Tag Archives: review

Thuvia, Maid of Mars and The Chessmen of Mars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Thuvia, Maid of Mars and The Chessmen of Mars [Amazon, Amazon (7 Novels)] by Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Burroughs Thuvia, Maid of Mars and The Chessmen of Mars

There’s an Arabian Nights quality to the narrative here: not only adventure, but a sort of wistful exoticism that I hadn’t recalled as a feature of these Burroughs stories.

Four Against the Great Old Ones

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Four Against the Great Old Ones: The Pen and Paper Solo Game of Lovecraftian Horrors [DriveThruRPG, Publisher] by Marco Arnaudo and Andrea Sfiligoi.

Arnaudo Sfiligoi Four Against the Great Old Ones

Four Against the Great Old Ones is a horror adventure game for 1-4 players with an optional referee, but it seems mostly aimed at solitaire play. The game uses simplified tabletop RPG mechanisms to represent exploration of yog-sothothery in 1920s America. A single standard die (or even a marked hexagonal pencil) suffices for all randomization in the game, and a single sheet of paper can track all the characters. A full campaign can play out in a single sitting.

The setup allows for choice of four different character classes out of a field of eight, and places these investigators in a random US city to start their expeditions. Activities have a cost in days, and characters need to determine and arrive at their final encounter (which varies among a set of diverse Old Ones) before forty days have passed on the calendar.

The first thirty pages of the book present character creation and basic mechanics for play. The remaining fifty give information on the locations and encounters–effectively one big branching scenario. There are lots of entertaining details, and the lore of the game is entirely drawn from the literary corpus of Grandpa Cthulhu and his disciples–it is insulated from additional game “mythos” elements, particularly those built up in the Chaosium and Fantasy Flight games that dominate the Cthulhvian gaming scene. Still, the flavor is more pulp adventure with Lovecraftian foes than it is weird horror.

The prescribed method of play is to mark the book with a pencil as a record of encounters already accomplished and actions no longer available, and then to go erase all those marks before the next play. But there is an “encounter checklist” page that can be copied instead (or mocked up freehand–it’s very simple).

During my first play, I only visited five of the sixteen mundane locations, plus a trip to the Dreamlands for one of my investigators. I didn’t exhaust the encounters for any of those locations, and of course I only got to sample one of the six final encounters. As it turned out, my larger itinerary starting in Chicago brought me to R’lyeh for the Cthulhu final encounter. My team (occultist William Wesley Wakeman, spy Lizabet Solventi, detective Terry Sturgeon, and medium Madame Lemuria) overcame all the foes there for encounters 1 through 6, but exhausted the possible encounter roll bonuses without getting that necessary 7. So I resigned… to the inevitability of my characters succumbing to endless cultists and weird architecture. It was nearly a draw, certainly not a win.

There is clearly a lot of re-playability in this little book, and I’m sure I will return to it.

The Tourmaline

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Tourmaline [Amazon] by Paul Park.

Park The Tourmaline

I was dubious about the “YA” designation for the first book of Paul Park’s Roumania series–a label not asserted by either the author or the publisher as far as I can tell. This second volume demonstrates that it just doesn’t apply. The story is a decidedly mature fantasy, even if it includes some youngish characters. I don’t know if it makes much of a difference now that there is a significant reading demographic of “old adults” who prefer “YA” books, but since I’m not one of those, I figured I might question the label.

It took me over a year to get to this second volume after reading A Princess of Roumania, but the narrative was able to bring me back into the plot efficiently enough, and my slight fuzziness on what had gone before actually kept me sympathetic to the main characters whose perspectives were stressed and transformed over the course of the story.

In The Tourmaline there is a considerable development of definition and detail for the alternate-historical aspects of the Roumanian world. Africa is more technologically advanced than Europe. Christianity, such as it is, seems to be a hero cult within a persistent Roman paganism. This book also provides more clarity on the properties and powers of “the hidden world” that is the basis of its supernatural magic.

The end of this book is the mid-point of the four-volume series, and it resolves in a peculiar way, seeming to present the defeat of the principal villains, without corresponding triumph for the heroes. I’ll be taking a breather before The White Tyger, but hopefully not for as long as I let pass between the first two books.

