Book Review: The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram

I really do consider this a truly paradigm-shifting book even though I didn’t buy into all of the assumptions written here. Author David Abram admits that even though there might not be any ‘literal truth’ to the animistic claims of indigenous cultures, he says this is irrelevant because for Abram truths can be ‘literal’ only insofar as the written word corresponds to our perception of how things are. He is more interested in how the beliefs and stories of the Koyukon people of Alaska, the aboriginals of Australia or the Western Apache ‘make sense’; that is, how they place the human species in the right kind of relationship with the more-than-human world.

Philosopher and professional tree-hugger David Abram

Part of me sympathises with this viewpoint, but the sceptic in me wishes to highlight that you can have your cake and eat it – you can consider yourself as but one being intertwined with other beings and ‘presences’ – whilst caring about gaining as true an idea of the world as possible. But this is just a personal quibble. Maybe talk of a field of consciousness, spirits and rocks expressing meaning is just a useful and poetic way of looking at the world, but I find it hard to digest and avoid caricaturing.

Otherwise, it is a very challenging book (not in an academic sense, necessarily) but because it really does involve a monumental shift in how you look at the world. Just reading about the phenomenology championed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger caused me to have a kind of ontological panic. The world can suddenly appear very different when you have a philosopher using words and ideas together in a very novel and unique way. As Abram points out with Heidegger, this was intentional – he was trying to bring about a shift in perception with a shift in language. The notion that perception and language are interdependent is supported throughout the book.

Abram ingeniously weaves together many distant and apparently distinct ideas into a coherent picture. Oral indigenous cultures separated by time and space, as well as philosophers separated in the same way, tend towards a similar conclusion: the landscape is a sensuous field, and we are but one point of view or way of being which reciprocates, and expressively communicates, with other points of view or ways of being in the ever-shifting landscape.

Both Native American cultures and Merleau-Ponty base this belief by attending to direct, immediate, pre-conceptual experience. By giving primacy to perception – which Abram argues, is prior to and the ground of all knowing – we can see the natural world, not as inert and passive, but as dynamic and participatory. The winds, rivers and birds speak in their own way (if we listen), and Abram describes the fascinating ways in which the sounds of nature have informed not just indigenous languages, but language in general.

In Merleau-Ponty’s work Phenomenology of Perception, he makes the case for the gestural origin of language, one theory of many relating to the origins of language. He argues that communicative meaning originated from the gestures by which the body spontaneously expresses feelings and responds to changes in the environment. Abram postulates that “meaning sprouts in the very depths of the sensory world, in the heat of meeting, encounter, participation”. Each language becomes “a kind of song, a particular way of ‘singing the world'”.

Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Other perspective-shifting ideas worth reading about include the bringing together of Heidegger’s views on time and indigenous beliefs which see space and time as indistinguishable. By focusing only on what our perception reveals to us, Abram makes the case (difficult to grasp and accept at first) that the past corresponds to that which lies beneath the ground (the past being that which has created the present and refuses its own presence) and the future corresponds to that which lies beyond the horizon (the future being that which offers the present and withholds its own presence). The past and future are distinct powers which feed the present, which is also ‘presence’ (so here again, time and space become conflated).

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the discussion on the development of language. Abram takes us on a journey from pre-literacy (where stories and songs were employed as mnemonic devices to remember the accumulated knowledge of the tribe) to pictographic writing systems (e.g. Egyptian hieroglyphics) to the Hebrew ‘aleph-beth’ (as well as an interesting illustration of the Kabbalistic interpretation of words and letters) to the Greek alphabet (which Abrams argues was the first truly phonetic script – in which symbols represent sounds – to sever all ties with the sensuous world). It is this severing of ties, Abram believes, that has greatly contributed to the complete indifference with which we regard and treat the landscape and all that it contains. After all, language is inextricably linked to perception.

It is the author’s contention that the creation and spread of phonetic writing is a major source of our species’ felt distance from other beings and the planet. He argues that our senses were no longer involved in their more primal synaesthetic participation with the landscape, but were now converging towards written letters (purely symbolic representations of exclusively human-made sounds).

I enjoyed the description of sensory perception being inherently synaesthetic; that is, there is a pre-existing cross-activation of sensory modalities, so that seeing and hearing, for example, combine with each other. Merleau-Ponty himself wrote about how in a psychedelic state (induced by mescaline in this case) synaesthesia becomes very noticeable, with Abram highlighting that what is going on is an amplification or intensification of ordinary phenomena that are always going on. Our hearing and seeing used to become intertwined and attend to the calls and cries of animals; then with the invention and proliferation of the alphabet, they retreated from this domain and participated with texts which started to take on their own kind of autonomy and intelligence.

The words began to speak to us while the landscape fell silent.

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