Re-enchantment   /   Fall 2015   /    Re-enchantment

We Have Never Been Disenchanted

Eugene McCarraher

The god Mammon (detail), drawing by Alejandro Schneider, engraving by J. Weber, 1896; private collection © Tarker/Bridgeman Images.

“Beautiful demon of Money, what an enchanter thou art!”
—Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, The Gilded Age

One of the stories modernity tells about itself is titled “The Disenchantment of the World.” Friedrich Schiller coined the phrase while lamenting the demise of the gods of Greek antiquity, but it was Max Weber who turned it into melancholy shorthand for the modern condition of secularity.11xSchiller referred to the “de-divinizing of the world” in “The Gods of Greece” (1788); Weber used the phrase in “Science as a Vocation” (1917–1919), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009 [1946]), 155.

The broad outlines of the tale are familiar to most educated people in the contemporary world: Before the Protestant Reformation, the earth was suffused and enveloped by “enchantment,” an invisible universe of spirits and deities who inhabited the natural world and could shape the course of human affairs. These spirits animated objects, dwelled in mountains or forests, and delivered messages through dreams, oracles, and prophets. Whether they were capricious or governed by providential design, these forces could be mastered or entreated through practices of magic, divination, and prayer. The medieval Church built a Christian enclave for these beings in its system of saints, holy places, and sacraments, but its Protestant (and especially Calvinist) antagonists—suspicious, in Weber’s words, of “magical and sacramental forces”—commenced the demolition of the enchanted sanctuary. And with the victories of science, technology, and capitalism, we discovered that the cosmos of enchantment was unreal, or at best, utterly unverifiable; we cast most of the spirits into oblivion, and made room for their withered but venerable survivors in our chambers of private belief.22xMax Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005), 61. Originally published 1905.

Among the North Atlantic intelligentsia, at least, this story in some form is so widely hegemonic that even religious intellectuals accept it. For instance, in A Secular Age (2007), Charles Taylor—a practicing Catholic—affirms, albeit in his own peculiar way, the consensus of “disenchantment.” In the pre-modern epoch of enchantment, Taylor explains, the boundary that separated our world from the sacred was porous and indistinct; traffic between the two spheres was frequent, if not always desired or friendly. “Disenchantment” began with the church’s rationalization of doctrine and the growing awareness that Christianity was not the world’s only religion. Now, having left the enchanted universe behind, we disenchanted dwell within the moral and ontological parameters of an “immanent frame”: the world as apprehended through reason and science, bereft of immaterial and unquantifiable forces, structured by the immutable laws of nature and the contingent traditions of human societies.33xCharles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2007), 539–93.

What Taylor calls the “buffered self” is a kind of “immanent frame” that insulates the inner from the outer world, thus precluding any sense of the numinous or any notion that “nature has something to say to us.” Although attempts to re-enchant the world have surfaced periodically—Romantic poetry and philosophy, “New Age” spirituality, various religious fundamentalisms—none of these bids to revitalize enchantment has succeeded in wrecking the “immanent frame.”44xIbid., 37–42, 358, 711–72.

So goes the consensus. Yet Weber himself left clues for a rather different account of our condition. In this story—adumbrated in “Science as a Vocation” (1917)—we abide between two eras: “We live as did the ancients when their world was not yet disenchanted of its gods and demons,” Weber speculated—“only we live in a different sense.” Antiquity witnessed a long twilight of the gods, only to be followed by the dawn of a new one—whose own demise appeared to be the final senescence and annihilation of all enchantment from the world. Indeed, Weber observed, while “many old gods ascend from their graves,” they are quickly “disenchanted,” taking “the form of impersonal forces.”55xEssays in Sociology, 148–49.

But is that the only way to understand the “different sense” to which Weber alluded so nebulously—that modernity marks the crossing of the Rubicon of disenchantment? Perhaps the sociologist who considered himself “religiously unmusical” heard faint notes of enchantment in modernity; perhaps, despite their wounds, the old divinities had not risen to give consent to their deaths. Were they really “disenchanted” when they assumed their “secular” form? Or do they still roam among us in the guise of “secularization”?

