UCAN Spirituality Catholic Church News

Mystery and Disenchantment

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Gabriel Marcel

The systematic sealing-off of mystery, both in ourselves and in our surroundings. The sealing is done by the almost indefinable idea – is it even an idea? – of the ‘perfectly ordinary’. There is a close connection between the objective and the ‘perfectly ordinary’. A grasp of being is only possible for us when we suddenly break through the enclosing shell which we have grown round ourselves. ‘Except ye become as little children….’ Our condition can be transcended, but only by a heroic and necessarily intermittent effort. The metaphysical essence of the object as such is perhaps simply its power of sealing-off. We cannot specify it further than that. We cannot, in the presence of any object, question ourselves about the mystery hidden within it.

From Being and Having (1935)


Charles Taylor

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….

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)….

Indeed, “enchantment” is something that we have special trouble understanding…. 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…. 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….

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.

From “Buffered and Porous Selves” (2008)