Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Golden Ass

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Golden Ass by Apuleius, translated by Robert Graves.

Apuleius Graves The Golden Ass

Although the vulgar take the donkey as a symbol of ignorance and stupidity, occultists and magicians know better. Cornelius Agrippa, in his Vanity of the Arts and Sciences, praises the ass as a paradigm of virtue. Giordano Bruno, whose heliocentrism was wedded to his hermetic magic, made the donkey a symbol of the highest mystical state in his personal cabala, declaring it to be the Triumphant Beast. 

The Metamorphoses of Apuleius, better known as The Golden Ass, is funny and wise; and despite its unrepentant status as a fiction, its later chapters are probably one of the most accurate and detailed accounts from the period regarding the operation of mystery cults in late antiquity. The “Golden” of the title refers to the value of the text. It was written in a florid, storytelling style of Latin, and has a brisk, episodic pace. There are nonetheless many digressions, including the splendid and famous fable of Eros and Psyche, which falls near the center of the text.

Known in his own day as an orator and Platonist philosopher, Apuleius is also important as a reference regarding the status of magic in the ancient world; he was himself accused of criminal sorcery, although he denied it. The central enchantment of the story is the transformation of the protagonist into a donkey.

The literary progeny of these Metamorphoses are countless, as befits a donkey’s instrument! Apuleius’ story has influenced everything from Augustine’s Confessions to Beauty and the Beast. But the original still deserves pride of place.

Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy Ibn Yaqzan: A Philosophical Tale by Ibn Tufayl, translated with an introduction and notes by Lenn Evan Goodman.

ibn Tufayl Hayy ibn Yaqzan

Ibn Tufayl was a medieval thinker and an heir to the oriental philosophy of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and the scholarship of Algazel (Al-Ghazali). His work Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is a fable treating the life of an ideal man who comes to physical, intellectual, and spiritual maturity outside any human community. Only in the final pages of the tale does Hayy encounter society, culture, and religious tradition, and the encounter is a disappointing one in many respects.

The narrative itself is reasonably compact, but the University of Chicago 2009 edition of the English translation includes a great deal of useful apparatus. Translator Lenn E. Goodman supplies two prefaces and an introduction. The 2009 preface is primarily concerned with the historical context of the original work, outlining the Almohad patronage for Ibn Tufayl’s work, but it also concludes with a view of the change in philosophical context for Goodman’s work, since the 1960s when he first read Ibn Tufayl. The 2003 preface is shorter and more autobiographically focused. The 91-page introduction includes far-ranging comparisons and a theory of religion as a tripartite phenomenon that appears to be original with Goodman, and is definitely food for thought in its own right.

Goodman’s end-notes are extensive, and so useful to the contemporary reader that they made me resent (again) the 21st-century publishing preference for end-notes over footnotes. I’d prefer to read with a single bookmark, thanks. He calls out likely sources, Quranic citations and allusions, and comparisons to medieval, classical, and modern philosophy. Wide prior reading is necessary in order to make the most of these.

Ibn Tufayl’s story has been compared to Kipling’s Mowgli from The Jungle Book: Hayy is raised by a doe rather than a wolf, and his feral nature is correspondingly peaceable. There are no large predators on the island where he is the only human. Even more interesting comparisons can be drawn with Robert Heinlein’s 20th-century science fiction novel Stranger in a Strange Land, itself consciously derived from the Mowgli archetype. Like the Martian protégé Valentine Michael Smith, Hayy discovers a religious vocation when introduced to society. He hopes to “save” others by orienting them to the mystical appreciation of the human condition that he was able to achieve in his exotic circumstance.

At the end, Ibn Tufayl claims that his story of Hayy is the heritage of “a hidden branch of study” (165), as he had promised at the outset in intending to “unfold … the secrets of the oriental philosophy” (95). It is esoteric in both the colloquial and the Straussian senses, though it is not occultist. I am grateful to the fellow initiate who directed my attention to it, and I expect to return to the study of this text in future years.

The Swordsman of Mars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Swordsman of Mars by Otis Adelbert Kline.

Kline The Swordsman of Maars

I had known of Otis Adelbert Kline as a rival for the pulp mantle of exotic adventure accorded to Edgar Rice Burroughs, and was for some years interested to read his Martian sword-and-planet contributions. I expected them to seem derivative from ERB. What I discovered instead is that they appear to have been a significant model for the early Flash Gordon stories. There is a non-trivial extraterrestrial “yellow peril” element (although the yellow Ma Gongi aliens are shown in the cover art of my copy as green), and romantic intrigue with the daughter of the evil despot. (The chronology fits, with Swordsman of Mars published throughout 1933 and the earliest Flash Gordon strips appearing in 1934.)

The voyage to Mars is of the esoteric mind-transfer sort, additionally including time travel, so that like the Martian adventures of Leigh Brackett, it is set in the planet’s past. Kline surprisingly makes no mention of the lower Martian gravity, which even serves as a plot point for ERB’s John Carter. Martian fauna here include a lot of oversized insects, but also some strange vertebrates that I often found difficult to picture. There are giant birds used for mounts, a staple of the sword-and-planet subgenre, here called gawrs.