There are good reasons to think so, and some of them lie within one of the more tumultuous and aggressive of the allegedly “disenchanting” forces of modernity: capitalism, whose “laws of the market” Weber had identified as one refuge for the phantoms of divinity. Of course, capitalism has long been presumed to be a powerful solvent of enchantment. “All that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned,” as Marx and Engels proclaimed in The Communist Manifesto. Far from being bastions of piety, the bourgeois masters of capitalism have “drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor … in the icy water of egotistical calculation.” What if those waters of pecuniary reason constituted a baptismal font, a consecration of capitalism as a covert form of enchantment, all the more beguiling on account of its apparent profanity?

The Fetishized World

I want to explore two ideas in this essay that amount to a claim that we have never been disenchanted. (That’s a deliberate echo of Bruno Latour, who once argued that “we have never been modern”—that we have never differentiated nature and society as clearly and rigidly as we believe.) First, capitalism has been a form of enchantment, a metamorphosis of the sacred in the raiment of secularity. With money as its ontological marrow, it represents a moral and metaphysical imagination as well as a sublimation of our desire for the presence of divinity in the everyday world. Second, the most incisive forms of opposition to capitalist enchantment have come in the form of what I will call “the sacramental imagination,” a conviction that the material of ordinary life can mediate the supernatural.66xBruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1993), esp. 32–35. Originally published in 1991 as Nous n’avons jamais été modernes.

In this view, capitalism perverts both the sacramental character of the world and our consciousness of that quality—neither of which can ever be extinguished, only assaulted, damaged, and left in ruins. As Gerard Manley Hopkins summarized it so well in the Romantic idiom of the sacramental imagination, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God…. There lies the dearest freshness deep down things”—a freshness spoiled, he ruefully added, “seared with trade, bleared, smeared with toil.” The world does not need to be re-enchanted; its enduring and ineradicable enchantment requires our belated recognition and reverence.

One source of the idea that capitalism is a metamorphosis of the sacred is the Marxist tradition, which has always been nonetheless ambivalent, if not contradictory, about the secular and the sacred in modern economic life. As Terry Eagleton writes in Culture and the Death of God (2014), his recent survey of “surrogate forms of transcendence” in the wake of God’s (alleged) demise, capitalism is “fundamentally irreligious…and totally alien to the category of the sacred”—yet “the only aura to linger on” in our postmodern era “is that of the commodity or celebrity.” In the Manifesto itself, capitalism is a ruthless assassin of enchantment, drowning ecstasy in a pool of mercenary rationality. But the capitalist himself is also “a sorcerer, who cannot control the powers of the nether world he has called up with his spells.” Rhetorical flourish, to be sure, but it also reflected Marx’s reading in ethnographical literature on “fetishism,” the attribution of magical or supernatural powers to natural or fabricated objects.77xTerry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (New Haven, CT: Yale, 2014), ix, 8, 192.

Fetishism is “a religion of sensuous desire,” Marx had written in 1842, in which the worshipper fantasizes that an “inanimate object will give up its natural character in order to comply with his desires.” In his unpublished “1844 manuscripts,” Marx linked fetishism to “alienation”—the social process by which people lose control of their own labor and products, which is to say, to Marx, the sources of their own selfhood. Under capitalism, where the wage laborer is divorced both from the means of production and from control over his own actions and products, alienation takes a fetishistic form, an ascription of life to objects produced by none other than the worker himself. “The life which he has given to the object sets itself against him as an alien and hostile force,” Marx mused. “If the product of labor does not belong to the worker, but confronts him as an alien power, this can only be because it belongs to a man other than the worker.” The domination of labor by capital took the form of a modern animism, a capitalist variety of enchanted objects—“enchanted” by the worker’s own powers.88xKarl Marx, “The Leading Article in No. 179 of the Kölnische Zeitung” (1842), in Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Vol. 1 (New York, NY: Lawrence and Wishart, 1975), 189; “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts” (1844), The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, NY: Norton, 1978), 70–72.

