Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

The Origin of Satan

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics by Elaine Pagels.

Pagels The Origin of Satan

Elaine Pagels’ Origin of Satan has surprisingly little to say about Satan as such. She notes in her introduction that she doesn’t intend to enter the crowded field of existing scholarship regarding the cultural, symbolic, literary and psychological genealogies of Satan (xviii). Her ambition instead is to examine the social motives and consequences of the Satan figure in the formation of ideas in early Christianity and related movements. The way she pursues this goal is by using Satan’s appearance in Hebrew apocalypses and apocrypha, Christian gospels, and patriarchal writings as an index of enmity. The identification of Satan with particular figures in these literatures allows Pagels to trace the self-definition of Christianity by its opposition to Jews, pagans, and heretics.

She starts with the context of the imperial war in Palestine at the start of the Christian era, highlighting the objectively surprising fact that the Romans do not appear as the chief villains in the Gospel of Mark. Her interpretive work on the four canonical gospels accounts for about half of the book, and serves to adumbrate the development of Christian identities within, against, and in lieu of Judaism. Naturally, these same scriptural facts account for the intractability of anti-Semitism in subsequent Christian history.

Pagels writes of the four gospels that “everyone who interprets the texts has to sort out the tradition to some extent, and to reconstruct, however provisionally, what may have happened, and correspondingly, what each evangelist added, and for what reasons” (94). She’s wrong here. It’s not at all necessary to identify a factual model when interpreting and evaluating parallel (or reiterated) narratives. Pagels is obviously comfortable with the notion that the Christian Satan is a product of mythopoeia. Why wouldn’t this be the case of his opponent Jesus, who is defined within the same literature–and who, in the earliest texts, appears just as vaporous and metaphysical as Satan or the Essene Prince of Light? Pagels is quite evidently a Liberal Christian, who needs a “real Jesus” to buttress her interpretations, and she demonstrates this shortcoming in the conclusion of the book, where she invokes this character as a teacher of reconciliation and an explicit and overriding alternative to a champion in the fight against evil powers.

The sections of the book that I found most rewarding were the chapters on paganism and Gnosticism. Despite my familiarity with the subject matter, there were any number of new details and realizations prompted by viewing the material through this lens. These two sets of enemies are the stigmata of key developments in Christianity: the shift from radicalism to establishment and the formation of orthodoxy. The account of Tertullian’s promotion of mental heat death is as mortifying as the picture of Valentinian heresiarchy is inspiring.

The Origin of Satan is a short book in a popular style (albeit with scholarly end-notes and references to more academic works). I enjoyed it, but I learned less from it than I had from the author’s earlier work Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. Both books have similar scopes and concerns in the effort to relate early Christian teachings to social problems at a profound historical level. Considering how quickly they read, they are both worth the bother.

Religion and the Decline of Magic

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England by Keith Thomas.

Thomas Religion and the Decline of Magic

Although scholarly interest in the topic has only increased in the subsequent decades, Religion and the Decline of Magic has not become obsolete. It is a voluminous history of magic in sixteenth and seventeenth-century England, with particular attention to its social and religious context. The style is that of a sort of old-fashioned documentary history, with copious references to primary and near-primary sources.

The first sections of the book establish the context, with an empirical attitude and a lot of careful observation. Author Keith Thomas weighs issues of elite and popular cultures, as well as Catholic, Protestant, and dissenting religion. He notes, “The conventional distinction between a prayer and a spell seems to have been first hammered out, not by the nineteenth-century anthropologists, with whom it is usually associated, but by sixteenth-century Protestant theologians” (69).

General areas of inquiry within “magic” for this book include healing, prophecy, astrology, ghosts, fairies, omens, and witchcraft. A large section towards the end provides a thorough summation of the English witch-craze, how it differed from its Continental counterpart, and how it subsided. Thomas is no fan of Murray-style theories of pagan survival for the witchcraft of this period. His analysis also shows up how accused witches’ subaltern status and their justified ressentiment of those they had supposedly hexed were considered culpable in the theory that defined and indicted them.

Thomas observes that skepticism about magic was never entirely absent, even while larger cultural trends saw its credit wax and wane. The Elizabethan period seems to have been part of a long peak of magical operation in the early modern era. But “By 1655 Meric Causabon could go so far as to declare that every case of religious ecstasy was no more than ‘a degree and species of epilepsy'” (172). The “decline” that began in the 17th century hit its nadir in the 18th, and the modern occultism of our contemporary world had its practical origins in the 19th, a larger course that Thomas treats briefly in his final chapters.

