- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (Feb. 25 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0679776397
- ISBN-13: 978-0679776390
- Product Dimensions: 13.2 x 1.8 x 20.3 cm
- Shipping Weight: 259 g
- Average Customer Review: 33 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #13,594 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World Paperback – Feb 25 1997
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David Abram's writing casts a spell of its own as he weaves the reader through a meticulously researched work that gently addresses such seemingly daunting topics as where the past and future exist, the relationship between space and time, and how the written word serves to sever humans from their primordial source of sustenance: the earth.
"Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient associations with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air," writes Abram of the separation caused by the proliferation of the written word.
In writing The Spell of the Sensuous, Abram consulted an engaging collection of peoples and works. He uses aboriginal song lines, stories from the Koyukon people of northwestern Alaska, the philosophy of phenomenology, and the speeches of Socrates to paint a poetic landscape that explains how we became separated from the earth in the first place. With minimal environmental doomsaying, Abram discusses how we can begin to recover a sustainable relationship with the earth and the nonhuman beings who live among us--in the more-than-human world. --Kathryn True
From Publishers Weekly
How did Western civilization become so estranged from nonhuman nature that we condone the ongoing destruction of forests, rivers, valleys, species and ecosystems? Santa Fe ecologist/philosopher Abram's search for an answer to this dilemma led him to mingle with shamans in Nepal and sorcerers in Indonesia, where he studied how traditional healers monitor relations between the human community and the animate environment. In this stimulating inquiry, he also delves into the philosophy of phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who replaced the conventional view of a single, wholly determinable reality with a fluid picture of the mind/body as a participatory organism that reciprocally interacts with its surroundings. Abram blames the invention of the phonetic alphabet for triggering a trend toward increasing abstraction and alienation from nature. He gleans insights into how to heal the rift from Australian aborigines' concept of the Dreamtime (the perpetual emerging of the world from chaos), the Navajo concept of a Holy Wind and the importance of breath in Jewish mysticism.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
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"
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.
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.
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