A Secular AgeAlmost 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.

Disenchantment in my use (and partly in Weber’s) really translates Weber’s term “Entzauberung,” where the key kernel concept is “Zauber,” magic. In a sense, moderns constructed their own concept of magic from and through the process of disenchantment. Carried out first under Reforming Christian auspices, the condemned practices all involved using spiritual force against or at least independently of our relation to God. The worst examples were things like saying a black mass for the dead to kill off your enemy or using the host as a love charm. But in the more exigent modes of Reform, the distinction between white and black magic tended to disappear, and all independent recourse to forces independent of God was seen as culpable. The category “magic” was constituted through this rejection, and this distinction was then handed on to post-Enlightenment anthropology, as with Frazer’s distinction between “magic” and “religion.”

The process of disenchantment, involving a change in us, can be seen as a loss of a certain sensibility that is really an impoverishment (as against simply the shedding of irrational feelings). And there have been frequent attempts to “re-enchant” the world, or at least admonitions and invitations to do so. In a sense, the Romantic movement can be seen as engaged in such a project. Think of Novalis’s “magic realism;” think of the depiction of the Newtonian universe as a dead one, shorn of the life it used to have (as in Schiller’s “The Gods of Greece“).

But it is clear that the poetry of Wordsworth, or of Novalis, or that of Rilke, can’t come close to the original experience of porous selves. The experience it evokes is more fragile, often evanescent, subject to doubt. It is also one which draws on an ontology that is highly undetermined, and must remain so.

Indeed, “enchantment” is something that we have special trouble understanding. Latin Christendom has tended more and more to privilege belief, as against unthinking practice. And “secular” people have inherited this emphasis, and often propound an “ethics of belief,” where it can be seen as a sin against science or epistemic decency to believe in God. So 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.

So it must have been for the Celestine, in Birgit Meyer’s Translating the Devil, who “walked home from Aventile with her mother, accompanied by a stranger dressed in a white northern gown.” When asked afterwards, her mother denied having seen the man. He turned out to be the Akan spirit Sowlui, and Celestine was pressed into his service. In Celestine’s world, perhaps the identification of the man with this spirit might be called a “belief,” in that it came after the experience in an attempt to explain what it was all about. But the man accompanying her was just something that happened to her, a fact of her world.

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. We make a sharp distinction between inner and outer, what is in the “mind” and what is out there in the world. Whatever has to do with thought, purpose, human meanings, has to be in the mind, rather than in the world. Some chemical can cause hormonal change, and thus alter the psyche. There can be an aphrodisiac, but not a love potion, that is, a chemical that determines the human/moral meaning of the experience it enables. A phial of liquid can cure a specific disease, but there can’t be something like the phials brought back from pilgrimage at Canterbury, which contained a miniscule drop of the blood of Thomas à Beckett, and which could cure anything, and even make us better people; that is, the liquid was not the locus of certain specific chemical properties, but of a generalized beneficence.

Modern Westerners have a clear boundary between mind and world, even mind and body. Moral and other meanings are “in the mind.” They cannot reside outside, and thus the boundary is firm. But formerly it was not so. Let us take a well-known example of influence inhering in an inanimate substance, as this was understood in earlier times. Consider melancholy: black bile was not the cause of melancholy, it embodied, it was melancholy. The emotional life was porous here; it didn’t simply exist in an inner, mental space. Our vulnerability to the evil, the inwardly destructive, extended to more than just spirits that are malevolent. It went beyond them to things that have no wills, but are nevertheless redolent with the evil meanings.

See the contrast. A modern is feeling depressed, melancholy. He is told: it’s just your body chemistry, you’re hungry, or there is a hormone malfunction, or whatever. Straightway, he feels relieved. He can take a distance from this feeling, which is ipso facto declared not justified. Things don’t really have this meaning; it just feels this way, which is the result of a causal action utterly unrelated to the meanings of things. This step of disengagement depends on our modern mind/body distinction, and the relegation of the physical to being “just” a contingent cause of the psychic.

But a pre-modern may not be helped by learning that his mood comes from black bile, because this doesn’t permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows that he’s in the grips of the real thing.

Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded, buffered self and the porous self of the earlier enchanted world. As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me,” to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here and in A Secular Age. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.

These two descriptions get at, respectively, the two important facets of this contrast. First, the porous self is vulnerable: to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears that can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear. For instance, the kind of thing vividly portrayed in some of the paintings of Bosch.

True, something analogous can take its place. These images can also be seen as coded manifestations of inner depths, repressed thoughts and feelings. But the point is that in this quite transformed understanding of self and world, we define these as inner, and naturally, we deal with them very differently. And indeed, an important part of the treatment is designed to make disengagement possible.

Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia, as though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.

The second facet is that the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but becomes an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.

And so the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous, as we see in the way that charged objects can influence us. I have just been referring to the moral influence of substances, like black bile. But a similar point can be made about the relation to spirits. The porousness of the boundary emerges here in various kinds of “possession”—all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to various kinds of domination by or partial fusion with a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory” or “belief.”