Tag Archives: T Polyphilus

How to Rule the World

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews How to Rule the World: A Handbook for the Aspiring Dictator by André De Guillaume.

Guillaume How to Rule the World

This little “Handbook for the Aspiring Dictator” made an interesting contrast to another book I was recently reading at about the same time, The Secret School of Wisdom. Both are seemingly heterodox takes on political science with an overarching didactic emphasis, although How to Rule the World is presented as humor from a failed leader of a coup d’état attempted in the 1970s and The Secret School collects translated documents from a secret society suppressed in the 1780s. How to Rule the World expresses a philosophy of governance nearly diametrically opposed to the one encoded in the old Illuminati documents. It is full of quotes and anecdotes from named personalities (versus the rigorous anonymity of the 18th-century documents), and it stresses the exploitation of social resources for individual aggrandizement (versus the cultivation of individual resources for the elevation of society).

I enjoyed Robin Chevalier’s cartoons that pervasively illustrated How to Rule the World. Although the Chicago Review Press has tagged the book “HUMOR” on the corner of the back cover, the satirical elements failed ever to wring a laugh out of me. “It’s funny because it’s true” doesn’t necessarily stick in our second-time-as-farce society. “American real estate developer and mogul” Donald Trump is quoted as a dictatorial exemplar (“Money was never a big motivation for me, except as a way to keep score,” 95). But by that point in my reading, I had already recognized his style in some of the author’s direct instructions, such as this from the section on “Decision-making”:

“In a dictatorship, all-powerful rule centers on making things happen. In coming to any decision, therefore, there are just two things to consider:
– Will my decision confound my enemies?
– Will it make me richer?” (69)

This book was published during the US administration of George W. Bush, who is mentioned only in passing as an “ambitious ruler” with “a big idea” (89). I guess I could have enjoyed it more if I weren’t able to recognize so many of the attributes and propensities of its historical and hypothetical dictators in the current governing class of our putative democracies.

The Secret School of Wisdom

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Secret School of Wisdom: The Authentic Rituals and Doctrines of the Illuminati edited by Josef Wäges and Reinhard Markner, translated by Jeva Singh-Anand.

Singh-Anand Wages Markner The Secret School of Wisdom

Collecting in English translation a full set of internal documents for the program and ceremonies of the original 18th-century German Illuminati order of Adam Weishaupt, The Secret School of Wisdom is an invaluable reference for responsible researchers of the history of secret societies. The book is arranged in a manner comparable to Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn, with a full set of ritual texts in degree order and associated instructional material throughout, almost as if it were a manual for operating the organization in its three ascending “classes”: Minerval, Masonry, and Mysteries.

The ritual content is easily the least interesting feature of the book. The Minerval ceremonies are simple and unremarkable. I was a little surprised to learn that a local organization of Minervals was called a “church.” The preliminary Masonic rituals have nothing to recommend them over any other versions of the Craft degrees as regards symbolism or execution, and the “Scottish” degrees are only of interest in terms of how they construct Masonic authority and connect with the larger structure of the Illuminati Order.

Far more worthwhile are the various instructions regarding recruitment and supervision within the Illuminati system, constitutional and organizing considerations, and the philosophical lectures of the Mysteries class. Even so, much of this material is pretty tame for latter-day readers, especially considering what great alarm and antagonism it was able to inspire when exposed among its contemporaries. Some of the Order’s teachings do promote a critical attitude toward civil and religious institutions, and it is easy to imagine that it would have been a hotbed of republican (i.e. democratic, as opposed to monarchist) politics in the revolution-fostering years of the late 18th century.

