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Reenchanting the World

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that part of the Americans’ genius was their taming of the human pursuit of greatness. Their art was moderate, their religion egalitarian, and their guiding spirit was thoroughly anti-nobility. Their only stab at greatness was in the commercial world. “The Americans,” Tocqueville wrote, “put something heroic into their way of trading.” In all other spheres, Geminithey were that new human archetype: the bourgeois vanguard of a modern world yet unfolding. In other words, Americans lived in a world already “disenchanted.”

For years, humans lived in a world that was inextricably linked to an “enchanted” realm of meaning. Daily life was interwoven with the transcendent and eternal. In some cases, life was enchanted through reverence for ancestors, while in others community cultural or religious traditions filled the role. Rites and daily routines took shape via their relationship to these immaterial webs of meaning (See “beating the parish bounds” for an example). Participants in such traditions measured glory, greatness, and virtue by these enchanted standards. Was a leader demonstrating sufficient respect for the ancestors? The tradition itself? Were all members of the community behaving in accordance with laws from the divine? Were natural catastrophes proof that someone had deviated from the path of rectitude?

Tocqueville realized—in the 1830s—that the U.S. public sphere was comparatively earthbound. As the rest of the world was soon to discover, modernity wouldn’t link earthly behavior to some eternal chain of natural laws. Human connections to divine and transcendent things were going private: Americans remained devout, but their public life was disenchanted. We built our national institutions like a watch: a check here, a balance there, a little escape valve should things go awry, and a number of animating springs to keep things moving. Add the whole exceptionalism thing, the so-called Founding break from European traditions, the immigrant-fueled pluralist diversity, and “disenchantment” seems almost inevitable. With money to be made and a continent (and—often ignored—its inhabitants) to conquer, Americans simply weren’t interested in political transcendence. Just take a look at our Constitution! We’re about “domestic tranquility” and “common defence” and the “general welfare,” etc: material things.

In a certain sense, this is the fundamental wager at the heart of American life. We keep our public life segmented away from eternal questions. Those stay at home. And that’s how we get from the disenchanted world to soccer. Hyper-hyped beer commercials notwithstanding, we make the same wager with our athletic rivalries as with our politics. Sports are segmented away from eternal concerns—like ethnic identities or defining community causes—and this keeps them from getting too explosive.

Here’s an example: I grew up in a family with season tickets to the University of Michigan’s football games. Naturally, I learned to hate a certain band of villains and braggarts hailing from Columbus, Ohio. They stood between my childhood heroes and the Big Ten title. I loathed them as opponents, as a football team, and as a rival, but that was pretty much the whole of it. There was no deeper meaning to these games, no fundamental existential condition tied to the outcome. (Avenging the Michigan-Ohio War doesn’t really animate either side’s considerable enthusiasm.)

Compare that with another example, from a misty, murky Catalán night nearly a decade ago. FC Barcelona were in the midst of a terrible run (proof that this was truly mystical pre-history). They’ve just dropped another match and sit well back in the table behind hot-as-blazes Real Madrid. I, meanwhile, sit hunched over a table near the Plaça de Catalunya, with a stubborn-as-blazes friend from Boston. He’s arguing with a fellow culé about Barça’s troubles with their Castilian counterparts. My friend is suggesting that the Sox-Yankees rivalry is of greater import, of more fundamental drama, and of much (MUCH) greater size than el Clásico. I’m keeping my Estrella Damm close, and my opinions closer, as he gets worked up.

“After all!” he stammers, “After all—the Sox play the Yankees, what, over a dozen times a year? There’s a lot more money in that rivalry, no doubt, and it’s old, REALLY old—”

The other fellow cuts him off with a raise of the eyebrows and the slightest turn of his shoulders. Somewhere, from out of the dark, a gralla caressed the air, echoing down ageless Roman alleyways and down the length of the bar. “Tell me, then,” he grumbled, finishing his crematand standing up all at once, “How many wars have these cities—New York and Boston—fought against one another?”

He was halfway out the door and donning his barretina by the time he finished. End of discussion. Sit down, guiris, shut up.

Here’s the Tocquevillian point: in European club soccer, games are often (usually?) “enchanted.” They serve as alternative stagings for meanings and conflicts that transcend the action on the pitch. Simply put, the games stand in for other struggles. Take el Clásico : there is no segmenting it from traditions and identity and an indubitable mysticism. While it’s a prominent case, it’s hardly unique.

Heck, a few years before that, I’d found a Celtic-Rangers replay on TV, and casually decided to back Rangers. I didn’t have a particular reason, but I’d settled on them and was getting along just fine. Around halftime, my friend arrived and demanded that I give an account for myself. How could any Catholic (no matter how lapsed) pull for Rangers? Didn’t I know that my kind were unwelcome on that side of the Old Firm?

Forget that he was a (very) casual Episcopalian. Forget that neither of us followed the Scottish Premier League in the least. Forget that I’d come across the match while channel-surfing. Forget that we were watching in Brunswick, Maine. Forget the particulars of the situation—because that’s not how enchanted athletic contests work.

My friend knew that something more was at stake here, that there was a deeper meaning to this game than either of us could casually access. No, this game had ghosts and angels and demons in attendance, all of them watching from just beyond the contours of the match, all just barely out-of-sight. To those appropriately enmeshed in the tradition, they were every bit as real and present as the corporeal figures on the pitch. Partisans and traitors and heroes and villaisn and popes and kings stalked the sidelines—visible only to those sufficiently attuned to the sacred history driving the derby.

