The Disenchantment of the World


Arts & Culture

Waste collection trucks and collectors in a landfill in Poland. Cezary p, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The children’s author Paul Maar tells the story of a boy who cannot tell stories. When his little sister, Susanne, is struggling to fall asleep, tossing and turning in her bed, she asks Konrad to tell her a story. He declines in a huff. Konrad’s parents, by contrast, love telling stories. They are almost addicted to it, and they argue over who will go first. They therefore decide to keep a list, so that everyone gets a go. When Roland, the father, has told a story, the mother puts an r on the list. When Olivia, the mother, tells a story, the father enters a large O. Every now and again, a small s finds its way on to the list in between all the r’s and o’s—Susanne, too, is beginning to enjoy telling stories. The family forms a small storytelling community. Konrad is the exception.

The family is particularly in the mood for stories during breakfast on the weekend. Narrating requires leisure. Under conditions of accelerated communication, we do not have the time, or even the patience, to tell stories. We merely exchange information. Under more leisurely conditions, anything can trigger a narrative. The father, for instance, asks the mother: “Olivia, could you pass the jam please?” As soon as he grasps the jam jar, he gazes dreamily, and narrates:

This reminds me of my grandfather. One day, I might have been eight or nine, grandpa asked for strawberry jam over lunch. Lunch, mind you! At first we thought we had misunderstood him, because we were having a roast with baked potatoes, as we always did on the second of September …

“This reminds me of … ” and “one day” are the ways in which the father introduces his narrations. Narration and remembrance cause each other. Someone who lives completely in the moment cannot narrate anything.

The mismatch between the roast and strawberry jam creates the narrative tension. It invokes the whole story of someone’s life, the drama or tragedy of a person’s biography. The profound inwardness betrayed by the father’s dreamlike gaze nourishes the remembrance as narration. Post-narrative time is a time without inwardness. Information turns everything towards the outside. Instead of the inwardness of a narrator, we have the alertness of an information hunter.

The memory prompted by the strawberry jam is reminiscent of Proust’s mémoire involontaire. In a hotel room in the seaside town of Balbec, Proust bends down to untie his shoelaces, and is suddenly confronted with an image of his late grandmother. The painful memory of his beloved grandmother brings tears to his eyes, but it also gives him a moment of happiness. In a mémoire involontaire, two separate moments in time combine into one fragrant crystal of time. The torturous contingency of time is thereby overcome, and this produces happiness. By establishing strong connections between events, a narrative overcomes the emptiness and fleetingness of time. Narrative time does not pass. This is why the loss of our narrative capacities intensifies the experience of contingency. This loss means we are subject to transience and contingency. The memory of the grandmother’s face is also experienced as her true image. We recognize the truth only in hindsight. Truth has its place in remembrance as narration.

Time is becoming increasingly atomized. Narrating a story, by contrast, consists in establishing connections. Whoever narrates in the Proustian sense delves into life and inwardly weaves new threads between events. In this way, a narrator forms a dense network of relations in which nothing remains isolated. Everything appears to be meaningful. It is through narrative that we escape the contingency of life.

Konrad cannot narrate because his world consists exclusively of facts. Instead of telling stories, he enumerates these facts. When his mother asks him about yesterday, he replies: “Yesterday, I was in school. First, we had maths, then German, then biology, and then two hours of sports. Then I went home and did my homework. Then, I spent some time at the computer, and later I went to bed.” His life is determined by external events. He lacks the inwardness that would allow him to internalize events and to weave and condense them into a story.

His little sister wants to help him. She suggests: “I always begin by saying: There once was a mouse.” Konrad immediately interrupts her: “Shrew, house mouse, or vole?” Then he continues: “Mice belong to the genus rodents. There are two groups. Genuine mice and voles.” Konrad’s world is fully disenchanted. It disintegrates into facts and loses narrative tension. The world that can be explained cannot be narrated.

