WONDER AND ENCHANTMENT

“In 1957, the sociologist and philosopher Max Weber ‘disenchantment’ (Entzauberung) as the distinctive injury of modernity. He defined disenchantment as ‘the knowledge or belief that…there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation.’ For Weber, disenchantment was a function of the rise of rationalism, which demanded the extirpation of dissenting knowledge-kinds in favour of a single master-principle. It found its expressions not just in human behavior and policy–including the general impulse to control nature–but also in emotional response. Weber noted the widespread reduction of ‘wonder’ (for him the hallmark of enchantment, and in which state we are comfortable with not-knowing) and the corresponding expansion of ‘will’ (for him the hallmark of disenchantment, and in which we are avid for authority). In modernity, mastery usurped mystery.

Our language for nature is now such that the things around us do not talk back to us in ways that they might. As we have enhanced our power to determine nature, so we have rendered it less able to converse with us. We find it hard to imagine nature outside a use-value framework. We have become experts in analysing what nature can do for us, but lack a language to evoke what it can do to us. The former is important; the latter is vital. Martin Heidegger identified a version of this trend in 1954, observing that the rise of technology and the technological imagination had converted what he called ‘the whole universe of beings’ into an undifferentiated ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand) of energy, available for any use to which humans choose to put it. The rise of ‘standing reserve’ as a concept has bequeathed to us an inadequate and unsatisfying relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves, too, because we have to encounter ourselves and our thoughts as mysteries before we encounter them as service providers. We require things to have their own lives if they are to enrich ours. But allegory as a mode has settled inside us, and thrived: fungibility has replaced particularity.”

–Robert Macfarlane, Landmarks, p. 25

4 Replies to “WONDER AND ENCHANTMENT”

  1. Mary McCaskill says: Reply

    Reminds me of a line in The Source, by James Michener, a book which chronicles the Israelites from antiquity to modern times, including their religion. One protagonist laments that it was easier to find Yahweh when they were nomadic wanderers than when they had settled in villages and cities.

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Thanks, Mary, interesting….It’s really a book about the British countryside and how we interact with nature. He has all these gloassaries with terms like:

      ammil: ‘The icy casings of leaves and grasses and blades and sprigs were glowing and hid in a mist of sun-fire. Moor-folk call this morning glory the ammil’ Henry Williamson, Tarka the Otter

      haze-fire: luminous morning mist through which the dawn sun is shining

      astar, innis: area of moor where sheep spend their first summer and to which they tend to return

      The point being that the more clearly and precisely we say what we mean, the closer we are drawn into relationship with, in this case, landscape. But the concept clearly applies to any created or material thing…

  2. Philippe Garmy says: Reply

    The wonder of language as not simply a mode of communication but an in-depth reflection of whom we are in the bigger scheme of things speaks volumes…consider how the enlightenment fashioned our intellect and turned our creative wills and language away from God…or what the industrial revolution projected onto our metaphysical vocabulary. Yes, much was gained but something vital was lost…our ability to speak to the sanctity and wonder of creation with inner conviction and voice. The philosophers chronicled this narrative with their mindfully accurate new science vocabularies, but it was the poets that struggled to keep our hearts, minds and souls from drowning in it. Poor mother church has been swimming against the current for a long, long time.
    To think that eskimos have an expansive vocabulary to convey and give expression to something as vital to their natural world as snow, is rich with irony.
    Makes me consider the Beatitudes with deeper appreciation and surrender…

    1. HEATHER KING says: Reply

      Amen, Philippe–beautifully said. Thank you!

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