Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherwordly Stories

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherwordly Stories [Amazon, Abebooks] by Leigh Brackett.

Brackett Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories

This book is a Fantasy Masterworks compilation of Golden Age science fiction novellas and short stories set on the habitable and human-populated Mars and Venus of mid-20th century imagination, as influenced by the fantasies of Edgar Rice Burroughs. By and large, Brackett’s protagonists are rogue archaeologists (self-confessed “tomb robbers”), thieves, and mercenaries. The complete absence of female protagonists might have been in keeping with the general run of the pulps at the time, but I note that her contemporary C(atherine). L. Moore was able to deliver a good lead heroine once in a while. Still, Brackett does include a respectable range of well-drawn female characters. And lest I accuse her of kowtowing to the white male science fiction hegemony, her recurring “Earthman out of Mercury” hero Eric John Stark is black.

Brackett’s ancient Mars–as rendered in the title novella and several of the other stories in this anthology–is a terrific fantasy adventure setting, worthy of role-playing or other crossover exploitation. In addition to the Mars and Venus stories, the book supplies “The Jewel of Bas” on some nameless otherworld, and the short Mars-related “Tweener” set on Earth.

“Black Amazon of Mars” is pretty much Brackett’s version of Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” and I liked it very much. Mind-transfer or psychic possession is a theme, usually a dominant one, in at least half of the stories in this volume, and telepathy is common. Once in a great while, Brackett has one of her spacefaring humans venture a “scientific” hypothesis about the mysterious ancient technology of Mars or Venus. These efforts may be somewhat cringe-inducing among educated 21st-century readers, but they are brief and thankfully rare.

Editor Stephen Jones provides a closing essay with a detailed bibliographic overview, for which I was grateful. I certainly look forward to reading more of Brackett’s adventure stories, and Jones has helped me to identify some target titles for my wishlist.

The Dream and the Underworld

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dream and the Underworld [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by James Hillman.

Hillman The Dream and the Underworld

Hillman’s slim volume is the best book I have read about the significance and experiential weight of dreams. He opposes the therapeutic and vulgar divinatory approaches that want to merely convert dreams into utilities of waking consciousness. While situating his study within the psychoanalytic tradition, he constructs his theory with extensive reference to classical notions of death and the underworld. 

Magicians reading carefully can also find a wealth of pointers about the “astral” and the full range of visionary experiences which access materials from an unconscious source–collective or individual. In fact, this book is one of the most valuable texts I have found for that purpose. 

An early monograph by Hillman, The Dream and the Underworld has a style that is more incisive and demanding than his later popular work like The Soul’s Code. He often uses untranslated Greek terms in order to orient the reader to what is likely to be at first an alien perspective on the underworld into which we all must descend. Although short, it requires genuine work to read, and it should repay the effort well.

Living Gnosis

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Living Gnosis: A Practical Guide to Gnostic Christianity [Amazon, Abebooks] by Tau Malachi.

Malachi Living Gnosis

Malachi here provides a primer in Christian Neognosticism generally, and for his own “Sophian” tradition in particular. With respect to the generalities, he emphasizes the variety of Gnostic teachings, the ineffability of genuine gnosis, and the notion of personal experience as spiritual currency. “Sophianism” disclaims reconstructionist motives, professing instead to represent a continuity with the ancient Gnosis via the Rosicrucians and other esoteric traditions. As the founder of the Sophian Fellowship, Malachi traces his initiatory pedigree through the Ordo Sanctus Gnosis (evidently a sect not keen on the genitive case). The “Tau” title implies a connection with the French Gnostic Church of Jules Doinel, but Malachi makes no claims there.

To no surprise on my part, the Sophian tradition as presented by Malachi shows strong influences from Theosophy and Martinism, and evidence of having been steeped in late twentieth-century newage, with a commensurate eclecticism. It presents the “Master Yeshua” and Mary Magdalene as a Shiva-Shakti transcendent erotic dyad, and stresses the use of a Christian Kabbalah. With all that, it will not be entirely alien to Thelemites, and Malachi even once uses the phrase “true will” (169).

His “selected bibliography” contained no volumes unfamiliar to me, and I was mostly curious about the techniques offered in the last few chapters of his text, since it is styled as a “practical guide.” As I read them, I was surprised and puzzled at the coherence of what I found there: a religious form that I don’t ordinarily associate with “gnosticism.” By the time I got to page 184, Malachi had made it abundantly clear: his Gnosticism “is more akin to a science of mind and the knowledge of how to experience prosperity, success, health, happiness, and a Spirit-connection in our lives.” For crying out loud, it’s New Thought!

Now I only wonder if Malachi knows that’s what it is, or if he really thinks it is an an ancient heritage transmitted to him by his mentor Elijah ben Miriam. Still, it’s sexier than Christian Science.

