I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of enchantment. The word feels old and largely lost to our modern existence, a relic of times when the imagination was vast between the little we knew and the wilderness we did not. As that gap seems into our sad reflection in the mirror (and how dramatically fast that has occurred in the past 50 years ) the sidhe where Merlin became the complete druid has dried into a tumulus-shaped husk.
We’re midway into October and approaching the great festival of Samhain where the veil is thin and the unseen nightworld comes a-calling. Perhaps this is a fruitful time for seeing what enchantment we can bring to our days leading up to it, furnishing our poems with gourds and corn-sheaves and Halloween decorations. This work has been underway at earthweal already with recent excellent challenges from Sherry Marr with titles like “Collateral Beauty” and “Say The Names.” Thanks so much to her for the fertile inspiration and opening our eyes to so much abundance without and within. We’ve also lingered in cross-quarter seasonal events at Imbolc/Candlemas, Beltane/May Day, and Lammas that proceed to this end-of-Celtic-year turning point. (Thank you, Sarah Connor, for your fine challenges in celebration!)
An awakened, renewed and strengthened purchase on enchantment is vital work for earth poetry, especially in a time when the old dominion of unlimited resource depletion maddens the Earth-bear. Last Monday northwest Italy was pummeled by a 12-hour thunderstorm that dropped nearly 3 feet of rain over the area, breaking the European rainfall record for that span of time. Earlier in July, flash flooding from heavy rainfall killed more than 200 in Germany and Belgium, and another freak storm in Tennessee (US) in August dumped 17 inches of rain and killed 20 in the resulting flash flood. These awfully recurrent besiegings reveal an atmosphere too warm and laden with evaporation; they are the monster yin of the brutal yang of drought that is slowly emptying reservoirs and burning vast forests (40 million acres in Siberia this summer). Bonding those two awful fates is a disenchanted modernity far too powerful for anyone’s good, and we owe it to our sources to transform those derricks back into Yggdasrils.
The poetry of enchantment is rare, relegated to online blogs where reading is less attentive and charmed than the printed page. (Recordings hold promise for the attuned ear). The so-called “establishment” presses tend toward academic poetry and a refined-to-dust sensibility. In my few attempts to find my way as a poet in that world back in the ‘90s, a prof remarked on a poem I hard turned in as outré, a style no longer with any currency. Had I been younger (it took me decades to rid myself of all desire for the blessings of the academy, including a career change to teaching), I might easily have scrubbed out the Rilkean splendor and spooky Hölderlinities that haunt my rhymes: but I chose forest over the citadel and have never found my way back out. I have this esplumoir of a study atop my sacred tree of learning, the view is great and I can be as enchanted as I want in the next poem.
We all know well the disenchantment of modern life, a wearisome torpor in the midst of a speeding world. Eliot mourned it in Four Quartets:
Descend lower, descend only
into the world of perpetual solitude,
World not world, but that which Is not world,
Internal darkness, deprivation
And destitution of all property,
Dessication of the world of sense,
Evacuation of the world of fancy,
Inoperancy of the world of spirit;
This is the one way, and the other
Is the same, not in movement
But abstention in movement; while the world moves
In appetency, on its metalled ways
Of time past and time future …
(Burnt Norton, III)
Ecological philosopher Timothy Morton in Humankind: Solidarity With Nonhuman People (2017) locates the source of this disenchantment 12,500 years ago with the beginning of our control of the elements through farming, breaking our species union with the earth, expulsed from Eden to work by the sweat of our brow:
Humans have indeed been alienated from something, but not from some stable, bland underlying essence—this mythical beast, the lump called Man (and its uncanny spectral shadow, the abject Müsselmäner of Primo Levi’s Auschwitz, who merely live on rather than surviving in some meaningful sense), is just the by-product of the logic of the Severing. The alienation is a crack in social, psychic and philosophical ties to the biosphere, a hyperobject teeming with trillions of component beings. Our story about how we have been alienated is itself an alienated artifact of the Severing! We have been alienated not from consistency but from inconsistency.
But has enchantment been truly lost, or has it simply gone far out of style, an unfashionable decking of faded medieval tapestries, its unicorn forever penned in the past? To the rescue comes Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings and Ethics (2001, Princeton University Press). I’ve just begun diving into this work, but my thoughts about enchantment are already so greatly enlivened and clarified that I’m sharing nuggets from her with you for this challenge.
If we embrace too greatly the notion that inspiration in nature and culture has been lost, then we grow blind to “the marvelous vitalities of bodies human and nonhuman, natural and artificial,” Bennet writes. Contrary to the dead-ends of disenchanted modernity — the waste dump that now consumes us — Bennett offers “a story of contemporary life that accentuates its moments of enchantment and explores the possibility that the affective force of those moments might be deployed to propel generosity.” (3)
This story has a twofold importance, for “enchantment is something that we can encounter, that hits us; but it is also a comportment that can be fostered through different strategies.” Those include “to give greater expression to the sense of play, another to hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous simplicity of things” and “to enhance the enchantment effect (by resisting) the story of disenchantment by modernity.”
Bennett locates “sites of enchantment today” in “the discovery of sophisticated modes of communication among non-humans, the strange agency of physical systems at far-from-equilibirum states” (like shamanic ecstasy) and “the animation of objects by video technologies – an animation whose effects are not fully captured by the idea of ‘commodity fetishism’” (Hmm on that last one.)
