Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism by Robert Gooding-Williams.

Gooding-Williams Zarathustra's Dionysian Modernism

Gooding-Williams offers an extremely thorough and considered reading of Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra. As the title indicates, he favors a modernist understanding that stresses an effort to innovate and progress beyond received intellectual and moral frameworks. He confronts and contradicts Paul de Man’s perlocutionary pessimism in the body of his text, while also providing extensive annotations that position Gooding-Williams’s conclusions relative to a vast field of secondary literature.

Throughout his analyses, Gooding-Williams emphasizes the ambivalence and doubt involved with Zarathustra’s aspirations (and thus Nietzsche’s ambitions). He offers the stutter as a key attribute of the text, with incomplete repetitions halting desired advances. And yet he brings out the persistently future-oriented aspect of Zarathustra’s project, along with Nietzsche’s desire to interrupt the repetition of an exhausted Platonic-Christian value system.

The analysis of the doctrine of eternal recurrence makes up a substantial portion of the study. Gooding-Williams helpfully proposes to distinguish among the different forms of recurrence as approached in the context of the “Three Metamorphoses” sketched at the outset of Zarathustra: thus the Camel’s idea of recurrence differs from that of the Lion, which is not the same as the Child’s idea of eternal recurrence. I found a similar disaggregation of the concept of “redemption” to be somewhat less clear–his jargon of redemption1, redemption2, etc. tended to get in the way of his meaning.

Overall, Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism provides an insightful and highly coherent approach to this monumental work of imaginative philosophy.

The Arcanum

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Arcanum by Thomas Wheeler.

Wheeler The Arcanum

The Arcanum is an occult thriller centered on historical personalities, and set in New York City, 1919. The team of protagonists are brought out of retirement following the assassination of the adept who had first organized them. The heroes themselves are portrayed with varying levels of fidelity to historical detail: Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, Marie Laveau, and H.P. Lovecraft. 

Of the four, Lovecraft gets the roughest handling from author Wheeler: the rationalist skeptic is represented as a credulous “demonologist.” This portrayal is in contrast with real HPL, who expressed his perspective in a letter to Robert E. Howard: “All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.” (1932) Or his blunt remark in even earlier correspondence: “The Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE.”

In fact, the occultism of The Arcanum is very non-Lovecraftian; it is centered on a quasi-Biblical sort of Nephilim mythology of the sort often found in comic books or horror movies. Add a dash of Ghostbusters: the “Eltdown Shard” contraption that serves as a convenient demon-detector operated by HPL is made of steampunk fail: it is steam-powered and transistorized, and spits out little Matrix-like glyphs and symbols. The demons and angels which are so central to the story are haplessly corporeal creatures with no real whiff of externality about them. 

Naturally, a tale of the occult set in 1919 New York includes a few appearances by Aleister Crowley. The Beast isn’t exactly treated sympathetically, but he’s not really a cardinal villain either. To the extent that he is relevant, he actually helps the heroes. Wheeler makes Crowley tremendously intelligent and inscrutable, and the only misplaced details are the repetitive description of his “bulging eyes,” and people addressing him familiarly as “Aleister” (rather than “AC”).

This book is the first novel of an experienced screenwriter, and it certainly shows. Nothing in Wheeler’s text could not be done more efficiently and effectively on a screen. That applies especially to the train-centered chase episode near the book’s end! All of the supernatural elements are described as if to provide specs for effects engineers. Still, keeping to such conventions certainly makes the narrative accessible and fast-paced.

A Book of Surrealist Games

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews A Book of Surrealist Games compiled by Alastair Brotchie, edited by Mel Gooding.

Brotchie Gooding A Book of Surrealist Games

“[T]he game became a system, a method of research, a means of exaltation and stimulus, a mine, a treasure-trove and finally, perhaps, a drug.” –Simone Collinet (144)

In this very little volume, editor Mel Gooding describes and compiler Alastair Brotchie demonstrates the centrality of games to the Surrealist enterprise. An inventory of ludic methods indicate how texts, images, discursive events, and other objects are produced through the application of automatism, chance, and the absorption of individual efforts into transpersonal aggregates. 

The fourth of the four sections consists primarily of source notes and commentaries, and even includes a list of the “known” Surrealist games which are not represented among the recipes and samples in the collection. There are two useful bibliographies: one an abridgement of Kurt Seligman’s 1943 bibliography of Surrealist works (133), the other Brotchie’s own pointers for “Further Reading in English.” (164) In the very end of the volume, seven pages are occupied by “The Little Surrealist Dictionary.” 

A Book of Surrealist Games is admirably designed, with a built-in bookplate on the inside front cover, many black-and-white reproductions of Surrealist visual works, and portraits of key 20th-century Surrealists. The game instructions are in most cases perfectly lucid, and ready for practical application.

