Edging Toward Enchantment: The Disenchanted Self

Over the last few posts in this series I've been talking about recovering a sacramental ontology where, in the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, we come to experience the world as "charged with the grandeur of God."

In this post I want to shift the focus and start talking in some posts about how psychology and selfhood affect enchantment and disenchantment.

As argued by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, enchantment isn't just about the world being more spooky or supernatural. Enchantment also involves a particular experience of selfhood.

According to Taylor, enchantment entails a porous self, a self where the boundaries between self and the world are thinner and more open. For example, with things like spells or demonic possession things could enter the self. The porous self is open and vulnerable to the world.

But over the last few hundred years, the experience of the self has changed in the face of disenchantment. The boundary between self and the world is increasingly experienced as inviolable and impermeable. Anything that affects the self must arise from within the self, biologically or psychologically. Nothing from the outside enters in. If we face demons today they are inner demons.

As opposed to the enchanted, porous self Taylor calls this modern, disenchanted self the buffered self, a self with buffers and walls between itself and the outside world.

All this suggests that disenchantment hasn't just affected the world. Disenchantment affects our selves, our perceptions of reality, our experience of being a self-in-relation to the world. Here's how Charles Taylor describes all this:
Almost everyone can agree that one of the big differences between us and our ancestors of five hundred years ago is that they lived in an “enchanted” world, and we do not; at the very least, we live in a much less “enchanted” world. We might think of this as our having “lost” a number of beliefs and the practices which they made possible. But more, the enchanted world was one in which these forces could cross a porous boundary and shape our lives, psychic and physical. One of the big differences between us and them is that we live with a much firmer sense of the boundary between self and other. We are “buffered” selves. We have changed.

This is not a mere “subtraction” story, for it thinks not only of loss but of remaking. With the subtraction story, there can be no epistemic loss involved in the transition; we have just shucked off some false beliefs, some fears of imagined objects. Looked at my way, the process of disenchantment involves a change in sensibility; one is open to different things. One has lost a way in which people used to experience the world.

… Indeed, “enchantment” is something that we have special trouble understanding … we tend to think of our differences from our remote forbears in terms of different beliefs, whereas there is something much more puzzling involved here. It is clear that for our forbears, and many people in the world today who live in a similar religious world, the presence of spirits, and of different forms of possession, is no more a matter of (optional, voluntarily embraced) belief than is for me the presence of this computer and its keyboard at the tips of my fingers.

… We have great trouble getting our minds around this, and we rapidly reach for intra-psychic explanations, in terms of delusions, projections, and the like. But one thing that seems clear is that the whole situation of the self in experience is subtly but importantly different in these worlds and in ours.
All of which suggests that we'll have to psychologically reconfigure ourselves if we want to edge back toward enchantment.

But what does that look like? That's what I'd like to explore.

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