A Library of Human Feeling: Enchantment as a Form of Care in Patricia Lockwood and Dana Spiotta / Teddy Hamstra

“Cañadón del Río Pinturas, Cueva de las manos, Santa Cruz, Argentina”. Photo by Pablo A. Gimenez

The mythographer Joseph Campbell frequently wrote of the mystical states that narratives, myths, could take one to, wherein humans become “transparent to the transcendent,” which finds a perhaps surprising conversant in the literary critic Rita Felski’s understanding that “enchantment is soaked through with an unusual intensity of perception and affect…time slows to a halt; you feel yourself caught in an eternal, unchanging present.”1 Novels, like creeper vines or canvas paintings or stones in a river, can become objects of enchantment that “give us the magic, as well as the mundanity, of the everyday; they infuse things with wonder, enliven the inanimate world, invite ordinary and often overlooked phenomena to shimmer forth as bearers of aesthetic, affective, even metaphysical meanings.”2 What unites Felski and Campbell in my reading of two contemporary novels by Patricia Lockwood and Dana Spiotta is a conviction that engagement with narrative itself is a source for re-enchantment as a distinct form of care.

Decades before Felski wrote of the novel’s power to enchant the mundane through an experience of heightened sensory awareness, Campbell spoke of enchantment in a lecture about the yogic meditative tradition centered on the sound AUM. He said “once you have heard that sound, you will hear it in all things. Listen to the sound of the city, listen to the sound of the icebox, listen to any sounds without personifying them and defining them and you will hear aum. When aum has been heard, since it is the very sound of your own heart and being, it will enchant you.”3 The capacity for meditative awareness of sensory phenomena to re-enchant the experience of modernity is, finally, what Campbell really believed “the power of myth” to contain. Re-enchantment is an abiding-within the apparent hopelessness of an epoch marked by climate disasters, pandemics, and all manner of societal unraveling. The art-making that novelists like Patricia Lockwood and Dana Spiotta variously dramatize as persisting, during such upheavals, is not a form of solipsistic reverie indulged in to escape an incomprehensible present. Rather, the work of re-enchantment is an attending to the human-other in a more humane way, and a deep awareness that the act of storytelling itself occurs on this planet and must attend to all that it contains, the living, the dead, the animate, the inanimate and that which dwells in the possible.

Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (2021), together with another recent novel, Spiotta’s Wayward (2021), comprises an unofficial experiment in literary representations of “re-enchantment.” Both Lockwood and Spiotta attempt to fictionalize the way we live now with climate catastrophes, an increasingly berserk political sphere, and how the new epistemic system of doom-scrolling seems to make any “solutions” to these crises appear unfathomable and hopeless. While these are indeed the threads explicitly linking both novels, I find the implicit dyad they create is one wherein re-enchantment is imagined as a form of care. In this essay, I discuss how these authors ground their narratives in a humane preoccupation with care paralleling, the ethos re-enchantment fosters in observers: contingent yet profound, wonderment. The novels discussed here spark in readers this very magic in the mundane. With Felski’s definition in mind, I argue that Lockwood and Spiotta “re-enchant” readers into moments of heightened sensory awareness that have the capacity to attune us to a more humane vision of relationality. They echo Felski’s understanding of enchantment as narrative moments of rapture wherein chronology suspends and sensory experience takes on a heightened character with revelatory potential. Moments that are rendered by these novelists in the expansive, atemporal narrative device of the list or catalogue. No One is Talking About This and Wayward both curiously include moments of enchantment that anchor their respective affective, emotional cores, and both contain scenes where their narrator’s sensory enchantment occasions lyrical ruminations upon the very experiment of human culture and experience.