Pasadena Babalon

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Pasadena Babalon by George D Morgan.

Morgan Pasadena Babalon

Pasadena Babalon is George Morgan’s 2009 dramatic depiction of the life of rocketry pioneer and occultist Jack Parsons. As such, it was preceded by the 47-minute Jet-Propelled Antichrist (2006) of Ackerman and DuQuette and followed by the ongoing Strange Angel (2018- ) television series of Mark Heyman. Pasadena Babalon debuted onstage at the California Institute of Technology in 2010, and my copy of the book represents the “12/15/2014 draft” of the script.

Most of the play’s characters are historical persons, and the fictional ones are carefully distinguished in the “character breakdown” prefaced to the text. Given the facts that Mason gets right and some of the emphases of his presentation, I suspect that he relied heavily on the 2005 Parsons biography Strange Angel by George Pendle. Like Pendle, Mason starts the story with the explosion in which Parsons died.

The play uses a few “FBI-ish” interrogation scenes with Jack as a suspected Communist to create narrative framing. One invented character is Madam B, a clairvoyant boarder at Parsons’ Pasadena mansion who supplies dramatic irony by accurately telling their fates to those she encounters. There are a few scenes with cleverly-written fugues and montages to represent such developments as the Arroyo Seco rocketry experiments and Jack’s stint at JPL. Another effective dramatic element consists of astral colloquies between Jack and and his spiritual father Crowley.

The script’s representations of Thelemic occultism are largely shallow and unpersuasive. Despite the mention of sex magick, Jack’s ritual praxis is reduced to chants in dog Latin more suited to Harry Potter. The repeated references to “the Babalon Goddess” are clinkers in Thelemic argot. Another is having Helen refer to “the Laws of Thelema.”

In my own reading, I was in part concerned to evaluate the text as a possible candidate for readers theater within a private study group. Ultimately, I decided that it would not serve this purpose well, in part because of the aforementioned fugues, and in part because of the extent to which visual staging elements are intrinsic to the presentation. I did find the read entertaining, and I certainly would go out of my way to attend a full staging of the play.

The Dionysian Vision of the World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Dionysian Vision of the World by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, trans. Ira J Allen, introduction by Friedrich Ulfers.

Nietzsche Allen Ulfers The Dionysian Vision of the World

Die dionysische Weltanschauung” is an 1870 essay by Nietzsche, here translated by Ira J. Allen on the basis of the text published in 1928. Portions of it were incorporated wholesale into Nietzsche’s 1872 first book The Birth of Tragedy, and there are elements in it that foreshadow his later works such as Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I had expected that it might be more conventionally philological, a work of mere classicist erudition, but it already shows Nietzsche attempting to break with mainstream notions of language and psychology, and responding to Hegel and Schopenhauer regarding the nature of the Will and its relationship to things evident and existent.

The essay develops into a tight orbit around the notion of Ton (“tone,” tonos, etc.), carefully kept in view by the translator in his translation and notes alike. This edition uses s p a c i n g for emphasis, rather than bold or italics, as did the original text, and Allen relates this feature to the sense of “stretching” in tonos. The emphasis on the “Dionysian demand” of music (50) was doubtless related to Nietzsche’s involvement at the time with Richard and Cosima Wagner, and was further developed in The Birth of Tragedy.

Nietzsche’s strident philhellenism in this essay made an interesting contrast with another text I happened to read during the same interval: the prologue to Blake’s Milton, which conspicuously sides with Jerusalem over Athens. Of course, Blake was championing the spirit of prophecy in creative originality over against the derivative neo-classicism of his contemporaries. One might legitimately ascribe to Nietzsche a participation in the prophetic spirit as well, although not so plainly here as it came to be in his later works.

In addition to the translator’s forward and notes, this edition includes an interpretive introduction by Friedrich Ulfers that highlights Nietzsche’s engagement with Heraclitus, tacit in this essay but explicit in Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. It also traces other important themes in the essay, any of which might be helpful to novice readers of Nietzsche.

The Chalice of Ecstasy

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Chalice of Ecstasy: Being a Magical and Qabalistic Interpretation of the Drama of Parzival by a Companion of the Holy Grail Sometimes Called (Hermetic Library Figure) Frater Achad (Charles Stansfeld Jones). Also, find this book at Hermetic Library.

Achad Jones The Chalice of Ecstasy

The Chalice of Ecstasy is an early work by Aleister Crowley’s disciple Charles Stansfeld Jones. It does not involve the novel qabalistic doctrines that Jones later developed (beginning in the appendices to the book Q.B.L., or the Bride’s Reception). The story which Jones is subjecting to interpretation is the Parzival of Richard Wagner (the “drama” i.e. the opera libretto) rather than the ur-text of Wolfram von Eschenbach. The result is a faithful account of the initiatory path as defined through Crowley’s A∴A∴ system. This book should also be of special interest to participants in the Ordo Templi Orientis because of the extent to which symbolism in Parzival is congruent with that of the Order’s central ritual, the Gnostic Mass.

