Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Desolation Road

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Desolation Road [Amazon, Bookshop UK, Publisher, Local Library] by Ian McDonald.

McDonald Desolation Road

The jacket copy promising “every conceivable abnormality” had me expecting a more comical romp than the wry and profound storytelling McDonald provides in his first novel. Although in many ways the most science-fictiony of science fiction–a story set on Mars during a period of human settlement–there are many other literary veins enriching Desolation Road. The little serendipitous town by the train tracks certainly has a 19th-century-US Western feel to it that gave the book a steampunk vibe (this well before the coinage of the genre label). Some readers have accused McDonald of “magical realism” in this Martian novel, which nevertheless intensely engages religious and political themes. The net effect for me was something like a hybrid between Little, Big and Dune

There must be many influences and allusions that flew past me. Critics commonly point to homages to Jack Vance and Ray Bradbury. The 1985 Terry Gilliam movie Brazil is “sampled,” if you will, in chapters 25 and 35. Cory Doctorow notes that the Catherine Wheel in the religion/planetary administration of McDonald’s Mars alludes to the music of David Byrne. It’s clear that McDonald has taken the old Clarke “indistinguishable from magic” saw to heart, and thus lays himself open to the charge of fantasy in SF drag, but if time travel is acceptable as science fiction, the rest of this kit should pass muster.

Sometime around page 150 I started to wonder, “What’s with all the characters being sexually active at the age of nine?” It wasn’t until I read about the grandfather of mature grandchildren thinking “the thoughts a man of forty-five thinks” that I realized these are Martian years! There are no C.E. dates in the book, but the story must start in the 28th century at the earliest, given some information about the timescale of “manforming” Mars. It takes place over roughly three human generations, each of which conveniently corresponds to a “decade” in Martian reckoning (i.e. 18.8 of our years).

McDonald very comprehensively adheres to the framing of Mars as “the world,” with the word “earth” used only to reference soil and planetary surface, while planet Earth is called “the Motherworld.” And still the Martian milieu is full of clever evocations of 20th-century mass culture. 

The chapters are short and delicious, the vivid characters abundant, and the plot is so manifold that each of chapters 57 through 63 constitutes an independent climax, leaving room for a further half-dozen chapters of denouement and closure. It is a well-formed independent novel, and it does not in any way beg a sequel. The one McDonald eventually wrote (Ares Express) doubtless leverages the terrific world-building in Desolation Road, but I won’t be surprised if it is at a significant remove from the characters and events in its predecessor.

This is one of those books that I devoured rapidly, and then toward the end I started to feel sad that it would soon be over. I recommend it without reservation.

The Spiritual Life of Children

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Spiritual Life of Children [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Robert Coles.

Coles The Spiritual Life of Children

Child psychiatrist and author Coles strongly identifies himself with a liberal humanitarian ethic, which isn’t what draws me to his work. In fact, it’s part of what defeated an earlier attempt of mine to read a different book by him, The Call of Service. Even so, I held out hope that The Spiritual Life of Children would be an entertaining and/or informative read for me, since it purports to offer intimate accounts of the religious and spiritual perspectives of children aged six to thirteen, a range which includes my own daughter at its lower end. While the book did have some value for me, it was mostly disappointing. 

In the end, it seemed like the book was really about Robert Coles: how he negotiated his condition as a secular, skeptically-conditioned intellectual vis a vis pious and spiritually curious children. I did not object to (enjoyed, actually) the first chapter on the vexed and shifting status of the psychoanalytic tradition’s judgments about religion. Similarly, I appreciated the authorial reflexivity in the second chapter on method, describing his conflicts, hesitancies, and difficulties in eliciting children’s real views on matters important to them. But that matter became an unceasing refrain throughout the book while recounting his interviews with children, e.g. “I began thinking of some words to speak…” (50), “I found myself wondering…” (102), “I gave myself an inward lecture…” (214), “Now I felt impelled to speak” (282). Perhaps this mode of reportage is an inevitable byproduct of Coles’ psychoanalytic orientation, but I got seriously tired of it.

