Galactic Empires: Volume One

Hermetic Library Anthology Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Galactic Empires: Volume One [Amazon, Local Library] ed Brian W Aldiss.

Aldiss Galactic Empires Volume One

This anthology volume is made up of science fiction stories mostly from the third quarter of the 20th century (1951-1975). It is constructed around themes within the general space opera subgenre. Its four subsections are titled “A Sense of Perspective,” “Wider Still and Wider …,” “Horses in the Starship Hold,” and “The Health Service in the Skies.” The themes were not as coherently demonstrated as I would have liked, and the book got off to a shaky start with two weaker stories from authors I like: R. A. Lafferty and Arthur C. Clarke.

It was interesting to me to read the original Asimov “Foundation” story in the text first published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1942. Although it has been decades since I read the Foundation novel, one difference was obvious: Hari Seldon was not the pioneer of psychohistory, but simply “the greatest psychologist of our time” (96). I suspect some actual psychologists set Asimov straight regarding the aims and limitations of their discipline. The cliffhanger ending made this piece an odd inclusion here, though.

It had been a long while since I had read anything by Clifford Simak, and I found his longish story “Immigrant” to be one of the more enjoyable ones in the book. I also appreciated the rather naïve romp of Coppel’s “The Rebel of Valkyr,” even though its plot twist was telegraphed quite obviously. It offered better star wars than Star Wars. With some exceptions, I found the longer stories more deserving of my attention, and the shorter ones tended toward negligibility.

Representations of gender in these selections are often painfully dated, if not downright reactionary by today’s standards. There is only one female author included, and her story “Brightness Falls from the Air” is a mournful one about interracial exploitation.

I have a copy of Volume Two of this collection. The first volume was good enough that I expect to read the second, but not so cohesive that I feel any special urgency to do so.

So much of the internet is garbage, and much of its infrastructure and many work hours are devoted to taking out the garbage. For the most part, this labor is hidden from plain sight. But in recent years, the garbage disposal has broken down.

Sarah Jeong, The Internet Of Garbage [Amazon, Publisher, Local Library]

Hermetic quote Jeong The Internet of Garbage so much Internet garbage infrastructure work hours devoted taking out garbage labor hidden plain sight recent years disposal broken down

The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Stephanie Lynn Budin.

Budin The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity

A few words to describe Budin’s The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity: scholarly, thorough, agonistic, persuasive. As is obvious from the title, the author provides a revisionist approach to a matter that has been taken as factual in many modern histories of the ancient world. Readers should note that she defines sacred prostitution in a very circumscribed fashion, to mean “the sale of a person’s body for sex, where some or all of the money is dedicated to a deity” (261)–of the sort described most notably in Herodotos’ account of Babylon. She does not evaluate the likelihood or possibility of temples as places of sanctioned erotic assignation, or sexual sacraments such as hierogamies, nor does she argue against the sexual element in the worship of the generative powers in antiquity.

According to Budin, the modern expositions of the “sacred prostitution” myth gather their initial steam at the outset of the 19th century, with key inflections occurring later in the contexts of Frazerian anthropology and Neopagan religion. She recounts the origins of skepticism on the issue among scholars studying the ancient Near East, and describes the tenacity of the notion among classicists. 

Most of the book is given over to close examinations and contextualizations of the putative evidence from ancient sources. These are tackled in roughly chronological sequence from Herodotos on. Within the chronology, they are often sorted by geography. This organization permits the collation and comparison of accounts regarding Corinth specifically (260-265), or, say, Heliopolis (276-283). 

In many cases, Budin demonstrates that sacred prostitution has been a matter of misguided inference, and that it actually fails to appear in many texts often-cited to support its reality. In those cases where it does appear, it is unsupported by firsthand testimony, and can be explained in terms of accusational rhetoric and/or quasi-historical fabulation. Even then, the tendency to view it as an actual phenomenon (rather than a rhetorical product) owes more to modern interpreters than to ancient efforts to deceive.

Budin has certainly done her homework. One of the passages I found most impressive and intriguing was her philological re-estimation of the term hierodule. While the prevalence of the sacred prostitution hypothesis has led classicists to understand this term almost uniformly as designating a temple slave with typically sexual duties, Budin demonstrates from scholarship grounded in primary materials that the more likely significance of the term is to describe a former slave who had been manumitted through a mechanism of religious authority (184-189). 

The book is replete with intriguing references. Not only is the immediate topic of great interest, but the whole affair serves as an excellent cautionary example of how a robust historical consensus can be constructed on the basis of shockingly weak primary evidence, to the point where revision like Budin’s is called for.

Dark and Magical Places

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Dark and Magical Places: The Neuroscience of Navigation [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Christopher Kemp.

Kemp Dark and Magical Places

Dark and Magical Places is a popular science book written by a man with “no sense of direction” (4). Author Christopher Kemp rates himself a 1 out of 10 in the ability to find his way through spatial environments, and the text is at least as much about being lost as it is about successful navigation. Although the word doesn’t appear in this volume, neurodiversity is one of its chief themes. While Kemp does marvel at the “very few people who are really, really, really good and … a ton of people who are a little bit worse” at navigation, much of the book is concerned with ways in which “the tail of the graph stretches out and out and out into all sorts of realms of badness” (56, quoting researcher Hugo Spiers).

Since I had recently read and enjoyed Donald Hoffman’s The Case Against Reality, I was skeptical about the veridical model of perception that seems to underpin much of this book’s neuroscience. Kemp at one point draws on The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map (1978) to ask “Can objects exist without space? … Does space even exist, or is it an invention, a human construct–a figment of our imaginations? If we invented space, how did we do it?” (35) but he makes no serious effort to answer these questions. Instead, he relies on the axiom that “space and time are the raw materials of navigation” (16), when they might instead be the products of navigation. Correlating neuroanatomically-specified “activations” with spatial cognitions–a regular preoccupation of the text–does not establish the relevant modes of causation.