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At one point in No One is Talking About This, Lockwood’s narrator is watching the 1988 PBS special about Campbell, The Power of Myth. A short paragraph of simple description relays Campbell reflecting on “the creeper that climbed the coconut tree in his house in Hawaii, how the creeper knew where to go and where to turn its leaves, how it had a form of consciousness.” He notes: “I begin to feel more and more that the whole world is conscious”; “these are the eyes of the earth. And this is the voice of the earth (Lockwood, 164)” This contemplation of the sentience of all that exists on the earth is of a piece with late 20th century reconsiderations of animism, most notably James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, but why is it apparently resonant to a writer of our present such as Lockwood? “Re-enchantment” is a usable term, with nuanced distinctions across disciplines,4 from modes of thought such as New Materialism, or reconsidering science as a new type of magic, but it broadly encompasses speculations upon the agency of the apparently inanimate, and new mappings of the relation between the human and non-human worlds. But what I am interested in is how re-enchantment surfaces in a novel like No One Is Talking About This citing The Power of Myth’s animistic musing: if a meditative form of awareness may indeed lead to new perceptions of the non-human writ large, might that create new forms of care, and what would this look like on the level of narrative?

Moments of enchantment (albeit contingent ones) in Wayward and No One Is Talking About This, lead not to Weberian pessimism or alienation but instead to experiences of wonderment and concern for the animate and inanimate alike, the human and the nonhuman worlds. I want to propose a definition of “re-enchantment” whose “re” is less in the service of a returning to prior forms of enchantment and is instead a reimagining of enchantment as a form of care within a cultural moment that is grappling with the implications of precarity and collapse. Re-enchantment has been provocatively and luminously theorized in works by the cultural historian Michael Saler, the religious historian Charles Taylor, and the new materialist theorist Jane Bennett. Max Weber’s oft discussed lecture on modernity as a “disenchanted” time hovers behind the discourse of “re-enchantment,” and Saler is careful to maintain that “it would be foolish to deny the acuity of this analysis in the light of modern history. But not enough emphasis has been given to the ways in which many in the West have gradually acclimated themselves to the lack of shared meaning by embracing the enchanting possibilities inherent within contingent and provisional meanings.”5 Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age provides one of the most extensive analyses of both Weberian disenchantment and a historically rooted definition of “enchantment” in its premodern European context. Enchantment was, fundamentally, the belief that “power also resided in things…the line between personal agency and impersonal force was not at all clearly drawn.”6 With Saler’s emphasis upon “contingent meanings” in mind, Taylor is lucid in stating that, where enchantment occurs, “meanings are not only in minds, but can reside in things, or in various kinds of extra-human but intra-cosmic subjects.”7 Enchantment is a profound acknowledgement of agency beyond that of the human, and for Jane Bennett the dilemma is “whether the very characterization of the world as disenchanted ignores and then discourages affective attachment to that world.”8 Bennett’s wager9 is that not only do moments of enchantment carry “a condition of exhilaration or acute sensory activity… simultaneously transfixed in wonder and transported by sense, to be both caught up and carried away,”10 but that “the mood of enchantment may be valuable for ethical life.”11

The two novels encompass a dramatic leap of chronology, wherein their settings veer from a clearly identifiable 2017 in the wake of the Trump Inauguration (Wayward) to a near future, digital dystopia after a major climate collapse milestone (No One Is Talking About This). Their chronologies map with how these authors play with the tropes of different genres: Spiotta’s firm historical grounding in the recent present follows the realist tradition, while No One Is Talking About This is something of a hybrid between the nonfictional confessional of her Priestdaddy and her prior poetry collections, albeit one published as a series of Tweets. The increasing opacity of historical setting from Spiotta’s to Lockwood’s novels mirrors each narrator’s (or protagonist’s) identifiability. Wayward is a matriarchal portrait of three generations of women centered on the principal heroine Sam (followed by her seventeen-year-old daughter Ally and her slowly dying mother). Lockwood’s narrator remains anonymous, a touring celebrity speaker whose fame is traced to a form of Tweet in an immersive social media internet realm dubbed “The Portal” wherein she pondered “Can a dog be twins?”

