Conversation with David Abram
by Larry Parks Daloz
have lived 98% of our evolutionary existence as hunter-gatherers
carrying on an animistic conversation with every flapping form. This
is what we are made of!"
- David Abram
After reading David
Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous, Thomas Berry declared that
"It should be one of the most widely read and discussed books
of its times." While a certain inflation is conventional in
book endorsements, it strikes us that in this case, Berry is bang
on. And although at times it forces us to pick our way slowly among
the carefully tiered ideas, the book is juicy with poetic vision as
well. The reward, as Bill McKibbon reportedly discovered, is that
when we are done, the world is a different place.
In effect, Abram wants
to make us all mad. Not angry. Mad. Crazy. He would have us talking
with trees, rocks, even the air. And by the time we have worked our
way through his delicately balanced but depth-charged argument, we
just might find ourselves doing that. Or at least doing it somewhat
less self-consciously than before. At the root of the ecological
crisis, he believes, is a flawed view of reality itself, spawned by
our modernist tendency to imagine ourselves as distant observers,
speaking about the world rather than intimate participants, engaging
with it. It has not always been so, he goes on. We began to lose the
vital connection, the sense of reality as participatory, when we
invented writing. And things got steadily worse as increasingly we
shifted the locus of "truth" from our direct experience to
sacred texts. This conviction, he told a group of Whidbey Institute
associates recently, is his own "private madness," and
what motivated him to write the book was that he decided that
"instead of adapting myself to our cultural madness, I'd try to
transform the culture."
argument goes something like this.
The body is the
location of all knowledge. What we "know" comes to us
through our senses, through our contact with physical, earthly
experience. That experience invariably shapes what we perceive.
Perception is inherently participatory. To the body, the world is
not "object." There is no "me" apart from an
"other." Everything is animate for the sensing body. Touch
a tree and the tree is touching you back. That we no longer know
this is part of the tragedy.
Language evolved as a
form of participation with the world, not just a representation of
it. But the appearance of symbols and later writing, and still
later, the phonetic alphabet drove a wedge into our direct
experience informed by our immediate surroundings, and created a
sense of "self" as separate from the living matrix of our
immediate surround. When the Greeks appropriated the Semitic
alphabet--a system still reflecting the local terrain--they
inadvertently created a framework of knowing (the "text")
that was wholly independent of its geographic context. The result
was the birth of the "reflective self" and the flowering
of the Platonic vision in which "truth" was purely
abstract, forever set off from the "merely material." When
Whitehead remarked that all philosophy was just a footnote to Plato,
he may have had this in mind. In any case, we all know the rest.
Life no longer resides in the landscape, the rocks, the air. Magic
is dead. The sacred is confined to the texts of the conquering
tribes. And we are free to savage the earth. But, says Abram, it
need not be so. True, the ecological crisis is largely a result of a
perceptual failing. And true, the language we use when we reflect on
our experience (rather than participate with it) implicitly severs
our selves from ourselves, doing damage both to us and the earth.
But there are ways of speaking, there are practices that can begin
to restore some of what we have lost. The work is to induce people
"to fall in love outwards," with the land, he says,
quoting poet Randall Jarrell. Indeed, many traditional oral cultures
speak in ways that keep the world alive. Principally, tribal
identity is held in stories and the stories reside in the land. The
characters are animals, plants, beings who dwell there.
It is ironic that
"anecdotal" evidence (story telling) is decried by
contemporary scientific epistemology. We are taught to distrust our
senses and rely on "reason." And yet despite this yearning
for "objectivity," we cannot step out of the world. Where
would we stand? It is a useful device, but ultimately we must
recognize it as a delusion. In many respects, "story" is a
more adequate way to give meaning to what our senses tell us.
What are the
implications of all this for our work--both through the Institute
and in our lives?
can remind ourselves that it is not just a human world;
everything in the cosmos is active. The cosmos is a communion
of subjects, as Thomas Berry has said.
can seek ways of thinking that know (not just believe) that
everything reflects Being. I am not "stepping
outside" of anything; I am one part of the world speaking
can learn to hear the stories that abound in the
"more-than-human" that surrounds us--in the rivers,
the rocks, the hills, the air. And as teachers, we can tell
them and enable others to hear them.
can strive to allow things their own agency, to respect their
particular otherness, to listen ever more carefully.
"Everything speaks, just not in our language."
can pay attention; "Let everything be alive."
can recognize the sharp difference between projection in which
we simply see a different form of ourselves in the other, and
appreciating the radical uniqueness of the other. "If
there is anything special about human beings, it is our
ability to focus not on how unique we are but on how unique
everything else is." That is what "falling in love
outward" really means.
All this if taken
seriously raises some pretty profound questions. Are we then to turn
ou backs on the last 10,000 years of cultural evolution and burn our
books--including The Spell of the Sensuous?
Of course not, says
Abram. The genie is long gone. But we need to move toward "a
way of thinking that strives for rigor without forfeiting our animal
kinship with the world...a style that associates truth not with
static fact, but with a quality of relationship" (264).
"...there can be no question of simply abandoning
literacy," he adds later, "...Our task, rather is that of
taking up the written word, with all of its potency, and patiently,
carefully, writing language back into the land" (273).
by Larry Parks Daloz. Reprinted with permission.
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