Irony and Enchantment
Max Weber was half right: modernity is indeed characterized most centrally by the “disenchantment of the world.” At the same time, however, modernity is also characterized by the re-enchantment of the world, an enchantment, this time, on strictly secular terms. In their different ways, stage magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin and Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé both sought new, secular sources of wonder, order, and value; both came to see self-deception as indispensable to that end; and both, finally, understood that in order to maintain our necessary illusions—in order to preserve them, though we recognize them for what they are—we have to become skilled at adopting a rather peculiar state of mind. It is precisely this state of mind, a state of quasi-simultaneous conviction and distrust, that Robert-Houdin’s tricks and Mallarmé’s poems, with their paradigmatically proto-modernist reflexivity, require for their appreciation. Aesthetic modernism is not just a game, a marketing ploy, a “statement,” or a symptom; it is, instead, a literary training-ground. To become skilled at handling modernist fictions is, in the end, to strengthen our capacity to re-enchant the world.
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