Tag Archives: review

Laws of Form

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Laws of Form by G Spencer-Brown.

Spencer-Brown Laws of Form

Prior to the vogue of fractal geometry, Laws of Form was conceded by many to be the trippiest math book around. Reading a passage at random out of context might leave one wondering whether the text was political theory, aesthetics, or some other form of philosophy. In his efforts to explicate a Boolean arithmetic underlying the algebra of formal logic, Spencer-Brown works in a conceptually “degenerate” environment where one must attempt to understand the sparest ideas without any systemic framing. The results are positively mystical. 

“[F]or any boundary, to recross is not to cross.” Thelemites will recognize a more rigorous exposition of what Aleister Crowley attempted to express by 0 = 2.

Mason & Dixon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Mason Dixon

Mason & Dixon is the only Pynchon book I’ve read twice: once on my own, and once aloud with my Other Reader. It’s a downright hilarious tome, and only funnier if you’re familiar with the larger Pynchon oeuvre for the coy references that start with the parabolic trajectory in the opening sentence. If the rocket of Gravity’s Rainbow is merely a snowball in this novel, that’s a wonderful thing. Despite the book’s heft, it has a real intimacy, and–in many senses of the word–domestication. The Pynchonian playfulness works itself out on a more human level, and while there are still views of social and cosmic tragedy that strike hard and chill, this weave of historical improbabilities and personal yarns leaves the savvy reader with a flushed and slushy sense of satisfaction. 

Pynchon offers Mason and Dixon as a pair of characters that are almost a diagrammatic odd couple: the mournful encompassing astronomer, and the cheerily square land-surveyor. But for all that, they are never mere allegorical poles. Unlike earlier Pynchon protagonists, who seem to dissolve under the force of the author’s manifold micro-plots, Mason and Dixon actually become more coherent and characterful from start to finish. 

This volume doesn’t even pretend to be anything but fiction within fiction, but I give it more points for capturing the likely weirdness of its place(s) and period than any number of naive or revisionist pictures of the nascent United States. And if the worth of history is to give us a sense of the origin of our own perspectives and values, Pynchon seems to have done real historical work here. All of the crazy anachronisms and supernatural oddities just help the reader maintain the sort of healthy and happy skepticism such enterprises should always have at hand.

The Deeds of the Disturber

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters.

Peters The Deeds of the Disturber

“Compared to London, Egypt is a veritable health resort,” remarks Amelia Peabody Emerson in this fifth of the novels which she narrates. This one is the first, though, which is set principally in England, with a mere bit of preamble beforehand in Egypt, for a geographic reversal of the prior books. This change also condenses the time-line, so that readers don’t have to wait until the next year’s archaeological season in Egypt to pick up the thread of the story.

Radcliffe Emerson is supposed to be working on his scholarly treatise in London, but it goes without saying that solving puzzling crimes precludes such pedestrian concerns for most of the story. The book is positively bursting with contempt for British Museum curator and egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge, an accurately-named historical character despite the occasional reference to “Madame Blatantowski” and other semi-pseudonymous Victorian figures. 

The Deeds of the Disturber has nearly everything one could wish for from a novel in this line: perplexing murders, ominous curses, sinister ceremonies, romantic jealousies, syphilitic aristocrats, and an opium den. A series of incidents involving the young Ramses and his visiting cousins doesn’t reveal itself as a parallel plot until very late in the story. As a continuation of the previous books, it further develops a number of existing characters–not only the Emersons and their household, but also the journalist Kevin O’Connell–and the new ones it adds are all interesting. The mystery element is amply puzzling, and some pieces of it even defeat Amelia herself until all is revealed to the reader’s satisfaction.

Batman R.I.P.

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Batman R.I.P. by Grant Morrison, Tony Daniel, Lee Garbett, & al.

Morrison Daniel Batman R.I.P.

Although published as a fancy “deluxe” hardcover graphic novel, this collection of eight Batman comics is rather dependent on plot elements developed by writer Morrison in earlier numbers. (Notably: Batman’s son Damian, a love interest Jezebel Jet, the Black Hand crime sodality, and Dr. Hurt.) Even within this sequence, the developments can be very difficult to follow: the story is concerned with attempts to destroy Batman through psychological manipulation, and there are few cues to help the reader distinguish between fantasy sequences, false memories, alternate histories, and the “objective plot.” Both actuality and temporality are often displaced, giving the reader perhaps a slightly greater share of Batman’s own confusion than would best facilitate the story.

Still, there’s a lot of worthwhile inventiveness here, as I would expect from Morrison. The third and fourth issues of the sequence were my favorites, with the “hazardous personal odyssey” of Honor Jackson, and the unveiling of the “Batman of Zur-en-arrh.” (“Bat-mite?” I thought, “Are you kidding me?” But Morrison pulls it off.)