During the next two decades, the anima of capitalist animism in Marx’s anatomy of enchantment shifted from estranged labor to money, even as both continued to represent the unresolved alienation of human agency. In the 1844 manuscripts, as well as in the unfinished Grundrisse (1857) and in the first volume of Capital (1867), Marx portrays money as the ontological foundation of a uniquely pecuniary way of being in the world—a metaphysics of money that resembles and supplants traditional forms of enchantment. On one level, money is another marker of alienation: Like divinity, it betokens “the alienated ability of mankind.”99xThe Marx-Engels Reader, 104.

Here, as elsewhere in Marx, rhetorical brio serves philosophical insight. Having drowned religious faith in the arctic of pecuniary reason, money becomes “the almighty being,” the “truly creative power,” the de facto ontological basis of reality in capitalist civilization. “The power of money in bourgeois society” extends farther and deeper than the market in commodities; like the God of Genesis, it brings things into being from nothing, and consigns all indigent objects and desires to the void of nonexistence. “If I have the vocation for study but no money for it, I have no vocation for study—that is, no effective, no true vocation. On the other hand, if I have really no vocation for study but have the will and the money for it, I have an effective vocation for it.”1010xIbid., 104–05.

As the metaphysical common sense of market society, money defines and even bestows all manner of qualities. “I am stupid, but money is the real mind of all things and how then should its possessor be stupid?” Money can even buy you love: “I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money.” Like the fetishes of tribal peoples, money confers extraordinary powers once believed to belong to shamans, priests, and gods.1111xIbid.

Money’s enchanting powers are even more evident in Marx’s analysis of “the fetishism of commodities, and the secret thereof,” one of the more trenchant passages in Capital. From the sardonic opening of the chapter—the commodity is “a queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”—through the exposure of “all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labor as long as they take the form of commodities,” Marx maintains that commodity fetishism amounts to the sacramental system of capitalism. (At one point, Marx compares the commodity fetish to the Eucharist.)1212xKarl Marx, Capital (Oxford, England, and New York, NY: Oxford, 2008), 42, 26. Originally published 1867.

The “secret” of fetishized commodities lies in their twofold character as “use-value” and as “exchange-value.” The use-value of objects resides in their particular, qualitatively different uses—shoes for feet, food for eating, shirts for adornment. Their exchange-value rests in their status as commodities, objects produced for sale in the market for the purpose of capital accumulation. In order for these commodities to be exchanged for money, their incommensurable use values must be obscured; they must somehow be rendered qualitatively identical to other commodities.

The “universal equivalent” of money—“the god among commodities,” as Marx had dubbed it in the Grundrisse—performs this act of ontological prestidigitation. Objects become “worth” so much in money; their value is defined in terms of money, not in terms of their utility for human purposes. In the market, this pecuniary alchemy induces the spell of “fetishism,” by which people attribute a kind of agency and independence to commodities, the products of their own labor. Pervaded and commanded by the “god among commodities,” objects are enchanted, enlivened, by money—the metaphysical substratum of capitalist society. Thus commodity fetishism is a specifically capitalist form of alienation, a modern recipe for the opium of the people.1313xKarl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York, NY: Penguin, 1993), 139. Translation originally published 1973. On the process of fetishization, see Marx, Capital, 42–50.

Despite the allures of capitalist enchantment, Marx was confident that revolutionary theory and practice would dispel the sacramental glamour of capitalism. When money and commodity fetishism were finally exposed as the lustrous guise of alienation, workers would retrieve the means of humanity, and the communist society of the future would have no need for magical compensations.

Yet Marx provided ample reason to doubt that what he called the “pre-history” of the species would end in a Götterdämmerung of disenchantment. It was never clear that the reduction of workers to industrial servitude would lead eventually to revolution, as money, that “god among commodities,” exercised an increasingly potent and untrammeled authority in capitalist society. If capitalism enervates or demolishes all traditional sources of moral and ontological truth—if indeed, as proclaimed in the Manifesto, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned,” all that is enchanted is disenchanted—nothing but capitalism could generate resistance to the rage to accumulate.

But as the metaphysical regime of capitalism, monetary and commodity fetishism was at least as beguiling as any previous order of enchantment, especially as all its rivals were evaporating. If the proletariat is thoroughly permeated by pecuniary enchantment, why would the oppressed ever desire the transcendence of alienation and servility? With sufficient technical and political ingenuity—mass production, consumer culture, the welfare and regulatory policies of modern liberalism and social democracy—the sacramental tokens of commodity fetishism could retard and even extinguish the growth of revolutionary consciousness.

