I sometimes check out the revamped Ready Steady Book site. Recently it links to a piece by Max Cairnduff on Gabriel Josipovici’s literary criticism. When I reviewed the Josipovici book, people complained that I’d made the great man’s thesis seem too bleak and depressing. But this passage from Cairnduff, and quoted in part on RSB, makes me feel I was right to take the line I did.
For Josipovici modernism is a response in art (all art, music and painting too for example, not just literature) to the ‘disenchantment of the world’. That disenchantment is the loss of the Medieval sense of the numinous as being part of everyday life. In short, the Medieval vision of a world filled with purpose and divine meaning gave way to what would ultimately become the Enlightenment with its vision of a secular world governed by reason and natural laws (yes, I did just gloss over about 400 years there).
This is absolutely critical to everything that follows. The death of enchantment does not mean that people were happy in the middle ages but disillusioned thereafter. It is not a personal loss of enchantment. The point is that the European concept of the world changed from it being a place in which the natural and supernatural were different facets of the same reality to a world in which the natural and the supernatural were firmly separated (and in which the supernatural could therefore potentially be discarded entirely).
With the death of enchantment comes the death of meaning. Before the disenchantment of the world it is possible to speak with authority, because the world has meaning from which authority can be derived. After that disenchantment there is no longer such an authority. The only authority that exists is that which we assert.
I think this is why Josipovici’s book struck such a clear note for some people and such a discordant one for me. The death of medieval England and the rise of humanity as the ultimate authority is a cause for celebration, not disenchantment. Magic did not leave this world when we ceased to believe in god. The truth is the exact reverse.