Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Horse Under Water

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Horse Under Water by Len Deighton.

Deighton Horse Under Water

Horse Under Water was Deighton’s second novel and a sequel to his first, The Ipcress File. It continues with the same unnamed protagonist, told in his droll, often circumspect voice, singling out relevant details and allowing the reader to stitch the picture together. The plot involves a great deal of “frogman” action, largely off the coast of Portugal. But there is also intrigue in London, with a fair amount of travel back and forth. Chapters are short, often just one or two pages, and their titles all have the flavor of crossword clues, consistent with the obscurity of the facts as the man from W.O.O.C.(P) tries to discover the real narrative behind the malefactors he encounters.

Baix of the (Marrakech) Sûreté Nationale …: “In any narcotics investigation we are most enthusiastic that the criminal is apprehensive.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. (211)

Ancient Light

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ancient Light by John Banville.

Banville Ancient Light

John Banville’s two previous novels about Alexander Cleave and his daughter Cass (Eclipse and Shroud) were synchronized with one another, so that neither was needed to appreciate the other, but either would “spoil” the other’s ending. I expected this third book, focusing on Alexander Cleave a decade later, to be a continuation of Eclipse for which Shroud would not furnish any explicit background. I had not reckoned on Banville’s ability to construct one of the most elaborate instances of dramatic irony I have ever encountered on the printed page. It started early, and continued for nearly the entire book within one of the two major plot strands. I don’t know how the book would have read in the absence of that very vivid irony, which depended entirely on familiarity with Shroud.

“Cleave” is aptly named in this book, split between memories of his sixteenth summer, when he had an affair with his best friend’s thirty-five-year-old mother, and his first movie role fifty years later, coming out of retirement from his stage acting career. Just as the titles of the previous books applied to their contents in over-determined polyvalent ways, so too does “ancient light.” The other titles appear again, subtly worked in to the closing passages, where Banville also quite overtly opens towards a possible further volume.

I liked Ancient Light better than Eclipse and perhaps not quite as much as Shroud. Consistent with the others, the prose is writerly, but still tailored to the voice of the principal character, and the book is filled with sensuous observation along with both epistemological and emotional difficulty. Critic Keshava Guha derided Ancient Light for its “vagueness,” but I found it to have a real precision in the construction of its characters and the development of its themes.

Conan the Free Lance

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Conan the Free Lance by Steve Perry.

Perry Conan the Free Lance

I had honestly hoped–and with good reason, I think–that Conan the Free Lance would be the worst Conan novel I had ever read. But I’m afraid that distinction still belongs to the same author’s Conan the Indomitable. The two do have formal similarities that are worth remark in the larger world of Conan pastiche novels.

Despite frequent invocations of the geography invented by Robert E. Howard, Steve Perry’s setting for Conan tales seems more like the planet Mongo than it does the Hyborian Age. It teems with intelligent species of widely divergent origins, and he seems happy to introduce two or more exotic races per book. In this one, we have Pili (naturally-evolved lizard-men), Selkies (thaumaturgically-created fish-men), and other creatures formed by sorcery: skreeches, eels of power, and the Kralix.

There is more use of a comic narrative tone than is customary in Conan pastiche, and not with Howard’s original sense of black humor. The various sexual incidents, although not presented graphically, have a sort of juvenile camp atmosphere. And the climactic battle in this book has more than a whiff of farce about it. The chief villain, despite his vast sorcerous power, is injudicious to the point of witlessness. Also, feigned archaic diction is thrown in with some unwelcome regularity, and it manages to sound “wrong” even when it’s grammatically correct.

The characters are flat, and the plot is unremarkable. All I got from this book was the satisfaction that it was almost as bad as I thought it would be.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Unflattening by Nick Sousanis.

Sousanis Unflattening

Unflattening is a book-length comics composition–hardly a “graphic novel,” since it is a work of non-fiction. Author/artist Nick Sousanis adapted it from his own academic dissertation. The contents are highly reflexive, and consist for the most part of a discussion of parallax and its value in perception, epistemology, social change, and even biology. It is an inspirational book that is entirely free of supernaturalism or speculative “woo.” Although its first and primary explanatory paradigm is the hypergeometry intimated by Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, Sousanis does not insist on a fourth spatial dimension, only further conceptual dimensions beyond those of the reader’s conscious orientation.

