Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Fabric of Reality

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes—and Its Implications by David Deutsch.

David Deutsch’s Fabric of Reality is woven from what he refers to as “four strands”: the multiverse interpretation of quantum physics (credited to Hugh Everett), evolutionary biology grounded in genetic selection (Richard Dawkins), the postulate of a universal computer (Alan Turing), and scientific epistemology composed of problems and explanations (Karl Popper). Near the end of the book, physicist Deutsch admits that when first observing similarities and connections among these four, he had taken the latter three to be emergent from, if not reducible to, quantum physics. Ultimately, though, he presents them as equally fundamental and mutually illuminating. According to Deutsch, all four of these theories have arrived at the practical domination of their respective fields, vanquishing competing theories, but all four have failed to be integrated into a widespread worldview. It’s his contention that they need each other to fill the explanatory gaps that make them each seem “‘naive,’ ‘narrow,’ ‘cold,’ and so on” (346).

The book is divided into fourteen chapters, each of which ends with a glossary, a thumbnail summary of the chapter’s argument, and a tease for the following chapter. This signposting structure would make it easy to cherry-pick chapters of interest to a particular reader. On the other hand, the thesis of the whole book relies on the interdependence of the concepts treated in different chapters. So–other than the philosophy of mathematics in Chapter 10, which the author himself says can be merely skimmed by those without strong prior orientation to that field–it’s probably worth reading from cover to cover for full appreciation. I enjoyed doing so, at any rate. Although the concepts may sometimes be on the forbidding side, the prose is lucid. I especially liked the philosophical dialogue in Chapter 7.

This text is now twenty years old, and most of its component ideas were at least that old when it was written. Deutsch insists that his is a “conservative” approach to elaborating the worldview that is a consequence of “taking seriously” the four theoretical perspectives of the book. Considering that, by his lights, the explanations that they afford are the best for their respective fields of inquiry, he says that the worldview that he has assembled from them is the one that needs to be challenged by new ideas in the future. Despite all of the advances in communications technology in the 21st century, though, this contemporary philosophical worldview has yet to be accessed even by many readers who will find it interesting and perhaps compelling. [via]

Eros, Magic and the Murder of Professor Culianu

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Eros, Magic, and the Murder of Professor Culianu by Ted Anton.

The greater portion of Ted Anton’s Eros, Magic and the Murder of Professor Culianu is a biography of the slain historian of religions, a Romanian national defector who was ascending to an accomplished position at the University of Chicago in the footsteps of his countryman Mircea Eliade. Anton’s long-form journalistic approach braids the biographical narrative intriguingly with accounts of Culianu’s own scholarship and writing of fantastic fiction. I think I’ve read a little over half of the academic works that are available in English under Culianu’s byline, and this book does a decent job of glossing their theses and contents. Additionally, it has interested me in the volumes that he issued under Eliade’s name after the older scholar’s death, pointing out the extent to which Culianu used these as vehicles for his own bolder ideas.

The title Eros, Magic … evokes Culianu’s own seminal study Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, but the Murder of Professor Culianu is necessarily the event towards which the entire book is oriented. Culianu’s daylight assassination at the University of Chicago Divinity School is still officially unsolved. Anton gives plenty of reasons for readers to suspect the involvement of the Romanian Intelligence Service (RSI), but efforts of the Chicago police and FBI to identify the murderer(s) were dilatory, ineffective, and possibly even compromised.

The book reads very quickly, with short chapters and engaging prose. There was an odd clinker, where Anton quoted Culianu’s secretary bewailing his murder with “Not Mr. Culianu!” (17) And similarly, Anton has Culianu himself drolly remark, “Mr. Eliade had some pretty daring ideas after he died” (228). Having had a little firsthand experience of the University of Chicago, an institution that lionizes its faculty while sorely indenturing graduate students and treating undergraduates with grudging tolerance, I find it nearly impossible to imagine the title Mister rather than Doctor being applied to either of these men by their colleagues or staff.

The event of Culianu’s murder begins the book, and returns at the end of the biography proper. Then the narrative proceeds to the funeral events and the murder investigation. All along, there are parallel accounts of developments in Romanian politics (a story that was new to me in many details). Culianu’s engagement with current events in his native country waxed and waned, and he never returned in person. But his relationship to Eliade–perhaps the most lauded Romanian scholar of the century–made him an object of Romanian attention, which he sometimes leveraged through philippics published in Romania and abroad.

