Most people have experienced enchantment. It’s a moment in time when you find a sense of wonder and beauty in something much larger than yourself, but includes you, and this enlargement of self gives us a subjective sense of bliss and joy. Given that payoff, you would think enchantment is sought after.
But when you look at a bar graph charting the use of the word ‘enchantment’ you discover a steady, long decline over the past 200 years. If it isn’t in the vocabulary, then enchantment is just another of those terms we no longer much think about. If you’d invested in enchantment shares in the stock market of modern life, you would have been a loser. The word still knocks around but has gained a bad reputation by its association with fairy tales. Not to worry; it has been repackaged for contemporary times. We live in a modern era where ‘enchantment’ like most other things have been commodified, packaged, and sold as mass produced experiences. What are the sources of the subjective feeling of being enchanted? Why, in modern times, do we feel disenchanted with life? The answers to these questions are not obvious or easy. What is more obvious is we are in an age of despair, an age of deepening disenchantment. How would be go about for the re-enchantment our world?
During the long period of hunter gatherers, nature with the wild flowers, rivers and streams, mountains, oceans and beaches, birds and animals would have provided a rich, diverse opportunity to feel the magic, bliss, joy, delight and charm that folds into our sense of enchantment. The point is, enchantment is about our subjective sense of how we feel about the world that surrounds us. Evolution would have taken care of eliminating the early bands of homo sapiens whose subjective sense was so whacky as to find bliss in riding a saber-tooth tiger.
Once we entered the agricultural period 10,000 years ago gradually our relationship with nature changed; we took to religion as the way to register enchantment. In the rituals, ceremonies, art, priesthood, angels and saints, we constructed enchantment from the tissue of beliefs that gave us new skin in the bliss and joy emotional space we had inherited from the hunter gatherers’ way of life. With religion, we learned to ride with a new set of communal mythical, celestial beings, holy, divine and enchanting.
The Enlightenment set a fire under the religion’s monopoly over truth-making for both the objective and subjective experiences of the world. Science gradually used observation and experiments and mathematics to provide objective explanations and descriptions that left religious doctrines stranded in misunderstanding, ignorance and superstition. Spinoza saw that religion had become a political enterprise “pandering to popular fears and illusions.” Prophets with ulterior motives have made history of many religions. In recent advances, science has given a biological and chemical explanation for our subjective experience. Consciousness, the so-called hard question, is being pursued and may soon be captured in a commercial or university lab.
To be satisfied with religious literal explanations about the world carried the stigma of ignorance. The educated populations found themselves excluded from the enchantment experience that had been in place for thousands of years. But in most places, even after 500 years, the Enlightenment has failed to substitute for enchantment that has the same appeal as nature had for our hunter gatherer ancestors and as religions had for the post-agricultural communities.
In the modern era of capitalism, enchantment has become a business. I recently listened to an Atlantic magazine podcast interview with Kurt Anderson talking about his new book FantasyLand. Two of the interviews gushed over their joy of visiting Disneyland with their children. There was no awareness that the ‘fake’ and ‘alternative’ reality of Disneyland is a modern enchantment enterprise that comes with tickets, long lines, popcorn and soda.
I may have been too harsh about the Atlantic interviewers lavishing praise of the Disneyland experience. Wikipedia delivers the facts: “Today, Walt Disney World is the most visited vacation resort in the world, with an average annual attendance of over 52 million. The resort is the flagship destination of Disney’s worldwide corporate enterprise, and has become a popular staple in American culture.”
Why are Disneyland and Disney World so popular and not just for Americans? There are Disneyland franchises in France, Japan and Hong Kong. The answer to popularity among diverse cultures is no doubt complex with lots of plausible ways—from mass marketing to alternative entertainment—to connect the dots. One of those answers is Disneyland is what capitalism has invented as a substitute for our desire to experience enchantment and share that joy with members of our family. Can that be so bad? It’s not a moral issue as much as it is an insight into how our modern world has been stripped of the magic of nature and the authority of religion, and in that void flies Tinker Bell over the Cinderella Castle and acts as our guide to the Magic Kingdom. Disney World with a payroll of 74,000 cast members is the largest single-site employer in the United States.
What is left out of the Disneyland enchantment option is the financial cost. While hunter gatherers had the great open spaces to experience enchantment, and the agriculturalist and industrialist age populations had churches available for the emotional uplift of joy, A family of four going to Disney World starts with a minimum budget of $2000 and runs up to $10,000. You reach for your wallet if you want to experience this artificial world of joy. The costs would exclude a lot of people who flock to the megachurches where ‘ministers’ preach sermons that act as a kind of Disneyland substitute for the poor where they are fleeced of their cash.
