The Mysteria, part 8: Ghosts In the Machine
Vitalism, intermediary spirits, and the problem of disenchantment
“This is the root of disenchantment: an entire category of beings, which fifteen centuries’ worth of European Christians (and many more centuries of pagans before them) had believed existed, was suddenly written out of the world.”
Earlier this week, I finished reading The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences. That title is one of a rather intimidating list of books I’ve accumulated for research on a manuscript-in-progress, but it wasn’t one I’d even originally thought to add. Instead, it was a gift sent to me bywith a brief note explaining she knew I’d find it helpful.
She was right. It’s a rather fascinating, albeit perplexing, book, purporting to show how disenchantment functions as a societal and conceptual myth, rather than a state of actually-existing things. It proposes that modernity isn’t really disenchanted (and is anyway not even modern), yet we’ve been trying to convince ourselves for the last 400 years that it actually is. Thus, the “myth” of disenchantment.
The author, Jason A. Josephson-Storm, is never quite convincing, and it’s difficult to tell whether or not he even believes his own thesis. Despite this, the book is an addictive read because of all the evidence he marshals to try to prove his point. We learn, for example, that Freud attended many seances and had become completely convinced of telepathy, and that Kurt Friedrich Gödel (the founder of modern mathematical logic) scrawled notes about demons alongside his formulae. Even more fascinating is the relationship that many of the Frankfurt School theorists had to occult theorists, especially to Ludwig Klages. Walter Benjamin, for example, wrote approvingly of Klages’ ideas and had even intended to study under him.
The question that Josephson-Storm never seems to answer is why we keep wrongly believing that science has won out over religion and magic. This seems to be because he keeps trying to hold a neutral position regarding naturalistic (“scientific”) versus vitalist explanations for magic. That’s a much larger debate, and a much more interesting question, but Josephson-Storm constantly tries to avoid the matter even when writing directly about it.
Perhaps you were already a bit confused by my use of the word “vitalist,” which is a term currently associated with the writing of the author known as Bronze Age Pervert.
I’ll admit my own initial confusion, as well. What’s being described as vitalism, especially negatively in the host of criticisms (primarily conservative Christian) of Bronze Age Pervert’s ideas, isn’t in any way what was once thought of as vitalism.
Vitalism, traditionally understood, is the belief that there is some force, essence, or organizing principle within living things. It proposes a kind of “divine spark” or “energy” inherent to organic matter that cannot be explained only through physical or chemical mechanisms.
The first thing to say about this understanding is that most people probably see the world this way now, without ever really thinking much about the matter. In fact, I think all but the most strict materialist atheists might concede a sense that there is something about life which cannot be reduced to mechanical explanation. Even if one believes that consciousness is an illusion caused by complex synaptic firings in the brain, there still seems to us something which distinguishes living things (including things which once lived) from inert matter.
Secondly, vitalism is the primary framework of many “traditional” healing traditions and medicines, which start from the idea that there is a life force (qi, prana, biofields, or other energy) which flows through and gives vitality to a person. Disruptions in that force, energy, or field can cause physical or mental illness or prevent the body from healing itself from such illnesses.
This second point is where most of the scientific-materialist arguments against vitalism tend to focus. Despite the countless attestations that vitalist healing methods (for instance, Traditional Chinese Medicine) work, the model itself is seen as so heretical to dominant medical narratives that any evidence of its efficacy is immediately seen as fraudulent or delusional. Thus, vitalism is dismissed as “new age” (despite being quite ancient) or “primitive” (despite the prevalence of these ideas in contemporary thinkers).
What’s meant by vitalism in the works of Bronze Age Pervert is something quite different. While starting from the same premise that there is an irreducible “spark” of life, his vitalism then proposes that there is everywhere an attempt to crush our vital essence by civilization, socialism, Christianity, and feminizing assaults on difference and greatness.
Much of this borrows from the philosophical legacy of Nietzsche and the “will to power,” which is why you often hear Christian critics of Bronze Age Pervert label his ideas “Nietzschean vitalism.” However, the vitalism apparent in Nietzsche’s writing is much closer to the older conception of vitalism, rather than this newer one, because what is missing in the supposedly “pagan” writing of Bronze Age Pervert is the recognition that the vital spark exists not just in humans, but in all of life. For older vitalists, a tree, a compost pile, a pig, and a human each possess an organizing life principle or vital force.
