on March 16, 2004
I heard the author in a spirited public debate between him and biologist E.O. Wilson a couple years ago, at the old Town Hall in Boston. The mutual respect between the two men was palpable (perhaps because they are both outspoken advocates for wild nature). Yet they hold richly contrasting views regarding human society and its relation to the earth. Abram's eloquence there moved me to order this book. Upon reading it I was, in a word, stunned. It's easily one of the most important works I've come upon in thirty years of serious reading.
A few of the reader reviews below are absurdly off the mark. One of them claims that the book is anti-science. That's simply inane; I'm a working biologist, and can avow that this book is entirely consonant with the best of contemporary natural science. Indeed "The Spell of the Sensuous" got a rave review in "Science" (the journal of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science). Here's a brief excerpt from that review: "A truly original work. Abram puts forth his daring hypothesis with a poetic vigor and argumentative insight that stimulate reconsideration of the technological commonplace...With Abram anthropology becomes a bridge between science and its others." (Science, vol. 275)
In any case, this is a book that NEEDS to be much more widely known. (I've just read it a second time, and I'm still reeling at the implications.) A bunch of other reviews by a range of well-known thinkers are printed in the paperback edition. I'll copy them here, since they give a fine sense of both the depth and the span of Abram's book:
"This is a landmark book. Scholars will doubtless recognize its brilliance, but they may overlook the most important part of Abram's achievement: he has written the best instruction manual yet for becoming fully human. I walked outside when I was done and the world was a different place."
~Bill McKibben, author of "The End of Nature"
"A masterpiece - combining poetic passion with intellectual rigor and daring. Electric with energy, it offers us a new approach to scholarly inquiry: as a fully embodied human animal. It opens pathways and vistas that will be fruitfully explored for years, indeed for generations, to come."
~Joanna Macy, Buddhist scholar and author
"Speculative, learned, and always 'lucid and precise' as the eye of the vulture that confronted him once on a cliff ledge, Abram has one of those rare minds which, like the mind of a musician or a great mathematician, fuses dreaminess with smarts."
~The Village Voice
"Long-awaited, revolutionary. . . This book ponders the violent disconnection of the body from the natural world and what this means about how we live and die in it."
~The Los Angeles Times
"The outer world of nature is what awakens our inner world in all its capacities for understanding, affection and aesthetic appreciation. The wind, the rain, the mountains and rivers, the woodlands and meadows and all their inhabitants; we need these perhaps even more for our psyche than for our physical survival. No one that I know of has presented all this with the literary skill as well as the understanding that we find in this work of David Abram. It should be one of the most widely read and discussed books of these times."
~Thomas Berry, author of "The Dream of the Earth"
"I am breaking a vow to cease all blurb-writing for three years, but Abram's Spell must be praised. It's so well done, well-written, well thought. I know of no work more valuable for shifting our thinking and feeling about the place of humans in the world. Your children and their children will be grateful to him."
~James Hillman, author of "Revisioning Psychology"
"The Spell of the Sensuous does more than place itself on the cutting edge where ecology meets philosophy, psychology, and history. It magically subverts the dichotomies of culture and nature, body and mind, opening a vista of organic being and human possibility that is often imagined but seldom described. Reader beware, the message is spell-binding. One cannot read this book without risk of entering into an altered state of perceptual possibility."
~Max Oelschlager, author of "The Idea of Wilderness"
"Read it and get your gourd rattled smartly."
~ Jim Harrison, author of "Legends of the Fall"
"Disclosing the sentience of all nature, and revealing the unsuspected effect of the more-than-human on our language and our lives, in unprecedented fashion, Abram generates true philosophy for the twenty-first century."
~Lynn Margulis, co-originator of the Gaia Hypothesis,
"When rumor had it that David Abram was writing a book, we expected it to be very special and very powerful. Those expectations were justified. This book has the ability to awaken us. . ."
~Arne Naess, University of Oslo, founder of "deep ecology"
"A tour-de-force of sustained intelligence, broad scholarship, and a graceful prose style that has produced one of the most interesting books about nature published during the past decade."
~ Jack Turner, in "Terra Nova"
"Nobody writes about the ecological depths of the human and more-than-human world with more love and lyrical sensitivity than David Abram. "
~Theodore Roszak, author of "Where the Wasteland Ends"
"This book by David Abram lights up the landscape of language, flesh, mind, history, mapping us back into the world..."
