Tag Archives: review

Isis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Isis by Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle Adam, translated by Brian Stableford.

de Villiers de L'Isle Adam Stableford Isis

The proto-decadent short novel Isis was the first published prose composition of Auguste de Villiers de l’Isle Adam, and has only recently been translated to English by Brian Stableford. Although the author’s dedication claims that the title “is the collective formula of a series of philosophical novels” projected to be written, none further followed, and “Isis” clearly alludes to the principal character Marchesa Tullia Fabriana.

It is noteworthy the extent to which this nineteenth-century work (set in the late eighteenth) anticipates and rehearses the tropes of the eventual modern superhero formula. Tullia is preternaturally learned, mystically initiated, and a superlative swordswoman. She has a trusty assistant/protege (recruited from orphaned destitution) and a secretly splendid headquarters. She routinely journeys out at the dead of night to aid the afflicted and heal the sick, under the anonymizing cover of a mask and specially-designed armor.

Unlike later crime-fighting capes tales, this book seems mostly unconcerned with plot, or at least fails to advance one very far. Short as it is, it indulges in some fine architectural description, anatomies of altered states of consciousness, and philosophical digressions. The style is reasonably abstruse, and its matter should be welcomed by those readers willing to tackle and appreciate classics of occult fiction such as Zanoni and Seraphita.

In the traditional Rosicrucian grade system, Tullia seems to be a rather accomplished Exempt Adept, perhaps a Babe of the Abyss. Her advancement to the grade of Master of the Temple in these terms would then be bound up with her encounter of the main viewpoint character Count Strally, a promising young man of parts who seems ready to accept her guidance.

Burning Bright

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier Burning Bright

The historical novel Burning Bright is set in London 1792-3, and features the factual persons of William Blake and Philip Astley. It centers on a family from Dorsetshire transplanted to the (to them) alien urban setting. Although I’m no specialist in the period, I’ve taken away a favorable impression of author Chevalier’s research and verisimilitude. Her characters’ words seem authentic and her narration incorporates their speech and their world smoothly. The device of the country Kellaway family learning about city life is an effective method of developing the setting. The Kellaway paterfamilias has come to London to work for Astley’s circus, and the Kellaway children become acquainted with their neighbors in Lambeth at Hercules Buildings, the Blakes. The innocent Kellaways are also juxtaposed with an experienced London underclass family, the Butterfields.

I would tend to class this story as a “comedy” in an old-fashioned sense: its principal focus is on lower-class protagonists, and the plot eventuates in an upbeat manner–though there are certainly elements that could be taken as subversive of the genre. It’s not overflowing with wit or slapstick, although there are some surprising turns.

Chevalier has developed her characters with generous sympathy, except for a few plain villains. The book reads quickly, with largish chapters named after the months of the period, and numbered subchapters to define digestible episodes. I came to this novel hoping to get a more vivid, storybook sense of the lived context of William Blake, and I think it did its job well. From the title onward, there are many opportunities seized to artfully incorporate Blake’s own words into the substance of the novel. Chevalier also provides a bibliography and overview of her historical sources in a helpful appendix.

Audience of One

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Audience of One: Donald Trump, Television, and the Fracturing of America by James Poniewozik.

Poniewozik Audience of One

James Poniewozik was one of the first writers whose columns I actively followed on the Web, back in the 1990s when he wrote for Salon. Since then, I had lost view of his work as he graduated to more prestigious positions at Time magazine and The New York Times. I was happy to return to his punchy prose and incisive observations in this book on the symbiosis between Donald J. Trump and the American media landscape.

Poniewozik treats Trump’s long history as a media figure as central, not incidental, to his electoral identity and success. Trump was coeval with television itself, and neither of them have been unchanging. The author protests that he is not writing a biography of the human being Trump so much as a history of the character generated and inhabited by Trump as a television personality. The larger thesis and structure of the book he eventually sums up thus: Trump “watched TV, and then he courted TV, and then he starred on TV, and then he became TV. He achieved a psychic bond with the creature, and it lowered its head, let him climb on its back, and carried him to the White House” (236). The narrative of this progress through “businessman” celebrity, reality TV hosting, cable news pugilism, and Twitter demagoguery is filled with astonishing anecdotes that tie the whole thing into a single hyperreal composition.

