Tag Archives: review

Nietzsche Against the Crucified

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche Against the Crucified by Alistair Kee.

Kee Neitzsche Against the Crucified

Kee’s Nietzsche Against the Crucified is a lucid approach to Nietzsche’s thought, from the uncommon perspective of a professor of Religious Studies. As Kee notes in his introduction, most of the secondary literature on Nietzsche is generated within the discipline of “Philosophy,” and much of it reflects a disinterest in the religious context and theological consequences of the material–a disinterest that is alien to Nietzsche’s own perspective. This book covers Nietzsche’s principal themes and topics adequately, and concludes with a sound argument against viewing him as the “father of postmodernism.” 

There is brief but sufficient biographical material to appreciate Nietzsche’s situation, and the distinctions between his lived experience and his espoused values. Kee also provides helpful context regarding the evolution of counter-Christian thought in 19th-century Germany, where Nietzsche figures as the third of three antichrists: the first was Ludwig Feuerbach, and the second David Strauss.

Kee’s handling of the doctrine of eternal recurrence is quite sensitive. He does not deform it into something with which he can be more intellectually comfortable, nor does he attempt to downplay its importance in Nietzsche’s ouvre. Similarly, his appreciation of the Will to Power is careful, and framing it with religious concerns gives it a different cast than most introductory treatments. 

Once in a great while, Kee’s prose indulges in a sort of vernacular banter, which I found mostly ineffective. The book as a whole reads quickly, and I would recommend it as an accessible interpretation of Nietzsche, especially useful to Thelemites.

Lion in the Valley

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lion in the Valley by Elizabeth Peters.

Peters Lion in the Valley

Highlights of this fourth volume of Amelia Peabody amusement include: a mysterious redheaded opium-eater going by the name Nemo; the excruciating Mrs. Axhammer of Des Moines, Iowa; the corruption of a village priest; the birds and the bees explained to Ramses Emerson; and the peculiar generosity of the Master Criminal Sethos. 

Previous volumes in this series have carried me along by dint of sheer wit and engaging character, but this one also got me fascinated with the plot in the way that a mystery novel is supposed to–goading me to read the last sixty-odd pages at a single sitting.

The Goddess’ Son

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Goddess’ Son by Skott Holck.

Holck The Goddess' Son

This self-published first novel is a little rough around the edges, but it tells a distinctive story. The amnesiac protagonist presents his experiences in a non-linear narrative, while a third-person omniscient voice intervenes in alternating chapters to relate both contemporary events involving related characters and prehistoric scenes relevant to the supernatural entities in the tale.

There’s a little neopagan religious testimonial sprinkled through the book, as the title might suggest. Keith, the central character, has made it to his twenties without being subject to any of the popular American slave-religions, and he considers himself a pagan. There are a number of passages that center on his theological concerns, in dialogue with several different Christians: a door-to-door evangelist, a college professor, and an anti-abortion activist.

The principal setting of the book is in the Pacific Northwest at roughly the turn of the millennium, and the author’s acknowledgments indicate that he lived in Oregon while writing it. The fantastic elements of the story fall in the wide confused space between the works of say, Tom Robbins and Phillip K. Dick, with a somewhat closer kinship to the former. Despite the convoluted structure of the story, the prose is direct and fast reading.

Faith of Tarot

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Faith of Tarot by Piers Anthony.

Anthony Faith of Tarot

This final volume of Piers Anthony’s science-fantasy adventure Tarot overtly ties it in to his “Cluster” novels (which I haven’t read). It supplies a fanciful historical origin for the tarot among the Waldensian heretics of the fourteenth century, as foreshadowed at the start of the first book. In this multi-chapter medieval passage, there is even a feint at the Sacred Magic of Abramelin, as the hero Brother Paul meets Abraham of Worms. But the augoeides doctrine does not appear in Anthony’s work, despite the persistence of “Love Is the Law, Love under Will” (sic, with impertinent capitals).

The solution of the “God of Tarot” conundrum comes three chapters before the end, leaving a long unwinding denouement to address the fates of the various characters. By the time the revelation arrives, it’s not much of a surprise, but I won’t spoiler it here. The further explication of various psycho-sexual motives (particularly for the Crowley-derived character Therion) were not terribly convincing, and the final resolution was perhaps too tidy.

