Tag Archives: review

Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes: The Initiatory Teachings of the Last Supper by Mark H Gaffney.

Gaffney Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes

Despite the subtitle, the “Last Supper” does not loom large in this book, which professes to offer an exegesis of the Naassene teachings disclosed in the fifth chapter of Hippolytus’ Refutation of All Heresies. In particular, the significance of the paradigmatic Eucharist is reduced to a demonstration of divine immanence, and this point is accomplished in the first half of the book. Later digressions about grail mysteries and subtle human anatomy do not add markedly to this understanding.

On the whole, the book is entertainingly wide-ranging and makes decent use of its sources. These run from very mainstream works in biblical source criticism and the history of Gnosticism to a mix of provocative and “alternative” writings like those of Graham Hancock, Peter Tompkins, and Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Author Gaffney’s relationship to Jungianism is a little peculiar, in that he professes to be “a Jungian,” and yet he thinks that the psychologist is being “dismissive” when Jung characterizes Gnostic doctrines as deriving “from the unconscious” (142-3), which surely shows a misunderstanding of Jung, whatever Gaffney’s appreciation of Gnosticism. The historical value of this book is chiefly limited by Gaffney’s axiomatic acceptance of the empirical reality of the savior god “Jesus Christ” as a historical human being and his reluctance to compare primitive Christianity to the other (“pagan”) mysteries of late antiquity. The latter of these faults is especially galling in light of the extent to which this issue is raised explicitly in the text of Hippolytus that the book uses for its touchstone.

Gaffney includes as an appendix the text of “The Naassene Sermon” from Hippolytus, in an edition that he has composited from the translations of Birdsall, MacMahon, and Legge, with interpretive influence from G.R.S. Mead. It is valuable to include this material for reference, but some of the editorial choices are questionable. In particular, Gaffney retains the source notations introduced by Mead to distinguish a pagan syncretist source (S), a Jewish mystical commentator (J), the Naassene Christian scribe (C), and the heresiological anthologist Hippolytus (H). Gaffney rightly questions the value of dividing J and C, yet he not only keeps these ubiquitous symbols, but does so as simple in-line capital letters that are ubiquitous throughout the text, impairing its readability. (The letters could have been superscripted, or better yet, omitted with italics used for H passages and underscores for S.)

Gaffney’s eventual position in this book is one that fits comfortably within the range of post-Theosophical occultism, complete with invocations of Vedic mysticism. For this latter topic, he is conspicuously reliant on the 1980 volume Layayoga by Shyam Sundar Goswami, albeit with a well-articulated appreciation of the Western reception of this tradition since the 19th century. Other than a general affinity for “New Age” ideas, this book represents no coherent neo-Gnostic school. The aspects of the book I found most novel and interesting involved the study of hydraulic Hebrew mysticism: a set of tropes regarding the magical manipulation of rivers and other waters throughout various biblical texts and related traditions, viewed in terms of mystical attainment. While I don’t endorse all of its conclusions, I appreciate its spirit, and I think it is an engaging and helpful excursion for readers investigating the re-interpretation of Christian origins and Gnostic mysticism.

Dance on Saturday

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dance on Saturday: Stories by Elwin Cotman, due August, 2020.

Cotman Dance on Saturday

The stories in Dance on Saturday were my first exposure to the work of Elwin Cotman, although some have evidently been previously published elsewhere. They range from a gritty magical realism (as in “Seven Watsons,” a story set in the Pittsburgh Job Corps) to a surreal mythic high fantasy (“The Son’s War,” featuring magically incredible craftsmanship). The longest of the stories in this collection is the titular “Dance on Saturday,” which treats a coterie of immortals in contemporary Pittsburgh, wearing the identities of a black church congregation.

Most of these tales have black protagonists, and the African-American experience furnishes notable and sophisticated inflections of Cotman’s fantasies. The unusual exception is the story “Among the Zoologists,” where the narrating character not only fails to signal a racial identity, but deftly avoids claiming a gender over forty pages which incidentally feature some hair-raising sexual escapades. That story also left me with an enhanced appreciation for Cotman’s work, because it demonstrated his intimate fondness for the 20th-century canon of pulp and comic-book fantastic literature, and thus his own writing’s remoteness from its conventions signals his active creativity and independence of mind.

He is a capable stylist as a writer. These six stories tended to be too long for me to finish in a single sitting, and I was consistently glad to pick up the book again at the earliest opportunity. The ends of his stories often break the narrative frame that he has established or transform its context. Each of the tales in Dance on Saturday is memorable for a different reason, and I’m glad to have read them all.

