top of page
  • Writer's pictureEsmé L. K. Partridge

Disenchantment, or Dark Enchantment?

Published in Røyst, a Norwegian journal of ideas.




Disenchantment and its Detractors


Do we still live in a disenchanted age? Modernity, according to Max Weber, is defined by its departure from the world of myth, and the process of cultural rationalisation that expels all belief in the supernatural. Once the European Enlightenment had supplanted traditional religion with a new faith in science and reason, it was thought that humanity could no longer dwell in a “great enchanted garden”;[1] now conscripted into a new march of progress, it would have to leave the superstitions of the past behind. For Weber, the dehumanising force of technology could only further this process. The more technology dominates our lives, he believed, the less hope there could be of resuscitating the spiritual imagination. Yet, despite its ubiquity today, this does not exactly seem to be the case.


Ironically, it is partly because of technology that the grand narrative of disenchantment is now shattering. From its inception, the internet has promised to open up new otherworldly dimensions, and a quasi-transcendent universal consciousness akin to the science fiction writer H. G. Wells’ “World Brain”. [2] Gnostic and occult ideas have long been hardwired into the personal computer, with Silicon Valley originally being home to a subculture of “techno-pagans” hoping to re-enchant the world through digital innovation. [3] Weber could have hardly foreseen their synthesis of machinery and magic. While the technology of his time was rational, hierarchical, and mechanical, theirs was avowedly post-rational, democratic and fluid. Such is the shift from “solid” to “liquid” modernity identified by Zygmunt Bauman, [4] which saw the 19th and 20th century ideals of progress transform in unpredictable ways.


Thus despite being on course to eliminate the “mysterious incalculable forces” that Weber associated with enchantment, technology – the hermetic inner workings of which surpass our comprehension – now abounds with them. That the devices we hold in our hands possess hidden or perhaps occult qualities seems to re-introduce a sense of the unseen in our daily lives, leading Stef Aupers to remark that “technological progress may paradoxically be responsible for the growth and flowering of mystery and magic in the late-modern world”. [5] New synergies between technology and spirituality in recent years would seem to prove him right. Through social media, the popularity of supernatural ideas and belief systems has surged, with algorithms now seemingly taking users beyond secular horizons.


Perhaps most significant is the rise of “WitchTok” – a trend comprising idiosyncratic forms of witchcraft on TikTok – which has seen vast numbers of Gen-Zs and millennials, most of whom are women, flirt with occultism online. These include “hexing”, the art of casting malevolent spells (often for political ends, being directed at Trump, the Taliban, or the US supreme court after the overturning of Roe v Wade); [6] “manifesting” their desires through the law of attraction; and summoning entities from a postmodern pantheon of Greek goddesses, angels and fairies. These practices take such eclectic and hyper-personalised forms that they often cannot be placed within any one particular tradition, representing a fully “liquid” form of spirituality that completely undermines the need for formal doctrines and authorities.


Also in the orbit of WitchTok is “reality shifting”, a practice of inducing altered states of consciousness which allow individuals to “transport” themselves into alternate realities. These realities can be anything from supernatural realms to the settings of films or video games, and it is often unclear whether those who “shift” into them do so as an intentionally spiritual exercise or merely as a form of mental escapism. Though the practice is of New Age extraction, bearing similarities to astral projection and lucid dreaming, reality shifting is once again difficult to define because it is determined by the individual and whatever it is that they are seeking. Nonetheless, like WitchTok, it seems to point to a resurgence of metaphysical ideas and the desire to transcend a materialist worldview, as if cyberspace were now itself “a great enchanted garden” sprawling with beliefs that defy secular modernity.


Technology, then, seems to have provided an optimal climate for the flowering of postmodern spirituality. Yet its seeds were sown long before the internet era: the New Age movement is an obvious precursor, with 1960s and 70s counterculture promoting a more “holistic” worldview and the exploration of realms closed off by scientific rationalism (often with the aid of psychedelic drugs). This in turn was influenced by the occult movements of the 19th Century, such as the theosophy of Helena Blavatsky, which attempted to re-spiritualise the West through a synthesis of ancient philosophy and Eastern religion. Prior to this was the Romantic movement, the first reaction against the Enlightenment, which produced a vast tradition of art and literature invoking ancient mythology and, pre-empting New Age environmentalism, sought to “return to nature” against the industrial revolution. Evidently, the West has a long history of repudiating the very Enlightenment ideals that it produced, with Romanticism, Occultism and the New Age each having a profound impact on culture.


