Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Oldest Chicago

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Oldest Chicago [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by David Anthony Witter.

Witter Oldest Chicago

Oldest Chicago is a guidebook to the most venerable sites and businesses in the Chicago area. Each location is accompanied by a black-and-white photo, usually taken by the author. The main text for each short chapter gives the history of the venue in question, usually grounded in the author Witter’s interviews with proprietors or experts, whom he quotes liberally. A significant exception is the rich chapter on Chicago’s “Oldest Indoor, Olympic-Sized Swimming Pool (Now Junior Olympic),” in which Witter discusses his own experiences working at the pool of the Medinah Athletic Club in the 1980s. Every chapter concludes with a boxed inset directing attention to other attractions that are nearby or conceptually related to the main subject, even if the others lack Oldest credentials. This device permits Witter to introduce more information about Chicago neighborhoods, and provides the reader with better justification to make visits to the sites that are most intriguing, with the opportunity of a fuller trip in the offing.

The book is divided into three sections. The first is “The 1800s Club” with survivals from that period. The second is misnamed “Food, Fun, and Entertainment,” even though it includes chapters like the “Oldest African-American Newspaper” and “Oldest Vertical Lift Bridge,” that evidently don’t fall in those categories. What the second section really is, is simply “20th-century Classics,” continuing past the year 1900 with the same chronological sequence of chapters established in the first section. The final section has its own separate chronology, and treats notable old places outside of Chicago proper, in “The Suburbs and Exurbs.”

Although I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, have lived in the city, and reside in the area today, there were plenty of interesting facts that were new to me in Witter’s book. I was shocked to discover the Chicago whereabouts of “the largest mass grave in the northern hemisphere.” (21) Learning where I could spot a dirigible port in the downtown skyline was a piece of delicious trivia. (164) The identity of Chicago’s earliest recorded Chinese resident as “Opium Dong” certainly gave me a laugh. (147) 

Witter is a lifelong Chicagoan, whose pride and sense of place is clear in his lucid, journalistic writing. He commits some howlers when he resorts to historical generalization, though, of which the worst by far is to claim, “America was settled largely by Puritans, whose beliefs in temperance still influence much of the politics of the nation’s heartland today.” (Here he also neglects specific Chicago history. If there were a sectarian connection for the origins of the temperance movement, it would probably be the Methodism of key Women’s Christian Temperance Union president Frances Willard, who was a Dean of Women for Northwestern University in Evanston, immediately north of Chicago. Evanston was a hub of the temperance and prohibition movements, and remained an entirely “dry” community until the 1970s.)

A major failing of the book is the omission of maps! Both historical maps to show the changing contours of the city around the sites described, and contemporary maps to help orient would-be visitors today, are unfulfilled desiderata for this volume. They might also have helped orient the author, who in at least two instances writes “west” where “east” would be accurate. (96, 131) Still, Oldest Chicago is entertaining and educational, and should be useful for both prospective visitors and longtime residents. 

Theory Now

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Theory Now [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] edited by Grant Farred and Michael Hardt, South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol 110, Iss 1, Winter 2011.

Farred Hardt Theory Now

This number of South Atlantic Quarterly debuts its division into a main body of articles plus a smaller section of less research-driven and more topical essays, and it seems to work well enough here. I read the latter portion first, mindful of its timeliness. Titled in this case “Against the Day,” the title couldn’t help but remind me of the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name (which I have two-thirds read), about a different “day.” (There is a surfeit of polysemy in Pynchon’s title on its own ground, but I’ll leave that for its own review.) These essays on “Obama and the Left at Midterm” are really about “The Left at Obama’s Midterm.” The articles are all very short, often insightful, and actually less dispiriting than I had anticipated. 

The larger portion of the book is a special issue called “Theory Now” edited by Grant Farred and Michael Hardt, each of whom also contributed articles to it. In addition, the collection is introduced by Kenneth Surin, and afforded an afterword by Jonathan Culler. Of the two, I thought Culler did the better job of summarizing the contents and identifying lines of connection among them: a tall order, since the contributors had been asked not to write about “theory now,” but simply to write theory in the way that they do now. 

Culler notes the theoretical approach to “spectrality” as a recurrent feature, and I most enjoyed the articles exhibiting it: Hanson on reparative reading, Gordon replying to the film The Halfmoon Files, and Naas digesting Derrida on photography. Theory regarding race and gender was, if not ubiquitous, common to many of the better articles in the volume. I was pleasantly surprised by Rei Terada’s “Frailty of the Ontic,” which demonstrated an approach to psychoanalysis as a form of philosophy, whereas I am used to considering it a mutation of religion–and have no patience with its self-presentation as a form of therapy. I was disappointed by Ellison’s “The Spoiler’s Art,” which discussed architectural matters with the stakes of “embarrassment” (so I suppose that my lack of enthusiasm was somehow in harmony with the content). 

