Disenchanting Fantasy and Fruitful Disillusionment

I don’t read fantasy anymore. I used to spend hours on end sitting in my bed with my nose buried in fantasy books. I loved the magical world penned into existence by J.K. Rowling, mythical creatures from Brandon Mull, mystic adventures of Obert Skye’s books, and the epic stories from J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. Most of all my free time in elementary school was filled with nothing but reading.

But at some point, I stopped.

It wasn’t that the stories became any less gripping or the colors of the mythical worlds any duller. But somehow the magic seemed less magical and opening a book felt more like reading a distant story than personally embarking on an imaginative adventure. The problem wasn’t with the fantasy books themselves; the problem was with me. I had become, in a word, disillusioned.

My disillusionment wasn’t with the fantasy itself alone, rather with the world around me, and the discrepancy I saw between my magical escapades in the world of fantasy and the monotony of regular daily life. I became so engrossed in the enchanting world of fantasy that I felt disappointed with the real world in which I found myself when I closed the book. I didn’t like how I began seeing the real world outside the covers of my books, so I stopped reading fantasy.
Having risen in popularity in the last century, disillusioned is a word one hears frequently in our modern society.

Disillusionment occurs when one holds an idealistic belief or expectation of something and experiences disappointment when they discover that it is not as good as they believed it to be. Everyone occasionally has experiences that leave them disillusioned. We experience disillusionment when the politicians we elected fail to deliver. Students may experience it when they move into new stages of adulthood or into their careers. Some struggle with disillusionment in their religious experiences. I know a good number of young adults who have become disillusioned with dating or the changing nature of friendships. Perhaps you have felt the disillusionment of that bowl of mac-n-cheese not hitting the spot quite the way it used to when you were ten years old. If you take some time to think about it, you can likely come up with at least one thing that caused you to feel disillusioned in the recent past.

The problem with the reality of our world is that it is limited—finite. Yet, the imaginations of the mind are boundless, just like our expectations sometimes can be. Part of us yearns for absolute ideals that seem to elude us in the physical world. The physicist Alan Lightman observed that as humans, “we long to be part of the infinite.” [1] He further noted, “Our yearning for absolutes and, at the same time, our commitment to the physical world reflect a necessary tension in how we relate to the cosmos and relate to ourselves.” [1] Our minds, expectations, and imaginations can be infinite, but our physical beings are bound to the finite.

The works of German Romanticism reflected this yearning to escape from the monotony of daily life and capture the infinite and absolute. Fichte wrote about this yearning in the Grundlage der gesamten Wissenschaftlehre (1794) as “the impulse toward something entirely unknown which reveals itself only in a sense of need, or in a feeling of dissatisfaction or emptiness which, though craving to be satisfied, does not indicate how it possibly might obtain satisfaction.” [2] Early Romanticism attempted to close the gap between the finite and the infinite and bring them into perfect balance and harmony. For example, some believed poetry allowed access to the infinite, perhaps because there was something mysterious and powerful about moving poetry and its effect on us that was not quite understood. After all, something enchanting and mysterious would be needed to bridge the gulf of an unknown impulse like Fichte described, right?

In later stages of early Romantic theory, Romanticists like Friedrich Schlegel recognized that even if something as enchanting as poetry could not bring the finite into complete harmony with the infinite, one could still enjoy life—the finite world—as long as infinity was reflected in it. [2] Schlegel proposed that beauty is the infinite finitely presented. [2] This “monistic blending of the infinite with the finite” could quiet the painful yearning for the unattainable ideal of the infinite. [2]

These early Romantic philosophies eventually gave way to Romantic irony, Realism, ironic self-awareness, and what is sometimes referred to as “poetry of poetry.” In light of the disillusioning dissonance between the idealized imagination and unremarkable finite existence, these movements could be seen as attempts to pull down and ground the infinite, rather than presumptuously exalt the finite to the infinite by pretending they are the same or that the infinite is found in the finite. Realism is committed to reject the imaginative idealized presentations of the Classical and Romantic eras and instead portray faithful and objective representations of reality in art and literature through depictions of common everyday life. In many ways, this endeavor reflects my forsaking of fantasy in an attempt to not lose touch and become disenchanted with the reality in which I am bound.

The enchantment of lyric German poetry during the Romantic age began to collapse into irony as its mysteries were exposed. Master poets started discovering and systematically reproducing the aspects of the poetry that resonated with their audiences. It began to evolve from an art into a science, and thereby lose some of its enchantment and magic; a carriage that seems to magically propel itself without horses is nothing but a system of mechanical and chemical processes in the eyes of a mechanic who understands the workings of an automobile engine. Disillusionment or disenchantment was introduced when poetry failed to match the prior beliefs of its magical and infinite qualities, and in response, new poets often responded with irony in their works.

What makes the infinite infinite is the unattainability and inexplicability of the mystical creations of imagination or even aspects of the physical world. The more we are able to explain, decipher, and elucidate something, the more attainable it becomes, and thus closer to the finite. This discovering and describing the unknown is essentially the ultimate goal of science. This way, science disenchants in the sense that it “free[s] from enchantment, deliver[s] from the power of charms or spells” (1580s, from French desenchanter [13c.]) by freeing man from supernatural and mystical explanations of complex phenomena in the physical world. [3]

Initially, this seems like an effective way to liberate us from the discomfort of disillusionment. By breaking down the unexplainable and unattainable infinite, the gap from the finite is diminished, and consequently, so also is the dissonance. The German sociologist Max Weber recognized the disenchantment or Entzauberung (also translated “demagification”) of the world resulting from the rise of empirical science. However, while this Entzauberung was not necessarily something to be regretted, Weber warned it did come with consequences. For though science can describe and explain, it cannot give meaning to the world or life like something like religion can. [4] With disenchantment comes a loss of meaning, because meaning is discovered in the gap between the finite and the infinite, between the reality and the ideal, or between incompleteness and the absolute.

The influential Russian writer Leo Tolstoy experienced a crisis of meaning so severe he battled with the desire to end his own life. He struggled with the inconsolability of the finite and the infinite. He wrote about his crisis in a short work called A Confession. In this work, after long contemplation and observation of others, Tolstoy comes to the conclusion that science cannot answer the question of meaning because it only presents the facts and relates the finite to the finite. It cannot relate a finite life to the infinite. There is inescapably a gap between the finite and infinite. In opposition to reason and the rational, Tolstoy finds meaning in the irrational—that is, faith. And along with that meaning in faith, he discovers hope out of his depression and a deeper love for the people around him.

Tolstoy’s triumph was found in his resistance of the urge many of us harbor to evade the sensation of disillusionment by closing the chasm between the finite and the infinite. He thus avoided the consequences that would come from the elimination of all that begets disillusionment. While the naivety of believing everything in the physical world matches the ideal of human imagination is a myopic notion and has the potential for greater disappointment delivered by future enlightenment, the most deleterious is the lowering of the infinite ideal and imaginations because of its capacity to diminish meaning and happiness. Sometimes we sacrifice our potential happiness in order to avoid the discomfort of disillusionment. Just consider the ironic lyrics of a recent song by the band AJR: “And I don’t wanna hurt no more/So I set my bar real low… And I don’t wanna cry no more/So I set my bar real low… Don’t you love it, don’t you love it?/No, I ain’t happy yet/But I’m way less sad.” [5]

We experience disillusionment when we feel the dissatisfaction of the disparity between an ideal, belief, or expectation we hold of something and its limited, finite reality. As I start to recognize its actual importance and utility, I find it a shame that disillusionment often carries a negative connotation. While it is possible for disillusionment to lead to stagnating cynicism and a rejection of what produces the disillusionment, when properly employed disillusionment can be fruitful and bring meaning to the world and life. The paradox is that imaginative human creation is the begetter of disillusionment but can also provide the answer to its crisis. It is disillusionment with the discrepancy between an ideal world and our current one that impels us to change it for the better. It is the disenchantment of the monotony of daily life that inspires storywriters to place finite characters in captivating scenes of mysticism and fantasy—consequently producing creative works that break that same monotony.

It is in attempting to express the disillusions of life that poets, musicians, and artists introduce a beauty with their pieces which otherwise would have never been breathed into existence. It is in contemplating the unattainable infinite that eternally inspires mankind and brings us to rely on faith, hope, and charity to craft meaning into our existence. Perhaps, rather than shunning the experience of disillusion, dismissing the infinite, or pretending to eliminate the gap between the infinite and finite, we should make an effort to embrace it. Rather than closing or eradicating the chasm, we can allow disillusionment to motivate us to start to fill it.

As for myself, I believe I will start reading fantasy books again.


This post was written by Jarom Hickenlooper, a Humanities Center undergraduate fellow.

[1] Lightman, Alan P. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. Vintage Books, 2019.
[2] Walzel, Oskar F. German Romanticism. Authorized Translation from the German by Alma Elise Lussky. Putnam, 1932.
[3] “Disenchant (v.).” Etymology, https://www.etymonline.com/word/disenchant.
[4] Royce, Edward Cary. Classical Social Theory and Modern Society: Marx, Durkheim, Weber. Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
[5] AJR. “Way Less Sad.” OK ORCHESTRA. AJR Productions, 2021. https://ajr.lnk.to/okorchestraID.

Title image: Caspar David Friedrich. Two Men Contemplating the Moon. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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1 Comment

  1. Rob McFarland says:

    Jarom: What a thoughtful contemplation of Romanticism and realism! I love the part about the mac and cheese…

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