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Pure War

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pure War [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, trans. Mark Polizzotti and Brian O’Keeffe, part of the Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents series.

Virillio Lotringer Pure War

“I am the warrior Lord of the Forties: the Eighties cower before me, & are abased.” CCXX III:46

Pure War is a book-length interview — arbitrarily broken into chapters — of Paul Virilio by Sylvère Lotringer. Urbanist intellectual Virilio is a theorist of the mechanisms by which war drives technology (and vice versa), and the inventor of dromology as the study of how “speed” transforms social relations. His authorities on military theory include J.F.C. Fuller (57, 69). Virilio posits an essential conflict between military and civil society, or more hypostatically, between war and politics. Although the Pure War interview took place in 1983, during what the participants did not know was the twilight of the Cold War, the trends which Virilio describes have only intensified in the following decades. He sees war with the upper hand, and politics teetering on the edge of an exterminating abyss. 

As I reflect on the relevant changes since the publication of Pure War, I observe that the ongoing militarization of society has meant that some technologies of speed (e.g. SST) have been withdrawn from the civil sphere while being advanced in the military one. Virilio contemplated the dromological potential of the orbital laser, but the Internet and the predator drone both suit his model without being instanced by it. Also, the advancing commercialization of the US military (Halliburton food service, Blackwater/XE mercenaries, etc.) vindicates Virilio’s observations, as war further frees itself from politics. The spasm of US militarism during which the President was almost universally referenced as the “Commander in Chief” has subsided somewhat, but not due to any reduction in the dedication of US resources to the military. Virilio’s notions about endocolonization could hardly be more apt to the current American scene, in which the massive military expenditures of the first decade of the century are being exacted from the civil society of the second.

As an interviewer, Lotringer asks few actual questions. His contributions often seem to be attempts to condense Virilio’s theses more pithily, for instance: “The peak of speed is the extermination of space. The end of time is absolute deterritorialization.” (74) These remarks then goad Virilio into clarifications and enlargements.

Virilio offers a genealogy in which civil society (originally the city) was actually twin-born with military society from pre-civilized “tumults” of all-against-all violence. He posits this in contradistinction to the model of trade as the basis for civilization. According to him, war has evolved from tactics (pre-martial violence), through strategy (control of space), to logistics (control of time). The global fruition of logistics is the “pure war” in which humanity is increasingly subject to a non-human technological agenda predicated on abstract, hyperreal conflict. 

The fascination with and prioritization of war does not mean that Virilio sides with it against politics — quite the reverse. Virilio himself is a Christian who opposes theocracy in favor of civil liberty, and in fact he declares, “Pure War is the absolute idol.” (171) All of his prescience is somewhat gloomy in that respect, even if I don’t share his values. He does credit the regime of nuclear deterrence positively with reawakening a religious sense in the secular world; he even calls Nietzschean atheism “the abomination of desolation.” For someone who doesn’t worship the Crowned and Conquering Child, he seems nevertheless to have the number of the Lord of the Aeon.

Century 1969

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1969 [Amazon, Amazon (Collected), Local Library] by Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill, &al.

Moore O'Neill The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969

The bad and the good of the latest regarding Mina Harker and her peculiar company:

Moore’s alternate history in this book is not compelling (“hippy fascism” in the US?)–I thought that Warren Ellis’ Planetary did a far better job of this sort of thing. Unsurprisingly, as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has progressed through the 20th century, it has come more and more to seem like an inferior version of Planetary, which started out doing for the 20th century what The League originally did for the 19th. 

Moorcock “crossover” homages? They’re not exciting to me the way they would have been when I was a teenager. Modeling the villain on Aleister Crowley — as was set up in 1910? Meh. Professed Magus Moore either proves that he has no idea what a moonchild is (and has never bothered to read Crowley’s novel of that name), or he’s gratuitously throwing dust in the eyes of the profane. 

There were lots of fun little in-jokes; the incorporation of Rosemary’s Baby into the plotline was a nice touch. I couldn’t help feeling that I was missing dozens of cameos in O’Neill’s crowded panels. 

The art in the psychedelic sequences is great! I also thought that Moore’s rewrite of “Sympathy for the Devil” was just splendid.

Briefing for a Descent Into Hell

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Briefing for a Descent Into Hell [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Doris Lessing.

Lessing Briefing for a Descent into Hell

This novel is beautifully written. I felt like it was very demanding of my attention, because although styles and speakers vary in the course of the text, there are no full page-stop chapter breaks. In the absence of dialogue, paragraphs tend to run for multiple pages, and the prose (sometimes breaking into poetry or incantation) has an insistent restlessness in keeping with its subject matter–especially in the first half, where a narcotized sleep is an ambivalent power for desired healing or feared imprisonment.