This doesn’t appear to be what Bronze Age Pervert is on about, as his “paganism” is really just human-centric narcissism. Yet, to read his Christian critics, it’s hard not to get the impression they fear the entire right is in danger of falling back into pagan belief. Also, they seem desperate to prove, in the face of BAP’s popularity, that there is still some worth in Christian civilization and Christian values.
What’s particularly amusing in these essays, however, is that the authors seem quite ignorant of the earlier meaning of vitalism, and how Christianity itself was for a long time one of the greatest defenders of its proposition. Consider how, in the very creation story of the Bible, God breathes into inert matter, infusing it with the spark of life. The Christian concept of the soul is also a vitalist framework, as the soul is that irreducible aspect of life which cannot be explained by material or mechanistic processes.
So, to reject this newer version of vitalism without clarifying a position on the earlier understanding is to undermine one of the core beliefs of the very religion they’re trying to protect from BAP’s “Nietzschean vitalism.”
I don’t think this omission is only accidental on their part, however, because the matter of vitalism touches on a very uncomfortable relationship between Christianity and modern disenchantment. To explain this, though, we need to look directly at the same problem which the author of The Myth of Disenchantment had trouble with: the matter of natural magic.
“Natural Philosophy” and the role of demons
To paint the problem broadly, there have always been several competing understandings of magic and its relationship to nature or “natural laws,” even within Christianity. While it might seem a bit odd to think of Christians debating the nature of magic, even the briefest survey of the earliest writing from the church fathers is enough to show that the question was with them from the very beginning.
In fact, Christians seemed almost unified in their belief that magic existed, all the way from the first dissemination of the gospel up to at least the Reformation period in Europe. What wasn’t a matter of unity, however, was the how and the why of magic. Here, the most common division was on the question of whether or not demons were always behind every act of magic, or if there was also some other mechanism at play.
The debates regarding this question never resulted in any real schisms or religious strife until the end of the 15th century and the beginning of the 16th. This period saw the height of the witch trials in Europe and also the greatest sectarian violence between new Christian formations (Protestantisms) and the Catholic Church. During that time, one of the most common charges levied against the old church by the reformers was that Pope and his bishops performed “demonic” magic.
In reality, most clerics and other monastics, along with many priests and bishops, were in possession of grimoires and other magical texts. Whether or not many of them actually cast any spells or tried to contact demons cannot be determined, but what’s important to understand is that such works were at that time considered important knowledge.
What we call “science” now was once called “natural philosophy,” and natural philosophers wrote just as often about magical phenomena as they did anything else. Religious authorities read these works because they were part of what we could call the “scientific literature” of the day. The influence of the stars and the subtle magical properties of plants were matters of scientific inquiry, as were also the effects of demonic and other invisible agencies on human behavior.
Over time, however, magical phenomena was increasingly divided between “natural” and “demonic,” with the former being considered acceptable to study and manipulate, and the latter ultimately dangerous to approach.
Again, up to the later part of the 15th century, the intellectual class of Europe (most of them clerics, since they were the only ones trained to read Latin) read books on demons and magic. It’s quite likely that the vast majority reading these books fully accepted that demons and magic existed, but this didn’t also mean they’d then set off to contact infernal beings or cast spells on each other. They just accepted this all as fact without necessity for action, just as we might accept nuclear physics at fact without feeling the need to refine uranium in our bathrooms to test the theories for ourselves.
But while it was generally accepted by Christian theologians and laity alike that magic and demons existed, what role demons actually had in the performance and manifestation of magic was never settled. Many theologians tried to divide magic into several categories, placing some forms within a category of “natural” magic and others into “demonic” or “malefic” magic. For instance, magic involving crystals, rocks, and some herbs was generally seen as being governed by natural laws that God himself had put into place, and so there was therefore little need to worry about the influence of demons there. However, categories of magic such as divination were much more complicated, since the accurate knowledge derived from divination could quite possibly have come from demons. Making this all the more complicated, it was equally possible that a magician might be fooled into thinking a natural law was in play when it was actually a demon causing the effects.
The Medieval Christian Ecology of Spirits
There’s one other problem that made all this quite complicated. There was never any consensus as to what precisely a demon actually was.