Tag Archives: Nonfiction

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.