Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Star Rover

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Star Rover by Jack London.

Jack London’s 1915 novel about the paranormal visions of a condemned prisoner is a strange mixture indeed. As editor Fiedler points out, London didn’t actually have any personal belief in the metaphysical phenomena that the story portrays. These include both bilocational projection of consciousness (the sort sometimes now characterized as “remote viewing”) and magical memory, or recollection of previous incarnations. The latter dominates the tale, with a wide range of para-autobiographies, each allegedly pieced together by the writing prisoner from various random instances of visionary recall.

There are some uniformities among the sub-narratives. All of the protagonists are male. Even though London’s narrator Standing claims at one point to have experienced prior incarnation as a woman, the lives that he provides with detail are all boys and men. In fact, near the end of the story, he hypostasizes gender into a spiritual principle, claiming his own identity with all men as the One Man, and offering a paean to his love of the One Woman. What’s more, his alter-egos are all white. Even when the setting is Korea, the experiences are those of a European explorer. In the (requisite?) episode set in first-century Roman Palestine, the Standing incarnation serving as a soldier under the authority of Pontius Pilate is actually a recruit from the barbarian north. This particular consistency seems to reflect an acceptance of Aryanist racial theory, when Standing later claims to have been “an Aryan master in old Egypt” and “a builder of Aryan monuments under Aryan kings in old Java and old Sumatra.” (298-9) And yet the implied notion of “race memory” does not preclude the story of a boy murdered at the age of six.

The frame story offers some round denunciation of modern carceral practices and capital punishment, but there is no call for socialist revolution, such as London might offer elsewhere, and the assessment of efforts at liberal reform is bitterly pessimistic. Standing is an atypical protagonist for London: a college professor, whose murder offense is never fully detailed, and who is abused into profound ill-health. Although it sometimes seems that the more realized of Standing’s prior incarnations might have been abortive stories of their own from London’s pen, the composite effect is not without some merit, giving the reader added opportunities to reflect on the ultimate nature of freedom and the human capacity for justice. [via]

The Cthulhu Cycle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Cthulhu Cycle: Thirteen Tentacles of Terror edited by Robert M Price.

Consistent with the general plan of the series of Lovecraftian “Cycle Books” in which this book occurs, sage editor Robert M. Price here collects precursors and successors together with “The Call of Cthulhu” itself, and offers some entertaining commentary.

The forerunners are an especially interesting set, including one reproduced in Price’s introduction that doesn’t get its own entry in the table of contents for the volume: Tennyson’s poem “The Kraken.” Dunsany’s “A Shop in Go-by Street” is included as the story mentioning sleeping gods that was probably a proximate inspiration for Lovecraft in writing “The Call of Cthulhu.” And I was very interested in the M.R. James story “Count Magnus,” less for it’s influence on HPL than on Thelemic adept Jack Parsons, who seems to have found in it the germ of his idea of the Black Pilgrimage.

“The Call of Cthulhu” itself needs no review from me. If you haven’t read it, you’re missing a story that helped to develop the genre as surely as Frankenstein or Dracula did. I am even tempted to credit it further, and suggest that it’s perspective is as symptomatic of the 20th century West as was Pico della Mirandola’s “Oration on the Dignity of Man” of Quattrocento Italy.

Predictably, the more recent materials are somewhat more varied in quality. Several of them were enjoyable reads flawed by weak endings. My two favorites were “Recrudescence,” in which Leonard Carpenter pits a paleontologist against petrochemical companies and eco-cultists, and Steven Paulsen’s “In the Light of the Lamp,” which brings a young stoner couple to no good end. [via]

Persian Letters

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Persian Letters by Charles-Louis de Secondat Montesquieu, translated by C J Betts.

Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu was an intellectual giant of early 18th-century France. His Persian Letters were composed under the conceit of correspondence written by Persian travelers in Europe. In an early series of these letters, he presents the fable of the Troglodytes. In Letter 11, this remote Arabian people is introduced as “so wicked and ferocious that there were no principles of equity or justice among them.” The consequent Ayn Rand-style faux-libertarian dystopia (alarmingly similar in many details to our mass society today) leads to a substantial decline in population. The subject of Letter 12 involves the regeneration of society by the efforts of two men and their households, who broke with Troglodyte custom in realizing

“…that the individual’s self-interest is always to be found in the common interest; that wanting to cut oneself off from it is the same as wanting to ruin oneself; that virtue is not such as to cost us anything, and should not be considered as wearisome exercise; and that justice to others is charity for ourselves.”

Letter 13 extols the virtues of the new order of society that followed from these revised ideals, and Letter 14 discusses the beginnings of that polity’s decline, as they chose to subject themselves to a monarch. The Betts edition appends an additional letter on the Troglodytes written by Montesquieu, but not published by him in the Letters.

The entire Troglodyte series deserves to be studied in connection with the utopias of Plato and Rabelais alike. [via]

Giants in Those Days

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Giants in Those Days: Folklore, Ancient History, and Nationalism by Walter E Stephens.

