Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Strange Rites

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Tara Isabella Burton.

Burton Strange Rites

Burton Strange Rites New

This book’s more journalistic work follows in the steps of scholarship such as David Chidester’s Authentic Fakes in applying the tools of religious studies to American popular cultures. After an introductory anecdote regarding author Tara Elizabeth Burton’s own religious participation in “intense subcultures,” she starts by reviewing the demographics of the “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) who make up a large and growing portion of the American population. In particular, she observes the prevalence of the “faithful nones” who maintain “spiritual” identities while distancing themselves from “religious” institutions and traditions. She advances the label “Remixed” to designate the adherents of the sort of secularized quasi-sacred value systems and communities that propagate themselves through the consumerism of 21st-century mass society, with an emphasis on their customizable individualism.

Burton categorizes the faiths of the Remixed as “intuitionist religion,” and her thumbnail history of this phenomenon considerably overlaps the “Metaphysical religion” chronicled in Catherine Albanese’s Republic of Mind and Spirit. She traces one vector from 19th-century New Thought through 21st-century wellness culture; another of sexual revolution from Free Love to kink, polyamory and “consent culture” over the same historical span; and a yet another of neopagan occultism through the New Age and eventuating in a “Magical Resistance” in Trumpian America.

All of these past trends have had consequences in the three “postliberal paganisms” (246) that Burton sees as durably emergent from contemporary American culture. While some readers may be accustomed to noticing these alignments as political valences, this book observes (accurately, I think) that their political potency is a function of their differing and compelling religious visions. The first of these, already touched on in her prior discussion of activist witchcraft, is the social justice movement with its aim of moral renewal and measures to redress sexual and racial oppression. The second is the right-libertarian techno-utopian culture valorizing “rationality” and transhumanism. The third is the reactionary authoritarianism and chauvinism of a burgeoning neo-atavist movement. Burton notes perceptively that although adherents of these faiths may profess affection for or opposition to inherited theologies or metaphysics, none of them are incompatible with the starkest mechanistic materialism.

This book published in the first half of 2020 was then up-to-the-minute in its cultural assessments, but it predated the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, the protest wave following the police murder of George Floyd, and the US Capitol riot of January 2021. Each of these watershed events could be viewed as a manifestation of one of Burton’s three contending para-religions. The protests were clearly a development of the social justice movement. The lockdowns forced commerce and culture online, accelerating various techno-utopian projects (and enriching and empowering their proponents). The attempt to violently overturn Trump’s electoral defeat was an authoritarian disruption that demonstrated social cohesion among ideological actors previously characterized by “lone wolf” reactionaries.

(I couldn’t help recalling my reading of Mary Farrell Bednarowski’s New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America, where I correlated her three religious genera to the chapters of Liber Legis. In this case, I think it is fairly evident that Burton’s understanding of the social justice movement corresponds to the first chapter, her techno-utopians match the second, and her apocalyptic atavists fit the third.)


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Silence: A Social History of One of the Least Understood Elements of Our Lives [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Jane Brox.

Brox Slience

The “social history” promised by the subtitle of Silence is pretty limited in scope. Author Jane Brox focuses particularly on two environments: prisons and monasteries. Despite a brief engagement with Thoreau and some short tangential passages about the development of silent reading, silence in Quakerism, and so forth, institutional penitence dominates the account.

The fourth of the five parts is dedicated especially to the social effects of gender on expectations of silence. An extensive discussion of female silencing and related judicial punishments leads into the women’s particulars of incarceration and monasticism. Implicitly, silence is given to be a sign of obedient virtue in women for the history treated, but there is no clear sign of how any masculine silence compares or contrasts with it (let alone the silences imposed on exceptional gender and gender resistance).

Brox’s prose is generally lucid and occasionally beautiful. The history is leavened with reflexive anecdotes regarding her research experience and significant digressions about architecture. A considerable portion of the book is given over to thoughts from and accounts of the twentieth-century celebrity monk Thomas Merton.

I learned some history in the course of this reading. It was surprising that I was a little less ignorant of the ancient and medieval aspects of monasticism than I was of the modern evolution of the US penitentiary. But in any case, I never really arrived at the understanding of the social role of silence that the subtitle indicated would be on offer.