Those final chapters include an analysis in which he concludes that magic was not, in fact, made obsolete by scientific and technological achievement. On the contrary, there was a shift toward naturalistic explanation and against magic that preceded the significant advances of experimental science, and may have helped to make them possible. The shift in mentality may well have been a byproduct of the religious conflicts of the age. “Many post-Reformation writers busied themselves establishing the criteria by which one might distinguish a divine intimation from a diabolical imposture or the effects of indigestion” (151). Ultimately, systematization of efforts to “test the spirits” may have led to their banishment from intellectual culture.

This book is big–about 800 pages of expository, academic prose–and it took me a long while to read it all the way through, as it had to compete with an assortment of other current reading projects. At many points during my read, though, I was reminded of two works of fiction. The Aegypt cycle of John Crowley (where Thomas is one of several historians credited with influence in a prefatory note) is a tale about the decline of magic that evokes parallels between the 17th century described by Thomas and the demise of the 20th-century counterculture. Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a story about a spectacular rebirth of magic immediately following the historical decline outlined by Thomas. Readers who enjoyed either of those could find a lot to engage them in the manifold details of this factual account.

Alan Moore’s Another Suburban Romance

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Alan Moore’s Another Suburban Romance by Alan Moore, illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp.

Moore Alan Moore's Another Suburban Romance

This book contains more black-and-white comics adaptations from Alan Moore’s non-comics oeuvre, in the vein of his Magic Words. This time, the three components are all parts of a single (though rather discontinuous) performance piece, and all of the art is by Juan Jose Ryp. 

The first segment “Judy Switched Off the TV” is a little ho-hum. I think I would have enjoyed either the text or the illustrations better if they had not been together, simply because the pictures were such a literal translation of the words. Either one would be surreal, but in combination they seemed mechanical.

The second and longest portion “Old Gangsters Never Die” has more substance, but the sense of the pictures being completely at the service of the words is still there. This failing is of course ironic, since talented comics writer Moore’s writing for comics generally avoids this particular fault.

Moore himself is depicted as the central character of the final episode “Another Suburban Romance.” In this case, the text is sufficiently sparse, and the creative inclusion of Moore’s portraits is helpfully destabilizing, so that the art feels much more rewarding. All of the illustrations in this section are full-page panels or two-page spreads, which allow Ryp’s maniacal level of detail to be shown to full advantage.

Alan Moore’s Magic Words

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Alan Moore’s Magic Words by Alan Moore, illustrated by Juan Jose Ryp, with introduction (in the deluxe edition) by Warren Ellis.

Moore Alan Moore's Magic Words

Magic Words is a short anthology of Alan Moore’s song lyrics and brief poetry, adapted for comics by an able assortment of artists. Unlike Moore’s arm’s-length relationship to the cinematic transformations of his work, he is credited here as a “consulting editor.” 

This project bears comparison to the adaptation of Moore’s Light of Thy Countenance, which I have read previously. The production values are lower here (only black and white for the interior art), but despite the variable quality of the individual pieces in Magic Words, the best of them certainly surpass Light of Thy Countenance in exploiting the comics medium. 

In particular, the illustrations for “14.2.99” add a further layer of meaning to the text that is still sympathetic with it. On the downside, the art on the title page of that piece (which appears similarly on the inside back cover) was evidently drawn as a 2-page landscape spread, but has been rotated 90° to fit onto a single page, losing the orientation and confusing the rich detail of Juan Jose Ryp’s fine portrait of teledildonic rapture.

The artists here are all clearly sympathetic to Moore’s larger themes and ambitions–and they were probably thrilled to have the opportunity to work with his texts. Illustrators Vicente Cifuentes and Alfredo Torres bring into play the Moon & Serpent motif that is central to Moore’s magical cultus, even while adapting texts that don’t specify it. The lead item, Jacen Burrow’s rendition of “The Hair of the Snake that Bit Me,” features it by necessity.

The book concludes with what amounts to a set of liner notes and an audio discography. Besides documenting Moore’s musical and performing history, this article provides some broad outlines of his claimed magical attainment: Neophyte to Magus in a six-year period concluding on April 11, 2002.

The aggregate result may be trivial for a casual reader, but it is very engaging for someone familiar with the esoteric elements of Moore’s work.

Painted Black

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Painted Black: From Drug Killings to Heavy Metal—The Alarming True Story of How Satanism is Terrorizing Our Communities by Carl A Raschke.

Raschke Painted Black

Author Raschke abuses his academic credentials in this sensationalistic and dishonest presentation about contemporary Satanism, which uses a scholarly format to offer garden-variety paranoia, tying together such disparate phenomena as the Matamoros drug murders, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and the aesthetics of heavy metal music. Painted Black provided a great assist to rumor panics in the early 1990s, and to professional scaremongers and scapegoaters then and since. The book is full of false details and baseless claims. In the final section on popular culture, Raschke laughably demonizes innocuous fantasy role-playing gamers. 

The photographic plates are the main reason I keep this book around. Several of them (obtained by the photographer under false pretenses) depict the old Aleister Crowley Oasis temple, where I received my first Thelemic initiations.

