The Spell of the Sensuous
by David Abram
That we in the modern technological world have become disconnected from the natural world is really beyond argument. Focusing on language, Abram offers a radical approach to an understanding of why this happened, and also just a hint at how we can begin to reconnect—because, of course, we must find a way to reconnect. It is common sense that humankind cannot continue this process of disconnection from its sustaining source indefinitely.
He suggests the adoption of a way of thinking that is in accordance with our senses, one that associates truth not with static fact, but with a quality of relationship. We can only live in truth by living in harmony with the rest of the natural world. A civilization that relentlessly destroys the living land it inhabits is not well acquainted with truth, regardless of how many supposed facts it has amassed regarding the calculable properties of its world.
Abram’s approach is radical because he calls for nothing less than a paradigm shift in our perception of the world around us. This resonates with me strongly. I have long believed that our sentience is not just to be associated with the self, but has to be regarded as continuous with the sentience of the whole living world. It’s not an easy concept to communicate and it is at this point, in his discussion of the philosophical tradition known as phenomenology, that the book becomes quite difficult. We are so familiar with living entirely in our heads that it is nearly impossible to grasp that experience of pure perception before our conceptualising mind internalises it. After dealing with the work of the phenomenologists (Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty), Abram goes on to discuss at length the relationship of our indigenous peoples to the animate world, to try to give us some feel for their culture of sensuous participation—before the advent of written, phonetic language.
He does an incredible job of transporting us into this so very different, almost alien world, conjuring meaning out of the written word to offer us a glimpse of a world without the written word. The rhythm of his writing is such that it reads more like poetry than prose. It’s quite spellbinding. And that actually directs us straight to Abram’s central thesis, that the written word has indeed cast us under a kind of spell. He argues that the development of written language is what has cut us off from our original sensuous bearings, isolating the human world from the rest of the earth, the more-than-human world. Our language, rooted at the very beginning in the fauna and flora of the land and the very air we breathe, and evolving over time from pictograms and icons to the phonetic system of abstract symbols that we use today, has served to dislocate us from the shapes and sounds and smells of the living earth.
Abram’s writing is so elegant, so seductively beautiful, that there is a danger of being swept away by his reasoning. There’s an audacity to the challenge he makes on our very deepest assumptions about the world. His magical prose cast me under a spell—to the extent that I was reluctant to engage with his ideas too critically. But that’s for a second read, or perhaps even a third. It’s that kind of book.
There is so much wonderful insight here—into the nature of perception, the almost lost culture of our aboriginal peoples, the story of the evolution of written language—that I can thoroughly recommend it, quite independently of the extent to which you buy into Abram’s main thesis.
It is, quite simply, an audaciously good read.