This was originally going to be a comment on an excellent article on a blog I follow, but it just kept growing.
The article, I felt, did speak to one of the most important intellectual and spiritual challenges of our time. It pointed out that some Pagans speak about a desire or an imagined need to “re-enchant” nature. The concept isn’t new by any means.
I’ve found this desire to re-enchant the world in various places by many people from many different backgrounds. I have heard it from Pagans, but I have also heard it from Atheists and all those other things they call themselves, from philosophers of different varieties, from Christians, from New Agers and the very wide variety of related viewpoints, from Pantheists of several sorts, especially, and also from otherwise ordinary people who would not recognize a claim to any of these labels or specific view points, even if they could properly be categorized as such if thoroughly questioned. A comprehensive list would be too large for this particular paragraph.
I’d like to point out that you’ll also find the impulse to re-enchant the world in nearly every fantasy book you’ve ever read, in particular every single “low fantasy” story, almost by definition. Neil Gaiman specializes in this genre, masterfully. Consider Neverwhere and Stardust as first examples. In each story the protagonist somehow finds a way out of this drab and dreary modern world into one of magic, fantasy, adventure, and most importantly, meaningful activity.
These stories categorized as “low fantasy” make explicit the division between ordinary “real-world” reality and the magical fantasy land where exciting things can happen. The trick to an exciting life, according to the underlying narrative of the genre, is to somehow find a way into a magical world far away from here — because magic doesn’t exist here, but clearly, undeniably, should. These stories seem to leave little doubt about that as the magical world is always somehow the better one. The main character in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, for example, even after his efforts to return home are successful, desires to go back to the magical London Underground. You’ll also notice that Harry Potter’s life was undeniably improved by many orders of magnitude when that letter came — all of them — inviting him to Hogwarts. And if given a choice between Oz and Kansas, despite Dorothy’s quest to get back home, Oz is favored; it is clearly the more exciting place, the place we would like to visit if we happened to live in Kansas, or anywhere, really. This is why the story was written in the way it was written in the first place. It accentuates the message that there is no place like home. Not even the wonderful land of Oz.
Low fantasy isn’t the only example. High fantasy, to include stories such as the Lord of the Rings, Eragon, and the Wheel of Time novels, in which the real world need not exist, possesses the same dynamic. We read the books because we want access to an enchanted world, under the assumption that we don’t otherwise have it. Even the writer of an already-enchanted world very likely sits down to write the book because he or she feels the need to create a magical world, as though feeling intuitively that one should exist and does not.
Science fiction is certainly no exception, with the proliferation of stories about meeting aliens and thereby entering into a new world, having been given access to a fantastic galactic civilization where advanced technologies and alternative courses of evolution allow nearly anything to be possible. Star Trek, Firefly, Stargate, David Brin’s Uplift saga, and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are the first things to spring to mind. Star Wars, if you’re wondering, is better categorized as high fantasy in the image of science fiction, not as science fiction.
Comic books straddle and blur the line between science fiction and fantasy in a more complete way than Star Wars ever could, primarily because the nature of the Universe is not fixed and differs between each writer and each artist, all remaining canon. Consider that Spider-Man was given his powers initially by a radioactive spider — in the vein of science fiction — but also that those powers function as a totemic force even given their non-magical origins, which led to the story line in which he, because of his partaking in totemic forces, had to run and even hide from a hunter of sorts far more powerful than he, who — I don’t recall the details on this complicated story from probably thirteen years ago. Consider the co-existence of science, however it is defined, and magic in the character of Doctor Doom and that a portal to Hell, even to Heaven, can be opened up under the right circumstances through Reed Richards’ scientific genius. Further, the Cosmos as a whole in the Marvel Universe takes on a personified form.
Science fiction and fantasy stories are not alone in this. Every book that draws you into another world, every movie that captures your attention, every video game that draws you in and feeds your imagination, and, arguably, very nearly every work of fiction and every form of entertainment with escapist leanings serves some part of this purpose as they draw your attention away from the drab and dreary world of the mundane and into… something else. In essence, our distractions from the world and the entire massive entertainment industry are the search for a felt missing something without which the world is bland, stale, grey… mundane.
Those who express this desire to re-enchant the world, and every means of expressing that desire, either explicitly or implicitly, all share certain assumptions. The first, obviously, is the assumption that the world is not presently enchanted. The second is the assumption that enchantment is a thing done by a person to the world somehow, as enchantment is assumed to belong to the individual. It is also assumed not only that the world once was enchanted, seen as enchanted, but that it is best seen as enchanted, that it should be enchanted.
