A Sense of Awe: science, faith and wonder
September 21, 2011 0

Matthew Del Nevo’s “The Work of Enchantment”

By in contributions

This week another book related to our theme is being launched in Sydney. It’s by Matthew Del Nevo and called The Work of Enchantment.

Matthew lectures in Philosophy at the Catholic Institute of Sydney and his interesting thesis is that it is a lack of “enchantment” in rich, developed countries that causes soul-starved Westerners to experience mental (and sometimes physical) illness.

David Tacey will launch The Work of Enchantment on Friday night, so I asked Matthew about the book and his response to my introductory posts. (See “Initial thoughts on awe in a secular age” on this site or the longer article at ABC Religion and Ethics at “Is awe still possible in a secular age?”) Matthew writes:

I would support the claim of David Tacey from his book Re-Enchantment: The New Australian Spirituality, that there is a deep-seated tension in Australian life between artists and intellectuals:

The artists are advocating (re)enchantment from the depths of a prophetic imagination, while the intellectuals are promoting disenchantment and an ironic vision of the world.

This goes not just for Australian life, but for the rich “First World” and is linked into the disenchanting power of Big Capitalism – by which I mean commodity capitalism, in which, as Adorno first said, culture itself is commodified and sold. Education is a commodity too on this market. Nothing is sacred, everything has its price and money is the bottom line. The fiscalisation of the world.

This spells the death of art – it already has, whereby art is defined by market, and an artist is as great as his or her publicity.

This spells the death of education. Nothing is educed any longer, nor can it be. There is nothing to educe. Education is training for the workforce – what else can it be? In such a dire situation ‘soul’, ‘inspiration’ and ‘genius’ are words that become like archaisms of some old order of being and words categorically opposed and despised, like the word ‘religion’ used to be in high modernism by intellectuals – and even by the new breed of artists themselves with their soulless art: Carl Andre and his firebricks, Tracey Emin and her dirty bed and so-forth.

The soulless is disenchanted. Seeking enchantment is to seek soul and soulfulness. In this sense, against the world of disenchantment, enchantment must be a counter-cultural movement, but as I say in my work, a movement that is not activist, but I’ll come back to that.

First let me say we cannot re-enchant the world. We cannot turn the clock back. We cannot turn enchantment into an ideology and make enchantment one more “how to” project. That is pragmatism again, a big part of the problem (so far from every solution).

Nor would I follow Taylor in equating disenchantment with lack or loss of religion (if that is what he is saying – and I don’t find his book magisterial, merely laborious). If disenchantment follows from loss or lack of religion or from not heeding properly the well-worn notion of “mystery”, then it would follow that re-enchantment would go together with religious restoration – that seems the logic implied. But Christianity is hardly going to be restored to one of its previous states of triumphalism any more than Kings are likely to be. Religion only lives in spirit and truth and new religious impetus picks up on these. The language of religion to come is in the making, it is not ready-made for us already.

Religion can be disenchanting. Both pomp and puritanism are false modes of enchantment. They bedevil enchantment and bewilder the naive who get entangled in them.

Religious pomp is a pantomime version of enchantment for grown-ups (The Work of Enchantment, p.162). This is not to disparage a liturgy beautifully done. Pomp is where it looks good, but is hollow. It is hollow because of “the hollow men” as T. S. Eliot called them and they reincarnate, as it were, in every generation, in religion and politics.

On the other hand, puritanism ignores enchantment and gives us placeless religion which is the same everywhere and “timeless” religion which believes the same thing all the time no matter what. Religion can be disenchanting and if it is not, if it is enchanting, then it is not the religion as such that enchants, but something already in us with which the religion corresponds. This happens in religion with a great aesthetic and I do not think religions are ever greater than their aesthetic – that is to say, what they give the world by way of beauty. But beauty is not intrinsically religious, as Kant said, it has no rules; it is free.

To come back to what I was saying about not being activist; we need what Keats called “negative capability” to start with, which is a matter of good education, the ability to live with doubt, uncertainty, not-knowing and so on. Knowing how little you know is a sign of someone who knows something worth knowing. It’s their negative capability.

In my book I have said “the work of enchantment” is reading, listening and gazing. These ways we disengage from the world, ostensibly, when we seem to be doing nothing or nothing very much. But this is the kind of not-doing we need to be doing more of, I try to argue – although I realize nothing worthwhile is ever achieved or won by an argument.

I try to show and reveal with a series of instances from Proust, Rilke and Goethe that enchantment is the secret of their art and is what comes out in their art in various ways, not as a progress either, because as the reader goes back in time to Goethe, the stakes are raised about this modernity and its illusions – civilisation and its discontents.

The logic of our illusions today was seen by Goethe 200 years ago. But he could see another way as well and his art was about that. I have tried, in my way, to propagate his point of view. It seems to have some saving value, for art, for education, Eros, for enchantment.

But none of this is possible unless we stop, unwind, and find the moment, awake to its presence and its pure passivity. But that is precisely what we cannot do. That is our bind.

Thank you Matthew. A review and excerpt of Matthew’s book can be found here.

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