Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe by Donald R Burleson.

Donald Burleson writes a very distinctive sort of Lovecraft criticism. He takes a post-structuralist approach (with nods to Derrida and de Man), and reads all of the stories as allegories about the indeterminacy of language and the subversion of conceptual categories. In Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe he studies a representative assortment of thirteen stories, arranging them chronologically. On the whole, I found this a very satisfying exercise.

Some of my favorite analyses were those for “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “The Music of Erich Zann,” and “The Color Out of Space,” the last two of which ranked among HPL’s favorites of his own stories. “The Cats of Ulthar” got a full treatment from Burleson, but I was left with the feeling that he had still only scratched the surface, even despite his droll final remark regarding feline lawlessness (48).

I would have liked it better if the attention to Indo-European roots made up a slightly lower proportion of the total text. I don’t think that Burleson’s method on this count is worthless, but after a few chapters, it starts to seem almost mechanical, in the way that he analyzes the story titles and key place and character names for their Indo-European roots and then takes the polyvalence of those roots as traces of textual strain and self-contradiction. Fortunately, there are many other facets to these studies.

The jacket copy proposes that the book is concerned with “establishing Lovecraft as an important figure in American literature,” but Burleson’s preface immediately acknowledges prior serious literary criticism regarding Lovecraft’s work, and the focus throughout this study is on the texts, not the author. When Burleson discusses “The Outsider,” he does not compare the protagonist to the author, but to the reader. He deprecates his own chronological arrangement of the analyzed stories as an arbitrary convenience (15-6), and never suggests a progression or development among them.

Burleson’s work here is an excellent antidote to reductionist readings of Lovecraft, whether psychological, philosophical, ideological, or genealogical. Neither Lovecraft’s unusual personal character, his atheism and “cosmicism,” his racism, nor his inspirations from other writers can be credited with the quality that Burleson ultimately codes as unreadability, a self-deepening mystery that rewards those willing to explore the stories and their shadows, a transgressive concealment that is rooted in the very nature of language. [via]

Modern Man in Search of a Soul

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Modern Man in Search of a Soul by C G Jung, translated by Cary F Baynes and W S Dell.

Modern Man in Search of a Soul collects ten lectures on psychotherapy, cultural mentalities, and religion, given by Jung in the late inter-war period. They were translated into English by Baynes in 1933 and supplemented with an essay by Jung on the distinctions between his psychology and that of Freud. My copy is a Harvest/HBJ mass-market paperback that I can easily imagine littering college campuses in the 1960s.

Jung says,”To the psyche, the spirit is no less the spirit even though it be called sexuality” (73), and in this point he seems to be opposing the Freudian focus on “sexuality” to Jung’s own preference for construing issues in terms of “spirit.” The key subtext here, however, is the critical identity and continuity between spiritual and sexual phenomena. Since Jung avoids mentioning sex at least as often as Freud insists upon it, this continuity is useful to keep in mind when reading either thinker.

Although I have been accustomed to seeing Jung as the primary representative of the “right wing” of the psychoanalytic tradition (contrasted with Reich and Marcuse on the left), there are passages here which prompt me to suspend that judgment. For example he declares, “My aim is to bring about a psychic state in which my patient begins to experiment with his own nature–a state of fluidity, change and growth, in which there is no longer anything eternally fixed and hopelessly petrified” (66). Thus Jung identifies his therapeutic goal with the loosening of character, and the subjection of identity to a changeable individual will.

In the lecture “The Stages of Life,” Jung presents a theory of climacteric personal development. Very significantly he uses a solar metaphor identifying birth with dawn and death with sunset. He also remarks–with particular reference to his patients–that 20th-century Western culture suffers a poverty of institutions capable of psychically orienting individuals to the “afternoon” of life, and claims that “Our religions were always such schools in the past” (109). In this last point, I think he errs. Religions have always had a much wider range of functions, and it is in particular the orders of initiation (most often embedded in religious contexts) that supplied the desideratum.