It is for this reason that Jason Ānanda Josephson-Storm has problematised the narrative of disenchantment altogether. In The Myth of Disenchantment, he surveys the history of modern Western thought, finding that at no point was the expulsion of mystery or magic ever actually achieved – even during the Enlightenment itself. [7] The founding fathers of modern science, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, described their own projects in spiritual terms, and many others whom we now associate with rationalism also dabbled with superstitious beliefs behind closed doors. The prevalence of such beliefs throughout the modern period leads Josephson-Storm to conclude, echoing Bruno Latour, that “we have never been disenchanted”. [8] Though we have tried to banish them from our societies, supernatural forces continue to allure us, and we continue to seek new ways of channelling them. But this warrants an important question, and one inevitably neglected by sociologists: what kind of forces, and what kind of enchantment?


The Allure of Dark Enchantment


Even if the modern West has never been disenchanted, as Josephson-Storm argues, such a view often fails to appreciate the fact that the nature of enchantment fundamentally changed following the Enlightenment. The most obvious reason for this is that the Church’s hold over matters of faith weakened, eventually leaving them to fall into the hands of individuals. This feature of modern spirituality – a term which is itself polemically charged against institutional religion – has two major implications, which begin to reveal themselves during the Romantic period. The first is that the formerly universal aspirations of religious practice, such as the pursuit of living a moral life and attaining salvation, become relativised. Over time, they cease to be focused on the worship of God and a shared conception of the good, giving way to increasingly vague ideas of what it means to be “spiritual”, which by the New Age movement becomes almost wholly subjectively defined.


The second, a corollary of the first, is that post-Enlightenment spirituality – existing outside of the theological framework of the church – is no longer equipped to identify distinctions between different kinds of supernatural forces and varieties of spiritual experience. In the past, it was believed that human beings were susceptible not only to divine powers but also demonic ones, with the responsibility of the Church being to safeguard individuals and communities against the latter. This is not exclusive to Christianity: Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and almost all indigenous belief systems acknowledge there to be malevolent forces acting within the world, and the dangers that can arise when human beings interact with them (from the temptation to commit immoral acts to fully-fledged demonic possession). In other words, it was an imperative of traditional religion to discriminate between good and bad kinds of enchantment, for not every supernatural force or experience produces positive effects. In fact, some forms of enchantment can be harmful and deceptive.


There can perhaps be found no better illustration of this deceptive kind of enchantment than in the English writer Edmund Spenser’s epic poem, The Faerie Queene, written towards the end of the 16th Century. The first book of the poem follows a faithful and courageous knight, Redcrosse, who is sent on a quest to fight a terrible dragon. On his quest, Redcrosse finds himself constantly deceived by a range of characters who seem spiritually benevolent, but are in fact malicious actors who take on otherworldly appearances to lead him astray from the path of truth. One of these is Duessa (whose name literally means “deception”), who disguises herself as a beautiful woman – in Spenser’s own words, an “enchantress” – called Fidessa (which means “faith”), in order to seduce him into evil. As soon as Redcrosse discovers her real intentions, her spell is broken, and she reveals herself to be a wicked old hag (a motif famously replicated in Stephen King’s The Shining):


Then cride she out, fye, fye, deformed wight,


Whose borrowed beautie now appeareth plaine


To haue before bewitched all mens sight;


O leaue her soone, or let her soone be slaine.


