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Column: Chapters| Alan Macfarlane.






I HAVE GIVEN an extended account of this topic in the first instalment of this series of columns, where the details of my spiritual journey can be found. Yet, because this is the background set of questions behind most of my work, and because my discoveries here have been the most important in my life, no set of short essays on my later self-education would be complete without a short one on this topic.

The problem I faced in my life is simple. I was brought up with the growing realization that, like Wordsworth, we all have to move from childhood magic and closeness to nature, to another, more rational, cold and prosaic adulthood. We are freer, but the world is less interesting and meaningful. I was to put away childish things, as the Bible exhorted.

I clung to my religion, my love of children’s stories and the poetry of the English Romantics, Wordsworth, Keats Shelley and Coleridge, as long as I could. Yet by the end of my undergraduate time at Oxford, I had almost lost the struggle. My heart still longed for the integration and meaning of a purpose outside myself and an integration where the external world was alive with power. Yet my head told me that there was no convincing proof for such a view and plenty against it.

I was going through my own scientific revolution and moving into a mechanistic, this-worldly, universe. I was following the path of my earlier admired figures like Georg Elliot or Max Weber and his iron cage of reality.

I came to learn that modernity of the Anglosphere kind is based on separating everything….This seems inevitable in order to lead a disenchanted life, for enchantment is based on the connecting of parts of our life and world.

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Now I understood more fully why this should have happened, for I came to learn that modernity of the Anglosphere kind is based on separating everything. Efficiency comes from keeping politics, economy, ideology and society in separate boxes. It comes from dividing the head and heart, mind and emotion, nature and culture. You have to distance others so that you are not too tightly bound to them. This seems inevitable in order to lead a disenchanted life, for enchantment is based on the connecting of parts of our life and world. There seemed no way out.

This was, in my form of the dialectic, ‘the thesis disenchantment’. This was the move from magic, through religion, to science as Sir James Frazer the anthropologist had outlined the evolution of cosmologies. My study of witchcraft for my doctorate was an examination of the process which Keith Thomas named in his book title Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971).

Perhaps going to Nepal to do an anthropological doctorate was another attempt to examine a process which had happened to me, expecting to find something there after memories of my childhood in magical India. In that respect, the experiment that worked for a Himalayan village in 1968 was the quintessence of enchantment.

The rocks trees winds and water had spirits in them. The natural world was embedded in a supernatural one filled with godlings ghosts, witches and ancestors. I watched shamanic rituals and girls go into possession and saw and felt what a really enchanted world was like. Yet I also saw that, like many tribal societies, it was a world on the wane. It would, I assumed, evaporate under the impact of western rationality. So, it was like a dream, yet I would have to wake up. It was only an intermittent solution, which worked when I was in Nepal but could not be brought home.

Going to Japan in 1990, with frequent visits afterwards and deep conversations with close friends, led me to realize that a Gurung-like world existed there also. I finally came to see that it was shamanic and enchanted under the surface. Nature was alive, and the separations of my western world were only superficial. A hundred and twenty million people, with one of the most urbanized and technologically sophisticated of civilizations in the world could still be enchanted. This was an even bigger shock than Nepal, for I had never imagined this could be so. Yet once discovered I could again put it on one side a huge anomaly, but bizarre and unlikely to spread outside Japan.

What finally convinced me that my kind of disenchanted rationalism was not destined to expunge magic was an increasing involvement with what Weber terms the ‘magical garden’ of China. Despite Mao’s reforms and purges, despite incredibly rapid economic, technological and social change from the 1980s,  China, I found on deeper acquaintance, was basically like Japan or Nepal. The winds, waters, rocks and trees were alive. In Daoism and Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhism there were none of the separations. It was and is a quantum world of both/and, rather than the binary world of either/or of the kind in which I had been reared.

China preserved this unseparated world against all the odds as part of a wider bundle of ancient features. The logographic or pictographic language, the Confucian structural system of relations, the ‘worm-like’ and entirely different social structure I have described elsewhere were all part of the mix. China was not modern by my definition of divisions. Just as Weber in the later nineteenth century had found it to be based on magic, so it is today.

This antithesis of my three experiences in Asiatic cultures is the first great lesson I have learnt. I know, however, that I cannot become a Gurung Japanese or even Chinese, even if at times I dream that, as some of my Chinese Buddhist friends tell me, I am a reincarnated lama or Rinpoche. I am a product of a western increasingly separated word.

In my case, I exist in an extreme version, in the form of English individualism of family system. This is reinforced by my anti-magical protestant religious upbringing. I can record mysterious sighting of ancestors or spirits, for some of my students and Sarah have seen supernatural entities, and one has even photographed them as on the front cover of the first part of my Autobiography. Yet I cannot become enchanted again in that way – my reason does not allow it.

Yet my second discovery, a very recent one as I wrote the first part of this autobiography, is that my western divided world has its own enchantment. It is just that I did not see it, for I was looking in the wrong place.

If one takes a wider definition of magic and enchantment, closer to ‘Durkheim’s definition of ‘sacredness’ opposed to secular as ‘things set apart outside normal time, space and the rules of ordinary life, then my world, I have discovered, is filled with ‘sacredness’. I find that my assumption that we are disenchanted rational, constantly strategizing and this-worldly individuals is a delusion.

As I came to examine the training of my heart and spirit, my imagination and my interests through school and beyond I began to see that I was being given the tools to create my own sacred pools or oases within a desert of supposed rationality.

To summarize very briefly, I divided the tools of enchantment into three.