Tony Daniels gets the lead art credit, and the illustration seems competent on the whole, with panels and pages that communicate the action effectively, and certainly exhibit the dark and gritty mood required. Still, I can’t help suspecting that some artistic invention could have helped to solve the basic comprehensibility problems in this book.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Gnosis: The Nature and History of Gnosticism by Kurt Rudolph.

Rudolph Gnosis
This book, initially published in German in 1977, was one of the first comprehensive treatments of antique Gnosticism to take into account the evidence of the Nag Hammadi discoveries of the 1950s. The opening section of the book, on “The Sources,” capably details the state of the field of research at the time it was written. 

Rudolph insists on using the word “Gnosis” only as an interchangeable designator for “Gnosticism,” in keeping with the precedents in German scholarship, and in aversion to what he sees as a derogatory tone in the French Gnosticisme. This lexical choice is not exactly optimal for Anglophone readers, who will often encounter the difference in common use between Gnosticism as a religious movement in antiquity, and gnosis as an esoteric apprehension of divine realities. Rudolph prematurely pronounced the death of this distinction as a “rending apart of two terms which historically and in the history of research fundamentally belong together [that] is however not very meaningful and also has generally not prevailed.” (57) 

The preceding quote gives a representative taste of the writing style. Whether due to the team of three translators, or to the author’s own disposition in composing a textbook for formal study, the result is often rather clunky prose. Still, the treatment is reasonably comprehensive and well-organized. The book is amply furnished with relevant plates and illustrations. The index is a little sparse, but marginal topic indications are a great help to the reader. 

After thirty years, Rudolph’s volume is no longer cutting-edge, but neither is it obsolete. It expresses what is now a basically conservative view of ancient Gnosticism still held by many scholars. As a treatment of ancient heterodoxy, it insufficiently problematizes the concept of orthodoxy, often taking for granted the existence of a “proper” non-Gnostic Christianity prior to the period for which good evidence can justify such a claim. Rudolph says that Gnosis developed “from a relatively independent Hellenistic religion of later antiquity to a Christian ‘heresy’.” (276) One might equally opine that Christianity developed from such a Hellenistic cult into a scripture-based establishment–the internal historical claims of Christians notwithstanding.

The Grand Design

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow.

Hawking Mlodinow The Grand Design

The Grand Design is certainly designed to appeal to a wide market: the authors assume no knowledge of history or physics on the part of their readers. If you know what a photon is (70), or that Democritus proposed the atom (21), then you’re already a little ahead of the game that they offer. But writing at such a primer level entails great responsibility to be both engaging and accurate. As for being engaging, the book is full of what my Other Reader called lame professor jokes, the sort that aren’t really about the subject at hand and aren’t very funny, but seem intended to demonstrate that a presenter of essentially dry material actually has a sense of humor.

The press junket for The Grand Design has tended to play up its potential for conflict with religious world-views. Strangely, though, the text actually picks a fight with philosophers. In their opening page, Hawking and Mlodinow proclaim, “philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics.” But what the authors think of as “science, particularly physics” is still what used to be called natural philosophy, for very good reason. Hawking and Mlodinow are really taking the traditional philosophical side–as opposed to the theological side–in the debate about how questions about natural origins should be answered. There’s no question that Hawking and Mlodinow know their physics, but they evidently don’t know religion or modern theoretical philosophy, and their attempts to pass judgment on those fields are unimpressive. For instance, in what is mostly a capable dash through the history of science, they remark that “at the time the Bible was written people believed the earth was flat.” But “the time the Bible was written” was roughly a millennium that coincided with some of the developments in Greek cosmology discussed by Hawking and Mlodinow. It’s likely that some biblical authors thought the earth was flat; but for most, we don’t even know.

Read charitably, the central thesis announced at the outset of The Grand Design is that physics has made metaphysics obsolete. And certainly modern physics has made many earlier metaphysical solutions obsolete. It may even have substantially transformed some questions—particularly the ones about cosmic origins at stake in the later parts of this book. But it’s not true that the natural sciences have answered all or even most metaphysical queries. And if metaphysics as a whole is a wrong turn—as it may in fact be—then that needs to be concluded on the basis of a greater understanding of the history and contents of philosophy than Hawking and Mlodinow have on display.

At its close, the book is underwhelming. We are told that M-Theory is the only current candidate for a comprehensive theory of physical forces, and this theory implies a narrative of cosmic origins. But M-Theory hasn’t been empirically verified. So what is evidently supposed to be a sweeping declaration in the final paragraph has to be stated in the subjunctive. That’s not my kind of “great perhaps.”

Conan the Raider

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan the Raider by Leonard Carpenter.

