Modern Westerners have a clear boundary between mind and world, even mind and body. Moral and other meanings are “in the mind.” They cannot reside outside, and thus the boundary is firm. But formerly it was not so. Let us take a well-known example of influence inhering in an inanimate substance, as this was understood in earlier times. Consider melancholy: black bile was not the cause of melancholy, it embodied, it was melancholy. The emotional life was porous here; it didn’t simply exist in an inner, mental space. Our vulnerability to the evil, the inwardly destructive, extended to more than just spirits that are malevolent. It went beyond them to things that have no wills, but are nevertheless redolent with the evil meanings.
See the contrast. A modern is feeling depressed, melancholy. He is told: it’s just your body chemistry, you’re hungry, or there is a hormone malfunction, or whatever. Straightway, he feels relieved. He can take a distance from this feeling, which is ipso facto declared not justified. Things don’t really have this meaning; it just feels this way, which is the result of a causal action utterly unrelated to the meanings of things. This step of disengagement depends on our modern mind/body distinction, and the relegation of the physical to being “just” a contingent cause of the psychic.
But a pre-modern may not be helped by learning that his mood comes from black bile, because this doesn’t permit a distancing. Black bile is melancholy. Now he just knows that he’s in the grips of the real thing.
Here is the contrast between the modern, bounded, buffered self and the porous self of the earlier enchanted world. As a bounded self I can see the boundary as a buffer, such that the things beyond don’t need to “get to me,” to use the contemporary expression. That’s the sense to my use of the term “buffered” here and in A Secular Age. This self can see itself as invulnerable, as master of the meanings of things for it.
These two descriptions get at, respectively, the two important facets of this contrast. First, the porous self is vulnerable: to spirits, demons, cosmic forces. And along with this go certain fears that can grip it in certain circumstances. The buffered self has been taken out of the world of this kind of fear. For instance, the kind of thing vividly portrayed in some of the paintings of Bosch.
True, something analogous can take its place. These images can also be seen as coded manifestations of inner depths, repressed thoughts and feelings. But the point is that in this quite transformed understanding of self and world, we define these as inner, and naturally, we deal with them very differently. And indeed, an important part of the treatment is designed to make disengagement possible.
Perhaps the clearest sign of the transformation in our world is that today many people look back to the world of the porous self with nostalgia, as though the creation of a thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos were now lived as a loss. The aim is to try to recover some measure of this lost feeling. So people go to movies about the uncanny in order to experience a frisson. Our peasant ancestors would have thought us insane. You can’t get a frisson from what is really in fact terrifying you.
The second facet is that the buffered self can form the ambition of disengaging from whatever is beyond the boundary, and of giving its own autonomous order to its life. The absence of fear can be not just enjoyed, but becomes an opportunity for self-control or self-direction.
And so the boundary between agents and forces is fuzzy in the enchanted world; and the boundary between mind and world is porous, as we see in the way that charged objects can influence us. I have just been referring to the moral influence of substances, like black bile. But a similar point can be made about the relation to spirits. The porousness of the boundary emerges here in various kinds of “possession”—all the way from a full taking over of the person, as with a medium, to various kinds of domination by or partial fusion with a spirit or God. Here again, the boundary between self and other is fuzzy, porous. And this has to be seen as a fact of experience, not a matter of “theory” or “belief.” This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008 at 9:09 am and is filed under A Secular Age.