reason to the sequence of the contents.

The title novel would make a good science fiction movie today. It could indulge CGI scenery creation to an exorbitant level, and it would leverage to much better effect the space opera tropes everyone knows from Star Wars. The protagonist is the butt-kicking amazon daughter of the galactic emperor, and the story is set on and around the imperial capital planet Ericon. Because there are “gods” living on Ericon–i.e. an ancient praeterhuman race–and because there is some significant personal and political intrigue–the story actually reminds me more of Dune than other space empire tales.

“Paradise Street” is a space Western in full form, much like Joss Whedon’s Firefly television series, but written fifty years earlier.

“The Code” is the outlier of the volume: not a futuristic science fiction tale at all. It has the sort of psychological conjecture that I would expect from a Ted Sturgeon story, and it also reminded me a little of Machen’s The Great God Pan. The central premise is an experimental rejuvenation treatment that has some unexpected side effects.

The remaining two stories are both set in a single future history in which terrestrial humanity has undertaken to deliberately speciate itself, creating “Thresholder” mutants, in order to be able to colonize other planets. I found these to be the least of the volume’s contents, but they were still pretty good.

Fantasy Encounter Games

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Fantasy Encounter Games by Herbert A Otto.

Otto Fantasy Encounter Games

This little book is a “how-to” for dozens of activities that are intended to be entertaining and enlightening. Most of the games are conversational, although some involve non-athletic physical activity. They were documented in the early 1970s on the basis of experimentation and research at universities and “growth centers” associated with the human potential movement. Although they are called “encounter” games, a significant subset of them are susceptible to individual play, and a few of them seem primarily intended for such. The main divisions of the games in the book are games for two, sensory games, and group games. 

Although it was written before the development of the tabletop fantasy roleplaying game, many of the games described here do have roleplaying elements–though of course without many of the conventions that later came to characterize that specific game type. Otto’s roleplaying games also draw on many of the narrative genres that have become fantasy roleplaying staples, such as science fiction, fairy-tale magic, and horror. A number of the games in the book are effectively improvisational theater exercises, and most others closely border on that sort of activity. 

Dr. Otto’s volume invites comparison with a similar book published at about the same time: Mind Games by Robert Masters and Jean Houston. Two chief characteristics distinguish the latter from the former. First, Masters & Houston take the cultivation of trance as essential to their game process, whereas Otto does not discuss that dimension at all. He only characterizes “fantasy” by comparison to and contrast with sleeping dreams and daydreams, writing that it is an expressly “conscious” use of imagination. Second, Mind Games is explicitly structured around a goal of gradually more profound and non-ordinary experiences, with games sequenced for effect. Otto’s book does include some games that are flagged as “advanced,” where players are advised not to attempt them until succeeding with some other games first, but there is nothing like the tightly structured curriculum, nor the sense of theoretically-driven system, evident in Mind Games. Throughout Fantasy Encounter Games, there is a hydrodynamic metaphor of consciousness. Dr. Otto writes frequently of the “flow of fantasy” or the “total fantasy stream.” 

There is a fair amount of inadvertent entertainment value for 21st-century readers. The book is pervaded by an uneasy accommodation of popular culture and youth vernacular, shown in the deployment of terms like “cop-out,” “grooving,” “out of sight,” and “freak out.” Dr. Otto also sometimes includes bizarre little practical instructions that seem to imply a substandard real-world functioning among his readers. For example, in “The Fantasy News Game,” he advises players that radio broadcasts news “every half-hour or on the hour on most stations.”(29) In another game where he recommends using a timer, he counsels that “Egg timers are available for a small sum at most variety stores.”

Some of these games might be useful ancillary activities for small groups who are usually involved in more “serious” activity, such as business development, charitable work, or occult study.

Mercury

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mercury: An Official Organ of the Societas Rosicruciana in America [also], by editor-in-chief George Winslow Plummer & al.

Plummer Societas Rosicruciana in America Mercury

“Rosicrucianism is a definite wave of human mentalism that, in its forward activity, has carried the human intellect higher with each progressive impulse, not for the purpose of intellectual development as such, but simply that by such development we can enter more fully into comprehension of what constitutes true spiritual insight and power,” writes Dr. George Winslow Plummer as chief editor of the Mercury, the organ of the Societas Rosicruciana in America. This statement, accompanied by the evident conviction that it is supposed to be meaningful to the curious and skeptical reader, abundantly displays the frequent weakness of this material. 

The Mercury certainly showcases some earnest esoteric researches on the part of its order’s membership. Many of the articles, however, like Helena Folkening’s essays, tend to address interesting topics with little but sentimental platitudes. Others are curious quasi-scientific speculation involving vital forces, morphogenesis, and the like. Francis Mayer contributes a variety of articles on alchemical topics that seem erudite, but are ultimately too opaque to benefit most readers. 

Most issues contain several pieces on astrology: personal, judicial, “incarnational,” “inductive,” etc. Plummer claims to support skepticism and accountability in astrology, and actually suggests in the March 1927 issue his support for a proposed New York state law to put all professional astrologers under a $5000 bond. In June 1927, the Mercury also became the official organ of the American Academy of Astrologians (sic). 

Each issue includes several pages of book reviews. It is especially interesting to read the favorable reviews offered on original publication to books like The Egyptian Revival by C.S. Jones (Frater Achad), and E. Valentia Straiton’s Celestial Ship of the North

I thot the spelling reform in their editorial policy left something to be wisht for, but it was certainly a symptom of their “progressive” attitude, which also came through in other ways. Plummer’s rants against “Churchianity” are all good fun, and sometimes take a puzzlingly hilarious turn, such as when he quotes Benito Mussolini (!) against facial hair (June 1927).