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A Conversation with David Abram
Nourishing Ideas > Books We Like > A Conversation with David Abram

by Larry Parks Daloz

"We 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."

Essentially, his 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?

  • We 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.
  • We 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 to another.
  • We 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.
  • We 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."
  • We can pay attention; "Let everything be alive."
  • We 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).

Copyright 1998 by Larry Parks Daloz. Reprinted with permission.

Date / Author
Subject Add Your Comment
Oct 03, 2021
02:57 PM
Spell of the Sensuous
Christina This is one of the most influential books I've ever read and I've bought more copies to give as gifts than any other book ever! Everyone should read it.... :^)

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