In the Tavern of Ruin

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews In the Tavern of Ruin: Seven Essays on Sufism by Javad Nurbakhsh.

Nurbakhsh In the Tavern of Ruin

Javad Nurbakhsh was the longtime head of one of the schools of the Nimatullahi Sufi order. His organizing was originally based in Iran, but he was instrumental in bringing this order (or tariqa) to the West, both prior to and more so after his emigration following the ascension of Iran’s revolutionary government. When this edition of In the Tavern of Ruin was issued, it included fifteen postal addresses for the order in the US and Europe–although it is not specified whether these were all actual locations of khaniqas, or simply contact addresses. 

“The Tavern of Ruin” is a name for the “spiritual state” that succeeds fana (i.e. annihilation, translated by Nurbakhsh as “self-having-passed-away-in-God”), and is thus parallel to the City of the Pyramids in Thelemic parlance. The book under this title is a collection of five essays, a lecture, and a FAQ. The lecture and the FAQ, being both very general in scope, have a certain amount of redundancy between them. Throughout the collection, which is listed as the first in a numbered series of Nurbakhsh’s works, there are block quotes from past Sufi masters, usually in poetry, at a rate of one or two per page. 

The essay on “Steps of the Path” is a very wide-angle view, more concerned to stress the nature of Sufi attainment than to review the details of the process. By contrast, the “Sama” essay, regarding the Sufi’s mystical experience of music as a specific practice, is quite technical and prescriptive. Another piece of the latter type is “The Rules and Manners of the Khaniqah,” which concerns itself with the governance and customs of the residential facilities (or profess-houses) of the Nimatullahi Order. I found this piece to be of special interest; it comprehends ethical, ritual, and cultural topics. The final essay of the book is “Master and Disciple,” which provides a distinct Sufi perspective on the traditional mysticism of guru yoga as deployed in many systems, including that of A∴A∴.

In several of the texts in this volume, Nurbakhsh goes out of his way to remonstrate against false Sufis. Despite a genuine ascetic tradition in the history of Sufism, he insists that asceticism is essentially foreign to Sufi work, and that ascetic practices are only prescribed therapeutically for certain aspirants. As an organizer, Nurbakhsh was understandably concerned about fakirs and “those who call themselves Sufis” confusing aspirants and soiling what he saw as an integral tradition. The non-Nimatullahi reader may take some of these statements with a grain of salt, however.

Sorcerers

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sorcerers by Jacob Needleman.

Needleman Sorcerers

Author Needleman is not known for his fiction, but rather his popularizing efforts on religion and philosophy, as well as academic work in the same fields. Sorcerers was his first novel, and the substance would mark it as young adult literature–a short, digestible coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old protagonist–but the packaging seems to be directed to an adult audience. The story is concerned with magic of at least three kinds: the stage magic of the illusionist’s craft, the magic of supernatural power, and the magic of spiritual realization. 

There is certainly an autobiographical component: Needleman has put his central character Elliot Appleman in the 1950s Philadelphia where the author himself grew up, but the supernatural elements of the story suggest that it is quite fictional. Thaumaturgical characters with names like Irene Angel and Max Falkoner lend it the sense of allegorical fable, which the naturalistic setting helps to ameliorate. 

Needleman’s works are often informed by his embrace of the teachings originating with G. I. Gurdjieff, and that seems to be the case here as well. In particular, the lessons that Elliot receives from Max are concerned with using disciplined bodily movement to break free of psychic automatism, and the ethic emphasized is one of conscience and awakening. But the presentation of these ideas is free of sectarian baggage, and the same story might be read as a Thelemic parable, with a focus on gradual initiation and True Will.

The narrative highlights of Sorcerers are distinctly initiatory in character. There is a quite affective (and effective!) ceremony of Elliot’s induction into the Sorcerer’s Apprentices club for teenage stage magicians. His private instruction from the adult magicians Blake and Falkoner is also a combination of transformative ritual and spiritual filiation. The climax and denouement in the book’s fourth part could be read as a single event in which various characters are undergoing different initiations peculiar to their own grades. 

Unusually, but not inappropriately, the story ends with a benediction on the reader.

The King in the Golden Mask

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The King in the Golden Mask by Marcel Schwob, translated and afterword by Kit Schluter.

Schwob Schluter The King in the Golden Mask

The Wakefield Press edition of The King in the Golden Mask is the first complete English translation of this 1892 collection of short stories in French by Marcel Schwob. Translator Kit Schluter provides an afterword which positions the book in Schwob’s oeuvre and traces the author’s impressive subsequent influence on aesthetic movements and literary writers around the world. Each story is dedicated to one of Schwob’s contemporaries, a range of figures including Anatole France and Oscar Wilde.