A Sacramental Alternative

Yet if Marxism accounts for the persistence of enchantment in a scientific and technological age, it does so in large measure, as Simone Weil once remarked, because it is also “the highest spiritual expression of bourgeois society.” It always bears repeating that capitalism, in Marxist eschatology, is a necessary stage in historical development, and that it shares with its nemesis a commitment to expanding productivity as a vehicle of “progress”—defined as the achievement of material abundance through the technological exploitation of nature. For both the bourgeoisie and its revolutionary antagonists, progress is fuelled, under capitalism, by the rage to accumulate through commodity production; if capitalists do not see “fetishism” or “enchantment” in the primacy of money or the circulation of commodities, Marxists who (rightly) see both must nonetheless consider them progressive in character, aiding in that “development of the productive forces” that must precede the construction of socialism and communism.1414xSimone Weil, “Fragments, 1933–1938,” in Oppression and Liberty, trans. Arthur Wills and John Petrie (New York, NY: Routledge, 2013), 124. Translation originally published 1973.

Thus the progress of history is driven by enchantment; money’s moral and ontological charms sanction “primitive accumulation,” the dispossession of producers from the means of production and their conversion into wage laborers; the industrial division of labor and the ecological despoliation of the planet; the proletarianization of agricultural, artisanal, and eventually professional skills, all increasingly monopolized by a techno-managerial elite beholden only to capital; and the construction of a gorgeous symbolic universe of advertising, marketing, and entertainment, the arsenal of what David Graeber has characterized as capital’s “war on the imagination.” If Marxism demonstrates that we have never been disenchanted, it would also seem to prove that the enchantments of capitalism will be well-nigh impossible to eradicate.1515xDavid Graeber, Revolutions in Reverse: Essays on Politics, Violence, Art, and Imagination (New York, NY: Dubois, 2011), 6.

Weil traced the failure of the Marxist revolutionary imagination to its species of materialism. Like other nineteenth-century materialists, Marx conceived of matter as an inert and lifeless ensemble of forces; however “historical” his materialism claimed to be, the inertia of matter entailed subjection to the inviolable laws of the natural—and only—world. But if matter—including historical matter—is governed only by force, then the mechanisms of capitalist matter were, on Marx’s own terms, invincible. “Marx’s revolutionary materialism,” Weil observed, “consists in positing on the one hand that everything is exclusively regulated by force, and on the other that a day will come when force will be on the side of the weak. Not that certain ones who were weak will become strong … but that the entire mass of the weak, while continuing to be such, will have force on its side.” While Weil praised Marx for his acute portrayal of the apparatus of capitalist domination, she realized that the political implications of inanimate materialism were anything but emancipatory.1616xWeil, 183.

Rather than reactively dismiss materialism altogether in favor of some “spiritual” ontology of politics, Weil hinted at a sacramental alternative. Shortly before her untimely death in 1943, Weil—by then what could be described as a fellow-traveler of Christianity, someone lingering in the vestibule but never entering the sanctuary—speculated that just as “yeast only makes the dough rise if it is mixed with it,” so in the same way “there exist certain material conditions for the supernatural operation of the divine that is present on earth.” The knowledge of those “material conditions” for “supernatural operation” would, Weil surmised, constitute “the true knowledge of social mechanics.” If matter is not exactly “animate,” the material world of society and history could be a conduit for divinity. Because we have “forgotten the existence of a divine order of the universe,” we fail to see that “labor, art, and science are only different ways of entering into contact with it.”1717xWeil, 157, 159.

Weil’s gesture toward a “true knowledge of social mechanics” suggested a politics of the sacramental imagination. “Sacramentality” is a key but somewhat amorphous and elusive concept in Christian theology, referring not only to the official roster of sacraments but to the character of created reality as well. Just as a sacrament is a visible, material sign and vessel of divine grace, so matter itself is similarly “trans-corporeal,” as theologian Graham Ward puts it. As Rowan Williams explains, sacramentality entails the belief that “material things carry their fullest meaning … when they are the medium of gift, not instruments of control or objects for accumulation.” In what I am calling the sacramental imagination, “the corporeal and the incorporeal do not comprise a dualism,” as Ward asserts; the visible, material realm “manifests the watermark of its creator.”1818xGraham Ward, Cities of God (London, England, and New York, NY: Routledge, 2000), 81–96, 157; Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford, England: Oxford 2000), 218.