Litany of the Long Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Litany of the Long Sun [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Gene Wolfe, the first half of The Book of the Long Sun.

Wolfe Litany of the Long Sun

This volume containing Nightside the Long Sun and Lake of the Long Sun was my first reading in Gene Wolfe’s Solar Cycle beyond the Book of the New Sun (including its Urth). While I appreciate that this second series are supposedly set in a shared far-future continuity, there’s no intersection of plot, character, or setting with the five New Sun books.

There are quite a few points on which this Long Sun series differs from its predecessor. The chapters are longer and fewer in number, making for a different reading rhythm. It has a distinct central protagonist (and a more likable one, on the whole), but he is not the narrator. There is no concluding declaration for each book, to punctuate the story. In fact, it didn’t feel like much was resolved at the end of Nightside. So I thought, ok, I’ll look at the start of the next book and see if there’s a gap in the narrative, then I’ll give it a rest for a little before continuing. But–Lake of the Long Sun picks up without any pause for breath. So I ended up reading the first two chapters of the second book in the same sitting as the last one of the first book!

The protagonist Patera Silk’s dreams are important in the Long Sun, just as dreams were for Severian in Urth. Silk’s dreams are described more believably–the telling really communicates the distortions and uncertainty of dream logic, including ambiguity about the reality of events until waking is finally established. Silk is also, like Severian, a reasonably zealous product of a tutelary order. Instead of being a journeyman of the Guild of Torturers, Silk is an augur (priest) of the polytheistic religion of his city, serving in a neighborhood manteion (temple for animal sacrifice) with its attached school. Silk is sometimes called a “butcher,” since killing animals is central to his profession. So, despite the augur’s relative harmlessness Wolfe again raises for the reader the sort of conundrums he created with his torturer hero. He does a very effective job of making Silk into a conscientious, sympathetic character with “innocence” as his keynote.

Where the New Sun had the alzabo as a means to abrogate the conventional boundaries of personal consciousness, the Long Sun presents a number of instances of divine (and possibly diabolical) possession. The nature and ontological status of the gods is subjected to repeated questioning and re-evaluation by Silk and others over the course of the story, and at this midpoint–with two books of the Long Sun left to go–it doesn’t seem to have reached any sense of finality. But effects of divine initiative are certainly real, and they are not limited to theophanies in the “sacred windows,” which are quite evidently some sort of electronic display screens.

As in the New Sun books, the Long Sun presents a richly-imagined setting, working its way out from quotidian details to a much larger and stranger picture as the story proceeds. This setting has been subjected to spoilers in jacket copy and reviews, but I’d rather just say that it’s completely different than that of the other books. It is more fun to discover it through the book than it would be for me to try to reduce it to some of its larger features. One significant aspect that is introduced at the start is the fact that the city of Viron is a consciously mixed society of “bios” and “chems,” where the former are humans of biological descent, and the latter are engineered persons. There is a surprising level of community and reciprocity between these two sorts of people, and Wolfe often plays on the reader’s expectations in order to delay awareness that a given character is a chem.

On the whole, I find that these Long Sun books succeed in perpetuating and renewing many of the most interesting tropes and preoccupations of the New Sun series, while transposing them to an entirely new milieu. It’s an impressive feat, and I’m looking forward to reading the second half of the Long Sun series.

Tunc

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Tunc: A Novel [Amazon, Publisher] by Lawrence Durrell, book 1 of The Revolt of Aphrodite series.

Durrell Tunc

Tunc is really only half a novel, since Durrell had planned throughout to continue and conclude it in Nunquam, and there is nothing like a conclusion evident in the first book. Still, it’s a pretty good half-novel as I rank them. The style is very 20th-century modern, perhaps midway between Malcolm Lowry and Thomas Pynchon, complete with the latter’s tendency to interject funny songs and verse. Protagonist-narrator Felix Charnock is an inventor whose fortunes become embedded in the multinational firm of Merlin Industries. He has gone to ground in Athens after a circuit that began there, led him to Istanbul and thence to London. His original technological forte is audio recording, but during his late time at the firm he has applied himself to the extracurricular development of Abel, a computer dedicated to the purpose of divination on the basis of recorded speech and other data. Tunc is a retrospective exercise, just as Abel is coming fully on-line. Charnock reflects on his friends, lovers, and professional associates since the days of his independence in Athens, charting out a wide-flung web of psychological manipulation and frustrated desires. 

The book and its sequel are together titled The Revolt of Aphrodite. I’ll take a breather before reading Nunquam, but it’s firmly on my list to be read.

How to Win in the Chess Openings

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews How to Win in the Chess Openings [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by I A Horowitz.