Of the two articles written by the principal editors, I was less excited by Farred’s reflections on interdisciplinarity, which I found to be a rather unuseful exercise in ivory-tower navel-gazing, somewhat heavy with cant, and notably dependent on a canonical reverence for Heidegger. By contrast, Hardt’s “Militancy of Theory” reviewed an important trajectory in the critical tradition which now has me reflecting on what I may someday write about as the final paradox of philosophy.

I am a sometime buyer of SAQ, grabbing issues off of the newsstand as they catch my interest. I always find some of the contents challenging and worthwhile, and this number was no exception.

The Sacred Canopy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Peter L Berger.

Berger The Sacred Canopy

Here is an older book I should have read a couple of decades ago (when it was not new), in order to apply its insights in my academic work. First published in 1967, Berger’s The Sacred Canopy is subtitled “elements of a sociological theory of religion.” Despite his insistence on sociology as an empirical discipline, the book is not oriented to primary studies of the sociological features of contemporary religious operation. Most of the book is trained on very large-scale phenomena over long periods, using lenses inherited and adapted from theorists such as Weber, Durkheim, and Mead.

Berger hardly touches the term “belief,” but makes extensive use of the closely related concept of “plausibility,” advancing the creation and maintenance of “plausibility structures” as inherent operations undertaken by society in the religious mode. There are useful distinctions between the methods used to maintain plausibility in religions that dominate entire cultures and the different strategies that are necessarily adopted by “cognitive minorities” He also highlights theodicy, taken in a sense generalized beyond the usual theological problem to any religious explanation of the anomic phenomena of death, suffering, and evil.

The later parts of the book are preoccupied with the phenomena of secularization and their relationship to parallel and dialectically related developments in economic and scientific development. Throughout the book, Berger uses examples from a wide diversity of religions, but in these sections he pays special and deserved attention to Christianity generally, and Protestantism in particular. “If the drama of the modern era is the decline of religion, then Protestantism can aptly be described as its dress rehearsal” (157).

Perhaps the high point of the whole volume for me was “Appendix II: Sociological and Theological Perspectives,” in which Berger points out some methodological distinctions, withdraws and revises positions made in a previous book (The Precarious Vision, 1961), and proposes possibilities for constructive dialogue between sociology and theology. He is clear that such possibilities may not be realized, because of the demands for “openness” that they make on both sides.

The Dragonslayer

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: The Dragonslayer [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Jeff Smith, book 4 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone The Dragonslayer

Phoney Bone is the primary actor in this segment of the Bone story, although for all his scheming, he is out of his depth, as usual. It is unclear until the end of the volume, whether he is accidentally helping the heroes, or unwittingly harming them. Thorn advances toward maturity and purposefulness, and not a minute too soon. On the whole, this stretch is somewhat tense and plot-heavy.

War in Heaven

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews War in Heaven [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Charles Williams.

Williams War in Heaven

I lucked into a cache of Charles Williams volumes at a public library book sale recently: in addition to War in Heaven, I picked up The Greater TrumpsDescent into Hell, and All Hallows’ Eve, each for fifty cents. I’d been meaning to read Williams for quite a while–besides knowing of his Inklings fame and esoteric affiliations, he came recommended by a professor I’d studied with, whose taste in literature I had reason to approve. Aside from the discovery of a murder on page one, War in Heaven starts out rather slow and very English, reminding me almost of the class-conscious domesticity of Ada Leverson. But once the story finds its legs, it is a very lively read. 

The general premise of the novel is that the holy grail has passed into long anonymity in a small village church in England, but that a ruthless Satanist has identified it and seeks to appropriate it to his own ends. A series of “coincidences” (obviously not) rally a set of defenders to the grail, even as the antagonist’s plans become more elaborate and extensive. Williams’ participation in A.E. Waite’s schismatic Golden Dawn group seems to have provided him with sufficient education to write with sound verisimilitude regarding both malign sorcery and beneficent magick. The only technical clinker occurs when he once writes “pentagon” for “pentagram.” (73)

I’m especially impressed by the depth which Williams gives to his villains–quite unusual in explicitly Christian fiction in my experience. He’s managed to identify quite a variety of ways to be evil, and to set these types into fascinating interaction with one another. And I’m somewhat charmed by his beatific archdeacon. When writing dialogue, Williams has an ear for etiquette (kept and violated), as well as a talent for the ominous and the numinous. That talent is shown to great effect at the end of Chapter 5 “The Chemist’s Shop” and in the various encounters with the Young Man in Grey. 

