All that needs to be said about this movie is that this is a piece of art for a children’s movie. It masterfully captures the wonderful imagination of children and how from the standpoint of innocent imagination the world is alive from soot to trees. It speaks to a universal experience of an enchanted nature safe for the free imagination, a world full of meaning where life is present in all things and manifests to us if only we are willing to see it and commune with it. The world is fundamentally a good place, playful in its recklessness, and nothing evil can overcome us if we trust and treat nature with reverent good will. That said, I’m going to now completely disregard the movie because there is not much to say about the plot nor the particular theme, but there is quite a bit to say about I take to be the central point of the film: the experience of the enchantment of nature.
It is an increasingly sad fact that the generations of children who could truly experience a world like the one of Totoro are soon coming to an end. I myself come from a world where this was still possible a mere 20 years ago, yet the generations that experience the enchantment of life and the trusting imagination of communion with nature are quickly disappearing in the modern geography of land and mind. It is not that the experience of enchantment as enchantment is impossible, for children never lack such power of imagination regardless of environment, but that the distance from nature in modernity has made an experience of enchanted nature more and more impossible. A child has no problem finding enchantment in everything, it is in the nature of their minds to do so, but it is only children who can experience enchantment anymore. In older days the world was enchanted not just for young children, but for adults as well. Totoro is a wonderful film which captures the universal experience of enchantment children have, but what of the enchantment which adults once used to have?
In olden times, though the trust in the spiritual rationality of nature and the world as a whole eroded with our age, the world was still a living world of spirits with whom we had to commune with in some manner, even if only to avoid them. The enchanted living world, the Great Spirit, or God in some way remained as a reality for people in those days despite the apprehension towards nature and material being. As we all grow, we realize that the forces of safety and goodness in the world are not so great as to overcome our increasing distrust and apprehension towards nature. No matter how benevolent the forest spirits may have been, they cannot be counted on to help us in every moment of need, we have found other things to replace the spirits and have no need for them. Nature is, alas, to be conquered via the cold intellect of humanity, and what was once given out of the benevolence of spirits is now to be taken by the force of science. Modernity, however, has stepped forth onto the stage of history and obliterated such a possibility from our collective psyche. The advent of catastrophes of nature like the Plague, the incessant famines which had no discernible pattern or reason, and above all the ascendance of instrumental rationality which seemed to finally grasp God’s designs put the sealing nails in the coffin of enchantment. Though the forests may still be right beside us, nature no longer touches us, for it is nothing but meaningless untamed biological machines waiting for humans to unravel their workings and lay mastery over them.
Modernity has come with its electric power, its entertainment machines, its metropolitan concrete aesthetic, and its disenchanted materialist doctrine. Nature increasingly recedes further and further away as more generations grow enveloped in the world of humans made by and for humans—a world of increasing alienation not just from nature, or even from fellow humans, but from ourselves as well.
Nature and the world as a whole have lost their enchantment, their meaning, their purpose, and their connection to us as a neighborhood that, though alien, gave us a sense of belonging and company—a sense that we were not alone nor hopelessly lost without order. Modernity came and swept the rug of humanity’s alienated dreams from under its feet. In the experience of our mastery over nature, through reason’s power to penetrate into the essence of things which once were the knowledge of only God, the Angels, and the visionary sages, we have realized that behind the appearing world before our eyes are not spirits of good or bad will, but only cold and blind abstract forces seen only by the mind of mechanical intellect. The language of the spirits is no ethereal poetry, song, or riddles, but vast quantities of repetitive calculations indifferent to the things they effect. To learn to commune with the world today is no longer an effort of human social being—there is no engaging with nature as if it required respect and a certain intent from us—but of heartless analysis carried on by evermore fine physical manipulations of powerful calculating machines overseen by few humans. As we use machines to come to power over nature, humanity and nature itself evermore resemble these machines in the common outlook. We study nature and make it due as we will by our sheer will; thus, we consider it nonsense to thank the earth or plants for their yield. One does not thank nature just as one does not thank a tool.