I consider this book to be Jones’ most valuable published work, and it demonstrates why Crowley identified him as a presumptive successor early in the younger magician’s initiatory career.

Militia Christi

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Militia Christi: The Christian Religion and the Military in the First Three Centuries by Adolf Von Harnack, trans. by David McInnes Gracie.

Harnack Militia Christi

This brief monograph was first published in German in 1905, and the present Gracie translation was issued in 1981 on the basis of a 1963 German edition. Harnack’s book remained a useful introduction and reference for its topic throughout the 20th century, with ample citations of ancient texts. The volume is made up of two related essays: “The Christian as Soldier” regarding the incorporation of military ideas in primitive Christian culture, and “The Christian Religion and the Military Profession” regarding the participation of early Christians in the Roman military and the conversion of soldiers to Christianity.

One of the interesting features of this treatment is some of the information about the development of Latin terminology in early Christianity. The term sacramentum, for instance, evidently denoted a military oath before it became used by Christians to signify a holy rite (53-5). The pivot of the usage was evidently the sense of a ceremony of induction (i.e. equally baptism into the church and the formalization of military enlistment). Meanwhile, the Latin word pagani originally meant civilians as opposed to soldiery, and it maintained that sense in the rhetoric of the Western church, while only in the East was it confused with the idea of rusticity (84). The use of pagani as a term for the uninitiate or profane may not even have been novel in Christianity.

Harnack explores the tension between pacifist Christian theology and militarized Christian rhetoric, noting that Hebrew scripture and apocalyptic literature were powerful influences supporting the latter. Ultimately, as Christianity became legitimized in the Empire, Christian culture developed a military conception of clergy to support a command hierarchy within the church, and a warrior framing for ascetics that would persist in the language of monasticism.

I was delighted by Harnack’s recounting of an item of verbal liturgy prescribed to the Roman legions under Constantine, which he praises as “the root of all Christian army and battle songs.” While he admits in a footnote, “The Christian nature of the song could be doubted,” he quickly quashes such doubts–without ever convincing me that the song might not be addressed to the “Supreme, holy God” Sol Invictus rather than the Christian deity (102). This passage is consistent with Harnack’s occasional credulity regarding the contents of Eusebius’ Life of Constantine and other polemical Christian histories from late antiquity.

The Gracie translation eliminated Harnack’s appendix supplying his quoted ancient texts in the original languages, although it retained an “Index of Passages” referencing citations within the monograph. The ample translator’s introduction summarizes the reception of Harnack’s book by other scholars, notably C. John Cadoux, Jean-Michel Hornus, and John Helgeland, along with a brief discussion of the theological motivations that drive the study of this question.

The Seven Witches

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Seven Witches by George Macbeth.

MacBeth The Seven Witches

The Seven Witches is the second of three sexed-up espionage novels centered on the “licensed to screw” British secret service agent Cadbury. Despite her name’s apparent reference to chocolate, the focal honeypot is a blonde.

The title and lurid cover of this pocket paperback had me thinking it would have more occult content than it does. There is one somewhat tawdry ceremonial episode in the eleventh chapter, but the plot revolves around international oil politics, elite prostitution, clandestine pharmaceuticals, and personal revenge. Characters, including the protagonist, are largely unsympathetic. The intelligence establishment and political players are corrupt. The criminal antagonists are fanatical and often myopic.

Author Macbeth disdains the use of punctuation to indicate dialogue, and does a fine job of identifying it through context. All of the action takes place over a single week, although there is a fair amount of reference back to events in the previous Cadbury book, as well as a scene-setting prologue that takes place prior to Cadbury’s bygone recruitment.

This book wasn’t a chore to read, but I doubt that I will bother with either its predecessor or its sequel.

The Visions of the Pylons

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Visions of the Pylons: A Magical Record of Exploration in the Starry Abode by J Daniel Gunther.

Gunther The Visions of the Pylons

The Visions of the Pylons documents a series of magical operations undertaken in the 1970s by Daniel Gunther with the scribal assistance of Richard Gernon. Although the work was premised on the names and sequences supplied in a series of ancient Egyptian texts regarding the Duant (“nether sky”), the visionary results recorded here are very much in line with the conventions of modern hermetic occultism. Moreover, on multiple occasions the guardians, angels, or other speakers manifest a more forthright acceptance and declaration of the Law of Thelema than the human operator demonstrates (N.B. 37 including footnote 14).