Horowitz How to Win in the Chess Openings

Of course, no one “wins” in an opening as such, and Horowitz wished in his foreword that marketing considerations would have allowed him to call this book How to Understand the Chess Openings. It is a sound resource for readers just getting their feet wet in chess strategy. He discusses the general principles that inform the openings in modern chess, after which each chapter is devoted to a specific opening or variant. Horowitz uses descriptive notation with ample diagrams, and provides very detailed discussion of the motives for each move. 

A typical chapter includes a principal game to set forth the clinical logic of the opening, followed by one or more further examples in “movie” format, i.e. richly diagrammed, if more sparsely commented. Horowitz presents two of his own games among the chess movies, referencing himself in the third person, but mostly keeping to “white” and “black” for the players, unlike his usual movie narrative style.

Ten out of thirteen openings/variants treated are King Pawn openings, despite Horowitz’s remark that “The unostentatious move 1 P-Q4 is nowadays considered the most effective way of beginning a game of chess. This is evinced by a preponderance of Queen Pawn games in modern master tournaments.” (136) A single chapter treats the Queen’s Gambit Declined, and the remaining two chapters are concerned with hypermodern openings that yield the center: the Reti (typically begun with N-KB3) and the English (P-QB4).

The Transparency of Evil

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jean Baudrillard, translated by James Benedict, part of the Radical Thinkers series.

Baudrillard The Transparency of Evil

The Transparency of Evil was written in the late 1980s, and first published in French in 1990. But as I read it in 2020 it often felt up-to-the-minute. It was hard to believe that some of these observations were not rooted in the internet-mediated social environment of the 21st century.

“This society now produces only ill-defined events whose ultimate clarification is unlikely. In earlier times an event was something that happened–now it is something that is designed to happen. It occurs, therefore, as a virtual artifact, as a reflection of pre-existing media-defined forms” (41). “The new technologies, with their new machines, new images and interactive screens, do not alienate me. Rather, they form an integrated circuit with me. … We have left the hell of other people for the ecstasy of the same, the purgatory of otherness for the artificial paradises of identity” (58-9).

Moreover, Baudrillard’s frequent attention to epidemics and virality, composed in the 1980s under the cognizance of AIDs, sounds today with the amplifying echoes of novel coronavirus. His identification of terrorism as the paradigmatic form of the “transpolitical” was likewise both current and prescient.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is untitled but has epigrams relating to the book’s subtitle of “extreme phenomena.” It is chiefly oriented to describing a historical moment “after the orgy” of the liberation movements that followed the middle of the 20th century. He outlines a situation characterized by “gross systemic conjunction and malfunction caused by hypertelia–by an excess of functional imperatives, by a sort of saturation” (31).

In both the first and second parts of the book, Baudrillard references the work of the French ethnographer and critic Victor Segalen (1878–1919). While The Transparency of Evil is clearly informed by Baudrillard’s own signature concepts of simulation, hyperreality, and so forth, these are not called out explicitly, and there is no scholarly intertextual apparatus.

Much as I enjoyed the first part of the book, I got more out of the shorter second part titled “Radical Otherness.” In it, he returns to the theme of Evil that he raised late in the first part, and he coordinates this focus with a distinction between difference and otherness. Difference allows for, perhaps even demands, assimilation through the positing of a shared continuum, whereas otherness presents genuine discontinuity. Baudrillard identifies otherness with the foreign, and relates it to traditional concepts of hospitality. He proposes that ritual and seduction are counterstrategies by which the other can and will preserve itself in the face of coercive regimes of reconciliation.

“Whereas the Good presupposes a dialectical involvement of Evil, Evil is founded on itself alone, in pure incompatibility. Evil is thus master of the game, and it is the principle of Evil, the reign of eternal antagonism, that must eventually carry off the victory” (139). Is this optimism?

Martinezism, Willermozism, Martinism and Freemasonry

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Martinezism, Willermozism, Martinism and Freemasonry [Amazon, Publisher] by Gérard Encausse, aka Papus, trans Piers A Vaughan.

Encausse Papus Vaughan Martinezism, Willermozism, Martinism and Freemasonry

This short book is a polemical history of esoteric societies in modern France, written by Gerard Encausse (“Papus”), organizer of the Martinist Order in the late nineteenth century. It has been recently translated into English by Piers A. Vaughan, and features on its cover the seal of the Martinist Order of Unknown Philosophers, to which Vaughan declares his adherence (8).

Encausse denominates top-down dispensaries of occult wisdom as “Illuminist,” as distinguished from the Masonic style of sodalities organized through lodge-elected leadership. The opening sections of the book are chiefly concerned to trace the genealogy and form of “contemporary” (i.e. 1899) Martinism from its Illuminist sources. This exposition includes counters to the various fin de siecle slanders of Martinism from church sources and conspiracy-mongers such as Gabriel Jogand (“Leo Taxil”).

