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Winner of the International Lannan Literary Award for NonfictionAnimal tracks word magic the speech of stones the power of letters and the taste of the wind all figure prominently in this intellectual tour de force that returns us to our senses and to the sensuous terrain that sustains us This major work of ecological philosophy startles the senses out of habitual ways of perceptionFor a thousand generations human beings viewed themselves as part of the wider community of nature and they carried on active relationships not only with other people with other animals plants and natural objects including mountains rivers winds and weather patters that we have only lately come to think of as inanimate How then did humans come to sever their ancient reciprocity with the natural world? What will it take for us to recover a sustaining relation with the breathing earth?In The Spell of the Sensuous David Abram draws on sources as diverse as the philosophy of Merleau Ponty Balinese shamanism Apache storytelling and his own experience as an accomplished sleight of hand of magician to reveal the subtle dependence of human cognition on the natural environment He explores the character of perception and excavates the sensual foundations of language which even at its most abstract echoes the calls and cries of the earth On every page of this lyrical work Abram weaves his arguments with a passion a precision and an intellectual daring that recall such writers as Loren Eisleley Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez

10 thoughts on “The Spell of the Sensuous Perception and Language in a More Than Human World

  1. says:

    I had the wonderful opportunity to meet David Abram on a number of occasions while living in Santa Fe My poetry professor was having us read this book partly because David Abram was a personal friend of his and partly because the book is just remarkable on a thousand different levels It has a poetry to it to be sure but no other phrase works uite as well as Spell Binding when describing this book It's wordy you can't read it in one sitting like some pulp fiction book But I still found myself engrossed in it even obsessed a little It inspired me and my artwork well when I used to do art so much But however I felt about his book turned out to be just a pale shadow of how I felt about David Abram the man He came to speak to our class not formally just participated in a round table discussion of sorts No one wanted to leave the class As he talked he performed sleight of hand tricks with coins and other such shiny objects which was a very good way to get anyones attention Above all David is a story teller and lives and breathes for stories He reminds us what stories once were and what they can still be This book is not for the weak of heart or the fickle of mind You just have to get it And i think I got it After I read the book i saw David roaming around Santa Fe constantly To be sure SF is a small town and a mountain community that's very tight knit But it was serendipitous to run into him of all people in places like movie theaters bars and book stores all over town as if he was some sort of little gnome turning up in odd places to remind me of something I hope to see him again one day

  2. says:

    In Chinese medicine disease is defined as that which goes against the Breath of Nature Bian Hua變化 This statement begs the uestion If human disease is that which goes against the breath how are we going against the breath? Or specifically how did we get to this point of widespread cancer diabetes heart disease obesity allergies and depression? David Abram's Spell of the Sensuous offers some important insightOnce upon a time humans were inherently tied to the land as hunter gatherers – to survive they were reuired to follow the laws of nature and the land that they inhabited With the advent of agriculture and the ability to store surplus grain and conseuently generate wealth a separation arose No longer did man have to toil day in and day out for food and his survival but with smart farming techniues and the eventual domestication of grain the wealthy could pursue intellectual pursuits the creation of the aleph beth emerged as a technology that could transmit some of these intellectual constructsAbram discusses the conseuences of this gradual transformation from oral to written culture as a divorce from the embodied sensorial experience of time space to a domain that is referent only to the human domain “Only with the emergence of the phonetic alphabet and its appropriation by the ancient Greeks from the Hebrews who consciously did not encase the majestic air as written vowels did the written images lose all evident ties to the larger field of expressive beings Each image now came to have a strictly human referent each letter was now associated purely with a gesture or sound of the human mouth” p138 italicized comments mine Instead of seeing language in everything around us – the birds the wind the trees the earth itself – encapsulating speech into written words divides humans from the very world in which we depend on for our well being The written word is no longer a transient mutating form but a fixed non breathing non living reference to be analyzed discussed and returned to for all time In short the written word divides us from nature because it is in and of itself completely unnatural; simply a construction a technological advancement of the human mindWhen I go to write something down I do so to preserve the present moment so that in some future time it can again be accessed But my words no matter how poetic or successful at describing some part of a scene or mood must fail to express the entirety of the scene The pure infinite nature of the present is incapable of being recorded in this linear discrete fashion exported into the future to be re experienced So language itself and written language even so is limitedBesides the wealth generation of agriculture the invention of the phonetic written word can be seen as the grandmother of the technologies we enjoy today But these technologies come at a price Because they are invented for humans instead of for the world in which humans live using these inventions inherently reinforces this division In this way man can then manipulate the environment for his gain Thus man is not reuired to observe much less follow the breath of nature Sometimes we do follow the breath and we are healthy and vibrant But often we go against the breath and we develop diseases that ultimately kill usAbrams describes the healer's role in shamanic cutures existing at the edge of society constantly nourishing the border between human beings and the other beings – the animate and seemingly inanimate creatures of nature For it is through this membrane that nature communicates with us and where the answers lie to cure disease and live in the balance that is necessary to sustain life