First published at least a couple of years before the earliest of Dennis Wheatley’s “occult thrillers,” this book was doubtless an influence on the latter. The similarities between War in Heaven and The Devil Rides Out are quite extensive. A later line of books that also seems to have drawn inspiration from War In Heaven is Susan Cooper’s terrific juvenile fantasy series “The Dark Is Rising.” I don’t know if Williams was a great reader of the fantasies of fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis’ “master” George MacDonald, but I think War in Heaven deserves comparison with MacDonald’s work better than any of Lewis’ novels do. There is also certainly a whiff of Arthur Machen here, unsurprising in light of their common occult interests.

To be sure, some will find the plot of this novel somewhat unsatisfying. The ending provides a considerable dose of deus ex machina, and it also involves a liturgical rapture which will not resonate with all readers. As Williams has one of his own characters say of churchgoing, “It is a means…. If you do not use it, it is a pity to bother about it; if you do, it is a pity not to use it.” (249)

The Last Ritual

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Last Ritual [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by S A Sidor, cover by John Coulthart, part of the Arkham Horror series.

Sidor Coulthart The Last Ritual

The Last Ritual is the second of a series of novels set in the Arkham Horror game milieu and published by Aconyte Books. Like the first, it features a protagonist who is not one of the stable of player character investigators from the games, along with important cameo appearances from established investigators–in this case, Preston Fairmont, Calvin Wright, and Norman Withers. The principal character of The Last Ritual is artist painter Alden Oakes, a scion of the French Hill Arkham elite.

This tale is set in the 1920s, and the prose offers no howling anachronisms, but the telling shows influences of more recent horror fiction. At the same time, the imposition of a frame story in which Oakes narrates his horrific experiences to a cub journalist put me in mind of 19th-century horror greats Poe and Bierce. Although Oakes starts his tale in France, the bulk of it revolves around a modest number of locations in Arkham, Massachusetts. The charismatic Surrealist Juan Hugo Balthazarr serves as a focus for enigmatic menace.

The mood and pacing of this novel is very different from its predecessor The Wrath of N’Kai. Where the earlier book had a real pulp adventure feel, despite its supernatural elements and shady settings, The Last Ritual is definitely weird horror through and through. Oakes is no hardened he-man, and his epistemological inadequacies lead to vacillating personal loyalties as well as profound fear and confusion. Author Sidor resists clarifying for the reader any number of the painter’s strange experiences, and the outcome of the story is not at all like the one in the other book.

Incidentally, you might think from seeing online images of the excellent cover art by John Coulthart that the cover is a shiny foil affair, but it is in fact a flat matte cover with clever art deco styling in suggestive hues. The building that dominates the cover is the Silver Gate Hotel, around which much of the story revolves.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and found it to be one of the best in the various Arkham Horror fiction series.

Mere Christianity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mere Christianity [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by C S Lewis.

Lewis Mere Christianity

Mere crap. 

A copy of this book was loaned to me by an Evangelical Free Church member who had come to visit my parents when the latter were shopping for a new congregation. The fellow was a Biblical inerrantist conspicuously lacking in social perception. Lewis’ book shows the author to be a comical bigot–certainly more intelligent, but not a whit wiser than the man who loaned it to me. I returned the book to its owner along with a long written critique, which I’d be happy to reproduce here, but I didn’t keep a copy. All this transpired many years ago. 

If you’re an intellectually underfed Christian looking for some blithe arguments to justify your existing biases, then this book is for you. Others may read it for a sad demonstration of the sort of rationales such people adopt.

A Circus of Hells

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Circus of Hells [Amazon] by Poul Anderson.

Anderson A Circus of Hells

I had read some of author Anderson’s fantasy novels before, but never his science fiction, and I note that A Circus of Hells is the second of a series of something like ten Terran Empire novels with the protagonist Dominic Flandry. I was motivated to pick it up by the jacket copy, which described an “infernal chess game on a forsaken moon” with pieces that were “strange, inhuman creatures…controlled by a deranged and brilliant computer brain.” I was hoping for a further spin on the living chess trope that is central to ERB’s Chessmen of Mars, and stems originally from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. Unfortunately, the chess adventure was over by the end of the eighth chapter out of twenty. 