The Middle Pillar

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Middle Pillar [Bookshop (2002), Amazon (2019), Amazon (2002), Amazon (1970)] by Israel Regardie.

Regardie The Middle Pillar 1970

I first read Israel Regardie’s The Middle Pillar in my teens, and it was then one of my more useful sources as an autodidact in ceremonial magick. I have since had occasion to recommend it over the years, but have only recently returned to it for a full re-read. My more recent impressions have been decidedly mixed. I am here reviewing the “second edition, revised and enlarged” of 1970 with immediate reference to the 1986 fourth printing.

To reflect first in favor of the book, it supplies more detail on the subjective elements of magical practice than most primers are willing to afford, and for students without the benefit of personal instruction these details are precious. It is grounded in highly conventional techniques of Hermetic magic stemming from the Order of the Golden Dawn, and it communicates these intelligibly. The book is short and not over-ambitious, supplying sufficient materials for preliminary training and emphasizing the need to walk before running, while offering a larger context for motivation.

A keynote of the text is its advocacy for analytical psychology as an adjunct to magick. On the theoretical level, Regardie uses psychoanalytic jargon in an effort to clarify hermetic-kabalistic spiritual anatomy. In my own experience, this gambit was only slightly effective. As a teenage reader, it was largely a matter of ignotum per ignotius, and I doubt whether most readers today are any more familiar with psychoanalytic theories than I was as a teenager. Moreover, Regardie is entirely too willing to credit secular psychology as a novel scientific undertaking, evidently heedless of its religious functions and Kabalistic genealogy. (Those interested in the latter topic should read David Bakan’s Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition.)

While I will not join in Regardie’s evangelistic enthusiasm for the institutions of modern psychotherapy–Freudian, Jungian, or Reichian–I think that the underlying sentiment is sound: Magick is not therapy. No one should take up these practices without some preliminary self-criticism and awareness of personal limitations. Profane defects should be remedied through profane means. “If thou thyself hast not a sure foundation, whereon wilt thou stand to direct the forces of Nature?” (Liber XXX)

There are a few terminological peculiarities in this book. When introducing the Four Worlds of the Kabbalah, Regardie gives their usual English names (Archetypal, Creative, Formative, Active), but he does not provide their Hebrew names and instead gives terms from “the Hindu system”: TURYA, SUSHUPTI, SWAPNA, JAGRATA (65-7). Perhaps his aim here was to demonstrate cross-cultural validity of the metaphysical ideas, but he is not explicit about that, and succeeds only in muddying the waters with irrelevant jargon.

As in Regardie’s other early published works on occultism, The Middle Pillar uses Sephardic transliterations from Hebrew rather than the Ashkenazic ones that are more common in modern Hermetic literature–a superficial issue that does not really impair the text. In fact Regardie dismisses the need for any working knowledge of Hebrew in these basic techniques (144-5). As a minor (?) technical point, he is inconsistent with respect to the pronunciation of Tetragrammaton as “Yod-heh-vav-heh” in the pentagram ritual (95) and “Ye-hoh-voh” in the Middle Pillar (115). No rationale for the difference is offered. (I cannot say I am a fan of either of those pronunciations.)

The sequence of practical instruction in The Middle Pillar is a little jumbled. After the preliminaries of the first two chapters, Chapter Three seems to be a fairly full accounting of the pentagram ritual. At the head of Chapter Four, readers are admonished to spend two or three months on twice-daily work with the pentagram ritual before advancing to the Middle Pillar technique. But it is only at the end of Chapter Four, after describing the Middle Pillar ritual, that Regardie addresses the issue of attention to breath and breathing (125-9). Surely, these directions could usefully have come at the top of Chapter Three. Even more strangely, Chapter Five is principally instruction in the technique of projective vibration to be used with god-names. In the vertebral curriculum of ceremonial magick as I have come to appreciate it (see Crowley’s Liber O, for example), this latter technique is absolutely integral to the proper performance of the pentagram ritual. One might hope that readers would finish the whole fairly short book before undertaking the actual practices, but there is still no clear direction to apply the later details to the ritual outlined earlier in the book. In fact, there is a recurring emphasis on proceeding in the sequence in which the text introduces the practices.

