A Propensity for Disenchantment?

The word disenchantment literally means “to break a spell.” But the word is now used by people interested in the social sciences to characterize the collective mood of people in secularized cultures where there has been a loss of meaning in life. The secularization that leads to disenchantment is usually thought to be the result of the social/economic processes of modernization and rationalization.

Others would hold that disenchantment is not only the result of these socioeconomic processes but also or even mainly from the philosophical/cultural predominance of modernism and rationalism.

My purpose here is to consider if  our collective disenchantment is the result merely of the aforementioned external processes/pressures or if there is within us all an internal propensity toward disenchantment?

If so, the answer lie much closer to home, to something innate within humankind. An interesting way to explore this view is by considering the seemingly offhand observation of Annie Dillard:

I am no scientist. I explore the neighborhood. An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment. He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn. In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place. Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly been set down, if we can’t learn why. (Annie Dillard, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” Bantam Books Inc: 1974, p. 12)

Certainly the philosophical and economic reductionism of life has borne its fruits in our disenchantment. But don’t we all, as individuals, begin with an innate sense of enchantment? How is this so easily removed from us? Dillard notes the beginning experience of the infant’s “bewilderment” at his environment, but she then notes that “he aims to learn.” Thus “bewilderment” is a later reaction, while the aim to learn is prior and innate. After all, why does he even “gaze about him” in the first place?

Of course the answer could be that it is merely the manifestation of life itself and the need for survival. While this is certainly part of the reason, I don’t think it is the whole reason. I believe that we are born explorers with an innate desire to make sense of everything around us. Again, this could be reduced to the need for survival. But I believe that our early “bewilderment” is simply the result of our almost complete ignorance of everything around us. On the other hand the “intent to learn” brings “enchantment” as we simply experience the wonder of existence. Thus early on we experience life with both bewilderment and enchantment.

So, I believe that we all start with an innate experience of enchantment. I don’t think Dillard would deny this, for I think it is actually implied by her that we start as explorers.But because we constantly encounter “bewilderment” we eventually learn how to “fake it” and adopt the “cocksure air of a squatter.” She seems to point to pride as the motive for this “adoption.”

It seems to me that what essentially occurs in this process, is the suppression of enchantment and the adoption of disenchantment. This is because the “cocksure air of a squatter” is chosen so that we are not embarrassed by our bewilderment/ignorance. Why is “I know” one of the most common things children learn how to say when it is obvious they they don’t know? Why do we want to be thought of by others as “in the know?” Hasn’t this always been the essence of being “in?”

The down-side is that this “deal with ourselves” brings disenchantment because we have essentially become flippant towards enchantment. The constant gaze of amazement is unbearable because it reminds us of our ignorance. Perhaps this is why childhood is considered as the time of innocence, and to leave that is not so much a loss as a choice. Thus choosing to leave childhood is to lose innocence. It is also to lose enchantment. It is interesting that Dillard’s image of a “cocksure squatter” portrays images of pride and possessiveness. I have already noted that flippancy is also involved. Tolkien notes these elements in the following:

Recovery…is a regaining-regaining a clear view. I do not say”seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”-as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity-from possessiveness. (J.R.R. Tolkien The Tolkien Reader, 1966, p. 77)

To return to Dillard’s observation, the perceptive reader may also note that my previously mentioned factors of “childhood,” innocence, ignorance, and knowledge appear to have been main factors in the experiential context of Adam & Eve in Eden. Likewise, they decided to “obtain” knowledge autonomously, resulting in knowledge that was no more true wisdom than that obtained by the childish adoption of the  “cocksure air of a squatter.”

Is the negative reaction to “bewilderment,” which may in essence be insecurity, the impetus that propels humankind toward self aggrandizement, the essence of sin? The primal experience of insecurity/bewilderment is not itself sin. Kierkegaard believed that insecurity was/is an inherent condition for humans made in the image of God because of the blending together in their self of finitude and infinitude. But he did not hold that this feeling was sin. What was/is sin is the failure to trust God and to choose autonomy instead.

So how does this chosen disenchantment become propagated in each person? Kierkegaard believed in the unity of the race in Adam’s sin, which is certainly not to say that the individual sins because of the negative influence  of the collective sinners. Understanding this unity in Adam’s sin is difficult to understand. This is because,

Sin is the result of freedom…We cannot say why all human beings sin any more than we can say why Adam sinned, As Kierkegaard puts it, “Sin came into the world by a sin.” All we can say is that all humans do sin, and they thereby demonstrate the unity of the race.” (C. Stephen Evans, Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology,  1990, p. 62.)

But Dillard’s observation does not seem to be attributing the racial propensity to such a mysterious unity, but rather to a “taught pride.” Therefore the individual’s sin is due to the collective sinfulness. Our racial propensity is thus propagated through pedagogy, although that process is probably done without the awareness that it is being done by both the “teacher” and the “pupil.” It could be described as a “stance” we learn by observation and imitation. If this were true it may mean that the individual propensity is adopted mainly to “fit in” or because it appears to “work.” (Why swim against the tide? It seems to work to go with the flow!)

Either way it seems that both Kierkegaard and Dillard show that the racial infection of disenchantment is not separable from an individual existential confirmation, rather than merely a reaction to modern conditions and/or philosophies of life. Thus it is not a frequent human development but is an inherent human quality. And this actually makes more sense, since it is probable that “disenchantment” is not merely a modern phenomenon, but has always been an existential condition of humankind. It is probably more accurate to consider the modern manifestations as a collective disenchantment, while individual disenchantment has always been our chosen birthright. (Also, we tend to deny disenchantment at the individual and collective levels through the practice of what Pascal called “diversion“.)

So, in answering our original question I believe that the disenchantment of modern/postmodern man probably owes more to the propensity of Man toward it, rather than the result of external socio/economic or philosophical/cultural pressures on the individual.

So if we have a propensity for disenchantment, what is the way to gain re-enchantment? I think the way to begin to do that is to simply ask why we even have an “original” propensity for “enchantment,” and why it is invariably overcome by an “alien” propensity for disenchantment?

The simple unadorned answer to that question, is that we are, as Blaise Pascal said “deposed royalty.” The fact that we have an original capacity for enchantment means that we were created as “royalty.” The fact that we invariably fall into disenchantment means that we are “deposed” from that position.

“See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” Ecclesiastes 7:29 ESV

“Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Luke 18:16-17 ESV

BMC 2/17/12

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