This sacramental critique of Marxist metaphysics would not be that it is “too materialist” but rather that it is not materialist enough—that is, that it does not provide an adequate account of matter itself, of its sacramental and revelatory character. Sacramentality has ontological and social implications, for the “gift” that Williams identifies is “God’s grace and the common life thus formed.”1919xWilliams, On Christian Theology, 218.

Theologians concerned with consumer culture employ sacramentality as a critique of commodification. “Commodities are transubstantiated into sacraments … in a world empty of the presence of God,” Terence Tilley contends, becoming Williams’s “instruments of control” and “objects of accumulation.” Yet this way of putting it may concede too much to the conventional narrative of disenchantment—God, if not dead, has been eclipsed. But if the world is never “empty of the presence of God,” commodification—and the fetishism from which it is inseparable—might better be characterized as a perversion or parody of the sacramental nature of material life.2020xTerrence Tilley, Inventing Catholic Tradition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 131.

Since the Enlightenment, the hegemony of modern scientific and technological rationality has rendered belief in the “sacramentality” of the world, at best, a beautiful article of private faith. But even after the triumph of disenchantment among those Friedrich Schleiermacher dubbed the “cultured despisers” of Christianity, a sacramental imagination endured among its cultured, if not necessarily orthodox, admirers, especially among Romantic writers and intellectuals.

An Aesthetic Asylum

As the doyen of scholars of Romanticism, M. H. Abrams, explained, secularization has not been “the deletion and replacement of religious ideas” but rather their “assimilation and reinterpretation.” Romantics, in his view, provided an aesthetic asylum for the spirits of pre-modern enchantment. Like Thomas Carlyle’s Professor Teufelsdröckh, the philosopher-prophet of Sartor Resartus (1831), they longed to “embody the divine Spirit” of the gospel “in a new Mythus, in a new vehicle and vesture, that our Souls … may live.” But Romanticism did more than preserve an interior enclave for the supernatural; as Bernard Reardon perceived, it also named “the inexpungeable feeling that the finite is not self-explaining and self-justifying” and that “there is always an infinite ‘beyond’”—a beyond that lived in the midst of us, leaving numinous traces in the world of appearance. In other words, Romanticism is the modern heir to the Christian sacramental imagination.2121xM. H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature (New York, NY: Norton, 1973), 13; Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (London, England: Chapman and Hall, 1872), 134; Bernard M. G. Reardon, Religion in the Age of Romanticism: Studies in Early Nineteenth-Century Thought (New York, NY: Cambridge, 1985), 3.

Conveyed in a poetic rather than a theological idiom, Romantic ontology envisioned a reality that both transcended and pervaded the sensible world. Some of the signature passages of Romantic poetry are modern sacramental epiphanies. In his “Auguries of Innocence” (c. 1803) William Blake beckoned us

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand,
And Eternity in an hour.

Later, in “Tintern Abbey” (1798), William Wordsworth reported

A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

The sacramental rapture of those passages might serve to reinforce the caricature of Romantic hostility to reason. Yet for Romantics the enemy was not reason per se, but rather what Blake cursed as “single vision”: the occlusion of sacramental sight, the optics of mastery and exploitation, the inability to see the world as anything more than material resources.