Life is short. “One must be enamored with existence and occasionally even enchanted in the face of it in order to be capable of donating some of one’s scarce mortal resources to the service of others,” Bennett writes. Life on earth is growing short, too, and could use a hand. Thom Van Dooren puts it this way:,
Far more than “biodiversity”—at least in the narrow sense that the term is often used—is at stake in extinction: human and more-than-human ways of life, languages, ways of mourning and being with others, even livelihoods and diverse cultural and religious worlds are often drawn into the fray as species move toward, and then beyond, the edge of extinction. (Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction, 2014, Columbia University Press)
The window for this work is us-sized, immanent and passing fast.
Delving deeper into the nature of enchantment, Bennet writes,
Enchantment entails a state of wonder, and one of the distinctions of this state is the temporary suspension of chronological time and bodily movement: to be enchanted, then, is to participate in a momentarily immobilizing encounter; it is to be transfixed and spellbound.
Enchantment is of a different order than the sublime, which is revelation which sources in terror, the awe and awfulness of the immense. (We explored this deeper in the challenge The Anthropocene Sublime.) Bennett continues:
Thoughts, but also limbs … are brought to rest even as the senses continue to operate, indeed in high gear. You notice new colors, discern details previously ignored, hear extraordinary details previously ignored, hear extraordinary sounds, as familiar landscapes of sense sharpen and intensify. The world comes alive as a collection of singularities. Enchantment includes, then, a condition of exhilaration or acute sensory activity. To be simultaneously transfixed in wonder and transported by sense, to be carted up and carried away — enchantment is marked by this odd combination of somatic effects.
The mood I’m calling enchantment involves, in the first instance, a surprising encounter, a meeting with something you did not expect and are not fully prepared to engage. Contained within this surprise state are (1) a pleasurable feeling of being charmed by the novel and as yet unprocessed encounter and (2) a more unheimlich (uncanny) feeling of being disrupted or torn out of one’s default sensory-intellectual disposition. The overall effect of enchantment is a mood of fullness, plenitude, or liveliness, a sense of having one’s nerves or circulation or concentration powers tuned up or recharged — a shot in the arm, a fleeing return to childlike excitement about life. Historians Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park note that, in early modern Europe, the terms for wonder and wonders — admiratio, mirabilia miracula — ‘seem to have their roots in an Indo-European word for “smile.”
As I read this, I smile remembering the wild music of puberty and the experience of falling in love; taking mushrooms; listening deeply to music; walking around my father’s Columcille on a halcyon afternoon; the strangely beautiful world that emerged following the sudden shock of grief when my brother died young; becoming entranced by the poetry of Rilke, Roethke, Berry and Oliver; reading the tales of shamans and storytellers; prescient dreams; walking early mornings under a canopy of trees with starlight shining above. All of these are personal trademarks of enchantment. Time to tell Toto that we aren’t in Kansas anymore.
More importantly, enchantment is what our boiling dry fulsome maddened Earth so desperately needs, along with its communities of human and nonhuman, living and inert. A charm to unwind modernity’s toxic impulses and restore the living balance. Enchantment is a road from that grief to our healing.
So, then: What is the nature of enchantment? For this challenge, root into your experience and describe an enchanted moment. How did you encounter it, what became suddenly alive for you and how did it change you? If there’s a tale in there, lend it the proper narrative scope. Does that enchantment open doors to the world in new or special ways? Can our observations of the non-human be woven enchantingly? (Is there really any other way?) How does enchantment affect our empathic powers, embracing the world more fully and vitally? How to nurture enchantment? Can enchanted nature revitalize and radicalize fallen modernity? (I took to walking beneath trees with my eyes up to them in the wake of the calamitous American presidential election last year, and that change of focus truly balanced and stabilized a wild mind.)
Samhain is approaching, so our work here must be one of helping to find access to its great door. Go!
THE ORGAMS OF ORGANISMS
Above the lawn the wild beetles mate
and mate, skew their tough wings
and join. They light in our hair,
on our arms. And below us, in the grass,
the bugs are seeking each other out,
antennae lifted and trembling, tiny legs
scuttling, then the infinitesimal
ah’s of their meeting, the awkward job
of their turnings around. O end to end
they meet again and swoon as only bugs can.
This is why, sometimes, the grass feels electric
under our feet, each blade quivering, and why
the air comes undone over our heads
and washes down around our ears like rain.
But it has to be spring, and you have to be
in love — acutely, painfully, achingly in love —
to hear the black-robed choir of their sighs.
from Smoke (2000)
I wandered the fields
that were thickening
with weeds and blossoms,
with the long loops
of the shimmering, and the extravagant—
pale as flames as they rose
and fell back,
replete and beautiful—
that was all there was—
and I too
once or twice, at least,
felt myself rising,
touching suddenly the tops of the weeds,
the blue and silky air—
passion did it,
called me forth,
stripped me clean
then covered me with the cloth of happiness—
there is no other prize,
only rapture the gleaming
rapture the illogical the weightless—
whether it be for the perfect shapeliness
of something you love—
like an old German song—
or of someone—
or the dark floss of the earth itself,
heavy and electric,
At the edge of sweet sanity open
such wild, blind wings.