The problem is Disneyland, Disney World, megachurches are at times in competition and other times complicit with alternative radio, TV, and social media. These modern rivals for our unconscious mind and our subjective state of mind play out in the low-grade psychological wars one encounters on various timelines. Our modern enterprises in the enchantment business—and it is a commercial venture—either haven’t made a dent in the disenchantment of modern times or collaborate with these outlets in a joint effort to manufacture a safe subjective blissful reality. Religious fundamentalists, reality show personalities, and assorted specialized self-help gurus have filled a void. They have found a large unfulfilled bliss market among the discontented and disenchanted. Our subjective feelings are a marketplace where fortunes are made. The modern disenchanted are searching for reasons for why their lives lack bliss and joy. If you are disenchanted, that makes you vulnerable to emotions such as hate and fear. We have failed to re-enchant our world after science and philosophy cast a long shadow of doubt on the enchanters of the past. Knowledge provided the sword and we’ve been using it to chop off the head of enchanters. As most of these were charlatans, the misguided, or the outright grifters, to the scientific mind this was a good thing—to liberate humankind from ignorance is a noble goal.
Our collective enchantment deficiency is another explanation for the rise of someone like Donald Trump and other opportunists. Trump is the face of what a disenchanted person sounds and thinks like. Trump has channeled that absence of transcendent meaning for millions. He understood the world was no longer an enchanting one and could emotionally work up a crowd to support a way to claw back their loss of meaning, respect and purpose. It’s an old political gaming of the psychological desire to have feelings that put us in touch with our subjective need for irresistible charm and beauty that holds us in its spell. W.H. Auden once wrote, “A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.” Thus we must be cautious about spell casters and their magic over large numbers of people. We are easily tricked by the sleight of hand.
What lies ahead is the difficult mission to bring about a re-enchantment. We can’t go back to the hunter gatherers’ way of life, where nature dominated, or to religious explanations that no longer attract many. The experiments with Disneyland and Disney World have been highly profitable but ultimately required us to pay a high price for bogus and fake amusements only to discover the commercial enterprise was failure to re-enchant the world. The 1960s and New Age sought drugs as a way back to enchantment. Drugs became another avenue to furnish the chemicals required to kick start the altered state of mind needed for the enchantment experience. Huxley may have forecast our future back to enchantment—we drink our soma to supply the missing subjective experience we crave about being in the world.
If we can’t go back and what we have isn’t working, where does that leave us with our instinctive desire for enchantment and its return to our world? There has always been an element of fantasy in enchantments. Hunter gatherers would have read spirits, demons and omens into mountains, streams and forests. Any 11-year-old with a computer, smartphone or iPad can play games and enter virtual reality spaces where magic spells are plentiful. It may be easy to become lost in that world as our objective world is a messy, chaotic, confusing place filled with uncertainty. The allure of bliss and joy transports one beyond the walls of rational, objective reality. We’ve been unable to merge these realities any more than we’ve been able to merge quantum and classical worlds. We have an intuition that they are linked but we can’t discover it.
Everyone has their personal portal to enchantment. Might is Bach’s French Suite, the writings of Jorge Borges or John Berger, or the art of Max Ernst or M.C. Escher. Or just sitting quietly on our porch to watch the sunset at Eel Swamp.
Enchantment is unlocking the imagination and unearthing a sliver of joy, charm, and allure, uploading that feeling into my mind as the mental armor to protect me in the setbacks and disappointment that I surely will suffer in my brush with the unpredictability and uncertainty of my day. Meanwhile, there is no need to go to Paris because an exact replicate of the Eiffel Tower sits in Disney World in Orlando. Only the fake one is much smaller. In the minds of those who see the fake Eiffel Tower there is no difference in their experience as my experience in seeing a reproduction of M.C. Escher or Max Ernst paintings or drawings.
That should give us a hint that our subjective sense is not a reliable reporter of the objective world. But it never was. Enchantment has always been the willingness to suspend disbelief and enter the fantasy world. The re-enchantment project is open to anyone. The ticket to buy is not at Disneyland, it is the retreat into the realm of imagination for the purpose to experience the bliss and joy that has long been absent in the post-enlightenment world. Ultimately it is this search for enchantment that will separate us from artificial intelligence who can do their work without connecting to a larger subjective sense of bliss and joy. But who can say what the future holds? Perhaps it is with the intermediary of machines will allows to re-enchant ourselves, to open up new pathways of imagination, beauty and grace that light our way back to lives saturated with enchantments. Who knows?