Far more important than the AI-driven robot chess game were the various intrigues with the human-rivalling Merseian race, and the exotic climate and native intelligences of the far-flung planet Talwin. The scenario and various emphases of the narrative reminded me of the SF role-playing game Traveller, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Anderson’s Terran Empire books were inspirational for the game authors. 

While a lot of the astronomical information seemed pretty up-to-date for science fiction written circa 1970, and the xenobiological ideas were fairly inventive, the galactic imperial setting was much like many written twenty years earlier. I was especially disappointed to find Anderson assuming the survival of Roman Catholicism basically unchanged into humanity’s interstellar far future. The conventional Christian piety of the prostitute Djana was an element I found difficult to credit, and it was quite integral to her character and her role in the progress of the story. 

In any case, I found the book as a whole short and quick-moving, but insufficiently interesting for me to seek out any further volumes.

Dark Revelations

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dark Revelations [Amazon, Publisher] by Amanda Downum, part of the Arkham Horror Files universe, and “includes four promo cards for Arkham Horror: The Card Game, featuring a new investigator—the writer, Gloria Goldberg.”

Downum Dark Revelations

Other than the 1920s Arkham setting and the conceit of a forbidden tome, Dark Revelations is relatively free of the tropes of Yog-Sothothery. It is an altogether more traditional sort of supernatural horror story. As well as disdaining Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, this tale is mostly at a remove from the the sort of pulp action tone that sometimes informs the literature for the Arkham Horror games. There are a number of features that brought this novella closer to the jauniste vein of The King in Yellow than to the so-called Cthulhu Mythos. The main characters are creatives rather than academics or researchers, and there is a connection to medieval France.

The protagonist is author Gloria Goldberg, one of the investigator characters from the games this book was written to support. Gloria is a widow from New York who ventures to Arkham when called on to help with the literary estate of a recently deceased colleague. There are italicized passages throughout the book, and it can be difficult to tell from context whether these are passages that Gloria is reading, ones she is writing, or some other sorts of dreams or visions. As the story proceeds, it invites the reader to discard distinctions among these categories.

The book includes a set of about a dozen glossy color pages at the end, featuring news clippings, fragments of manuscripts, and pages from reference books relevant to the novella. This appendix section is a standard feature of this book series, and the contents in this case are entertaining enough, without any of the clinkers I’ve seen in the other novellas.

Dark Revelations comes with a set of cards debuting the Gloria Goldberg character for Arkham Horror: The Card Game. She is a flexible mystic-class investigator with a special ability that helps her to manipulate the encounter deck. Her alternate signature cards unique to this release are the ally Ruth Westmacott, a book illustrator whom Gloria befriends, and the treachery weakness Liber Omnium Finium.

The Kingdom and the Glory

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government [Bookshop, Amazon, Publisher] by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini.

Agamben Chiesa Mandarini The Kingdom and the Glory

The Kingdom and the Glory was issued a short while before The Sacrament of Language, but in the plan of Agamben’s Homo Sacer project, the first book follows the second, and that is the sequence in which I read them. They are closely connected in theme, exploring points in which concepts cross or transcend the boundaries between the theological and the political. The Kingdom and the Glory is a much larger undertaking in both scope and scale.

The work of the book is a Foucauldian (i.e. neo-Nietzschean) genealogy of “glory” as an operator in the conceptual justification of “economy” and “government”–that is, in the theological and political registers, respectively. (The ancient theological sense of “economy” is distinct from its modern significance.) It touches on esoteric fields such as Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Kabbalah, and Grail legendry. But it also traces its concerns through the vertebral canon of philosophy from Aristotle through Heidegger, as well as the entire span of Christian theology.

As The Sacrament of Language was trained on the performative language of the oath, so The Kingdom and the Glory in large measure revolves around the nature and function of acclamation. Section 8.19 in particular is a valuable inquiry into amen as “the acclamation par excellence” of Christian liturgy.

Some of the political consequences of the insights in this 2007 book seem to cast light on the fragility of the legislative function in putative democracies like that of Germany in the first part of the 20th century or the United States in the 21st. The sovereignty of the people is inadequately manifested by the legislature, which allows for the usurpation of its “kingdom” by the “government” of the executive, and the collapse of what Agamben calls in theology “the providential machine.”

My hat is off to translators Chiesa and Mandarini, not only for making Agamben intelligible in English, and for keeping track of the various linguistic registers among which he navigates, but for introducing me to two English words. In the course of reading this book, I learned tralatitious (152) and epenetic (246). Also, I forgive them for using mythologeme in lieu of mytheme (106).

Consistent with my prior reading of Agamben, I found this book difficult and rewarding.