Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Sacred Mysteries

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sacred Mysteries: Sacramental Principles and Liturgical Practice by Dennis C Smolarski.

Smolarski Sacred Mysteries

Sacred Mysteries is a book about Roman Catholic liturgical reforms, ideals, and ambitions, written by a Jesuit university instructor in the mid-1990s. It reflects a particular historical window, just over one full generation after the first set of ceremonial changes that resulted from the Second Vatican Council. Author Dennis Smolarski chooses to use the word “mysteries” interchangeably with “sacraments,” and he calls the seven chief sacraments of Catholic tradition the “great mysteries,” affording each its own chapter. When he discusses this lexical choice in his preface, he cites the usage of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Catholic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963). He raises–to dismiss it–the notion of mystery as an intellectual puzzle, but he seems content with mystery as an arena of the unknown or the unknowable, replete with emotive power. He certainly does not reference the pagan mysteries of antiquity, and he also misses the important English sense of “craft mystery,” according to which a mystery is in fact a guild: an initiated social body of practical experts. The silence about these latter meanings leaves the book’s repeating title conceit somewhat unfulfilled, considering how apposite they are.

Smolarski’s opening chapters establish his method and perspective; then follow the chapters for the seven “great mysteries” and two more for sacramental services of funerals and blessings. The last chapter is dedicated to the topic of pitfalls and and “obfuscations.” Each chapter on a given sacrament is divided into two sections. The first section is on “principles” and summarizes the historical development of the sacrament, along with theological considerations. The second section is on “practice” and discusses Catholic liturgical implementation at the close of the twentieth century.

Some of the liturgical history is worthwhile, and it is written in an accessible form, although there are certainly other books that have that topic as a more central focus. The text mentions in passing, as if it could hardly be questioned, that the eucharist “finds its origin in the family meal” (65). Leaving aside the fact that any and all eating and drinking by humans will in some sense descend from the act of family nourishment, I found that statement profoundly ignorant of (or dishonest about) the genuine historical origins of eucharistic ceremonies.

At one point, discussing the impertinence of popular American wedding customs, this book on Christian worship approvingly offers a quotation on genealogical obscurity from Antichrist Friedrich Nietzsche (115)! But a quick check of the end note shows that it is actually citing Nietzsche’s Human All Too Human at secondhand from page 2 of Celebrating Marriage, edited by Paul Covino for Pastoral Press. I imagine Covino himself got it out of a book of assorted quotations and epigrams. But it still gave me quite a laugh.

I came to this book as an overheard recommendation by a member of the clergy in my own church, although we do not administer the Catholic sacraments as such. Implicitly, the idea was that the analogy to our sacraments (some of them identically named) was sufficiently close that ministers of the Thelemic Gnostic Catholic Church (EGC) could benefit from Smolarski’s analyses. After a thorough reading, I would tend to disagree. First, the book is (properly, by its own lights) oriented toward Christian theology which is profoundly irrelevant to the work of our Thelemic sacraments. Second, it tends to deprecate and deride the Tridentine Catholic forms that were abrogated by the Vatican II reforms. To the extent that Roman Catholic liturgy has provided precedents for EGC ritual, it is exactly those older forms with their “ambience of prayer, awe, and mystery” (67) on which we draw. Finally, it is preoccupied with a specific process of institutional and liturgical reform that does not obtain in EGC.

I concur with Smolarski that liturgy is not reducible to entertainment and should avoid treating a congregation as a passive audience (e.g. 177). Secure in his large and mature institution, he is never in danger of the sort of terminological errors that are all too common in EGC, where officers will apply the jargon of modern entertainment to church ceremony, calling the ritual a “script,” the rubric “stage directions,” or the vestments “costumes.” But he happens to hit on the one sore desideratum for liturgical discourse, a term for what stage performers call “blocking.” There is no traditional ecclesiastical jargon to denote the positioning and movement of the officers in the worship space. Smolarski suggests choreography, which I think has a lot to recommend it.

