Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Antichrist

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Antichrist: Two Thousand Years of the Human Fascination with Evil [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Bernard McGinn.

McGinn Antichrist

This accessible, well-documented history of the development of the story of Antichrist was surprisingly unexciting. Although a work would have to be much larger to treat exhaustively of the topic, McGinn’s is nearly as comprehensive as its scale permits. He proceeds at a steady pace from pre-Christian antiquity through the late twentieth century, and by the end, he proposes that he and the reader should be tired of the topic. (280)

Theologian McGinn dismisses mythicists like me as a “lunatic fringe” for being skeptical of the evidence for a “historical Jesus.” (34) But his fractious consensus of “New Testament scholars” is even less persuasive than the because-we-say-so of traditional clergy. And, although he is himself evidently a Christian (of the non-Fundamentalist sort, he is quite clear), he seems not to have faith in any sort of antichrist himself, nor to think that an incarnation of the Lie could be a constructive idea for modern believers. 

Writing in the early 1990s, the author may have anticipated a market for Antichrist related to the approach of the year 2000, but he certainly couldn’t have foreseen the Obama Antichrist rumor and ‘net meme that would arise later. Reading his account of the traditional ingredients of Antichrist legend, it is possible to see, for example, deep synergy between the Antichrist allegations and the charge of crypto-Islam aimed at the 44th US President. Another bizarre potential correlation is for born-again Christian George W. Bush to be the “Last Emperor” who is supposed to precede the reign of Antichrist. (The early medieval trope of the Last Emperor is typically absent from the Dispensationalist neo-Millenialism common to today’s Christianist chiliasts, though.) 

One significant element missing from McGinn’s treatment–in its modern phase at least–is the appearance of professed antichrists, such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jack Parsons. While it could be tempting to excuse such an oversight by disqualifying such figures as lying outside of the spectrum of Christian belief, the book does actually include treatments of Jewish and Muslim Antichrist parallels, as well as a discussion of Jung’s secular psychological theory of Antichrist. 

Overall, the book is useful for readers wanting to get a historical handle on the Antichrist concept and its evolution. McGinn claims that Antichrist belief has become marginal and unoriginal in modern times, but he admits that there’s no way to be sure of the extent to which it formerly penetrated popular consciousness. And I would add that not all our current elites are as erudite as Professor McGinn, so his admission that Fundamentalist Evangelicals are “a limited, if powerful, segment” of Christianity should give the socially-reflective reader pause regarding just how irrelevant the anticipation of Antichrist may be.

Ghost Circles

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Ghost Circles [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 7 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone: Ghost Circles

I suppose it is a sign of Jeff Smith’s skill at developing his fictional world and its characters that I have read each volume of Bone in fewer sittings than the last, even though their length and complexity remains consistent. 

The end of the previous volume Old Man’s Cave made it seem as if the heroes had had a major victory, but Ghost Circles begins with almost overwhelming setbacks, and of all the Bone collections so far this one is easily the darkest in mood. Even a few scenes with the usually comical Ted the Bug are quite grave.

Spurs

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles / Éperons: Les Styles de Nietzsche [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Jacques Derrida, trans. Barbara Harlow.

Derrida Harlow Spurs Éperons

Spurs (Eperons in the original French) is Derrida’s treatment of Nietzsche’s styles, which is to say his stylus, which is rather his phallus, approached through its apparent complement, Nietzsche’s representation of “woman.” Nietzsche is justifiably famous for both the seeming lucidity of his prose and the archness of his wordplay; Derrida is justly notorious for the opacity of his prose and the profundity of his wordplay. (The hieratically arcane Pierre Klossowski also deserves some mention, in consequence of Derrida’s reliance on his translations of Nietzsche.) This combination cannot but awesomely challenge the stoutest of translators, and my hat is off to Barbara Harlow for even attempting the English contents of this volume. Still, as if in admission of the practical impossibility of a translator doing full justice to the text, the original French is reproduced here in parallel. 

An introduction is furnished by Stefano Agosti, who insists that “If one is going to speak of Derrida’s ‘text’, one can, finally, but re-state it, only prolong it” (25). Accordingly, Agosti tries to extend and outdo Derrida’s verbal convolutions, to the point where the English translation (I cannot vouch for the French) becomes a nearly unreadable blow to the head. (The lexical touchstone of Agosti’s introduction is the coup.)