Although divorced from orthodox theology, Romantic humanism echoed the traditional harmony of reason, love, and reality. When Romantics praised “enthusiasm,” “reverence,” and “imagination,” they restated the venerable Christian wisdom that reason is rooted in love, that full and genuine understanding precludes a desire to possess and control. Against the imperious claims of “Urizen”—Blake’s fallen “Prince of Light” and your reason reduced to measurement and calculation—Blake countered that “Enthusiastic Admiration is the First Principle of Knowledge & its last.” “To know a thing, what we can call knowing,” Carlyle surmised in Heroes and Hero-Worship (1840), we “must first love the thing, sympathise with it.” Arising from a sacramental sense of the world as a “region of the Wonderful,” Carlyle’s incessant admonitions to “reverence” and “wonder” were, at bottom, exhortations to love.2222xWilliam Blake, “Annotations to the Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds,” in The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1982), 647; Carlyle, Heroes and Hero-Worship (London, England: Chapman and Hall, 1840), 99; Sartor Resartus, 187.

“Imagination” was the name Romantics gave to this erotic and sacramental consciousness. Yet imagination was not only a subjective enchantment; in the Romantic sensibility, imagination was the most perspicuous form of vision—the ability to see what is really there, behind the illusion or obscurity produced by our will to dissect and dominate. To Samuel Taylor Coleridge, if reason is “the power of universal and necessary convictions, the source and substance of truths above sense,” then imagination is its vibrant sacramental partner, “the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception … a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” For Romantics, imagination did not annul but rather completed rationality. During the French Revolution, Wordsworth observed, reason seemed “most intent on making of herself / A prime Enchantress.” Though warning of the brutality of instrumental reason—“our meddling intellect / Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things; / We murder to dissect”—Wordsworth described imagination as “Reason in her most exalted mood.” Imagination was, for the Romantics, the ecstasy of reason.2323xSamuel Taylor Coleridge, “Aids to Reflection” (1825) in The Complete Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (New York, NY: Harper, 1884), 241; William Wordsworth, “The French Revolution as It Appeared to Its Enthusiasts at Its Commencement,” in Selected Poetry of William Wordsworth, ed. Mark Van Doren (New York, NY: Modern Library, 1956), 58; “A Few Lines Written Above Tintern Abbey,” in William Wordsworth: The Major Works, ed. Stephen Gill (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 131; “The Prelude,” Selected Poetry, 583.

As the sacramental imagination in its most reputable form after the Enlightenment, Romanticism has been, as Robert Sayre and Michael Lowy have argued, “a vital component of modern culture,” pervading an extraordinary array of aesthetic, political, and religious figures and movements—some of which were explicitly opposed to capitalism, though not necessarily from what we call “the Left.” Indeed, the fondness for the Middle Ages displayed by some Romantic intellectuals has led to dismissal of Romanticism as a lovely incubator of irrationalism, reaction, and even fascism. But many other Romantic anti-capitalists did not seek to resurrect the past; they invoked the past for a critical perspective on the present more ontologically penetrating and politically promising than the futures held out by the disenchanted heirs of the Enlightenment. Though in no way systematic, the sacramental imagination of Romantic social criticism—better described, perhaps, as Carlyle did, as “Prophecy”—began from an ontology of sacral materialism, in terms of which the injustice and indignity that attended the accumulation of capital comprised a desecration.2424xRobert Sayre and Michael Lowy, “Figures of Romantic Anti-Capitalism,” New German Critique 32 (Spring-Summer 1984), 42; Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, 130.

The lineage of Romantic anti-capitalism is too long and motley to delineate here, but its first representatives, Carlyle and John Ruskin, sketched the outlines of a prophetic sacramental imagination for subsequent critics of capitalist enchantment. In Sartor Resartus, “wonder” is Carlyle’s term for both the awareness and the ontological condition of sacramentality. “The Universe is not dead,” he declares, but rather “godlike,” pervaded by “an Invisible, Unnameable, Godlike, present everywhere in all that we see and work and suffer.” Against this sacral materialism Carlyle poses the “Gospel of Mammonism” in his indictment of industrial England, Past and Present (1843). Mammonism is the good news that money possesses and bestows a trove of “miraculous facilities.” Money conjures a “horrid enchantment”—“enchantment,” to Carlyle, is the counterfeit of wonder—in which owners and workers walk “spell-bound” in the midst of “plethoric wealth.”2525xSartor Resartus, 99; Carlyle, Past and Present (London, England: Chapman & Hall, 1843), 2, 4, 7, 124, 166.