Also, despite Coles’ evident efforts to devote attention–entire chapters, even–to Jewish, Muslim, and vaguely secular children (plus one Hopi girl), there were far too many pages dedicated to kids talking on and on about Jesus. Certainly, this is no invalidation of the book relative to its likely readership. But while I was once a Christian child myself, Christian children are something I neither have nor want, and so their clearly dominant presence in the book became another source of fatigue for me as a reader. 

In his effort to focus on “spirituality not religion,” Coles avoided any substantial discussion about children’s experiences of religious ritual or worship, and only glancingly addressed the issue of religious instruction. At the same time, all of the accounts in the book were overtly circumscribed by the religious affiliation (or lack thereof) of the children involved. The omission of their ceremonial and catechumenal lives was a significant loss, as far as I was concerned.

I didn’t regret holding on for the final chapters, one on “Secular Soul-Searching” and the last on “The Child as Pilgrim.” These had some of the more interesting conversations, as well as more general applicability to my own situation. The endnotes are constructed to direct readers to a wider range of texts that engage some of the important questions that could only receive passing attention in this one, and there may be two or three books there that I will pursue.

The Sacrament of Language

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Giorgio Agamben, translated by Adam Kotsko.

Agamben Kotsko The Sacrament of Language

I have no prior orientation to the larger Homo Sacer project of Giorgio Agamben, in which The Sacrament of Language constitutes part II.3, and it might be argued that this brief text–a mere 72 pages in Adam Kotsko’s translation from the Italian–should have been published with other sections in order to justify its standing as an independent volume. But the topic, sufficiently attractive to get me to read this book, does stand on its own, and Agamben’s treatment is fascinating, albeit distinctly chewy

Rather than accepting the centuries-long tradition of viewing the oath as a rhetorical artifact of a primitive “magico-religious” culture, Agamben insists that the discursive spheres of religion and law were themselves produced by reactions to an essential experience of the oath, which he characterizes as “verediction.” (57) Although unremarked as such by Agamben, this state is also the point of departure for “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable” in Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols: “I, Plato, am the truth.”

The Sacrament of Language is crucially concerned with the coeval origins of law and religion; it contemplates the tripartite anatomy of the oath as invocation, affirmation, and curse; it details the relationship of the oath to the archaic functions of [con]sacratio and devotio; and it presents the oath and blasphemy as the two sides of a single coin. The theological observations of the book should be of great interest to Thelemites: among other interesting notes about pagan and Abrahamic religions, Agamben references Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas regarding the deity (qui es) invoked in the original anthem of the Gnostic Mass (53).

The supposed context for this entire discussion of the Archaeology of the Oath is a claim advanced by Paolo Prodi in a 1992 work (Il sacramento del potere) that recent generations of the West are participating in “the irreversible decline of the oath” (1). In the final sections of Agamben’s book, he outlines a scenario in which the postmodern condition dissolves the substance of Western ethics, and he proposes “philosophy” as the locus of instruction regarding our possible escape from the dilemma. I certainly appreciate and recommend his speculative philosophy, but it will be in vain unless it is seized by ones who are in fact consecrated and devoted, and put to use in the operative philosophy better known as magick.

Rose

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Rose [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeff Smith, a prequel to the Bone series.

Smith Bone Rose

This “prequel” to the Bone comics series is focused on a particular stratum of the layered story that Jeff Smith had composed in the original comic. It is entirely trained on the intrigue between the royal princesses Rose and Briar. There are no Bones from Boneville in this story, and the closest thing to comic relief is provided by Rose’s two dogs, with whom she has frequent conversations. But, especially at the end, these aren’t comic at all. 

Although far more intricate and poised than Smith’s drawings in the original series, Charles Vess’ art is wonderful and well suited to the subject matter. Smith’s characters are very recognizable, even in their decades-younger forms and in a far different style. The dragons are all appropriately awesome.

The lettering actually put me off a little. It is a sort of unical script with little highlights in each letter, which seemed too busy and distracting for my taste. The word balloons for the dogs (and for Rose addressing them in their ‘speech’) were blue instead of white, which was a very efficient convention for indicating linguistic difference.