The Rosicrucians (Elias Ashmole in particular) were the creators of Freemasonry, according to Encausse, and he sees a vengeful Templar current running in tension with the benevolent Rosicrucian one, with each contributing distinctly to the various Masonic high grades and rites. He offers a symbolic overview of the contents of advanced degrees in the Rite of Perfection and Scottish Rite, which contains some interesting observations, and he is especially concerned with the Rose-Croix degree because of its putative relationship to Martinism.

Encausse deplores the atheist trajectory of the French Grand Orient and prophesies its demise. He also mocks the tiny and senescent Rite of Mizraim, for which he would later (1908) obtain a sort of organizing authority in the form of a patent to establish a “Supreme Grand Council General of the Unified Rites of Antient and Primitive Masonry for the Grand Orient of France and its Dependencies at Paris” from O.T.O. Caput Ordinis Theodor Reuss.

On the very last page of the book, Encausse characterizes Martinists as “resolute synarchists,” alluding to the socio-political program of Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre, which later became more strongly associated with Martinism, especially by its detractors. This connection was a chief concern of the academic study Beyond Enlightenment by David Allen Harvey, but this one brief mention is the first time I have observed it in a primary text of the period.

Vaughan’s translated text is adequate for English readers, although the book appears to have been prepared hastily. There are clumsy vestiges of French idiom and typographical errors on almost every page, giving “is” for “it” and “in really” for “in reality,” for example. Occasionally a word seems to be missing, and there are grammatical failures. But Vaughan’s knowledge of the subject matter, with which he boasts twenty years of initiated experience, appears quite sound. His editorial footnotes are helpful and lucid.

Ladies of Fantasy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ladies of Fantasy: Two Centuries of Sinister Stories by the Gentle Sex [Amazon, Abebooks] edited by Seon Manley & Gogo Lewis, with illustration by Edward Gorey, and stories by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Jane Roberts, & al.

Manley Lewis Ladies of Fantasy

The contents of this anthology are not what would usually be marketed as “fantasy” today. They cover a century’s worth of short stories in the gothic fantasy or horror vein–but never so scary that the book didn’t serve as pleasant bedtime reading for me and my Other Reader. At least two were written by women who were also notable occultists (H.P. Blavatsky and Jane Roberts). Editors Manley and Lewis provide biographical introductions to each author, along with more such material in an appendix. The literary quality of the stories is pretty consistent, and the book provides a useful introduction to an assortment of worthy writers who might otherwise be overlooked by readers in this field.

The Eight

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Eight [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Katherine Neville, book 1 of The Eight series.

Neville The Eight

In its early printings, The Eight was compared to Umberto Eco’s puzzle-novels, but it doesn’t really have their literary integrity. It’s probably more deserving of comparison to Dan Brown’s film-treatment-cum-novel conspiracy thrillers, which may have been influenced by (or even modeled on) this book. 

Pluses: Enigmatic ages-spanning conspiracy constructed around chess. Efficiently told fast-paced adventure story. North African setting rendered with experienced detail and rich imagination. Surfeit of ass-kicking redhead heroines. Little bits of comedy. Cameos by William Blake, Giacomo Casanova, and practically anyone of note in the last decade of the 18th century. 

Minuses: Use of third-person narrative in 18th-century plotline which is eventually revealed to be contained in a journal. Use of first-person narrative in 20th-century plotline, including chronological inclusion of events unknown at the time to the character describing them. 1970s protagonist of author Katherine Neville is named “Catherine Velis.” Really? It’s hard to care for Velis, who seems to have everything fall into her lap, and to have no real personal attachments: no reference to any prior lover (is she a 24-year-old virgin?) or close peers or blood relations, just an abundance of mentors and benefactors, who are nearly all eventually implicated in the conspiracy. She was a music major at an unnamed college, but never plays, sings, or actively listens to music during the nine months of her story in the book. Out of three or four major plot twists at the novel’s end, I saw a couple of them coming at least 150 pages in advance. I groaned out loud at this passage from page 108, spoken to the French Abbess of Montglane by Catherine the Great in 1791:

“I know the secret is older than the Moors, older than the Basques. Older, indeed, than the Druids. I must ask you, my friend, have you ever heard of a society of men who sometimes call themselves the Freemasons?”

On the whole, it’s a reasonably fun read for those of us who like this sort of thing. The historical parts audaciously conscript an enormous range of famous figures, usually with some level of believability, and the modern parts churn out a bewildering array of heterogeneous clues before the solutions start to cohere. I’m not signing up for the sequel, though.