Monday Musing: Enchantment and pluralism, some thoughts while reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Throughout much of the writings of the German sociologist Max Weber, you can find the claim that modernity and its rational control over the natural demanded the disenchantment of the world; that is, the exit of the sacramental in material things and the end of sacrament as a means (or rather appeal to the world) to fulfill our roles and ends. The role of the religious and the spiritual dwindle. Science and technology displace magic. But specifically, it displaces magic in the realm of means.

Weber saw this mostly in the rise of capitalism and the modern bureaucracy and in the Protestantism that has, or had, an “elective affinity” to modernity itself.

Only ascetic Protestantism completely eliminated magic and the supernatural quest for salvation, of which the highest form was intellectualist, contemplative illumination. It alone created the religious motivations for seeking salvation primarily through immersion in one’s worldly vocation. . . For the various popular religions of Asia, in contrast to ascetic Protestantism, the world remained a great enchanted garden, in which the practical way to orient oneself, or to find security in this world or the next, was to revere or coerce the spirits and seek salvation through ritualistic, idolatrous, or sacramental procedures. No path led from the magical religiosity of the non-intellectual strata of Asia to a rational, methodical control of life. (The Great Religions of the World)

And that pinnacle expression of and institution for methodical control of the world, the bureaucracy, was notable, according to Weber, precisely for its irreligion.

A bureaucracy is usually characterized by a profound disesteem of all irrational religion . . .(Religious Groups)

Reading Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which admittedly I’m only half-way through, I was reminded of Weber (which is not so uncommon). The novel, set in the early 19th century, concerns the reappearance of magic in the modern world. In the novel, magic existed once upon a time, but had disappeared three centuries earlier, at the end of the Middle Ages. Against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, two practicing magicians appear in England—a re-enchantment, of sorts.

Prior to the appearance of the two practical magicians, magic is purely theoretical, the occupation of historians and scholars, but not practitioners. Interestingly enough, these historians and scholars in the novel are also called “magicians.” The magic societies resemble philosophy circles and salons. And the idea of magic in the novel as a metaphor for philosophy is an obvious one, if only because the line between magic and philosophy seems so blurry in the Middle Ages. Merlin certainly appears a philosopher magician, a sage.

The two, Jonathan Strange and his teacher Mr. Norrell, lend their services to the war effort, and we are given an image of magic interacting with the specialized, but also distant and abstract, knowledge of bureaucracy. And it’s a funny image: two separate relationships to means in conflict, with neither depicted in a flattering way.

Enchanted (or mysterious) means don’t seem any more sensible or effective than dis-enchanted (rational, methodical) ones. (At least so far.)

(And I was also disappointed to learn that the connection between “wizard” and “vizier” is accidental.)

I was thinking of these issues in the context of a larger one: namely, why does so much fantasy appear to be conservative. The Lord of the Rings seems clearly to be conservative in its politics, not just Tolkien. And by conservative, I don’t mean that it simplifies politics but rather it harkens back to a time before a monistic conception of the good—as given by religion, usually—collapsed in favor of the pluralism of ends that we enjoy and which defines the freedom of the moderns. To follow John Holbo and invoke Isaiah Berlin, people disagree with the ends of life and not just the means. And the modern world has been set up to allow people to disagree and live their lives in the way they like without too much conflict, at least ideally.

There are exceptions to my claim that fantasy seems to go with conservatism, to be sure: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for one. But it does seem that the practical representation of magic often takes place against the backdrop of, at least, a locally all-embracing purpose, most commonly war. It’s almost as if the absence of a methodical control of life and the world requires that the ends of life are controlled thoroughly. Conversely, the rationalization of the world appears to go part and parcel with the pluralism of ends. (Of course, Weber, and some of those he inspired including the Marxist Frankfurt School, was terrified that values—monistic or plural—would exit altogether from the modern world under its rationalization, and means would become ends in themselves. Although, it seems that no one can give an example other than the accumulation of money or commodities.)

At least so far, Clarke seems to avoid the conundrum, or appears to make fun of the genre’s political naiveté. (It apparently gets even better, in terms of political richness.)  And it seems to me that to the extent that the backdrop of fantasy can shift from the Wagnerian saga into the quotidian, magic can find a place in the modern world.