~Gary Snyder, author of "Turtle Island"
"David Abram's passionate knowledge of language, mythology, landscape and his meditations on the human senses - all make for highly-charged, memorable reading. Without sermon, dogma, or academic bluster, The Spell of the Sensuous deftly tours us through interior and exterior terrains of the spirit, right up to the present. This is a major work of research and intuitive brilliance, an archive of clear ideas. At the end of a century of precarious ecology, "The Spell of the Sensuous" strikes the deepest notes of celebration and alertness - an indispensible book!"
~Howard Norman, folklorist, author of "The Bird Artist"
"Brilliant in its own field of environmental philosophy, it is destined to change the way we think about linguistics, literature, anthropology, and comparative religion, as well as the living landscape around us. . . . Beautifully written, elegantly argued, immensely original, The Spell of the Sensuous is the kind of book that comes along once in a generation. Like Carson's Silent Spring, it will become the touchstone for environmental literacy in the years to come."
~ Christopher Manes, in "Wild Earth"
on August 1, 2003
I just read the last page of Spell of the Sensuous and I am eager to read more. Having spent the summer studying western philosophy-- I found this book engaging. If the goal of philosophy is to help us make sense of the world around us and to help us strive to be "better humans" this book suceeds in a way that is urgent for the times. We have made great strides in language and science and mathmatics, but we must return from the abstract to the sensuous if we are to survive as a species.
Abrams' premise is that the development of the alphabet created an abstract world which became the foundation of western philosophy and religion, and that our involvement in this abstract world allowed us to separate ourselves for the first time from the natural world, eventually leading to this moment in time when we have all but forgotten our connection to nature.
I was especially moved by Abrahams definition of truth, that all our truths are false if they result in destruction of the planet. We must become aware of the reciprocality of the relationship we have with other living and nonliving things, including the very air we breathe.
How compelling to read that the very air for indigenous and early communities was considered sacred, connecting all living creatures with the world around them and with the creator,then to consider the relationship contemporary culture has with the invisble air, not as the breath of God, but as a dumping ground for pollution.
This book contains the framework for a new way of thinking about ourselves in the world. At the very least, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to encourage an awakening of the senses. Through poetic prose, Abrams calls us outside of ourselves into a more vibrant and living world.
on February 7, 2003
There is much talk these days about a paradigm shift. I certainly hope that this is true. We really need one. And if there is, I am convinced that this book will be looked back on in the years to come as the most significant book of our times. It will be viewed as the book that cemented the shift.
I didn't think I would ever find a book like this. It not only gives beautiful expression to a world and a world of thought that I had come to think as irretrievably extinct, but it does it with so much power and background knowledge drawing with clarity and precision from many fields that are normally viewed as distinct disciplines (Philosophy, Anthropology, History, Linguistics) and puts it all together into a whole that is certainly greater than the sum of it's parts.
But it is also far more than an academic tour de force. David Abram is a magician in more than one sense. This book is itself truly a piece of magic.
For anyone who cares about planet earth, nature, mankind and our future, this book is an absolute must-read! Sure, some people will misinterpret it or read into it what they want. Maybe even reject it's basic premise outright. But if any book has the power to turn our thinking around (which I believe must happen for us to survive), this is it. Or at least, it's a fabulous start.
Good work, David!
on May 4, 2002
I read this for a grad-level seminar and was not expecting much substance. I was wrong, but only in the sense that this book opened my eyes to the power of language in a way that's different than immersing myself in good prose. A lifetime of reading and learning bits about other languages prepared me for the synthesis of this book, and I look forward to the summer so I can re-read it more leisurely to get even more from its rich construction.
In particular, I was fascinated by the suggestion that one name of God, "Yahweh", may actually be a symbolic representation of the Breath of Life, as the syllables correspond to the sounds of the intake and outtake of air. Abram does a better job explaining this than I can here, but it's worth reading just for that section alone, at least for me. The inference was that God would then be in all of us as the breath of life, making spirituality as real and tangible as any other part of life. It's not a religious book but that section -- maybe just a few paragraphs, really -- struck a part of me that hadn't expected to be affected by an environmentally focused book.
You might read this and have an entirely different reaction, based on your personal worldview and the symbology reflected therein. You might even find it weak or New Age-y. But if you give it a chance, you might find yourself breathing differently, too. I think that's worth the reasonable price.
on April 15, 2001
We live in a culture that is immersed in a futile solipsism of self-help philosophies based exclusively on how we interact with other human beings.