Perhaps the most surprising bit of the book was the appearance, after Culianu’s death, of a suburban Chicago couple who claimed to be receiving spiritualist communications about the murder by somniloquy. This peculiar episode seems to have come from nowhere and led to nothing, but it cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, especially considering Culianu’s personal and professional interests in the paranormal. But even eerier was Culianu’s own longstanding fascination with the Borges story “Death and the Compass,” and the ways in which he seemed to have divined his own murder.

Anton undertook this book while working at DePaul University in Chicago. It really pulls together an impressive amount of research. It had been on my shelf waiting for me for several years, and I’m glad I finally got around to reading it. [via]

The Mythology of the Superhero

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Mythology of the Superhero by Andrew R Bahlmann.

This highly theoretical treatment of the “superhero myth” confesses its key dependence on a 2006 monograph by Peter Coogan (Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre), as well as the tvtropes.org website. The Mythology of the Superhero is a dissertation-based product in which author Andrew Bahlmann commits rather banal scholarship. He treats discursive tropes and “mythemes” as equivalent and convertible concepts, without much detailing the original context or background of either theoretical category. Claiming to be taking only preliminary steps in the field, he sets out an delineation of the superhero myth through a system of family resemblance identified with a body of principal mythemes. At the end, he prioritizes these mythemes in a structure that allows for characters to be identified with a mythically-ideal superhero to a greater or lesser degree.

In between the inventory of mythemes and the structural model, Bahlmann applies his trope-based analysis in four case studies of increasingly marginal relevance to the superhero myth: the television series Arrow (with its comic-book precedents), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Alphas, and the Old English epic Beowulf. The chapter for this fourth one is misleadingly titled “The Superhero before the Superhero,” since ultimately (and unsurprisingly) Bahlmann finds that despite the presence of some of his selected tropes, Beowulf is not a good example of a superhero story, and that its usefulness in this context is to demonstrate some continuity between superheroes and older cycles of myth, rather than the ancient existence of a superhero myth per se.

With his admitted reliance on other twenty-first-century scholarship in the relatively narrow subject of superheroes and myth, it appears that Bahlmann is only advancing the discussion in the most incremental way, and I wasn’t impressed with the analytic potential of his method or the tools he claims to have produced. He seems to avoid value judgments, taking the pose of very neutral scholarship. Most importantly, the book is poorly written, with errors of grammar and diction common throughout. I found it a chore to read, and I cannot recommend it. [via]

The Final Solution

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Final Solution: A Story of Detection by Michael Chabon.

Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution belongs on the shelf right next to “A Study in Emerald” by Neil Gaiman. Both are sidelong additions to the Sherlock Holmes mythos, and neither ever mentions the famous detective by name. Chabon gives us a geriatric Holmes in 1944, referred to only as “the old man.” The legendary sleuth is now dedicated to the pursuit of beekeeping, and baited from his retirement by an enigmatic parrot and the mute Jewish refugee boy to whom the parrot belongs. There is a murder, leading the police to seek the old man’s aid, but it’s not the corpse that intrigues him, nor the hints of espionage surrounding the wartime criminal investigation. The story is a quick read, full of sharply-drawn characters and incisive prose, and it eventuates into distinctly 20th-century concerns with which Arthur Conan Doyle never burdened his Victorian detective. [via]


Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Brasyl by Ian McDonald.

As with many of Ian McDonald’s other novels, there are parallel protagonists and plot strands that are brought together only at the end of Brasyl. The unusual thing in this case is that they run “parallel” in the first and fourth decades of the twenty-first century, and in the fourth decade of the eighteenth century. Their eventual interaction is neither on the plane of simple historical causality, nor is it a matter of “time travel” as usually understood.

Brasyl was the first novel I’d read in quite a long while that had a glossary at the back. And it was helpful, because of the frequent use of Portuguese in the story. In fact, I sometimes ended up looking for words that weren’t even in the glossary. I don’t feel like really gained a richer appreciation for Brazilian culture from this book, but the setting was densely presented and effective in framing the story.

There is a cinematic feel to the story, and despite an explicit homage to Terry Gilliam’s (“wrong”) Brazil (214), the ideal directors for this one would be the Wachowskis—the book is suffused with their most conspicuous themes, tropes, and concepts, from The Matrix to Cloud Atlas to Sense8.

I enjoyed Brasyl a lot, but it seemed to have only about half of the overall length and primary character populations found in River of Gods or The Dervish House, and I think I preferred the more sprawling feel and longer immersion that those others supplied. (Of those three “New World Order” books, The Dervish House is probably my favorite.) [via]

Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition by David Bakan.