The individual passage of the book that made the most striking impression on me was in “The Basic Postulates of Analytical Psychology,” where I take Jung to be painting an eloquent picture of what Eliphas Levi called The Baphomet of Mendes, a pantheistic and magical figure of the absolute: “If it were permissible to personify the unconscious, we might call it a collective human being combining the characteristics of both sexes, transcending youth and age, birth and death, and, from having at his command a human experience of one or two million years, almost immortal. If such a being existed, he would be exalted above all temporal change … he would be a dreamer of age-old dreams and, owing to his immeasurable experience, he would be an incomparable prognosticator. He would have lived countless times over the life of the individual, of the family, tribe and people, and he would possess the living sense of the rhythm of growth, flowering, and decay” (186).

Lectures of less esoteric interest include “Aims of Psychotherapy,” which elaborates a context in which to situate Freudian, Adlerian, and Jungian approaches to the discipline, as well as “A Psychological Theory of Types,” which expands Jung’s introversion/extraversion polarity with the two additional dimensions of thinking/feeling and sensation/intuition, but without the perception/judging axis that would complete them in the now-ubiquitous MBTI. The lecture “Psychology and Literature” focuses on visionary literature, and is thus actually more concerned with spiritual states and phenomena than literary production as such. It even touches on one of my particular favorite works in this vein, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (157, 166).

The book’s final two chapters stand out for Jung’s discussion of religion as a barometer of collective spiritual states. In “The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man” he discusses the “deep affinity with Gnosticism” expressed by contemporary religion, and he also treats at length the extent to which the “repellent” strains of occultism, Theosophy, and imported Oriental mysticisms both demonstrate the obsolescence of established religious forms and may serve as the seedbeds for their successors. “Psychotherapists or the Clergy?” treats the conundrum of secular psychotherapists being preferred to clergy by clients whose actual demand is for what traditionally would have been considered spiritual direction. [via]


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus review Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison.

I’m a fan of Grant Morrison’s comics writing and I picked up Supergods when it was first published six years ago, but it took me a while to get around to reading it. Although he did fulfill his ambition here to write “a personal overview of the superhero concept from 1938 to the present day” (419), it is mixed with a personal memoir of his own comics career in increasingly liberal doses as the book advances. This feature, which some might find objectionable, is I think fairly inevitable given the reflexive and metafictional approach involved in Morrison’s creative work. His notion of the “fiction suit,” by which a writer can enter a fictional world exposed in those writings, is not only instrumental to many of his comics, but also to his novel perspectives on the superhero phenomenon.

Morrison’s verge-of-the-2012-apocalypse thesis is that we can all undergo apotheosis into the “supergods” of the title, if we are possessed of the sufficiently optimistic narratives he aims to supply. At the same time, he does observe the brutally frank counterpoint: “A growing population of ‘kidults’ could be sold on boys’ toys and the new, improved on-screen adventures of Batman, Spider-Man, the Hulk, and Green Lantern, helped along by books like this one–which would suggest some hidden value in the smeary power fantasies of the disenfranchised” (312). Other passages in the book reveal that his ability to see himself as a villain is part of what contributes to his distinctive comics vision.

The book does treat the emergence and maturation of superheroes across various media: print comics, radio, television, and film. It omits their entry into more literary, non-illustrated fiction, such as Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. In fairness, such expressions have been pretty marginal to the development of the collective, mass-mediated superhero concept.

The cover of the book showcases Frank Quitely’s art from All-Star Superman, which is in many ways the destination of Morrison’s story. Throughout the book, there are a smattering of covers and pages reproduced (in black and white, alas) from DC comics. Morrison does give comparable discussion to the rival house Marvel, albeit unsupported by illustrations. An engaged reader of Supergods will benefit from occasional ‘net searches to view the significant designs that are discussed, especially in the first half of the book.