Despite the elegance of the design, with its tallish page dimensions and enigmatic drawings by Francois Loubrieu, I fault this edition severely for its typography. In the English text (the French seems better managed) there are routine substitutions of em dashes for hyphens, hyphens for en dashes, and so forth. Especially in the context of Derrida’s inventive vocabulary and his sometimes halting, digressive presentation, these confusions of punctuation are unkindnesses to the reader. Likewise, the use in both the French and the English translation of French double-angle quote marks, and only French double-angle quote marks, creates serious hazards of reading. Spurs often finds Derrida quoting Nietzsche quoting another — even if this last is merely scare quotes — and these nested quotes quickly become entangled, so that the compounded intertext sometimes requires a diligent reader to go back to the start of the paragraph and count the marks inward to the verbiage at stake. This last process is hardly assisted by the short lines, the lack of either indentations or line spacing at the paragraph breaks, and the absence of full justification. (The text is merely left-justified.) And parentheses are an instrument of abuse similar to the quotation marks.

But intellectual frustration is in many ways the goal of the book. Ultimately, Spurs is concerned with the undecidability of signification and the ways in which texts undergo their loss of contexts. These themes are implicitly demonstrated throughout, becoming gradually more overt, and fully explicit only in the penultimate section on “Abysses of truth” and a sort of coda: ” ‘I have forgotten my umbrella’.” At the last, Derrida insists that his own writing (like Nietzsche’s) is “indecipherable … cryptic and parodying” (137). The disingenuous denial of the anamnesis of the umbrella is a failure to forget the phallus, an exposure of the simultaneous ubiquity and absence of sexual difference. Read it if you must.

Litany of Dreams

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Litany of Dreams [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher] by Ari Marmell, cover by John Coulthart, book 4 of the Arkham Horror series.

Marmell Coulthart Litany of Dreams

Among the recent run of Arkham Horror novels, Ari Marmell’s Litany of Dreams is in some respects the most conventionally Lovecraftian. It features protagonists based out of Miskatonic University who encounter a preternatural horror that has taken over an insular community in the Massachusetts back country of the Hockomock Swamp. So far, so Cthulhu.

On the other hand, the principal protagonist is gay, the chief secondary protagonist is a formidable indigene of arctic Greenland (an “Inuit” according to the character’s insistence), and other secondary protagonists are women, so in that respect the story tracks better with the 21st-century diversity of hero-investigators in the Fantasy Flight Arkham Files games than it does with the old pulp Yog-Sothothery. I don’t think it quite passes the Bechdel Test, however.

The only Arkham Files game character who features in a significant way in this book is Daisy Walker, librarian at the Orne Library of Miskatonic University, and many aspects of the story are pleasantly bookish. The plot centers around the transliteration of an ancient inscription, and there are occasional references to the pleasure reading of various characters, noting such authors as Bram Stoker and Agatha Christie.

Unsurprisingly for a book written during the novel coronavirus pandemic, it features fears about a recurrence of epidemic influenza in 1923 Arkham. There is also more than a little “zombie apocalypse” flavor to the story. The references to the Silver Twilight Lodge in Arkham are minimal, and instead there is an even higher order of occult conspiracy invoked.

An elaborate epilogue introduced various possible sequel opportunities, making me wonder if Marmell, an author of several series, was deliberately angling in that direction.

The Hidden World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Hidden World [Amazon, Publisher] by Paul Park, book 4 in the A Princess of Roumania series.

Park The Hidden World

The final volume of four in Paul Park’s Roumania series affords many outcomes and resolutions, but readers of the earlier books will not be surprised that it avoids a tidy ending. My Other Reader remarked my unusual facial expression while I was reading the antepenultimate chapter “The Exorcism,” and I guess I really did find it sort of horrifying. A lot of characters die in these books, but given the nature of the magic here, their deaths in no way remove them as agents from the continuing story. Where a traditional fantasy might have its protagonist’s aims clarified and streamlined over the course of its telling, this one just becomes more crowded with possible motivations and relationships.

As in what has come before, the characters here are highly imperfect, alluring, and surprising. Fascist strongman Victor Bocu steps into the limelight as a villain, and Chloe Adira with her household complicates Peter’s story. The setting remains original and provocative. Its manifold European war draws on more advanced African technologies. The alchemical legacies of the conjurors Newton and Kepler guide the coven attempting to engineer national and international destinies.

The arc of the four books seems to be something like this: In A Princess of Roumania the three apparent teenagers are displaced from somewhere like our Massachusetts into the “real” world where Roumania is. In The Tourmaline, their “real” adult personalities are ascendant, and they become embroiled in the political and sorcerous intrigues of Roumania itself. In The White Tyger they acquire more confidence and begin to integrate their Massachusetts memories with their resumed life histories in Roumania, and that integration reaches its fruition in The Hidden World. The completion of the arc is very remote from a happily-ever-after, and the aims of these books clearly differ from most of what dresses as fantasy literature.

The Sentinel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sentinel [Amazon, Bookshop] by Arthur C Clarke.

