Falling into the Song of Gaia

This week, ecophilosopher Patrick Curry explores in brief what enchantment is, especially in the context of nature and the living Earth. This follows after our engaging discussion with him in early July, in which along with exploring the nature of enchantment, he shared the key lesson of not letting “modernist self-policing” close us down to experiencing enchantment. Most important, perhaps, is Curry’s conclusion that enchantment is essential for the love of and the healing of Gaia. As he notes, no policy will succeed if not supported by love, sparked by enchantment. And yet, enchantment cannot be manufactured or managed. So where does that leave us? Read on below, and if this reflection enchants you, you should watch Curry’s recent presentation on enchantment, and read his book, Enchantment: Wonder in Modern Life.

Go with Gaia,

Erik

The river taking a walk in Nakajimadai Recreation Park (Photo by Patrick Curry)

Enchantment is essentially an experience of wonder, and like the experience itself, the subject is hard to pin down. So think of this essay instead as a wander through one corner of it, with glimpses farther afield.

It’s a lot to ask of one example to cover all the aspects, but here is a personal account that touches on some of the most important. In his classic wondertale of 1871, George MacDonald says that in the country at the back of the North Wind, there is a river that “flows not through but over grass: its channel, instead of being rock, stones, pebbles, sand, or anything else, was of pure meadow grass, not overlong.” In 2004, a friend took me for a walk in Nakajimadai Recreation Park in Shishigahana Shitsugen, at the foot of Mount Chokai in Akita Prefecture, Japan. And there, in a forest at the foot of the mountain, although not looking for it, I found it. I had never been for a walk with a river before. Not by, but with. It flowed freely where it would, not taking a predetermined or even self-created course in a riverbed but among grass, moss and dead leaves, through the forest. And we walked alongside it, fully enchanted, the three of us keeping each other company.

The Nature of Enchantment

Already evident are some basic truths about enchantment. One concerns the nature of wonder, which can be usefully contrasted with will, especially the will-to-power. Second, it is always enchantment by, wonder at. In other words, it is relational: an encounter across differences that don’t disappear but cease to matter. Third, it is necessarily personal and participatory, as the etymology of en-chant-ment implies: to be in a song, or any narrative.* And fourth, being relational and participatory, no one is in charge; no one can control or direct it. In other words, it is wild—something important which it shares with the more-than-human natural world.

Finally, enchantment is what Max Weber calls “concrete magic.” That is, it is both completely embodied, embedded and circumstantially precise and, inseparably, deeply and ineffably mysterious. The latter is not super-natural, above or beyond nature; any transcendence is immanent in the concrete particulars of this person, or thing, or place.

It follows that enchantment cannot survive the modern operation of being split into two parts – materialist (often neurophysiological) on the one hand, and spiritual or its secular equivalent, psychological, on the other – and reduced to one or the other. Nor can it be understood that way, after it has already been disenchanted. No more than life itself, wonder is not an epiphenomenal effect of neurophysiology (cells, hormones, etc.) nor the result of ‘projection’, ‘anthropomorphism’, ‘fantasy’ or any of the other weapons in the modernist armory for preserving human privilege and denying sentience to the rest of the world.

A river dancing its way across the prairie while the sun dances with it (Photo by jplenio via Pixabay)

What Can Enchant?

Now almost anything can enchant, but since humans are, for all their differences, a particular kind of animal with a great deal in common, the experience tends to occur in certain contexts. These include, paradigmatically, interpersonal love of various kinds; art of all kinds, each corresponding to one or more of the senses and its opening to the imagination; religious ritual; food (as distinct from “edible food-like substances,” in Michael Pollan’s words) and drink; learning for its own sake; sports as an aesthetic experience, even if its devotees might not recognize that description; and, of course nature: whether the enchantment of a wild place or another being, often an individual of a different species.**

Of course, every experience of enchantment is ultimately natural, insofar as we are inextinguishably natural beings whose nature happens to include culture. But some of our most powerful experiences of enchantment are of nature, and here another aspect of enchantment assumes great importance, because enchantment partly reveals and partly creates a truth about the enchanting other. It vouchsafes a glimpse of their intrinsic value which, being unique, is not their fungible market, exchange- or use-value; they are not only vulnerable but quite literally irreplaceable, and on that account even more lovable. And I do not believe that even the most politically enlightened and scientifically-informed policies will succeed if they are unleavened by the passionate love of nature which arises from its wonder.