On further reflection, it occurs to me that Rose follows a sort of rough Star Wars episode 3 plot trajectory with respect to the Bone series as episodes 4-6: think of Gran’ma Ben as Ben Kenobi and the Hooded One as Darth Vader. (But it’s something of a stretch to think of Fone Bone as Luke Skywalker!) The Lord of the Rings comparisons that seemed so obvious early in the original run of Bone have no place here.

Nietzsche′s Corps/e

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche′s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy, or, the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Geoff Waite.

Waite Nietzsche's Corps/e

“But think back now over the entire, long, virtually interminable extent of Nietzsche/s corpse, as Nietzsche’s Corps/e begins to conclude….” (385) I had to laugh as I read that, because four hundred pages of body text, plus another 150-odd of smaller-typeface endnotes (the author noted an aspiration to a one-to-one ratio between body text and annotation), had taken me six months of careful, if not quite continual, reading to digest. It seemed as if the book, as much as its object, had invoked the interminability of an ewige Wiederkunft.

Geoff Waite hates Nietzsche with the kind of passion that I must suspect of being founded in a prior love. In Nietzsche’s Corps/e he identifies himself with a Althusserian Marxist position opposed to what he diagnoses as: the deliberate viral influence of Nietzsche’s corpus, acting through a corps of intellectuals, toward the ultimate reduction of the masses into a state perinde ac cadaver. (The Jesuit allusion is far from accidental; see 313-315.) He is professedly paranoid in his treatment of Nietzsche, the “Nietzsche industry,” and “technoculture” on the cusp of the 21st century.

With respect to Nietzsche and his intentions, Waite aptly faults “scholarly” or “philosophical” readers of Nietzsche who confine themselves to the oeuvre written for publication. Nietzsche’s workbooks and private correspondence–all now published in German, Italian, and Japanese, though not in English, Waite notes–are indispensable in light of such declarations of esoteric mode as the conclusion of “On Redemption” in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “But why does Zarathustra speak otherwise to his pupils — than to himself?” (This passage is surely Nietzsche’s equivalent of the fourth chapter of the gospel of Mark.) In particular, Waite claims a central position for the early unpublished essay “The Greek State,” in which Nietzsche affirmed “the necessary Greek triad: ‘slavery,’ ‘esoteric writing,’ ‘the esoteric doctrine of the relation between the State and genius.'” (300)

Waite enters the argument regarding Nietzsche’s sexual appetites armed with some intriguing evidence. But he did not impress me with his repeated references to homosexuality and sadomasochism as if those were self-evidently “bad things.” 

As far as the “corps” is concerned, Waite does not confine himself to any particular textual lineage of Nietzsche interpretation, since he is out to resist them all. He comprehensively examines both right-wing Nietzscheans and left-wing “Nietzschoids,” usually with penetrating criticisms of the latter. He recommends Leo Strauss’s Thoughts on Machiavelli as a manual for reading Nietzsche, and I plan to take him up on this recommendation. Pierre Klossowski’s readings of Nietzsche also win serious points–with caveats–from Waite.

Waite’s notion of the corpse breaks out of the ivory tower and indicts the emerging cyber-society as being in thrall to Nietzsche’s agenda, with targets in popular culture such as William S. Burroughs, Phillip K. Dick, David Cronenberg, and William Gibson. I can’t help but suppose that the later cinematic VR explosion (for which The Matrix was a flagship) brought him into a righteous near-panic! Nor must today’s smartphone-wielding hordes console him.

The entire enterprise of Nietzsche’s Corps/e is taken up in the wake of the “death of communism” and in the face of Bataille’s declaration that Nietzsche’s is “the only position outside of communism.” Waite allies himself with Gramsci and Althusser, and gives Lenin the final word of his epilogue. (The penultimate one goes to Nietzsche.) And yet for all that he offers a “strong rival conspiratorial hypothesis” to the “conspiracy theory” informing Nietzsche’s writings (67), Waite fails to persuade me of the goodness of Communism or the badness of “Nietzchean/ism.”

Ultimately, I am very glad to have read this book, and I would encourage anyone with a serious interest in Nietzsche to tackle it.

The Third Policeman

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Third Policeman [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Flann O’Brien, introduction by Denis Donoghue.