Blood of Baalshandor

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Blood of Baalshandor by Richard Lee Byers. [Note: the only place I currently find this in stock is at Miniature Market. But, presumably, it will show up in the usual places eventually, such as Amazon]

Byers Blood of Baalshandor Arkham Horror

After five Arkham Horror investigator novellas there was a hiatus, and the Dexter Drake entry Blood of Baalshandor is the first to appear for two years. In format it resembles its predecessors: a slender hardcover of about a hundred pages, with a color-illustrated appendix on glossy paper, and a little set of promotional Arkham Horror: The Card Game cards for the Dexter Drake character.

I had high hopes for this one, because the Dexter Drake chapter in The Investigators of Arkham Horror was my favorite from that book. Dex is a WW I veteran and a successful stage magician as “Drake the Great.” His childhood interest in magic has led him to both his career in legerdermain and an interest in actual sorcery. The Blood of Baalshandor centers on his relationship with his “lovely assistant” Molly Maxwell (“the Exotic Morgana”), with conflict generated by his coming out of the closet with respect to his occultist beliefs and the phenomena that she is then subjected to. The early part of the book has a nice Ninth Gate (i.e. Club Dumas) vibe, as Dex and Molly attend an underground auction of occult books and paraphernalia in Arkham.

The Blood of Baalshandor is the second Arkham Horror novella by author Richard Lee Bryers (the first instance of a returning author in the series), and I liked it better than his earlier entry Ire of the Void, although that one was pretty good. It furnishes a lot of subjective details about the working of magic in the Arkham Files setting, as Dex uses spells cobbled together from loose pages of the Necronomicon invoking the demon Yaztaroth. [ . . . (hover over to read this spoiler) . . . ]

The cards set Dexter up as a mystic-class character with additional access to rogue-class cards, and a special ability that enhances his use of assets. Besides the signature cards Molly Maxwell and Yaztaroth, the story also alludes to various established elements of the game, such as the level-1 rogue card Lockpicks, a natural part of Dex’s escape artist kit. I’m very much looking forward to trying out a Dexter deck soon.

The Natural History of Religion

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Natural History of Religion by David Hume.

Hume The Natural History of Religion

Hume’s Natural History of Religion is an early foray into comparative religious studies. As a professed partisan of “genuine Theism and Religion” (21), Hume shows his own implicit theological orientation to be an unsurprising Enlightenment Deism. The “natural history” element of his account emphasizes what he understood to be the chronological priority of polytheism to (mono-) theism, and the general rooting of religious behavior and identity in relatively base fears and appetites.

As editor H.E. Root notes, Hume’s primary historical data are rather incomplete and under-interpreted from the perspective of more recent studies of the same questions. His overall polemical fabric, is, however, nicely woven. While giving greater theological credit to the theists (evidently the Abrahamic religions), he also notes that their loftier virtues are reflected in more significant vices than pagan polytheists ever exhibited. The second major arc of the text is a series of comparisons between polytheism and theism on the counts of “Persecution and Toleration,” “courage or abasement,” “reason or absurdity,” and “Doubt or Conviction.” In this sequence of short chapters, the illustrations grow more and more amusing, climaxing with a series of jokes about the Eucharist in the question of “Doubt or Conviction” (55-7).

After the sets of comparisons, Hume moves on to a pox on both houses section, in which he castigates religions generally on grounds of “impious conceptions of the divine nature” and “bad influence on morality.” These are the most contentious chapters, and likely the ones that especially earned the alarm and reprobation of his contemporaries. But they are soundly argued.

In his “Editor’s Introduction,” Root understands the final gesture of Hume’s text to be one proposing that philosophy be a “substitute for religion” (20). But Root had already observed that Hume “did not believe that religion was a ‘primary’ constituent of human nature” (14) and thus it was in no need of a substitute if philosophers or others were to turn away from it. Root also neglects the intellectual history of the centuries leading up to Hume, in which theology and philosophy were often construed as mutually antagonistic efforts. An empiricist such as Hume could not help but be a partisan of philosophy in this contest, and such partisanship was perhaps the motive guiding this entire text.

Prophet Against Empire

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Blake: Prophet Against Empire by David V Erdman.

Erdman Blake

Psychologizing and spiritualizing critics of William Blake’s prophecies have generally taken their giants and fairies as subsisting outside of the continuum of political and social history. At best, they have (like Northrop Frye) allowed a cultural context and a distinctive position in intellectual history for these sui generis and highly opaque texts. Erdman’s Prophet Against Empire is an impressive and effective effort to provide the immediate and evolving political context of Blake’s work as “a poet’s interpretation of the history of his own times.” It was first published in 1954, and the copy I read is the significantly revised and expanded second edition of 1969.