All of this searching is missing the two pieces of advice from the above mentioned article: Enchantment is already present. Shut up and listen.
The entire entertainment industry, to a greater or lesser degree, the entire story-telling enterprise, and every religion, philosophy, and world-view asking these questions, implicitly seeking wonder and the extra-ordinary are seeking to re-enchant the world primarily by the application of imagination, which I assert is a mistake. If you are seeking enchantment, creating an imaginary version of it will not give it to you.
This brings us to the most important point and deepest underlying assumption in the discussion: the sense of enchantment is personal, idiosyncratic, and completely unrelated to the true nature of the enchanted thing. You will hear modern Naturalistic Pantheists state this most explicitly: the world is fundamentally a dead and soulless place, but we love it, therefore, in our eyes, it is magical. The assumption here is that viewing something as enchanted is the feeling of an emotion, and that one may see the quality or not in exactly the same way that a person could more or less choose to be angry at a malfunctioning faucet, laugh at it, or even admire the steady rhythm of the dripping water. To an extent, of course, this is true, as it is true for all things, but to the extent that that we view our goal as a personal emotional state, we are lost wholly and completely in our efforts.
The aim here, recall, is to re-enchant the world. Consider that for a moment or for a long while.
What a massive statement of hubris! Such arrogance! To say that we could make the world a given thing, to make it have some property or not, is sheer insanity.
But that’s not what people mean when they say they wish to re-enchant the world. They are saying they want to feel enchantment about the world. They want to walk out into their backyard and feel a certain way instead of mostly dead inside, grey and empty. It is a selfish statement, though it comes from an inner knowing of sorts, which has yet to be properly expressed for lack of a proper ontology to be placed into.
The problem we see here: the belief that the world is not currently enchanted, the belief that it once was, the belief that something could be done about it, the belief that enchantment can only be an idiosyncratic experience contained exclusively within an experiencer’s mind, the belief that an experiencer’s mind is a point-like thing trapped away from the rest of existence inside of a body, and the belief that the world should contain the property of enchantment.
Lets put this together now. The world is not presently seen as enchanted. The world once was enchanted. Nothing could possibly be done by a person to the world to change a fundamental sort of property as this. And the world simply should be enchanted.
We know somehow that it should be this way, and we can see that there is nothing we can do to change whether the world of itself is that way or not, so we’re left with three options, which are really only two: either the world is somehow wrong, the world can become right, or the world is not wrong. The first of these options is wholly absurd. In what meaningful way could the Universe really be “wrong”? The second option is therefore useless. This leaves us with option three: The world is not wrong because the notion is inherently meaningless. I will not dwell on this argument.
Assuming, then, that the world should be enchanted, the world is enchanted. Consider that a Sunset is beautiful, that beauty is a property of the Sunset whether you see it when viewing it or not. If you don’t see it, you simply don’t see it in the same way you might not see a stick bug on a tree branch, despite the fact that the stick bug is there. The problem with seeing it lies in your vision, but the thing itself is not. Entertain the thought for a moment that the old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” is wrong.
If we believe that the world’s enchantment exists only within an individual’s perception of it, then our entire effort is lost. If the world is still a dead and soulless place in fact, but ensouled and meaningful only within our imaginations, have we in any way found an ensouled and meaningful Universe? No. We have, perhaps, done the equivalent of writing a fantasy novel, more likely playing a childish game of make-believe. None of this is the least bit problematic, but neither is any of it the least bit helpful for our efforts.
Let’s take possibly the most useful approach. As a child you saw the world very differently in very nearly every way. We all know that the world can be enchanted not just through an innate understanding but because we had known it before it had been stamped out of us. That, I believe, is what we are looking for. And why I characterized in the way I did the second piece of advice from the article: Shut up and listen.
The spirits of the trees are not metaphorical. The wrath of the gods in the form of a thunderstorm or erupting volcano is not in your imagination. The world “out there” is really out there.
Really look at your surroundings and feel the fact that they are truly present beyond your body, that your perception in some way is also beyond your body. Notice even that your body is contained within your perception! There may come a point when everything pops out, becomes three-dimensional, becomes real. There may come a point where you realize the feelings you feel in relation to your surroundings in some way belong to your surroundings as much as to you.
And if you reach this point you’ve probably just remembered what it felt like to be a child.
It seems that something is broken within us as we grow up, but not necessarily so. It seems that the misguided effort to effect re-enchantment upon the world is a projected effort to heal whatever wound that is inside us.