O'Brien The Third Policeman

I am puzzled by the jacket copy on the John F. Byrne Irish Literature Series edition of The Third Policeman, which calls it a “brilliant comic novel.” Surely, this story is dark as dark can be, and portrays a tragedy with exacting, clinical detail. The tale is in fact profoundly absurd, and checkered with the narrator’s preoccupation with a perverse body of scholarship surrounding a narcoleptic alchemist. But that’s bicycling for you.

To experience the full effect of this novel, I recommend avoiding advance glosses of the plot, although the plot is really only a fraction of the value of reading it, but this plot is reeled out in an unusual and impressive manner. Moreover, such glosses tend to have inaccuracies, like the jacket copy’s misconception that the “narrator … is introduced to … de Selby’s view that the earth is not round but ‘sausage-shaped'” while at the police station, when in fact he has clearly done his exhaustive study of de Selby long before.

The 1999 introduction by Denis Donoghue insists on quoting a piece of a letter from author Flann O’Brien to William Saroyan, in which the ending of the book is perfectly spoiled. This same letter excerpt also appears at the end of the book, having been appended by the editors at the original (posthumous) 1967 publication, apparently in the belief that readers might need this assistance after failing to comprehend what they had read, despite it being as plainly put as possible. Donoghue’s introduction is otherwise worth reading (after the novel), with its brief biography of O’Brien (pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan) and a debatable attempt to classify the book as Menippean satire.

But the real attraction of this book is the wonderful language, which alternates among three modes. There are artful descriptions of imponderables. “The silence in the room was so unusually quiet that the beginning of it seemed rather loud when the utter stillness of the end of it had been encountered” (105). There are careful reviews of academic argumentation. “His conclusion was that ‘hammering is anything but what it appears to be’; such a statement, if not open to explicit refutation, seems unnecessary and unenlightening” (144-5 n). And there are personal encounters featuring ambivalent dialogues in spare and careful language. “And as I went upon my way I was slightly glad that I had met him” (49).

The book is organized into twelve chapters. If these reflect an esoteric infrastructure such as astrological houses, I haven’t persuaded myself so. The pace of the prose is fast, even if the pace of events described is sometimes so slow as to be entirely immobile. The Third Policeman had been on my virtual TBR pile for many years, and my actual one for some months, when I finally read it in a matter of a few days. Alas, I may read it again!

Spiritual Centers in Man

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Spiritual Centers in Man [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library] by Manly P Hall.

Hall Spiritual Centers in Man

The original and more descriptive title of this booklet was “An Essay on the Fundamental Principles of Operative Occultism.” The earliest copyright given is 1978, so that date may be the one of original publication. It consists of the main essay and a short appended paper. The essay breaks down into several series in different categories.

The first category is “seven cardinal requirements [which] constitute the fundamental ethic of occultism” (19). These “requirements” are on the whole sound enough. Of special note and interest is the adjuration to “shun all kinds of psychism and phenomenalism,” although this part also includes some funniness about “a comparatively high degree of Chelaship” (13-4).

Hall then inventories seven considerations for undertaking training in occultism: access to a teacher, duration of study, obligations of secrecy, hazards of black magic (“Dugpa sorcery”), the ban on commodifying the mysteries, the importance of equilibrium (of mind, body, and spirit), and the esoteric value of profane arts and sciences.

A third heptad is an inventory of the sat chakras. He identifies these with the seven churches of Asia from the Apocalypse, although without crediting James Pryse, whose Apocalypse Unsealed had provided this correlation in much greater detail as early as 1910. Hall does switch the attributions for Smyrna and Pergamos, while qualifying all of his attributions with “probably.” Hall writes, “The story of these centers is clearly set forth in the Book of Revelation, where the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven vials, and the seven voices all refer to the spinal centers and the various mysteries concerning them” (37).

Finally, he runs through the eight limbs of raja yoga, or “eight steps of the Yogi School,” devoting two or three paragraphs to each. Among these, he especially identifies pranayama with raising Kundalini in the central column of the body, and warns about its dangers to “the average Occidental” (40).

