Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thoughts on the Negative Uses of Enchantment

Enchantment is a word that has come to be associated with pretty things: sparkling Disney fairies, falling in love with a handsome cartoon Prince, quirky little spells cast on frogs that turn out fine as soon as a kiss is offered.

But magically speaking, enchantment has a more technical meaning, and its effects are not always so benign.


The word 'chant' is at the literal center of the word 'enchantment'. Chant is the practical tool or device used to en-chant; and the state of being soothed, changed, redirected, or controlled by chant is called 'enchantment'.

A chant can be made up of any repetitive collection of words used to produce a desired effect. When we think of chant today, we might imagine some primitive people dancing around a fire in scanty clothing, repeating a single syllable over and over again, (a scene featured in TONS of cartoonishly offensive B movies, including Tarzan flicks.)

Or maybe we remember chant as a familiar part of high school pep assemblies and the 'cheers' that were used (as chant) to whip up student emotions for essentially meaningless sporting contests. (We're #1!) Perhaps the soothing music sung by Gregorian monks springs to mind. Or the exotic mantras used in some forms of Eastern meditation to focus attention.

Chant has been confined by contemporary culture and thought in these familiar and polarized boxes: the trivial or the exotic,  the silly or the deeply sacred. But chant occurs in the middle too--all the time--in daily life, in the media, in advertising and 'spin', between our own ears.

When chant is taken for reality and puts us into a state of delusion with regard to the material world around us, we have entered a state of enchantment without even realizing it. This can be harmless, annoying, or deadly, depending on the purpose of the enchantment.

Chant and Magical Thinking

I've been recently enjoying a weekly blog written by John Michael Greer called The Archdruid Report

Greer is an actual Druid, a practitioner of magic, and the author of a number of books on the topics of magic and myth, but The Archdruid Report is not about all that. Instead, it's about peak oil and sustainable living (another topic that Greer has written about extensively). The blog contains Greer's passing thoughts on contemporary culture and the major social changes already in progress.

Greer's June 2nd post entitled "Magical Thinking" veers uncharacteristically into his magical interests with a discussion on chant and on how Americans use to it all the time to convince themselves of things that are patently untrue--things for which there is not one shred of evidence. He points to the current oil blowout in the Gulf and the frantic conviction among many that "science can fix anything," which it can't, and that detonating a nuclear bomb at the bottom of the ocean is the way to go, which it isn't.

The longer crisis goes on, the more people come forward to insist that nuclear annihilation of the sea floor is the fix we need, even though this has never been tried--(The Soviets claim to have successfully stopped leaking gas wells on the surface, not on the ocean floor, by detonating bombs, but they also claim that they've tried this and failed--all claims, none of them addressing problems a mile underwater involving oil). Most experts say bombing the ocean floor is an atrocious idea that could have even graver consequences than the ones we already face.

One joke spreading through the internet right now sums the idea up this way:

QUESTION: What's worse than an oil leak at the bottom of the ocean?
ANSWER: A radioactive oil leak at the bottom of the ocean.

Greer points out the call for nuclear annihilation is a common chant in our culture, a chant associated with a form of magical thinking that asserts that destructive power fixes everything, and the bigger the destruction the more powerful the fix. It's a kind of phallic, militaristic enchantment, completely irrational, and we see politicians use it all the time as a way to pull people in and get their votes.

(Remember "Bomb, bomb, bomb--bomb bomb Iran"?)

In fact, much of what passes for discourse these days is nothing but clusters of chants repeated by the variously enchanted:

Americans are the hardest working people in the world.
America country can do anything.
The free market is self-regulating.
Taxes are tyrannical.
So and so is a [fascist/socialist...fill in whichever, it doesn't really matter].

All of these words are mindless and invoked to create the illusion of security and power. What you have to ask yourself is, who is invoking these chants and to what end? But of course, if you're already enchanted, you're not really capable of asking that kind of question.

That's the whole point of enchantment.

The Tower of Babel and Images of Apocalypse

At the end of his essay on "Magical Thinking" and the Gulf disaster, Greer talks about the image of the Tower in Tarot iconography and its relation to the Tower of Babel and negative uses of enchantment. Weirdly, (or maybe not) when I read this, I had just finished writing a review of Pontypool, the movie version of Tony Burgess's postmodern uber-zombie novel that addresses similar concerns--a review which I ended by talking about the image of The Tower.

Suddenly, The Tower seems to be everywhere. Yikes. 

Words have power and enchantment works, but at some point, too much of a bad thing leads to the collapse of meaning. When language is only used to control and obfuscate, to conjure destructive illusions and reduce people to their basest instincts, humans literally become zombies--mindless recipients of viral codes and commands--and society falls apart.

Greer thinks that society's fall will be long and slow, not apocalyptic. But there's good reason why zombies are suddenly replacing vampires as the paranormal creature du jour. Real zombies--the walking talking victims of negative enchantment--are everywhere these days.

Vampires & Zombies: Enchanters & Enchanted

 Zombies and vampires are actually mirror images of each other, narratively speaking. They speak to the most important oppositional obsessions of our age:

  • Vampires are undead and powerful, zombies are undead and enslaved. 
  • Vampires are undead and sexy, zombies are undead and repulsive. 
  • Vampires are undead and sensitive, zombies are undead and barely conscious. 
  • Vampires feed on living blood. Zombies go right for living flesh. 
  • Vampires can only be destroyed with a stake through the heart. Zombies have to have be shot in the brain. 

You could say (simplistically) that vampires are the enchanters and zombies are the enchanted.

Vampires enchant and control. Zombies are enchanted and controlled.

Both are not exactly alive and not exactly dead.

Kind of like corporations and their employees, huh? Eat or be eaten. Predator or prey. Choose only one and choose now. These stories resonate because they speak to our actual experience as we feel it. They speak to us in an emotional and imaginal way, not an intellectual one. In some sense, they get at the truth of our condition much better than logical analysis ever can.

In fairy tales, there's always a way to break a negative enchantment, to change the monster in the mirror back into a handsome prince or beautiful princess. A kiss will often do it.

In zombie and vampire lore, the only cure is death. Death ends up being a kindness, a respite, an object of constant longing and desire. 

It's important to point out here that in the Tarot, the pictorial story continues well after the image of the Tower is presented. There are other cards. Many of them. There are even cards that follow Death.

There are many, many Tarot card stories, and each of the stories is connected to all the other stories, and the whole collection is cyclic and ever-changing. Death itself is never the end, but occurs as a card halfway through the 22 cards in the Major Arcana. The Death card is symbolic not so much of finality and loss, as personal transformation through endings and destruction.

An ending is what we are after now--that much is certain--and on so many, many levels.

I for one will be very glad when this particular story is finished.