Reviews: Thom Metzger, Barbara Holland, Elizabethan Magic, Jacob Boehme

Thom Metzger, Shock Totem; independent 2022.

Evil bureaucrats sterilized by dreams of power, corporate conspiracy, cops and mental institution staff, populate Shock Totem’s fallen world oozing chemical waste and humming with electrical lines, a cosmic-scale ant-farm built by a dyspeptic demiurge, The hero is an epileptic and psychotic teenager named Brian haunted by the Titan ghosts of Edison and Tesla. Brian’s got a neural implant which enables him to tap electricity raw from the outlet and so empowered fly out of his flesh into a Negro eternity presided over by the funky Godfather of Souls.

The novel is splendidly well plotted–I lost sleep reading it–and the scenes where the hero “goes through the wall” into the Black Soul afterworld are spaced throughout at enticing intervals. In these the writing achieves that rhythmic poetic fury which is Metzger’s trademark.

Some excellent comic tension develops between Brian and those who don’t know with whom they have to do, as the hero often takes their casual phrases at appallingly face value. In a sense this is Christian fiction: in Protestant countries SF has had to fill the imaginative gap left when the Reformation stripped its myths. Paralleling the earth-bound “Magic Realism” of Catholic countries, SF often presents a materialized vision of the Christian Cosmos, e.g., Eternity translates into an endless future and an infinite space still very much “the heavens.” Transcendence is achieved by computer-linkup to the “World of Forms” as in Gibson’s Neuromancer–or here via skin-sizzling blue volts. It’s no coincidence PKD’s last novels were outright Christian-Gnostic myth. With Metzger, a corporate-poisoned planet is the sinful world of (in his book explicitly) matter-trapped souls, with a wall, so named, separating this realm from the Real. Electricity serves the turn of what St. Matthew calls “psychic wind and fire.” Not by chance Christian imagery abounds: the mental institution where much of the action takes place is replete with stained glass and Gothic arches, and the tale approaches its conclusion near a shrine of Fatima where one of the heroes hacks himself with a scalpel among statues of similarly engaged saints.

Metzger is helping to carry out the needful Dreamwork of the Christian West: to re-imagine the Sacred World, the Kosmos, in modern terms. His novel is a particularly compelling contribution to the genre as he accesses not only the drama and gore of Christian myth, but also some of the compassionate values that have at times been associated with the creed.

Barbara Holland, The Shipping on the Styx; independent, 2019.

In this posthumous volume of Holland’s works, published by the Poet’s Press in Pittsburgh and edited by Brett Rutherford, we get a look at the poet’s early work. Comprised of several unpublished manuscripts, the material is largely from the fifties and sixties of the last century, when Holland was in her twenties and thirties. Though it has not the heft of her mature work, there are a number of excellent compositions, particularly notable being the Magritte-like Keeping the Window Closed and The Mouth of God—the latter takes up a Biblical theme with a power and originality rarely to be met with. Both of these poems are reproduced in full in this issue of 96. In a way, the most interesting section is Part Two, Songs of Light and Darkness, which are very early poems indeed, probably from her twenties or even late teen years. These are formal, rhyming poems, juvenilia to be sure, but full of skill and verve. It is fascinating to see the work of a brilliant poet’s youth, when energy far outruns experience, but already evinces the tremendous skill that will be brought to bear later in life.

Frances Yates, The Occult Philosophy of the Elizabethan Age, Routledge 2001.

Yate’s 1964 book on Giordano Bruno is the one most people have read; it made her internationally acclaimed in the sixties and seventies as the historian of the Renaissance who first revealed the profound influence of Hermeticism and the Christian Cabala on the works of such giants as Shakespeare and Botticelli. This volume, from 1983, near the end of her career, is a far more readable and profound work, and summarizes her lifetime of research.

Yates showed how the Hermetic writings, a collection of 2nd to 4th century Neoplatonic “Egyptian” texts, which include a certain amount of magic and some borrowings from early Christianity, were rediscovered in the early Renaissance and inspired an occult revolution in European thought. At about the same time the expulsion of the Jews from Spain disseminated knowledge of the Kabbalah, which was added to the mix. The result was a three-worlds vision of reality, the earthly realm and the celestial spheres (familiar to my readers, I hope, from Dante) to which was added a detailed map of yet higher angelic realms, the interior life of  God, suggested by the Kabbalah. This marvelous world could be explored, and even controlled, using the magic enjoined by the Hermetic texts. This heady mixture may be seen to best advantage in Milton’s short poem Il Penseroso, once one understands that the inspired melancholic musings are to be taken quite literally as Saturnian revelations. The most detailed and explicit version of the Hermetic world may be found in the writings of Cornelius Agrippa (which provided the know-how to Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s novel.) The epic version of this universe, in English, is of course Spenser’s endlessly entertaining sword and sorcery poem, The Fairie Queene.

