Tag Archives: Women in History


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.


Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Alberto Toscano.

Toscano Fanaticism

Although “fanaticism” is a pejorative of highly varied applications, sometimes significantly opposite to one another, Alberto Toscano’s book is not a mere study of rhetoric. It delves into a long modern development of paradigms for the fanatic, ranging from the German Peasants’ Revolt to Islam to the French Revolution to Marxism.

Reading this 2009 book and considering current usage made me realize that “fanatic” has somewhat fallen out of vogue, with “extremist” taking its place in the vernacular. Chapter 2 had me reflecting on Q-anon under the category of “millenarian crisis cult.” A point of repeated emphasis is the divergence between viewing fanaticism as benighted irrational passion on one hand and uncompromising adherence to abstract ideals on the other. Although I was less familiar with the latter tendency, Toscano supplies many important instances of it from the eighteenth century to the present.

The examinations and arguments here engage a long span of continental philosophy, from Kant and Hegel to Agamben and Derrida. The penultimate chapter does a good job of rescuing Marxist insights on religion from being tossed out with the facile secularization hypothesis to which they are commonly attached. And the final chapter was of special value in its examination of the “political religion” diagnosis, where thinkers “consider extreme or illiberal political ideologies as types or perversions of religion.” Toscano admirably teases out the motives and consequences of such a move, and I was fortunate to have fresh in my memory a good narrative to anchor some of the high-flown analysis here, having read not too long ago Benson’s 1907 novel Lord of the World.

This book is a work of genuine theory, suspicious of recent intellectual trends, and alert to the accumulation of arguments around its focus. It is not at all an easy read, and I often had to make a second pass at a paragraph to be sure I had grasped the sense of it. Toscano also took as given the reader’s awareness of various modern thinkers, and if I had been just a little less well-read myself, I suspect that much of the attention I gave to this text would have been unrewarded.