Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: disenchantment (page 1 of 1)

Slanted and disenchanted

The most delightful thing about Arthur C. Clarke’s famous comment that “any smoothly functioning technology gives the appearance of magic” is how obvious the point is once you read it. But because the point is so retrospectively obvious the phrase tends to get deployed unimaginatively. It’s actually more subtle, and perhaps consequential, than it appears to be.

Here’s another way to put Clarke’s point: Many or most human beings have in our intellectual toolbox a category – one that we that may for convenience’ sake call “magic” – that we deploy in situations in which we perceive certain ends achieved but cannot perceive the means by which the achievement was accomplished. There’s a large metal box in my kitchen that is filled with cold air, this I know, but how it makes the air cold may not only be unknown to me but effectively unimaginable. Or: A tall black monolith has appeared in the midst of my small band of early-hominid hunter-gatherers, this we know, but how it got there and what it is we cannot guess.

If you read much of Clarke’s writings you know that Clarke doesn’t believe in magic – that is, in forces outside the laws of physics as we know them that produce effects in the physical world – but it’s worth noting that his point stands whether you believe in magic or not. Even if magic can be done, it remains true that any smoothly functioning technology etc. etc. That is to say, Clarke’s statement is not a metaphysical claim but a phenomenological one – it is about “appearance,” about what presents itself to us, about what we perceive. Whether we are perceiving accurately, and how what we perceive might be explained – these are epistemological questions. In this case, epistemology (theory of knowledge) is brought in to help us understand the gap (or, in some cases, fit) between what we perceive and what is.

In these respects, Clarke’s statement resembles Max Weber’s famous description of “the disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung, unmagicking). Weber is not saying that once the world was filled with disembodied spirits subject only to metaphysical rather than physical description, spirits that have now departed. He’s saying that that’s what the world feels like – it reads to us like a place where transmissions from the far invisible have ceased. In such a phenomenological environment, what do we do when things happen that we don’t know how to account for – when we see the ends but cannot imagine the means?

And this can happen to us when we read fiction as well, an experience I can perhaps describe in this way: Any imaginatively conceived and coherently presented work of science fiction reads like a work of fantasy.

In Adam Roberts’s new novel The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate these very themes are pursued, these questions are posed, in a provocative and delightful way. What do you do if you are a rational man, a man of science, and begin to see things that science (as you understand it) cannot explain? What do you do if you’re reading a novel and can’t tell if it’s fantasy or science fiction?

If these questions interest you, you’ll very much enjoy (as I did) The Death of Sir Martin Malprelate.


Phantastes is all about doubling: reflections in mirrors, a cave of making juxtaposed to a grotto of destruction, a loving womanly beech-tree versus a malicious Maiden of the Ash, a bedroom in an ordinary Victorian home and the twin of that bedroom in Fairy Castle. All of these doublings are most fully embodied in the contrast between our world — where the waters reflect but the sky does not — and Fairy Land — where just the opposite is true.

On the day after his 21st birthday, a man named Anodos enters Fairy Land, undergoes many adventures and trials, and returns to his home twenty-one days later — though the period feels to him like twenty-one years, that is, the equivalent of the time he had previously spent in our world. (The one life mirrors the other.) His parents both being dead, he has now, at reaching his majority, become the head of his household:

My mind soon grew calm; and I began the duties of my new position, somewhat instructed, I hoped, by the adventures that had befallen me in Fairy Land. Could I translate the experience of my travels there, into common life? This was the question. Or must I live it all over again, and learn it all over again, in the other forms that belong to the world of men, whose experience yet runs parallel to that of Fairy Land? These questions I cannot answer yet. But I fear.

These concerns about the effects of such doubling (such “parallel” experiences) are, it seems clear, George MacDonald’s own concerns about the writing of fantasy. In his essay “The Fantastic Imagination” MacDonald confesses quite directly a complication in the writing of what we would now call fantasy but when he called (as he himself said, for lack of a better term) fairy tale:

  1. On the one hand, among the literary genres the fairy tale has a unique power to “wake a meaning” in its readers — and this is a great thing. “The best thing you can do for your fellow, next to rousing his conscience, is — not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him; or say, to make him think things for himself.” In seeking this effect the writer of a fairy tale is imitating Nature: “The best Nature does for us is to work in us such moods in which thoughts of high import arise.”
  2. On the other hand, there is nothing the writer of the fairy tale could or should do to determine what meaning is awakened in its readers. He says this repeatedly. “A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.” To determine that a single meaning be extracted from the tale is to write an allegory, and “a fairytale is not an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it not an allegory. He must be an artist indeed who can, in any mode, produce a strict allegory that is not a weariness to the spirit.” No, “the greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended,” and therefore the fairy-tale writer must be willing to accept, and indeed must (by opening his mind and spirit) court the uncomprehended. Otherwise, why bother writing a fairy tale?