I’m satisfied to have finally read these books, and I can recommend them for light entertainment. But they seem to pretend to a profundity that I think they lack. Each chapter is headed by a long epigraph, and these often set a tone of sage contemplation. There are metatextual references to medieval dream-visions and the chapter sequence is keyed to the tarot trumps. Perhaps it would be an effective “gateway” work for readers with no prior education in occultism, but its take on esoteric materials is very idiosyncratic and supports its own fiction better than it would any factual efforts. As evidence, the “Animation Tarot” variant (with its hundred-card deck of thirty trumps and five small suits) appears never to have been executed or published in the decades since these books were written.

The Golden Dawn Source Book

A review of The Golden Dawn Source Book with introduction and foreword by Darcy Küntz, preface by R A Gilbert, with articles by Gerald Suster, R T Prinke, Ellic Howe, and Richard Kaczynski, part of the Golden Dawn Studies series; from Caduceus, Vol II No 4.

Küntz Gilbert The Golden Dawn Source Book

For all that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn is far and away the most famous of modern magical lodges, the basic documents concerning its history have not been easy to come by, except for those with personal access to the handful of private collections in which the bulk of surviving GD documents reside. While the outlines of the Order’s history have been traced by a number of useful histories, very little of a documentary nature has been available to those who prefer to draw their own conclusions from the evidence.

The appearance of this second volume in Holmes Publishing Group’s Golden Dawn Studies Series suggests that this unfortunate state of affairs will soon be a thing of the past. Like the first volume (reviewed in Caduceus’ Spring 1996 issue), which provided and translated the original Golden Dawn cipher manuscripts The Golden Dawn Source Book is likely to become an essential starting point for all further work on the subject.

The Golden Dawn Source Book has for its focus the origins and development of the Order, and brings together between one set of covers nearly everything that sheds light on this often vexed topic. Included here is the complete “Anna Sprengel” correspondence in its original English translation, relevant entries from W. Wynn Westcott’s diary, a wide selection of letters tracing the Order’s prehistory and history alike, the public letters and articles that announced the GD’s existence to the world, and a collection of published histories of the Order by a range of members.

In addition, the Source Book contains a collection of modern essays on the Order’s early history, including contributions from nearly all sides of the various disputes in which the interpretation of that history seems permanently mired. Notable among these are Ron Heisler’s “Precursors of the Golden Dawn,” a valuable study of earlier Kabbalistic societies in London, as well as several documents from the controversy over Ellic Howe’s The Magicians of the Golden Dawn including Gerald Suster’s incendiary critique of Howe, “Modern Scholarship and the Origins of the Golden Dawn,” and Howe’s amused response.

Finally, the Source Book concludes with a comprehensive, cross-referenced index of the names and magical mottoes of all known Golden Dawn members from the temples in England, North America and New Zealand, a crucial reference tool that has been attempted several times before with a good deal less success.

Series editor Darcy Küntz should be commended for a valuable and well-presented work. While it has little to appeal to the purely practical magician, the Source Book is a welcome addition to the still-limited library of sources on esoteric history, and students of the Golden Dawn and its antecedents in particular will find it a useful resource.

The Western Way

A review of The Western Way: A Practical Guide to the Western Mystery Tradition by Caitlín and John Matthews from Caduceus, Vol II No 4.

Matthews The Western Way

The recent release of both volumes of the Matthews’ The Western Way in an omnibus edition may serve as an opportunity to assess this, one of the few attempts in recent years to survey the entire field of modern Western magic from within. Despite its failings — and, unfortunately, these are severe — it represents a major effort, and a not wholly unsuccessful one; furthermore, it has played an important role in providing a frame of reference within which much of the magical community has located itself. As a historical event if nothing else, it demands some attention from the student of the Western mysteries.

From one perspective, the central thread of The Western Way is a thread of history, and the book can be read on one level as an inner history of magic in the West — meaning, in this case, largely the British Isles. The first volume, The Native Tradition starts in the deeps of prehistory. It envisions primal Western spirituality in terms largely borrowed from Michael Harner’s popularizations of shamanism and from non-native interpretations of Native American tradition, and proceeds to trace a current based on this pattern down through the centuries to the present. The second, The Hermetic Tradition recounts the origins and development of the various systems of scholarly or high magic and mysticism — Hermetic, Cabalistic, Chaldean/astrological, esoteric Christian, and the like from the ancient world to the modern. On this thread, both volumes string a great deal of esoteric philosophy, instruction, imagery and myth, some of it handled with a good deal of insight.