What I found most off-putting on this read was Regardie’s coyness regarding his sources. For example, he dedicates nearly an entire page to an extensive quote regarding the formulation of telesmatic images, which he attributes to “One very clever expositor” (102). As it turns out, the quoted text is from Dion Fortune’s The Mystical Qabalah (Ch. IX, § 20), published in 1935, just one year before Regardie wrote The Middle Pillar (per the first edition’s foreword). Why not give credit where credit is due?

More significant is his failure to acknowledge the Law of Thelema despite his patent debts to it. He expresses a sort of removed approval for “one system nowadays” which “conceives of the Great Work as the partaking of the recognition of the Crowned and Conquering Child Horus” (25). He places in hard quotation marks a phrase taken from Liber Legis II:6–“the flame which burns in the core of every man”–but cites no source for it (93). (The slight inaccuracy here suggests that he is quoting from memory.) Nor does he explain the source for his quotation of Liber Legis II:70 (150-1). Perhaps he thought the still-living Aleister Crowley was just too scary for his readers in 1936. He had relaxed by 1970 though, admitting in his introduction to the second edition that The Middle Pillar “is an attempt to simplify and combine the practices both of the Golden Dawn with the insights and later developments of Aleister Crowley” (vii). Later still, Regardie would come to write of the Middle Pillar technique itself,

“It seems to be, as far as I can discover, a specific development of the Stella Matutina, in which case Dr. R. Felkin was its originator. This might explain why there is no trace whatsoever of its usage in the technical writings of Aleister Crowley, who has certainly made good use of most of the Order techniques, and who would surely have used this had it been available.” (The Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic, Vol. III, p. 51).

This admission of the relative novelty of the practice casts something of a shade over Regardie’s earlier attributions of “negligence” and “failure” to magicians who had neither used it nor supplied it as an instruction to aspirants (110-1). As far as Crowley is concerned, I believe he did design a comparable technique into the Elevenfold Seal of Liber V.

Having acquainted myself with this book’s weaknesses, I would no longer recommend it as a stand-alone primer on the basic material it describes, but I don’t think it is quite obsolete. (Even in the foreword to the 1938 first edition, Regardie was already mildly deprecating it as “an expression of myself at that time” when he had written it two years earlier.) It marks a distinct phase in the popularization of magick, and it still supplies interesting discussion of its concepts and suitable encouragement to aspirants, all in a digestible package.

Three Books of Golden Dawn Tarot

Jeffrey S Kupperman reviews Three Books of Golden Dawn Tarot in Divination, Vol 1 No 4, from the archive of Journal of the Western Mystery Tradition.

Wang An Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot

An Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot [Amazon], Robert Wang. 158 pages. Samuel Weiser, Inc., York Beach, ME. $7.95 USD

First published in 1978, An Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot was the first book available that discussed solely the tarot as conceived by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (GD). Now students of the works of Israel Regardie, who had a great deal of input to both this book and its corresponding “Golden Dawn Tarot” deck had a quick reference manual for all of “Book T”. “Book T” also appears in the Complete Golden Dawn System of Magic and the Golden Dawn, however neither of these works are known for their easy indexing.

An Introduction contains more than just the raw tables of “Book T”. The first 51 pages of this small book discusses several topics anent the history surrounding the Golden Dawn tarot. For instance decks produced by various members of the GD are mentioned as well as how and often why they differ from the GD manuscripts. There is also a section talking about the differences between “exoteric” and “esoteric” tarot decks. More importantly, at least from the practicing magician’s point of view, there is a discussion on how the tarot can be used in ritual and for skrying.

The majority of the book contains the information from “Book T”, which includes not only the tarot descriptions and their meanings but also associated astrological information and the complex tarot reading known as the Opening by Key. Also included in this work is a paper by Mrs. Felkin, the wife of the Chief of the New Zealand Smaragdum Thalasses, an offshoot of the original GD after its schism. The book concludes with A.E. Waite’s “Ten Card Method of Tarot – Divination”, originally published in his Pictorial Key to the Tarot and a two page recommended reading list.