MacDonald knows that this will not be pleasant news to the didactically inclined. But the didactically inclined are free to work in (and to read) genres other than the fairy tale.

If a writer’s aim be logical conviction, he must spare no logical pains, not merely to be understood, but to escape being misunderstood; where his object is to move by suggestion, to cause to imagine, then let him assail the soul of his reader as the wind assails an aeolian harp. If there be music in my reader, I would gladly wake it. Let fairytale of mine go for a firefly that now flashes, now is dark, but may flash again. Caught in a hand which does not love its kind, it will turn to an insignificant ugly thing, that can neither flash nor fly.

A work of fantasy, then — in addition to being a firefly, and a wind —, may be described as a mirror, but as with the Mirror of Galadriel, what one sees in it is largely determined by who one is. (And anyway, if G. C. Lichtenberg was right, that’s true of all books without exception: “A book is like a mirror,” he said; “If a jackass looks in, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”)

But if this mirror will provide any kind of reflection at all in what Lord Dunsany liked to call “the fields we know,” what’s necessary, MacDonald believes, is a kind of consistency in the imagined world one offers to the reader.

Man may, if he pleases, invent a little world of his own, with its own laws; for there is that in him which delights in calling up new forms — which is the nearest, perhaps, he can come to creation. […] His world once invented, the highest law that comes next into play is, that there shall be harmony between the laws by which the new world has begun to exist; and in the process of his creation, the inventor must hold by those laws. The moment he forgets one of them, he makes the story, by its own postulates, incredible. To be able to live a moment in an imagined world, we must see the laws of its existence obeyed. Those broken, we fall out of it.

This is obviously an adumbration of Tolkien’s more famous concept of “secondary worlds” — but it is clear (see my previous post on mythopoeic promiscuity) that when MacDonald talks about the “laws” of an imagined world he cannot possibly mean the kind of consistency in world-building that Tolkien so prized, and so lamented the absence of in Lewis’s fiction.

I think the laws that MacDonald refers to are mystical and spiritual, and unconnected altogether to the material furniture of the fictional environment. But I need to think about that further — and about the specific ways that MacDonald’s crazy-quilt fictional world just might possess a consistency that allows it to serve as a useful mirror of our own.


Adam Roberts, back in 2014:

There is, I think, a genuine human fascination with outer space. Apollo could have capitalised upon that fascination and expanded into broader and better conceived programmes. But it didn’t, and the real reason it didn’t is that people found a more satisfying way scratch their metaphorical itch. Like a diet of sweets and pastries instead of spinach and brown rice, big screen sci-fi quelled our appetite for space travel in a way both delicious and fundamentally unhealthy. Why should people around the globe give up a significant fraction of their respective gross national products to pay for actual space travel when Hollywood could give them all the thrills of outer space in virtual form?

I think this point — which I missed back when it was published — harmonizes nicely with the argument I made in my essay from the same year, “Fantasy and the Buffered Self”:  

Fantasy — in books, films, television shows, and indeed in all imaginable media — is an instrument by which the late modern self strives to avail itself of the unpredictable excitements of the porous self while retaining its protective buffers. Fantasy, in most of its recent forms, may best be understood as a technologically enabled, and therefore safe, simulacrum of the pre-modern porous self. 

Stories as distractions, as substitute satisfactions, as soma.  

loss and grief

To go from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines to the Dark Mountain Manifesto is to take a 180° turn — a turn downward. If Kurzweil reached up towards the stars, the authors of the Manifesto tell us to walk down that dark mountain to re-enter the world of “nature” which we had thought to have conquered, to have risen above, to have mastered, to have become capable of disregarding. “We believe it is time to look down.” But what might it mean to “look down”?

In my class we try to get at that question by reading Helen McDonald’s magnificent book H Is For Hawk. Because, partly intentionally and partly unintentionally, this is the story of how a woman looked down into the world that we call “nature” — and became a hawk. 

For years I’d scoffed at [T. H.] White’s notion of hawk-training as a rite of passage. Overblown, I’d thought. Loopy. Because it wasn’t like that. I knew it wasn’t. I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk. 

