December 1, 2011
Braco's Enchanting Gaze
— Alan Levinovitz
According to his official website, Braco (pronounced braht-zo) is a gentle Croatian man with a remarkable gift: a silent gaze that induces "transformative changes" and "profound experiences" in the hundreds of thousands who attend his "gazing sessions."
Braco is a purportedly non-denominational phenomenon. Presumably his universal appeal is bolstered by the fact that he simply "does not speak in public, offer any philosophies, or claim to be a healer." Tickets to a 30 minute gazing session cost only $8, and you can attend as many as you like.
Not all are welcome, however. "The energy could overburden children, so the sessions are not open for visitors under the age of 18, or to pregnant women after their third month." But Braco makes up for this infelicity with a remarkable bonus: "The power of [his] gaze can equally reach people through photos, and the same level of healing and transformation occurs through this method." It is unclear whether his power is validated by science—the website cites "medical doctors" who "have shared their opinion that Braco's healing abilities are extraordinary," from religion—he comes from "a long line of mystics," or some peculiar combination of the two—"from the perspective of Eastern mysticism it could be said that he activates brain centers and energetic points within seconds."
Let's assume the people with whom I attended the Chicago gazing session felt something I did not. Were they duped? Or did their faith allow them access to some powerful and benevolent force? Is Braco a con-artist or the real thing?
This last, of course, can be asked of any person or tradition that declares access to occult forces capable of providing medical, fiscal, and spiritual well-being. To a certain kind of skeptic, Braco's gaze will likely look no different from the relics of major religious traditions, his claims to channel spiritual forces no less ridiculous than those of many prophets (and presidential candidates).
A typical response to such skepticism is to avoid its empirical demands ("show me the data on Braco's fiscal and medical miracles") and class it as a symptom or cause of modern disenchantment. In Max Weber's words, disenchantment is born of the belief that "in principle, we are not ruled by mysterious, unpredictable forces... instead technology and calculation achieve our ends." Braco, it could be said, comes from a long line of charismatic crusaders that offer an alternative to the iron cage of rationalization. He fights to preserve enchantment, standing up to Weber's "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart."
It is true that I was not enchanted at the gazing session. I was not "transfixed in wonder and transported by sense," to use one scholar's definition. I felt no "shocked surprise before the sensible appearance of a great prodigy." And after the gazing, as audience members around me reported their shock, wonder, and transformative experiences, I felt like an ugly consequence of Weberian disenchantment, confined to an iron cage made of elitist intellectualism.
Through the bars of this cage the people outside look naïve, and enchanters like Braco look like charlatans. Enchantment takes on its negative senses of delusion and illusion; as in most fairy tales, disenchantment is no curse but rather a release. The irony, however, is that it appears to release us into a drab and undesirable space, where enchanted moments can no longer be purchased at eight bucks a pop, and may not even exist at all.
Many faithful would shudder at the thought of being associated with Braco, pointing to differences between their own venerable traditions and some crude new-age upstart. But even the most sophisticated accounts of divine communication are open to crippling skepticism, deadly when wielded by masters like Voltaire, Twain, and George Carlin. Unfortunately, without divine inspiration enchantment is a tricky business (evil, according to some religions), and without enchantment religion becomes just another fixture in the cage.
Residents of the cage have tried to touch it up: a recent book by two Harvard philosophers asserts the falsehood of the disenchantment narrative by describing a secular world rife with sacred experiences, like sporting events, reading Eat, Pray, Love, and making coffee. Yet from my cage-within-a-cage their vision of modern redemption looks like a naïve consolation prize. As Garry Willis puts it in a scathing review, "Thank God we have been delivered from the meaningless inwardness of Augustine and Dante, to worship at the shining caffeine altar."
Paul Ricouer offers a different consolation prize, one that "enchants" him: though some "no longer live the great symbolisms of the sacred in accordance with the original belief in them, we can, we modern men, aim at a second naiveté in and through criticism." Is that enough? Can one substitute the second naiveté of critical engagement for naïve enchantment without any loss? Perhaps not, but unless Braco's gaze starts working it's the only choice I've got.
Max Weber, The Vocation Lectures (Hackett, 2004) and The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Penguin Classics, 2002).
Jane Bennett, The Enchantment of Modern Life (Princeton University Press, 2001).
Garry Willis, "Superficial and Sublime," The New York Review of Books, April 2011.
Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, All Things Shining (Free Press, 2011).
Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil (Beacon Press, 1986).
Braco's website is at: www.braco.net.
Alan Levinovitz is a PhD Candidate in the Religion and Literature program at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His dissertation concerns the role of play in the Daoist Zhuangzi, and he does not plan on attending another gazing session.