David Abram's landmark work, "The Spell of the Sensuous", jolts us out of this dim matrix with the power of a shaman who heals a terminal case of psychic amnesia.
We have become so institutionalized as social creatures that we have forgotten how many of our mental dislocations are not the results of social interaction, but stem from a lethal rejection of our connection to non-human elements.
Using a formidable writing style that conjures up a rapturous kind of sensory splendor, Abrams seduces the reader into "re-approaching" the very elements that constitute our living Universe. In the process, he reinvigorates our understanding of what it is to be not merely "human", but also an intricate part of a much broader existence. Once this is understood, one can be "informed" by the whisperings of the wind, the implicate energy of a tree, or the painfully beautiful colours of an autumn sky.
Scan the shelves of the self-help section at any large bookstore, and you can count on the fingers of one hand the books that deal with anything other than how to act/respond to/ignore/interpret/ make the most of/"don't sweat", etc., the actions and intrusions of other people. Here, at last, is a meditation on the expansive vistas of everything else that surrounds us, and how a reconnection to it all is a fundamental part of the balanced life.
"Going within", in the mystical sense, cannot be accomplished in the absence of "going out". Perhaps, in the end, the two are in fact one. It is a known fact that the iron in our bodies originates from the cosmic furnace of suns - that what we are, in the deepest physical sense, is part of an overarching, stellar dance of utterly universal proportions.
David Abrams makes you feel that connection. He makes you actually feel it.
If the bland diet of talk show inspired pabulum leaves you slightly jaded, read this book. The world will be transformed from shadowy monochromes to rich gradations of scintillating colour.
on January 15, 2001
This book exposes how our Western worldview has evolved to be based on literacy, abstract thought, and separation from the body. By "the body" I mean not just our individual, animal bodies, but the body of the earth and the material cosmos. By removing ourselves from this sensuous realm, we have lost the connection to "the living dream that we share with the soaring hawk, the spider, and the stone silently sprouting lichens on its coarse surface."
There is a paradox here, because this is a book about the drawbacks of literacy and abstract, logical thinking. But it is itself a piece of very well-argued and logical written discourse. However, it works, and not just because Abrams' arguments are so convincing. It works also because Abrams is an artist; he has the gift of using words and imagery that can reach below the logical brain to inspire a more direct way of perceiving the world. The result is a book which is a moving combination of philosophical writing and pure poetry.
Abrams works from a phenomenological standpoint, and the beginning of the book includes a very understandable discussion of phenomenology's history and major ideas. This is the most readable introduction to this branch of philosophy that I have found. Abrams explains it in such a way that you want to put the book down and try out this sort of perception for yourself.
Abrams then proceeds to show how, starting at the time of alphabetization, the western mind began to grow away from direct physical knowing of the world and toward abstract, conceptual representations. Our language became removed from nature, and helped us remove ourselves from nature.
As a counterpoint to the Western use of language, Abrams then goes on to show how indigenous peoples use language as a way to connect with the body and the physical realm. In these oral cultures language "is experienced not as the exclusive property of humankind, but as a property of the sensuous life-world." In other words, the world-the animals, plants, stones, wind-- speaks a language that most of us can no longer hear. Abrams explores indigenous oral poetry and stories to illustrate this entirely other way of experiencing language.
My first reading of this book triggered a conversion, in the sense of that word which means "turning." It spun me 180 degrees mentally and spiritually, from the world of concepts to the world of my immediate perception. I'm on my third reading now and still incorporating teachings passed over previously. It is paradoxical, how this book on a return to "the physical" can catalyze spiritual perception so powerfully.
on January 3, 2001
An outstanding animistic take of our world. Abram approaches the multifaceted phenomenology of human perception from the vantagepoint of our hunter-gatherer/tribal kin in relation to the modern world and how we shifted our senses to be who we are today. Abram's view is in-depth, much more so than I could adequately follow at times (my deficit, not his), and he establishes part of his thesis by asserting how:
"Conventional scientific discourse priviledges the sensible field in abstraction from sensory experience, and commonly maintains that subjective experience is 'caused' by an objectifiable set of processes in the mechanically determined field of the sensible. Meanwhile, New Age spiritualism regularly priviledges pure sentience, or subjectivity, in abstraction from sensible matter, and often maintains that material reality is itself an illusory effect caused by an immaterial mind or spirit. Although commonly seen as opposed world-views, both of these positions assume a qualitative difference between the sentient and the sensed; by prioritizing one of the other, both of these views perpetuate the distinction between human 'subjects' and natural 'objects,' and hence neither threatens the common conception of sensible nature as a purely passive dimension suitable for human manipulation and use."