Her loathly visage viewing with disdaine,


Eftsoones I thought her such, as she me told,


And would haue kild her; but with faigned paine,


The false witch did my wrathfull hand with-hold;


So left her, where she now is turnd to treen mould



Thensforth I tooke Duessa for my Dame,


And in the witch vnweeting ioyd long time,


Ne euer wist, but that she was the same,


Till on a day (that day is euery Prime,


When Witches wont do penance for their crime)


I chaunst to see her in her proper hew,


Bathing her selfe in origane and thyme:


A filthy foule old woman I did vew,


That euer to haue toucht her, I did deadly rew. [9]


As Spenser conveys in these stanzas, enchantment can often be a veil disguising malice – in fact, in almost every instance, he uses the terms “enchanting” and “enchanter” negatively for this reason. Throughout the poem, we see how Redcrosse is especially vulnerable to this kind of deceptive enchantment when he is alone and without the support of the true faith as represented by the poem’s heroine, Una. The moral of the story is that Redcrosse needs Una, whose wisdom helps him to discern between truth and falsity, to safely embark on his spiritual quest. In other words, without a doctrinally sound religion to help us navigate the many beguiling forces of this world (which, for Spenser, is Protestantism), we are all too easily led astray by that which corrupts our souls.


Spenser is deeply cynical about “enchantment”, and yet he himself is clearly living in an enchanted world – one filled with dwarves and sorcerers, overlooked by the heavenly heights of the New Jerusalem to which the victorious Redcrosse ascends. What this reveals is that, in the pre-modern world, the value of mystery and magic was conditional to its participation in the light of truth as opposed to the darkness of falsity – or perhaps, in Neoplatonic terms, the aspiration towards being as opposed to non-being. Religion, through its provision of liturgy and sacraments, ensured that all enchantment was experienced, as it were, in good faith. Thus it could perhaps be said that the defining feature of the pre-modern enchanted age was precisely its ability to discern between good and bad kinds of enchantment, and indeed the consensus that truth positively exists and should be the objective of every spiritual pursuit.


In contrast, the underlying assumption of almost every modern attempt at re-enchantment, from Romanticism to WitchTok, is that all enchantment must necessarily be good. It is hardly surprising that such an attitude should emerge out of a desperation to restore a sense of mystery suppressed by a rationalistic worldview which placed modern society in the uninspiring “iron cage” of which Weber spoke. Starved of the spiritual nourishment once provided by communal worship, any trace of transcendence – no matter where it comes from or the effects it produces – becomes sought after, leading to the proliferation of belief systems that allow individuals to “seek” spiritual encounters in any and every possible form, be it through séances, ouija boards, astral projection, tantric sex, transcendental meditation or reality shifting. Without the guidance of a religious institution, no theological value judgements can be made about such practices. This leaves the modern subject, like Redcrosse without Una, extremely vulnerable to spiritual deception.


There is a particular tendency within modern spirituality, no longer oriented towards a universal conception of truth, to instead locate it within the self. This is partly because, as it will shortly be discussed, the rise of psychoanalysis caused the very contents of the mind to become sacralised, justifying the endeavour to seek one’s “true self” which becomes especially pronounced within the New Age movement. These forms of spirituality no longer demand that we subordinate personal desires to a higher good but, on the contrary, that we actualise those desires, for the “good” must now correspond to them. This points to a paradox within such spiritualities: despite appearing to rebel against the Enlightenment by countering its disenchantment, they wholly embrace the liberalism that constitutes its central premise, deeming every belief to be equally valid on the terms of the individual alone. This has vast consequences for the quality of enchantment that they produce.


Yearning for transcendence without the guidance of traditional wisdom, now defining spiritual “authenticity” as that which aligns with the self as per the liberal sense of the term, gives rise to a wholly new kind of enchantment: one we might call dark enchantment. It is dark because, having turned away from the light of true being, it recoils into the shadows of non-being, the cavernous depths of the self, at the bottom of which lies not transcendence but the most carnal aspects of human nature. Deceived by these depths, the macabre aesthetics of which allure us like the otherworldly beauty of Duessa, we not only succumb to but sacralise worldly desires – losing ourselves in the seductive irrationalism of dark romanticism – allowing ourselves to be preyed upon by malicious forces all the while naively revelling in the mere experience of something “otherworldly”. This dark enchantment, it could be said, powers the majority of occult and New Age movements, extending to those of the internet era. Indeed, the West has never really been disenchanted; it has been darkly enchanted.