Perhaps the only thing that is disappointing about An Introduction to the Golden Dawn Tarot is the tarot deck that Dr. Wang produced to go with it. While the deck is accurate to the imagery of the Golden Dawn documents the illustration and color work are lacking in brightness, making the deck appear dull and faded. From the perspective of the GD’s color theory this will cause the tarot images to be less useful tools than they otherwise could be. From an aesthetic perspective the deck fails to compare with decks such as the Thoth deck designed by Aleister Crowley and painted by Lady Frieda Harris or Sandra Tabatha Cicero’s New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot Deck (discussed below).

Cicero The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot

The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot: Keys to the Rituals, Symbolism, Magic & Divination [Bookshop, Amazon] Chic Cicero, Sandra Tabatha Cicero. 235 pages. Llewellyn Publications, St. Paul, MN, $14.95 USD

Published in 1996, nearly 28 years after Robert Wang’s Golden Dawn tarot book, The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot is the second of only three books released to the public concerning the Golden Dawn tarot system. Unlike Wang’s work, however, the Cicero’s have gone beyond the original GD documents to create an updated tarot book and deck, which is still based on the teachings of the Golden Dawn.

The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot, like An Introduction contains all of the material in “Book T” (minus the paper on the tarot projected into a sphere, which is also missing from Wang), though some of it has been rewritten in modern language. However, the tarot card descriptions go beyond the simple one or two paragraphs of “Book T” to discuss each card more in-depth. The only criticism of this is that these added descriptions seem to apply mostly to the newer designs developed by Mrs. Cicero and do not always apply to the GD tarot as a whole, though the creative student should have little problem in extrapolating from one deck to another or adding the new symbolism to his or her catalog of symbols.

This book also contains over 70 pages dedicated solely to ritual work and divination. Unlike in Wang, which aside from the Opening by Key only discusses ritual work in theory, the Ciceros give examples of rituals, divination and skrying techniques as well as the complete rubric for performing them. The book ends with a page on the 32 paths of wisdom, a later annotation to the Jewish Kabbalistic work the Sefer Yetzirah and a good sized bibliography.

Along with The New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot there is a New Golden Dawn Ritual Tarot Deck, designed and painted by Sandra Tabatha Cicero. This deck contrasts drastically from the Wang deck. Its colors are bright and vibrant and for the first time in a Golden Dawn deck the flashing colors are used. These aspects add to the overall usability of the deck for magical work. However the artwork of the deck is very stylistic, almost cartoon-ish, in nature and may not be to everyone’s liking.

Zalewski The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn

The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn: Divination, Meditation and High Magical Teachings [Bookshop, Amazon] Patrick J. Zalewski, Chris L. Zalewski. 395 pages. Open Mind Publications, Hastings, Australia. $50.00 USD Limited to 150 copies.

Published originally in 1997 but not released until several years later, The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn is possibly the most impressive of the Golden Dawn tarot books. This book is a massive volume, almost 400 pages in length on A4 size paper. Like the previous books this one discusses all of the material in “Book T” (including a re-written tarot and the celestial sphere paper). It also goes beyond the published GD documents in its treatment of the cards, however it does so in a traditional manner. Instead of creating a new version of the Golden Dawn tarot, the Zalewskis recreate a version of the original deck, even using images from the Smaragdum Thalasses’s original tarot deck.

The tarot card descriptions within The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn go far beyond the original descriptions and are often two to three pages in length. These descriptions include previously unpublished material from both S. L. MacGregor Mathers and various members of the Smaragdum Thalasses’s Ware Ra temple. Like in the Cicero’s book a great deal of research has been done into the history of the GD tarot and the tarot in general. There is a great deal of new information developed by the Zalewskis as well, as their discussion of the cards on an alchemical level or from the point of view of both spiritual evolution and involution.

Another new feature to this book is the discussion of color and how the GD tarot was traditionally supposed to be colored. According to the Zalewskis, they have published for the first time the correct Golden Dawn method for card coloring, which is apparently closer to that used in Crowley’s Thoth deck than in any other Golden Dawn based tarot. Along with this is a printing of the four color scales as used by Ware Ra, which different in numerous respects to those which have been printed by both Regardie and Crowley. The final 80 or so pages discuss numerous tarot spreads, including the Opening by Key, tarot skrying and meditation, and the re-written Golden Dawn paper entitled “Celestial Tarot”. The tarot spreads include some spreads which are the creation of the Zalewski and the section on mediation and skrying includes what can only be called “tarot poems” for each of the Trump Cards. Two methods for skrying are given in full as well as several examples of skryings already performed. The final section, “Celestial Tarot” contains reworked diagrams by Chris Zalewski. Unfortunately there is no bibliography, though many of the books used for researched are mentioned in the extensive footnotes.

