Back into the Fold: An Interview with Chloé Valdary

Otis Houston speaks to activist Chloé Valdary about expanding the Western canon, rehabilitating extremists, and rejuvenating the American spirit.

By Otis HoustonDecember 12, 2019

CHLOÉ VALDARY IS a public educator and lecturer who teaches a program called the Theory of Enchantment to students, administrators, and educators at high schools and college campuses around the country. The program, which aims to teach young people a framework for healthy identity formation, is rooted in the study of classic literature and philosophy alongside cartoons, ad campaigns, the music of Beyoncé, and the porous borders where universal narratives merge with contemporary pop culture.

Valdary also hosts the Theory of Enchantment podcast, where she holds conversations with artists, musicians, and authors, as well as business owners and community organizers. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and Commentary.

I spoke with Valdary about her visions for social change and how they are informed by storytelling in all its forms, and we discussed the connections between politics and art, anomie and extremism, and volunteerism and self-knowledge. 

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.


OTIS HOUSTON: Where did the name “Theory of Enchantment” come from?

CHLOÉ VALDARY: I was at The Wall Street Journal for a year a couple of years ago and I was working on a research paper about why we gravitate toward the things we gravitate toward within pop culture, and one of the books I read was called Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki, who was a former marketing director of Apple. And that book was very inspirational to me because the way he defined enchantment was essentially the process by which you delight someone with an object or product or idea or whatever. And this idea of inspiring people or delighting people is a little bit more than a material reaction to something, right? The reason people buy Nike shoes is not simply because they like the design, but because the idea behind Nike speaks to something fundamental to their identity, and so in that sense it delights them. And that has a lot to do with why I picked the word “enchantment,” because that’s essentially what I’m trying to do with great art.

Theory of Enchantment is my company and what it aims to do is sell a curriculum to high schools, corporations, and other workplaces. The curriculum specifically focuses on mental health and healthy identity formation for students given that there is an epidemic right now of increased rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts and actions among high school students and also among college students. A study found that one in five college students last year had suicidal thoughts, which is a very new trend that we’re dealing with in this country. The curriculum aims to teach basic life skills about knowing the self and knowing one’s neighbor or the Other, if you will. The idea is that you cannot really navigate the complexity of the world if you don’t understand the complexity of your own self. What that means is being aware of everything that human beings deal with, like insecurities and parental baggage and all the things that we have to navigate that are part of the human condition.

I specifically use both contemporary artists and their material in conversation with ancient artists and their material. For example, I teach Stoicism as a sort of emotional regulation practice. I teach what Epictetus and all of the other Stoics actually taught in their original works, but then at the end of a particular section in the Theory of Enchantment curriculum we study the movie The Lion King, which is obviously not really about lions. It’s a story about coming of age, of a transition from adolescence to adulthood. And so, what is seemingly just an entertaining Disney film is actually a story that young people can learn from and apply certain lessons in their own lives, lessons that directly relate to their sense of self.

[Discussions of] mental health come with a lot of stigma these days, unfortunately I think that’s changing, but it still has a lot of stigma attached to it. So if one can teach this through the lens of pop culture, I think it’s much more palatable for the demographic in question. Connecting the ancient ideas of Stoicism that touch upon concepts like sympathia — the idea that you are connected with everyone else around you is precisely what the song “Circle of Life” is about. So connecting these things and showing that there’s a dialogue happening between ancient voices and contemporary voices I think is fascinating and can help texts come alive in a new way for students that will also help their personal growth.

Your Theory of Enchantment curriculum draws heavily on literature and movies, as well as philosophical texts. And, as you mentioned, you also bring in popular contemporary music for close reading. How can we draw meaning from popular entertainments in ways that are important for how we’re living our lives right now? 

I think that, oftentimes, people who discuss the impact and power and influence of the Western canon do so by referring to people who are no longer with us. And what’s ironic about that is that the ideas many of these individuals, authors, and intellectuals actually promoted are what we would call “timeless.” But if they are timeless, that generally means that they can be found in different forms and contemporary spaces. It’s very possible, for example, for me to find ideas espoused by Plato or by the Stoics or other thinkers and intellectuals that could be found in contemporary hip-hop or in contemporary literature.

Even music is a text of sorts, right? So we can look at lyrics from Jay-Z or from other contemporary artists. Even Lil Wayne has certain songs that would be relevant to healthy identity formation. And so I thought, let’s expand this canon because what Shakespeare is saying in this piece, I heard in a song by Drake earlier this week. Think of people like W. E. B. Du Bois, who said, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not,” or Baldwin, who was very explicit about how the Western canon shaped and informed his ability to write.

If we bring to light the fact that they are the same ideas that have been promoted by people who have come before us, they can be ideas that are, once again, relevant to a new generation. And so a new generation of students is not forced to simply be in conversation with Plato in a historical vacuum, but can bring him into their own lives and have him sit in conversation with Kendrick Lamar or Jay-Z or some other contemporary artists that they actually look up to.