The book is a fast read, with frequent cliff-hanger chapter endings reflecting its genesis as a pulp serial. The prose is serviceable. I feel I have done my duty by including this book in my readings of Martian tales, and I’d read its sequel to kill some time, but it’s not something I’ll be in a hurry to seek out. I would recommend it to those who are fond of the old Flash Gordon stories.

War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges.

Hedges War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning

Chris Hedges wrote War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning after the events of September 2001, but before the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the 21st century that make it all the more painful to read today. About two thirds of the text is memoir, but in the form of anecdotes pressed into service for a war correspondent’s reflections about the perennial nature of war and what it does to societies and individuals. Many of these stories are grueling to read, and Hedges very consciously straddles a line on which he hopes to make patent the attractions of war without himself glamorizing it.

There are many literary references in this book, especially to the classics of antiquity which Hedges studied at Harvard during a hiatus in his work as a journalist. He gives these their due as evidence of the enduring attributes of war, but he avoids elevating them into sanction for it. He also returns at various points to his own need for literary sustenance in the midst of war (e.g. 90, 169).

In his introduction, Hedges disclaims a pacifist agenda. He writes that his aim is “a call for repentance” in the face of growing US military hubris. The book is concerned with the ways in which war is fostered by the dehumanizing falsehoods of nationalism, destroying culture and erecting an abstract “cause” to which life must be subordinated. Hedges proposes memory and love as the antidotes to the martial impulse, where these are rooted in lived contact with others, particularly across ethnic and religious divides. Unfortunately, this book is as timely now as when it was first published, and there is no real likelihood that it will become irrelevant in the foreseeable human future.

And Go Like This

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews And Go Like This: Stories by John Crowley.

Crowley And Go Like This

Of all the Early Reviewers books I’ve received through LibraryThing, my copy of John Crowley’s And Go Like This was most like a bound proof, rather than a finished book. The author’s foreword is only an excerpt, and the acknowledgements page says only “TK” (i.e., to come). However, with one exception, all of the dozen stories here are previously published, and so there’s no reason to think that the body of the book is incomplete–though it still shows some widows and orphans in its page layouts.

I had previously read the stories “In the Tom Mix Museum,” “And Go Like This,” and “This Is Our Town” in the earlier and shorter collection Totalitopia. Each of these is a sound tale with Crowley’s reliably beautiful prose, but none of them would necessarily be motive to pursue this volume. “And Go Like This” has more than a whiff of shaggy dog about it, while “This Is Our Town” is highly nostalgic all the way to its closing evocation of Julian of Norwich. “In the Tom Mix Museum” is similarly a child’s-perspective confection but only a one-page vignette.

Several of the longer stories in the volume, “The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines” along with the triptych of stories that make up “Mt. Auburn Street,” center their attention on aging, reminiscence, and disability. Crowley has certainly had some practice with these themes, and his handling of them here is engaging and deeply humane.

The three stories that I found most gratifying were suitably placed at the end of the book. “Flint and Mirrors” is framed as a fantasy of the Renaissance by Fellowes Kraft, the author of the nested fictions within Crowley’s Aegypt novels. It features Doctor Dee briefly, but it centers on the Irish chieftain Hugh O’Neill. It evokes the paradoxes of empire as well as a persistence of magic that reminded me even more of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell than it did of the Dee material in Aegypt.

“Conversation Hearts” seems to have some strong autobiographical inflections, with a principal character who shares his given name with the author John. It is somewhat metafictional, nesting a juvenile fantasy in the adult literary short story, but connecting them through theme and moral. Even more autobiographical is the final story “Anosognosia,” the only one to appear for the first time in this book. It is dedicated to Paul Park, whose “Roumanian” fantasy Crowley had praised in an essay for the Boston Review (reprinted in Totalitopia). Crowley noted the autobiographical features of Park’s portal fantasy and admired the way that it gave higher ontological status to the magic-imbued alternate history than it did to the one that resembled our quotidian world. In “Anosognosia” Crowley turns the same trick, giving the protagonist John C. an awareness of his two parallel lives and a choice between them. This story also connected for me with the alternative history of Kim Stanely Robinson’s “Lucky Strike” and the author-as-character twists of Sarah Pinsker’s “And Then There Were (N-One).” With significant parts of it in the form of psychological counselor’s notes and session transcripts, it also recalled to me the shifting realities of Doris Lessing’s Briefing for a Descent into Hell.

On the whole I enjoyed this book, though not as much as any of Crowley’s novels.

The Believer

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Believer [also].

