The key thought behind this scholarly work is the meaning and significance of 'disenchantment' (German: Entzauberung) in social science and Western intellectual culture. Max Weber (1864 - 1920), an influential German philosopher and one of the founders of 'sociology' as a new academic discipline
Weber coined the term to describe the character of the secularised modern world where the magic and myth pertaining to traditional values had, seemingly, all but disappeared and had been subsumed by pure rationalism and intellect. Josephson-Storm exhaustively traces the development of Western thought on this subject through history to the present time, and convincingly argues that the magic never really went away after all.
As a young Associate Professor of Philosophy, the author displays impressive erudition in tackling what is, by any standards, a massive undertaking. While the underlying theme is eminently simple and understandable, some of the philosophical arguments become immensely complex. This book is a serious academic work written by a scholar in the process of building a reputation, and it shows. Yet he reveals a capacity for lightness of touch in his Preface and Introduction to show some of his own personality and background.
We learn that the inspiration for this book came to him while he was in Japan on a writing research project in March 2011. He happened to be in a tattoo parlour in Kyoto, having some finishing touches done, when the news came over the television about the massive earthquake and tsunami that had hit the Tohoku region. As the disaster unfolded, the conversation that ensued between those present covered topics such as protective talismans, ghostly premonitions, and whether Japan was more 'spiritual' than the West. Realising that his research project might reinforce cliches about the 'mystical Orient', he decided to expand his project by studying in depth the linkage between modernisation and enchantment in Europe and America.
His Introduction opens promisingly with a graphic description of a seance in 1907 attended by one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century, Marie Curie (1867 - 1934). The spirit medium was Eusapia Palladino (1854 - 1918) who convinced many seekers with astonishing displays of phenomena but was eventually shown to be a fraud. Curie's presence was not her first attendance, as she and her husband Pierre (1859 - 1906) had been researching psychic phenomena for some time.
Tragically, Pierre was killed instantly in 1906 when he slipped on a pavement in the rain and fell under a cart which crushed his head. The Curies had both been researching invisible energies such as magnetism, electrical fields and, of course, radioactivity, for which they had been jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903. In a letter written shortly before his death, Pierre mentioned that he and Marie had attended several seances with Eusapia Palladino. He reported that "these phenomena really exist and it is no longer possible for me to deny them". It is no wonder that Marie might have hoped for a communication 'from the other side', but what is most interesting is that both of these leading scientists believed in spiritual energy as a higher form of the invisible physical energies they were researching.
Presenting himself as a disciple of critical theory, the author refers to a key text in Dialectic of Enlightenment, a monumental work by Horkheimer and Adorno of the Frankfurt School published in 1944: ''Enlightenment's program was the disenchantment of the world." In other words, the concept of a 'clockwork universe' arose with mathematical physics and other hard sciences. Josephson-Storm says: "From my perspective, this particular world picture is a myth insofar as it has taken on its own narrative force and bears little relationship to the status of physics in any given moment."
While finding Dialectic intensely useful, the author considers it "a late expression of an old myth" that rests on a set of basically mythical binaries (myth/enlightenment, nature/human) while asserting that myth and magic had been lost, on the assumption that reason had triumphed. "Yet this event never occurred. It too is a myth". Perhaps anxious that the reader might not get his gist, he goes further: "Let me put this differently. What I am saying is that not only is myth myth; not only is the opposition to myth myth; but the recognition of the opposition to myth as myth is itself myth." We might wish that he had put it differently. Does not reading, and re-reading, that sentence leave you feeling somewhat, well, miffed? A surfeit of myths, I would say. One must allow the odd tortuous sentence in a serious philosophical work such as this, and it may even be an attempt at humour.
Isaac Newton, a pivotal figure for this study, straddled the world of mathematical physics while yet being, more privately, an alchemist and mystic. Apart from his great knowledge he showed wisdom when he said: "Truth is ever to be found in the simplicity, and not in the multiplicity of things." That is indeed the ideal, but philosophical thought and argument always have a tendency to a prolix style of writing. Take this sentence from the book under review as an example: "According to the set of augmentation and periodization that loosely gets clustered under the name of 'postmodernism', perhaps postmodernism has meant the return of irrationality."