Yates’s book traces the development of Renaissance Hermeticism by its professional exponents, from Raymond Lull and Pico della Mirandola on. In the second part of the book she focuses on Queen Elizabeth’s Astrologer, John Dee, and from there explores the influence of Renaissance occultism on Spenser, Shakespeare, and unexpectedly, George Chapman (the brilliant translator of Homer), who wrote a remarkable Hymn to the Moon and a mysterious composition called The Shadow of Night, which are well worth a look. There is a fascinating detour about the occult beliefs of Albrecht Durer, and how these decipher his famous Melancholia engraving. Yates offers the long overdue insight that Christopher Marlowe, whom everyone loves as the bad boy of English Renaissance drama, was also flattering some of the ugliest bigotry of his time. The openness of the Renaissance mind to Jewish learning and to the occult are rebuked by the villain protagonists Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta. We easily see that Marlowe personally identified with these “wicked” characters—Yates makes the overdue observation that his audience is most unlikely to have shared our perspective.

Yates somewhat overplays her hand, especially as regards Shakespeare. She makes very valid points, that there are thrilling reflections of the occultism craze in a number of famous plays, but to claim that they are a roman à clef, with Berowne in Love’s Labors Lost representing Giordano Bruno, and Prospero of The Tempest as John Dee, is too much. But she is quite right in her overall thesis. Shakespeare’s plays do reflect the mood and preoccupations of his times: MacBeth mirrors the new reign of Scottish King James who believed in witches, as The Tempest with its brave new worlds and utopian speculations, does the colonization of Virginia. Hermetic echoes are unmistakably audible in Shakespeare, as in the famous speech in The Merchant of Venice

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.
There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still choiring to the young-eyed cherubins.
Such harmony is in immortal souls,
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.

In fine, this book is extremely rich in insights, and makes the magical world of the English Renaissance, the world of Raleigh’s “School of Night” and Doctor Dee, accessible. One turns with renewed fascination to books like Sidney’s Arcadia, equipped to understand their mysteries. A dazzling book, which belongs in every occult or literary library.

Andrew Weeks, Boehme, An Intellectual Biography of the Seventeenth Century Philosopher SUNY 1991

I have long been curious about Jacob Boehme. I knew Blake admired him, saying that there was more spirituality in one of his pages than in the complete works of Swedenborg. I read Glen Magee’s Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition (Cornell 2008), which showed that many of that difficult philosopher’s most poetic images and conceptions came from Hermeticism via Boehme. And Boehme is a glittering detail on the periphery of the picture Frances Yates paints in her studies of Renaissance Neoplatonism. But I’d never managed to read Boehme. The translations were hopelessly opaque, and none of them, however modern, had anything like a critical apparatus to guide one through. I never found an introduction to and survey of Boehme’s thought.

So this book appeared as the answer to my prayers. I don’t know if it’s absolutely the best one in English, but that seems quite likely. It has the first mark of a really excellent treatment—a bibliography that clearly indicates the key studies and editions.

Weeks’ book is all it purports to be. It places Boehme credibly in the context of his time and place, considering every factor from the most local to the continental. Though it is not a substitute for actually reading Boehme, it gives a descriptive survey of his main ideas and how they fit together.

Boehme made an idiosyncratic, self-referential, terribly complex system, with central terms and concepts that shifted, changed name, and were replaced as his thinking evolved. Composed of personal mystical experience, Lutheran piety, alchemy, astrology and Paracelsus, each of his many books is written in hundreds of pages of repetitive, disorganized, non-literary German. No wonder I never made headway in the un-annotated translations, and why the supposed popularizations of Boehme never got to the point. Few indeed are those who have threaded this labyrinth!

Boehme’s oeuvre is not a deliberate obfuscation, like Finnegans Wake; it’s a work of naive, obsessive outsider art, which engages great themes and has had significant influence, particularly on the Idealist philosophers. But, as this book candidly declares, Boehme is an ocean; this book shows that Boehme demands years of work to be understood with the kind of control Weeks evinces. I closed the covers of this volume edified but exhausted.

A sound, scholarly, reliable book on a difficult subject, making original contributions and clarifying the problems of the field.

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