Carpenter Conan the Raider

Carpenter’s novel is an adroit pastiche of the Robert E. Howard Conan. It is very explicitly tagged for insertion into the established continuity by the presence of the Star of Khorala gem, which Conan is seeking to reclaim at the outset of the novel, signaling a placement just following Howard’s “Shadows in Zamboula.” 

Raider is set in Abbadrah, a Shemite city on the north bank of the Styx, so the cultural matrix is that of the ancient near east: a fantasy eastern Mediterranean culture strongly influenced by its faux-Egyptian neighbor Stygia to the south. A preliminary adventure with Valusian serpent-men proves to be a mere warmup with no deeper connections to the larger plot other than to introduce some characters and set the central business as that of Conan’s membership in a company of tomb-robbers (the “raiders” of the title). The loathsomeness of the Abbadran ruling class is especially well developed. Even the princess Afrit, whom Conan favors both politically and intimately, has a measure of dislikability. The “prophet” Horaspes, a Stygian emigre, is a paragon of malevolent priestcraft. 

Conan develops a tense peer relationship with a Vanirman who leads the raiders, not least due to the dancer who seduces them both. This circle of interactions helps to keep a confused, human core in a story full of sorcerous villainy and Conan’s usual near-invincibility. On the whole, this tale was well-paced and succeeded in recreating the sense of adventure that Howard gave to his Conan stories.

Romantic Image

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Romantic Image by Frank Kermode.

Kermode Romantic Image

The title phrase uses “‘Romantic’ in a restricted sense, as applicable to the literature of one epoch, beginning in the late years of the eighteenth century and not yet finished [in 1957], and as referring to the high valuation placed during this period upon the image-making powers of the mind at the expense of its rational powers, and to the substitution of organicist for mechanist modes of thinking about works of art.” (43) Kermode’s study, which he confesses to lie outside of his ‘period’ of historical specialty, is trained most especially on Yeats and his poetry. Besides the characteristics just listed, another keynote is the suffering isolation of the artist, as denoted by the figure of the Tower. In the first and longer of two parts, Kermode establishes the continuity of these concepts among Symbolism, English Romanticism, and their early modern antecedents. 

In the second part, he shows how these concepts have been perpetuated through the first half of the 20th century, even when secularized and stripped of the Romantic mystique: the Great Memory and the noumenal world are reduced to the linguistic matrix, but the isolated artist and his revelation of the unparaphrasable image persist nonetheless. Kermode’s ultimate goal here is that of “revising historical categories.” (165) He is contemptuous of the arbitrariness and falsity of the nostalgic theories of history promoted by Symbolist criticism and its progeny. “The most deplorable consequence of the doctrine is that the periods and poets chosen to illustrate it are bound to receive perverse treatment; you must misrepresent them if you propose to make them justify a false theory.” (146) (It’s outside the scope of his study, but one might include the Traditionalist school of ideology in this same indictment, despite its diametric reversal of the values of image and rationality, although Symbolists and Traditionalists are fellow-travelers in the supernaturalist element.)

One of the features in this core Romantic view that set me back a little was the opposition of imagination and memory, which has a genealogy back to Blake. As a working magician, I see imagination and memory as mutually dependent and equally dignified, but evidently these theorists didn’t. On reflection, perhaps what is at stake is two different sorts of memory. The kind I tend to think of is the spatial memory which accesses an interior world of heuristic images–this would be the antechamber of the “Great Memory” of Yeats. The memory derided by Blake must then be a linear memory of routine and rationalism. The two memories could perhaps correspond to the distinct mnemonic approaches of Giordano Bruno and Peter Ramus.

Kermode is entirely hip to “the whole sumberged magical system of Romantic aesthetic, about which Yeats and some Frenchmen were bold enough to be explicit.” (44) The attentive reader will catch Kermode’s acknowledgement throughout that “Magic came, in an age of science, to the defence of poetry.” (110) Kermode doesn’t seem to want to do away with magic, but he cheers a pendulum swing that he sees as just beginning in his time, away from the Romantic and modern neo-Symbolist critical perspectives. He looks forward to a reconsideration by which the mechanical craft of rhetoric may be again accorded its value, as contributing in its way to the true value of poetry. 

This book’s matter is not especially accessible; Kermode often references poets and critics who are not now–if they ever were–household names in the US. He never gives a full citation for his quotes, and sometimes it’s hard to tell whom he’s quoting. He provides long passages of untranslated French. (In only one case, a full page of text from Huysmann’s A Rebours, I was fortunate enough to have a translation of his source on hand.) I’m sure that graduate students in English are sometimes made to read this book, those others of us capable of enjoying it are probably rather thin on the ground.

The Devil’s Footsteps

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Devil’s Footsteps: A Dr. Caspian Novel of Horror by John Burke.

