Re-enchantment, Metaphoric Density, and Deep Myth

Bark mask by Paul Watson

Bark mask by the author

Shortly before Christmas David Southwell (he of Hookland Guide fame) and I met up for a few festive beers in London. We spoke about many things, but one topic that has been buzzing around my head since is about nomenclature for the creative things we are both working on.

We’d previously met at the Folk Horror Revival event—organised by the Facebook Group of the same name—at the British Museum, and while we are both fans of the Folk Horror genre, we both agreed that it wasn’t really what either of us did.

David has referred to his Hookland work as an act of reenchantment, and I think that word far more closely approaches a description of what both of us are aiming for. A desire for re-enchantment, a desire to enrich the way we experience the world around us.

But names have baggage as well as power, and for me the root-word “enchantment” is burdened with concepts of magic and superstition, and part of me finds it uncomfortable to use it about my own work. I am the first to acknowledge that this may seem like a strange complaint for someone who liberally uses myth and mythic concepts in their artwork, but bear with me.

Words and concepts can end up being owned by, or associated with, certain groups, and the use of them can make other people believe you are part of, or endorsing, that group. The word “re-enchantment” conjures up (please forgive the pun) connotations of people who believe in magic, or of a certain spirituality/religion like Wiccans and Pagans.

Now the problem is that I’m not in the least spiritual and I have absolutely no religion, so using a word connected with Wicca/Paganism seems, on one level, wrong - not in an “appropriation” sense of wrong, but in that its connotations communicate an incorrect message. In a related example I used to happily call myself an atheist until that word got overtaken with the baggage of Richard Dawkins and his acolytes and the popular definition of the word changed from “someone who doesn’t have a religion” to “tedious keyboard warrior who liberally throws out bigoted insults with all the intellectual prowess of a monkey throwing its shit at zoo visitors.” You see, words have baggage, and even though the original dictionary definition of “atheist” defines that aspect of me perfectly, my use of it would ally myself (in some people’s perception) with Dawkins’ crowd, and that’s not something I want.

And so, while I can acknowledge that the word “re-enchantment” is accurate, I worry somewhat about the perceived connotations. Can a person with no religion or sense of spirituality such as myself use the word “re-enchantment” accurately and seriously, and if so what do I mean by it?

Let me bring in another example:

Last week someone I follow on Twitter retweeted a tweet by Graham Tomlin, the Bishop of Kensington, which consisted of a screenshot of a letter to The Times (published December 27, 2016) by Colin Gibson, a Berkshire vicar.

Gibson wrote:

The manger at Bethlehem marks the dividing line between two radically opposed visions of humanity. In one, we are objects of and vehicles for the divine love. We are all therefore of infinite value, glorious destiny and enormous potential. In the other, we are no more than normal animals, here by accident in a random universe in which it is pointless to seek the meaning of our lives or anything else.

Putting every other religion in the world to one side (who probably would object to Gibson’s dichotomy which separates the entire world into either Christians or empty materialists, whether atheist or of a non-Christian religion), it also reveals a rather blinkered, dogmatic, view of the variety and depth of non-religious thinking, conveniently reducing it to a cardboard cut-out that can more easily be defeated. This polarising dogma is both lazy and dangerous because it divides people by crass—and plainly wrong—generalisations. It uses exactly the same flawed logic that Dawkins uses: dividing the world into a brave enlightened, nuanced “us” while reducing everyone else to a two-dimensional idiot “them.” And frankly there’s been far too much of that going on lately in the UK, Europe, and the US.

Gibson was replying to an earlier article in The Times by Matthew Parris. I’ve no idea if Parris’ article was as condescending and blinkered as Gibson’s response to it (which wouldn’t excuse the letter, but might go some way to explain it, if we presume it was typed quickly in anger) since the whole thing is behind a Paywall, but it certainly shows that ill-judged responses, free from any nuance or serious thought, are not the sole domain of Twitter, but can also occur in the Letters page of The Times.

Trying to get back on track, another reason I wanted to highlight Gibson’s letter to The Times was his strange perception that people with no religion have no sense of wonder and just sit around in empty despair because “it is pointless to seek the meaning of our lives or anything else” (I won’t start on his mistakes about art and the Renaissance because otherwise I’ll never finish this damn post!)

Contrary to Gibson’s view, I’ve never found any contradiction between my sense of wonder & search for meaning and my lack of any religion or spirituality, and I don’t think that’s anything unique about me - the scientist and TV presenter Brian Cox has famously communicated his sense of wonder at the world/solar system/universe in his various TV series, all definitely from a secular, scientific, perspective (usually, as has been remarked on by many others before me, whilst gazing across a spectacular vista with the wind blowing in his hair).

So the ability to see wonder in the world is not the prerogative of any one religion or of the religious in general (although some of them do, while others probably don’t), and for me the concept of re-enchantment involves, amongst other things, re-imbuing the world with a sense of wonder, a multi-layered depth of meaning.

So if it’s not born of a religious/spiritual bent (although it may be for some) then where does the desire for re-enchantment come from?

Adrienne Rich, in her book Poetry and Commitment, wrote (emphasis mine):

Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, visionary or glib, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What's pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images—is it literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism—a stunted language? Or is the great muscle of metaphor, drawing strength from resemblance in difference? The great muscle of the unconstricted throat?

I'd like to suggest this: If there's a line to be drawn, it's not so much between secularism and belief as between those for whom language has metaphoric density and those for whom it is merely formulaic—to be used for repression, manipulation, empty certitudes to ensure obedience.

I think that this idea of metaphoric density is related to the concept of re-enchantment that Rich presents here, but wider and applied to more than just art and language, but also to how we choose to view the world. A desire for re-enchantment carries within it a desire for metaphoric density in art, writing, music, and the world around us, as opposed to a less-layered and more literalist approach. And Rich’s quote emphatically states that the dividing line is not one of religious against non-religious.

To me the idea of re-enchantment is also anti-materialist, anti-capitalist, and environmentalist in its rejection of the world as something which humans can exploit in any way they wish because it prevents the world being viewed from a purely utilitarian perspective.

I realise here that I’m in danger of writing a manifesto! This is not what this blog post is meant to be - it’s an exploration of one aspect of my work rather than a manifesto. So, I just want to touch on one more subject: Deep Myth.

Deep Myth is a term I coined to refer to the oldest past version of a myth, the piece of grit around which the later myth forms: the original tale, the kernel, the most primal incarnation of the myth. In realistic terms it’s unknowable—lost deep in the past—but it can be glimpsed as a partial reflection in the contemporary version. Somewhere in the metaphorically dense language of the contemporary myth are echoes of the primal deep myth.

The desire to glimpse the deep myth, long buried and deformed beneath the surface of the surviving version, is a strong one for me. And in that glimpse of the primal comes a re-enchantment.