Wayward follows Sam as she moves into an Arts & Crafts-style home in Syracuse,12 New York, unconsciously leaving her marriage in the process and leading to a period of prolonged estrangement with her teenage daughter Ally. We follow Sam’s growing interest in, and involvement with “myriad homesteading groups… off-the-grid (coed) homesteading groups focused on practical, Whole Earth Catalog-type skills from Morse code communications and well digging to sundial timekeeping…a plethora of (women-only) anti-tech homesteaders dedicated to living as if it were the past, with a specific cutoff date, such as 1912 or 1860 (interesting year choice on that) (Spiotta, 28)” Sam’s familial upheavals are mirrored by her anxieties of a misogynist nationalist in the White House and a looming, unavoidable climate crisis. The internet is thus a narrative realm populated by those, such as Sam, seeking alternative forms of meaning in a world that seems suddenly unknowable. Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (2021) is a prominent example of a contemporary novel burrowing into the meaning-making occurring in the dark corners of the internet and social media, and how one might contain it within narrative form. Wayward, however, opts to veer away from this digital cauldron, with Spiotta presenting an enchanted ethics of care stemming from moments of heightened sensory experience.

After a gym workout, Sam indulges in a peculiar, and tender, act of voyeurism when she notices “a woman was showering with her adult daughter, who had Down syndrome or something like it (Spiotta, 123)” Spiotta continues, “there is something human—touching—in the older body, in its honest relationship to decay and time (Spiotta, 123)” The soap, the water, the scrubbing, the washing are parts of this small human ritual of care, and as Spiotta concludes, “seeing the two women’s bodies, Sam felt a form of enchantment. To look, to behold, to abide age gave her an almost narcotic clarity; she could, for this moment, as long as it lasted, see and face what life really was (Spiotta, 123)” As Felski reminds, “for much of the longue duree of modernity, the novel is the genre most frequently accused of casting a spell on its readers; like a dangerous drug, it lures them away from their everyday lives in search of heightened sensations and undiluted pleasures.”13 Jane Bennett proves germane in this context, writing that because “you have to love life before you can care about anything… the wager is that, to some small but irreducible extent, 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.”14 When Sam “see[s] and face[s] what life really was” while observing the mother and daughter in the locker-room shower, she discovers a new, re-enchanted capacity for, simply, “loving life.” She is, at this point, still estranged from her teenage daughter Ally, and the scene of maternal care is a tableau reminding her what she lacks. Spiotta’s novel, then, may be read as a “form of enchantment” unto itself, one whose “narcotic clarity” does not lead to delirium but instead to the embodied experience of care and sensory awareness that Felski argues is the truly enchanting power of fiction.

By novel’s end, she and Ally do reconcile and Sam’s re-enchanted imagination extends its sense of care far beyond the specifics of her relationship with her daughter. A conversation with a woman—whom Spiotta refers to by her online username, “MH”—hinges on this very idea. Sam met MH through an online group, but she has difficulty sharing MH’s radical, borderline nihilistic, ethos. MH bluntly replies to Sam, “Care? That the catastrophe that was human civilization is dribbling out? Why would I care about us? the planet will change and go on without us…we are not as crucial as we think. We were a blip, a mistake, a failure (Spiotta, 206)” Spiotta grants a sparse “I don’t agree” to be voiced by Sam in the conversation, but on the level of narration turns to the form of the list, or perhaps better yet, the litany:

Standing there, at the fair in the rain, despite everything, Sam did care about the humans, the coming extinction. The idea that the world—the human world—would cease to exist came at her in a new way that seemed real and tragic. It was at these fairgrounds and in her house and everywhere around them still. The promise and life in all the buildings and paintings and books. The photos and the films, the music and the letters. Handwritten, saved, tied with ribbons. The jokes, the plays, the dances. The child’s drawing folded and tucked into a wallet, yellow with age. The churches built, the stories told, the meals prepared, the gravestones attended, all the little and big rituals. Poignant, tragic even, but not ridiculous. Beautiful in their totality (Spiotta, 206).