A river exploring the mountain valleys of the Caucuses (Photo by mystraysoul via Pixabay)

Enchantment Cannot Be Manufactured

That thought easily gives rise to ideas of enlisting enchantment in the progressive cause of stopping ecocide, say, or ‘saving’ the natural world, and so on. But it’s not, by a long shot, so simple; because that is to ignore the implications of its very wildness. However frustrating it may be, the fact is that even with the best of intentions, enchantment cannot survive being turned into a will-driven program, agenda, method or algorithm. Nor, for the same reason, can it be controlled, managed, or rolled-out.

So for those of us who wish to encourage enchantment, particularly Gaian in nature, so that it can do its work, what can we do? Quite a lot, actually. In our personal lives, we can practice Keats’ ‘negative capability:’ the ability to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In particular, we can keep the door open to wonder, wherever and whenever we encounter it, as we make/follow our way through life.***

Doing so includes refusing to engage in modernist self-policing (‘Oh, that tree seemed to be showing me something, but of course I must have imagined it’, and so tediously on); or asking destructively stupid questions (‘Is this real or imaginary? Objective or subjective?’). Who really benefits from this behavior?

In our professional lives, too, we can work to create not enchantment itself, in any direct way, but rather the conditions that it favors and which encourage it to attend: real relationality rather than centralized dominance, participation rather than mere observation from the ‘outside’; a degree, at least, of wildness, as against the temptation to over-control, no matter how apparently impeccable the reasons (‘health and safety’, etc.). And we can resolve to pay attention when it attends, and in all humility see what we can learn.

Glamor vs. Enchantment

Finally, we can learn to recognize, admit and therefore better resist, the penetration of our lives by the fake enchantment I call ‘glamor’. This persuasive and profitable simulacrum is the pliant servant of power—capital, the state, and technoscience—in which role it functions as the multi-billion-dollar industries of advertising, marketing, spin and commercial surveillance. And if we are honest with ourselves, despite superficial similarities, the quality and feel of glamor and of enchantment are radically different.

So as long as power itself is not the goal, there is a great deal for will and skill to do in the service of wonder. And enchantment itself is not a fluffy or self-indulgent issue but one with powerful effects in and on the world. Indeed, insofar as it is finally an experience of wonder at being alive, enchantment and life are inseparable, and to defend one is to defend both.

Patrick Curry is a writer living in London, England. He is the author of Defending Middle-Earth (2004), Ecological Ethics (2017) and Enchantment: Wonder in Modern Life (2019), and edits the online journal The Ecological Citizen.

A forest mangrove, where the border between trees and river disappears completely (Photo by Pexels via Pixabay)

Endnotes

* ‘Enchantment’ comes from the Latin en (in) + cantare (to sing) which became enchantement in Old French and then fed into Middle English.

**A perfect example of this is My Octopus Teacher, where the narrator becomes deeply enchanted by an octopus, and the octopus, becomes enchanted with the narrator (also reminding us that enchantment is not just a human experience).

***That is a good working definition of animism, by the way. At the other end of the wondrous encounter is agency and subjectivity, which are by no means always human.

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  1. Bart Everson

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes to everything here. Keeping the door open is a great way of describing it. “The best we can do is set the stage for such encounters, to relax our guard while continuing to pay careful attention, to maintain openness without expectation.” (To quote another writer who is quite close to me.) Thank you Patrick Curry. I found this article enchanting.

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