These German Illuminati were a forebear order of sorts for Theodor Reuss’ Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). He had previously been an organizer for an Illuminati revival, and retained in OTO certain degree titles from the Illuminati. Those who have studied Reuss’ system will be able to see continuities in both structure and teachings, some of which even persisted through Aleister Crowley’s reform of the order. In particular, the 1903 Reuss and Kellner paper “Von der Geheimnissen der okkulten Hochgraden unseres Ordens“ appears to have been alluding to the teachings of Weishaupt’s advanced Docetist degree. More congenial to later conceptions of OTO is the passage in the Sage degree that includes this set of exclamations:

“Procreative instinct! Most sensual, but also noblest of all drives! Antiquity did not misjudge you, revering you in the phallus, the mysteries of Isis and the orgies of Bacchus! And yet our so-called enlightened times have found offense therein! — Not only do you give us animal life, in you we also find the root of man’s true spiritual life, his felicity, and the perfection of his nature!” (365)

This book is hefty, overflowing with materials that will sometimes seem redundant to the casual reader. Although it is well-organized with a robust table of contents, it does lack an index, which fault will limit its ease of use for researchers wishing to return to its often-curious details. I am satisfied to have given it a thorough read, and I recommend it to those with a serious interest in the historical development of esoteric societies.

The City & the City

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The City & the City by China Miéville.

Mieville The City and The City

The cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy non-congruent, partially overlapping physical space within the same geographic area, but their governments, cultures, and societies have been distinct for many centuries leading up to the early 21st-century setting of this novel. When “in” one city, there is a complete taboo on interacting with or even perceiving the residents and objects of the other. The ability to “unsee” the “alter” is cultivated in natives from childhood, and carefully trained in immigrants. Failure to maintain the distinction is the infraction of “breach,” which is punitively corrected by a mysterious agency called Breach. This unusual premise forms the setting for a noir-styled police procedural story in the voice of Inspector Tyador Borlú, a Besź detective investigating a murder that seems to have crossed the boundary between the cities.

Besides the psychological and cultural conundrums involved in the story, there is a focus on archaeology, both in the conventional paleological sense and in the theoretical Foucauldian one. The history that led to the intertwined situation of the cities is obscure, and the cleaving of one to the other or the cleavage of one from the other is an open question, as is the relationship of each to the “precursors” revealed in archaelogical investigation.

As the tale progresses, characters are given to suspect wheels within wheels made possible by the confinement of perception that the cities require of their denizens. Borlú is in a particular quandary as he seeks to solve the evident crime, but to remain himself free of breach. The pace of the novel is very fast, with three major divisions each characterized by Borlú’s orientation to the peculiar geography of the cities, and each with a different investigative partner for him.

The Ballantine Books edition I read included a Random House “Reader’s Guide” appended to the text, made up of an interview with the author and a set of topics and questions for reading group discussions. The interview was sound enough, but the discussion questions seemed to replicate the concerns of the interview a little closely for my taste. Miéville denies any intention to have written a reducible allegory in this book, but he does allow for its varying figurative significance, with metaphors which touch on politics, philosophy, and psychology.

My copy of the book was a used one, in which the previous reader had done a little highlighting and marginal annotation. As I tried to have an unmediated encounter with the novel, I was at first making an attempt to “unsee” these marks. Later, I discovered that they supplied a recursive adornment to the story, as one of Borlú’s key investigative leads took him to marginalia inscribed by the murder victim. This circumstance gave my reading an eeriness and a strange feeling of over-determination.

I gather that a BBC television miniseries was adapted from this novel, and I can’t for the life of me imagine how they pulled it off. I guess I’ll just have to see at some point.

The City and the Stars

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke.

Clarke The City and the Stars

In his preface, Arthur C. Clarke identifies this 1950s work as a second pass at his first novel (i.e. Against the Fall of Night). I haven’t read the earlier book, but the two share about 25% of their content, and the author presents The City and the Stars as a very complete revision.

The City and the Stars is plot-intensive, and the ratio of major, world-tilting events to page count is quite high. The characters are fairly flat, but the high concepts tend to compensate for that. As is typical for him, Clarke’s futurological intuition is very solid, and in the long lifetime since this book was written there have been no technological developments to trammel up and obsolesce the details of the far future that he offers here. He has virtual reality, distributed computing, matter synthesis, artificial intelligence, non-viviparity, and gravity control as features of a post-imperial no-longer-star-voyaging technocracy.

Although this book has aged reasonably well, it didn’t really blow my mind–especially given how many of its concepts have been taken up and rehearsed in later science fiction works. It is tangent to, if not firmly within, the “dying earth” subgenre, as it features terrestrial posthumanity in a stagnant, insular society. It could have supplied some inspiration for Michael Moorcock’s excellent Dancers at the End of Time books. Another work that may exhibit traces of its influence is John Boorman’s Zardoz. Even Logan’s Run bears some similarities to it in general shape. Clarke’s protagonist Alvin, a “unique” who is in his person a calculated disruption of his engineered, sealed society, seems also to be echoed in the Neo of the Wachowskis’ Matrix movies.