There are two or three critiques to be made about The Magical Tarot of the Golden Dawn. The first of which is that, it being a work of self-publication, the binding method is worse than usual bookbindings. The comb binding used is inadequate for the size of the book causing the outside pages to tear. As mentioned there is no bibliography but there is also no index for cross-referencing. Finally there is not as yet a tarot deck to accompany this book, though according to Mr. Zalewski one being painted by Skip Dudchus is nearly finished.

Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Saul M Olyan.

Olyan Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel

This scholarly monograph from 1987 is a fairly immediate precursor to the other books I have read on the goddess Asherah, and it appears consistently in their bibliographies. Despite being shorter than more recent works, its scope is still considerable, covering evidence from the Hebrew Bible, archaeological finds, and non-Hebrew Canaanite religious texts. The first chapter, focused on Hebrew scripture, is the most accessible part of the book, as later sections really dig into paleographic and philological details in ways likely to be forbidding for a casual reader.

There were still some items and ideas new and useful to me here. Evidently, the Hellenistic syntheses pendant from the Phoenician-Punic literature identify Asherah with both Rhea as ur-mother and Dione as Lady of the Sea, both consorts of Kronos i.e. El (50-51). These data are from Sanchuniathon (preserved in Eusebius), an intriguing source on many counts, and one I had not inquired into prior to these considerations.

I found Olyan’s sidebars regarding human sacrifice in ancient Hebrew religion (11-3, 65-8) to be very interesting, and I notice that he has recently published a work on Violent Rituals of the Hebrew Bible, which I may pursue.

In his short “Conclusion,” Olyan proposes the connection between Asherah and Nehushtan (a suggestion later explored more extensively in Wilson’s Serpent Symbol in the Ancient Near East). I was surprised and gratified by his remark there that “hawwa (Eve) is an attested epithet of Tannit/Asherah in the first millennium BCE” (71)!

Since I have read several other, longer books drawing on Olyan’s work here, I was mostly expecting this one to refresh my awareness of some of the arguments around the role of Asherah in ancient Hebrew religion, so I am pleased that it gave me further material and details to consider. But I would still recommend that readers start their investigation of this topic with Dever’s Did God Have a Wife?. I am generally sympathetic to the positions taken by Olyan in this study, and I think that the subsequent decades have justified his optimism regarding scholars coming to credit the presence of Asherah in both popular and official religion among the ancient Hebrews.

Dead Lies Dreaming

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dead Lies Dreaming [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Stross, book 10 of the Laundry Files series.

Stross Dead Lies Dreaming

The title should tip off readers of the earlier Laundry Files books by Charles Stross that this newest installment is something different. Unlike the nine volumes to precede it, Dead Lies Dreaming does not seem to be named after a document. [ . . . . . . . . . Spoiler (Hover over to see) . . . . . . . . . . ] The story transpires in just the setting established in the last couple of Laundry novels The Delirium Brief and The Labyrinth Index. This twenty-first-century England ruled by the New Management (i.e. the Black Pharaoh and his minions) is only a little different from our “real” world. They have sorcery and superpowers while we have novel coronavirus, but the economics and politics of the thing look familiar enough. Given the theories of time travel and onieromancy set forth in the book, the Laundry universe may simply be a dream of ours, or ours a dream of theirs.

Dead Lies Dreaming is not narrated by a character identified with the UK occult intelligence bureau the Laundry; in fact, Stross drops the first-person approach altogether, in favor of a conventional third-person omniscient voice. This choice allows him to jump around among several principal focus characters, and readers might be forgiven for wondering which if any of them is the protagonist. He picks up and develops a couple of themes that he had first established in The Annihilation Score. The philosophy of public policing is a concern for the ex-cop and newly-minted magical “thief taker” Wendy Deere. And the emergence of vernacular superpowers is explored in the capers of Imp and his gang.

