“Once upon a time Gods and heroes walked the Earth. People encountered dragons and faeries often enough that no one would think of questioning their existence. Most importantly, magic was a part of everyday life. The world was enchanted.”
So begins John Beckett’s recently review of The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences by Jason Josephson-Storm. Josephson-Storm’s thesis is that “Disenchantment is a myth. The majority of people in the heartland of disenchantment believe in magic or spirits today, and it appears that they did so at the high point of modernity. Education does not directly result in disenchantment.”
In his review, Beckett briefly discusses belief in the supernatural among icons of modernity like Freud and concludes that, rather than “reenchanting the world”, we need “to maintain our commitment to the enchanted lives we already have”, by which he seems to mean: Keep on believing in magic … and apparently fairies and dragons too.
Beckett is correct that there have always been people who believed in the supernatural. Plenty of people do even today. It’s also true that the “science” of early moderns from Newton to Freud looks a lot more like superstition than science to our eyes today. But it’s also true that belief in things like fairies and dragons has been on the decline for quite a while now. And it’s unlikely that, in the absence of a complete collapse of modern civilization (which admittedly is looking increasingly possible), we will see an increase in mass belief in the supernatural.
I’m not sure when Beckett thinks dragons were common enough that “no one would think of questioning their existence”. (And I can only speculate on what he thinks happened to the fossil record of all those dragons.) But his use of the introductory phrase, “Once upon a time”, suggests that he is (at least unconsciously) operating in a mythical, not a historical mode.
Beckett is not alone. People have always seemed to have a nostalgic longing for a mythical past when things were different than they are now. But no matter how far back you go, the age of gods and heroes and fairies and dragons always seems to be still yet further in the past, just out of reach of historical consciousness.
As Beckett points out, Chaucer described the departure of the fairies from the world, a myth which, like the death of Pan, is about the disenchantment of the world. Chaucer was writing in the Middle Ages, two and a half centuries before Descartes and the early modern era. The longing for the mythical past predates modernism. We find it even among the ancients. In his long essay, Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?, Paul Veyne describes how even the ancient Greeks saw the age of gods and heroes as something existing in their past.
The reason for this is this: the fairies never departed; they have always been departed. In other words, the departure of the fairies is not a historical event which happened at a specific time and place. Rather, it is a myth which describes a common human experience of longing for a golden age which never was (one which probably originates with the universal human experience of maturation from childhood).
In short, there never really was a time in history when “Gods and heroes walked the Earth.” That time exists only in myth, in the time of “Once upon a time …” (or if you prefer, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …)
But that doesn’t mean that enchantment (or disenchantment) is a myth. Because enchantment is not a belief; it’s an experience.
In fact, Beckett’s focus on belief as a sign of enchantment is itself a product of a disenchanted modern worldview. The emphasis on belief in religious matters is really a product of post-Reformation Christianity and the Enlightenment.
It was not belief in fairies and dragons which made the world enchanted, and it was not the loss of belief that disenchanted the world. It was the experience of deep connection and intimate participation in the world around us which made the world enchanted, and the loss of that experience of connection and participation which made it disenchanted.
Various events in the history of humankind’s relation with the world have contributed to the disenchantment of the world, or more accurately, the disenchantment of our relation to the world. The Agricultural Revolution and the invention of alphabetic writing, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, all played a role in severing the connection between the our sense of self on the one hand and the natural world and the human and other-than-human beings who inhabit that world on the other hand.
That being said, there probably never was a time when human beings did not experience some degree of disenchantment, and hence nostalgia for a past that never was. In that sense, the fairies have always been departed. Adopting a belief in the existence of supernatural beings is not going to bring back the mythical past when “Gods and heroes walked the Earth.”
What we can do, though, is to foster a deeper and more genuine sense of our participation with the world. Belief won’t get us there though. In fact, belief can get in the way.
Belief in magic contributes to disenchantment when it is understood as a kind of technology, yet another way of striving for dominion over nature, rather than a way of expanding consciousness of our intimate reciprocity with the world. Belief in magic contributes to disenchantment when it is treated as a kind of pseudo-science (complete with spurious analogies to quantum physics or chaos theory), rather than a challenge to the dominance of the objectivist paradigm bequeathed to us by 19th century positivistic science. Belief in magic contributes to disenchantment when it is used as a way of escaping or reducing the anxiety caused by life in a society built on capitalist assumptions, rather than a way of challenging those assumptions.
Similarly, belief in fairies and other invisible beings contributes to disenchantment when that belief requires that we perpetuate Western dualisms and alienated, objectivist definitions of reality. Belief in fairies and other invisible beings contributes to disenchantment when that belief distracts us from the natural world, rather than helping us experience other-than-human presences which fill the natural world. Belief in fairies and other invisible beings contributes to disenchantment when our images of those beings just mirror back our patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, and imperialistic egos, rather than revealing the genuine “other” to us.
What is needed is not belief, not fantasies and wishful thinking, but practices which get us out of our heads and away from fantasies and wishful thinking. What is needed is not belief in an otherworld populated by fairies and dragons, but practices which reveal to us where we actually are and the holiness of this place we call earth. What is needed is not belief in figments of our imaginations, but practices which connect us to others, both human and other-than-human, which fill the natural world. What is needed is not belief, which will lull us into a state of complacence wth the status quo, but practices which will transform us and move us in turn to transform our world.