The book as a whole isn’t terribly long, and the short chapters and intense plotting keep it moving at a fast clip.

The World War of Small Pastries

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The World War of Small Pastries by Charles Fourier, introduction by Hermetic Library Fellow Peter Lamborn Wilson.

Fourier The World War of Small Pastries

This little book is a translated excerpt from Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux–a compendious early-19th-century envisioning of Harmony, i.e. the social conditions to supersede and abrogate Civilization. If Harmony had come quickly, the World Wars of European hegemony might have been replaced with the gargantuan conflict of petits patés described here. The ur-socialist Charles Fourier (called by his later detractors “utopian”) proposed the wholesale replacement of what we have come to know as the military-industrial complex by a gastronomic-passional enterprise, where food, sex, and humane service would be the channels by which “the omnimode play of the passions” might be developed in honorable competition among empires.

Peter Lamborn Wilson’s brief introduction supplies a sense of the relation of Fourier to the history of ideas, along with some information on the value of the present text (not published even in the original French for nearly a century and a half after his death). Translators Shawn P. Wilbur and Joan Roelofs offer a reasonably approachable English for this material that is somewhat mystifying regardless, taking for granted as it does the reader’s appreciation of Fourier’s passional calculus along with a future history in which the human population of the globe has reached an abundantly-supplied and sustainable four billion.

There are lacunae and interruptions in the text, which I take to be artifacts of the emergence from manuscript in 1967. These enhance its perversely oracular character with something like the documentary conceit common to older adventure fantasies and science fiction. The basic social unit of Harmony, known in other texts as a phalanstery, is here called a tourbillon. As the translator-editors note, this name “suggests the constant, restless movement by which communities in Harmony find the means of satisfying all the passions” (18 n.).

In the Company of Friends

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews In the Company of Friends: Dreamwork Within a Sufi Group by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.

Vaughan-Lee In the Company of Friends

Author Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee is very consciously speaking from within the Naqshbandi tariqa of Sufism, but the doctrinal aspects of his writing in this book are at least as much a function of Jungianism, where Self, Shadow, and Goddess are key figures. Still, it assumes a high level of somewhat conventional piety in the reader. There were points where I could have believed I was reading a more mainstream sort of post-Behmenist Protestant mysticism.

The subtitle “Dreamwork in a Sufi Group” denotes the context more than the topic of this book. It seems somewhat loosely organized, and the tone is that of sermons, each with one or two dreams that serve as exempla to discuss mystical aspiration and attainment. Several passages emphasize the value of group work to the essentially solitary mystic, as well as the value of dreams to the mystic attempting to awaken a consciousness of the divine. I think I most enjoyed the chapter “People of the Secret,” with its subheadings “Love’s Martyr” (i.e. Al-Hallaj), “The Nature of Longing,” “Sharing the Secrets of Love,” and “The Secret of Seduction.”

Although the essays have both descriptive and hortatory elements, they are not procedural in character. The text is not a cookbook of gnosis. At the same time, it acknowledges the importance of a “tradition” comprehending “rituals and practices”: “This may be through dance, or through prostrations, or through silence. It can be through chanting or pilgrimages, fasting or the sharing of dreams. … We are attracted to a path or lineage that is in tune with our soul, and whose practices will help orient ourself towards our true nature” (170-1).

Vaughan-Lee’s citations are mostly sources familiar to me: Corbin, Massignon, Schimmel, along with Sufi classics and the Qur’an. He received his authority in the Naqshbandi Order from Irina Tweedie, and he refers to her in this book without any explanation of her standing or background. Inspiring a curiosity about her work was perhaps one of the main benefits of this book to me.

Deep Roots

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys.

Emrys Deep Roots

Deep Roots is the third Aphra Marsh story of the mid-century US from the perspective of Lovecraftian “monsters.” While all these tales show a thorough acquaintance with and considerable affection for the whole Lovecraft oeuvre, they each have one or two signal stories to which they refer. In “The Litany of Earth” author Emrys is chiefly working in relation to “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” In Winter Tide she draws on “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” And Deep Roots takes its chief elements from “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.”

