Happiness is a Warm Space: Enchantment as Feminist Virtue by Amy Levin
Living in New York has its vices, and anxiety-triggering space is one of many. Though the city offers ailments just the same, whether they are in the form of meditation or medication, I’m beginning to believe the statistics delineating just how much more anxious us city-dwellers have become. But once in a while you catch a break.
This past Friday, for me, it was the free admission to the Museum of Modern Art. My favorite exhibition room of the MoMA is neither original nor surprising – Monet’s water lilies. The cool hues of greens, blues, and purples that spread across the triptych canvases so effortlessly interrupt the chaotic bodies roaming about the room, evoking a calm, liberating energy. My lungs expand, my shoulders relax. It is my opinion that more people sit down in this room more than any other in the museum. These ameliorating spaces, which, using Monet’s words, provide a “balm for the modern soul,” not only lift us emotionally and physically, but they offer us something a bit more. . .metaphysical. The water lilies are just one example of the way that art can offer us a sort of spiritual uplift in, what most of us would consider, a secular space.
Pushing back against the modernist view that the world is disenchanted, scholar Jane Bennett, and I second her thesis, believes that modern life is, in fact, very enchanted. In Bennett’s book, The Enchantment of Modern Life, she argues that modern life not only is filled with enchantment, but that objects and moments of enchantment are everywhere and contain ethical potentiality. The feeling of enchantment, for Bennett, is about a mood of fullness, liveliness, or even a jolt of the nerves, waking us up to the doldrums of life’s everyday banalities. Regardless of whether or not we call the mood of enchantment a “religious” experience, I would imagine that my feeling of calm as I admired Monet’s beautiful lilies might be compared to what many people experience during prayer, chanting, etc.
I am interested in these spaces of enchantment in regard to feminism and religion because the (secular) space of enchantment is much like (post) modern spaces of feminism. In its third wave/fourth wave/ post-modern wave, whatever you like to call the current age of feminism, it is sometimes difficult to articulate the many forms of violence still done to women. However, for me, I have always felt that much of my feminism has been about the ability to occupy space – mentally, physically, and vocally. Many modern art forms, from ballet to structuralist painting and architecture, are about limiting and controlling space. Gender normativity is also about a limitation of space, as it provides rules and regulations for dress, conduct, and speech. That is why when I occupy space in non-normative, queer ways, whether it is in the form of modern dance, raising my voice in protest, or allowing myself to stare at a single Monet painting for 30 minutes, I feel a sense of enchantment.
Part of the reason I am so drawn to enchantment is because I feel, in a sense, deprived of religious experiences. While I identify culturally and ethnically as a Jew, I am not a theist, and as such have attempted to cultivate spiritual experiences through artistic and non-traditional means. I am also drawn to enchantment in a feminist sense, because the feeling of fullness and liveliness is one that I associate with a freedom to occupy space with ease and a confidence with one’s own body. Women are socialized from a young age to conduct themselves in a particular ways. However, cultivating and recognizing moments of enchantment offers us the chance to transform what would be a stressful, anxious walk down Broadway into an experience of delightful disturbance, of feeling alive and full.
For Bennett, almost anything in life can be experienced as enchanting, down to a pair of Gap khakis and the way they serve and swing in a late 90’s Gap commercial. Perhaps not everyone can or should feel enlivened by the way a pair of slacks jump, jive, and wail through space, but there is something to be said for opening up the potentiality for positive experiences in an increasingly dog-eat-dog world, and a still-sustaining patriarchal one I might add. For me, enchantment is all about occupying modern spaces in new ways and imagining new possibilities for feeling, generosity, and liveliness. Feminism, in its post-modern forms, is also about occupying spaces in imaginative ways, and pushing back against non-seeming patriarchal spaces. Perhaps enchantment is just the type of balm we modern women need.
Amy Levin completed her M.A. in Religious Studies at New York University with an interdisciplinary focus on American religious liberalism, gender and queer theory, and religion and the public sphere. She is an editorial assistant at The Revealer.