Many sections of Prophet Against Empire were somewhat illuminating to me for their picture of English history generally. Erdman observes some popular support in England for the American Revolution, with a significant presence of republican and anti-imperialist sentiment among the urban working classes. Even passing into Blake’s early 19th century, the militarism of the English government, the neglect of the laboring classes, and the suppression of dissent were themes that seemed up to the minute for 21st-century Imperial US-Americans.

Erdman treats Blake’s entire lifespan, visiting in its course the authorship of all the prophecies, and I read these in tandem with Erdman’s book. While it is certainly true that these texts do have spiritual and psychological dimensions beyond their political enthusiasms, I think it would be a loss to overlook, and a crime to ignore, the palpable political statements they contain.

The full significance of Blake’s “mythological” figures may shift and revolve through the course of the different prophecies, but Erdman persuaded me of such passing identities as Rintrah for William Pitt (202 etc.), Theotormon for John Stedman (230-33), Tharmas for Thomas Paine (298-301), Palamabron for Parliament (424-26), and so forth. The analysis here does not reduce the prophecies tout court to political allegories, but it lays bare the political roots and motives of different figures and tropes as part of the artistic whole, and no incidental part at that.

Decades later, when the eminent historian E.P. Thompson came to write his study of antinomian religion in Blake, he praised Erdman’s prior work to the extent that “On the directly political themes I have (no doubt to the surprise of some readers) little to add” (Witness Against the Beast, xiii). I doubt that Blake: Prophet Against Empire can be much appreciated without a firsthand experience of Blake’s prophecies. But anyone who has that experience can benefit tremendously from Erdmans’ research and conclusions.

A Case of Conscience

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Case of Conscience by James Blish.

Blish A Case of Conscience

Although it was the first to be written, author Blish classed his A Case of Conscience as the third of a trilogy. It is the third in terms of chronological setting, although the three do not have a continuous plot, and the mid-21st-century A Case of Conscience could not, in fact, follow after the events described in the 20th-century Devil’s Day. The three books of the trilogy are joined by theme, rather than plot. They each enigmatically address the question of whether “secular knowledge” leads inevitably toward supernatural evil. 

As a piece of thoughtful Golden Age science fiction, A Case of Conscience includes what now stands as an alternate history for the second half of the 20th century. Blish projected a “shelter economy” in which the threat of nuclear war drove all the wealthier countries literally underground, creating an economically committed but psycho-socially unsustainable troglodyte civilization composed of city-states under a UN aegis.

But the core dilemma of the book has to do with humanity’s first contact with an alien intelligence. FTL interstellar travel has been recently invented, and the exoplanet of Lithia has been found to harbor a race of intelligent bipedal reptiloids with utopian social and material harmony, and no god-notions at all. The principal characters of the novel are the four members of the first exploratory team to Lithia, to which is added the Lithian Egtverchi, brought back to Earth as an egg. More than half of the narrative centers on the Jesuit exo-biologist Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez.

There are two plot arcs in the book, with the first taking place on Lithia, and the second on Earth. The Lithian part–culminating in the joint decision of the exploratory team regarding future human relations with Lithia–was originally a stand-alone short story, and many reviewers seem to prefer it, and to be uncomfortable with the transition to the second arc. The second part is to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land as King Kong is to Tarzan

The most artful feature of the novel is an ending that ties both plot arcs together, and justifies the supernaturalist dogmas of the Jesuit father without violating the materialist presuppositions of the other characters. Ultimately, though, no matter how sympathetically drawn Ruiz-Sanchez might be, I found his intricately stabilized doctrines to be unsound, and ludicrously based on an unwarranted privileging of humanity, to say nothing of their wrongheaded affirmation of what Jan Assman calls the Mosaic distinction, elevated this time to the far reaches of outer space.

The Great Game

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Scarlet Traces: The Great Game by Ian Edginton, illustrated by D’Israeli.

Edginton  D'Israeli Scarlet Traces The Great Game

This sequel to Scarlet Traces is more conclusive and satisfying than the original. In this volume, the Earth-Mars war (or more accurately, the British-Martian war) reaches its climax. Two characters–a hero and a villain–from the first volume provide continuity of plot as well as setting. The protagonist in The Great Game is a woman photojournalist, who infiltrates an interplanetary military expedition in order to find out what’s really happening on the Martian front. The art is consistent with the first volume, although artist d’Israeli has gone all in for CGI modeling techniques in the interim, with rewarding results for architecture, spaceship design, and so forth. Particularly in the final sections of the story, it seemed like the facial expressions of shock and horror got really extreme.

