Five More Good Books

The academic world has only recently accepted the viability of the esoteric tradition. For so long the province of rogue scholars, the spiritual mysteries are at last receiving the benefit of hermeneutics and other techniques used by scholars to clarify and define multitudinous threads of evidence.  Today’s academic presses issue studies that clear away the cob webs left by writers who did not have the benefit of an education in methodology.  Do not be put off by the neutral tone of these important works.

 

A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion by Catherine Albanese

Professor Albanese’s masterpiece is a paradigm shift in the study of American history and history of religions . Future scholars will elaborate on the extensive outline she provides.  She reveals the potent and constant influence in American history of a set of beliefs like America itself gathered from the four corners of the Earth.  The spiritism and hermetic magical doctrines of Europe, the Sufism of Islam, the yoga and holy scriptures of India, many varieties of Buddhism, Chinese philosophy and oracles, Japanese zen, African and native American folk traditions, all were blended together to create American metaphysics.  With the prejudices of monotheism most scholars of the last half of the 20th Century refused to examine this history on the grounds that it was unworthy of serious attention.  But for as long as there has been christianity in America there has also been an equally vital metaphysical melting pot of practices and beliefs that Albanese dubs American Metaphysical Religion, and these apparently opposed traditions have strongly influenced each other. Albanese looks back to Ficino, Agrippa, Paracelsus, Giodorno Bruno, Blavatsky and other key personalities as she surveys sources of these beliefs. Some purists may complain about the absence of their favorite seminal figures, for example Aleister Crowley receives only a footnote and no reference can be found to Edgar Cayce, one of America’s most famous psychics, or Manly P. Hall, an early 20th century influential west coast teacher of esoteric philosophy whose books were displayed in bookstore windows in Haight Ashbury during the Summer of Love.  Nevertheless with so much ignored history to present, Professor Albanese deserves praise for the comprehensiveness of her study.  Other scholars elaborate the byways she was unable to map, see for example K. Paul Johnson’s Edgar Cayce in Context.  She allows the facts to speak for themselves and so her work transcends history becoming an illuminating chronicle of enlightening moments. Her book is a must for anyone interested in American history, history of religion, or metaphysics.
The Flower Ornament Scripture: A Translation of The Avatamsaka Sutra by Thomas Cleary

A beautiful translation, with introduction and commentary, of the Avatamsaka Sutra, the classic of Hua Yen Buddhism.  Considered by many to be the crowning literary achievement of Mahayana, this sutra is a long series of beautiful visualizations, every sentence a meditation, as it describes an infinite universe of enlightening beings, along the way providing practical advice, achieving flights of poetic imagination comparable to Keats and Shelley, while conveying a profound philosophy, cosmogony, and way of life.  Here beings with names like Great Light of Memory Power, Observer of the Sounds of the Speech of the Worlds, and Enjoyable Great Intelligence radiate their blessings to endless universes in dedication to the liberation of all.  Most human beings apply imagination to worries and predicaments.  Here we can replenish ourselves in the intricate visualization of infinite grace and mercy.  Wonderful bedtime reading.

 

John Dee’s Occultism: Magical Exaltation Throuh Powerful Signs by Gyorgy E. Szony

Angelic magic as a technique of illumination traced from its hermetic and neoplatonic roots in classical theurgy from Iamblichus and Cicero through Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, Trithemius, Agrippa, and Paracelsus to the Enochian experiments of John Dee and Edward Kelly. Even venerable Mary Atwood of Suggestive Inquiry fame makes an appearance.  As an Eastern European scholar, Gyorgy presents academic perspectives missing from most studies; while satisfying all professional requirements for rigor of research and method, he writes with the vigor of a graphic novelist.  Serious students of these matters will greatly benefit from reading this book, and lovers of history and religion will find many delights here.

 

Access to Western Esoteric Tradition by Antoine Faivre

A cornerstone for research into Western mystical and magical tradition, this collection of articles includes an excellent exhaustive annotated bibliography that provides a reading list for beginners and long time students of the esoteric alike.  Of the books I’ve so far recommended this may be the most difficult read, but well worth the effort. Faivre carefully delineates a method some have considered artificial in its strict division between magic and mysticism.  Hee outlines the history of esoteric ideology and practice in the West, providing not only essential historical information but also helpful literary criticism regarding the opinions of earlier scholars.  Faivre’s work liberated a generation of academics to study beliefs that were until recently considered shameful and anachronistic social dysfunctions.  As Faivre and subsequent scholars have found, the stream of esoteric theory and practice has informed many of history’s greatest artists, philosophers and reformers, from Leonardo to Marcel Duchamp.

 

Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Late Medieval Ritual Magic
A collection of scholarly essays by various academics on subjects such as the divination theories of Raymond Lully and the ritual to attain beatific vision in the Sworn Book of Honorius. Until recently writers on ritual magic were divided into two camps. Those on the one hand who ridiculed or otherwise dismissed it on the grounds of irrationality (e.g. James Webb) or religious prejudice (e.g. evangelical screeds) and the other proselytizing on its behalf, promoting it as a practice.  In the past the whiff of academia was an automatic disqualification for an author in the eyes of practitioners.  But that is no longer the case.  Studies like these, created with the benefit of post modern methodologies applying rigorous neutrality, are in many ways more useful than the work of advocates with agendas.  Enjoy the clarity.