Bennett’s “wager” about the necessity for loving aliveness as a perquisite to a broader capacity for care is unquestionably this nigh-mystical experience that Sam undergoes in the rain. Likewise, in its encompassing of “all the little and big rituals,” Spiotta’s catalogue of humanity recalls the atemporal quality of enchanted moments Felski stresses. A similar echo may be found in the critic Maggie Nelson’s recent work On Freedom, wherein she distinguishes that “all care… has a tacit, if open-ended relationship to futurity”.15 “[I]n caring,” she continues, “time is folded: one is attending to the effects of past actions, attempting to mitigate present suffering, and doing what one can to reduce or obviate future suffering, all at once.” Enchantment, for all its cultural associations with the magical and the wondrous, may also be contemplated as the simple, yet equally fantastical, act of caring about what shape the future will take by telling stories of the present from a more empathically attuned perspective.

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Where Wayward’s Sam finds herself mildly embroiled in social media activism, conspiracy theorizing, and general escapism, the anonymous narrator of Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This is, colloquially, “extremely online” in the novel’s “Portal.” She does not provide a comprehensive definition of what exactly “the Portal” is, but it is fair to surmise that it is a virtual reality form of a Twitter-like platform. Unlike the Zuckerbergian Metaverse (which appears to be, essentially, a shopping mall, a nostalgic recapitulation of The Sims and AIM chatrooms dressed up as VR), Lockwood’s Portal is thoroughly phenomenological, and therefore a more terrifying proposition: “inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted (Lockwood, 3)” The “blizzard” is variously composed of “close-ups of nail art, a pebble form outer space, a tarantula’s compound eyes, a storm like canned peaches on the surface of Jupiter, Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters, a chihuahua perched on a man’s erection, a garage door spray-painted with the words STOP! DON’T EMAIL MY WIFE! (Lockwood, 3)” Inanity and profundity are squashed together in the Portal, and Lockwood’s unnamed protagonist is of a similarly smudged affect, veering between the snarky and the spiritual. The novel’s first half is devoted to following her on a lecture-circuit around the world, a rather lavish itinerary given that her celebrity derives from a question she posed in the Portal—“Can a dog be twins?”

The Portal is a fictional type of augmented reality (AR), but Lockwood’s novelistic brio is to confront her readers with a portrait of AR in the sensory realm of the human, and its unexpected pathways to empathic, and enchanted, care. Writing in The Enchantment of Modern Life, Jane Bennett denotes the titular experience as “a condition of exhilaration or acute sensory activity. To be simultaneously transfixed in wonder and transported by sense, to be both caught up and carried away—enchantment is marked by this odd combination of somatic effects.”16 Bennett’s enchanting possibilities of the senses can aid in contemplating the tonal and thematic shifts that Lockwood initiates in the novel’s bifurcated second half, one in which the emotional tenor of No One is Talking About This abruptly jettisons the shit-posting of The Portal to a human tragedy within the narrator’s extended family. Our narrator’s sister gives birth to a daughter in the novel’s second half. She is born with proteus syndrome, a rare and tragic malady wherein an overgrowth of skin and bone means that the child will likely die shortly after being born. As the narrator infers from the doctors attending to the newborn, “if she lived for long, they did now know what her life would be—she would live in her senses. Her fingertips, her ears, her sleepiness and her wide awake, a ripple along the skin wherever she was touched. All along her edges, just where she turned to another state (Lockwood, 128).” Describing her niece’s experience of life as one of “the self, but more, like a sponge. But thirsty (Lockwood, 128),” Lockwood presents a subtle rejoinder to criticisms of re-enchantment, that it is an indulgent and private experience of rapture removed from ethical considerations. Remembering Bennett’s clarification that moments of enchantment involves being “ simultaneously transfixed in wonder and transported by sense, to be both caught up and carried away” the scenes between the narrator and her niece become vignettes of enchantment as empathic care.