I found this book absolutely thrilling. It’s long been my opinion that the psychoanalytic tradition is closer kin to religions than it is to the natural sciences, or even the social sciences. In Freud’s Future of an Illusion he militates against religion as a “neurosis” of the social body, but his objection is to the credulity of religionists and the counter-factuality of religious doctrines, while his effort there is to explain their persistence. At the same time, he identifies religious functions that psychoanalysis is—by his lights—better equipped to address, thus making religion obsolete.

In Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition, David Bakan very ably demonstrates the religious sources of the evidently novel concepts and techniques of Freudian psychoanalysis. He supplies some biographical context, showing the genuine enigma of psychoanalytic origins, as well as Freud’s access to kabbalistic ideas. Bakan quite suitably draws on Leo Strauss’s theory of esoteric text from Persecution and the Art of Writing to address Freud’s apparent textual subterfuges in his antisemitic cultural context. (And he could have gone a step further in showing how Strauss himself was instructed by that context, as well as drawing on Jewish intellectual traditions.) An overview of the Jewish mystical milieu here includes a historical and doctrinal survey. In particular, Bakan points out the major events of Sabbatian and Frankist apostasy, suggesting that Freud underwent a similar development towards a humanistic secularism.

In the original central text Bakan leaves open the question of whether the kabbalistic influence in Freud’s formulation of psychoanalysis was conscious or unconscious. But in the 1965 “Preface to the New Edition,” he is able to cite his later communication with Chaim Bloch, a student of kabbalah and acquaintance of Freud, who attested to German scholarship on the subject among Freud’s bookshelves along with a French translation of the Zohar.

Moving into the meat of the book, Bakan organizes his study around two complementary symbolic figures—Moses and the Devil—and Freud’s treatments of and relationship to each of them. In the final section on similarities between kabbalah and psychoanalysis, the foci are hermeneutics and sexuality. Each large section is divided into short, accessible chapters, and I really did find them a pleasure to read.

This book has confirmed me in my suspicion that modern occult magicians probably read too much Jung and not enough Freud. [via]

The Future of an Illusion

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Future of an Illusion by Sigmund Freud.

In The Future of an Illusion, Freud suggests as a germinal postulate of religion, “Life in this world … signifies a perfecting of man’s nature. It is probably the spiritual part of man, the soul …” (23). The Greek for soul is psyche. Psychoanalysis, which set itself the task of diagnosing and treating the psyche (and not merely the conscious mind, nor the organic brain as such), seems to be a phenomenon in some measure tailor-made to supplement, supplant, or substitute for religion. Freud presented a clear claim that religion is a mass neurosis, not only in The Future of an Illusion, but also in his later work Moses and Monotheism. To the extent that one sees the collective problem of religious ‘delusion’ as analogous to obsessional neurosis in the individual, one might take psychoanalysis, the custodian of techniques to address the latter, as a point of departure to cope with the former. And while he does not make light of the difficulty in coming to do without traditional religions, Freud insists on the desirability and even “fatal inevitability” of such “growth” in the human condition (55).

The “care of souls” is the pastoral function in Christian religion, and equally a mission of psychoanalysis as a therapeutic institution, with its priestly class of analysts. Freud does not hold himself back from the pleasures of religiously-based rhetoric. For example, he writes that “the questions which religious doctrine finds it so easy to answer” … “might be called too sacred” to be addressed in a traditional, unquestioning manner (40). Taking a cue from the Dutch anti-colonialist Multatuli, Freud makes reference to “our God, Logos” slowly fulfilling the desires of mankind (69). And he sometimes shows a rather “religious” tendency (as he would perhaps describe it) to pick and choose among scientific theories for the sake of doctrinal coherence in psychoanalysis.

In one of his devil’s advocate passages in The Future of an Illusion, Freud remarks, “If you want to expel religion from our European civilization, you can only do it by means of another system of doctrines,” which would itself engender a functional religion, with all of the concomitant drawbacks (65-6). In replying to his own objection, Freud emphasizes the desired differences in his post-religious system: it is to be non-delusive and more capable of being corrected. It will be science, not religion. But Freudian psychoanalysis, for all of its scientific trappings, is already at some remove from the positivist territory of the physical sciences. It is no closer to, say, biology, than the monotheism of Moses was to the polytheistic religion of eastern Mediterranean antiquity. In effect, Freud’s proposal is that the superstitious religion of traditions focused on God should be replaced in the future with a scientific religion trained on the soul. [via]