To begin, Stephens builds a case against the idea that there is anything essentially ‘folkloric’ about giants in Rabelais or any 16th-century European discourse. In general, he is opposed to the notion that there is a ‘popular’ culture that includes elements unavailable to elite, learned culture. (This idea being criticized is an important element of Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World.) In particular, Stephens points to gigantology as a preoccupation more peculiar to the learned elite than to the unlettered masses.

‘Traditional’ (i.e. medieval) gigantology, both scholarly and—to the extent that it existed— popular, was rooted in biblical and classical texts, and portrayed giants as depraved, evil, and godless: very different from what we see in Rabelais. Dante developed them as denizens of Hell. Giants were primarily antediluvian, and were generally understood as a race distinct from (or debased from) humanity. Key biblical giants included the nephilim (offspring of the “sons of God and daughters of men” in Genesis 6) and the anakim (indigenous opposition to the settlement of Canaan in Numbers and Deuteronomy).

The valorization of giants as national (later misrepresented as ‘folk’) heroes begins with the fraudulent historiography of Annius of Viterbo (1432-1502). Annius was a supporter of a papal imperialism predicated on [E]T[r]uscan nationalism, to be centered in his own hometown of Viterbo. In his Antiquities, he created a polemical history, forging “Babylonian” and “Egyptian” source texts to complement and spin biblical history, while undercutting Greek sources, in order to create an account in which papal authority descends from Noah (inventor of wine, we must note), through the Etruscans Osiris and Hercules, into latter days. It was full of bad philology and weirdly sloppy scholarship, but it started a sort of intellectual cottage industry based on these forged documents and bad assumptions (c.f. Holy Blood, Holy Grail). In the Antiquities, Noah was himself a giant! Annius’ postdiluvian giants are then expressive of national greatness in physical and technological terms, passed through concocted pedigrees.

Jean Lemaire de Belges (1473-1525), who appears as a character in Pantagruel, was a poet and historian who wrote his Illustrations de Gaule et singularitéz de Troye in the Annian vein. But he quoted selectively from Annius’ Antiquities so as to eliminate the claims of Etruscan supremacy, and to replace them with Gallic preeminence. Lemaire accepted Annius’ gigantology, and thus accreted Charlemagne and the French royalty into the new Gallic version of Annian imperial destiny. Instead of Viterbo, the center of civilization was to be Lemaire’s Belgian home of Gavay. Lemaire’s work was much more accessible than Annius, being published in French, and set partially in the forms of epic narrative and pastoral romance. Lemaire had many disciples and imitators.

It was thus Lemaire’s gigantology that would have been uppermost in the minds of cultured readers in Rabelais’ time. But the conflicts between this account of giants and the traditional version would be obvious to them as well. Traditional giants defied authority; Annian giants expressed it. Stephens demonstrates how Rabelais shows an awareness of both gigantologies, and his initial writings (in Pantagruel, which became Book II) are intended to undermine Lemaire’s nationalistic enterprise through parody of his giant lore. The Rabelaisian narrator Alcofrybas Nasier is an overblown Annian historian, concerned with specious etymologies, incredible genealogies, and privileged geographies. (Chinon thus succeeds Viterbo and Gavay.)

In Pantagruel, Rabelais deliberately highlights the resemblances between Lemaire’s historiographic Illustrations and the popular romances of the Grandes Chroniques, with their unbelievable, legendary aspects. Pieces of parodic writing often thought to be sacrilegious examples of Rabelais’ antichristian sentiment are instead criticisms of Annian history: they show how Alcofrybas cannot maintain sound Christian doctrine along with his crazy history. Rabelais expresses an Evangelical desire for the union of Christendom, opposed to the hieratic and nationalistic ambitions coded into the Annian and Lemarian histories.

Pantagruel proved to be a success with a different, more popular, readership than the one that Rabelais had intended—so the parody involved in Alcofrybas went largely over their heads. In Gargantua, he corrects for this problem, and makes his Evangelical sentiments more explicit, (e.g. ch. XLVI) while marginalizing Alcofrybas after the first few chapters. Also, Rabelais had come into closer association with the du Bellays as patrons, and they were French nationalists, so he had to temper his indictments of that ideology as well. Still, the first two chapters of Gargantua are extremely “Nasiesque,” and play mercilessly with Annian themes and pretensions. Parody of Annianism—along with gigantology generally—fades out of the third and fourth books. Its renewed presence in the fifth may result from that book’s origins as a posthumous editing of outtakes from the earlier volumes (the argument of Mireille Huchon).

In sum, Stephens maintains that Rabelais invented his giants in order to exploit what he saw as the self-parodying aspects of Annian historiography. But Rabelais’ own gigantology has weathered better than that of his satirical targets. As a byproduct of his Evangelical Humanism, and in the course of adjusting his sequels to emphasize positive ideals rather than hostile criticisms, Docteur Francoys Rabelais created a third kind of giant, whose stature expressed spiritual and intellectual greatness, rather than monstrosity or hereditary power. [via]

City of Revelation

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews City of Revelation: On the Proportion and Symbolic Numbers of the Cosmic Temple by John Michell.