And the Ass Saw the Angel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave.

Cave And The Ass Saw The Angel

I’ve encountered few narrators more unreliable than Euchrid Eucrow, the principal voice of And the Ass Saw the Angel. He’s a congenital mute who is able to recount his first minutes of life at the age of 28. He claims divine inspiration far more often than he indicates the manner of its onset. He is unschooled and untraveled, yet he exhibits a wide and erudite diction, not to mention a striking ear for poetry; but if you can suspend your disbelief for that much, he is a treat to read–trenchant, funny, and ugly-beautiful. 

Plot-wise, there’s not much to commend here. Euchrid tells his whole life story, and the circumstances of his death are gradually illuminated by it. An omniscient third-person narrator provides a meager diet of supplementary details from outside Euchrid’s knowledge. The book’s epilogue is an obvious necessity, just covering the last open patch on the canvas that the story occupies. 

The religious themes of the book are provocative and intense. God is behind everything, and theologies of different depths are offered by the opportunist preacher Abie Poe, the Ukulite sect that founded and runs the town, and Euchrid himself. There are a handful of mystical experiences, although meteorological phenomena are God’s loudest voice.

This novel will not be engaging for those who avoid the blasphemous, the sordid, the violent, the vulgar, the decrepit, the delusional, or the degenerate. It breeds maggots and stinks of cheap liquor. It hates a lot, although it loves just enough to bring fuel to that hatred.

Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism by Robert Gooding-Williams.

Gooding-Williams Zarathustra's Dionysian Modernism

Gooding-Williams offers an extremely thorough and considered reading of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. As the title indicates, he favors a modernist understanding that stresses an effort to innovate and progress beyond received intellectual and moral frameworks. He confronts and contradicts Paul de Man’s perlocutionary pessimism in the body of his text, while also providing extensive annotations that position Gooding-Williams’s conclusions relative to a vast field of secondary literature.

Throughout his analyses, Gooding-Williams emphasizes the ambivalence and doubt involved with Zarathustra’s aspirations (and thus Nietzsche’s ambitions). He offers the stutter as a key attribute of the text, with incomplete repetitions halting desired advances. And yet he brings out the persistently future-oriented aspect of Zarathustra’s project, along with Nietzsche’s desire to interrupt the repetition of an exhausted Platonic-Christian value system.

The analysis of the doctrine of eternal recurrence makes up a substantial portion of the study. Gooding-Williams helpfully proposes to distinguish among the different forms of recurrence as approached in the context of the “Three Metamorphoses” sketched at the outset of Zarathustra: thus the Camel’s idea of recurrence differs from that of the Lion, which is not the same as the Child’s idea of eternal recurrence. I found a similar disaggregation of the concept of “redemption” to be somewhat less clear–his jargon of redemption1, redemption2, etc. tended to get in the way of his meaning.

Overall, Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism provides an insightful and highly coherent approach to this monumental work of imaginative philosophy.

A Book of Surrealist Games

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Book of Surrealist Games compiled by Alastair Brotchie, edited by Mel Gooding.

Brotchie Gooding A Book of Surrealist Games

“[T]he game became a system, a method of research, a means of exaltation and stimulus, a mine, a treasure-trove and finally, perhaps, a drug.” –Simone Collinet (144)

In this very little volume, editor Mel Gooding describes and compiler Alastair Brotchie demonstrates the centrality of games to the Surrealist enterprise. An inventory of ludic methods indicate how texts, images, discursive events, and other objects are produced through the application of automatism, chance, and the absorption of individual efforts into transpersonal aggregates. 

The fourth of the four sections consists primarily of source notes and commentaries, and even includes a list of the “known” Surrealist games which are not represented among the recipes and samples in the collection. There are two useful bibliographies: one an abridgement of Kurt Seligman’s 1943 bibliography of Surrealist works (133), the other Brotchie’s own pointers for “Further Reading in English.” (164) In the very end of the volume, seven pages are occupied by “The Little Surrealist Dictionary.” 

A Book of Surrealist Games is admirably designed, with a built-in bookplate on the inside front cover, many black-and-white reproductions of Surrealist visual works, and portraits of key 20th-century Surrealists. The game instructions are in most cases perfectly lucid, and ready for practical application.