“The Whisperer in Darkness” is easily one of my favorite HPL stories, and a rarely-credited seminal tale of extraterrestrial invasion. When it comes to Emrys’ re-visioning of the Mi-Go who are the central menace of that source story, she totally nails it. The last time I felt such a vividly ambivalent attraction to a cosmopolitan alien intelligence was for the Multipliers of Ken MacLeod’s Engine City. Emrys’ treatment of the Dreamlands follows that of the recent Arkham Horror novella by Jennifer Brozek (To Ride the Black Wind) and the Dreamland-native Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson. There are no cats in this book, but the ghouls are important and well-conceived.

I didn’t feel overwhelmed or distracted by new characters in Deep Roots, and it offered some satisfying development of the ones established in the earlier stories. I liked it more than Winter Tide, but I’m not sure how it would work as a standalone read. I think it needs its predecessor stories for proper appreciation. I continue to enjoy Emrys’ work in what has been alleged to be the “mythos” of yog-sothothery, which she more realistically terms a “sandbox.”

From the Legend of Biel

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews From the Legend of Biel by Mary Staton.

Staton From the Legend of Biel

I found my way to this 1974 sf novel by way of a commendation in the occultist memoir In the Center of the Fire. The Legend of Biel was author Mary Staton’s first book, used as the re-launch of publisher Ace’s Science Fiction Special series.

The story is framed as a sort of Clarke-style hard sf involving the investigation of mysterious architecture on an exoplanet MC6, with difficult mission constraints and conflicting motives among the explorers. While this setup intimates a “first contact” scenario, the book never actually presents any non-human intelligence other than the possibly posthuman “Thoacdien.” There are however multiple human civilizations brought into view: the terrestrial humans of the frame story, the utopian telepaths of the Thoacdien Federation, and the indigenous Higgite nation of Thoacdien V.

The protagonist of the frame story is UN scientist Howard Scott, but the “Biel” of the title is the central character of the nested narrative, and she is a mutant child of the Thoacdien polity. Especially toward the end of the book, small sections are offered in a first-person voice from Biel, and she is the only character to assume this level of focus. Her story eventuates in a somewhat unsatisfying “and then she woke up” gimmick, which fails to account for much of the third-person detail supplied. Still, as an allegory of the Knowledge and Conversation of the Holy Guardian Angel (per Jim Wasserman’s reading) the “Legend” is provocative.

Issues of “racial” difference (in the US sociopolitical sense) are raised explicitly in the frame story and implicitly in the legend. David Hobart, the black African member of the UN research team “had paid his dues and was grudgingly admitted to the human race” (19). On Thoacdien V the Federation mentor characters are black, while the savage Higgites are conspicuously white.

The evolutionary advances of the Federation society include the obsolescence of viviparity and the removal of dominance and submission from pedagogy. The resulting picture reminded me more than a little of earlier science fiction such as Sturgeon’s Venus Plus X. The rather abstracted scenery of Thoacdien V drafted itself in my imagination in the style of Jean “Moebius” Griaud. Throughout the book there is typography that helps to flag various registers of the narrative, but it results in some infelicities like long chapters entirely in italics and often indulges in expressionistic passages of what looks to be concrete poetry.

I did feel that the resolution of the Biel plot was a bit clumsy, but I received the closing bracket of the Howard Scott frame story more warmly. While I don’t know that I can echo Wasserman’s appraisal of the book as “excellent,” I don’t regret having taken his word that it was “worth reading.”

Samalio Pardulus

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Samalio Pardulus by Otto Julius Bierbaum, illustrated by Alfred Kubin, translated by W C Bamberger.

Bierbaum Samalio Pardulus

Samalio Pardulus is named after its principal character, a creature of transcendent decadence and misanthropy in the mode of the earlier Des Essientes of Huysmans or the later Fantazius Mallare of Ben Hecht. Like Huysmans, author Bierbaum was involved in the Symbolist culture that detached itself from Romanticism and contributed to Expressionism, although in this little book the Gothic elements are quite palpable.