To top it off, although Abram's focus is on the phenomenology of perception, with emphasis given to language, the rise of the alphabet and phonetic writing, he acknowledges this view is merely part of vast-ranging processes that contributed to a fundamental cultural behavioral shift for humanity: from those who celebrated the surroundings within which they lived (simply, hunter-gatherers) to those that view themselves as separate from and dominant over the life-world in which they coexist in (us, the people of modern cultures). In other words, Abram leaves open the fact that "many other factors could have been chosen" for which to focus on, for instance, the rise of arable agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago.
Abram's book flows with the complexity, subtlety and beauty of our natural world, so I recommend it with caution, that in our modern, so-called civilized age, many of us, though intrinsically capable of animistic awareness (because, as living beings, we are ultimately part of the same space, time and matter of that in which we inhabit), have been dulled on a daily basis by modernities and our incessant cultural commotion. Be that as it may, this work may be difficult to follow, especially if approached from a linear, mechanistic, technocratic viewpoint. Correspondingly, Abram is clear to remind us that this work is more about "a style of thinking ... that associates truth not with static fact, but with a quality of a relationship."
The Spell of the Sensuous is a one-of-a-kind document of animistic awareness. It is a brilliant compliment to aspects of Daniel Quinn's work as well as the efforts of many others concerned about the "depths of our ongoing reciprocity with the world."
on February 3, 1998
One day I spotted a bird at my feeder that I didn't recognize. I got out my field guide, identified the bird, mentally patted myself on the back, then looked out at him again. He was a perky handful of mottled brown fluff, with delicate feet and shiny black eyes -- and it suddenly struck me that whatever name I applied to him was utterly irrelevant to the living reality of the bird himself.
Another pertinent story: I live in high desert country, where a fragile ecosystem has evolved over millennia, perfectly adapted to the region's harsh soil and scarce water. In recent years, a number of people have bought plots of land near my house and put mobile homes on them. They've then scraped every hint of vegetation off the lot. The ambitious ones do things with gravel and railroad ties and bags of fertilizer. But most just leave the soil bare, as if possession is exemplified by their victory over "weeds."
So I read Abram's book with a shock of recognition. His concepts aren't particularly original (I kept being reminded of the English Romantic poet Wordsworth), and he often takes for granted that his readers accept his assumptions. I find it ironic, too, that such an eloquent and persuasive writer should devalue language. While I think he takes that argument too far, he's absolutely right that by defining "knowledge" and "civilization" as "distance from the non-human," we've lost a sense of our place in nature that is endangering our planet's health and our survival as a species. It's unfortunate that the book is being marketed through New Age and ecological sources; it deserves a much wider readership.
on April 13, 1997
The trite things people say to promote a book, such as, "It will change your life" and "You can't put it down", are amazingly true for a book which takes you to the depths of serious issues of philosophy, language, anthropology and the analysis of empirical scientific methods. Abram is a magnificent writer, carrying you along smoothly with the consistency and clarity of his vision and the perfectly fitting poetic expression of that vision.
I bought this book for my son who studies philosophy, read it for myself as a long-time student of language and culture, decided my son the physicist must read it too and kept thinking of more and more people I know who should read it. Abram's ability to connect seemingly all fields of study attests to the depths or heights of his message.
He often uses the metaphor of a spider's web which is useful in describing the elegant web he has constructed to rejoin us to our living universe. It is also useful to describe the elimination of cobwebs which clutter our overly abstract, mechanical non-lives and disconnect us from our natural instincts.
In the hopes of saving our environment, Abram gives us a world view which can add richness and meaning to our everyday experiences.
on July 22, 2000
Abram has undertaken a fascinating look at language and not only the changes it has undergone over time, but also how these changes have changed human perceptions. Another reviewer spoke of all the disparate topics that are woven together in this work, and that is an apt description.
As a storyteller, I found the accounts of the cultures with a largely oral tradition to be compelling. In one example, he tells of an aboriginal Australian man trying to tell the story of a dreamline at Jeep speed, and running out of breath. These tales are meant to follow the landscape at walking speed, and trying to tell them by car changes the entire texture of the tale.
For those who are looking for a challenging read about our connection with the natural world, how language interacts with that connection, and a history of the development of writing, this is the book you want. Whether you agree with his ideas and philosophy or not, you will have much food for thought.