On another level The Western Way can be seen as the most complete single expression of a specific tradition in English occultism, that set in motion and to a great extent typified by the late Dion Fortune. Fortune in many ways moves through-out the book like a resident phantom, rarely mentioned but always present. Those who have read her magical nonfiction will recognize many of The Western Way’s themes and habits of thought at once, from its approach to magic as a way of psychological integration, through its vision of magical history (complete with Atlantean roots), to its specific take on inner-plane Masters, magical lodges, and the other structuring elements of Fortune’s approach to the magical path.

Perhaps the best way to approach this book, though, is to see it as an attempt to construct an origin myth for the magical community as this now exists in English-speaking countries, and particularly in England. Its two volumes correspond quite closely to the two major divisions of that community, the pagan and the Hermetic. The Matthews relate these together by way of a linear evolutionary scheme in which the native tradition corresponds to the transition from tribal to individual consciousness, and the Hermetic path to that from individual to cosmic consciousness. Standing at the midpoint of this journey, the modern magician potentially draws on both traditions, the one to acknowledge his or her roots, the other to face his or her destiny. At one end of the scheme stand the earliest human beings — in the forthrightly mythic language of the book, the “Firstborn of the Foretime” — while at the other end lies an “evolved humanity” which “will perceive its collective responsibility” (p. 24).

In some ways, this is an appealing image, though perhaps more so to Hermeticists; pagans are likely to find that so linear an idea of evolution fits poorly with the cyclical vision of time more central to their own traditions, and may well be irritated at being consigned to the past in this way. Still, to coin a phrase, de mythibus non disputandum: one takes myths (or leaves them) on their own terms, and no mythic pattern will make perfect sense of everyone’s experience.

It’s elsewhere that the broader problems in this work are to be found. I propose to focus on these problems here, rather than on The Western Way’s strengths. This may be unfair, as the work does have substantial virtues, but there’s a broader point to such a focus. The failings of The Western Way are shared by a good deal of magical writing (and, for that matter, thinking) in modern times, and some of the most serious weaknesses in the modern magical community are highlighted with a rare clarity in the flaws of this book.

One of these is a matter of simple scholarly sloppiness. On matters of historical fact, the Matthews (like many other magical writers, of course) are far too often careless. Anyone with more than a smattering of background in ancient history, for example, will be bemused to hear that Alexander the Great’s empire reached west to the Straits of Gibraltar (p. 205), and it takes only a few minutes with a Latin dictionary to find that the initials of W.B. Yeats’ Golden Dawn magical motto Daemon Est Deus Inversus, mean not “dedicated” but rather the far more potent “I have given” (p. 346). There are many other lapses of the same sort. Points like these may seem minor, but in magic as much or more than anywhere else, the devil is in the details; additionally, a mythic structure that claims to be founded on history ought to try a little harder to get its history right.

But the crippling flaws in this work rise out of another source: the same sort of dogmatic syncretism that typifies Dion Fortune’s writings, among many others, and has caused so much confusion in current pagan revivalism and elsewhere in the modern magical community. Fortune’s dictum “All the gods are one God and all the goddesses one Goddess, and there is one Initiator” is the classic expression of this approach. While this statement is partially true, and important as a partial truth, taken on its own it leads to a very specific form of arrogance and a characteristic blindness to the wild freedom of the spiritual.

A passage in The Western Way very neatly echoes this attitude and its flaws:

”No matter what your own background may be or what country you may hail from, you will recognize the type of the Gods: Thunderer, Shiner, Watcher over the Land. The lord or the lady of the moon is known in all lands, as are the gods of river and tree and stone” (p.75).

Now this assumption, common as it is, simply isn’t true. People in the modern Western world tend to encounter pagan beliefs first, in childhood, in the form of well-defined pantheons like those of the Greeks and the Norse, and then too often try to force the much stranger and more elusive systems of other peoples into the same Procrustean bed. Half the confusion surrounding ancient Celtic spirituality, to name only one example, comes from attempts to manhandle the fluid spiritual powers of the highly diverse Celtic peoples into a fixed “Celtic pantheon.” In other cases — for instance, the spiritual traditions of many North American native peoples — the expressions of power that move through the hidden side of things cannot even be called “gods” without doing substantial violence to their nature. Many peoples — it bears repeating — do not worship a Thunderer, a Shiner, a lord or lady of the moon, or what have you, and many of those who do revere powers that can be called by these names understand them in ways that cannot be forced into the straitjacket of any kind of generic pantheon. One example out of very many: some of the Salish tribes here on the northwest coast of North America see Moon and Sun as brothers, and it is Moon who is the older and more powerful: the demiurgic Changer, in fact, who made the world what it is, and who relinquished the daytime sky to his little brother because he alone has enough power to illuminate the night.