The Believer Magazine 126 August/September 2019

For my money, The Believer is the best mass-market magazine around. I picked up the first issue as an impulse buy on a newsstand in 2003, and I’ve kept with it ever since. Although its editorial policy seems to indicate that it’s about books, it covers all sorts of expressive media (film, music, games), philosophical matters, popular and recondite history, and even a little bit of politics occasionally. The feature essays are dependably terrific. The magazine reliably includes juicy interviews with intriguing personalities, and even co-interviews, or conversations of a more equilibrated sort. The reader letters column is brief, but delectably quirky. Each issue includes a “schema,” or chart which provides a synthetic overview of an odd topic, e.g.: “Drinking Games from around the World” (October 2010), often with a connection to other content in that issue. 

The production values of the magazine are sort of “anti-glossy”: it’s glue-bound like a journal, with uncoated, heavy paper. A recent LTE praised its aroma. There’s solid color used in the design, but full-process color only appeared gradually, originally being omitted entirely. (The same timeline saw the eventual introduction of rare full-page ads; originally it was ad-free.) Small black and white drawings are sprinkled through the magazine; each issue showcases a different artist in this fashion. A couple of each year’s ten issues include media inserts, like music CDs, DVDs, or posters. 

Ultimately, The Believer is a curious periodical that’s actually aimed at intelligent, thoughtful people who care about culture. The content tends to support sustained reflection, and shows a profound sense of humor. In a way, it’s like the polar opposite of Reader’s Digest.

Laws of Form

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Laws of Form by G Spencer-Brown.

Spencer-Brown Laws of Form

Prior to the vogue of fractal geometry, Laws of Form was conceded by many to be the trippiest math book around. Reading a passage at random out of context might leave one wondering whether the text was political theory, aesthetics, or some other form of philosophy. In his efforts to explicate a Boolean arithmetic underlying the algebra of formal logic, Spencer-Brown works in a conceptually “degenerate” environment where one must attempt to understand the sparest ideas without any systemic framing. The results are positively mystical. 

“[F]or any boundary, to recross is not to cross.” Thelemites will recognize a more rigorous exposition of what Aleister Crowley attempted to express by 0 = 2.

Mason & Dixon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon.

Pynchon Mason Dixon

Mason & Dixon is the only Pynchon book I’ve read twice: once on my own, and once aloud with my Other Reader. It’s a downright hilarious tome, and only funnier if you’re familiar with the larger Pynchon oeuvre for the coy references that start with the parabolic trajectory in the opening sentence. If the rocket of Gravity’s Rainbow is merely a snowball in this novel, that’s a wonderful thing. Despite the book’s heft, it has a real intimacy, and–in many senses of the word–domestication. The Pynchonian playfulness works itself out on a more human level, and while there are still views of social and cosmic tragedy that strike hard and chill, this weave of historical improbabilities and personal yarns leaves the savvy reader with a flushed and slushy sense of satisfaction. 

Pynchon offers Mason and Dixon as a pair of characters that are almost a diagrammatic odd couple: the mournful encompassing astronomer, and the cheerily square land-surveyor. But for all that, they are never mere allegorical poles. Unlike earlier Pynchon protagonists, who seem to dissolve under the force of the author’s manifold micro-plots, Mason and Dixon actually become more coherent and characterful from start to finish. 

This volume doesn’t even pretend to be anything but fiction within fiction, but I give it more points for capturing the likely weirdness of its place(s) and period than any number of naive or revisionist pictures of the nascent United States. And if the worth of history is to give us a sense of the origin of our own perspectives and values, Pynchon seems to have done real historical work here. All of the crazy anachronisms and supernatural oddities just help the reader maintain the sort of healthy and happy skepticism such enterprises should always have at hand.

The Deeds of the Disturber

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Deeds of the Disturber by Elizabeth Peters.

Peters The Deeds of the Disturber

“Compared to London, Egypt is a veritable health resort,” remarks Amelia Peabody Emerson in this fifth of the novels which she narrates. This one is the first, though, which is set principally in England, with a mere bit of preamble beforehand in Egypt, for a geographic reversal of the prior books. This change also condenses the time-line, so that readers don’t have to wait until the next year’s archaeological season in Egypt to pick up the thread of the story.

Radcliffe Emerson is supposed to be working on his scholarly treatise in London, but it goes without saying that solving puzzling crimes precludes such pedestrian concerns for most of the story. The book is positively bursting with contempt for British Museum curator and egyptologist E. A. Wallis Budge, an accurately-named historical character despite the occasional reference to “Madame Blatantowski” and other semi-pseudonymous Victorian figures. 

The Deeds of the Disturber has nearly everything one could wish for from a novel in this line: perplexing murders, ominous curses, sinister ceremonies, romantic jealousies, syphilitic aristocrats, and an opium den. A series of incidents involving the young Ramses and his visiting cousins doesn’t reveal itself as a parallel plot until very late in the story. As a continuation of the previous books, it further develops a number of existing characters–not only the Emersons and their household, but also the journalist Kevin O’Connell–and the new ones it adds are all interesting. The mystery element is amply puzzling, and some pieces of it even defeat Amelia herself until all is revealed to the reader’s satisfaction.