Fortean Platonist John Michell focuses here on a topic that some call “sacred geometry.” He maintains that a single canon of measure and proportion underlies all ancient monumental architecture, unifying it with cosmology, music, and sacred literature. As instances, he discusses the New Jerusalem of the Apocalypse, Stonehenge, Glastonbury, and the Great Pyramid.

Michell does not cite The Canon of William Stirling (1897), which was undoubtedly an enormous influence on the composition of City of Revelation. (The 1974 & 1981 R.I.L.K.O. editions of The Canon feature forewords by Michell.) He is also somewhat cagey about other occultist influences. Not daring to mention Aleister Crowley’s A∴A∴ by name, he refers to “a famous magical order.” (67)

Michell became identified with the New Age movement which eagerly consumed his writings. But City of Revelation, while acknowledging a millennial moment, does not share the sanguine utopianism common to the New Age. In some ways, his nostalgic tone is a better fit for the anti-occultist esotericism of the Traditionalists. He is a little muddled about the history of early Christianity, confusing the (late 2nd-century C.E.) date of the first heresiological agendas–i.e. the development of a Christian orthodoxy–with the (much later) date of the identification of the institutional church with Roman imperial power. (13, 128) So, unlike the Traditionalists, and more like the Theosophists (whom he cites familiarly as sources), he sees the principal degeneration of Christianity as taking place with the suppression of antique Gnosticism, rather than the Reformation.

Ultimately, his arithmological focus is on the numbers 666 and 1080, which he identifies with masculine/solar and feminine/lunar qualities respectively. He speculates very briefly on the “extraterrestrial” origin of the canon, and thus of human civilization. The book is full of admirable examples of Greek gematria, and some of the astronomical analogies and meteorological data are very striking. The volume could benefit from an index of references to specific numbers discussed in the text. [via]

The Magicians

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Magicians by James Gunn.

Gunn’s Magicians is a rational fantasy about sorcery set in a mid-20th century from which actual modern occultism is absent, much in the way that Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell concocts an alternative world of magic for Georgian England. Of course, Clarke takes her literary cues from Jane Austen, while Gunn’s seem to reflect Raymond Chandler by way of Who Shot Roger Rabbit?

To the credit of Gunn’s imagination, when he wrote the original version of this story in 1954, or even in 1972 when the fuller novel was published, occult magicians weren’t yet actually in the habit of meeting via hotel conventions. The whole story is a relatively cornball melodrama, but chapters 8 and 9 are each a sleeping dream of the protagonist about historical sorcery–one a Brocken Mountain sabbat, the other a French Black Mass–which have solid entertainment value. [via]

Anarchy after Leftism

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Anarchy after Leftism by Bob Black.

Bob Black’s is perhaps the most searing wit of anti-authoritarian political writing. In Anarchy after Leftism, he trains it on the senescence of self-styled eminence grise Murray Bookchin. “Bookchin does not mind standing on the shoulders of giants–he rather enjoys the feel of them under his heel–so long as he stands tallest of all.” (19) Demolishing Bookchin’s Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm Black insists, “This time he’s bitten off more than he can gum.” (102)

In his rejection of the “unbridgeable chasm” of Bookchin’s title, Black sinks his gleaming teeth into the “central conundrum of Western political philosophy,” i.e. the reconciliation of “individual autonomy and social liberation.” (31) This observation, which launches Black’s second chapter, sums up why I, as a (non-anarchist) mystical libertarian, find works on anarchism worth my continuing study.

Anarchy after Leftism is composed in scholarly fashion, with a full editorial apparatus and bibliographic citations, for which Black seems slightly apologetic. He is aware, however, that his selected antagonist (and presumably those readers sympathetic to Bookchin) fetishizes such discursive styling, and so he condescends to the chosen weapon of the duel, showing that he can handle it at least as well as the one who chose it.

A recurrent tactic throughout Black’s argument is to quote the earlier, more lucid writings of Bookchin against his recent output. The goal is not simply to demonstrate inconsistency. Black typically agrees with the young Bookchin that he quotes, showing that at one point, even the antagonist of the moment knew better than he does now.

It takes Black ten short chapters to thoroughly dispose of the so-called “social anarchism” (not anarchism at all) of Bookchin. The eleventh and final chapter bears the title of the book as a whole, and explores Bookchin’s irrelevance as a symptom of a Kuhnian paradigm shift in anarchist theory.

As usual, Black’s writing is littered with trenchant aphorisms. For instance: “‘Policy’ is a euphemism for law, and ‘administration’ is a eumphemism for enforcement.” (85) And best:

“The problem is [not selfishness, but] the prevailing social organization of selfishness as a divisive force which actually diminishes the self. As society is now set up, individual selfishness is collectively, and individually, self-defeating.” (55) [via]