In his 21st-century editorial framing, Gunther is at some pains to bracket the more immature perspective he held as a young initiate of A∴A∴ “not yet fully a Philosophus” (129). He supplies a lot of explanatory notes, furnishing context as well as esoteric correspondences that might be lost on a lay reader. It is clear from the content that the magician was well immersed in Aleister Crowley’s doctrinal writings, perhaps in some respects more than the later editor. For example, when the seer relates, “Thus it is said, Thou must slay the serpent,” the editor opines that it “probably refers to the Hindu legend wherein Krishna commands Arjuna to kill the snake Ashvasena” (109). It seems more likely to me, though, that the allusion was to Crowley’s Magick, where he cautions the practitioner thus:

“When you have killed the snake you can use its skin, but as long as it is alive and free, you are in danger. And unfortunately the ego-idea, which is the real snake, can throw itself into a multitude of forms, each clothed in the most brilliant dress.” (Magick, 71)

Although the text is presented as “a magical record,” there has been a curious editorial decision to assemble the visions in non-chronological order. Instead, they progress through the pylons in their given numbered sequence. In most instances, this does result in a chronological advance, but the “Second Skry” of Pylon Five is placed before the visions obtained for Pylon Six, both of which were in fact earlier operations. Gunther’s editorial remarks make it clear that he came to the Pylons of the Duant with preconceptions about their relationship to the qabalistic sephiroth. Even if those preconceptions had to be revised (as they were) there is still a rigid adherence to the ascending sephirothic pattern. Editorial speculation about “a distinct analogy to the scientific theory of ‘wormholes,’ a hypothetical gateway through spacetime” is not only redolent of the confused effusions of Kenneth Grant, it comes worryingly close to the perspective of the “learned Qabalist” whom Crowley mocks for misunderstanding tantamount to having “maintained that a cat was a creature constructed by placing the letters C.A.T. in that order” (Magick, 141).

The effort to understand the Pylons in qabalistic terms results in an attractive set of color plates diagramming their relationship to the Tree of Life (between 144 and 145). These are similar to analytical work performed by Crowley on his own Liber CDXVIII, and reproduced in the 1998 O.T.O. edition of The Vision & the Voice with Commentary and Other Papers (Equinox IV:2, figures 15-17). Generally the format of The Visions of the Pylons exhibits direct modeling on Liber CDXVIII, although the content of Gunther’s visions is understandably less exalted, with less numinosity and insight than even the early Mexican visions of Crowley’s work in the Enochian Aires. Rather than the “Class A B” imprimatur of Crowley’s book, The Visions of the Pylons is appropriately issued in Class C, which A∴A∴ literature uses to designate “matter which is to be regarded rather as suggestive than anything else” (Magick, 458).

A set of appendices affords full procedural details for the method used in obtaining these visions. Of particular interest is the novel eucharist premised on ancient Egyptian sources and used as a magical engine for the work. This material stands as a clear exhortation and set of tools for further magicians to renew and extend the experimentation documented in this book. After all, Gunther himself only obtained visions for the first seven of twelve Pylons, and he repeatedly expresses his dissatisfaction with the integrity of his results. It may be that a complete exploration of the Duant on these lines would reflect attainment comparable to the full ascent to LIL recounted in The Vision & the Voice, and thus involve initiation to the grade of a Master of the Temple.

This edition also features a laudatory introduction from Italian O.T.O. Grandmaster Phanes, an index by subject matter, and frequent black-and-white illustrations and diagrams. It is as materially handsome as one could wish, and as one might have come to expect from Studio 31 book design.

The Minikins of Yam

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Minikins of Yam by Thomas Burnett Swann.

Swann The Minikins of Yam

This fantasy set in antiquity is of a piece with other work by Thomas Burnett Swann. In this case, the setting is the Old Kingdom of Egypt and its neighboring African realm of Yam. The narrative is grounded in the ancient “Autobiography of Harkhuf” from the reign of Pepi II, and both Harkhuf and the pharaoh figure as central characters here. The chief minikin character Immortelle is not one of the Brown Minikins of Yam, she is rather a Golden Minikin in Yam, visiting there from distant Sappharine. Consistent with Swann’s recurring patterns of story and character, Immortelle is a whore of many virtues.

The minikins of the story are fabulous demi-humans with a portion of gazelle ancestry. Diminutive, horned, and four-fingered, they are more novel than the harpies, minotaurs, dryads, and other classical creatures that Swann often presents, but not quite so exotic as the strange people at the hub of his book Moondust. In addition to the “demons” and other intelligent non-humans of the tale, The Minikins of Yam features some supernatural magic, chiefly in the posthumous persistence of two key characters, Harkhuf’s wife Ti and Immortelle’s partner Tutu.

Typically for Swann, the story includes a number of embedded poems, and proceeds by means of fast-paced narrative and droll dialogue. The DAW edition that I read features a fine cover and interior art by George Barr, who provided the same service for other books by the author.