Sacred Mysteries is probably a helpful book for the audience for whom it was actually written: Roman Catholic ministers and worship organizers. Despite the ongoing change that it emphasizes, it may not even be obsolete twenty years after its first publication.

Swords’ Masters

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Swords’ Masters by Fritz Leiber.

Leiber Swords' Master

Swords’ Masters is the second book club omnibus of Leiber’s Fafhrd and Mouser stories, including the fourth through sixth volumes of their original book format.

The four stories of Swords against Wizardry alternate between substantial novellas written in the mid-1960s and short bridging pieces written later by Leiber to pull them together into a consolidated volume. The bridging stories, “In the Witch’s Tent” and “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar,” are both great fun, though. “Stardock” is a wonderful story of fantasy mountaineering, and it is complemented by “The Lords of Quarmall,” set in an underearth kingdom with its dynasty of sorcerers. This last story (the first of them to be written) was grown by Leiber from an unfinished manuscript by his friend Harry Fischer.

Swords of Lankhmar is the only full-fledged novel of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser that I’ve read. At first, it seems like it might not even be such, because a preliminary nautical adventure seems to set it up to be episodic, but indeed, the whole thing is a single, complicated tale centering on an attempted conquest of Lankhmar undertaken by “Lankhmar Below,” i.e. the city of rats underneath Lankhmar. There are love interests for both heroes–likely the oddest such in all their adventures–assistance from their sorcerer-patrons, and more detail than previously available about the unimpressive upper reaches of Lankhmarian aristocracy. In this edition, Swords of Lankhmar is prefaced with a map of the world of Newhon–a welcome feature which is nevertheless awfully difficult to read, owing to varied calligraphy and an odd quasi-global projection.

The last book Swords and Ice Magic is full of retrospective glances at the earlier adventures of the two heroes, and is in many respects a sequel to “Stardock.” It starts with short stories, but these wax interdependent, so that by the time the reader reaches the long culminating novella “Rime Isle,” it feels as if they had merely been opening chapters of a novel. “Rime Isle” itself has more than a little taste of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods about it, concerning as it does fugitive gods trying to reestablish their bases of worship. It is strange that the conclusion of six volumes of Leiber’s stories leaves the heroes somewhere quite remote from the City of Lankhmar, i.e. the titular Rime Isle far out to the north in the Frozen Sea. Although I don’t know if it will assuage this particular discomfort, the fact inclines me to seek out and read the fugitive seventh book: The Knight and Knave of Swords.

Dore’s Illustrations for Rabelais

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Doré’s Illustrations for Rabelais by Gustave Doré.

Doré Doré's Illustrations for Rabelais

These pictures are a pleasure in themselves, and they are wonderful to review after having imagined the Rabelais stories in the course of reading. There is a notable inconsistency to the depiction of various characters by Doré, arguably reflecting a similar inconsistency on the part of St. François. Also, this book is a clip-art goldmine for Thelemites.

Holy Terrors

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 by Bruce Lincoln.

Lincoln Holy Terrors

Lincoln’s Holy Terrors is an excellent piece of theorizing about the nature and potentials of religion in the 21st century. It was written in 2003 (although it incorporates texts composed earlier), and takes the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon as a point of departure. 

In the first of six chapters, Lincoln succeeds in providing a longish but successfully comprehensive definition of religion that does not presuppose or depend on concepts of God, spirits, souls, the supernatural, belief, or faith. The definition covers “four domains–discourse, practice, community, and institution,” (7) which he later admits are derived from the topics addressed by Kant’s treatises which “brought the campaign launched by the Enlightenment to a compromise conclusion.” (58) He also proposes a spectrum from maximalist to minimalist religious influence in social conduct, using these as rough synonyms for fundamentalist and liberal religion respectively. 