However, it has to be said this book rewards time and effort in reading the text carefully for many gems of knowledge and historical fact in the lives of great men who were pioneers of human intellectual and social evolution. All of the great thinkers are here, such as Paracelsus, physician and alchemist, Giordano Bruno, cosmological theorist, Francis Bacon, founder of the scientific method, Jakob Boehme, a mystic with a profound vision of God, and Rene Descartes "whose bifurcation of mind and matter relegated the physical world to mere extension".
The French philosophes receive a good deal of attention, in particular Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784) a prominent figure of the Enlightenment and co-founder of the Encyclopedie. Diderot dismissed those non-rational thinkers such as Paracelsus and Boehme as theosophes, although he did find some redeeming qualities in Paracelsus. It appears that anything that could not be comprehended by the rational mind was unacceptable to those purist philosophes. Diderot is most interesting because of his reputation as 'the first of the atheists', yet he still evinced a sense of wonder at natural phenomena displaying a kind of divine intelligence and order. Furthermore, he had studied in his youth with a known alchemist and had read magical texts with interest.
German philosophy and culture of the 18th and 19th centuries clearly had a passion for mythology. One need look no further than the Brothers Grimm, Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche and later Martin Heidegger for evidence of the 'longing for myth'. This kind of mythology was romantic, nostalgic and based on past glories such as Ancient Greece, Rome and Teutonic history. Later German philosophers called for a new mythology, without defining exactly what it should be other than something arising from a future generation. As Josephson-Storm rightly points out, the word 'myth' usually implies "embellishment if not outright falsehood".
This is where the author seems to be claiming a new insight: "What later scholars have typically missed is that the real myth was not in their proposed solutions: it was not Orientalized reconstructions of Aryan mythology nor Teutonic revivals. Its core was the very idea that, as Schlegel stated, 'we have no mythology'". To elaborate what this actually means, Josephson-Storm gives us the following concise explanation: "In a nutshell, the myth born from this philosophical conjuncture was an anti-myth, a myth that described itself in terms of longing, absence and mythlessness. Its paradox is that only by being a myth that there was no myth could its status as myth go unnoticed and hence not be demystified. It was a myth in search of a myth. Insofar as this myth is still our myth - or at least an animating narrative across many sectors of modern society - their project worked."
The main point he is making in this section is that "the myth of disenchantment" was born and found expression in 19th century Germany, and then spread to other developed countries, especially Britain and France. Was it not Nietzsche who became famous for the quotation "God is dead"? It did not mean that there was a creator God who had died at some point. Christianity had lost its grip, and in The Will to Power Nietzsche gloomily predicted the advent of nihilism. So it proved as the whole of Europe was plunged into the Great War, followed by Communism, Nazism, and Nationalism.
At the same time, there was an occult revival, manifested in leading figures such as Helena Blavatsky who founded the Theosophical Society in 1875, and Eliphas Levi. A most important and influential book was published by James Frazer in 1890: The Golden Bough. Josephson-Storm devotes a whole chapter to this work, which reveals ancient origins of religions as fertility cults, human sacrifice, and a dying king or god. Aleister Crowley, the most outstanding occult figure of the period, drew a great deal of his ideas from Frazer's book. Crowley also rightly gets a whole chapter to himself and his work, reflecting the significance of the mission he had set himself: nothing less than to revive true 'Magick' and to be the messiah of the new age.
Crowley's definition of Magick was: 'The science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will.' Finding one's true will, or one's place and purpose in the universe, was the key. He proposed that Magick was cutting-edge science and future-focused, based on the power of the mind over matter and energy. Quantum mechanics, with the 'observer effect', shows the scientific validity of magical philosophy, but one must never think it is all intellect. I like this quotation of Crowley: "The universe is a phenomenon of love under will, a mystic and poetic creation, and the intellect only stands to it as mere scansion does to poetry."
The Myth of Disenchantment is a most stimulating and informative book that covers much more than its title alone suggests. Professor Storm, as he likes to be addressed by polite students, is to be congratulated for his great work of collating and analysing so much material on a complex subject. He admits in his final words that he does not come down on either side in this debate. His point is that the extremes of both modes transform into their opposite. It is this duality of opposites and polarities that is most fascinating. Might this be exactly the reason why we humans have two hemispheres in our brains? -- Kevin Murphy.