Although the book has only eight short chapters, the individual pages are “long.” There is an exhibition of parallax in the complementary but non-identical content of the the words and images, a phenomenon explicitly discussed in the course of the book. Part of the “distance” between the verbal and visual contents is the difference in the form of citation. When the text cites a writer (e.g. Buckminster Fuller or George Lakoff), Sousanis mentions the source at the site of the reference. But when the images cite precedent visual sources (e.g. the Mona Lisa or Doctor Who‘s TARDIS) these are usually just verbally identified in the endnotes, if at all. (There are some exceptions: “after Boticelli,” “after Watterson.”) One or two pages might be enough for a single sitting, if one “reads” them carefully–attending to the images, reading the words, and reviewing both to see the ways in which they inform one another. The reader should be attentive to the full page as the unit of composition, rather than allowing the gutters between panels to restrict attention. Sousanis emphasizes the value of simultaneity in visual presentation, as opposed to the linear seriality of text.

This volume encodes a lot of valuable concepts, but none of them were really new to me. It expresses an outlook with which I am in sympathy, and it does so in a manner that I think is really admirable.

Don’t Hide the Madness

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Don’t Hide the Madness: William S. Burroughs in Conversation with Allen Ginsberg by William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, edited by Steven Taylor; due October 16th from Three Rooms Press.

I like the title of this book, but it’s not really transparent to the volume’s content. More lucid choices might have been The Exorcism of William S. Burroughs, or Old Beatniks with Guns, or most accurately Reminiscing and Cat Fancying with Bill and Al. It’s a carefully edited full transcript of about sixteenBurroughs Ginsberg Taylor Don't Hide the Madness hours of conversation between William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, at Burroughs’ place in Kansas over the course of four days in March 1992. The Naked Lunch movie release in England and Japan was the impetus for an “interview” that grew into the more relaxed-yet-ambitious project of capturing the conversations in this book, as sponsored by the London Observer magazine. Within the text, this circumstance isn’t mentioned until two days and over one hundred transcript pages into the visit, and it only occupies the foreground of a single conversational session. The transcripts were prepared from the tapes and edited by musician Steven Taylor, who had been working as Ginsberg’s assistant and a contributor to his performances.

Burroughs was pleased by Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, so that forms a focus for some of the discussion. During the course of Ginsberg’s visit, the two of them and some friends go to a local screening of the movie. Another principal activity is a brief trip to fire a few of Burroughs’ guns. But probably the most significant event during the visit was Burroughs undergoing an exorcism of the “Ugly Spirit” (so identified by Brion Gysin) that Burroughs believed had been responsible for making him shoot his wife to death in Mexico in 1951. The exorcism was performed by a Native American shaman named Melvin Betsellie. Discussion often returns to the health concerns of the two men. They review various mutual acquaintances and old experiences, and discuss a number of literary figures and social scenes. Occasionally one will read out loud from a book or an article, and Ginsberg and Burroughs both recite poems from memory. Burroughs very frequently breaks off to address himself affectionately to one of his six cats.

The lack of an index is disappointing in a book that is practically an orgy of name-dropping, and includes a fair amount of trivial conversational context. Some topical metadata to reference persons discussed are in Ginsberg’s synopses of the tapes, used as chapter headers and reproduced in the table of contents. But if you want to find the four mentions of Harry Smith for instance, you’ll just have to read right through. Likewise, a key to the abbreviations used for attributing speech would be very helpful. WSB and AG are obvious enough, but identifying the other speakers from their abbreviations may require careful reading of the editor’s introduction and the synopses. I was reading an advance review copy (via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program), so either or both of these failings of the editorial apparatus might be addressed in the actual first edition.

The cover art by R. Crumb is a lovely portrait of the two men, and there are some black-and-white photos of Burroughs taken by Ginsberg on the weekend of the conversation, along with some other photos of the men that are not credited.

I enjoyed this read, and it renewed my interest in reading some of Burroughs’ later novels. It’s definitely a book for someone who can bring to it an existing appreciation for Burroughs, at least. The reader also needs an ability to savor the conversational minutiae of old men, or failing that, some talent for skimming.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mephisto by Klaus Mann.

Mann Mephisto

Klaus Mann’s Mephisto is a roman à clef written in 1936 and covering a period of about a decade in Germany leading up to that point, during the ascendance of Nazi power. It furnishes a vivid picture of the times and a withering assessment of the integrity of those who “adapted themselves” to tyranny.

The story is centered on Mann’s onetime theatrical collaborator and former brother-in-law Gustaf Gründgens, under the name “Hendrik Höfgen.” Höfgen is a success in Hamburg and then achieves celebrity in Berlin. When the Nazis come to rule, he worries about his past of left-wing sentiments and associations, but after some adroit and unscrupulous networking, he wins the favor of Hermann Göring, eventually becoming the head of the German National Theater under the Nazis. This character arc does not reflect well on the memory of Gründgens, whose estate successfully sued to keep the book banned from publication in Germany for several decades.