The second and third chapters of Holy Terrors maintain the focus on September 11 and public responses to it. In both cases, Lincoln undertakes some careful rhetorical analysis: first to compare the statements of US President G.W. Bush and Osama bin Laden (viewing them as representing societies predicated on minimalist and maximalist religious positions, although complicated by circumstance), and second to anatomize the efforts of American televangelists to use public reaction to the events as fuel for their own religious enterprises. These discussions are buttressed with primary documents appended to the main text. 

The fourth chapter is rather brief and quite theoretical, although littered with examples and anecdotes, in an effort to examine the consequences of the different interactions of religion and culture under pre-Enlightenment maximalist conditions and post-Enlightenment minimalist ones. Chapter five goes on to chart a variety of possible processes by which these tensions can be activated and play out in a postcolonial environment. 

The final chapter posits the inadequacy of previous social theories of religion, in that they uniformly take religion to be a conservative force favoring the status quo. History provides plenty of counterexamples which Lincoln does not hesitate to list, and he advances three categories beyond “status quo religion” to complete the picture: religions of resistance, religions of revolution, and religions of counter-revolution. 

The whole book is only about a hundred pages, and it is well worth serious reflection by those who consider themselves proponents or critics of religion, as well as those concerned with the parameters of political and social change in our time when religious ambitions and conflicts seem to be so inflamed.

Mad Moon of Dreams

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mad Moon of Dreams by Brian Lumley.

Lumley Mad Moon of Dreams

The third of Lumley’s dreamlands novels has something of the flavor of superhero team-up to it. In particular, it seems that all of the villains of the dreamlands have formed a Legion of Doom in order to be avenged on its heroes. These books are not big on “character development” anyway (as neither are actual dreams), but this one does even less than its predecessors. As superhero comics eventually became notorious for doing, this novel “kills” its protagonists in a non-final sort of way. I was relieved that a threatened cross-over with Lumley’s Titus Crow stories did not manifest!

The division of the book into three 10-chapter parts was pretty artificial, and the plot does not reach any sort of plateau in between them. Moreover, the “epilogue” is really the thirty-first chapter, without which it would have been a very different book.

Oh, and David Hero gets naked again.

How to Meditate

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews How to Meditate: A Guide to Self-Discovery by Lawrence LeShan.

LeShan How to Meditate

This little volume, evidently written as a practical textbook on its topic for the Human Potential movement, had been through 20 printings by 1988, and the jacket copy makes the false claim that its contents allow the reader “to bring meditation effortlessly into your life” (emphasis added)–a claim that the text itself firmly disavows. The title How to Meditate really applies to only chapters 8-10 of the dozen in LeShan’s book. The rest are concerned to motivate potential meditators, to provide a typology of meditative practices, and to discuss the interface of meditation with psychology and parapsychology. Chapters 3 and 11 are sufficiently peripheral to the main business of the book that the author actually suggests to readers that they can profitably skip those chapters. 

The actual instructions for meditative practice in chapter 8 are adequate, and cover a respectably diverse set of techniques. Chapter 9 consists entirely of negative advice, i.e. traps to avoid, and much of it is useful. I especially liked the passage warning against “‘Vibrations,’ ‘Energy,’ and Other Cheap Explanations of Things.” (83-88) But in the subsequent section, LeShan cavalierly dismisses all theories of occult correspondence, appreciating neither their value as conventions in communicating ideas, nor the ways in which they reflect systems of congruence. (A better instruction reads, “…so also is the triad Osiris, Isis, Horus like that of a horse, mare, foal, and of red, blue, purple. And this is the foundation of Correspondences. But it were false to say ‘Horus is a foal’ or ‘Horus is purple’. One may say: ‘Horus resembles a foal in this respect, that he is the offspring of two complementary beings’.”–Liber 175, point 32) 

A repeated refrain throughout the book is the author’s contempt and derision for those who would presume to acquire mystical experience by psychopharmaceutical means. He presents drugs and meditation as exclusive alternatives, never considering the possibility–indeed the likelihood suggested by traditions around the world and throughout history–that the two may complement and assist one another: psychedelic drugs being enhanced by the mental discipline of meditation, and meditation being potentiated by the breakthrough experiences of “heroic” drug use (to use the terminology of Terrence McKenna, a theorist with a much better handle on this conundrum). In a typical piece of anti-drug rhetoric, LeShan insists that “meditation (as opposed to … drugs) does not produce bad trips” (25); but later he concedes that meditation has its own hazards, including “depressions and bad trips.” (64)

