Disenchanting Disenchantment

Clare Coffey has a book review published in The New Atlantis about notions of enchantment/disenchantment in a secular age. She discusses the idea in relation to the history and phenomenon of mesmerism–which I learned has its origins in the work of an 18th century German physician Franz Mesmer (hence, “mesmerism”). The history of mesmerism is fascinating: as a method of medical research, it began as an accepted scientific practice and then transformed into a fringe belief akin to a belief in magic.

I wonder if most forms of scientific research can’t be traced along the same trajectory. And if so, how much of our currently accepted scientific knowledge will slip into the ever widening category of “belief in magic.” One of the things Coffey points out is that distinguishing between an enchanted past and a disenchanted present is like trying to chart two different countries without borders.

She never mentions Charles Taylor, but she does mention Talal Asad’s book Formations of the Secular, which I’ve not read. I’ll be adding it to my list of “Someday-I’ll-read-that-because-I-know-it’s-good-but-God-only-knows-when-I’ll-get-around-to-it.”

Here is a sampling of some of the passages I’m still thinking about:

“Ogden describes the process by which the debunking of mesmerism produced successor generations in terms of the “idol function” played by false beliefs. The destruction of an idol, the thinking goes, is not a closed and final process. When you destroy an idol, you must supply some account of the undeniable effect the idol had on the lives of its followers.”

“For the second generation of mesmerists, what was important about credulity was not simply that it, unlike animal magnetism, was real. Rather, credulity was both a resource to be exploited and a problem to be dealt with. On both counts, mesmerists styled themselves, quite literally, as an epistemic-managerial class.”

“Ogden adopts Talal Asad’s definition of secular agency, from his Formations of the Secular (2003), as the idea of a person “having both the capacity and the desire to move in a singular historical direction: that of increasing self-empowerment and decreasing pain.” The final goal of those who aim at secularity is total autonomy and self-realization, not simply freedom from taboo and magic. “This agent’s fundamental question,” Ogden writes, “is ‘what should human beings do to realize their freedom, empower themselves, and choose pleasure?’”

“But secular agency does not correspond well to a world in which we are often sick, ignorant, poor, or incapable in ways large and small; in which we can neither bring about our own births nor choose the hour of our deaths. It is more of an asymptote than a lived condition, an always imperfectly grasped ideal to which some come closer than others. Because, on this reading, secular agency is always an aim rather than an established fact, narratives of one’s own disenchantment are aspirations rather than triumphal hymns. Inevitable anxiety about whether you have been sufficiently disenchanted is especially urgent when the dividing line between the modern and the unenlightened is credulity. Since credulity, by nature, is not a trait easily self-diagnosed, its threat engenders a constant search for more credulous rubes against which to measure yourself. Secularism proves to be a pyramid scheme.”

“Ogden’s work suggests that the enchanted and disenchanted are two countries that lack a border, ­forever one dissolving into and reconstituting the other. And insofar as this binary reflects an opposition between mystical awe and technical power, this is nothing new. Spiritual forces can be both objects and tools of management: A canny huckster may hug himself to think of all the indulgences by which he has cheated God out of purgatory; workers can be kept in line by sermons on the Almighty’s pleasure in ­working-class thrift and industry, or by a self-help guru preaching myopic focus on individual wellbeing (after all, look at how well it’s worked for the guru). Everyone now, on some level, acknowledges a world beyond what the average Joe can immediately perceive, whether it’s quantum physics or celestial order or merely the limitless possibilities of human potential. There is no periodizing movement, forward or back, which will settle for us the question of which account of the invisible is most true — nor, equally important, what it demands of us.”

Dryads and Trees

It turns out that I’ve been wrongly attributing a quotation to C. S. Lewis for the past few years. I was reading G. K. Chesteron’s book Orthodoxy with my senior high school students when I ran across this sentence:

Old nurses do not tell children about the grass, but about the fairies that dance on the grass; and the old Greeks could not see the trees for the dryads. (“Ethics of Elfland”)

In my defense, I’m sure Lewis has said something like this somewhere. I originally thought it came from The Discarded Image where he addresses the changing human experience of the cosmos over the course of history. It’s a fascinating idea, one that’s received a fair amount of attention from people like Lewis’ good friend Owen Barfield to the contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor. I hope to write more about it in the future. But for now, I’m happy to correct an error and to bookmark the Chesterton quotation for later use.