I sometimes wonder if it’s becoming difficult for people to connect contemporary narratives with historical ones because, especially in the last, say, 10 years or so, many people have been questioning the notion that we have any kind of truly shared narratives at all. The value and universality of literature from the Western canon in particular is being called into question in academia and in school curriculums, and some are advocating for replacing texts. But I’m not sure anyone agrees on what to replace them with or what a more inclusive canon would look like.

I have seen a push to replace, for example, “old white male authors” with authors who are people of color. But I would say no, just expand the canon! And I would again echo W. E. B. Du Bois’s sentiment, which is that I can be in conversation with Shakespeare, and if Shakespeare was here and alive he would actually respect that.

Let’s say you wanted to throw out Shakespeare and replace him with Baldwin, just as a hypothetical thought exercise. You can’t do that, because Baldwin was influenced by Shakespeare; Shakespeare will still be there. You can’t really separate the two, and I don’t want to separate the two. And so, I think it’s better and much more enriching to say that the canon is actually pretty expansive, and let’s continue to expand the canon. And that’s why we refer to these people’s ideas as timeless, right? Not to be cliché, but their ideas echo throughout eternity. These ideas are central to the human condition, and you can find them in different forms, articulated by all different types of authors and intellectuals and influencers, whether they are dead old white men or people of color, because there is a transcendent human condition that connects us in some way.

I would also say that it is incredibly ironic for someone to want to throw out the Western canon in order to replace it with, quote unquote, authors of color. Because if people think that the West is exclusively white, that’s the wrong idea. There are white supremacists who extol the virtues of “Western civilization,” and by that they mean “white people.” And then there are some anti-racist people who will say, “Let’s throw out the Western canon because it’s too white.” And what’s ironic is that those two camps of people are actually agreeing on that point. And I’m disagreeing with them and saying that the West is actually full of people of different backgrounds. The Western canon includes both Shakespeare and Baldwin, both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. It includes all of these authors and all of these ideas, which are oftentimes in sync with each other, rhyme with each other, et cetera.

I think that Beyoncé and Jay-Z represent an interesting conversation on this. I don’t know if you’ve seen her music video “Apeshit,” where she and Jay-Z are in France. Beyoncé and Jay-Z present [Meghan Markle] with this Mona Lisa–like figure, but instead of it being the original Mona Lisa it’s a picture of the Duchess. Beyoncé is essentially rejecting the idea that people of color are not part of the West. What she was saying is that we are part of the rich legacy that created the West and makes the West what it is today. And I think that’s very clear if you study the African-American musical tradition, which includes blues and jazz. This is the West. This is the Western tradition! So instead of rejecting the West, I think it’s more accurate and more interesting to say we are very much part of the West and we have contributed to its traditions and we can have our texts be in conversation with those who have come before us without it seeming like a jarring experience.

I was just listening to you yesterday on a podcast with the comedian and writer Bridget Phetasy, and you said something that I thought really got to the heart of what it means to create art or to be an artist. It might sound a little bit provocative on the surface, but I think it got to some truth about the relationship between identity and creativity. You said, essentially, that a person who follows the doctrines of intersectionality as an overarching worldview can’t truly be an artist.

Yes. Well, it’s interesting because, increasingly, I feel like there are some people who subscribe to intersectionality who would come to conclusions similar to mine, meaning they would totally be for more Baldwin in the classroom. And they would totally be for a dialogue between Shakespeare and Kendrick Lamar in the classroom, if that was an option. But I think that the way I came to my conclusions was very different from the way they would come to theirs.

Speaking of Baldwin, he wrote a piece in the late ’40s titled “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in which he criticized the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and he also criticized Richard Wright. And he says, “The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.” I think that is the essence of my critique of certain intersectionalists. And I say “certain” because I don’t think all people who subscribe to intersectionality would necessarily come to conclusions that undermine art. But many of those whom I’ve encountered do fall into that category. And it’s essentializing categories that are constructs and that really don’t speak to the essence of who we are as human beings and the universal human condition that we must all navigate. We must all navigate fears and ambitions and insecurities and our sense of purpose and meaning in the world, whether we are white and rich and high status or we are poor and coming from an inner-city background.

That’s the other critique that I have of intersectionality that it seems to understand the meaning of life only in a materialist way, which is, in my opinion, neither the primary form of meaning nor the most interesting form of meaning. So in that sense, I think it would be very difficult for people who really believe in intersectionality to produce great art. I am an African-American woman and if I believed in certain intersectionalist ideas, I would say that you couldn’t possibly understand my experience as a human being because we come from different backgrounds. But anyone who knows anything about art, whether you’re producing music or literature or a painting, knows that the role of the artist is to facilitate an experience in which the audience can see themselves in the work of the artist. If you subscribe to the idea that someone can’t possibly feel your experience or empathize with your experience because they don’t look like you, how can you experience art? What is the relationship you have with art?

I hate to say his name, but if we look at somebody like the white nationalist Richard Spencer, although his intentions are not morally equivalent to an intersectional social justice point of view, he is similarly essentialist in his beliefs about race and its singular importance to identity formation. And I’ve always thought that, so long as his whiteness is central to his self-conception, it’s impossible that he would ever produce any poetry, or anything of beauty, because it’s such a limiting viewpoint to see yourself primarily as a representative of your race or your gender or what have you. Ultimately, it produces an identity that’s just too boring to say anything interesting about.

Yeah, I think that’s very well put, especially your point about beauty. It’s also ironic because [Spencer] claims that he is coming from a sort of Western predisposition or a place of love for Western civilization. I think he’s being selective in his understanding of what Western civilization has produced. If I were to reduce it to a very simple formula, I think that this is all a function of unhealthy identity formation and insecurity.

By the way, I’m actually about to start doing a lot of work with organizations that focus on rehabilitating former extremists and helping them integrate back into society, so I’ll be dealing a lot with the ideology that foments the creation of white nationalists and also members of ISIS.

If you were to study the development of an extremist, oftentimes you’ll find that the catalyst for diving deeper into extremism has something to do with identity malfunction or just unhealthy identity formation because of a whole host of issues. What often happens is, if your sense of identity is undermined, you can feel that you are totally lost and you will want to latch onto something that gives you a feeling of home, a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose, a sense of meaning. And we know for a fact that white nationalist groups oftentimes prey on disaffected youth who are in search of that sense of meaning, and they exploit that.

I do a lot of work in my community with mentoring young people whose parents are incarcerated, and these people tend to be at risk of joining gangs, and the patterns are the same. This also speaks to the universality of the human condition, right? Whether you’re talking about studying the factors that go into people’s decisions to join street gangs or people’s decisions to join white nationalist movements, the patterns are often the same. You’re talking about disaffected youth, lack of home structure, lack of meaning and purpose. Oftentimes there’s alcoholism in the family. Oftentimes there are low socioeconomic factors affecting these decisions, and all of these things sometimes come together to create this monster, so to speak. If you are of a certain background, you may be more likely to join a gang. If you have all these things happening in your life and you are of another background, you may be likely to join an alt-right organization. So, you can see how all of this is related to mental health and healthy identity formation.

So, when you talk about us digging deep and finding some kind of transcendent meaning or ethos to continue to build our culture or society around, what would that look like on a large scale?

The million-dollar question! I don’t know I only know what I can do to contribute to it, which is what I’m trying to do with the Theory of Enchantment. But it’s not one thing, it’s multiple things. I can tell you about the organizations I love that I think speak to this issue of spiritual nourishment on different levels. For example, I volunteer for an organization in Brooklyn called Children of Promise, which, as I mentioned earlier, mentors kids whose parents are incarcerated. It’s given something to the kids I volunteer for, but it’s also given something to me, and I think that idea of service and experiencing obligation to another in pursuit of a higher good is something that Americans need to do more of. I think if there was a campaign to produce more of the spirit of volunteerism, that would be very useful for Americans. I’ve been reading a book called Trust First [by Bruce Deel and Sara Grace], which is about an organization called City of Refuge, which opened in Atlanta and now it’s in dozens of locations around the country where it helps rehabilitate drug addicts and sex trafficking victims. They’re really doing incredible work that’s bringing people on the fringes of society back into the fold and back into places of love, quite frankly. There are organizations like Homeboy Industries, which rehabilitates former gang members in Los Angeles and gives them jobs and trains them and really helps them grow.

And so, I think it’s not necessarily one thing that we have to do. But what if there was a new spirit of ideas that came out of the American people about how we shore up people in need, and not simply in a materialist way, but in a way that will rejuvenate their spirit and in a way in which they will know that they are important to us? And by the way, it’s not just people who are victims of X, Y, Z; it’s people in general. How can we make it so that our young people in general know that we care about them and know that we believe in them and believe in their potential?

So I think it’s this idea of a uniting spirit that needs to be fostered by everyone, from civil service leaders to politicians, to business owners, that gives us the sense that we’re in this together, that we know some of the problems we’re confronted with, but we have each other’s backs and we believe in each other’s potential despite the mistakes we have made in the past. (And despite the mistakes that we’re going to make in the future, because human beings make mistakes and there’s no such thing as perfection, which sounds cliché, but no one actually internalizes that fact.)

One of the other things that I teach in Theory of Enchantment is a series of quotes from Maya Angelou. She says, if you tell a person over and over again they are nothing, they will say to you, “So you think I am nothing? Don’t worry about what I am now, For what I will be, I am gradually becoming.”

The moral of the story is that a person cannot develop character unless they are valued. If you were to expand that on a larger scale, a nation cannot develop character unless its citizenry values one another. I think that if we try to endow our work and the way we live with this sense of caring and of valuing both ourselves and one another, then we can perhaps see a renewal of the American spirit.


Otis Houston is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA creative writing program and lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Kitchen Work and Defenestration.

LARB Contributor

Otis Houston is a graduate of Pacific University’s MFA creative writing program and lives with his wife in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Kitchen Work and Defenestration. (Photo by Emily Miller.)


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