The world is utterly disenchanted, and yet humanity yearns for enchantment. We yearn for finding ourselves in this world with purpose and reason. We yearn to see ourselves as free, as not machines, as beyond mere material existence, as something real and not merely an illusion. Wherever this machine world and its machine people face us, we desperately attempt to turn from it as if it were a plague. Nature is a plague. Machines are a plague. Humanity is a plague. Our very bodies are a plague. Wherever we look, we only find ourselves feeling alienated and in disgust of what we find. We feel things should be otherwise, but we cannot conceive of how such is possible. Even our mind, which yearns for enchantment once more, is a plague. We are skeptical of even the possibility of knowledge, wondering if the very notion of truth is itself not an illusory aberration in the world. We are skeptical of such things as good and evil, or right and wrong. Some go so far as to even be skeptical of consciousness itself, considering it an illusion. We cannot believe in the spiritual in the world, nor in ourselves.
Where is humanity to find solace in a world which it has discovered as utterly alien to it, a world where its own being is alien to it? Nature is amoral, remorseless, loveless, with no great aim or place in a heart or mind to mourn our eventual passing from its body. The trees have no hidden community awaiting our contact. God is nowhere to offer guidance nor guarantee of a promised world where we are not doomed to our lonely emptiness. Humanity yearns for the enchanted world, for a living world, for a thinking world, for a world where what it faces is ultimately not different in kind—a world that no matter how strange and unpredictable could always be said to have a reason—even if that reason was in many ways capricious will and whim—for all its happenings and doings.
From modernity, there is no stepping back. Pandora’s box was opened, and the enlightenment entered the human social world to never be contained again. No world leaders earnestly believe in the old God any longer no matter what they profess or feel. No great businessman sees the world as anything but a raw resource to take as input, process, and output in the machine of capital. Our religious leaders are private cynics, and our religious communities are held together only by the comfort of dogma, but few believe in the commandments of the gods and instead interpret them as mere personal preferences left to individual choice. Our intellectual lighthouses profess but one thing: the world is ultimately nothing, and so are we; the sooner we accept the meaninglessness of it all—the absence of freedom, the unreality of our consciousness, and son on—the better we shall be, for the realization will free us of the guilt to be anything greater. Even the spiritual sages, gurus, and masters profess the meaninglessness of finite existence. Reason itself, which gave ground for the rise of modernity, is now suspect and meaningless.
If enchantment is behind us, then what is before us? Here I grab hold of and stand firmly by the project of modernity as a free floating and self-grounded. Not one step back from modernity should be given. We must not and cannot be romantics about the past dogma of humanity’s projection of its own inner dreams onto the world, for we know they were but dreams. The spirits are not there in the rocks and trees, God and the angels are not there, and nature does not call for us to return to its dark embrace. A new vision of enchantment without the illusions of past enchantment is needed. A new universal story is needed. There is no mistaking that we are connected to nature and depend on it. However, this nature is not in kind like us. It does not speak, it does not understand itself nor us, it does not strive for any ethical aims, and it does not agonize over its inability to be what it should be or to treat itself and others in the right way. Life up to the level of animals lives to carry out the mere function and reproduction of life, but we who have a fully-developed spiritual consciousness capable of conceptual cognition stand above it and judge it for its blind harmony of creative destruction and its imperfect beings who are dominated by ignorance and feeling.
Nonetheless, despite our difference and identity with it, the world is need not be seen as a dead world. It is a sleeping world, and we are its waking mind on the possible cusp of opening our eyes to freedom realized in the world. The world can once again appear enchanted, not because we delude ourselves into accepting projected dreams of what we wish was there, but because we may grasp the totality of existence as a harmonic and organic system where everything is for some reason, and not just by pure accident. It is not that nature is in essence harmonic or kind, quite the contrary—it is full of contradiction and amoral destruction. Within all of this chaotic destruction there are pockets of rational ordering which can be comprehended as having reason for their existence. The forests, with their flora and fauna, may not speak to us for themselves, but nonetheless we may hear their reason from the deepest conceptual grounds in nature as well as the rich empirical web of existence which enables and is enabled by them. It is not simply that we may again intellectually appreciate nature, but in a new organization of social life, we may yet come to aesthetically appreciate and connect to it even more.