The basic typology offered here corresponds to the yogas: jnana yoga (“The Path Through the Intellect”), bhakti yoga (“The Path Through the Emotions”), hatha yoga (“The Path Through the Body”) and karma yoga (“The Path Through Action”). But there are a good range of examples from other cultures and traditions, rather than a fixation on the Indian forms. Curiously, given the set selected, there is no type equivalent to raja yoga. This omission is all the more surprising in light of the goofy definition and etymology that he provides for “mystic” as “training in closing off all those artificial factors which ordinarily keep us from this knowledge, this birthright we have lost.” (7)

Since the author is a psychologist, the overall approach is predictably secularist, and although he does go to some lengths to discuss various religious contexts for meditation, he does so on the basis of universalist assumptions. In fact, he goes beyond religious universalism to a metaphysical universalism that comprehends traditional mysticisms, parapsychology, and modern physics, in what would shortly after his writing of this book become a staple of the New Age worldview. An afterword praising LeShan is provided by a clergyman-psychologist. 

LeShan is ideologically opposed to initiatory secrecy–which has little enough to do with meditation per se, but is often found in traditional contexts that facilitate or encourage meditation. LeShan does not see the value of such secrecy, only its potential for abuse. He writes, “Can you imagine a Socrates, a Jesus, a Buddha, telling his disciples that his wisdom was to be kept secret?” (102) Not only can I imagine it, I don’t have to. Mark 4:10-12 is a perfectly canonical instance. 

As someone with some background and experience in the topic of this primer, I may not be the best judge of its appeal for those to whom it was directed. Reading it was good for me, though, inspiring me to revisit some practices that have served me well in the past, but have become a little dusty in my recent work.

Cthulhu’s Reign

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Cthulhu’s Reign edited by Darrell Schweitzer.

Schweitzer Cthulhu's Reign

As one among innumerable collections of Lovecraftian short fiction, a couple of features distinguish the recent Cthulhu’s Reign. First, all of the stories are new, evidently commissioned for this volume, with none garnered from zines and prior anthologies. Second, the unusual theme that they share is that of the Cthulhoid eschaton accomplished: the stars have been right, and humanity’s domination of Earth is over and done with. 

There are a total of fifteen stories, each by a different author. Most of them don’t venture too far beyond the return of our alien landlords; only in a couple instances does the narrative comprehend events that follow the end of our history by more than a single generation of dispossessed humans. In at least a few cases, the packaging seems to work against the content–that is to say, the story might have had more dramatic force if the reader hadn’t come to it already informed that the setting was “an Earth ruled by Cthulhu, or his minions (or even his enemies)” (per Schweitzer’s introduction, 6). All of them show a distinct level of creativity beyond the ordinary Lovecraft pastiche. After all, while the wholesale return of the Old Ones is an invariable element of the mythos, HPL only actualized it in narrative once, in the brief, dream-inspired “Nyarlathotep” (1920). 

The stories that do go further into the future than the immediate aftermath of the Old Ones’ return are certainly the most exotic. I liked the surreal solipsism of Laird Barron’s “Vastation,” and Brian Stableford offers piquant food for thought (or is it thought for food?) in “The Holocaust of Ecstasy.” In other standouts among the generally high-quality selections, I appreciated the well-informed Central Texas setting of “Sanctuary,” as well as its wry blasphemous features that were surely imperative in a story written by Don Webb and dedicated to Robert Price. The most overtly theological entry is “The New Pauline Corpus” by Matt Cardin, which demonstrates even better than Webb’s story how adaptable the human religious attitude really is. More pedestrian Cthulhu cultists feature in “Ghost Dancing” by the volume’s editor, and in “The Seals of New R’lyeh” by Gregory Frost. The last couple of stories, “Nothing Personal” by Richard A. Lupoff and “Remnants” by Fred Chappell, both expand the context to an interplanetary scale, and tip the genre strongly toward science fiction. 