While Ruskin’s contemporaneous prominence as an acerbic critic of industrial capitalism is being recalled today by many on the post-Marxist Left, his sacramental conception of reality and especially of human beings is usually overlooked. First exhibited in his renowned work on art history and criticism, Ruskin’s sacramental imagination soon embraced his social and ecological concerns as well. In the fifth volume of Modern Painters (1860), Ruskin declared that the “directest manifestation of Deity to man is in His own image, that is, in man.” Earlier, in a passage in the fourth volume of Modern Painters (1856), he had mused that “in the midst of the material nearness of these heavens” God desires that we “acknowledge His own immediate presence.”2626xJohn Ruskin, Modern Painters, Vol. V (London, England: Smith, Elder and Co., 1860), 202; Modern Painters, Vol. IV (London, England: Smith, Elder and Co., 1856), 89.

Ruskin’s eloquent critiques of industrial capitalism were embedded in this sacramental ontology and humanism. His condemnation of mechanization—that it “unhumanizes” human beings of their creative skills—stemmed from his conviction that the industrial division of labor was a sacrilege against “His own image.” The broadside against what he called the “nescience” of economics in Unto This Last (1862) reflected Ruskin’s “amazement” at a world that “reaches yet into the infinite.” His celebrated maxim, “there is no wealth but life,” arose from this sense of an “infinity” that cherished and enlivened the whole of creation—a creation that mercenary plunder was reducing to a disenchanting wasteland. In The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884), Ruskin’s eerie premonition of ecological calamity, capitalist depredation corroded and perverted the planet’s sacramental character. Because of industrial pollution, the climate exuded “iniquity”; the clouds announced “bitterness and malice”; smoke and sludge befouled “the visible Heaven” of nature.2727xRuskin, excerpt from The Nature of Gothic in Unto This Last and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (New York, NY: Penguin, 1985), 84; Unto This Last, 222, 226; The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (New York, NY: J. Wiley and Sons, 1884), 34, 43, 71.

The Dustbin of Disenchantment

Well after the classic age of Romanticism, its sacramental dialect shaped the vernacular of a host of non-Marxist radicals in Europe and the United States. Before the success of the Bolshevik Revolution gave Marxism a near-monopoly on the radical imagination, Romanticism flourished among a motley range of critics. It animated the transatlantic Arts and Crafts movement, one of whose American devotees described craftsmanship as “the sacrament of common things.” God, another artisanal ideologue put it, is “woven in tapestries and beaten in brasses and bound in the covers of books.”2828xQuoted in T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880–1920 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago, 1981), 73. Horace Traubel quoted in Michael Robertson, Worshipping Walt: The Whitman Disciples (Princeton, NJ: Princeton, 2008), 264.

A disciple of nature in the California redwoods, John Muir saw “sparks of the Divine Spirit variously clothed upon with flesh, leaves, rock, water”; the human body was a “flesh-and-bone tabernacle.” Developers who wanted to ravage the landscape for profit were “temple-destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism.” In search of what he called a “passionate vision,” William James affirmed “saintliness” as a human ideal in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1905) on account of the saint’s “rapture” and “ontological wonder.” Contemptuous of capitalist society’s reduction of life to moneymaking, James upheld the saint as an emissary from “another kingdom of being”—this world, apprehended in rapturous ontological wonder. Our proper attitude, as James wrote in “What Makes a Life Significant” (1900), is to be “rapt with satisfied attention … to the mere spectacle of the world’s presence.” The Christian socialist Vida Dutton Scudder outlined a sacramental counter to Marxist materialism in Socialism and Character (1912), arguably an early document of liberation theology. “The material universe,” Scudder contended, “is a sacrament ordered to convey spiritual life to us.” Since work and technology were material vessels of grace as well as forces of production, class struggles were conflicts over the means of beatitude.2929xJohn Muir, The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, ed. Lianne Wolfe (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), 138; Muir: Nature Writings (New York, NY: Library of America, 1997), 161; William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York, NY: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1928 [1902]), 254–369; Vida Dutton Scudder, Socialism and Character (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1912), 147.

