Words, like everything else, go in and out of fashion. And sometimes it’s a good idea to rummage through the basement of expired words to see if they still have juice in them.
Such is my inquiry into the concept of enchantment. Ask most Americans what the word conjures and the most common response involves a Disney image: Tinker Bell casting a stream of magical dust in her wake; Peter and Wendy flying off to Neverland. Glass coffins, dancing teacups, talking mirrors; genies and jinns and a super-powered broom. The origins of these images pre-date the genius of Walt Disney. Leprechauns, fire-spitting dragons and fairies filled and thrilled the medieval and early modern imagination. To curry favor from the spirits, the Celts hung bits of clothing on trees; throwing coins or buttons into water—wishing wells—has ancient roots.
As modern Western societies evolved, the belief in spells and charms, marvels and wonders became discredited, associated with groups thought by the dominant culture to be inferior—women, children, lower classes, and so-called “primitives.” By the seventeenth century, the new Newtonian world embraced rationalism, scientism, and industrialization. As the ideas of the Enlightenment took hold, education elevated and rewarded the fastidious regard for scientific proof and rational thought and discounted the irrational fictions of animism, superstition and orthodox religious beliefs.
In a 1917 lecture, the great social theorist Max Weber popularized a phrase that translates from the German as “the disenchantment of the world.” Weber used it to push back against the conviction that reason and science could explain all natural and human phenomena. This intellectualized view, he worried, would result in a world rendered poorer of mystery and richness. In Weber’s view, disenchantment corresponded to a depleted and shrunken universe, one that held that all things are knowable, explainable, and manipulable, that we live in a universe governed by knowable natural laws and mastered by human will. By contrast, Weber believed that the world was a “great enchanted garden.”
A few years after Weber’s lecture, the German theologian and philosopher Rudolf Otto published a book titled in English, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Divine and its Relation to the Rational. Otto adopted the term numinous, based on the Latin word numen (divine power) to describe an experience of awe and surprise, “a non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” By definition, enchantment refers to being under a magic spell or charm, a feeling of great pleasure or delight. While this definition is not the same as Otto’s notion of the numinous, both concepts relate to how we position our egos vis-à-vis a vast non-ego-directed universe.
Otto’s idea of the numinous also has some similarities with the mystical experiences described by the psychologist William James in his famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience. Like Weber and Otto, James did not dismiss rational and conceptual processes, but neither did he dismiss the value of subjective, often ecstatic, experiences in which one is “shaken free from the cage of self.” The mystical experiences James described were inner, private encounters with Otherness and illustrate an alternative way of “knowing” not based on an objective perspective. While science and rational thought would have us know the world by standing apart from it and viewing it from the outside, mystical experiences establish a mutuality between perceiver and perceived, demolishing the boundary between self and world.
Writing about ecstatic/mystical experience as an archetypal need in The Reenchantment of Art, the artist and cultural critic Suzi Gablik has written:
Our loss of ecstatic experience in contemporary Western society has affected every aspect of our lives and created a sense of closure, in which there seems to be no alternative, no hope, and no exit from the addictive system we have created. In our man-made environments, we have comfort and luxury, but there is little ecstasy—the cumulative effects of our obsession with mechanism offer no room for such a way of life. Ecstatic experience puts us in touch with the soul of the world and deepens our sense that we live in the midst of a cosmic mystery.
Enchantment, then, characterizes a worldview and also describes a state of being. We post-moderns may be less inclined than our predecessors to suspend our systems of belief and face into the unknown, yet our psyches still desire to explore the unknown and unknowable. We seem to have an innate desire for a connection to a benevolent force outside ourselves. In times of distress—when we receive a frightening diagnosis or find ourselves in the thrall of a great passion— even non-believers often turn to wishes, prayers, poetry, and petitions for help. This non-rational instinct, similar to what Carl Jung called the archetype of the religious function, might well be a psychic and somatic memory passed down from our ancestors. Our babushka grandmother who spits in the soup for good luck may trigger our ridicule and disdain, but even if enchantment has gone underground in our consciousness, the hunger for it remains alive.
Enchantment is a concept worth reexamining. These days we are more familiar with feelings of disenchantment, which holds hands with disillusionment and, ultimately, despair. To many of us, enchantment is a sissy word, a deluded nostalgia associated with hokum—conjurors and Ouija boards, snake oil peddlers and spiritualist gurus. And while scam artists, Ponzi schemers and the like abound, as Leo Tolstoy has written: “If we admit that human life can be ruled by reason, then all possibility of life is destroyed.” My suspicion is that our capacity to be enchanted is crucial to our mental, spiritual, and perhaps even our physical well-being, as this capacity opens a wedge of hope in an otherwise mechanistic and material existence.
What might enchantment look like in your life? Where can you find it? A walk in the woods? An afternoon at a potter’s wheel? Music? In most cultures chanting, drumming, dancing and music restore us to the wild aliveness of enchantment.
In Carson McCullers’ acclaimed novel, The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, Mick Kelley, a tomboyish thirteen-year-old of deep feeling and sensibility, discovers rapture in music she hears while passing a neighbor’s open window. She is in pain. Her awakening to adolescence is coupled with an awakening to the sorrows and rages of the adults around her. Mick wanders down the dark summer streets and comes to a house she has been to many times before, a house in which a radio plays. McCullers tells us:
Mick sat on the ground. This was a very fine and secret place. Close around her were thick cedars so that she was completely hidden by herself. The radio was no good tonight—somebody sang popular songs that all ended in the same way. It was like she was empty. She reached in her pockets and felt around with her fingers…It was like she was so empty there wasn’t even a feeling or thought in her.
The word “empty” is repeated twice in the above passage. Mick is emptied of her old identity, her old ways of knowing, and this emptying out is preparation for what comes next—in the lush summer evening, hidden by trees, sequestered from the ordinary world and shorn of her persona, Mick is being reborn. Here is an image of the soul in reverie. Solitude is a necessary component for the soul’s manifestation.
One program came on after another and all of them were punk. She smoked and picked a little bunch of grass blades. After a while a new announcer started talking. He mentioned Beethoven…The announcer said they were going to play his third symphony…she didn’t care much what they played. Then the music started. Mick raised her head and her fist went up to her throat.
Mick listens some more . . .
For a minute the opening balanced from one side to the other. Like a walk or a march. Like God strutting in the night. The outside of her was suddenly froze and only the first part of the music was hot inside her heart. […] It didn’t have anything to do with God. This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her.
Then she thinks The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen.
Finding your way to enchantment might be a thrilling project. Consider that your capacity to be enchanted has never been lost. Enchantment has much to teach us about hidden wonders blocked by our over-analytical minds. Enchantment asks to release us into a world beyond thought in which new perceptions and sensations lead the way to awe. Right now, let yourself muse on the possibility of enchantment. In the words of French poet Paul Éluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.”
This post appeared in a slightly different form on Dale’s blog on Psychology Today. You can find all of Dale’s blog posts for Psychology Today at “Transcending the Past.”