This was more than a game. It illuminated a sectarian divide that many thousands of human souls used to orient their lives. It provided them another episode in a conflict with hundreds of years of scorched-earth and bloody cobblestones. By aligning ourselves by our childhood faiths, my friend and I tried to partake (however minimally) in that next level of meaning.

Soccer’s enchanted world is well-populated. Witness the cheerful philo-Semitism of Ajax and Spurs fans, the identity politics behind the Milan Derby, the paramilitary nationalism of Red Star Belgrade’s supporters, or Athletic Bilbao’s “Basques-only” rule. There are meta-athletic narratives “enchanting” teams and their matches across Europe (and throughout the world). Their number is beyond chronicling. My own Catalán sympathies aside, it’s obvious that Barça are hardly the only ones who can fairly claim to be “more than a club.”

When you’re accustomed to the desiccated norms that govern (most) American athletic rivalries, this athletic enchantment is intoxicating. It justifies investing additional, non-entertainment energies into a match that might otherwise be just some men kicking a ball around a muddy field. Once admitted into the club’s enchanted meanings, you don’t just root for them because the stadium’s down the street; you back the cause in solidarity with other supporters. You belong to a community with a defined identity. You have a meaningful history. You have corresponding political and aesthetic and culinary and economic affiliations. Less ennobling—but just as necessary—you have enemies. They know your meaningful history, for it’s theirs as well. Your heroes are their villains, and vice versa. Nonetheless, once you’ve had a taste of club-as-proxy-for-existential-belonging (AND match-as-proxy-for-conflict), it’s hard to lower the stakes. It’s an exclusive club! Who doesn’t like to be part of something greater?

This is why I started with Tocqueville. Writing as modernity’s current was on the verge of overwhelming Europe, he worried that public life without such thick meanings would not satisfy humans. We modern humans will still yearn for enchantment, whether in our politics or no. Commercial heroism is hardly enough to fulfill a human’s search for deeper meaning.

It’s not hard to see how his worry maps onto the twentieth century. As modern politics become increasingly dominated by liberal individualism, some communities reacted—they tried to re-enchant the public sphere with transcendent meaning. Some hoped to fulfill world history. Others promised to restore the community’s former (often imaginary) mystical past. Still others promised newfound ethnic purity or national glory on the world stage. All left piles of bodies in their wake.

Beaten back by the force of arms or empirical collapse, these particular sorcerers lost sway, but the human search for collective meaning remains active. Can’t fight out sectarian warfare on the battlefield anymore? Put it on the (soccer) field! It’s the “moral equivalent of war,” or perhaps a secularized (or not too secularized) religion. It’s a way to keep up a tradition’s continuity in spite of political subjugation or institutional disenchantment. It’s a way, in short, to find an outlet for those human longings for earthly links to eternal, enchanted things.

So on one hand, soccer-as-proxy is healthy. It diverts ethnic conflicts and solidarity around community identities into a defanged realm. Athletics are trivial, leisurely activities, so the worst forms of hooliganism still fall well short of full-scale ethnic conflict. If we can minimize conflict in this way, so much the better.

On the other hand, perhaps Americans ought to jealously guard their disenchanted rivalries. Intoxicating as it may be to raise the athletic stakes, there’s much to recommend disenchanted sports. When the Seattle Sounders play the Portland Timbers, there’s no fundamental existential (or ethnic) divide driving antipathy between the two teams or their supporters. When the New York Yankees play the Tampa Bay Rays, no one brings up 1865, and that’s probably for the best.

It’s not that American rivalries don’t matter. Far from it. It’s just that our teams’ wins are athletic successes, not existential triumphs over historic enemies. Our losses don’t represent threats to who we fundamentally understand ourselves to be. They’re just losses. They’re limited to the sphere of entertainment and athletic experience. When the Minnesota Twins beat up on my Detroit Tigers (as usual) this doesn’t call into question my place in the universe.

Tocqueville understood this, which is why his admiration of Americans’ sensible moderation only grew over the years. He returned to France expecting to see Europe moving steadily towards the disenchanted, egalitarian, individualist world he’d seen in the United States. To his dismay, horror, and eventual despair, the French seemed incapable of finding a stable home in modernity. They were caught in “a struggle to the death” between the old and new. Each new republic was riven by regional and class conflict. Each set of disenchanted institutions eventually collapsed under the weight of old, high-stakes rivalries. He died unsure that the French would ever make the transition to modernity.

So look, Americans—if you find the most enchanted elements of your club’s tradition alluring, by all means develop a fake Geordie accent. Learn to speak Cymraeg or Catalán or Cockney Rhyming Slang. Whatever floats your boat. But recognize what it is that you’re doing. You’re making a choice, and it’s not the only option, nor is it necessarily the most liberal one available. You’re making an anti-modern choice, because, not to put too fine a point on it, turning down this temptation is what the modern world is all about.

Conor Williams is writing a dissertation on the structure of 20th century political arguments. He periodically avoids it by blogging at http://www.conorpwilliams.com.

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Reenchanting the World

by Conor Williams · July 27, 2011

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