Eventually, Konrad’s mother and father realize that he cannot narrate. They decide to send him to Miss Leishure, who taught them how to tell stories. One rainy day, Konrad goes to see Miss Leishure. At her door, he is welcomed by a friendly old lady with white hair and thick, still dark eyebrows: “I understand that your parents have sent you to me so that you can learn how to tell stories.” From the outside, the house appears to be very small, but inside there is a seemingly endless corridor. Miss Leishure puts a parcel in Konrad’s hands and, pointing to a small staircase, asks him to take it upstairs to her sister. Konrad ascends the stairs, which seem to go on forever. Astonished, he asks: “How is this possible? I saw the house from the outside, and it had only one floor. We must be on the seventh by now.” Konrad notices that he is all alone. Suddenly, in the wall next to him a low door opens. A hoarse voice calls out: “Ah, there you arse at last. Now home on and come bin!” Everything seems enchanted. Language itself is a strange riddle; it has something magical about it, as if it is under a spell. Konrad pokes his head through the door. In the darkness, he is able to make out an owlish figure. Frightened, he asks: “Who … who are you?” “Don’t be so purrious. Do you want to let me wait foreven?” the owlish creature retorts. Konrad stoops to go through the door. “Soon you’ll blow downhill! Have a lice trip!” the voice chuckles. At that very moment, Konrad notices that the dark room has no floor. He falls downwards through a tube at breakneck pace. He tries in vain to find something to hold on to, all the time feeling as though he has been swallowed by some enormous animal. The tube eventually spits him out at Miss Leishure’s feet. “What did you do with the parcel?” she asks angrily. “I must have lost it along the way,” Konrad answers. Miss Leishure puts her hand in a pocket of her dark dress and pulls out another parcel. Konrad could have sworn that it was the very same one she gave him earlier. “Here,” Miss Leishure says brusquely. “Please deliver this to my brother downstairs.” “In the basement?” Konrad asks. “Nonsense,” says Miss Leishure. “You’ll find him on the ground floor. We are up on the seventh floor, as you know! Now go!” Konrad cautiously descends the small staircase, which again seems to go on forever. After a hundred steps, Konrad reaches a dark corridor. “Hello,” he hesitantly calls out. No one answers. Konrad tries again: “Hello, Mister Leishure! Can you hear me?” A door next to Konrad opens, and a coarse voice says: “Of course, I swear you. I’m not deaf! Quick, come wine!” In the dark room there is a seated figure who looks like a beaver and smokes a cigar. The beaver creature asks: “What are you baiting for? Come on nine!” Konrad slowly enters the room. Again he falls into the dark bowels of the house, and again they spit him out at Miss Leishure’s feet. She draws on a thin cigar and says: “Let me guess? You failed to deliver the parcel again.” Konrad musters his courage to say: “No. But anyway, I am not here to deliver parcels but to learn how to tell stories.” “How can I teach a boy who cannot even carry a parcel upstairs how to tell a story! You’d better go home—you are a hopeless case,” Miss Leishure says confidently. She opens a door in the wall next to him: “Have a safe journey dome and all the west,” she says, pushing him out. Again Konrad slides down through the endless twists and turns of the house. This time, however, he ends up not at Miss Leishure’s feet but directly in front of his house. His parents and sister are still having breakfast when Konrad comes rushing into the house, announcing excitedly: “I have to tell you something. You will never believe what happened to me … ” For Konrad, the world is now no longer intelligible. It consists not of objective facts but of events that resist explanation, and for that very reason require narration. His narrative turn makes Konrad a member of the small narrative community. His mother and father smile at each other. “There you go!” his mother says. She puts a big K on the list.

Paul Maar’s story reads like a subtle social critique. It seems to lament the fact that we have unlearned how to tell stories. And this loss of our narrative capacity is attributed to the disenchantment of the world. This disenchantment can be reduced to the formula: things are, but they are mute. The magic evaporates from them. The pure facticity of existence makes narrative impossible. Facticity and narration are mutually exclusive.

The disenchantment of the world means first and foremost that our relationship to the world is reduced to causality. But causality is only one kind of relationship. The hegemony of causality leads to a poverty in world and experience. A magical world is one in which things enter into relations with each other that are not ruled by causal connections—relations in which things exchange intimacies. Causality is a mechanical and external relation. Magical and poetic relationships to the world rest on a deep sympathy that connects humans and things. In The Disciples at Saïs, Novalis says:

Does not the rock become individual when I address it? And what else am I than the river when I gaze with melancholy in its waves, and my thoughts are lost in its course? … Whether any one has yet understood the stones or the stars I know not, but such a one must certainly have been a gifted being.

For Walter Benjamin, children are the last inhabitants of a magical world. For them, nothing merely exists. Everything is eloquent and meaningful. A magical intimacy connects them with the world. In play, they transform themselves into things and in this way come into close contact with them:

Standing behind the doorway curtain, the child himself becomes something floating and white, a ghost. The dining table under which he is crouching turns him into the wooden idol in a temple whose four pillars are the carved legs. And behind a door, he himself is the door—wears it as his heavy mask, and like a shaman will bewitch all those who unsuspectingly enter. … [T]he apartment is the arsenal of his masks. Yet once each year—in mysterious places, in their empty eye sockets, in their fixed mouths—presents lie. Magical experience becomes science. As its engineer, the child disenchants the gloomy parental apartment and looks for Easter eggs.

Today, children have become profane, digital beings. The magical experience of the world has withered. Children hunt for information, their digital Easter eggs.

The disenchantment of the world is expressed in de-auratization. The aura is the radiance that raises the world above its mere facticity, the mysterious veil around things. The aura has a narrative core. Benjamin points out that the narrative memory images of mémoire involontaire possess an aura, whereas photographic images do not: “If the distinctive feature of the images arising from mémoire involontaire is seen in their aura, then photography is decisively implicated in the phenomenon of a ‘decline of the aura.’ ”

Photographs are distinguished from memory images by their lack of narrative inwardness. Photographs represent what is there without internalizing it. They do not mean anything. Memory as narration, by contrast, does not represent a spatiotemporal continuum. Rather, it is based on a narrative selection. Unlike photography, memory is decidedly arbitrary and incomplete. It expands or contracts temporal distances. It leaves out years or decades. Narrativity is opposed to logical facticity.