Such an ethics traces not the vortices of doctrinal laws but the empathic conduits between the non-human as well as within the human realm to those who may outwardly appear “other” to supposedly normative appearance or cognition. Sensory wonderment is, indeed, an experience latent with an ethics of care. Lockwood’s novel curiously shares the motif of the catalogue of human experience so central to the possibilities for re-enchantment in Wayward. “The things she wanted the baby to know seemed small, so small (Lockwood 163-64)” Lockwood writes of her narrator:

How it felt to go to a grocery store on vacation; to wake at three a.m. and run your whole life through your fingertips; first library card; new lipstick; a toe going numb for two months because you wore borrowed shoes to a friend’s wedding; Thursday; October; “She’s Like the Wind” in a dentist’s office; driver’s license picture where you look like a killer; getting your bathing suit back on after you go to the bathroom; touching a cymbal for sound and then touching it again for silence… (Lockwood, 163-64)”

The litany continues for several more lines, and concludes “the portal, but just for a minute.” No One is Talking About This begins with a cataloguing of “the blizzard of everything” that barrages the narrator upon opening the portal, and yet by novel’s end, Lockwood has unveiled a catalogue that, while equally scattershot and seemingly random, is a sanctuary of wonderment. A library of human feeling that she desperately wishes her niece to be able to share in, no matter how “small” they seem at first.

To amend Joan Didion’s iconic phrase, we tell ourselves stories in order to care. Wayward and No One Is Talking About This share a provocative motivating question: in the face of environmental apocalypse and geopolitical degeneration, can the storyteller enchant her readers to care for the people, places, and things that appear insurmountably affected by our epoch of crises. Lockwood narrates that “on the earth of the baby, the climate grew hotter: icebergs melted, the seas rose, permafrost cracked to release prehistory, sections of the Great Barrier Reef blinked out whitely and one by one. Despite all this, on the earth of the baby, the thing that was people talked, touched, painted pictures, kept going (Lockwood, 167)” The rhetorical practice of unspooling little “libraries of human feeling” in No One Is Talking About This and Wayward is a practice of re-enchantment, an AUM-like creative meditation that rearranges the molecular structure of language, as it were, away from its degradation as doom scrolling (best epitomized in the Portal) and into a new narrative mythos of care in the Anthropocene. Enchantment reimagined as care by Patricia Lockwood and Dana Spiotta may not offer a pragmatic solution to our epoch of the unfathomable and the unknowable, but neither does it shrink from it. Instead, such an ethics (and aesthetics) of re-enchantment dares to suggest that an awareness of aliveness can lead us to care for each other, for vines and rivers, for amphibians and migrating flocks, for glaciers and for grains of sand, with wonder.

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  1. Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, p. 55.
  2. Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, p. 70.
  3. Joseph Campbell, “Symbolism and Mystical Experience” (L121) delivered at Wainwright House on October 17, 1966 ; The Eastern Way, vol.3 of The Joseph Campbell Audio Collection; quoted in Myths of Light, p. 34.
  4. And it is certainly not a unified artistic movement; Lockwood and Spiotta have signed no manifesto of which I am aware.
  5. Michael Saler “Modernity and Enchantment: A Historiographic Review,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 111, No. 3, June 2006, p. 714.
  6. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, pp. 32-33.
  7. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, p. 33.
  8. Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life, Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 3.
  9. Returning to the subject of re-enchantment in her oft-cited Vibrant Matter (2009), Bennett reflected, “my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.”
  10. Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life, Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 5.
  11. Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life, Princeton University Press, 2001, p. 5.
  12. Syracuse, as Spiotta reminds, was “the inspiration for the Emerald City (though people don’t believe it). L. Frank Baum grew up with Syracuse as the big verdant city in the distance, so green it was emerald.” (85). It is appropriate, then, that Sam’s gradual experiences of re-enchantment occur in a city that provided literature and cinema with one of the most memorable spaces of enchantment.
  13. Rita Felski, The Uses of Literature. Wiley-Blackwell, 2008, pp. 52-53.
  14. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, 2009, p. 4.
  15. Maggie Nelson, On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Consent, Graywolf Press, 2021, p. 210.
  16. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, 2009, p. 6.