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Skoliogeography: The Pursuit of Wonder in a Disenchanted World
My book Drifts is now out in the world. It is about many things, like growing up in Saudi Arabia, the transculturality of the Arabian Gulf, finding out at 37 that I am autistic, autism poetics, and the myths gleaned from the landscape I call home. It is also about skoliogeography.
I created skoliogeography to be a form of psychogeography (the study of the intersection of place + psyche) that gives preeminence to autistic modes of perception and expression. As I write in Drifts, skoliogeography will be different for everyone. For me it has been about wonder.
Wonder comes from the Old English ‘wundor,’ which means “marvelous thing, object of astonishment.” If you’ve read Drifts you’ll know that I spend much of the book finding the street around me full of objects and beings worthy of astonishment, in a rapt state of wonder as I wander. There are the softly-treading alley cats, neon lights spangling the shadowed pavement, tales of sharp-hooved djinn dredging melodies from the waves, and mountains that lift their basalt heels to stride across the face of the earth.
One early reader of Drifts described it as having “an extraordinary implicit animism.” I was flummoxed by this comment, especially when the sentiment was echoed by other readers. What I had seen in my writing as an accurate representation of reality, many continually found strange. I later learned that autistic people often retain a sense of animism throughout their life, while it generally fades after childhood for non-autistic people. And I think it is this sense, of existence being permeated by consciousness – of enchantment – that is the heart of my experience with skoliogeography.
Like many of us, I grew up submerged in the dominant Western worldview that insists upon a rational, secular, materialist understanding of life. This is a perspective of “what you see is what you get.” There is nothing beyond the material makeup of the world, no underlying spiritual reality to discover, no objective moral order to align oneself with, no inherent meaning to pursue. In this apprehension of reality, all meaning is generated by humans and we become the center around which the pointless cosmos circles.
Raised in this worldview, I was taught to regard faith, enchantment, and transcendence as archaic folly and to look down upon it with the utmost disdain. I didn’t even think of this perspective as ideological, actually, I just believed it was “fact”. It was modern, after all, and the hubris of modernity teaches that the consensus of today must, by virtue of its contemporaneity, be more correct that whatever came before.
But even during the days of my young adulthood when I tried my best to be an atheist, I was never able to shake the recognition of what seemed to be a self-evident fact: the thrumming radiance that suffused the all. The deepest truths I felt I knew were enchantment. Found in my favorite genres of books, fantasy and science fiction, yes, but also in everyday life.
This conflict between my intuitive understanding of the world and the insistence by which I tried to abide by the modern perspective I had been taught, reminds me of an observation made by CS Lewis. Reflecting on his own years of strident atheism before his conversion to Christianity, he wrote:
The two hemispheres of my mind were in the sharpest contrast. On the one side, a many-islanded sea of poetry and myth; on the other a glib and shallow rationalism. Nearly all that I loved I thought to be imaginary; nearly all that I believed to be real I thought grim and meaningless.
Our modern mentality, dominated by dogmatic secular materialism, is a historical aberration. To consider Europe, for example, the average person of just a couple of centuries ago would have understood the world as being saturated with higher order meaning. This was an iconographic worldview in which the cosmos was likened to a poem or a song that could be studied in order to reveal theological and philosophical insights. This worldview was connected to an understanding of the heightened vision of reality that comes through sustained prayer, where everything can be revealed as sharing an intimate depth enlivened by an unceasing flow of consciousness. This worldview was not without its drawbacks, but it was, above all else, a perspective that recognized a world of meaning. It was a world that by merely existing called up specific moral and emotional experiences in people, a world where God was conceived of with a “shocking wildness.”In this understanding, God was not a remote, vague life-force, but realer than real, substantial, weighty, “brim-full of existence.”
This manifestation of the sacred woven into the everyday was long a fundamental part of European life. Science, in fact, was originally understood to be a tool added to humanity’s numerous ways of gathering knowledge as a means to better intuit the divine. To the premodern mind, science could more fully reveal that:
…the natural world, like so many stained-glass windows, was, as it were, transparent to a light from beyond this world. What are for us merely natural processes seemed to our ancestors phenomena that pointed beyond themselves. The whole world felt like a cosmic cathedral.
This perception informed not only the way that people interacted with the world around them and the beings within it, but with their inner felt experience of what it meant to be a human being.
A confluence of circumstances slowly eroded this worldview – including the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution. The results of these circumstances mean that today we live with their innumerable benefits, but we likewise live with their unintended negative consequences. In Europe, there was a gradual but profound shift in worldview: the world was no longer perceived to be a vast poem thrumming with divine intent, it was now perceived as a meaningless machine. It is difficult to overstate how jarringly novel this desacralized worldview is. It ranks among the most profound changes in human history. Lewis described it as “The Great Divide” and observed that the mechanization of the world picture was the single most defining characteristic that separates those of us living today from the people living in any other historical period. Such a massive change to our understanding of the world had a slew of knock-on effects, including alterations to our psychology, our language, our religion, our ethics, and even our self-perception.
The Scientific Revolution inaugurated what CS Lewis described as a period of “new learning and new ignorance,” as science ossified into scientism. Under this new dogma, if science could not explain something, then whatever it was didn’t matter. Maybe it didn’t even exist. Summing up how the emergence of this worldview left its adherents with seemingly more knowledge but less meaning, GK Chesteron wrote:
He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cogwheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.
Transcendent spiritual experiences were increasingly seen as irrational superstitions to be eradicated. Mysticism - the personal pursuit of ecstatic communion between an individual and God - long at the heart of Christianity, was displaced by desiccated dogma and rote obedience. The wild God of the medieval era, that permeated the living world and human life itself, was slowly forgotten.
This movement from the iconic cosmos of the European medieval thinker, to the mechanized worldview of modernity, had a knock-on effect. By banishing the sacred from the world we alienated ourselves from it in a way that would have been baffling to premodern people. And, in denying the sacred in the world, we inevitably denied the sacred in ourselves. We are now taught that we humans are merely random assemblages of molecules and electrical impulses, meat suits dancing to the whims of evolutionary imperatives. As Chesterton suggested when writing about the “thought-destroying forces of our time,”religion is the guardian of rational thought. With no objective truth or morality to align ourselves with, we begin to believe that all such things are simply made up by human beings. The result of this line of thinking is, ultimately, the denigration of rational thought itself. Thus the world of transcendent values is flattened into a undifferentiated morass of subjectivity and nihilism.
For the West, by the twentieth century, this long process of excarnation reached what felt like a zenith. The absence of wonder, of the divine, of even the possibility of transcendence, has been called “the cosmic chill,” a “spiritual winter,” and "a societal dark night of the soul." This “everyday atheism” is now so embedded in Western society that for the first time in human history, it is possible to go all your life “not just without encountering God but without even knowing you were supposed to.”
Life today for many is fast and it is shallow and we skim along its surface, our experience of reality mediated by screens. As Jacques Ellul suggested, modern man, caught up in the furor of mass media’s “fugitive shadows,” now lives at the periphery of his being.On a societal level it seems many are haunted by an ambient sense of inexplicable loss. I hear constantly about “the meaning crisis,” the record-high rates of depression, anxiety, addiction, and even suicide, the despair that is consuming the lives of the youngest members of our societies and the loneliness and abandonment felt by the eldest.
Too many of us had our wonder kicked into the dirt before it had a chance to take hold, told that happiness could only be achieved by rearranging the ways of the world, never by pursuing a spiritual path. For me, I got this messaging as a child couched in thinking that I was told was rational, objective, and upheld by cutting edge physics. I was told that science “proved” that all was illusion – even me. And if people couldn’t face facts that they were nothing, their lives were nothing, and that all would amount to nothing, then they should be scorned for their weakness. What I experienced was an extreme manifestation of the modern secular mindset, but it arose from the intellectual bedrock that informs the age, a kind of insidious poison that destroys everything it touches.
Humans need meaning. We need deep stories to make sense of ourselves and the world and why, ultimately, it matters. Why we matter. But often, when people do admit to a longing for an enchanted world, or reveal an intuition that it could still be thus, it is deemed problematic, reactionary, regressive. But, to be clear, this is not an argument that is intrinsically anti-progress or a dismissal of the abundant benefits of modernity. The gains in knowledge, liberty, and technology are very real and they are, in many instances, quite literally life-saving. They should not be taken for granted. But there is no reason we cannot simultaneously consider what ways of knowing - true, beautiful, and good - previously existed that might have been inadvertently lost along the way.
Advocates for a richer, more balanced, more humane worldview, a worldview saturated with meaning and transcendence, have never fully disappeared. They have always been there, even when their voices were relegated to the margins. However, in recent decades and more insistently in recent years, these voices have grown ever more clamorous and they seem to be working their way out of the margins toward the center. Wherever I turn I hear people saying that something strange is afoot, that flower-filled poems are blooming from the asphalt, that the mossy face of Christ is emerging from forest shadow. Could it be that we are approaching the end of an era - an end that presages a new beginning? I have more to say on this cyclical unfolding and why perhaps it was necessary for us to pass through a disenchanted world for a time, but I will save that for a future essay.
For now, I will return to skoliogeography.
This weird walking of mine, this psychogeography that gives preeminence to autistic modes of perception and expression, is my way of punching pinholes in this stultifying worldview, a way to remind myself that it was never anything more than a meager scrim atop a far more glorious reality. As I write in Drifts:
Skoliogeography is not just seeking the marvelous in the mundane, but expecting it.
For me, skoliogeography was always about transcendence. Moving through the world keenly attuned to the manifold ways the sublime can permeate my everyday experience is a practice in remaining receptive to wonder. It is a way of communing with the ineffable force that has dogged my heels throughout my life, this glimmer always at the corner of my eye, this beguiling tug at the edges of my thoughts. For me, skoliogeography is a reclamation of a truth I think, deep down, that I never fully forgot - that the world is overflowing with radiance.
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C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 1955
Jason Baxter, An Introduction to Christian Mysticism: Recovering the Wildness of Spiritual Life, 2021
Jason Baxter, The Medieval Mind of CS Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind, 2022
GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 1908
Baxter, Mysticism, 2021.
Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom, 1951