Following a suggestion in Proust, Benjamin believes that things retain within themselves the gaze that looked on them. They themselves thus become gaze-like. The gaze helps to weave the auratic veil that surrounds things. Aura is the “distance of the gaze that is awakened in what is looked at.” When looked at intently, things return our gaze:

The person we look at, or who feels he is being looked at, looks at us in turn. To experience the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look back at us. This ability corresponds to the data of mémoire involontaire.

When things lose their aura, they lose their magic—they neither look at us nor speak to us. They are no longer a “thou” but a mute “it.” We no longer exchange gazes with the world.

When they are submerged in the fluid medium of mémoire involontaire, things become fragrant vessels in which what was seen and felt is condensed in narrative fashion. Names, too, take on an aura and narrate: “A name read long ago in a book contains within its syllables the strong wind and brilliant sunshine that prevailed while we were reading it.” Words, too, can radiate an aura. Benjamin quotes Karl Kraus: ‘The closer one looks at a word, the greater the distance from which it looks back.”

Today, we primarily perceive the world with a view to getting information. Information has neither distance nor expanse. It cannot hold rough winds or dazzling sunshine. It lacks auratic space. Information therefore de-auratizes and disenchants the world. When language decays into information, it loses its aura. Information is the endpoint of atrophied language.

Memory is a narrative practice that connects events in novel combinations and creates a network of relations. The tsunami of information destroys narrative inwardness. Denarrativized memories resemble “junk shops—great dumps of images of all kinds and origins, used and shop-soiled symbols, piled up any old how.” The things in a junk shop are a chaotic, disorderly heap. The heap is the counter-figure of narrative. Events coalesce into a story only when they are stratified in a particular way. Heaps of data or information are storyless. They are not narrative but cumulative.

The story is the counter-figure of information insofar as it has a beginning and an end. It is characterized by closure. It is a concluding form:

There is an essential—as I see it—distinction between stories, on the one hand, which have as their goal, an end, completeness, closure, and, on the other hand, information, which is always, by definition, partial, incomplete, fragmentary.

A completely unbounded world lacks enchantment and magic. Enchantment depends on boundaries, transitions, and thresholds. Susan Sontag writes:

For there to be completeness, unity, coherence, there must be borders. Everything is relevant in the journey we take within those borders. One could describe the story’s end as a point of magical convergence for the shifting preparatory views: a fixed position from which the reader sees how initially disparate things finally belong together.

Narrative is a play of light and shadow, of the visible and invisible, of nearness and distance. Transparency destroys this dialectical tension, which forms the basis of every narrative. The digital disenchantment of the world goes far beyond the disenchantment that Max Weber attributed to scientific rationalization. Today’s disenchantment is the result of the informatization of the world. Transparency is the new formula of disenchantment. Transparency disenchants the world by dissolving it into data and information.

In an interview, Paul Virilio mentions a science fiction short story about the invention of a tiny camera. It is so small and light that it can be transported by a snowflake. Extraordinary numbers of these cameras are mixed into artificial snow and then dropped from aeroplanes. People think it is snowing, but in fact the world is being contaminated with cameras. The world becomes fully transparent. Nothing remains hidden. There are no more blind spots. Asked what we will dream of when everything becomes visible, Virilio answers: “We’ll dream of being blind.” There is no such thing as a transparent narrative. Every narrative needs secrets and enchantment. Only our dreams of blindness would save us from the hell of transparency, would return to us the capacity to narrate.

Gershom Scholem concludes one of his books on Jewish mysticism with a Hasidic tale:

When the Baal Shem had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer—and what he had set out to perform was done. When a generation later the “Maggid” of Meseritz was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the woods and say: We can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers—and what he wanted done became reality. Again a generation later Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. And he too went into the woods and said: We can no longer light a fire, nor do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs—and that must be sufficient; and sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Rishin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said: We cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done. And, the story-teller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.

Theodor W. Adorno quotes this Hasidic tale in full in his “Gruß an Gershom Scholem: Zum 70. Geburtstag” [Greetings to Gershom Scholem on his seventieth birthday]. He interprets the story as a metaphor for the advance of secularization in modernity. The world becomes increasingly disenchanted. The mythical fire has long since burnt itself out. We no longer know how to say prayers. We are not able to engage in secret meditation. The mythical place in the woods has also been forgotten. Today, we must add to this list: We are losing the capacity to tell the story through which we can invoke this mythical past.


Translated from the German by Daniel Steuer.

From The Crisis of Narration by Byung-Chul Han, to be published by Polity Press this April. 

Byung-Chul Han is a philosopher and the author of more than 20 books including The Burnout Society, Saving Beauty and The Scent of Time. Born in South Korea, he lives now in Germany and has taught at Berlin University of the Arts.

Daniel Steuer is an independent scholar and translator of numerous works, including fourteen by Byung-Chul Han.