The same trouble in a different form arises in the Matthews’ account of Western magical teachings. The sheer diversity of those teachings is very poorly represented. To speak of “the native tradition” and “the Hermetic tradition”, as though there is only one of each, risks losing track of the fact that each of these very broad currents are made up of a dizzying number of different streams, many of them flowing in radically different directions — as well as the fact that there are other currents in Western magical spirituality which cannot be reduced to either of these of categories. This is a risk the Matthews make few efforts to avoid. The specific theories and practices of current quasi-shamanic neopaganism, on the one hand, and those of the distinctly idiosyncratic approach to magical work pioneered by Dion Fortune, on the other, are presented as though they are the universal patterns of all Western magic. The unwary reader may well finish The Western Way in fact, thinking that all Western magical traditions are pretty much the same — which, again, isn’t even remotely true.

American Cosmic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews American Cosmic: UFOs, Religions, Technology by Diana Walsh Pasulka.

Pasulka American Cosmic

The book American Cosmic was six years in the making by an established scholar of religion and issued by Oxford University Press. Nevertheless, it is very accessible and addressed to a general audience. It has a significant measure of “reflexivity,” often exhibited in stretches of first-person narrative. Author Diana Pasulka references as sympathetic colleagues Jeffrey Kripal and Tanya Lurhmann, both researchers I’ve met and whose work I’ve found valuable. Within the relevant field of UFO studies, Pasulka boasts herself a “fan” and co-worker of Jacques Vallee, making special reference to his book The Invisible College.

Paulka says at the outset that the investigations she undertook to research this book resulted in multiple forms of “epistemological shock” for her. Not only was she brought to confront the currency of ufological beliefs among members of the economic and intellectual elite in the US, but she also realized the extent of the willful falsehoods and disinformation presented in various media and social milieus. Early on, she addresses the manner in which the research regimes of academic transparency and trade/military secrecy create unbridgeable chasms in communication. Although she demonstrates it in the course of the book, she doesn’t explicitly call out the extent to which this tension can come to lodge itself within the experience of an individual, and I think this dynamic, as much as the “embarrassment” often remarked by Paluska, helps to account for the anxiety and social opacity of those she calls “experiencers” (i.e. contactees and witnesses) and “meta-experiencers” (a.k.a. “scientist-believers”).

The extreme case of this latter category Paluska calls “Invisibles.” These are successful scientists who avoid any public profile for their work, rejecting visibility in any media including the “social” media of the Internet. Two of these Invisibles figure as sources and collaborators in the book, where she has given them cover names: “Tyler D.” (“the first rule of Fight Club is …”) and “James” (“Master of the Multiverse”). Although she is scrupulous about their anonymity in the book, some of the incidents related there imply that their identities might be deduced by some of her fellow academics.

The book repeatedly though briefly references the modern philosophical tradition. Pasulka’s readings of Heidegger and Baudrillard, while certainly relevant to the subject at hand, tend to simplify the positions expressed by those writers in ways that gave me pause. On the other hand, her engagement with Nietzsche is one which I can both respect and sympathize with.

I think Pasulka amply demonstrates the usefulness of religion as a paradigm for viewing the social effects of UFO phenomena and ideas. Not only does she (following Vallee and Kripal) highlight the elements of the miraculous, but she discusses the ways in which non-empirical concepts become experientially actual. She does not compare the passion of UFO researchers to religious fanaticism, but rather to religious vocation. The book makes passing reference to parapsychological idioms and theories, but does not resort to them as part of its method. There is also very little reference to esoteric religion or occultism, although those familiar with that field will have little difficulty seeing the considerable areas of overlap with the business of this study.

The Delights of Anna

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Delights of Anna by John Colleton.

Colleton The Delights of Anna

This eleventh installment of the 14-book “John Colleton” series of erotic pseudo-memoirs has for its settings Charleston, Madrid, and Rome. I’ve previously read only the second and the seventh books, which made the early chapters of this one a little bewildering for me. They do take for granted a fair amount of prior character relationships, and narrator Beuaregard “Bill” Benton seems disinclined to supply context rather than witticisms. He does occasionally fill in details retrospectively–often with block text that looks like it might be quoting earlier books.

