Here’s a brief description of a course I’ll be teaching next semester:

In a wonderful early poem, “Merlin Enthralled,” Richard Wilbur describes the way that magic drains from the Arthurian world when the wizard is no longer around to generate it:

Fate would be fated; dreams desire to sleep.

This the forsaken will not understand.

Arthur upon the road began to weep

And said to Gawen, “Remember when this hand

Once haled a sword from stone; now no less strong

It cannot dream of such a thing to do.”

Their mail grew quainter as they clopped along.

The sky became a still and woven blue.

A hundred years ago the great sociologist Max Weber wrote that “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world” (Entzauberung der Welt). We experience this, he added, as an “iron cage” of rationalization. The purpose of this course is to explore Weber’s great thesis. Is it correct? If so, what are its consequences? What intellectual strategies have we formed to deal with this disenchantment, to break the bars of this iron cage? And if Weber’s thesis is not right, in what forms has an enchanted world persisted?

Major readings:

  • Weber, selected writings on the rationalized social order
  • Charles Taylor, A Secular Age
  • Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
  • Neil Gaiman, American Gods
  • Jason Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment

Supplementary readings:

  • various essays on the “secularization thesis”
  • Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age
  • Owen Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century (selections)
  • Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (selections)
  • Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (selections)
  • C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien on the “enchantment of worldliness”
  • selected essays and excerpts by Marina Warner

The logic behind many of these choices should be clear — it’s obvious why Taylor’s magnum opus will be the central text here — but a few may need explanation. Gaiman’s novel is a great case study in various culturally particular forms of enchantment and disenchantment, and a profound meditation on how technology affects both. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell explores the conditions and consequences of re-enchantment. Josephson-Storm’s book puts some hard questions to Weber’s thesis and to narratives of secularization more generally. Kass presents Genesis as an intrinsically disenchanting text from the outset, in which it demotes the sun, moon, and stars from the status of deities to that of mere created things — big lights in the sky, worthy neither of worship nor of terror.

Comments and suggestions welcome.


  1. Auden on black magic/white magic:

    "More deadly than the Idle Word is the use of words as Black Magic. Like the White Magic of poetry, Black Magic is concerned with enchantment. But, while the poet is himself enchanted by the subjects he writes about and only wishes to share his enchantment with others, the Black Magician is perfectly cold. He has no enchantment to share with others, but uses enchantment as a means of securing domination over others and compelling them to do his will…"

  2. I taught a lit survey themed around enchantment and disenchantment a few years back. I love the Gaiman and Clarke readings for this; wish I had thought to use them.

    My most successful stuff in the survey I taught was Victorian poetry: I did a day on Victorian disenchantment using Arnold's "Dover Beach," Byron's "Darkness," and the "nature, red in tooth and claw" stuff from Tennyson's "In Memoriam." Arnold's "Dover Beach" is the perfect case study for Taylor's understanding of modernity, in my view.

    Other stuff that worked well: Larkin's "Church Going"; George Saunders, "Buddha Boy"; THE SEVENTH SEAL; Shaffer, EQUUS; Enger, PEACE LIKE A RIVER.

  3. Josephson-Storm's text is excellent. One of my favorite reads this summer.

    I don't know if it's one of your assorted article, but I have also found Alexandra Walsham's "The Reformation and 'The Disenchantment of the World' Reassessed", The Historical Journal, Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 2008), pp. 497-528, to be extremely helpful. Carlos Eire's "War Against the Idols" as well, though his conclusion takes a turn towards the Unintended Reformation brand of apologetics. One point that concerns me on the historiography is that we appreciate the fact that "disenchantment" (if we buy it) isn't always the loss of enchanted dells with pleasant fairie Queens. It could also be seen as a matter of exorcising the horrifying demonic and the oppressively magical.

  4. That sounded snarkier than I intended, so I'll add: this looks like a marvellous course, one I wish I'd had the option to study as a student. The only wrinkle I might suggest is expanding it beyond the White Western purview, if only a little: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is a wonderful novel, and I'd love to see what students make of it at my own gaff; but it might be interesting to mix in, say, African perspectives, compare it with a Nnedi Okorafor novel for instance. And my own King Charles' Head could enter in here: I'm talking about Burgess's masterpiece, Earthly Powers, which I take as being centrally about the way Europe is ridden by a mournful kind of Weberian disenchantment whilst the East (Malaysia) and, in a different way, the cult-prone USA, are still in thrall to dangerous enchantments. But, see, I started out by suggesting you're asking your students to read a lot and am ending by piling on the extra reading. Ignore me.