Clarke The Sentinel

The Sentinel collects nine pieces of Arthur C. Clarke’s short fiction, with an author’s introduction. These represent earlier work, since the 1972 story “A Meeting with Medusa” was Clarke’s last, after which his fiction consisted entirely of novels (237). Each individual story is also supplied with a brief introduction by Clarke circa 1983.

Several of these stories are notable as having eventually contributed to novels by Clarke. The eponymous “The Sentinel” was the germ of 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Guardian Angel” was the basis of the first part of Childhood’s End. “A Meeting with Medusa” contributed premises to 2010: Odyssey Two.

Despite some later incorporation into larger works, these stories do not generally presume a shared narrative continuity or “future history.” Clarke was distinctive for his emphasis on scientifically plausible “hard” science fiction, to the point where composing a story could require “twenty or thirty pages of orbital calculations” (153). As a result, his relatively near-future stories of space exploration written over four decades had to change in order to align with the real-world developments of astronautical knowledge.

Clarke tended to err on the optimistic side. It was a little sad to read him writing in 1951 about a manned lunar surface exploration in 1996 which most certainly did not come to pass (139). Generally he avoids specific dates in these stories, though.

The story that was most interesting to me was “Breaking Strain,” something of a psychological sketch regarding two men on a spaceship reduced to life support resources for one. It had a passing literary reference–somewhat anomalous among these pieces–to Cabell’s Jurgen. Another story where there was a curious real-world reference was “Refugee,” which painted a rather flattering picture of the British monarchy.

My copy of the book is a Barnes & Noble reprint of the Byron Preiss Visual Publications collection. It includes attractive and apt illustrations by Lebbeus Woods in black and white–roughly one full-page drawing per story (and in one case a two-page spread).

The Mystery of the Letters and The Tree of Life

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mystery of the Letters and The Tree of Life: Interrelationships Among Symbols in the Aeon of the Child [Amazon, J D Holmes, Publisher] by Robert C Stein.

Stein The Mystery of the Letters and the Tree of Life

This book by Robert C. Stein is a recent development of the Hermetic Qabala in a Thelemic context, comprehending the study of several specific “Class A” documents of Aleister Crowley’s canon, i.e. scriptures “of which may be changed not so much as the style of a letter.” It is valuable but difficult. It will be bewilderingly useless to anyone who does not already have a qabalistic practice and orientation to magick, because it is narrowly focused on “interrelationships among symbols” with very little information about any empirical phenomena to which those symbols might refer.

A helpful comparandum in this case is the later work of Charles Stansfeld Jones (e.g. The Egyptian Revival), in which he posited and elaborated a “Reformed Order” of the paths on the Tree of Life, completely rearranging the traditional attributions. This effort met with justified derision from Aleister Crowley. Stein does not scrap the old correspondences; in fact he preserves them more rigorously than Crowley did when proposing the “heh-tzaddi switch” in The Book of Thoth. He does, however, advance the relevance of a “Quantum Tree” that complements and expands the received model, based on novel readings of the “Class A” literature. Like Jones, Stein works with the symbols themselves as reified, objective entities, seeking to define their correct arrangement in light of symbolic contexts only.

The first full chapter of the book consists primarily of an edition history of Liber AL vel Legis, and this chapter is perhaps the one which I could most easily recommend to a general, non-technical readership. The three most substantial chapters are each oriented around exegesis of a different Class A text: Liber Trigrammaton, Liber Legis, and Liber CCXXXI. I found the Liber Trigrammaton study very stimulating, and it is foundational for Stein’s concept of the Quantum Tree. Thelemites should be intrigued to know that his treatment of Liber Legis promises elucidation of the cryptographic elements in each of the three chapters: the “glyph” of I:57, the “riddle” of II:75-6, and the “key” of III:47. The chapter on Liber CCXXXI devotes some welcome attention to the actual verses of the book, along with larger and clearer reproductions of the sigils and discussions of their possible meaning. I was not always persuaded by the philological analyses of the names of the spirits, however.

Some appendices supply references and treat isolated problems in the context established by the book. One of these vividly illustrates Stein’s general method: a discussion of the first word of the third chapter of Liber Legis. Noting a manuscript irregularity, Stein suggests that “Abrahadabra” is inaccurate in this case, and that “Ahaahadabra” is a “closer transliteration” (although the ambiguous r/a character is clearly filled in a way that other letters a in the manuscript are not). From this observation he goes on to perform gematria and analysis towards a meaning for “Ahaahadabra” distinct from “Abrahadabra.”

In the end, The Mystery of the Letters does not give explanations that will make these documents and symbols important to anyone who does not already value them. But for those who do, it outlines some original and provocative readings and methods of analysis.

