The Myth of Disenchantment

‘The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences’ is a 2017 book by Jason Ananda Josephson Storm, a professor of religion at Williams college. The book argues that even in the West, the epicentre of the project of modernity, evidence does not support that magic and enchantment have been banished.

The following excerpts will give an idea about the thesis.

Excerpt 1:

Paris, 1907. Marie Curie sat in the sumptuous chambers of an apartment on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. As the lights were dimmed, the chemist joined hands with the man sitting next to her, and together they watched the psychic medium across the table begin to shake and mumble, speaking in a strange low voice, overcome by the force of a possessing spirit called “John King.” Eusapia Palladino, as the psychic was called, was believed to be able to make objects move without touching them and to produce “visions of lights or luminescent points, visions of hands or limbs, sometimes in the form of black shadows, sometimes as phosphorescent.” . . . By all rights, Marie Curie should not have been there. She was in many respects a paragon of the period’s scientific establishment, a hardheaded and critical thinker who had made a number of stunning discoveries. The first woman to win a Nobel Prize, she is one of the very few people in history to win it twice (physics and chemistry).

Excerpt 2:

“Modernity” is regularly equated with everything from specific artistic and philosophical movements to particular historical ruptures to distinctive sociological processes, such as urbanization, industrialization, globalization, or various forms of rationalization. I will not unravel all the possible associations and nuances of the term. From among these, I aim to undermine the myth that what sets the modern world apart from the rest is that it has experienced disenchantment and a loss of myth. I am not claiming that industrialization never happened, nor am I denying that rationalization occurred in any cultural sphere; rather, I am interested in the process by which Christendom increasingly exchanged its claim to be the unique bearer of divine revelation for the assertion that it uniquely apprehended an unmediated cosmos and did so with the sparkling clarity of universal rationality. Sometimes this account of modernity has been celebratory, rejoicing in the ascent of European science and the end of superstition. But equally often, it has been a lament, bemoaning a loss of wonder and magic.

Excerpt 3:

For a long time scholars have known that he [Isaac Newton] had an obsession with alchemy and the philosophers stone, and that he dedicated much of his life to searching for hidden codes in the Bible. As contemporary historian Charles Webster argues, “Newton in particular saw himself as a magus figure intervening between God and His creation.” It is not hard to find evidence for this claim, and in Newton’s unpublished papers one can find an extensive collection of magical and Kabbalistic texts and his own translations of alchemical writings. . . . Indeed, Newtonian physics was not the stripped-down mechanism he is associated with, but a dynamical cosmos inclined toward apocalypse and dissolution, which required active intervention by God and angels. In sum, it is hard to imagine Newton as a disenchanter insofar as he explicitly rejected the very clockwork universe he is often said to have discovered in favor of an animated world.

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