Morrison is a practical occultist, and the second half of Supergods is full of his confessions regarding his engagement with ritual, drugs, and hermetic symbolism. I realize that he may have been trying to glamorize himself a little here, and that these elements may exoticize him for some readers. But as someone with similar (though perhaps less sumptuous) experiences, I found that these credible accounts humanized him significantly, contrasting with his magisterial “overview” voice. When he drops into the memoir format, though, he has a tendency to jump around associatively in a way that repeats or scrambles chronological items. On the whole, the writing is witty and entertaining, and I enjoyed my engagement with this rather hefty book. [via]

Heir of Darkness

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Heir of Darkness by Glenn Rahman

I sought out this book about Glenn Rahman’s ancient fantasy hero Rufus Hibernicus after having enjoyed his contribution to The Gardens of Lucullus, co-authored with Richard Tierney and featuring Tierney’s Simon of Gitta. Heir of Darkness, though obscure, was not dear. It is a pretty ugly physical production in mass-market paperback format, published by Gary Gygax’s short-lived New Infinities imprint in Lake Geneva. I’m glad to have it in my library! The story is a delightful sword-and-sorcery-and-sandal romp during the cusp of the imperial reign of Caligula, and set chiefly in Tusculum, Rome, and Capri.

Rufus Hibernicus is sort of a secondary hero for the plot, which has a mechanism somewhat like the Robert E. Howard story “A Witch Shall Be Born,” where Conan, although involved in the events in his indomitable way, is more peripheral to the political scheme featuring Valerius as its protagonist. In Heir of Darkness the German (“Engle”) Osric is in the Valerius position, for a series of events where the stakes are not a throne but a dread magical artifact.

As in his later collaboration with Tierney, Rahman seasons his classical magic here with a bit of yog-sothothery. But the primary magical flavors are those of Germanic “rune singers” and Greek/Egyptian Hermetic sorceries. The pulp-style action story resolves in roughly the manner of an ancient comedy, although it is never exactly clarified who the “heir of darkness” actually is! It could be Osric, Caligula, the witch Frigerd, or one or two other characters. It is clearly not, however, Rufus Hibernicus. [via]

Mathematical Circus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mathematical Circus by Martin Gardner

Mathematical Circus is one of many recreational mathematics books assembled from the Scientific American columns of Martin Gardner. It lives up to its title in a variety of ways: several chapters detail magic tricks, there are games included, and there is even material on natural wonders such as optical illusions and the structure of the solar system. The content is frequently dated (1979 to be precise) by subsequent advances in information science and natural observation, but none of it is so obsolete as to be useless, and a few chapters are explicitly concerned with more nostalgic forms of math, such Mascheroni constructions and abacus operations.

This book is more designedly for entertainment than my usual math reads, but there were points where the mathematical sophistication was every bit as challenging. Of special interest to me were the chapters on hyperspheres, Boolean algebra, and palindromes. The “Solar System Oddities” chapter is surprisingly unencumbered by antiquated references to Pluto, and has a really fascinating digest of solar system paradigms from Pythagoras to Einstein. Chess material is confined to one item each in the two smorgasbord chapters.

A full bibliography indicates Gardner’s sources. [via]

Special Delivery

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Special Delivery: A Packet of Replies by Branch Cabell.

This late book by Cabell consists of a dozen unposted letters and ten posted ones. The ten are each brief and polite (if sometimes just detectably arch) replies to unsolicited mail received in the course of a career as a professional man of letters. And in each case, there follows a much longer corresponding unsent “draft” letter, in which Cabell declares his real sentiments regarding the matter raised, the sorts of correspondents who raise such matters, and tangent issues of various sorts. The opening and closing letters are addressed to the reader and to the writer himself, respectively.

If you’re up for witty slams against book collectors, professional reviewers, aspiring and mediocre writers, this volume offers them in abundance. It also touches on sexual mores, the creative process, magic, drugs, and religion (but I repeat myself). The letter I found most surprising was “About Loveliness Revised,” addressed to a former lover and given the honor of finishing the series.

“The reader is asked to believe that all the correspondents addressed in this book are imaginary persons. Should the reader not comply with this moderate and civil request, the author must decline to accept any responsibility for such stubbornness.”

The foregoing disclaimer is not only more urbane, but a good deal less categorical than the one typical in today’s works of fiction. What’s more, if we observe the addressees of “The Epistle Explicative” and “The Epistle Egoistic,” and complete the syllogism, we discover that we are requested to believe that both Branch Cabell and the readers of this book “are imaginary persons.” I think this consequence was the author’s intention, and not an oversight. [via]