The really fascinating thing here is that the same thing prompts McDonald’s immersion in the training of her goshawk Mabel as prompts Ray Kurzweil’s frantic experiments with life extension and ultimately immortality: the loss of a father. It is the death of Ray Kurzweil’s father that he continually grieves, it is the hope of somehow being reunited with his father which drives much of his work. And so too, in a strange inverted sort of correspondence, Helen McDonald deals with the death of her beloved father by turning to the world of nature. To learn to think as a hawk thinks or, rather, and more to the point, to not think as a hawk doesn’t think. (“Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking.”) 

Perhaps the ocsillations I have been describing between a quest for an enchanted world and the acceptance of a disenchanted one are motivated by the same fundamental experience: Death, and grief.


Here’s a brief summary by Charles Taylor of a contrast that’s vital to his thinking: porous vs. buffered selves. The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?”

The positive valence of porosity is fullness; its negative valence is terror.

The positive valence of bufferdness is protection; its negative valence is emptiness.

Taylor’s thesis is that over the past five hundred years Western culture has moved from a general condition of porosity to a general condition of bufferedness. That claim can be, and has been, contested: see this post on my old Text Patterns blog for an example. But I think he’s probably basically right. Taylor doesn’t see this movement occurring in a straight line; he discerns again and again dillusionment with the disenchanted world of the Modern Modern Order generating alternatives, from nature-worship to spiritualism; but he does see a general trend towards accepting a disenchanted world.

Even if that’s true, I am interested in the ways that individuals and cultures oscillate between the porous and the buffered condition. As terror grows, we seek protection; but as emptiness grows, we seek fullness. And I am, further, interested in the ways that people seek an escape from this oscillation, some structure of experience that claims to provide fullness without terror, protection without emptiness. That’s why, having in the past taught a course called The History of Disenchantment, I’m now teaching one called Beyond Disenchantment.

The story I’ve just sketched out is, I believe, proper context in which to read, as we just have, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. The one thing needful for the person encountering Kurzweil’s book is to realize that, for all his technological talk, it’s not a narrative that arises from the “technological core” of society but rather from the “mythical core” — indeed, it is itself a myth, the myth by which Kurzweil himself hopes to live. Kurzweil’s myth promises the security, stability, safety of a self that’s uploaded to the cloud and multiply backed up, and the fullness that comes from the ability always to fulfill not only our sexual desires but our spiritual ones, located in the God module. No terror, no emptiness — so says the myth.

If you grasp this, you will understand why Meghan O’Gieblyn responded to the book the way she did:

I first read Kurzweil’s 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. […]

At Bible school, I had studied a branch of dispensational theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth: the Dispensation of Innocence, the Dispensation of Conscience, the Dispensation of Government … We were told we were living in the Dispensation of Grace, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the Millennial Kingdom, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this teleological narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending assuredly toward a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my subjective experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves. […]

It’s difficult to account for the totemic power I ascribed to the book. Its cover was made from some kind of metallic material that shimmered with unexpected colors when it caught the light. I carried it with me everywhere, tucked in the recesses of my backpack, though I was paranoid about being seen with it in public. It seemed to me a work of alchemy or a secret gospel. It’s strange, in retrospect, that I was not more skeptical of these promises. I’d grown up in the kind of millenarian sect of Christianity where pastors were always throwing out new dates for the Rapture. But Kurzweil’s prophecies seemed different because they were bolstered by science.

O’Gieblyn was “not more skeptical” of Kurzweil’s promises for one overriding reason: because they provided a mythological framework to replace the mythological framework that she had recently lost.

At the time, I would have insisted that my rituals of self-abuse — drinking, pills, the impulse to put my body in danger in ways I now know were deliberate — were merely efforts to escape; that I was contending, however clumsily, with the overwhelming despair at the absence of God. But at least one piece of that despair came from the knowledge that my body was no longer a sacred vessel; that it was not a temple of the holy spirit, formed in the image of God and intended to carry me into eternity; that my body was matter, and any harm I did to it was only aiding the unstoppable process of entropy for which it was destined. To confront this reality after believing otherwise is to experience perhaps the deepest sense of loss we are capable of as humans.

And “what makes the transhumanist movement so seductive,” especially to someone who has undergone that profound loss, “is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself obliterated.” It is a myth against myth. When Kurzweil tells you that nanobots — he loves to talk about the infinite powers of nanobots — will do nondestructive scans of your brain and upload your identity to the cloud forever, such utterances are functionally identical to “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” And about as empirically justified.

So now on to a myth that is essentially the opposite of Kurzweil’s: The Dark Mountain Manifesto.