Enchantment and Disenchantment: Do You Live in Wonder?

Enchantment and Disenchantment: Do You Live in Wonder?

Do you not intuit in the darkness the eternal sources of our transient being– Freidrich Nietzsche, Being or Existence.

Do you have the capacity to still be astonished by life, by this world we live in, does the profound mystery of your being occur to you as you lie awake and alone in the dark, does the majesty of nature, the courage of the human spirit, the sublime melancholy of great art, and the glorious symphony of timeless music fill your soul with wonder?

I have just returned from a trip to London where I participated in a conference by the International Association of Jungian Studies, the conference theme was Enchantment and Disenchantment. Disenchantment is a phrase coined by the sociologist Max Weber, in the early 20th century, to describe the condition of modernity, that in the modern world the idea of an invisible reality, a magical world, is no longer necessary and as a result has become redundant. We now know how things work, and why they work as they do, this is the gift of science and enlightenment generally. We no longer need wonder why the sun rises as it does each day and travel so majestically across the heavens- astronomy has been kind enough to explain the mystery in the most mundane and mechanical terms.

The final keynote of the conference was given by Paul Bishop, Professor of German at the University of Glasgow, and it is largely this talk which has informed and inspired this post.

Professor Bishop’s gripe, if I can call it that , was the crisis of higher education, not only in the UK universities, but more broadly in universities globally. That the impulse and directive that comes down to the scholars from up high (read: the administration), is increasingly utilitarian in nature; the envy of excellence, as he put it, demands an education into stupidity.

Although the crisis is particularly acute at the moment, it is hardly a new problem, being the shadow of modernity it had been around for some time. The modern world is increasingly disinterested in the subtle nuances of classical culture, of poetry and art, of what beauty might still be uncovered in the humanities, of why we are here and what this means; rather the demand is for increasing production, increasing uniformity, increased speed and efficiency- in short the demand is for professional tradesman not scholars.

Many in the audience were quick to second this as not only a condition of higher education but one that was to be found throughout institutional life. Against this idealisation of education, a pragmatic (read: ball buster) American lady of middle age, raised the valid objection of numbers. Can we, in a world of 7 (odd) billion people, afford to still educate people; is the demand not for mindless but efficient clones, rather than free thinking mavericks?

Now whilst it is easy to accuse the dear woman of cynicism, it would be naive not to recognise the practical (albeit disenchanted) reality she is highlighting- one which the verraaier (traitor) would be quick to second (more about him later). And in truth Professor Bishop was for once, in his hour and a half tour de force, at a loss for an adequate counter to this objection. Naturally there is no simple answer ‘ although it is this very condition of modernity and the ‘totally administered society’ that informs and motivates the call for a repatriation of enchantment and wonder.

A story

Professor Bishop related illustrated quite well the absence of wonder in the world today, I paraphrase:

Frustrated in a discussion with an administrator at the university Professor Bishop asked her (are you noticing a gender bias here between the enchantees and disenchantees )

Don’t you ever [experience] wonder?

What do you mean?‘ the administrator replied.

Well don’t you go on a walk in nature, or see a mountain, or read a great book, at which a sense of wonder arises in you?‘ Professor Bishop pressed.

Oh yes! I see what you mean, yes on occasion I do find my thoughts wondering.’ The administrator concluded, pleased no doubt that she could bring the conversation to a satisfactory close with this eccentric scholar, and return to the more pragmatic matters at hand.

Now regardless of which side of the fence you cast your vote be it for the idealistic English scholar or the pragmatic American, what neither one disputes is the level of disenchantment, loss of individual freedom, and with this the absence of enchantment, wonder, and beauty in the world today.

At this point I want to digress ever so slightly and take you with me along the canals that service the great London metropolis, so that I may weave an additional thread into the tapestry that was my experience of enchantment disenchantment during this past week. After which we will return to conclude with Professor Bishop’s thoughts on a possible return to enchantment.

A man without uniform is almost unreal todayMartin Heidegger (1936).

Whilst I was preparing my talk for the conference two friends of mine, independently, said more or less the same thing: what uniform are you going to wear? The first, being familiar with Jungian parlance, phrased the question as what archetype do you want to represent at the conference, the professor (which I clearly am not) or the maverick (which I clearly am)?

The second such suggestion came from the verraaier, slightly more barbed, he said, ‘Look Stephen I don’t think what you have to say is all that astonishing, or original, your currency is that it is so surprising coming from you (read: you are not particularly bright, but you are a lot brighter than you look)!