Samalio Pardulus was a painter in medieval Albania. Rather than documenting him from an omniscient third-person narrator as in À rebours or through the medium of his own written journals as in Fantazius Mallare, Bierbaum places two narrative frames between the reader and the character. First, there is a “staid philistine” Italian painter Messer Giacomo, imported to instruct Samalio, whose journals form the purported documentary basis of the story in the form of extensive quotations. Then there is the anonymous archivist who introduces and comments on Giacomo’s account. Through the course of the book, this archivist outside of the quotes retreats to invisibility, having left behind only a suitable readerly suspicion regarding Giacomo’s perceptiveness.

Samalio himself is ugly, talented, and blasphemous. He is concerned with making objects out of his imaginings, and to the extent that this work tends to horrify his pious teacher, his explanations of it become theological, deprecating a cosmic demiurge and exalting his own “godly pleasure in the grotesque” (14). Beyond his inchoate gnosticism and solipsism, Samalio defines himself with incestuous ambitions for his beautiful sister. These eventuate in a numinous domestic apocalypse. The interrelation of the principal characters–Samalio, his sister Maria Bianca, their father the Count, an unnamed watchman, and Messer Giacomo–eventually becomes so outre that it awoke in me suspicions of allegory.

This first English edition is illustrated with many full-page charcoal drawings by Alfred Kubin that appeared in the original 1911 German edition. Some of these depict Samalio’s paintings, but most are scenes from the novel.

Winter Tide

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys.

Emrys Winter Tide

This novel was written as a sequel-by-popular-demand to the justly-acclaimed novella “The Litany of Earth,” itself a narrative development from the Lovecraft story “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Of “The Litany of Earth,” I remarked, “In retrospect, this tale seems to me almost necessary somehow. I’ve read so very many (literally dozens of) stories elaborating on the events of ‘The Shadow over Innsmouth,’ and this is the first one that actually followed an Innsmouth native as a sympathetic survivor of the government raids and arrests. Emrys’ comparanda are not just the WWII interment of Japanese-Americans, but (in the revelations about Aphra’s mother and Charlie’s subsequent reference to Nuremburg) Nazi Versuchspersonen.” I was also impressed with the sensitivity regarding occult magic evident in the story, as well as the moral trajectory of its protagonist, especially against the backdrop of Lovecraft’s original.

Winter Tide did not give me the sense of textual destiny fulfilled that I found in its immediate predecessor. It is a full novel, first published in April 2017. While the observations about the oppressive propensities of the US government in “The Litany of Earth” had become even more topical, the author’s treatment of them seemed less nuanced. The book builds a cadre of outsiders under the nominal supervision of FBI agent Ron Spector and the actual leadership of Innsmouther Aphra Marsh, and the interactions in this ensemble are interesting, but the development of the subaltern theme is taken in so many directions that it starts to exude whiffs of tokenism and didacticism.

The occult elements are still treated capably on the whole, but the entire feel of the story seemed shifted markedly in the direction of Charles Stross’ Laundry Files books: the protagonist team working under the aegis of an intelligence agency, the mathematical rationales for magical phenomena, and the fears about authority, all on a carrier wave of neo-yog-sothothery. The mid-20th-century setting is different than Stross’ frighteningly-up-to-date 21st, and Stross’ sarcastic hilarity is replaced with lucid griefs and affections, but the books now feel to me like very close cousins to one another.

My favorite parts of Winter Tide, for both entertainment and philosophical value, were the ones relating to the actual Yithian that Aphra discovers among the Miskatonic faculty and who becomes a key participant in the central plot. I also enjoyed the in-person appearances of mature Deep Ones. Emrys manages to construct the narration so that the reader can appreciate Aphra’s reverent affection for her relatives as well as the horror that they would present to a naive observer. But these accounts of exotic beings palpably manifesting in the story cause it to leave behind some of the subtlety that I found so affecting in “The Litany of Earth.”

I already own a copy of the next volume of Aphra’s story, Deep Roots, and I expect to enjoy it eventually. I wonder if it will signal as great a change from Winter Tide as that one did from the prior novella. Certainly the pace of current events and the author’s evident woke sensitivity to them will have brought more forces to bear on its composition.