There are many allusions to the earlier Laundry series, of course, and to the ritual literature of H.P. Lovecraft, but also significantly to Peter Pan and to A Christmas Carol. Like previous Laundry books, this one was released on Hallowe’en, and the bulk of initial readers are thus digging into our copies during the winter holiday season. Stross cleverly capitalizes on this fact in the book’s opening sentences:

Imp froze as he rounded the corner onto Regent Street, and saw four elven warriors shackling a Santa to a stainless-steel cross outside Hamleys Toy Shop. “Now that’s not something you see every day,” Doc drawled shakily. His fake bravado didn’t fool anyone.

Readers of previous Laundry books will quickly understand the genuine plot points established here in what a novice reader might take for mere sadistic surrealism. The engagement of the later parts of the novel with Victoriana in “some eldritch continuum of crapsack dipshittery stalked by the ghosts of maniacal serial killers and adorable Dickensian street urchins” (321) solidifies the black cheer of Xmas in the shadow of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN.

In my review of The Delirium Brief, I remarked, “I doubt that the Laundry’s world can survive more than two additional installments on the current trajectory.” Right on schedule, the series has pivoted from a diachronic advancement of Lovecraftian Armageddon to a more synchronic recounting of episodes and adventures in a given period of peak weird. I do miss the Laundry operatives, but I still enjoyed this “Tale of the New Management,” and I will continue to follow the series.

Oldest Chicago

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Oldest Chicago [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by David Anthony Witter.

Witter Oldest Chicago

Oldest Chicago is a guidebook to the most venerable sites and businesses in the Chicago area. Each location is accompanied by a black-and-white photo, usually taken by the author. The main text for each short chapter gives the history of the venue in question, usually grounded in the author Witter’s interviews with proprietors or experts, whom he quotes liberally. A significant exception is the rich chapter on Chicago’s “Oldest Indoor, Olympic-Sized Swimming Pool (Now Junior Olympic),” in which Witter discusses his own experiences working at the pool of the Medinah Athletic Club in the 1980s. Every chapter concludes with a boxed inset directing attention to other attractions that are nearby or conceptually related to the main subject, even if the others lack Oldest credentials. This device permits Witter to introduce more information about Chicago neighborhoods, and provides the reader with better justification to make visits to the sites that are most intriguing, with the opportunity of a fuller trip in the offing.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is “The 1800s Club” with survivals from that period. The second is misnamed “Food, Fun, and Entertainment,” even though it includes chapters like the “Oldest African-American Newspaper” and “Oldest Vertical Lift Bridge,” that evidently don’t fall in those categories. What the second section really is, is simply “20th-century Classics,” continuing past the year 1900 with the same chronological sequence of chapters established in the first section. The final section has its own separate chronology, and treats notable old places outside of Chicago proper, in “The Suburbs and Exurbs.”

Although I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, have lived in the city, and reside in the area today, there were plenty of interesting facts that were new to me in Witter’s book. I was shocked to discover the Chicago whereabouts of “the largest mass grave in the northern hemisphere.” (21) Learning where I could spot a dirigible port in the downtown skyline was a piece of delicious trivia. (164) The identity of Chicago’s earliest recorded Chinese resident as “Opium Dong” certainly gave me a laugh. (147) 

Witter is a lifelong Chicagoan, whose pride and sense of place is clear in his lucid, journalistic writing. He commits some howlers when he resorts to historical generalization, though, of which the worst by far is to claim, “America was settled largely by Puritans, whose beliefs in temperance still influence much of the politics of the nation’s heartland today.” (Here he also neglects specific Chicago history. If there were a sectarian connection for the origins of the temperance movement, it would probably be the Methodism of key Women’s Christian Temperance Union president Frances Willard, who was a Dean of Women for Northwestern University in Evanston, immediately north of Chicago. Evanston was a hub of the temperance and prohibition movements, and remained an entirely “dry” community until the 1970s.)

A major failing of the book is the omission of maps! Both historical maps to show the changing contours of the city around the sites described, and contemporary maps to help orient would-be visitors today, are unfulfilled desiderata for this volume. They might also have helped orient the author, who in at least two instances writes “west” where “east” would be accurate. (96, 131) Still, Oldest Chicago is entertaining and educational, and should be useful for both prospective visitors and longtime residents. 