Höfgen (like Gründgens) won great acclaim for his Berlin portrayal of Mephistopheles in Faust, but the novel presents him as being subjected to the dilemma of Faust himself–though without the heroism given to the sorcerer by Goethe. “The fat general” Göring effectively serves as the devil of the pact, supplying Höfgen with fame, power, and wealth, to be paid for by forfeiting his conscience and his liberty.

The book is not just a portrait of Gründgens, however. Although Mann seems to have written himself entirely out of the story, his sister appears as Barbara Bruckner, and many of the characters in Hamburg are drawn with such clarity that I’m sure they were based on actual acquaintances of Mann’s. The actress Nicoletta von Niebuhr was certainly inspired by Pamela Wedekind, to whom Mann was at one point affianced. A curious feature of the text is complete circumspection regarding the names of the Nazi chiefs: Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels, who all appear in the course of the story, are identified only by their roles, titles, and attributes.

Also removed from the story is the homosexual element in the milieu on which it was based. Mann was himself gay, and consensus has it that Gründgens was as well. So Höfgen’s disloyalty to socialism has as its further subtext a betrayal of the gay subculture of 1920s Germany. Mephisto does supply Höfgen with a sexual vulnerability, though, in the form of the black dominatrix Juliette who is his guilty secret beginning in the earliest passages of the novel.

Already in 1936, Mann was very aware of the official violence of the Nazis. He was able to write of concentration camps and the wide supposition of death camps, as well as political prisoners tortured to death. He knew, and “Höfgen” knew, but they took different courses in response. In the twenty-first century, Americans know that we have a government that has tortured people to death, one whose uniformed agents kill with impunity unarmed “suspects,” and one that imprisons a greater number and portion of our people than in any other society past or present. What courses will we take in response? Can we avoid the doom that the reader now sees hanging over the Germany of Mann’s novel?

Delusion’s Master

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Delusion’s Master by Tanith Lee.

Lee Delusion's Master

The titular character of Delusion’s Master is Chuz, Prince of Madness, but as with the previous two Tales of the Flat Earth books by Tanith Lee, it is the demon lord Azhrarn who is the power at the heart of the story as much as any. The pacing and structure of this volume of the series is closer to the first (that entirely revolved around Azhrarn) than it is to the second book Death’s Master. Again, Azhrarn allows himself to love a mortal, this time with very different consequences.

This book is brimming over with narratives. Lee riffs on legends and folklore from the Tower of Babel to Rumpelstiltskin. There are background tales for various characters (though not for Prince Chuz) and for particular locations. My favorite part of the book might have been the little digressive story of the origin of cats (155-7).

I will be sure to read the remaining two books of this series.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Muelos: A Stone Age Superstition About Sexuality by Weston La Barre.

La Barre Muelos

Although American psychological anthropologist Weston La Barre doesn’t reference their work, he is clearly advancing the tradition of the 19th-century phallicist scholars of religion. The title of his monograph Muelos is a Greek word for “marrow,” referencing a single substance in primitive physiological thought, the pith or spunk, which is cerebro-spinal fluid, semen, and bone marrow alike, supposed to be the material basis of vital generation. Although this book is short, it displays an impressive diachronic arc throughout the existence of the human species to the present from the paleolithic–and even earlier, when he speculates that cerebrophagous Australopithecene erectus may have had “the belief that semen is held in the head” (131).

As the author emphasizes from the outset, the ubiquity of the ideas that he’s treating here is notable only in combination with their empirical falsity. He proposes that they be considered an archosis–the term formed by analogy to “neurosis” and “psychosis”–an inherited pathology of cultural ideation. This particular archosis is supposedly responsible for anti-sexual moralities, but also for tribal headhunting, Platonic philosophy, and Hindu Tantrism. The connections are not as far-fetched as may at first appear.

The twentieth century’s premier sex magician Aleister Crowley set himself overtly against latter-day manifestations of this archosis, writing that “The misunderstanding of sex, the ignorant fear like a fog, the ignorant lust like a miasma, these things have done more to keep back humanity from realization of itself, and from intelligent cooperation with its destiny, than any other dozen things put together” (commentary on CCXX I:52), and in the same passage specifically opposing the perennial idea of muelos as finite capital: “But physiology informs us that we are bound to waste it, no matter what be our continence, so long as we are liable to sleep; and Nature, whether by precaution or by prodigality, provides us with so great an excess of the substance that the reproduction of the human race need not slacken, though the proportion of men to women were no more than 3 to the 1000.”

And yet the complex of notions and forms connected with the muelos archosis are themselves unflaggingly efficacious instruments of magick: the sacred head, the mysticism of the spine, the cult of the genius, the leverage of the general ideal over the particular phenomenon, the worship of the sun, and many others. Indeed, the “fiery talisman” is not itself a superstition, but rather the object of superstitious claims–errors in biological and metaphysical understanding alike. Nor should we assume that our current knowledge has exhausted its mystery. Lege! Judica! Tace!

Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre by Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner.

Cooke Conner Before Watchmen Minutemen Silk Spectre

This volume collects two of the Before Watchmen series that DC commissioned and published against the wishes of Watchmen author Alan Moore. The first series is the six-issue Minutemen, chronicling the WWII-era predecessors to the Watchmen, and the second is four numbers of Silk Spectre, with a story about Laurie Jupiter in the 1960s. Darwyn Cooke serves as auteur for Minutemen, both writing and drawing throughout, and he gets a co-writer credit on the Silk Spectre issues by Amanda Conner. I wasn’t interested in the individual issues when they were on comic shop shelves about five years ago, but curiosity got the better of me when I saw this book at the public library.

The opening of Minutemen is clever and effective. Cooke imitates Moore’s portentous voice and the panel designs from Watchmen (i.e. stacked full-width panels, with a repeating geometric motif–in this case the centered circle that turns out to be a clock), only to pull the perspective back and reveal Hollis Mason (the original Nite Owl) frustrated with his own prose style as he composes his memoirs. That breaks the tension and assuages the anxiety of influence so that Cooke can get down to work telling a story that really does share the ethos of Watchmen in exploring the interactions of deeply flawed costumed vigilantes and their efforts to work together as a team. Cooke’s visual characterizations are very different than those of Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, but still suited to the material.

I was not as pleased with the shorter Silk Spectre story. It has Laurie running away from home and going to San Francisco to fall in with the sixties counterculture. It cast Owsley Stanley as a villain, collaborating to use hallucinogenic mind-control to re-instill materialistic consumerism in hippies. Neither Laurie nor her mother Sally were especially likable characters–the general approach of highlighting their personal flaws seemed to backfire here. I did enjoy Amanda Conner’s art, though. It has a polished 21st-century comics ambiance, and she did excellent work depicting the retro-psychedelic subject matter.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Taboo A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Sævius Nicanor, with Prolegomena, Notes, and a Preliminary Memoir by James Branch Cabell

Cabell Taboo

Cabell’s novel Jurgen was the subject of an obscenity case brought in 1919 by Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, then headed by John H. Sumner. After two years of highly-publicized trial, the court found in favor of the defendants, Cabell and his publisher Robert M. McBride and Company. In 1921, McBride published a short work by Cabell in hardcover. This book Taboo: A Legend Retold from the Dirghic of Saevius Nicanor was dedicated to Sumner, with the claim that the notoriety conferred by the prosecution had rescued Cabell’s commercial prospects as a writer. He called Sumner a “philanthropic sorcerer” whose “thaumaturgy” had not only generated public interest in Jurgen, but resurrected prospects for the author’s other books (11-13). The hilarious little story of Taboo is set in the country of Philistia where it is the height of indecency to speak of eating, and a writer is accused of the “very shameless mention of a sword and a spear and a staff,” culpable since “one has but to write ‘a fork’ here, in the place of each of these offensive weapons, and the reference to eating is plain” (26).

The sword and spear and staff were in reference to Chapter 22 of Jurgen, “As to a Veil They Broke,” which Cabell had in large measure lifted from the Gnostic Mass of Aleister Crowley, and Cabell also mentioned these weapons in his later “Judging of King Jurgen” episode, where the tumblebug Philistine prosecutor indicted Jurgen as “indecent for reasons of which a description would be objectionable to me, and which therefore I must decline to reveal to anybody.”

The entirety of Taboo is an attack on hypocritical pearl-clutching regarding sex. Its satire is constructed around a conceit in which eating (a human activity no more essential than sex, if perhaps more frequent) receives the sort of conversational proscription that Cabell’s contemporaries sought to impose on sex. Still, an appreciative reader must admit that such constraints led Cabell to write some very entertaining prose. These are not limited to the absurdities of Taboo and the literature around Jurgen, and they include the clever and hilarious encounters with the cult of the Holy Nose of Lytreia and that of the shaggy goddess Koleos Koleros in Something About Eve.

Anthony Comstock figures in the tale as “St. Anthony Koprologos” and Sumner is himself “John the Scavanger.” The set-upon protagonist of Taboo is not Jurgen but the Cabell alter-ego Horvendile, whose writings are “suspected of encroachment upon gastronomy” (30). Throughout the text, the reader may profit further by converting references to eating back into references to sex, for another, more familiar-seeming, but still equally absurd story.

Even though it concludes with a lament for the persistence of moralistic censorship, Taboo was a very amusing victory lap for Cabell and McBride.