I suspect that John's review is rather better than this book.
a part of Ægypt
By John Crowley
400 Pages, US$24.00
Small Beer Press, 2007
Solemnity is out of order in a review of a book that ends with a mountain-top pastorale accompanied by heavenly music from an Aeolian harp played by no human hand. And how grim can you get about a book that has dialogue like this?
--The Torah has six hundred thousand facess, the Maharal said to the Ass. One face for every Jew alive at the time Moshe rebiana revealed it; it is their turned-away faces we seek for through Hokhmath ha-Tseruf, or as it is said, gematria.
--This is the art by which form and substaance may be transmuted, said the Ass.
When the Rabbi said nothing in assent, the Ass added: So I have read in ancient authors.
Nonetheless, some nostalgia may be in order: Endless Things is the fourth and final part of the Ægypt series that John Crowley, metaphysical novelist and teacher of creative writing at Yale, has been publishing since 1987. That first book was originally called Ægypt, but through some inexplicable alchemy is now called The Solitudes; the other two books are Love & Sleep (1994) and Dæmonomania (2000). Faithful readers will not be disappointed by the arrival of this eschaton. And yes, Crowley does finally explain why there is something rather than nothing, but let us consider a few lesser points first.
Endless Things is an epilogue. The world ended twice in the third book in the series: once in Upstate New York in the late 1970s and again in Prague in the late 16th century. The author has the sense not to do it a third time. What we get now are explanations, marriages, the tying up of (most) loose ends, and an eclipse of magic that is not disillusion but illumination. As always, the tale is about the painful education of freelance scholar Pierce Moffett, a would-be magus with a persistent intuition that the past is more fluid than we had supposed. His adventures in the 1970s, brought into the 1990s by this book, are hermetically synchronous with events in London and Prague in the decades around the year 1600.
To put it baldly, the premise of the Ægypt series is that the Consciousness Revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s (would that Charles Reich had lived to see this hour) was comparable to the Rosicrucian Enlightenment of the early 17th century. Both were the beginning of a new age. In both cases, within a generation, the past was thought of in a new way, the scientific assumptions of the educated had been transformed, and what once was socially unthinkable had become obvious.
Earlier books in the series dealt with the researches and intrigues of Dr. John Dee (a fine man, even if he was a werewolf) during his exile from the court of Queen Elizabeth I. This book brings to a conclusion the career of Dee’s colleague at Prague, Giordano Bruno. Indeed, the story goes beyond his career into an exercise in alternative history: Bruno is not burned at the stake in 1600, but briefly enacts a version of the tale of the Golden Ass, finally emerging from the asinine state to foment through theater a religious and scientific revolution. Readers may amuse themselves by assessing the hypothesis that The Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreuz was really an allegory of the marriage of Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate with Princess Elizabeth of England, and whether it was in fact written by Jan (or Johann) Valentin Andræ. In any case, in this alternative scenario, Frederick does not rule Bohemia for just a single season as the Winter King, but defeats his Catholic opponents at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1619. Bohemia then becomes the model for the sort of Great Instauration that filled the speculations of Francis Bacon at about the same time, instead of the detonation point of the Thirty Years’ War. Endless Things does not finally adopt this alternative, but the 20th-century characters do eventually pay Bruno honor for his actual role in the imagining of modernity.
Meanwhile, back in the 20th century (the early 1980s, by this point), there is a man desperate for several kinds of closure. Pierce Moffett realizes that he will never finish that big book for which he had accepted a large advance some years ago from a now-impatient publisher. That work, to be called Ægypt, would have reconstructed the ancient past as the hermetic philosophers of Bruno’s day imagined it; a past about which, Moffett sometimes suspected, those philosophers had been correct at the time. The irony is that Moffett actually knew the people who, in Dæmonomania, permitted another new age to begin: they had enacted the critical Gnostic myth of “the thing that was lost but found again” by rescuing a little girl from a Christian cult, the complement of John Dee’s successful alchemical enterprise in old Prague. Moffett did not know what his friends had done, or at least he did not understand the significance of what he knew. There was nothing left for him to find, but he must take a dreary trip to Europe to establish the fact. Eventually, he understands that what had seemed a plausible, even exigent research project during the decades of transition had become incomprehensible. Like Bruno long ago:
[H]is apprehension of the possibility of the possibility of a magical renaissance had itself been a sign that it wouldn’t last much longer.
But just because Moffett could not finish the Great Literary Work, that does not mean that nobody could. Moffett’s research had been funded in part by the Rasmussen Foundation, whose founder, Boney Rasmussen, had set much of the story in motion by subsidizing the search for the elixir of eternal life (rather like the Emperor Rudolph II of Prague, you see). Much of the research toward that end had been done by Fellowes Kraft, a historical novelist with occult interests; we learn about his odd but not unhappy childhood in this final book. Kraft had died a few years before the series starts, but one of Moffett’s tasks is to determine whether a manuscript of Kraft’s, believed to be an unfinished novel, might be publishable nonetheless. At the end of all things, Moffett realizes that the book is in fact finished, but in a peculiar mode:
...Pierce had thought it was actually going to turn out to be like a work out of the former age of the world, one of those vast ones like The Faerie Queene or The Canterbury Tales, which are unfinished but not therefore necessarily incomplete...But it wasn’t like any of those works. That was obvious to him now, now having reached the end of it again, again. It wasn’t like any work of the former age. Nor was it a work of the first age, like one of those endlessly cycling epics that [his teacher] used to talk about, with simply no reason to end. Rather it seemed to be trying to become a work of the age now beginning, the age to come, which it and other works like it (not only in prose or on paper) would bring into being, of which the new age would at length be seen to consist: works that don’t cycle or promise completion as the old stories or tales did, nor that move as ours do by the one-way coital rhythms of initiation, arousal, climax and inanition, but which produce other rhythms, moving by repetition, reversal, mirror-image, echo, inversion; vicissitudes of transformation that can begin at any point, and are never brought to an end at all, but just close, like day.