The experience of reading these tales over the course of a week or so brought into relief for me the background sense of recent cataclysm that seems to be part of early 21st-century life, whether it’s the 9-11-2001 events, hurricane Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe, or the flood of Pakistan, it seems like the world has always just gone to hell. At one point, someone mentioned Houston in conversation, and I found myself mentally groping for the horrible event that had just befallen that city, before realizing with some relief that it was merely a passage from Cthulhu’s Reign that I had mentally misfiled too closely to “fact.”

Nietzsche Against the Crucified

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche Against the Crucified by Alistair Kee.

Kee Neitzsche Against the Crucified

Kee’s Nietzsche Against the Crucified is a lucid approach to Nietzsche’s thought, from the uncommon perspective of a professor of Religious Studies. As Kee notes in his introduction, most of the secondary literature on Nietzsche is generated within the discipline of “Philosophy,” and much of it reflects a disinterest in the religious context and theological consequences of the material–a disinterest that is alien to Nietzsche’s own perspective. This book covers Nietzsche’s principal themes and topics adequately, and concludes with a sound argument against viewing him as the “father of postmodernism.” 

There is brief but sufficient biographical material to appreciate Nietzsche’s situation, and the distinctions between his lived experience and his espoused values. Kee also provides helpful context regarding the evolution of counter-Christian thought in 19th-century Germany, where Nietzsche figures as the third of three antichrists: the first was Ludwig Feuerbach, and the second David Strauss.

Kee’s handling of the doctrine of eternal recurrence is quite sensitive. He does not deform it into something with which he can be more intellectually comfortable, nor does he attempt to downplay its importance in Nietzsche’s ouvre. Similarly, his appreciation of the Will to Power is careful, and framing it with religious concerns gives it a different cast than most introductory treatments. 

Once in a great while, Kee’s prose indulges in a sort of vernacular banter, which I found mostly ineffective. The book as a whole reads quickly, and I would recommend it as an accessible interpretation of Nietzsche, especially useful to Thelemites.

Lion in the Valley

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lion in the Valley by Elizabeth Peters.

Peters Lion in the Valley

Highlights of this fourth volume of Amelia Peabody amusement include: a mysterious redheaded opium-eater going by the name Nemo; the excruciating Mrs. Axhammer of Des Moines, Iowa; the corruption of a village priest; the birds and the bees explained to Ramses Emerson; and the peculiar generosity of the Master Criminal Sethos. 

Previous volumes in this series have carried me along by dint of sheer wit and engaging character, but this one also got me fascinated with the plot in the way that a mystery novel is supposed to–goading me to read the last sixty-odd pages at a single sitting.

The Goddess’ Son

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Goddess’ Son by Skott Holck.

Holck The Goddess' Son

This self-published first novel is a little rough around the edges, but it tells a distinctive story. The amnesiac protagonist presents his experiences in a non-linear narrative, while a third-person omniscient voice intervenes in alternating chapters to relate both contemporary events involving related characters and prehistoric scenes relevant to the supernatural entities in the tale.

There’s a little neopagan religious testimonial sprinkled through the book, as the title might suggest. Keith, the central character, has made it to his twenties without being subject to any of the popular American slave-religions, and he considers himself a pagan. There are a number of passages that center on his theological concerns, in dialogue with several different Christians: a door-to-door evangelist, a college professor, and an anti-abortion activist.

The principal setting of the book is in the Pacific Northwest at roughly the turn of the millennium, and the author’s acknowledgments indicate that he lived in Oregon while writing it. The fantastic elements of the story fall in the wide confused space between the works of say, Tom Robbins and Phillip K. Dick, with a somewhat closer kinship to the former. Despite the convoluted structure of the story, the prose is direct and fast reading.