The Sexual History of London

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus Reviews The Sexual History of London: From Roman Londinium to the Swinging City—Lust, Vice, and Desire Across the Ages [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Catharine Arnold.

Arnold The Sexual History of London

Arnold’s Sexual History of London boils down to a history of prostitution, pornography, and sexual scandal, with not much besides. Although she notes her sources, there are only about a half-dozen of these for each chapter, and this book really falls in the category of “entertaining non-fiction” rather than scholarship. It is happily full of thumbnail biographies of colorful characters, even if it does at times give the impression that sex is an activity reserved to prostitutes, their clients, and homosexuals.

Although the primary organization of the book is chronological, the author has a tendency to jump back and forth in her pursuit of selected subtopics, and her ostensible “medieval” chapter is loaded up with anecdotes from the Renaissance. Her later treatment of the Whitechapel murders of “Jack the Ripper” seemed to strike a reasonable tone, but I thought there was just far too much of it on its own terms, and not enough done to tie it back into the central topic of sex and sexuality.

Arnold’s narrative voice is pleasant and easy to follow, although she has a recurring tendency to ape the diction of her sources, as when she references (without quotation marks) “base and filthy lucre” (87) and “actors … whipped at the cart’s arse” (89). The book shows sympathy for the historical individuals whom it covers. It reads quickly, but there is quite a lot of it, so it can make a pleasantly extensive reading project for someone looking to read it straight through.

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.

The Spiritual Life of Children

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Spiritual Life of Children [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Robert Coles.

Coles The Spiritual Life of Children

Child psychiatrist and author Coles strongly identifies himself with a liberal humanitarian ethic, which isn’t what draws me to his work. In fact, it’s part of what defeated an earlier attempt of mine to read a different book by him, The Call of Service. Even so, I held out hope that The Spiritual Life of Children would be an entertaining and/or informative read for me, since it purports to offer intimate accounts of the religious and spiritual perspectives of children aged six to thirteen, a range which includes my own daughter at its lower end. While the book did have some value for me, it was mostly disappointing. 

In the end, it seemed like the book was really about Robert Coles: how he negotiated his condition as a secular, skeptically-conditioned intellectual vis a vis pious and spiritually curious children. I did not object to (enjoyed, actually) the first chapter on the vexed and shifting status of the psychoanalytic tradition’s judgments about religion. Similarly, I appreciated the authorial reflexivity in the second chapter on method, describing his conflicts, hesitancies, and difficulties in eliciting children’s real views on matters important to them. But that matter became an unceasing refrain throughout the book while recounting his interviews with children, e.g. “I began thinking of some words to speak…” (50), “I found myself wondering…” (102), “I gave myself an inward lecture…” (214), “Now I felt impelled to speak” (282). Perhaps this mode of reportage is an inevitable byproduct of Coles’ psychoanalytic orientation, but I got seriously tired of it.

Also, despite Coles’ evident efforts to devote attention–entire chapters, even–to Jewish, Muslim, and vaguely secular children (plus one Hopi girl), there were far too many pages dedicated to kids talking on and on about Jesus. Certainly, this is no invalidation of the book relative to its likely readership. But while I was once a Christian child myself, Christian children are something I neither have nor want, and so their clearly dominant presence in the book became another source of fatigue for me as a reader. 

In his effort to focus on “spirituality not religion,” Coles avoided any substantial discussion about children’s experiences of religious ritual or worship, and only glancingly addressed the issue of religious instruction. At the same time, all of the accounts in the book were overtly circumscribed by the religious affiliation (or lack thereof) of the children involved. The omission of their ceremonial and catechumenal lives was a significant loss, as far as I was concerned.

I didn’t regret holding on for the final chapters, one on “Secular Soul-Searching” and the last on “The Child as Pilgrim.” These had some of the more interesting conversations, as well as more general applicability to my own situation. The endnotes are constructed to direct readers to a wider range of texts that engage some of the important questions that could only receive passing attention in this one, and there may be two or three books there that I will pursue.