Louis Menand’s literary approach to the era masks some analytical fuzziness.
The Perils of Re-Enchantment
Conservative Christian (and Christian-adjacent) thinkers look forward to the world’s “re-enchantment” and eagerly await the day that the centuries-old materialist consensus is finally toppled, along with the narcissism and nihilism it has engendered. Meaning, we’re told, will once again pervade the world, producing men and women capable of restoring a politics and a culture oriented toward the highest Good and serving the common good.
The goal is a noble one, but re-enchantment also has a dark side. The newly audible angels’ song will be, as it always was, mingled with the cackling of devils. Darren Aaronofsky’s 2017 horror film Mother! and G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday deal forthrightly with the traumatic disorientation that results when something larger, truer, and stranger begins to break into our rational, sterile world. But where Aaronofsky presents re-enchantment as an unmitigated horrorshow, perhaps inevitable but certainly not desirable, Chesterton can look beyond the bewilderment and the bloodshed to the beauty and adventure that await when we look reality in its true face.
“Re-enchantment” begins with the idea that, as Jordan Peterson put it, the world isn’t “made out of matter… it’s made out of what matters.”
To believe otherwise is to fall into absurdity and purposelessness. In a world made of matter, names are nothing more than arbitrary labels and values are nothing more than arbitrary preferences. There’s no such thing as a “chair,” only a particular collection of atoms arranged in a particular way at a particular point in time (and time’s not real anyway).
Nor are there people, strictly speaking. What I experience as consciousness is just an epiphenomenon of certain biochemical reactions in my brain. The fact that I perceive myself and my wife as persons with continuity across time doesn’t make them so. There is even evidence against it. The cells that make up our bodies are constantly being replaced. “No man ever steps in the same river twice.”
In such a world, the only possible basis for ethics is that being treated in certain ways makes the experience of consciousness less pleasant. Self-creation becomes the highest good, and the inhibition of another’s self-creation the greatest evil. This creed promises liberation: “the meaning of life is to give life meaning.” In reality, it leads either to the apathy now nearly endemic among young men or to the coming transhumanist crisis of which the “gender revolution” is a mere harbinger.
Disenchantment led to, or at least coincided with, scientific advances that increased wealth and life expectancy to rates unprecedented in human history, and for that we should be grateful. But what will it profit us if we gain the whole world but forfeit our very humanity?
Against this soul-destroying materialism, Peterson insists there can be no such thing as a neutral or objective worldview because we are built to perceive the world as a forum for action. “You think a hill is an object and you infer the walking-up place, but it isn’t. The hill is a walking-up place and you infer the object,” he said during one lecture. Therefore, he argues, all our perceptions must be “interpreted from within a narrative framework and that means from within a framework of value.” “Value” implies hierarchy, and every hierarchy must have something at its top. And that, Peterson says, is by definition God.
On the questions of whether the Christian God exists, sent His son Jesus Christ into the world, and raised Him bodily on the third day, Peterson remains agnostic. He insists, however, that the meaningful world in which we act is more real than the whatever meaningless material reality may underlie it and that the Judeo-Christian story offers the best archetypal model for navigating that world.
Jonathan Pageau, an Eastern Orthodox icon carver and friend of Peterson, picks up where Peterson leaves off, initiating viewers into “the symbolic world,” in which patterns from myth, legend, and Scripture manifest themselves in everyday life. God, after all, is not a watchmaker, but a storyteller.
Pageau claims “the end of materialism” is upon us, not only because of developments in physics and the study of human consciousness but because humans are essentially ritualistic creatures. “Religion is inevitable, and we’re seeing it coming back in very strange ways… you’ll have people kneeling to a shrine of a man who was killed by police and putting a halo on his head,” Pageau said, referring to the George Floyd protests. Nor is the reemergence of ritual exclusive to the political left. When asked why he was chanting, the Q-Anon shaman who breached the U.S. Capitol on January 6 said, “this is spiritual warfare … every time we chant ‘U.S.A.’ that affects the quantum realm.”
Thinkers like Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist, and Joseph Henrich, an evolutionary biologist, also contend against shallow, materialistic views of reality, arguing that our desacralized, demythologized, supposedly objective view of the world is actually a neuropsychological aberration of Western modernity. It’s not that we perceive the world the same way pre-modern people did but interpret it better using science rather than superstition. Our actual sense experiences are different.
In a 2008 memoir, the linguist Dan Everett, who was a missionary to a remote Amazon tribe before losing his faith, tells the story of being taken to the riverbank to see a demon god standing on a sandbar. The tribesman pointed and shouted. Clearly, they saw something. Everett did not. Who perceived “reality” more clearly remains an open question.