This short book is not psychologically profound, nor morally responsible. In The Pleasures of Cloris, Bill had already shown a lack of confidence in his abilities as a writer, and that note is sustained here, nine books later. In addition, he declares, “As must be evident by now, I am not comfortable with myself. I am bothered always by conflicting loyalties, mixed emotions, mixed emissions” (127). I can’t say that I judge his adventures admirable, but I do find them entertaining.

Stars of Black

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Stars of Black: Contemplations upon the Pale King by Julian M Miles.

Miles Stars of Black

Stars of Black is a self-published collection of weird horror short stories by Julian M. Miles. Although the jacket copy also refers to Ambrose Bierce, it’s clear that this cycle is rooted in the four seminal jauniste stories by Robert W. Chambers from The King in Yellow. Chambers’ tales have their geographic orientations to America and France, but Miles works with characters who are chiefly English, and typically in England.

These stories have an internal consistency, and in a few cases there are actually allusions between them, but there is no direct contiguity of plot or character. Still, this makes for a tighter and more rationally integrated set of tales than one usually encounters in the jauniste tradition. Although the stories have a fairly wide-ranging historical scope, the ones set in the twenty-first century generally engage a premise according to which clandestine agencies are urgently concerned to suppress circulation of the play The King in Yellow, because of its hazard to society as a whole. Some of the stories most connected to this conceit are “Tatters,” “House of Sorrows,” “Vade Mecum,” “Perfidious Counsel,” “Heart’s Abyss,” and “Storm Warning.”

Miles avoids any influence of the mutation of jauniste lore in fantasy-horror gaming, although he alludes to it once, when the heavy metal musician of “Implosion” works through “a load of stuff from a games company who seemed to have the goods on all of it. I read through the lot, as soon as they arrived, and thought it was all a bit trite: not even remotely what I was looking for” (156).

There are two stories that are outliers, being more directly concerned with the extra-terrene realm of Carcosa itself, without any framing in quotidian reality. “Thirteen of the Clock” is a very short piece that seems to integrate the King in Yellow lore with Edgar Allan Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” “The Last King” is the penultimate and longest selection in the volume, and it enlarges in great detail on the doom of Carcosa and its King. The style here reminds me more of Clark Ashton Smith’s otherworldly brocades than the enigmatic weird of Chambers (or the spare parable of Bierce), and I’m glad that this story was positioned at the end of the book so that it didn’t influence my reading of the others. On its own, it’s an interesting and somewhat satisfying read, but I would have found it distracting as an implicit context for the other, subtler work in this collection.

This book, more than any other I’ve read, works to affirm a specific mythos, as opposed to a more generalized mood, mechanism, or menace of the Pale King. Cassilda and Camilla do not appear, but the women of Carcosa all share that C initial. Is it merely a lunar hieroglyph? Or does the voiceless velar stop establish a class for which “Kupris … the Greek or Syrian Aphrodite-Venus, is the outstanding example in Theogony” (AC, “The God-Letters” in MWT)? Stars of Black is obscure but easy to obtain, and worth the bother.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization by Roy Scranton.

Scranton Learning to Die in the Anthropocene

The short treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization is pulled together from earlier articles and presentations by Roy Scranton, but it does cohere as a single piece. I found the title irresistible: not only does it evoke the deep philosophical tradition of “learning to die,” but the indefinite article in the subtitle serves as a hopeful reminder that our civilization is not the first, and with luck, won’t be the last.

Scranton is not sanguine about prospects for addressing the anthropogenic degradation of climate. He recognizes the socio-economic operations of the current global system as inherently unsustainable and incapable of effective reform. His chapter on “Carbon Politics” points up the attractiveness and the futility of protest-based efforts to inspire political change with respect to the energetic-material basis of our societies. This analysis is paired with “The Compulsion of Strife,” which traces the war and vengeance inherent in the origins of carbon politics, as well as imminent in the demise of civic structures.

Finally, his “New Enlightenment” calls for an embrace of the humanities, in order to maintain the memory of the dead. If we who will inevitably die are to have a further future, it will depend on our participation with the dead in systems of culture. This sort of humanism is needed in order to transcend the fear and aggression that our networked world propagates with nearly instantaneous speed through the nodes of our individual lives.

The book is bracketed by sections both called “Coming Home.” In the introduction, Scranton is coming home to the US, to witness in the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina the same phenomena he had seen in Baghdad in the wake of Operation Shock and Awe. In the coda, he gestures to a mystical homecoming, in which we realize our identity with the fundamental mechanisms of change and perpetuation, under the figure of light.