The twenty-one stories are all vivid and well-suited to our short 21st-century attention spans. They generally begin in media res and often conclude without much plot resolution, so that they tend to fall towards the vignette within the spectrum of forms. Settings are mostly historical, and the language is often opaquely archaic, an effect that Schluter has been at some effort to sustain. Principal characters range among “lepers, embalming women, eunuchs, murderers, demoniacs, and pirates” and others (3). As Schwob avers in his foreword, the mask is a recurrent (if not ubiquitous) trope among the stories, and he intimates a sort of Derridean trace unifying the superficially fragmented book.

Favorites for me included the eschatological “Terrestrial Fire,” the medieval documentation of “The Sabbat at Mofflaines,” and the science-fictional “Talking Machine.”

Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle by Pierre Klossowski, translated by Daniel W Smith.

Klossowski Smith Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle

Pierre Klossowski’s magisterial reading brings into relief the seductive character of the ordeals involved with Nietzsche’s sicknesses and anti-sociality. Although Nietzsche felt compelled to communicate the circulus vitiosus Deus and thus to clothe it in concepts, it is not chiefly a doctrine. Like the “Kingdom of God” of Jesus, or the “Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel” of the Master Therion, the Eternal Return is in fact an experience that overcomes rational identity even as it validates the numinous self. The incoherence of this experience is of a piece with the absurdity of its prophet and his apparent descent into buffoonery and madness.

In discussing such matters as “valetudinary states” (i.e. experiences of illness), the Eternal Return, and the semiotics of the ineffable corporeal impulse, Klossowski makes extensive use of Nietzsche’s private correspondence and manuscript fragments. As he demonstrates, Nietzsche viewed the Eternal Return as a secret knowledge that–in virtue of its very nature–could not be communicated openly, and so these texts from outside of the canonical Nietzsche corpus are indispensable. In the original French edition, these were presented without proper citations, and it was a heroic work of translators Ronald Vouillé and Donald W. Smith (into German and English respectively) to have produced the apparatus which properly identifies their sources in the Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienaufgabe and other posthumous editions.

Klossowski, who did not call himself a philosopher, often seems concerned to rescueNietzsche from his 20th-century rehabilitation in the philosophical discipline. Although Klossowski was a student of Georges Bataille and dedicated Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle to Gilles Deleuze, the text is free of explicit references to or arguments with other Nietzsche scholars. At the same time, it deserves to be read in agonistic contact with the interpretations provided by Martin Heidegger, Walter Kaufmann, and others. This book has evidently had a significant influence on later French theorists such as Michel Foucault, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jean Baudrillard.

One unusual merit of Klossowski’s study is the extent to which he takes seriously Nietzsche’s oracular function. More than once, Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle pauses to consider the extent to which the world of the middle 20th century had met, and in some cases surpassed, the social and cultural prognostications offered by Nietzsche, who believed that the product of his contemplation might “break the history of humanity in two.” (100, 230) In exercising his “religious, that is to say god-forming, instinct,” Nietzsche contemplated “God as a maximal state, as an epoch.” (209, 107) The perfection of the individual relative to this epoch is to operate unassuaged of purpose. “Nietzsche’s unavowable project is to act without intention: the impossible morality.” (140)

As blurber Graham Parkes remarks, Klossowski’s book is “profound, but extremely taxing.” To profit from it requires prior familiarity with Nietzsche’s biography and writings. It will not serve as an introduction to Nietzsche’s work, but it remains one of the most penetrating examinations of the anti-system which that work adumbrates.

Sidelights on Relativity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Sidelights on Relativity by Albert Einstein.

Einstein Sidelights on Relativity

The two brief lectures in this volume are each interesting in their own right, although there is little to unify them beyond concern for the most foundational aspects of the science of physics. 

The first, on “Ether and the Theory of Relativity,” treats the now-quaint-sounding topic of the luminiferous ether, which seems to have gone the way of phlogiston and other obsolete scientific topics. Surprisingly, Einstein insists that there is a role for the ether concept in relativistic physics! It is, however, a “gravitational ether” from which every mechanical characteristic has been eliminated, and which is therefore just as easily denominated as space. Although this paper avoids mathematical and experimental details, a certain prior familiarity with the history of modern physics is very useful in appreciating it, since Einstein races through an extensive series of theorists in his summary of the evolution of the ether concept. 

The second paper begins by offering the distinction between geometry as an axiomatic philosophical undertaking, and the empirical physical science of “practical geometry.” Einstein explains that the effort to adjust physical laws to accommodate known events and behaviors to the axiomatic system of Euclidean geometry was in fact a driving force behind the theory of relativity, even though it eventually became necessary to posit non-Euclidean space as a result of that theory. The later part of the paper is concerned to permit novices to acquire an imaginative appreciation of finite but unbounded spaces–in particular spaces curved through the fourth dimension in a hyperspherical fashion.