Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Mr Norrell and the Modern Moral Order

(Some reflections arising from a class I’m teaching.) 

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor describes the emergence of what he calls the Modern Moral Order, which is (very generally speaking) comprised of the beliefs that (a) God exists but is not active in the world, (b) God wants us to obey his laws/rules/norms in order to maximize our happiness, (c) the successful obeying of those laws/rules/norms requires a social order built on rigorous discipline, and (d) the requisite discipline is expected of everyone, regardless of social class. In the MMO Christianity is redefined to maximize compatibility with the then-emergent system of modern capitalism; it is a necessarily disenchanted world because in an enchanted world discipline can never yield predictable results: one is always dependent on the whims of beings who dwell largely outside the human order. "Seen from this perspective [of the established MMO], the real telos implicit in the earlier forward steps of humanity - the Axial period, the end of paganism and polytheism, the Reformation - was the bringing of disenchantment, the end of a cosmos of spirits respondent to humans, and the coming of the impersonal order defined by the moral code." We are of course still living with the consequences of these accommodations. 

Taylor explores the long process by which the MMO is consolidated, and by which that consolidation inevitably generates protests and alternatives; the MMO could not but be felt by many as what Weber famously called an “iron cage of rationality.” The various possible routes to re-enchantment are therefore an essential part of Taylor’s story. 

One of the best meditations on this complex state of affairs — in which people are, in Taylor’s apt phrase, “cross-pressured” by the benefits of a disenchanted world of buffered selves and the longings that afflict us when the portals of selfhood are firmly closed — is Susanna Clarke’s brilliant novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and especially the character of Norrell. I want to home in here on a single word that Norrell uses at a key point in the story — a very fateful word. 

The word comes when Mr Norrell, against his better judgment, has decided to try to raise one Miss Wintertowne from the dead, and summons the figure we come to know as “the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.” When Norrell calls out to the gentleman to ask his help, he addresses him in Latin, thus: “O Lar!” Which of course recalls the Roman Lares, and encourages us to ask the question: Are fairies gods? 

Romans would certainly think so, wouldn’t they? So insofar as fantasy is related to fairy tale, and fairy tale to fairies, then fantasy is a genre devoted to exploring a world that, as Thales of Miletus said, is full of gods. 

That the man usually known as the first natural philosopher, this Thales fellow, is also known for saying that “the world is full of gods” is a bit ironic in that so much philosophy (natural and speculative) ever since has been resistant to that move and has striven to disenchant. As do Jewish and Christian theology, for their own reasons. (I’ve mentioned before the oft-noted point that the opening of Genesis 1, which demotes the sun, moon, and stars to created things, is a powerfully disenchanting move.) One way to read all this is to say that our intellectual elites are always pushing us towards disenchantment and we always find stories that allow us to push back and restore, even if only temporarily and partially, our (natural? innate?) preference for a world of many gods. 

The disenchanted world of the MMO, a world purged of gods, is the one into which Mr Norrell hopes to restore magic, and he is almost wholly a creature of the MMO. He is a close cousin of those Manchester magicians who wished to promote “Rational Thaumaturgy”: he condemns the author of a book on The Language of Birds by crying out, “He is mystical, sir! He is mystical!” Norrell is wounded to the depths of his soul when Sir Walter Pole tells him that magic is “not respectable,” because there is nothing he wants more than for magic to be seen as respectable, as a good citizen within the disciplinary society. This is why he always speaks of the restoration of “English magic”: magic for him supports, it never threatens, the established order — including both the MMO and the order of the nation-state. 

He especially admires a book of theoretical magic that lays out thousands of possible magical acts in orderly tables — a thaumaturgical spreadsheet — and though he does not mention it, a footnote tells us that that book excludes as inappropriate (indeed, not at all respectable) magic that requires the employment of fairies. When Norrell expresses his hatred of John Uskglass, the Raven King, the chief items in his bill of accusation are that Uskglass (a) exaggerated the importance to magic of fairies and (b) rebelled against the rightful King of England. 

And yet, when in desperate straits and rightly fearful that his campaign to restore English magic has failed, here he is: O Lar! (So strongly does this run against his convictions that later, when he first meets Jonathan Strange, he denounces the Raven King’s use of fairies and asks “What have I ever achieved that required the use of fairies?” And I don’t think he’s lying; he has simply repressed the discomfiting facts. Which he perhaps needs to do because the consequences of his employment of the gentleman with the thistle-down hair are rippling out further and further.) 

But surely the cause of Rational Thaumaturgy was always impossible. Norrell’s first public work of magic — and what a tour de force this scene is — was to give voice and movement to the statues in York Minster, and when they speak, they speak of all that they have seen over the centuries but that their stony form has disabled them from naming. And the things that they have seen are real — they cry out against murders that actually happened. Perhaps Clarke is just engaging in a marvelous fictional game here, but it’s interesting in that it suggests a version of panpsychism: even the stones have souls and minds, at least, once they are carved into human shape. (See also, later in the book, the figurehead on a French warship who hates the English and is only charmed into co-operation when addressed by a handsome English sailor she takes a fancy to.) Insofar as the magic that Norrell does awakens something that was already in those statues, it is a kind of natural magic. In doing magic at all he is always-already “mystical,” like the author he denounces. And of course that means that he is operating within the world of the Raven King, whose magic is thoroughly natural: his prophecy, the one given to Vinculus, says “The rain made a door for me and I went through it; The stones made a throne for me and I sat upon it.” His use of fairies is only an extension of that natural magic because, as Tolkien notes in his great essay on fairy stories, they are natural, “more natural than we.” (This is surely why, as we are told in the book’s footnotes, that fairies are “beyond the reach of the Church.... no Christ has come to them, or ever will.”) So Norrell is eventually forced, at least in private and to his frenemy Jonathan Strange, to admit that what Strange has publicly declared is indeed true: “It is John Uskglass’s magic that we do. Of course it is. What else should it be?" 

So: enchantment, magic, and fantasy all require an animist world, perhaps even a panpsychic world. They assert its power over against all “disciplinary” efforts at disenchantment and the buffering of selves. This is an argument on behalf of that which is “natural” and, simultaneously and necessarily, on behalf of a world that is “full of gods.”


  • The question or issue of enchantment, disenchantment, and reenchantment is fascinating and interdisciplinary. Your frame of reference is literature, but I’ve read analyses aligned with history, philosophy, psychology, and journalism. The earliest and perhaps most important for me is Julian Jaynes' book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which hypothesizes that modern consciousness coalesced some 5 millennia ago -- around the same time Western civilization began to mature -- with the subtle recognition that the voices in our heads were not the voices of the gods instructing us but rather our own inner, individual voices narrating and organizing the world around us. Thus, polytheism collapsed into monotheism and eventually secularism or disenchantment. Took thousands of years to get us to now, and the process is ongoing. Reenchantment is a wholly different (reverse?) process and won’t be accomplished until modernity is swept away, and likely the human species with it.

  • But what of so-called Spinoza problem: if either YHVH (or the fairies) are everywhere and in everything, then are they not nowhere in nothing?

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