After World War I, the sacramental critique of capitalism abided, fraying or severing its connection to socialist politics and linking up with a more freelance radicalism. James Agee, for instance, considered his report on Alabama sharecroppers beaten down by the Great Depression, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), a meditation on the “predicaments of human divinity.” Only a recollection of the image and likeness of God, Agee thought, could reveal “the true proportions of the savageness of the world.” Agee’s description of one family’s house—a “tabernacle,” he wrote, a sacred space “not to me but of itself”—conveyed the intrinsic, indestructible sacramentality of even the most wretched of the earth. Later, Allen Ginsberg exclaimed in “Howl” (1956) of the “heaven which exists, and is everywhere around us” being consumed by “Moloch,” a behemoth of mercenary and technological nihilism:

Moloch whose mind is pure
      machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! …
Moloch whose love is endless
     oil and stone! Moloch whose soul is electricity and banks! …

Kenneth Rexroth—anarchist, grey eminence of American bohemia, and syncretist of Catholicism and Buddhism—wrote of “the world as streaming / In the electrolysis of love.” In both The Making of a Counter Culture (1969) and Where the Wasteland Ends (1972), Theodore Roszak praised the Romantics for their “sacramental consciousness,” which he hoped to enlist against a technocratic capitalism that now enjoyed a perverse “monopoly of the sacramental powers.” Consigning Marxism and other secular revolutionary theories to the dustbin of disenchantment, Roszak called on a new generation of radicals who knew that “politics is metaphysically grounded” to draw upon “primordial energies greater than the power of our bombs.”3030xJames Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001 [1941]), x, 94, 117, 121; Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1956), 21; Kenneth Rexroth, “The Signature of All Things,” in The Collected Shorter Poems (New York, NY: New Directions, 1967), 177; Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1969); Theodore Roszak, Where The Wasteland Ends: Politics and Transcendence in Postindustrial Society (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1972), 277–465.

As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton realized, those “primordial energies” could be as gentle as the rain. In “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” a haunting essay in Raids on the Unspeakable (1966), Merton imagined the sad perversity of a world reduced to inventory. As he listened to showers in the forest near Gethsemani, the Kentucky abbey where he lived, Merton hastened to convey the beauty of the rain before it “becomes a utility that they can plan and distribute for money”—they meaning business, determined to take everything free and incalculable and make it a paying proposition.3131xThomas Merton, “Rain and the Rhinoceros,” in Raids on the Unspeakable (New York, NY: New Directions, 1966), 9.

To Merton, this insatiable avarice indicated an evil much deeper than moral perversion; it emanated from a capitalist enchantment that only masqueraded as secularity. Business was launching an ontological regime in which “what has no price has no value, that what cannot be sold is not real”; in the cosmology of capital, “the only way to make something actual is to place it on the market.” Graphing the rain on the commercial axis of effective demand and scarcity of supply, the alchemists of commerce cannot “appreciate its gratuity.” Yet for those who saw the world as the lavish largesse of a loving and prodigal God, “rain is a festival,” a celebration of its own gifted and gloriously pointless existence. “Every plant that stands in the light of the sun is a saint and an outlaw,” he exulted. “Every blade of grass is an angel in a shower of glory.”3232xIbid., 106.

Who are the acolytes of Romantic sacramentalism in our own age of mercenary enchantment, when the specter of ecological catastrophe forms a global storm-cloud of the twenty-first century? Pope Francis I, for one, who in his recent encyclical, Laudato Si’ (2015), provides an erudite and often moving manifesto of the sacramental imagination. Opening with his namesake’s “Canticle to the Creatures,” the Pope proceeds to excoriate the economic system for pillaging the earth and its inhabitants; the biosphere “groans in travail,” as he cites Paul’s warning to the Romans.3333xFrancis I, Laudato si’ [Encyclical on care for our common home], sec. 1–2.

But as Francis insists in his own epistle to the disenchanted, the root of the violence wrought upon the planet lies in an ontological blindness. Divine love is “the fundamental moving force in all created things,” Francis writes; the world is “illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion.”3434xIbid., sec. 76–77. No doubt this will all seem foolish to the shamans and magicians of neoliberal capitalism, whose own imaginations are lavishly imprisoned in the gaudy cage of disenchantment. The Romantics would remind us that our capacity to act well relies on our capacity to see what is really there. For there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley.