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4.8 out of 5 stars
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
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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.
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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."
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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.
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on October 5, 1999
A fascinating odyssey through the mind, first with the philosophical viewpoint of phenomenology which at last tries to describe reailty as it shows itself to us/itself and the perspective of the other both indigenous peoples and animals and plants. At times lyrical and deeply personal and at others academic it nevertheless doesn't let go of the connection it forms at the beginning with tales of Abrams life. One feels that the experience of the world so honestly told throughout the book at times, provide the true wonder evident in Abrams life. It is a pity more of these experiences were not forthcoming. It reminds me of the answer given by a Zen student in Japan when asked about his practice : "the world is so beautiful you almost can't stand it"
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on April 24, 2002
"The Spell of the Sensuous" is one of the freshest, most enlightening and insightful books I've ever read. As I turned each page I kept saying to myself, "amazing;" amazing in its wisdom, amazing in its expression, and most amazing that it has not yet received a Pulitzer Prize. David Abram, whose uncanny perception and deep understanding and appreciation of life, coupled with eloquent and inspiring presentation, has produced a significant and beautiful piece of literature for now and for all times. And it couldn't have been written at a better time, when the suffering world is examining its misplaced priorities and seeking the insight for understanding our connectedness, our interdependence, our oneness. Abram has cast his spell with brilliance and perfection. Under it, the readers and seekers are inspired in their quest.
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on October 15, 2002
I read this and loved it. Afterward, it occurred on me that I wouldn't be able to find anything as good for quite a while so I immediately read it again. Sure its about the intertwined relationship of our perceptions, language and the environment. I expected that. What I didn't expect and was very surprised by was how, after reading 80 or so pages, I walked outside and the world looked very different, much more alive and involving than before. I think that maybe after a new kidney or heart for the sake of a transplant, this may be the best present I could get. Its a great primer for folks lost in the muck of analytic philosophy about the world they live in. And for the people that don't care about philosphy, its like a wonderful love letter to the earth. This book rocks. I am anxiously awaiting the next book from David Abram. I've been waiting for about 4 years now. Dave, are you listening? We want another book. Thanks.
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on September 4, 1997
Abram has woven many abstract, complex ideas into this wonderful book. His concepts of participation, of a reciprocity between the inanimate (as well as animals) and humans, of a tension and exchange, helped me solidify many concepts I found seeds of in fiction books. He never comes off as tacky New Age or bored academician -- everything presented in this book is sincere, thoughtful, and thoroughly engrossing.
The book bogs down slightly in the latter stages, as he discusses the nature of language, and his tone is on even keel throughout.
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on July 20, 1998
The Spell of the Sensuous has been referred to as interdisciplinary; certainly the voice of the book carries over some linear arguments, some narrative, and then leaves you in the world again, silent and wide-eyed and seeing things just a little more fully than before.
I cannot wait for Abrams to write more. Either pure (and brief) philosophy, or an account of his travels, or, should he be so moved, even a novel.
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on January 4, 1998
The best parts are the indigenous stories. I found a lot of Abram's philosophical writing unclear, and as the reviewer in Philosophy and Religion noted, he often presents his beliefs without really supporting them. However, those beliefs are often thought-provoking. And one section (on the future and the past) inspired me to write a poem--I suspect Abram would say that therefore his book succeeded with me at least in part.
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on November 17, 2001
Like David Abram, I too appreciate nature. I would
never deliberately defile or spoil it in any way. I do not worship it, however;
but rather I worship its creator. The byline running through
this book gets too dangerously close
to pagan nature worship for me. Nevertheless the author
has many valid observations to make and I do not
write him off altogether, even though I do not
share (what I assume to be) his views of life,
and was often insulted by his opinions,
especially those with such disrespect for Christianity.
His idea of reciprocity between man and nature is
food for thought, even if it is
almost verbatim derived from what G. I. Gurdjieff taught,
in his Fourth Way movement in the early
20th century. Gurdjieff's disciple, J.G. Bennett, called it "Reciprocal Maintenance,"
the only difference being that this kind of
reciprocity governs man-to-man, and man-to-cosmos
relationships, as well as man-to-nature. Abram didn't
seem inclined to include us humans
as beneficiaries of each other's reciprocity.
It does not surprise
me however, since there is a bitter scorn
and derision cast upon many institutions
we in the West once held as synonymous with
successful living, in particular
the (always easy potshot)
whipping boys capitalism and industrialisation,
that runs throughout the book.
Abram even goes so far as to replace the
grammatically sound masculine
pronouns "he" and "his" with "she" and "her."
I was less than amused by this deliberate flouting of
English grammar rules. The one point in the book
(and not ironically the best part) where
he comes nearest a sense of reverence for
anything beyond physical nature, is his exposition regarding the ancient Hebrew language's peculiar non-existence of vowels. It was fascinating (once he finally got around to it)
to read his theory about what repercussions
followed the emergence of such vowel sounds.
After all this was the main premise of the book
to begin with. The rest was difficult to plough through,
though not unworthy of attention if you can stomach his attitude
towards Western civilization.
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