Faced with such questions, many Peterson and Pageau devotees conclude it’s time to call a priest, specifically the pair of priests who host the Lord of Spirits radio show. Many Orthodox clergy, seeing a spike in the number of catechumens, have even begun speaking of a Peterson-Pageau-Lord of Spirits pipeline. Frs. Andrew Stephen Damick and Stephen De Young, the hosts of the program—both of whom have appeared on Pageau’s YouTube channel—broadcast live twice a month to discuss Nephilim, vampires, the divine council, and other esoteric topics. When Peterson cracked open the door to our hermetically sealed universe, all of this and more came flooding back.
At its highest level, re-enchantment is the stuff of which saints are made. The “pure in heart,” who orient themselves toward the highest possible Good and know Him for what He is, “will see God.” From thence proceed visions, ecstasies, stigmata.
But even if re-enchantment is a path to sainthood, it is not a path that leads only to sainthood. For most of human history, the worldview Westerners are struggling to recover was simply the air people breathed, and not always to their benefit.
In the Christian telling, this world was subject to demonic forces. The Jews, when they received the truth, turned their backs on it again and again. The gentile nations were a mixed bag. Some, as St. Paul wrote, intuited the “eternal power and divine nature” of the Creator and, though struggling imperfectly against diabolical deceptions, managed to “feel their way toward Him” with some success. Others, from Carthage to Tehnochitlan, enthralled themselves utterly to dark gods who guzzled human blood.
Contrary to the claims of the Steven Pinkers and Christopher Hitchenses of the world, however, disenchantment is no guarantee of peace and human flourishing. Secular modernity is certainly not free of deadly conflict. It’s debatable whether, after adjusting for population growth, the 20th century was the bloodiest in human history, but it is in the top tier. The spiritual forces bent on destroying humanity have proven adept at doing their work in secret. They do not crave recognition. Whether an infant is sacrificed to Moloch on the scalding arms of an idol or to the god of the self in some fluorescent-lit clinic, it doesn’t matter to them.
The latter option is certainly less shocking for us. We feel safe in our buffered, disenchanted reality. But this temporary truce will not last. The world is becoming re-enchanted before our eyes. Satanists are treating abortion as a religious ritual. Witchcraft is on the rise. DMT enthusiasts compare notes about their encounters with the “machine elves.” TikTok is full of teenagers who claim that multiple beings inhabit their bodies: “I am Legion, for we are many.” We must prepare ourselves for the reemergence of horrors we thought long buried.
Darren Aaronofsky’s Mother! begins in exactly the closed-off, predictable world that’s collapsing around us. Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence play a married couple living in a secluded country house. He’s a poet struggling to find inspiration while she works to restore the house after a fire nearly destroyed it.
She loves her husband, and she loves the house. “I want to make a paradise,” she says. Mother (none of the characters have names) would prefer no intrusions and no surprises. She doesn’t get her wish.
The early scenes are masterfully unsettling. At the urging of Him (as Bardem’s character is known) the couple take in a houseguest (Ed Harris), who ignores Mother’s rules against smoking in the house. His wife (Michelle Pfeiffer), who arrives the next morning, is equally inconsiderate. Mother downs dose after dose of medication to calm her frayed nerves. Then, the guests’ adult sons burst in. During a quarrel over inheritance, one kills the other. Mother is traumatized by the event, but He insists on hosting a wake for their friends and family. The new guests are comforted by His words but treat Mother rudely and the house roughly. She flies into a rage after they cause a pipe to burst.
That’s the first half. So far, there are only hints that everything is not as it seems. The first shot shows a woman’s face wreathed in flame. Mother occasionally hears, feels, and even seems to see a heart beating behind the walls of the house. Their first guest has a strange wound in his side.
After that, though, things get a whole lot weirder. The couple conceive a child and He, filled with inspiration, sets to work on a new poem. We flash forward nine months. The book’s first printing has sold out, and Mother is ready to give birth. She’s prepared a nice dinner to celebrate. A group of His fans show up on the lawn, looking for autographs. She asks Him to send them away, but He goes out to greet them anyway. Soon, they’re trickling, then streaming into the house.
Then all hell breaks loose.
Aaronofsky outlined the film’s symbolism in an interview, perhaps tipping his hand more than he ought to have: “Lawrence is Gaia, or Mother Earth, while her house represents the world — a living, breathing organism being destroyed by its inhabitants. Her husband, known as ‘Him’ in the film, is God. Out of boredom, he creates Adam and Eve (the couple), who proceed to destroy … Gaia’s creation … They also bring worshipers to praise God.”