This book is not about policy, and it is about politics only in the broad cultural sense. Alas, no one today can afford not to give a damn about Donald Trump, and that is the measure of his crowning achievement to date. “To live in America post-2016 was to live inside the rattled mind of a septuagenarian insomniac cable-news junkie” (270). Stories of regulatory capture and accelerating ecocide, concentration camps for refugees, egocentric foreign policy, and evisceration of Constitutional norms (beyond the long-abused Bill of Rights) are strangely outside the scope of the present treatment, which–like its subject–sees them mostly as means to an end. That end is an agonistic hypostasis: the “gorilla channel” where every actual problem is just fodder for the virtual conflict that ravenously consumes mass attention.

I recommend Audience of One as a fast, nearly compulsive, read, holding up an unflattering mirror to our reality-TV political culture.

For the Chance of Union

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews For the Chance of Union: Proceedings of the Eleventh Biennial National Ordo Templi Orientis Conference, a selection of papers from the eleventh biennial NOTOCON of the United States Grand Lodge, in Orlando, Florida, 2017.

Ordo Templi Orientis OTO For the Chance of Union

This slender sixth collection of papers presented at the National Conference of OTO USA includes facsimiles of the program materials for the conference and full texts of about a third of the presentations. The ones that are included are a diverse bunch, covering Thelemic culture, occult history, ceremonial ritual, and magical technique, among other topics. There are two papers on Enochian angel magick, one on the editorial history and infrastructure of the Goetia, the Grand Master’s address with reflections on religion and contemporary society, the Deputy Grand Master’s talk on the nature of “success,” Thelemic songs, theory of “magical gender,” and a review of the Crusades relative to Thelemic chivalry. The quality of content here is on a par with previous years, even if this volume has a lower page-count than average.

Delirium’s Mistress

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Delirium’s Mistress by Tanith Lee.

Lee Delirium's Mistress

I am not the only one to have remarked the Arabian Nights quality to the nested and proliferating stories in Tanith Lee’s Flat Earth books. But by this fourth volume, the use of biblical tropes seems to have increased to the point where they help to inform the content as much as Scheherazade does the style. Always subverted in the amoral otherworldly context of Lee’s fantasy, incidents in Delerium’s Mistress include her versions of the destruction of the Cities of the Plain (i.e. Sodom and Gomorrah) and the tempting of Jesus in the wilderness, among others.

Earlier books in this series have not lacked for sexiness, but wow. The coition of the undersea prince Tavir with the witch goddess Azhriaz is quite a textual achievement (281-3). This book also plays up the cosmic in impressive sequences like the creation of the three avenging angels (207-12). On the whole, it is the least capable of standing alone among the books of its series, being especially dependent on the events of Delusion’s Master and also often referencing the other two prior volumes. In fact, it knits together the various threads of previous stories so well, that I wonder if Lee can have had this book, centered on the half-mortal daughter of one of the Lords of Darkness, as a planned destination all along.

My suspicions in this regard are also informed by the strong resonance of Delerium’s Mistress with Lee’s first-published novel for adults, The Birthgrave. There is a shared scale and narrative sensibility, and the parallel roles of the protagonist seem to run in a reversed sequence. The philosophical outcomes are much the same, although a significant maturation of perspective is also present in this later book.

In addition to the attractive and appropriate cover art from Michael Whelan, this original paperback edition includes a handful of interior illustrations by Lee herself.

The Investigators of Arkham Horror

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Investigators of Arkham Horror: Tales of Adventure and Madness by Katrina Ostrander.

Ostrander The Investigators of Arkham Horror

I have argued (unsuccessfully, via a database submission at BoardGameGeek) that this book should be considered a game accessory. As a collection of weird fiction, it is passable at best. But as a “bootstrapping” instrument to orient players to their characters in the Arkham Files games, it is excellent. Each investigator has a vignette, typically four or five pages in length, to supply them with psychological orientation and biographical details. The book is huge, full of art reproduced from the games at a more generous scale on glossy paper, with a sewn binding to keep the thing together. (It’s so heavy that glue binding would surely break in short order.) The cover art is beautiful, but there’s no dust jacket.

Maybe you wouldn’t bother to read four pages of character background for an evening’s play of Elder Sign or Eldritch Horror. But for the multi-session campaign play of Arkham Horror: The Card Game (which requires out-of-play time for deck construction anyhow), the sort of extra consideration given here to individual investigators is terrific.

This book is obviously intended to provide the framework for a narrative canon, and several of the episodes here have provided points of departure for the subsequent novellas. I was especially gratified by some of the stories for investigators who have had little exposure in other Arkham Files fiction, such as Minh Thi Phan and William Yorick. I think my favorite story for the story’s sake out of the dozens here was the one about the prestidigitator and occultist Dexter Drake.

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.