Admirers of the Ægypt series have sometimes observed that the story tends to ramble. Now we may say with the engineers at Microsoft: it’s not a glitch; it’s a feature.
But what of Pierce Moffett himself? Early in the book, the author plays a little trick with his readers concerning the final form of Moffett’s life. Here we will limit the spoilers by simply noting that, as the magic runs out of the world, Moffett achieves not just ordinary unhappiness, but even ordinary happiness. Be that as it may, few people read the Ægypt series for a snappy plot. Let us turn now to the insights that Moffett and the other characters offer us.
Among these is Fellowes Kraft. He, too, visited Prague, but in 1969, during the short-lived period of Reform Communism remembered as the Prague Spring (like the Winter of the Winter King, perhaps). Inspired by these events, he conceives a way to overthrow Communism, a project that we are encouraged to believe that Vaclav Havel carried out:
You get power over history, he saw, by uncovering and learning its laws, formulating them, teaching them to others, who get thereby a share of the power you have. You form up your followers into an army, which can impose these irrefutable laws on Time’s body; you have earned the power, by your grasp of History’s Laws, to eliminate or hide away anything that confounds or flouts them. It is thus that in any age the Archons rule; the rule of the Archons in heaven being continuous with that of their epigones on earth.
So the way to defeat power is to propose new laws, laws conceived in the secrecy of the heart and enacted by the will’s fiat: laws of desire and hope, which are not fixed but endlessly mutable, and unimposable on anyone else. They are the laws of another history of the world, one’s own.
We are given to understand, indeed, that literature cannot describe the world; what it does is transform it. It does exactly what alchemy does; it is alchemy, in fact. When we transform the world, we do not change the present. Rather, we make the present mean something new by giving it a new history.
Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine that the people who produce literature are chiefly responsible for this process. If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, then they are all under the influence of lobbyists for one fashion or another, an influence made all the more unbreakable by the poets’ belief in their own originality.
Such a work as Ægypt could not neglect the age-old question: just who is this God person anyway? Moffett is one of those baby-boomer lapsed-Catholics who often show signs of backsliding into the faith but never quite let go. (He remarks, with some justice, that Holy Mother Church had changed so much in his lifetime that it was no longer familiar enough to backslide into.) Nonetheless, he is given pause by this suggestion from a monk that there might be a deeper motive behind Moffett’s aversion to looking for God in the usual places:
“Has it occurred to you that this might be a way toward God as well?” he asked.
Pierce said nothing.
“I mean the discreating of false creations about God? Refuting false statements, rumors you might say, skeptically? It is, in fact, a way toward God, or it can be. Many mystics have understood this. Saint Thomas himself said that it is proper and right to say that God is not: not good, not big, not wise, not loving. Because these things limit God to the definitions of those words. And God is beyond all definitions.”
Perhaps so that the book does not take an unfortunate turn, the monk follows these subtle remarks with a bit of flat-footed and unworkable pastoral counseling that it is difficult to imagine any priest of Rome giving at that time (the 1980s) or in that context. In any case, with orthodoxy safely fended off for the moment, Moffett is free to pursue insights that have the rare distinction of being even more ineffable than the via negativa. Just after Moffett again encounters the Gnostic Sophia in her most fallen state (a strip club, this time), Moffett suddenly grasps the reason there is something rather than nothing:
There is a realm outside.
It wasn’t a thought or a notion arising in his heart or head, it was as though presented to or inserted within him, something that wasn’t of or from himself at all. He had never felt even the possibility of it before, and yet he knew it now with absolute plain certainty. It wasn’t even a surprise.
There is an enveloping realm, beyond everything that is and everything that might be or can be imagined to be. It was so.
Not Heaven, where the Logos lives, where everything is made of Meaning; or better say, where meanings are the only things. That realm, of any, is deep deep within. But beyond the realms of meaning, beyond even any possible Author of all this, if there was one, which there was not; outside or beyond even Bruno’s infinities, outside of which there could be nothing; outside all possibility, lay the realm in which all is contained...It provided all that was needed for this world to be, but it touched nothing here. It made nothing, altered nothing, wanted nothing, urged nothing...This world shone with its own light, and its light is all the light there is.
What we have here is an intuition of the noncontingent, the insight that gives St. Anselm’s Ontological Proof quite real force. This is all very well, but we may note that this impersonal Absolute Elsewhere has a history of showing signs of life to those who think about it long enough.
Perhaps Moffett may actually be of the same way of thinking. At any rate, he is sympathetic to the ideas he later encounters in the memoirs of a wealthy 19th century naturalist who was also a sort of outsider artist, a mighty battler of demons in his youth. The demons ceased to trouble him, he said, and his self was returned to him, when he stopped thinking of God as simply the greatest of the demons, at work in this world as they are.
Soon after Moffett encounters these thoughts, we move onto the final scene with the Aeolian harp. It’s a mechanical harp, but a very fine
Copyright © 2009 by John J. Reilly