What Ever Happened Indeed

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.

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2 Responses to “What Ever Happened Indeed”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    That’s pretty much Dawkins’ sentiment in some of his books. One of his themes as I recall was that reality as we now understand it is stranger and more marvellous than we ever dreamed.

    Anyway, thanks for the pingback. Absolutely. Disenchantment is about the removal of magic, of enchantment, it’s not about disenchantment in the popular sense of that word.

    That said, I’d query how much the world really is disenchanted. How many believe in god in some form? In ghosts, aliens, psychic powers, in luck or fate or “everything happens for a reason”. We’ve lost the afterlife and the notion of divine authority, but beyond that enchantment remains robustly alive and kicking. Outside a handful of countries come to think of it even the afterlife and divine authority isn’t doing too badly.

    Still, in secular Europe which was what Josipovici was writing about his point is a good one and I think correct. I’m not sure he’s right to put everything in reaction to that under the banner of modernism, I think that may be to broaden it too much, but he’s right on the disenchantment and its impact on our culture.

    I’m offline for the next two weeks so apologies if you reply and I’m slow to respond.

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    Well Dawkins’s sentiments are mine too, there is more magic in the tiniest detail of the material world than in all the ancient scrolls. Particularly, the death of medievalism opened up the magic in art. You could get in serious trouble even for translating the Bible in Merrie England.

    You make a good point about the survival of religious thinking, not just in organised religious form but more New Age stuff. I’d argue that this is more doctrinaire thinking than magical, and on its last legs anyway, but it’s more a hope than a certainty for me.

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