  3. says:

    The book has two significant flaws1 Abram is far too uick to succumb to reducing Judeo Christian sensibilities to the villainous role here In doing so he's exacerbating the dialectic gulf he's making otherwise noteworthy leaps toward bridging I had a hunch he'd be headed down this path though when he summarily blacklisted the Genesis creation account as narrative of oppression and dominion ignoring its long tradition in various theological circles as an account emphasizing relational stewardship of land He and his argument would've been much better off with a fairer treatment of this prevailing tradition with giving dialogue a little encouragement as opposed to giving those within the Judeo Christian tradition inclined to think his view hot air reason for thinking it2 He tries too hard to make his usually very good points and in doing so weakens his argument For instance on page 252 within the space of two paragraphs he writesa For by using visible characters to represent the sounded breath the Greek scribes effectively desacralized the breath and the airb By providing a visual representation of that which was by its very nature invisible they nullified the mysteriousness of the enveloping atmospherec By breaking this taboo by transposing the invisible into the register of the visible the Greek scribes effectively dissolved the primordial power of the airIt reminded me of Neal Gabler's assertion that Walt Disney was no racist the kind of overzealous statement that immediately makes one think Disney may very well have been Similarly beating your point into your reader over and over however beautifully sculpted the sentences bespeaks anxiety in the author that his point might not hold much water after all it is this that I find so humorous and telling about Christopher Hitchens's anti religious fervor But the thing is Abram's position is provocative convincing utterly fascinating and could generate a seismic shift in Western perspectives on language His writing too is often gorgeous it merely needed a booster shot of confidence now and then

  4. says:

    My reaction to this book—and even so to Abram's later book Becoming Animal An Earthly Cosmology—is akin to the gratitude of a drowning person toward he who tosses her a lifeline To have someone so lyrically articulate the intense sadness and sense of loss I and others feel about humanity's disconnection from our fellow animals and our home planet was enormously validating Abram serves the role of a shaman an intermediary between the natural world and the spiritual world he is a scholar a poet a storyteller a trickster and a visionary These are uestions I've asked myself for a long time Why do I passionately love the natural world yet feel so apart from it even when I am in its midst? What is this barrier between my mind and the rest of the sentient world? How is it that animals fully inhabit themselves and this world while I feel so detached so in my head so strangely un present? Why do I feel broken not whole? The Spell of the Sensuous revealed many answers answers that feel profoundly true This book is a synthesis of the scholarly and poetic the factual and a passionate call to action The evolution of thought concerning perception and language were interesting; but what I found enthralling were his conclusions My copy of this book is full of underlinings on dog earred pages On almost every page I found soul level nourishment Just one of many thoughts that helped me begin healing from that terrible separation we have wrought we are situated in the land in much the same way that characters are situated in a storyalong with the other animals the stones the trees and the clouds we ourselves are characters within a huge story that is visibly unfolding all around us participants within the vast imagination or Dreaming of the worldDavid Abram has inspired me to start my own wild honoring blog to become part of that wider conversation And I truly believe that our collective consciousness is undergoing a shift and that David Abram is one of its leading voices

  5. says:

    Wow David Abrams covers enormous ground delving into philosophy cultural anthropology the environment phenomenology and spirituality I read this book in NYC and it helped convince me as did 911 to leave the city for an island off the coast of Maine where I lived for five years reconnecting with the natural world and my place in it This is an important book for anyone concerned about the contemporary society's disconnect from nature

  6. says:

    Can't say how much I enjoyed reading this This is one of those books where you feel continuously enlightened as you move through it's wondrous realms of experience and ancestral wisdom I highly recommend to anyone interested in moving beyond atheism into a spirituality that makes much sense pun not intended but well appreciated Recommended for anyone interested in indigenous cultures and animism in general and people who follow anti civ philosophy but have not yet examined spirituality

  7. says:

    Welcome to the 1990's Bill Clinton is president the budget is balanced Dances with Wolves is the #1 movie houses are stucco and turuoise is the new jewelry craze Taking a walkabout through the Spirit of the Sensuous is like taking a walk down the same nature trails of the 90's mind Although it comes upon the reader gradually David Abram takes the reader through a tour de force of a fashion through an ecology of experience in the natural world a phenomenology of our senses in the lifeworld a history spoken language and the written word as well as their scope and limits and a tour of native cultures and their relations to the past future and present All of this is in service of a thoroughgoing naturalism and realism that Abram weaves out of these various cloths One of the main arguments and themes running throughout is the contention that in the modern world of advanced industrial societies we have lost touch with the primordial experience of space presence and location in the natural environment of which we still are a part This is what Abram explores with curiosity and reverence for native wisdom In one of the main arcs Abram discusses the transition from oral to written language and the evolution of written languages The first written languages like Sumerian or ancient Egyptian used pictograph symbols and cuneiform to depict the objects in the real world We’ve all seen pictures of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs As Abram recounts the first language to change this was ancient Hebrew which turned the symbols into letters In ancient Hebrew like its modern Hebrew reincarnation the first two letters in the language were Aleph and Bet Ancient Hebrew turned and rotated the symbol for bull or ox to make the letter Aleph and turned and rotated the symbol for house to make the letter Bet The ancient Hebrew language was transported by the Phoenicians to ancient Greece where the ancient Greeks adopted and adapted it and the first two letters became Alpha and Beta As an intriguing aside the letters went from Aleph and Bet in ancient Hebrew to Alpha and Beta in ancient Greek and later were combined into our English word 'alphabet' At this point the first full fledged written alphabets were in use based on letters rather than symbols Central to his argument Abram paints a tale that the transition from spoken language to written language led to an estrangement and alienation from the rootedness of the natural world that gave rise to the first spoken languages The effect of alienation from the natural environment is real enough However Abram’s placement of the cause in the transition from the spoken word to the written word seems to misplace the material driver of change for one of its technologies and cultural infrastructures The real cause is probably the development of civilization and the concomitant development in the economy and the increasingly specialized labor of the populations It's labor and the development of mechanized technology agriculture monetized work cities; and later factories cars hi tech that made the natural world humankind's instrument as opposed to their natural home and environment This is a fairly common attribution error in philosophy Rather than seeing causes in the changes in the material conditions in the economy and society philosophers are prone to attribute changes in society stemming from a change in ideas or as in this case the media of their dissemination The development of civilization is the primary driver; communication media are technologies that accompany the development of civilization In this case the early development of civilization was accompanied by the early technological advance from the spoken word to the written word; subseuently the development of civilization out of feudal to industrial society was accompanied by the invention of new media technologies eg the printing press radio film television the internet and social mediaAlthough Abram seems to have misplaced the material development of civilization for one of its epiphenomena the effect is real enough Through the development of civilization we as the inhabitants of those societies have become estranged and alienated from the natural home and environment out of which civilization arose In showing the ecology of native cultures Abram recounts the role of the shaman serving as the boundary and link between society and the than human world outside of it ie the natural world The beauty of this work is that Abram pauses to smell the flowers and the richness of the natural world He uses native wisdom as antidote to our compulsion to be sucked into the machine that we as humans invented Some of the richest discussions in the last third of the book detail and narrate the relationship in native cultures between the natural world embodied in the wind and how they as its inhabitants imbibe it through the breath The wind is both the literal wind and the great spirit wakan tanka and the breath is both literal breath and animistic life force This is the spell of the sensuous through one of its manifestations As Abram laments early on the spell is so easily broken when returning to our advanced industrial societies If we are to find a better balance and integration with the natural world we will have to find a way to respect the natural world as its inhabitants while continuing to advance the other political and economic goals of civilization

  8. says:

    This is not an easy book to review Indeed I'm not sure if I've ever read a book that has left me with uite so much to think about That we in the modern technological world have become disconnected from the natural world is really beyond argument Focusing on language Abram offers a radical approach to an understanding of why this happened and also just a hint at how we can begin to reconnect because it is common sense of course that humankind cannot continue this process of disconnection from its sustaining source indefinitelyHe suggests the adoption of a way of thinking that is in accordance with our senses one that associates truth not with static fact but with a uality of relationship We can only live in truth by living in harmony with the rest of the natural world A civilization that relentlessly destroys the living land it inhabits is not well acuainted with truth regardless of how many supposed facts it has amassed regarding the calculable properties of its worldI refer to Abram's approach as radical because he calls for nothing less than a paradigm shift in our perception of the world around us This resonates with me strongly I have long believed that our sentience is not just to be associated with the self but has to be regarded as continuous with the sentience of the whole living world This is not an easy concept to get across however and it is at this point in his discussion of the philosophical tradition known as phenomenology that the book can get uite difficult We are so familiar with living entirely in our heads that it is nearly impossible to grasp that experience of pure perception before our conceptualising minds internalise it After dealing with the work of the phenomenologists Husserl Heidegger and Merleau Ponty Abram goes on to discuss at length the relationship of our indigenous peoples to the animate world to try to give us some feel for their culture of sensuous participation before the advent of written phonetic languageHe does an incredible job of transporting us into this so very different almost alien world conjuring meaning out of the written word to offer us a glimpse of a world without the written word The rhythm of his writing is such that it reads like poetry than prose It's uite spellbinding And that actually directs us straight to Abram's central thesis that the written word has indeed cast us under a kind of spell He argues that the development of written language has played the key role in cutting us off from our original sensuous bearings isolating the human world from the rest of the earth the than human world to use his own turn of phrase Our language rooted at the very beginning in the fauna and flora of the land and the very air we breathe and evolving over time from pictograms and icons to the phonetic system of abstract symbols that we use today has served to dislocate us from the shapes and sounds and smells of the living earthHaving had a few days to think about this book now I keep revisiting the thought that Abram's writing is so elegant so seductively beautiful that he actually swept me away from my normal reasoning state of mind to the extent that I wasn't willing to uestion his ideas enough I didn't want to break the spell It was almost as if I had indeed succumbed to a kind of magicWith a little perspective I can now say that I'm not entirely convinced that a story read can be that different from a story heard in terms of the way that the language and ideas are processed But this is really not to take anything away from the book If I was forced to come up with one word to describe it then that would be audacious It's not often a book makes you uestion your very deepest assumptions There is so much wonderful insight here into the nature of perception the almost lost culture of our aboriginal peoples the story of the evolution of written language that I can thoroughly recommend it uite independently of the extent to which I buy into Abram's main thesisIt is uite simply an audaciously good readPS Blogging at Goodreads here

  9. says:

    Abram starts out strong by providing a fresh perspective about the separation of humans from nature Anchoring his work first in Husserl's phenomenology and then Merleau Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception Abram says that we think about the world than experience it He writes that we are first and foremost physical bodies that complete themselves only through active relationships with nature There is in other words a visceral circuit of energy with the world and it is this that gives us meaning and a sense of engagement and fulfillment So far so good But then in a somewhat complicated argument Abram goes on to argue that humans increasingly abstracted themselves from nature through language transforming nature into something that was external because we were no longer integrated with it To put it bluntly the alphabet removed us deterministically from nature Along with this linguistic argument Abram references magical and native cultural practices to illustrate how indigenous peoples not us remain true to nature Abram denies that his thesis involves a going back and acknowledges that other factors are relevant as well Despite his denial the book nevertheless has the feel of a return to nature as his thesis is that we become impoverished when nature becomes less This is a point of debate His book idealizes indigenous man and suggests that all of the modern conveniences of life health leisure etc somehow are not or should not be? desired by indigenous cultures From the outside looking in that may be easy to say These conveniences also may be the very reason developed societies are removed from nature Simply put these societies unlike native societies are no longer so dependent on nature for survival and well being This not language may provide the stronger argument about why our direct engagement with nature has become less relevant Whether our move from the world of magic to science is good or bad remains however a fair debate and Abram offers some provacative and helpful insights

  10. says:

    Probably one of my favorite books in the world a brilliant discussion of language and how humans are deeply cognitively emotionally spiritually connected with the landscape the earth