Enchantment and the Courage of Joy: René Magritte on the Antidote to the Banality of Pessimism
“Life is wasted when we make it more terrifying, precisely because it is so easy to do so.”
By Maria Popova
In a world pocked by cynicism and pummeled by devastating news, to find joy for oneself and spark it in others, to find hope for oneself and spark it in others, is nothing less than a countercultural act of courage and resistance. This is not a matter of denying reality — it is a matter of discovering a parallel reality where joy and hope are equally valid ways of being. To live there is to live enchanted with the underlying wonder of reality, beneath the frightful stories we tell ourselves and are told about it.
Having lost his mother to suicide, having lived through two World Wars, the Belgian surrealist artist René Magritte (November 21, 1898–August 15, 1967) devoted his life and his art to creating such a parallel world of enchantment.
In a 1947 interview included in his Selected Writings (public library) — the first release of Magritte’s manifestos, interviews, and other prose in English, thanks to the heroic efforts of scholar Kathleen Rooney — he reflects:
Experience of conflict and a load of suffering has taught me that what matters above all is to celebrate joy for the eyes and the mind. It is much easier to terrorize than to charm… I live in a very unpleasant world because of its routine ugliness. That’s why my painting is a battle, or rather a counter-offensive.
Magritte revisits the subject in his manifesto Surrealism in the Sunshine, indicting the cultural tyranny of pessimism and fear-mongering — a worldview we have been sold under the toxic premise that if we focus on the worst of reality, we are seeing it more clearly and would be prepared to protect ourselves from its devastations. A quarter century before the great humanistic philosopher and psychologist Erich Fromm insisted that “pessimism [is] an alienated form of despair,” Magritte writes:
We think that if life is seen in a tragic light it is seen more clearly, and that we are then in touch with the mystery of existence. We even believe that we can reach objectivity thanks to this revelation. The greater the terror, the greater the objectivity.
This notion is the result of philosophies (materialist or idealist), that claim that the real world is knowable, that matter is of the same essence as mind, since the perfect mind would no longer be distinct from the matter it explains and would thus deny it. The man on the street is unknowingly in harmony with this idea: he thinks there is a mystery, he thinks he must live and suffer and that the very meaning of life is that it is a dream-nightmare.
In his art and the worldview from which it springs, Magritte presents an antidote to this warped thinking — a backdoor out of our elective suffering. An epoch before we began to understand the neurophysiology of enchantment, he echoes his contemporary Egon Schiele’s exhortation to “envy those who see beauty in everything in the world,” and writes:
Our mental universe (which contains all we know, feel or are afraid of in the real world we live in) may be enchanting, happy, tragic, comic, etc.
We are capable of transforming it and giving it a charm which makes life more valuable. More valuable since life becomes more joyful, thanks to the extraordinary effort needed to create this charm.
Life is wasted when we make it more terrifying, precisely because it is so easy to do so. It is an easy task, because people who are intellectually lazy are convinced that this miserable terror is “the truth”, that this terror is knowledge of the “extra-mental” world. This is an easy way out, resulting in a banal explanation of the world as terrifying.
Creating enchantment is an effective means of counteracting this depressing, banal habit.
We must go in search of enchantment.
Complement with Viktor Frankl on saying “yes” to life in spite of everything and Walt Whitman on optimism as a force of resistance, then revisit Rebecca Solnit on hope in dark times.