A Duessa for our Times


The first “turning inward” is often identified with the Romantic period, which celebrated the individuality of artistic expression; man’s personal relationship with nature; and the subjectivity of human experience. It was psychoanalysis, however, that saw post-Enlightenment spirituality fully coalesce with liberal individualism to elevate the “inner” or “true self”, with Jungianism in particular being credited with the sacralisation of psychology that shaped the New Age movement. [10] The way in which Jung diverged from Freud is essential to understanding this. Freud, to some extent, retained a pre-modern view of the human condition as containing carnal, irrational and therefore inferior impulses which need to be restrained by the ego. Thus in early psychoanalysis there is still an (albeit secularised) idea of Original Sin, in which the depths of the self are thought to comprise the lowest, most unspiritual aspects of our nature.


Jung, however, effectively reformed this view by turning the depths of the self – the unconscious – into a reservoir of mythical archetypes and symbols. He saw diving into the unconscious as a spiritual exercise in which the individual could retrieve pearls of wisdom possessed by men of all ages, himself comparing it to the sea, “the mother of all that lives”. [11] The notion that the inner self was a vessel of transcendence became readily accepted by those, especially among the bourgeois class, who had abandoned traditional religion and yet still sought the presence of something mystical in their lives. Jungianism’s promise to bring esoteric knowledge to the surface without recourse to religion seemed to provide an ideal solution. But this was not without compromise: the exploration of the unconscious could only go so far, being, in the words of Ernest Gellner, a “natural transcendent”. [12]


Whereas transcendence had once been sought outside of nature, Jung – like the Romantics before him – immanentised it. The idea of the unconscious, according to Gellner, proved popular in the 19th Century European context precisely because it is “so very gloriously part of nature…it has all the properties of the old familiar semi-transcendent realms...but it is at the same time unambiguously part and parcel of nature as we now conceive her”. [13] A consequence of this is that Jungianism reduces the spiritual aspects of human nature to psychic or mental phenomena, “psychologising religion and sacralising psychology” by giving the mind’s melange of internalised sense impressions, memories, and repressed emotions a quasi-divine status. [14] In truth, such phenomena are only really extensions of our creaturely nature – arising from the sense organs and mundane cognition – rather than something which transcends it.


In this respect, psychoanalysis may defy Enlightenment rationalism, but instead of doing so by looking upwards to the “light above our minds”, [15] it sinks downwards into their lowest depths. Far from being supra-rational, it is sub-rational. René Guénon, in his critique of psychoanalysis as a “counter-tradition” (a belief system which appears to be spiritually authentic but really only further removes us from God), charges it with exactly this, describing it as a form of “infra-transcendence” which causes the subject to go so deep within themselves that they become receptive not to divine forces, but to malicious ones which prey upon their self-absorption. Speaking of counter-traditions in general, he says:


After having enclosed the corporeal world as completely as possible, it was necessary, while guarding against the re-establishment of any communication with superior domains, to open it up again from below, so as to allow the dissolving and destructive forces of the inferior subtle domain to penetrate into it. [16]


For Guénon, modern psychology (by which he means psychoanalysis, of both the Jungian and Freudian varieties) is a prime example of this “opening up again from below”:


Present-day psychology considers nothing but the ‘subconscious’, and never the ‘superconscious’...there is no doubt that this usage expresses the idea of an extension operating only in a downward direction, that is, towards the aspect of things that corresponds, both here within the human being and elsewhere in the cosmic environment, to the ‘fissures’ through which the most ‘malefic’ influences of the subtle world penetrate, influences having a character that can truthfully and literally be described as ‘infernal’. [17]


Jungianism, then, can be said to have created the conditions for dark enchantment by presenting the retreat into the self as a spiritual quest. But this is not just any “self”: it is a uniquely modern self that, no longer subscribing to the traditional hierarchy of higher and lower aspects, becomes a site of confusion between the spiritual and the carnal. The desire for transcendence is merged with the appetite for power, as exemplified by the “magick” of Aleister Crowley and its forceful exertion of the will onto nature; eroticism, as in the orgies and tantric sex craze of the New Age movement; and, perhaps most prevalently, psychic sensations as offered by practices such as transcendental meditation, astral projection, and reality shifting.