The paper at the end of the booklet is “A Synthetic Elemental Cross,” in which Hall expounds on cross symbolism generally–emphasizing its universal rather than Christian provenance–with particular reference to a Rose Cross emblem he had designed in 1923.

The Empty Space

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Peter Brook.

Brook The Empty Space

This short book from 1968 is one I should have read as an undergraduate in the 1980s. It is the first book by famed director Peter Brook, collecting a series of four lectures on the state of theater and its possibilities. The pieces do progress and build upon one another, moving from the critical viewpoint, through theory and history, to more practical concerns and perspectives.

The first part is “The Deadly Theatre,” and in it Brook discusses all the ways in which theatrical works fail. “All through the world theatre audiences are dwindling” (10). There is a doom loop in which conventionality in writing, acting, and production, along with criticism and economic pressures, lead to lowered audience expectations, which in turn foster lackluster performances. The deadly theater is not integral to society, it is a superfluous appendage which can be profitably ignored.

In “The Holy Theatre” Brook addresses the ambition of the theater to make les Invisibles visible. He introduces the “illuminated genius” Antonin Artaud as the touchstone of this ambition, and recounts some of Brooks’ own experiments in a “theatre of cruelty.” For further demonstrations of the “holy” trajectory, he outlines the work of Merce Cunningham, Samuel Beckett, and Jerzy Grotowski.

Brook’s paragon of “The Rough Theatre” is Bertolt Brecht. The rough in some senses opposes the holy: rather than being drawn out of themselves by the holy, participants are thrown back into themselves by the rough. It is a theater of examination and exposure, rather than exaltation and ecstasy. But Brooks insists that these two are complements that can and should inform each other, as they do–he claims–in the work of Shakespeare.

“The Immediate Theatre” brings the focus to the actual work of theatrical production, eventually settling on a (provisional) formula in the Francophone terms of repetition (rehearsal), representation (performance), and assistance (spectatorship). That these are all to some degree false cognates Brook does not explicitly make a matter of concern. He concludes with questions about whether theater can have enduring transformative effects for either its producers or its consumers.

Throughout this book, the prose is beautiful and eminently quotable. “It is not the fault of the holy that it has become a middle-class weapon to keep children good” (46). “As I continue to work, each experience will make these conclusions inconclusive again” (100). “Today, it is hard to see how a vital theatre and a necessary one can be other than out of tune with society–not seeking to celebrate the accepted values, but to challenge them” (134).

More than half a century after its composition The Empty Space is certainly valuable to students of 20th-century theater history, but also, I think, to anyone still concerned to generate and appreciate living performances in stage environments.

Descent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Descent [Amazon, Bookshop UK, Publisher, Local Library] by Ken MacLeod.

MacLeod Descent

This 2014 novel is the most recent Ken MacLeod book I’ve read, and it has some near-future optimism that has become dismayingly dated in the last seven years of climate catastrophe and global pandemic. But it’s not set in any particular year, and I guess the sort of sanguine pivot away from Neoliberal hell that it depicts is still imaginable.

The story is set firmly in MacLeod’s own Scotland throughout, and its central plotline involves a sort of phildickian epistemological struggle with ufology. It is recounted by the protagonist Ryan Sinclair, who begins (after telling of a recurrent dream) with his teenage close encounter. The book also involves a troubled love triangle of the sort that MacLeod has treated before in The Stone Canal, although this one is squared off more neatly.

The Orbit first edition hardcover I read made it seem like a much bigger book than it actually is, with heavy page stock and a generously-sized typeface. It’s a fast read, and entertaining throughout.

Crown of Horns

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Bone: Crown of Horns [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jeff Smith, book 9 of the Bone series.

Smith Bone Crown of Thorns

The final volume of the Bone series doesn’t have many surprises. All of the plots that were set up in the earlier numbers play out in a way that seems pretty inevitable, if not outright predictable. There are a few jokes, and lots of chasing and fighting. Comeuppances and rewards (including a hero’s burial) are distributed according to the characters’ merits established before.

I had been holding out for some exciting backstory on Ted the bug, but I was disappointed there. Maybe it’s in one of the prequel supplements: Rose or Stupid Stupid Rat Tails.