With the publication of His new poem, the symbolism ceases to be implicit. All superficial pseudo-realism vanishes. The characters and viewer are plunged into the new symbolic order His words have created. Time and space compress, turning the house into a microcosm of civilization itself.
Rioters hurl Molotov cocktails. His literary agent shoots six people, execution-style. Soldiers storm through the house. Slave traders speaking foreign tongues cram people into cages. New converts are blessed with the poet’s words and marked with a baptismal sign. Devotional candles burn before icons of Him. Mother, suffering contractions that seem to shake the world, is shoved and dragged from room to room in the house that was once hers, but now, at her husband’s decree, is “everybody’s house.”
There is no sense that it might have been otherwise, that a manageable number of guests might have inhabited Mother’s home in peace. The people who enter the couple’s home are never anything but inconsiderate and destructive. When Mother pleads with her husband to “make them go,” she’s not referring to a few bad apples. She’s asking for all humanity to be erased. Aaronofsky appears to agree with the philosopher Rene Girard that there is no such thing as humanity without religion, but if so he finds this unspeakably tragic. It’s environmentalist anti-humanism raised to its highest pitch.
Mother and Him barricade themselves in his study, where she gives birth to a baby boy, whom He promptly delivers into the hands of the fanatical mob. Mother plunges into the crowd and comes face to face with a priest standing before an altar decked with candles. “He’s not dead,” the priest tells her, but as he continues, it becomes clear he’s reciting a grim parody of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. She pushes past him and sees the torn, bloody remnants of her baby laid out on the altar. She turns and sees each member of the congregation nibbling a morsel of the infant’s flesh.
The scene brings to mind the conclusion of Christopher Hitchens’s anti-religious screed God Is Not Great, in which he called on humanity to “escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs and the reeking altars and the guilty pleasures of subjection and abjection.” Re-enchantment is the Enlightenment secularist’s worst nightmare.
Mother’s husband, whom she has come to hate for his callousness toward her and his insatiable need for worship, begs her to forgive humanity: “We can’t let [our son] die for nothing. Maybe what happened could change everything, everyone.”
Mother recoils in disgust. The idea of a symbolic order built around a slaughtered and cannibalized messiah horrifies her. In her revulsion at man’s inhumanity to man and to nature, Mother is not only Gaia. She is humanity as Aaronofsky thinks it ought to be, uncorrupted by toxic myths and metanarratives. Mother might be married to God, but in this moment, she’s an atheist.
“I am somewhat suspicious of the transcendent,” the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein said during a panel discussion with Jordan Peterson. “I don’t like the larger symbolic” narratives, she said, because they bring to mind “the greatest horror that I know of,” namely the Holocaust. Mother (and Aaronofsky) would agree. Nothing good comes of God. “I am I,” the poet declares as he cradles his wife’s charred body amid the ruins of their home.
Chesterton’s 1908 novel The Man Who Was Thursday is similar to Mother!, except Chesterton doesn’t hate God. The novel opens with undercover detective Gabriel Syme infiltrating a cell of anarchists. As Adam Gopnik observed in a 2008 New Yorker story, “anarchism” had for Chesterton’s Edwardian audience “the same resonance that ‘terrorism’” has in the 21st century. “In the previous quarter century,” Gopnik noted, anarchists “had killed a French President, an American President, and the Russian Tsar … The same score now—Sarkozy, Bush, Putin … and we’d all be under martial law.”
But this isn’t an adventure story in the vein of James Bond. It’s not even an adventure story with a supernatural twist, like Raiders of the Lost Ark. That film’s face-melting climax undercuts the cocksure fedora-tipping that Indy does early in the film, but ultimately the light of the Ark is hidden under the crate of state secularism. Disenchantment reasserts itself. In Chesterton’s novel, the lid cannot be replaced. Meaning, symbolism, and God break inexorably into our safe little world even as it crumbles under its own refusal to accept them.
In the story’s opening chapters, we’re firmly within the realm of what literary theorists call “realism.” And yet, even that secular materialist consensus proves to be nothing more than a temporary truce. The anarchists threaten not only governments but the epistemic basis of civilization, and of humanity itself. “We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honor and treachery,” one declares. Syme quips that they seek to abolish not only right and wrong, but “right and left.” They see through everything into nothingness. One character questions whether there is anything that cannot be written off as “a combination in perspective,” a product of the arbitrary, subjective positioning that makes us see a dipper in the night sky.