  5. Thanks for the suggestions, Matthew. Derek, you’re right about the exorcising implications of certain modes of disenchantment — that’s in part what Kass is saying about Genesis, that it’s a dethroning and delegitimizing of the Powers. (And of course Taylor’s “buffered self” is in some sense buffered, or hopes to be, against those same Powers.)

    Adam, though I know your wish of good luck is meant with the deepest sincerity, I may not even need it. We’ll spend three weeks on the book, which means that I’ll be able to divide the book into six sections, and give them a reading quiz on each of those sections. Based on past experience, I expect that most of the students will read most of the book, which may be the best we can expect in this vale of academic tears.

  6. Well, wish I could be in the class. Hope you find the time to do some blogging about it and the readings. Curious about your thoughts on Josephson-Storm, I'm making my way (slowly) through it. Article suggestion: Alfred Gell's "The Technology of Enchantment, the Enchantment of Technology."

  7. Adam, your comment reminds me that one of my key theses for this course is that when Weber talks about the Welt that is disenchanted he means of course only the Western European Welt — the story of disenchantment, insofar as it happens elsewhere, and even insofar as it happens elsewhere under the influence of white Western culture, is a different story, and far too complicated for me to get into in this course. So, for instance, at one point I thought about including Achebe’s Arrow of God — his best novel, and for my money one of the most subtle and complex accounts ever written of the psychological consequences of disenchantment — but then decided against it for reasons just noted. And yet, and yet … maybe you’re right.

    I also need to read Earthly Powers, I really do.

  8. It sound like a great course! I hope you'll continue to post about it. And of course I'm delighted to see my book on there (let me know if you'd like me to Skype in for a class). I taught a course a few years ago on "Disenchantment, Modernity, and the Death of God" that covered some overlapping terrain, but without your inspired use of novels. –Jason Josephson-Storm

  9. This looks wonderful. I took a similar course in my doctoral studies, and one text we read was Marcel Gauchet's "The Disenchantment of the world: A Political History of Religion" (1985, 1997). A book useful for arguing with and bouncing ideas off of, esp. re the intersection of disenchantment and the liberal state.

  10. This looks fantastic. Just finished editing a piece for the new _Fare Forward_ about Elizabeth Goudge as a kind of novelist of domestic enchantment in this sense– her magical world is magical because it is religious, is what my writer is claiming, or rather, her magic points towards a Christian and sacramental reality. For a batch of novels that are terrifyingly and bleakly the opposite, try Lev Grossman's The Magicians trilogy. All the accoutrements of Narnia plus some of Harry Potter, but no God and no moral realism– makes you realize that without actual good and evil, even fauns are just another species, and magic is just a technology of domination.

  11. 1. Echoing Roberts, Latin American magical realism is influential enough — and sort of half-Western enough — that it's probably worth including (a Borges story, maybe?).

    2. The focus here seems to be on enchantment as magic/spirits/occult and on the 19th century as the era when we start to tell ourselves stories about our disenchantment. But what about the 17th century mechanistic philosophy debates — taking enchantment to include final and formal causality and the general iconicity of nature, and where the stories of disenchantment are all about liberation from ignorance with no tinge of nostalgia?

  12. Thanks for the further suggestions, gentle readers! — and Ross, the focus is definitely not on the 19th century. We'll get to some of those early-modern debates via Taylor, and I'm hoping also at least to acquaint the students with the history Jessica Riskin covers so brilliantly in The Restless Clock, which I review here.

  13. Jason, many thanks for the offer of Skyping — I may well take you up on that.

    One further general point: a challenge for me in organizing the class will be to keep in mind a clear and coherent relationship between secularization and disenchantment. While they are conceptually and historically related, of course, there are important senses in which they are conceptually and historically distinct as well. I hope to blog on this question more later.

  14. It's usually done poorly, but done well, Heidegger's The Question Concerning Technology does an excellent job linking the growth of a way of manipulating/looking at the world and the progressive narrowing of the way man can find meaning in the world.

  15. I recently read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell for the first time. What am amazing book in general. I loved it, and my only regret is that I knew of this book years ago, thought I might like it, but just didn't pick it up. I spent many years before actually reading this delightful book. I just love the theme of re-enchantment weaved throughout the book – what does it look like? How do people react when it happens? How do people explain away the magical? Probably my favorite fictional work by a living author.