So two suggestions about uniform, one suggesting the maverick, the other not dissimilar, suggesting the maverick in the uniform of a thug or street fighter, which is more or less the figure I cut on first appearance.

Now these suggestions should not immediately be disparaged, clearly standing for and representing an archetype, or more plainly a stereotype, is useful, it immediately lets people know who you are and what you are about. And we all do it, to greater or lesser effect. And those amongst us who are most successful seem to do it with good effect- they wear a mask which tells us the role they are playing and lets us know how we should respond to them.

It is far less confusing when we can tell the cowboys from the Indians.

It does leave us with a question though. What about your inner authenticity, your unique being (assuming you believe such a thing exists)? How does this get expressed? How do we get to know you in as much as you are not the mask that you wear? And is this even important anymore? In a world of 7 (not so odd maybe) billion people is the concept of originality still valid?

I don’t know the answer to be frank (or to be Stephen for that matter), but it seems like a worthwhile question, and it was one I wrestled with as the verraaier and I made our way along the canals in his narrow boat.

We made our way from Packet boat Lane on the West of London to Limehouse Marina in the East. The journey with lush willow tress overhanging, and a species of light green water plants clumping together to create a green carpet along the canal, saw us travel through an enchanted corridor, the silence broken only very occasionally by when encountering another boat travelling in the opposite direction.

Each night we stopped in a different location and were greeted by the different faces of London, as we travelled from the parochial but friendlier west to the more urbane and cooler east. Along the way we spent the Sunday moored in the Camden canal, and I got to walk through the explosion of people, sounds, smells, and colours that is Camden on a glorious summer’s day, before descending into the ultraviolet lights and pumping house tunes that is Cyberdog, a store that has to be seen to be appreciated, in the centre of Chalk Farm.

It was a week which saw me give my first presentation at a serious international Jungian conference; meet one of my heroes, Dr. Wolfgang Giegerich, and have him present at my talk (!); saw me enjoy the privilege of presenting on the same panel as Dr. Gottfried Heuer talking on the redeeming power of beauty; get to chair a panel with the exotic Russian beauty, the very erudite Dr. Helenna Bassil- Morozow who presented on the role of the trickster in cinema; become reacquainted with London in the summer (a very different experience to being there in winter); get to enjoy authentic Indian cuisine in a little restaurant just behind Euston station and the magnanimity, humanity, and refined manners of my friend and mentor the blogger, coach, and very gentle man, Arvind Devalia; as well as reconnect with my colleagues and friends from the MA at Essex Pedro, Sissy, Patricia and Magnus ‘ and to once more sit in open mouthed amazement at the almost daily experiences Magnus has working for ABC news and travelling the world one day with Royalty and the next covering the drought in Somalia.

To call it an enchanted experience would not be overstating the case I think, which brings me back to the conclusion and perhaps purpose, of Professor Bishop’s talk.

Where can we find freedom in a totally administered society?

Are freedom, truth, beauty and goodness possible in the 21st century? Do our choices mean anything when our lives are administered from the cradle to the grave by a faceless bureaucracy, in a society which seems to be filled with all the potential to actualise an Orwellian and Kafkaesque nightmare?

Can we discern new opportunities in the ‘superglow of the dark’; discern where the geist has moved?

‘Is it possible to still honour, with half hooded eyes, the majesty of being?’

Will nihilism pushed to its logical conclusion destroy itself, or as Professor Bishop put it, will the administrators, having fired all the scholars (and we can here substitute human beings), eventually have to start firing themselves?

Can we access living knowledge instead of dead information? Is there any value left in the world which can be evaluated sans number?

Well my brothers and sisters, who knows, who really knows…

If there is a way though Professor Bishop, in line with the Jungian project and the German aesthetic tradition, suggests it is by looking inward; by connecting with the one undomesticated aspect of pure nature that lies in the centre of our being our unconscious soul.

The unconscious soul, a remnant of our true being, something human and perhaps divine, something un-administered, our untamed nature, and possibly the matrix of our future.

This as the alternative to ‘the tragedy of optimism, the humour of pessimism, and the death of wonder’.

A way forward to a world of astonishment.

With that I leave you, hopeful that the possibility of enchantment lives in your soul, and that both you and I will find the courage and be granted the grace to reach for its golden chalice.

Until we speak again,


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