The Dark Rites of Cthulhu

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphlius reviews The Dark Rites of Cthulhu: Horrific Tales of Magic and Madness from 16 Modern Masters of Terror! [Bookshop, Amazon] edited by Brian M Sammons, illustrated by Neil Baker, with Glynn Owen Barrass, Edward M Erdelac, John Goodrich, Scott T Goudsward, T E Grau, C J Henderson, Tom Lynch, William Meikle, Christine Morgan, Robert M Price, Pete Rawlik, Josh Reynolds, Brian M Sammons, Sam Stone, Jeffrey Thomas, and Don Webb.

Sammons The Dark Rites of Cthulhu

A fairly slender volume containing sixteen stories of liturgical Yog-Sothothery, The Dark Rites of Cthulhu featured only four authors previously familiar to me, so I was grateful for the appended “About the Authors” info. The stories are reasonably solid throughout. Some do sort of stretch the category of ritual magic, such as one oriented around martial arts (“Of Circles and Rings” by Tom Lynch). A few are detective stories oriented around ritual murders. There is considerable variety of flavor within the “magic” field, encompassing voodoo, online cult recruitment, and stage magic, among others.

Most of these tales don’t bother with Arkham and Lovecraft country, though some do, and a few even go so far as to include or reference specific characters from Grandpa Cthulhu’s “ritual literature” (so-called by Michel Houellebecq). The Lovecraft stories that most conspicuously served as references in this assortment were “The Dunwich Horror” (of course) and “From Beyond.”

“The Dark Horse” by John Goodrich is set in a stars-were-right post-apocalyptic regime of human dispossession. Edward Erdelac’s story “Black Tallow” lost points from me initially by misspelling the name Aleister Crowley, but ultimately redeemed itself with a credible representation of pathological contemporary ceremonial magic, along with lovely Club Dumas bibliophile fan service.

I read this book slowly over several months, since there is no continuity from story to story. It’s a decent collection of new weird fiction built around specialized themes that are of particular to interest to me, and I was satisfied by it.

Epiphany of the Long Sun

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Epiphany of the Long Sun: The Second Half of The Book of the Long Sun [Amazon, Publisher] by Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe Epiphany of the Long Sun

The closing arc of the Long Sun series is this Epiphany, comprising Caldé of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun. As in the prior New Sun series, our protagonist ascends to political sovereignty before arriving at apotheosis. A key difference, mentioned in my review of Litany of the Long Sun, is that he is not the narrator. The fictive authorship of these Long Sun books is in fact established in the final volume. That turn is handled artfully in a concluding “Defense,” and then cleverly undermined in a subsequent “Afterward” (sic).

Where the earlier part of the series seemed to bring the relations between bios and chems into relief, there was a significant emphasis in this one on speaking animal characters: the bird Oreb and the cat Tick. As I understand many readers to have done, I became a great fan of Oreb. Tick was mostly irritating.

Much of these last two books concerned the increasing intensity of political and military relations between the city-states of Viron and Trivigaunte. Their cultures and technologies are very distinct, and these supply a lot of fuel to the plot.

There was a good deal of positive development of the characters from the Chapter that supplied Viron with its religious officials. Both Incus and Remora–with their respective verbal idiosyncrasies–underwent a fair amount of rehabilitation in this second arc. An important Patera Jerboa was introduced, and there was new and interesting information about the Sybils Mint and Marble. A startling explanation was supplied very late for the enigmas surrounding the Prolocutor Patera Quetzal.

I disagree with some other readers who insist that the Long Sun tale of Patera Silk is subordinated to author Wolfe’s Catholic Christian agenda. While it’s undeniably true that Vironese religion draws on biblical materials and the history of both Catholic practices and the pagan religions with which Christianity has competed and participated in cultural exchange, I don’t think that the story of the Vironese “Exodus” is just a rehash of the Hebrew one with Silk as Moses. Silk’s personal patron deity the Outsider is certainly meant to reference the God of Christianity, but there’s little evidence that the Outsider will enjoy any ultimate success, and Silk seems to be significantly reconciled (an understatement?) with Pas in the final book. The “Prophet Auk” is perhaps even more in the position of Moses, but at the behest of Tartaros. The Triviguantis are shown as being culpably monotheistic with their exclusive reverence of Sphigx, which is an interesting turn.

For some reason, it wasn’t until I had finished reading the whole series that I realized the actual point of future-historical intersection with (or divergence from, rather) the New Sun books, which was signaled by the two-headed Pas, father of the gods of Viron and its Whorl.

It appears that the Short Sun books take up as pretty direct sequels to the Long Sun, and I will read them this year.