Such practices, despite claiming to go beyond the confines of the mind, are bound to remain within it. What they produce may seem “otherworldly”, but this is true only inasmuch as they disrupt and distort our perception of reality beyond recognition; much like psychedelic drugs, they do not unlock the door to a higher realm but disorient us within the present one. Thus they are not so much spiritual but sensational, offering a form of infra-transcendence that arouses the mind, thus distracting the individual from the possibility of truly transcending it. They appeal to the modern subject as an escape from a disenchanted world, but like Duessa, what they offer is illusory; they lead us astray from the path of truth and into the psychic underworld where the lowest subtle forces prevail.


The sensational aspect of dark enchantment – which gives experience, feeling and desire precedence over genuine insight – is now inextricably linked to the culture of late capitalism. It feeds into what Guy DeBord famously called “the society of the spectacle”, in which the masses are sedated by illusions of authenticity, allured by false appearances which only distract us from the truth. As with modern spirituality, the spectacular society tries to enchant its own materialism, insisting that it is through unleashing our desires that we will reach the quasi-heavenly state of self-actualisation. Both are consequences of a yearning for transcendence that has lost sight of truth, having long abandoned Una; and both fall victim to Duessa who tries to take her place, masquerading in otherworldly garb while only furthering our spiritual demise.


Thus we ought to be sceptical towards the latest attempts at re-enchantment through social media, itself an intensification of the “swirl of images and echoes” that Christopher Lasch attributed to the spectacular society. [18] The virtual world may seem to provide the means of restoring mystery and magic within our lives, but such means – being highly individualised and without reference to tradition – make it virtually impossible for users to discern what kind of forces they are grappling with, and indeed whether they are transcendent or “infra-transcendent”. Though they may provide a relief from disenchantment, they do so only through dark enchantment, which turns out to be inseparable from the premises of modernity itself: both ultimately work to enclose the corporeal world and thus seal it from the divine. True re-enchantment, then, entails re-opening the world – not from below, but from above – and seeking the good above all else. Such a re-enchantment can only be possible if we rediscover the wisdom that allows us to distinguish truth from deception.



(Teksten vart publisert i Røyst #21-22)





[1] Weber, Max. The Sociology of Religion. London: Social Science Paperbacks, 1971.


[2] Wells, H. G. World Brain. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021.


[3] Aupers, Stef. “Where The Zeroes Meet The Ones: Exploring The Affinity Between Magic and Computer Technology”. In Religions of Modernity: Relocating the Sacred to the Self and the Digital. Aupers, Stef & Houtman, Dick (Eds). Leiden: Brill. 2010.


[4] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, Boston: Polity. 1999.


[5] Aupers, Stef. “Where The Zeroes Meet The Ones”. 237.


[6] Lisa Stardust, “How to Hex the Patriarchy: A Spell For Reproductive Justice”, Teen Vogue, online at: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/how-to-hex-the-patriarchy-a-spell-for-reproductive-justice (accessed February 2022).


[7] Josephson-Storm, Jason Ānanda. The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2017.


[8] Ibid, 3.


[9] Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto II, 39-40. Roche, Thomas P. & O'Donnell, Patrick C. (Eds). New York: Penguin. 1978. 64-65.


[10] Hanegraaff, Wouter J. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden: Brill, 1996. 225.


[11] Jung, Carl. The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. Princeton, New Jersey : Princeton University Press. 1953.


[12] Gellner, Ernest. The Psychoanalytic Movement: The Cunning of Unreason. London: Fontana Press. 1993.193.


[13] Ibid.


[14] Hanegraaff, Wouter J. New Age Religion and Western Culture. 225.


[15] The notion of truth as being “above our minds” is common to both Platonism and Christianity, but is described explicitly by Augustine in his Confessions (XII.xxv.35).


[16] Guénon, René. The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times (Fourth Edition). New York: Sophia Perennis. Lord Northbourne (Trans). 2001. 195.


[17] Ibid, 228. Guénon is speaking of the subconscious here, but later extends his critique to the unconscious, which he claims to be worse in descending even further downwards.


[18] Lasch, Christopher Lasch. The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. 1979.



Comments


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page