Syme, for his part, begins almost immediately dropping hints that there is a reality to our perceptions that resists materialist debunking: “When you say ‘the world is round,’ do you mean what you say? No. It is true, but you don’t mean it.” Pageau concurs. “[M]ost of the time,” he writes, “the Earth is flat.” The “world of human experience,” unavoidably narrative-driven and even mythic, is not nothing. Syme intuits this, but it takes him the rest of the novel to realize how right he is.
Syme uses a clever ruse to gain a seat on the seven-member Central Anarchist Council, whose members are codenamed after the days of the week, and is almost immediately beset by supernatural terrors and the romantic thrills of adventure. His flask and pistol take on a “concrete and material poetry.” At the meeting, he feels a “sense of unnatural symbolism” surrounding each member of the council—especially their larger-than-life leader, Sunday.
When, after the meeting, the apparently aged and senile Professor de Worms (Friday) pursues Syme across London with uncanny speed, he feels “the old fear that any miracle might happen.” Later, when he confronts Dr. Bull (Saturday), the arch-rationalist who hides his face behind sinister black glasses, Syme feels “the more hopeless modern fear that no miracle can ever happen.” He is caught between the unpredictable terrors of re-enchantment and the banal evils of disenchantment.
In both cases, though, Syme’s fear that turned the men into monstrous archetypes turns out to have been misplaced. The two council members are revealed to be fellow undercover detectives. When Syme fights a duel with Wednesday, his repeated sword thrusts do no damage, and he begins to fear he is fighting the devil himself. Instead, Wednesday turns out to be another detective who had concealed padding under his clothes. We begin to wonder whether Syme, who Chesterton’s narrator tells us is “a great deal too sensitive to the smell of spiritual evil,” is a quixotic dupe whose tendency to dramatize his experiences makes him all the more susceptible to Sunday’s tricks.
One by one, each member of the anarchist council turns out to be a cop, until only Sunday remains. When the six detectives join forces to confront Sunday, he reveals that he was the police chief who recruited them in the first place. Then the story grows stranger still.
Monday through Saturday are received with honor at the country house to which they’ve pursued Sunday, and as in Mother!, all pretense of “realism” vanishes. God reveals Himself. “I am the Sabbath,” Sunday declares. “I am the peace of God.”
The detectives are clothed in ceremonial dress modeled after the days of creation, disguises that “did not disguise, but reveal.” What appeared to be superficial codenames are shown to be an integral part of who they truly are. A person does not find or create his true identity in isolation from his roles, relationships, and communities. Instead, he finds and expresses that identity by playing the proper roles properly. We are not free-floating wills flung into a meaningless world to create ourselves and our values ex nihilo. We are relational, political, ecclesiastical, ritualistic animals.
Dancers dressed as ordinary objects the detectives encountered during the arduous investigation perform a pageant for them, and the narrator tells us Syme could never again “see one of those particular objects—a lamp-post, or an apple tree, or a windmill—without thinking that it was a strayed reveler from that … masquerade.” Things as we perceive them and interact with them are real. The world is not a flux of matter and energy onto which arbitrary labels and meanings have been imposed. It is a stage, and despite the cluelessness of the players, there is a playwright. The man who sees a lamp-post as a prop in that drama possessed of all its symbolic resonances sees it more clearly than the man who dismisses it as a particular arrangement of iron molecules that produces certain wave-particle phenomena.
Syme swoons but then finds himself walking along a road with no memory of having woken up. As he returns from his mountaintop experience, the narrator observes that a “breeze blew so clean and sweet that one could not think it blew from the sky; it blew rather through some hole in the sky.” A breach has been made in our closed-off cosmos. Meaning has re-entered the world. Syme feels as though he is “in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.” Or, as Peterson put it in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, having oriented himself toward “the highest possible aim,” he can “take no thought for the morrow” and “live in the day” with “every moment supercharged with meaning.”
The Man Who Was Thursday is subtitled “A Nightmare,” but it is Aaronofsky’s vision that is truly nightmarish. For Chesterton, the early stages of re-enchantment may indeed feel like a bad dream, but all fears are dispelled when we realize we are not dreaming. We are, like half-conscious children whimpering in bed, being woken up by a kind Father.
Re-enchantment may shock us, even those of us who profess a religion but live as functional materialists. The facade of cosmic indifference that alternately spurred and enervated us will fall away. God and the adversary will walk the stage openly, to our mingled joy and horror. The choice between them will become stark. The winter that kept us warm and sterile is coming to an end, but whatever else may come, those of us who know God and have believed in His Victory can trust it will give way to glorious spring.
Grayson Quay is weekend editor of The Week.
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