In popular culture the word ‘enchantment’ may be associated with the television show “Charmed” or some other, dare I say, silly notion of witchcraft. It carries the connotation of a magical ‘act’, something done to affect humans, objects, or non-human persons, perhaps akin to glamour or a type of spell. More and more, when I use this word, I’m talking about our world view–at least the one we ought to have.
Let me start this exploration of an enchanted world view by making a strong statement: scientific consciousness is alienated consciousness. That may be hard to hear if you haven’t studied the social sciences. You may have an automatic reaction against a statement like that, you may even have an immediate desire to defend science or scientific theory. After all, so many of us are scientists, and also love our science fiction and technology. But hear me out. Try to withhold judgement while I share my thoughts.
[My discoveries] have satisfied me that it is possible to reach knowledge that will be of much utility in this life; and that instead of the speculative philosophy now taught in the schools we can find a practical one, by which, knowing the nature and behavior of fire, water, air, stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies which surround us, as well as we now understand the different skills of our workers, we can employ these entities for all the purposes for which they are suited, and so make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.
–René Descartes, Discourse on Method (1637)
Within our modern western (scientific) world view, subject and object are in opposition to each other. I am taught that I am not my experience, that I am outside of nature or phenomena: an observer of it. This separates me from the world around me and necessarily makes me “not” a part of it. Of course, the logical end point of this way of thinking (world view) is a feeling of total reification: everything is an object, alien, not-me; and I am ultimately an object too, an alienated “thing” in a world of other, equally meaningless “things.” This world is not of my own making; the cosmos care nothing for me, and I don’t really feel a sense of belonging to it. What I feel, in fact, is a sickness in the soul.
That sickness is disenchantment. It arises from a modern landscape that has become a “mass administration” full of alienation. Jobs are stupefying, relationships vapid and transient, the arena of politics absurd. Ernest Gellner, the philosopher and social anthropologist, argued that disenchantment was the inevitable product of modernity, and he observed that many people could not, and can not, stand a disenchanted world.
What is disenchantment?
In the social sciences, disenchantment is “the cultural rationalization and devaluation of mysticism found in modern scientific society.” It is a characteristic of western cultural, that places a higher value on scientific understanding than on belief. Disenchantment operates on a macro-level. “It destroys part of the process whereby the chaotic social elements that require sacralization in the first place continue with mere knowledge as their antidote.” In which case, disenchantment can be related to Durkheim’s concept of anomie: an un-mooring of the individual from the ties that bind in society.
And what of those who can not stand a disenchanted world? For many, there is a retreat into the oblivion provided by television, video games, entertainment, drugs, and consumption.
We no longer merge ecstatically with nature–we now seek to dissect her, understand her, and, ultimately, control her.
What does this have to do with enchantment?
Prior to the scientific revolution the world was an enchanted world. Rocks, trees, rivers, and clouds were all seen as wondrous, alive, and human-persons felt at home in this environment. The cosmos, in short, was a place of be-longing. A member of this cosmos was not an alienated observer of it but a direct participant in its drama. His personal destiny was bound up with ‘its’ destiny, and this relationship gave meaning to life. This was a participatory consciousness and it involved merger or identification with one’s surroundings. The world, which included all of us, was Enchanted.
From the sixteenth century onward (the beginning of the scientific revolution) mind has been expunged from the phenomenal world. The scientific explanations now are matter and motion. There is a distinction now between observer and observed. We have disenchanted the world.
For me, the beginning point was a personal return to more primitive views. I now consider myself an animist, or at least someone trying desperately to introduce an animistic world view into her modern life. The enchantment of the world, or should I say ‘re’enchantment, is what I strive to do daily by acknowledging the living world; not just the trees, rocks and rivers, but the earth herself, as a living system. When I step outside I intentionally become conscious of stepping upon living flesh. I invoke the sensation of being seen, interacting intentionally with the living and conscious world around me. The birds see me, the trees see me, the grass sees me, and so does the sky.
Here in this rural environment, I am surrounded by more living persons than I ever was in the city: a very different way of looking at the world–for an introvert!
Perhaps I am my experience after all. This living experience of color, sound, touch, and vibrancy is a wonder beyond comprehension. It is also Power. It is living–the flaming stars, hurtling rocks, whirling atmospheres–and I am part of it. This body and its senses are sacred: Enchanted.
My desire for a return to Enchantment is not anachronistic, nor am I devaluing science. What I am doing is encouraging us to examine our relationship with the world around us, and how our larger social structures impact our spirituality.