Theory Now

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Theory Now [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] edited by Grant Farred and Michael Hardt, South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol 110, Iss 1, Winter 2011.

Farred Hardt Theory Now

This number of South Atlantic Quarterly debuts its division into a main body of articles plus a smaller section of less research-driven and more topical essays, and it seems to work well enough here. I read the latter portion first, mindful of its timeliness. Titled in this case “Against the Day,” the title couldn’t help but remind me of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name (which I have two-thirds read), about a different “day.” (There is a surfeit of polysemy in Pynchon’s title on its own ground, but I’ll leave that for its own review.) These essays on “Obama and the Left at Midterm” are really about “The Left at Obama’s Midterm.” The articles are all very short, often insightful, and actually less dispiriting than I had anticipated. 

The larger portion of the book is a special issue called “Theory Now” edited by Grant Farred and Michael Hardt, each of whom also contributed articles to it. In addition, the collection is introduced by Kenneth Surin, and afforded an afterword by Jonathan Culler. Of the two, I thought Culler did the better job of summarizing the contents and identifying lines of connection among them: a tall order, since the contributors had been asked not to write about “theory now,” but simply to write theory in the way that they do now. 

Culler notes the theoretical approach to “spectrality” as a recurrent feature, and I most enjoyed the articles exhibiting it: Hanson on reparative reading, Gordon replying to the film The Halfmoon Files, and Naas digesting Derrida on photography. Theory regarding race and gender was, if not ubiquitous, common to many of the better articles in the volume. I was pleasantly surprised by Rei Terada’s “Frailty of the Ontic,” which demonstrated an approach to psychoanalysis as a form of philosophy, whereas I am used to considering it a mutation of religion–and have no patience with its self-presentation as a form of therapy. I was disappointed by Ellison’s “The Spoiler’s Art,” which discussed architectural matters with the stakes of “embarrassment” (so I suppose that my lack of enthusiasm was somehow in harmony with the content). 

Of the two articles written by the principal editors, I was less excited by Farred’s reflections on interdisciplinarity, which I found to be a rather unuseful exercise in ivory-tower navel-gazing, somewhat heavy with cant, and notably dependent on a canonical reverence for Heidegger. By contrast, Hardt’s “Militancy of Theory” reviewed an important trajectory in the critical tradition which now has me reflecting on what I may someday write about as the final paradox of philosophy.

I am a sometime buyer of SAQ, grabbing issues off of the newsstand as they catch my interest. I always find some of the contents challenging and worthwhile, and this number was no exception.

The Sacred Canopy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Peter L Berger.

Berger The Sacred Canopy

Here is an older book I should have read a couple of decades ago (when it was not new), in order to apply its insights in my academic work. First published in 1967, Berger’s The Sacred Canopy is subtitled “elements of a sociological theory of religion.” Despite his insistence on sociology as an empirical discipline, the book is not oriented to primary studies of the sociological features of contemporary religious operation. Most of the book is trained on very large-scale phenomena over long periods, using lenses inherited and adapted from theorists such as Weber, Durkheim, and Mead.

Berger hardly touches the term “belief,” but makes extensive use of the closely related concept of “plausibility,” advancing the creation and maintenance of “plausibility structures” as inherent operations undertaken by society in the religious mode. There are useful distinctions between the methods used to maintain plausibility in religions that dominate entire cultures and the different strategies that are necessarily adopted by “cognitive minorities” He also highlights theodicy, taken in a sense generalized beyond the usual theological problem to any religious explanation of the anomic phenomena of death, suffering, and evil.

The later parts of the book are preoccupied with the phenomena of secularization and their relationship to parallel and dialectically related developments in economic and scientific development. Throughout the book, Berger uses examples from a wide diversity of religions, but in these sections he pays special and deserved attention to Christianity generally, and Protestantism in particular. “If the drama of the modern era is the decline of religion, then Protestantism can aptly be described as its dress rehearsal” (157).

Perhaps the high point of the whole volume for me was “Appendix II: Sociological and Theological Perspectives,” in which Berger points out some methodological distinctions, withdraws and revises positions made in a previous book (The Precarious Vision, 1961), and proposes possibilities for constructive dialogue between sociology and theology. He is clear that such possibilities may not be realized, because of the demands for “openness” that they make on both sides.