There is the enchantment related to play, what the historian Huizinga defined as a central feature of humanity, homo ludens or the playful species. This playfulness takes many forms. It is found in games and sports in language, in hobbies and much more. What I realized was that by making a special arena or zone, cut out from time and space and the normal rules of life, a temporary escape is made. For example, it only needed the words ‘Let’s pretend’ with children in order to become members of a game which was as ‘real’ and true as ordinary life. In fact, I discovered that the opposition of ‘real’ and ‘fictional’ or invented fades away and cannot really be applied to much of life. Just as you cannot apply it to art and music, so you cannot apply the opposition to much playful activity. It creates a parallel reality as ‘true’ ion its way, and certainly as powerful, as anything else.

The second category consisted of the ‘enchanting arts’, the more explicit creative technologies humans have evolved. These included the powerful, absorbing and transforming arts of poetry, novels, music, painting, film and much more. Even gardens and architecture were such tools. The way I studied them was through the five human senses each of which brings information directly into the mind while bi-passing, or going beyond, calculative reason. In a moment, a sight, sound, smell, taste or touch can take us out of this here-and-now humdrum world into somewhere totally different as Alice slipped through the mirror or Harry Potter through the wall on platform nine and three quarters.

Finally, there are many other things I put under the heading of ‘Other Magic’. This included the powerful emotions of love and deep friendship, all the different drugs including alcohol and food, the power of the natural world as Wordsworth described. Even shopping and advertising take us away from rational control, as do the whole virtual world of games and entertainment on television and the internet. And of course, the fact that we also spend about a third of our lives asleep, in the parallel world of dreams freed from the normal laws of physics, chemistry and biology, shows again how we are less ‘rational’ than we thought

The conclusion to all this was that, out of the thesis of disenchantment came an antithesis in discovering that most of the world never, and probably never will, become disenchanted. Coming back to my Anglosphere world has forced me into creating a synthesis. I call this ‘oasis’ or ‘island’ enchantment or magic. In other words, rather than having our whole system integrated, as in Japan or China my divided word creates innumerable pools of otherness, bounded areas where in a game, painting, oratorio, dream or garden, and particularly love, separations are temporarily suspended

The Catholic European tradition is semi-enchanted and different. As Bruno Latour said of the French, ‘We have never been modern’.

THE ADVANTAGE OF this oasis response is that the efficiency and other benefits that have been gained by the separations can be maintained. Individual freedom and autonomy can be preserved, rational knowledge through science is safeguarded. Yet we can also find another form of meaning and enchantment in a thousand moments. It would be interesting to invent an ‘enchantment meter’ to measure the level of enchantment and apply it through an average Anglosphere person’s life. (I say ‘Anglosphere’, for the Catholic European tradition is semi-enchanted and different. As Bruno Latour said of the French, ‘We have never been modern’.) We would discover that people in the modern West are as enchanted as anyone else; from dreaming for eight hours, watching television, playing games, reading, constantly stirred by emotions and travelling in our imagination, and taken out of ourselves, most people, most of the time, live within largely sacred rather than secular worlds, and are, as with romantic love, seeking it.

Passive enchantment is probably growing in the most advanced societies as Ernest Gellner long ago noticed when he visited California, about which he wrote in an essay entitled ‘Ethnomethodology: the re-enchantment industry or the Californian way of subjectivity’.1 Ever more powerful communications technologies are filling people’s lives with ever more enchanted activities. As the world becomes freed for many from the immense physical drudgery and machines come to produce our wealth, leisure is likely to increase

Yet enjoying leisure requires learning to generate and use the tools of enchantment. Some are easy to use – alcohol, some online games, watching television. Yet the really involving ones, learning to paint, compose and play music, write, play a game well, must be learnt with effort and coaching. So, the future happiness of that part of humanity I live in partly depends on recognizing how we can have enchanted lives whose quality rests, ironically on disenchanted and on careful construction and instruction. I have had the great good fortune to be encouraged in all of this. I believe such an education should be available to all.

I HAVE BEEN writing an intellectual autobiography over the Covid period, under the general title of ‘Magic and Modernity’ or ‘Enchantment and Modernity’. This will be published in a series of books, including one which gives a chronological account of my intellectual journey. The series published in The Fortnightly Review will appear in that. There will also be other volumes which contain the roughly 200 parts of a Zoom interview with Richard Marshall about my ideas. The video version of these interviews are already available as they occur on my Cambridge University page and on this YouTube playlist.

Further relevant materials can be found under various headings on and my Youtube channel ‘Ayabaya’.

In terms of my writing, the most relevant volumes as background to this series include The Origins of English Individualism (1978), Japan Through the Looking Glass (2007), The Invention of the Modern World (2014) and Understanding the Chinese; A Personal A-Z (2020)

Alan Macfarlane is an anthropologist and historian and a Professor Emeritus of King’s College, Cambridge. He is the co-editor of The Fortnightly Review, the author or editor of 20 books and numerous articles on the anthropology and history of England, Nepal, Japan and China. Much of his work has focused on comparative study of the origins and nature of the modern world. In recent years he has become increasingly interested in the use of visual material in teaching and research. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His essay, “Concepts of Time and the World We Live In” was published the The Fortnightly Review in 2010, and his book The Invention of the Modern World appeared in serial form in The Fortnightly Review in 2012. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly is here; his Enchantment and Modernity will be published in 2021.


  1. Reprinted in Gellner, Spectacles and Predicaments (1979)

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