“I never learned to live awake. I was trained for sleep. Oh let me sleep and sleep my life away. And if the pressure of true memory wakes me before I need, if the urgency of what I should be doing stabs into my sleep, then for God’s sake doctor, for goodness sake, give me drugs and put me back to dreaming again.” (139)

This waking/sleep dialectic is one of the features that insinuates a mystical subtext throughout. Others include the intimation of people destined for companionship, the foreboding of illusion in consensual phenomena, and reflections on the urge to engender praeterhumanity in our children.

There are many different levels of storytelling involved, of which the outermost is a set of clinical notes and correspondence surrounding the hospitalization of a man with what seems to be traumatic amnesia. Within that setting are conversations, and within those are dreams and memories. In one dream an entire governance of the solar system is set forth as background to the protagonist’s sense of dislocation and urgency. In an unreliable memory, guerrilla warfare becomes the setting for a tragic encounter with idyllic nature.

Others have noted that this is a book worth re-reading, and I’m inclined to agree.

Surya Namaskars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Surya Namaskārs: An Ancient Indian Exercise [Amazon, Local Library] by Apa Pant.

Pant Surya Namaskārs

I was delighted to find what seemed to be a little 75-page book completely on the topic of yogic sun salutations, especially at a time when I was reinvigorating my own practice of solar meditation. Unfortunately, the real surya namaskars section is only the third chapter out of seven: the rest are philosophical and practical orientation to yoga in general. But there is no question that author Pant sees sun salutation as the keystone of his personal practice, one with benefits that he extols at length. In fact much of the book seems taken up with the recital of such benefits: it emphasizes the why of yoga practice at least as much as the how

In the surya namaskars chapter itself, ten of the thirty pages are fully occupied by photos of the postures that are components of the practice, and the accompanying text descriptions did not vary from what I had been taught in various yoga classes. What was novel to me was the emphasis on mantra as “an integral and important part of the practice.” (22) Pant gives a dozen compound mantras constructed out of pranavabija, and solar appellations, e.g. Aum Hroom Suryaya Namah. Each mantra is to be repeated ten times (once before each posture) in the course of a cycle of surya namaskars. It is not clear to me, though, how to square this instruction with the breathing pattern prescribed for the postures, which gives a half-cycle of breath (either inhalation or exhalation) for each of the positions.

The cover illustration shows diagrams of the six unique postures of surya namaskars, since four of the ten are duplicates of the others. But they are arranged in a circle, which requires the repetitions if it is to illustrate the real cycle of the practice, showing how it returns to the starting position. The parts of the book I liked best were the introduction with its heliolatrous philosophy and autobiography, the final chapter with anecdotes on “Some Aspects of the Supernatural,” and the appendix with a letter on meditation. The whole makes a decent primer on yoga.

The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship: or The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Stephen Potter.

Potter The theory and Practice of Gamesmanship

I first read this book at the tender age of six or so. I knew it was supposed to be funny, because the way I had found it was by browsing the humor shelves of the public library. (At six I was already exploring out well beyond the confines of the library’s juvenile sections.) It probably had a salutary effect on me, in terms of making the gamesmanship in which it purports to offer instruction seem utterly repellent, albeit curiously arresting. 

Potter often describes the complex and antagonistic relationship among the three factors of sportsmanship (constructive sociability in the game context), skill (mastery of game-specific processes and contents), and gamesmanship (exploitation of socio-psychological factors to defeat opponents). In fact, gamesmanship turns out to be not so much about the “art of winning” (note the sparse and apologetic chapter on “Winmanship”), but the art of precipitating losses in rivals.

Some of the best bits of the book are the elaborate (and often pointless) diagrams, and the end-matter: especially “A Queer Match” in the “Gamesmanania” section (105-107). Appendix II, a “Note on Etiquette” betrays the essentially esoteric character of gamesmanship, which may account for the fascination it once exercised over me.

River of Gods

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews River of Gods [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Ian McDonald

McDonald River of Gods

The “river” of this amazing work of science fiction is not merely Ganga Mata–the goddess who is the river Ganges–but also the flow of human life and experience on which the god-like artificial intelligences of the novel are borne. The human characters begin as separate tributaries, and their stories twist and merge with each other as they rush down into the watershed of an imagined history of the mid-21st-century. These characters inhabit niches throughout the spectrum from the absolute top to very nearly the bottom of Varanasi society, with a couple of American academics and an Afghani-Swedish journalist thrown in for good measure. Although the book takes place on the eve of the centennial of Indian Independence from Britain, its political situation describes a balkanized subcontinent in which independent Bharati and Awadhi states are on the brink of war for control of water resources. (It goes without McDonald’s saying, that the epochal drought is a function of climate change and the exhaustion of Himalayan glaciers.)