The book’s information about neurodiversity of spatial capabilities is not fatalistic. While identifying organic variety and congenital outliers, as well as the apparent heritability of DTD (“developmental topographical disorientation”), Kemp also establishes the possibility for people to improve their navigational capacity through training. Suitable activities include video games designed for the purpose and the practice of origami paper folding (106-7). There is also a dark side to this plasticity: dependence on GPS devices is evidently leading to seriously deteriorated navigational capacity in large segments of our population (173-4).

Kemp consults neuroscientist György Buzsáki for the notion of “mental travel” to characterize the integration of navigational functions with those of memory, planning, and imagination (44-5). In my own work, this idea opens fruitfully onto such “occult” activities as “astral” visionary work, “memory palaces,” and spatial orientation in ceremony. In light of some of the information in this book, I suspect that regular performance of the lesser ritual of the pentagram (and also a daily regimen of solar adorations) could in fact empower the memory, as well as reinforcing navigational ability. This relationship also led me to hypothesize an explanation for the strong mnemonic effects of olfactory stimuli: it seems likely that human smelling abilities co-evolved with our spatial navigation, and the two may overlap one another in their use of neural resources (83).

Despite my reservations about Kemp’s apparently mechanistic metaphysical angle and his unsophisticated epistemology, this book was full of interesting and useful scientific ideas, as well as a wealth of entertaining anecdotes, like the one about Noel Santillan who became a flash celebrity in Iceland by virtue of following hideously mistaken GPS directions (166-7, 177). It’s a short, 200-page volume in the usual format of successful contemporary popular science studies, and its information is terrifically current.

Memory Palaces and Masonic Lodges

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Memory Palaces and Masonic Lodges: Esoteric Secrets of the Art of Memory [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Charles B Jameux, trans Jon E Graham.

Jameux Graham Memory Palaces and Masonic Lodges

This short volume contains texts from disparate sources, and has been assembled mostly in a sort of reverse chronological order. I think most readers will more easily follow its arguments and be better served by reading it from back to front, and this review will treat it in that sequence.

Appendix B is a 1995 article by the book’s author Charles B. Jameux, originally published in the French periodical Points de Vue Initiatiques with the title “The Ancient Sources of Initiatic Transmission in Freemasonry: The Royal Art and the Classical Art of Memory.” It presents Jameux’s first published development of a thesis grounded in the prior work of two profane historians: Frances Yates (The Art of Memory) and David Stevenson (The Origins of Freemasonry: Scotland’s Century, 1590-1710), each of whom had suggested that the early modern developments of mnemotechny could have determined the form of early Freemasonry. Stevenson had bolstered Yate’s tenuous hypothesis by citing the explicit requirement of memory training from the Schaw Statutes of 1599 governing Scottish Masonry. Jameux quotes at length from each of the two prior authors and uses his own initiated perspective to amend some of their details, as well as to reinforce and extend the basic concept. Reading Yates and Stevenson myself some few years after Jameux had published his article far from my ken, I came to similar conclusions. While this appendix offered little new for me personally, I thought that it was a solid presentation of the history and its relevance for modern initiates.

Appendix A makes no direct mention of Freemasonry or initiation. It reproduces in English translation a 1988 paper by scholar Claudie Balavoine, “Hieroglyphs of Memory: Emergence and Transformation of a Hieroglyphic Script in the arts of Memory during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” This brief study discusses the changing appreciation of Egyptian hieroglyphs in early modernity, along with the emergence of figural alphabets, and relates these to the transformation and decline of the art of memory. Although composed and published earlier than Jameux’s “Ancient Sources of Initiatic Transmission,” it came to his attention later, and it then became an important source for the development of his understanding of the relevant Masonic history, reflected in the five brief chapters of the body of Memory Palaces and Masonic Lodges.

The body text orients to 1637 as a point of historical discontinuity (of the sort proposed by Michel Foucault in Les mots et les choses) signaled by both the appearance of the Master’s Word in Masonry and Descartes’ publication of his Discourse on Method. Jameux presents Masonic initiation as a compensation and potential remedy for the modern fracturing of “the original unity of thought into conceptual, rational, and quantified thought on the one hand and analogical thought as a storehouse for the ancient traditions on the other” (38).

I am a little mistrustful of the Jon E. Graham translation of Jameux’s text, which tends to feature rambling sentence structures, of which the following is a gruesome specimen: “Far from an elsewhere and nowhere of utopia according to Campanella, wouldn’t the future operative and non-operative Freemasons of 1600-era Scotland, engaged in an outside of work quest for method but remaining immersed nevertheless in the here and now of spiritually conflictive societies, be in the process of discovering the Masonic symbol beneath the memorized image?” (16-17) I know that French intellectual exposition often uses this sort of monster pile of clauses and phrases, but preserving that form is not particularly helpful to English readers.

Also, on page 15 I encountered a defective passage, in which “the conversation he recounts” should have been attributed to Plato in the Phaedrus (as Yates does, in the citation given by Jameux), but some elided wording here makes it seem as if “he” is Alexander Dicson, who is then confusingly said to have “reproduced” the conversation with his own characters. Whether the error in this case is that of author, translator, or editor, it undermined my confidence in what I was reading.

The book is equipped with two short laudatory forewords by Francis Bardot and Patrice Corbin, and they are worth reading if only to demonstrate that Jameux’s ideas in this book have a sympathetic audience among eminent French Freemasons.