  16. Just because it's apropos, let me quote David Bentley Hart:

    "Civilization is a spiritual labor, an openness to revelation, a venture of faith subsisting to a great degree on things no more substantial than myths and visions and prophetic dreams; thus it can be destroyed not only by invading armies or economic collapse, but also by simple disenchantment."

    Also, Wallace Stevens' The Plain Sense of Things comes to mind.

  17. "One further general point: a challenge for me in organizing the class will be to keep in mind a clear and coherent relationship between secularization and disenchantment. While they are conceptually and historically related, of course, there are important senses in which they are conceptually and historically distinct as well. I hope to blog on this question more later."

    I look forward to hearing about that. I'm trying to noodle how they are different and I'm not coming up with anything. Neither is really pursued for itself. It's just one day you say "what the hell is going on?" and you want to say something about creation or Jeremiah and you realize that if you do everyone will think you have Alzheimer's.

  18. Like everyone else, I mostly want to say that this course sounds incredible, and I'm sad to be without the opportunity to take it!

    American Gods and Jonathan Strange are both great choices for novels. Obviously you're not looking for more for the immediate present, but if you're looking for more reading for yourself, I have two suggestions that go along with several comments recommending some magical realist texts. There are two American novels from the last twenty years that I like a lot in their tackling of the question of enchantment/disenchantment and how these tie into immigration and culture clashes along the border. One is Karen Tei Yamashita's Tropic of Orange, which I like because it triangulates three cultures (white American, Mexican American, and Asian American). A book I like even more is Salvador Plascencia's The People of Paper, which might get confusing for students because much of its emphasis lies with metafictional elements in the narrative, but it also offers some really great thoughts on enchantment and disenchantment.

    I don't know how you feel about movies in class (well, not IN class), but there are some really good explorations of these topics on film. I'm tempted to recommend the films of the Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but he's a bit taxing, especially if your students have already read through all 900 pages of Taylor! The obvious choice is something by Miyazaki, I think, which would be fun and engaging. I'm also partial to Danny Boyle's Millions, one of the few great live action children's films of the last few decades.

    On a final note, having just finished it, I can second your self-recommendation and say, you really need to read Earthly Powers. Adam's comment nails it – such a complex, intriguing view of how spirituality was playing out across the globe over the course of the 20th Century. Among many other things.

  19. I am incredibly jealous of you and your students when it comes to the opportunity to read these texts together in the context of the theme you've chosen. Very nice.

  20. Reading an essay by Walter Ong this morning ("Post-Christian or Not?"), and this might be relevant to your question of "What intellectual strategies have we formed to deal with this disenchantment, to break the bars of this iron cage?"

    "…to admit that there are aspects of the world which should be desacralized in the sense that they should be subject to scientific investigation is not to make ourselves post-Christian. Christianity is not a nature religion."

    If I'm reading Ong correctly, part of his general thesis is that there is in fact no iron cage of disenchantment; rather, disenchantment managed properly is simply liberating.

  21. Dear Mr. Jacobs, would you mind sharing what excerpts you'll be reading from Max Weber? I would very much like to read through the material presented here.

    I'm halfway through Jonathan Strange. Amazing piece of work. I would love to sit down with Susanna Clarke and ask her how she pulled off so much of this.

  22. This looks incredibly fascinating. I've just finished Josephson-Storm's book and found it very helpful in getting "behind the scenes" of this Myth of Modernity. (Review forthcoming in TNA;) I thought that Midgley's The Myths We Live By might have nuanced the argument he makes that "we've never been disenchanted." But overall, a really important (and well researched) study.

    I'm interested, currently, in ways that while communities of people are "enchanted" (porous selves, to use Taylor's language), disenchantment has been codified into habits and institutions that are hard for such communities to resist. It's a "thesis in progress" but I wonder if there is such a thing as "structural disenchantment" perhaps. Are factory farms or reductive computational models of the mind ways in which our thoughts about the world exist downstreams from our behaviours within the world?

    Other books;)
    Guardini's The End of the Modern World might be of use to you. I've found Peter Harrison's work in Territories of Science and Religion to give a much better understanding of disenchantment as an accomplishment of theology, not simply natural philosophy/science. Also, Berry's The Miracle of Life: An Essay Against Modern Supersition is apropos. Norm Wirzba's little book From Nature to Creation may also prove helpful to some students thinking through the theological implications of our shift from creation to nature (or environment).

    Eagerly looking forward to your blogs and reflections on this course!

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