The futurological scenario of this book doesn’t feel at all dated, despite the fact that it was first published seven years ago–a long time at today’s pace of cultural and technological change. The two tiny clinkers naturally relate to personal electronics: McDonald’s “palmers” failed to anticipate that everyone’s pocket computer would be subordinated to the concept of a phone, and his use of “the Tablet” to denote a unique piece of espionage data hardware falls a little flat in the wake of iPads and their competitors.

The novel’s setting presupposes an assortment of post-human types, in addition to great masses of “ordinary” humans with virtual-reality headsets and nanotechnologically engineered pharmocopoeia. There are genetically enhanced “brahmins” who age at half the ordinary human rate, with immunity to many degenerative diseases. The oldest of these are in their early twenties, all with great influence, money, and native intelligence, but they look like ten-year-olds. There are “nutes,” who have “stepped away” from masculine and feminine gender identification into a third sex, surgically created, with erogenous cues tied to subdermal buds on their forearms. And there are artificial intelligences (“aeais”) beyond generation 2.5, the point where they are smart enough to pass a Turing Test, and to know when it is in their interest to fail one.

This is a big book: a 600-page doorstop, but it reads fast like a rushing river. Where the events of McDonald’s lovely debut novel Desolation Road take place over three human generations, the course of River of Gods spans a mere three weeks. And into that it packs political intrigue, edge-of-the-envelope scientific speculation, love stories, violent deaths, profound disillusionment, and, gosh, other stuff besides. The plot is full of semi-surprises; McDonald is an artful stylist who provides enough information to sometimes create dramatic irony by giving the intelligent reader an edge on the characters, but often stuff just happens in ways that are jaw-dropping at the time, but seem inevitable in retrospect. 

Anyone who can enjoy thoughtful science fiction should love this book.

Little, Big

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Little, Big [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by John Crowley.

Crowley Little Big

Little, Big is possibly the best modern fantasy novel ever. It is innovative and traditional, reflective and eventful, intimate and intricately formal. In many ways, it is no more “fantastic” than any other novel, since it involves the kind of magic that is real, as experienced by a family who are imaginary in a sort of ideal way. It is best appreciated by well-read grownups who are willing to take the time to savor its details, because the mind-blowing bigness of the story is packed into its littlest bits.

The Downsized

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Downsized [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Matt Howarth

Howarth Downsized

I’ve been reading Matt Howarth’s comics for over 25 years, and this graphic novel is definitely an anomaly: no aliens or electronic music or time travel or bizarre violence. It’s a terribly human story about the contemporary decline of the American economy and the atomization of our society. All the art is in Howarth’s inimitable style, and the characters’ expressions (verbal and visual) are engaging and believable. The end of it is a couple of pages of goofy sentimentalism that I could easily have done without.

Lovecraft

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lovecraft [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Hans Rodionoff, Enriqué Breccia, with Keith Giffen, introduction by John Carpenter.

Rodionoff Breccia Giffen Carpenter Lovecraft

This graphic novel furnishes about as accurate a portrayal of H.P. Lovecraft as the movie “Chemical Wedding” (a.k.a. “Crowley”) did of Aleister Crowley, which is to say: not particularly. In the foreword, moviemaker John Carpenter gives entirely too much credence to the possible facticity of the contents–which were apparently first developed as a screenplay. 

Still, Rodionoff tells an entertaining story, and Breccia’s art is quite effective and evocative. I would recommend it to horror comics afficianados and Cthulhu Mythos completists.

My Business Is to Create

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews My Business Is to Create: Blake’s Infinite Writing [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Eric G Wilson, part of the Iowa Series in Creativity and Writing.

Wilson My Business Is to Create

In My Business Is to Create, Eric G. Wilson provides a score of linked meditations on the creative process, homilies on the work and works of William Blake. The result is a slender but inspiring book in which the contraries of writing and criticism, interpretation and creation, are brought into fruitful coincidence.

Each of the essays in the volume highlights anecdotes and apposite quotes from other writers, from Nietzsche to Adrienne Rich, to the point where sometimes it seemed like there were too many voices in play. Wilson’s view of Blake seems to be a robust one, and while it is certainly informed by extensive familiarity with other readers of Blake, it didn’t seem to need the intrusion of further “authorities,” especially given the personal and reflective tone of the study. 

My Business Is to Create contains numerous biographical passages, and it should be enjoyable as an introduction to Blake, as well as a reflection on his ideas about creativity and vision, and counsel to writers and other artists about how to put those ideas into play.