Burke The Devil's Footsteps

When I picked up this mass-market paperback in a used book store, it looked like a cheesy contemporary occult thriller from the 1970s. I was mistaken, and the book amply exceeded my expectations for it. It is in fact a Victorian period piece featuring a stage magician who is a skeptical member of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) along with an actually telepathic Welsh photographer. They meet in the rural village of Hexney, where the “Devil’s footprints” of the title are a parapsychological manifestation and there’s something sinister about the local traditions.

Although more contemporary in its pacing and voice, this book has distinct commonalities with Arthur Machen’s better work (e.g. “The Shining Pyramid”) and Dunsany’s Blessing of Pan. A cinematic comparandum might be the original Wicker Man. It most reminded me of the later and longer novel by Ramsey Campbell The Hungry Moon.

The magician Doctor Caspian also turns out to be something of a kabbalist, having had some mystical initiation in Prague, although the emphasis on seven sephiroth was a little peculiar. (The narrator names only five: Kether, Chokmah, Binah, Hod, and Yesod.) A couple of chapters near the middle of the book detail Caspian’s competition with and exposure of some mercenary Spiritualists in London; these events are mostly by way of character development, but they were a high point of the tale for me.

The photographer is a woman who has taken on her father’s intellectual pursuits, and she struck a note similar to that of the young Amelia Peabody in the mysteries by Elizabeth Peters. A significant arc of the book is the development of a romantic interest between the two protagonists. . . . [Spoilers: hover over to reveal] . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Some of the representations of metaphysical evil in this book show influence of yog-sothothery, but none of the telltale names of entities or tomes occur to subordinate it to that “mythos.” All in all, it was a solid little novel of weird horror.

Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Four Cases from the Acts of the Apostles by Dennis R MacDonald.

MacDonald Does the New Testament Imitate Homer?

Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? is a sequel to author Dennis MacDonald’s Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark. MacDonald is a scholar of both New Testament Greek and classical literature, and he is in a surprisingly marginal position in advocating for recognition of the direct literary influence of the Greek classics in the Greek Christian scriptures. This second book allows him to extend his thesis considerably and to answer the critics of his earlier work. He generally classes his intellectual opposition as the proponents of “form criticism,” who want to attribute textual similarities to shared genres and “traditional” tropes, as opposed to what MacDonald represents as mimesis (imitation) and authorial craft.

MacDonald is on very firm ground in proposing mimesis as a key ingredient of ancient composition, since many classical texts do instruct writers in this process as well as demonstrate it. In this book, he focuses on four examples where he maintains that “Luke” (the author of Acts) drew on the Illiad for literary substance in tales about the apostles Peter, Paul, and Matthias. (The Illiad was easily the most popular model for literary emulation in antiquity.) Since these particular biblical stories have no corroboration in ancient historical documents, scholars have generally assigned “traditional” or “legendary” provenance to their accounts. MacDonald is able to demonstrate methodically, however, that they have identifiable literary sources in Homer and that mimesis accounts for details that are difficult to reconcile with the usual explanations of these texts.

MacDonald sets out six criteria to support mimetic authorship, and evaluates them in full for each of his cases. The third and fourth of these are the density and sequence of textual similarities, and these are illustrated throughout the book with parallel columns from the Illiad and the Acts of the Apostles. For those able to work with the original language, there is a 12-page appendix giving all of this matter in the original Greek. There are also some Latin texts, used to illustrate mimesis of Homer by other classical authors.

In his introduction, the author raises an important question: “If Homeric influence on the Gospels and Acts is so extensive and significant, why … in two centuries of critical scrutiny have modern scholars not recognized it?” (13) He gives a number of reasonable answers, invoking Thomas Kuhn’s notion of disciplinary paradigms and pointing to specializations of method in the field of New Testament studies. These could be usefully supplemented, though, with the arguments of Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine, which describe the processes by which a crypto-theological agenda has captured religious scholarship, particularly excluding the consideration of “pagan” sources for Christian beliefs and practices.

On the jacket copy of Does the New Testament Imitate Homer? Mary Tolbert is quoted as saying that MacDonald’s earlier work “poses a profound challenge to current scholarship on the history of early Christianity and the historical Jesus.” In his conclusion to this volume, MacDonald declares that Luke “was by no means a credulous editor of tradition but a sophisticated author; it is we, his readers, who have been naïve” (146-7). For all we know, there was a historical Pinocchio, who in some way informed or inspired the work of Carlo Collodi–and thus all his later adapters and imitators. But it is not any underlying “facts” (however unverifiable) that make Pinocchio’s story compelling and relevant. MacDonald is absolutely right to turn the reader’s attention to the literary craft of the writers of scripture.