starlingsI am working my way through David Abram‘s enthralling book The Spell of the Sensuous. I will have more to say about it when I’ve finished, but it has already affected me so much that I feel the need to write about it.

In his books Ishmael and Story of B, Daniel Quinn describes the “Great Forgetting”, the loss of our memory of, and connection with, the millions of years of human evolution in harmony with the rest of life on Earth prior to the invention of totalitarian agriculture and civilization just a few thousand years ago. This forgetting, in Quinn’s view, has been essential to our modern culture’s reckless and relentless pursuit of unsustainable growth, because we are no longer aware of any other way to live. In A Language Older Than Words Derrick Jensen tells us it is possible to remember, to rediscover the way we lived before this Great Forgetting, and that if we “listen closely to the land we will in time know exactly what to do” to reconnect, to remember, and to make our way not back, but forward to a post-civilization culture that once again respects all life on Earth, restores the balance of our damaged planet, and brings an end to the catastrophic violence, misery and destruction that civilization (though well-intentioned) has wrought. And Peter Jay and a rising number of historical revisionists now reassure us that life before civilization was not short, nasty and brutish, but leisurely, joyful, harmonious and idyllic.

Now David Abram adds two more important pieces to the prescription for remembering: A solid philosophical framework, rooted in modern phenomenology (the study of things as we spontaneously experience them, prior to all conceptualizations and definitions), that provides a more rational explanation for how civilization has taken us off-track, away from our true place on Earth (to bolster the instinctive argument which is compelling enough for me, but not for many others), and a recipe, a set of exercises, to teach us to remember, to reconnect, to break free of the abstract moral and intellectual inhibitors of our culture and re-learn how to be part of the Earth. While Quinn tells us that we need only “walk away” from the prison that is our culture, our civilization, he does not make it clear how to do so:

The prison is your culture, which you sustain generation after generation. You yourself are learning from your parents how to be a prisoner. Your parents learned from their parents how to be a prisoner. Their parents learned from their parents how to be a prisoner. And so on, back to the beginning in the Fertile Crescent ten thousand years ago.

Abram, it seems to me, is telling us that this prison has no bars, no locks, and that the only thing keeping us inside is fear of what is outside, of not knowing how to live ‘out there’. But as the birds and the spiders and the frogs show us, every day, living out there is easy. We have blinded ourselves to this simplicity by elevating abstraction above perception, closing ourselves to the learnings about how to live that are all around us. Perception, to Abram, is, unlike abstraction, a dance, a reciprocal activity that engages and involves the perceiver and the perceived indistinguishably. He quotes phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty:

My gaze pairs off with colour, and my hand with hardness and softness, and in this transaction between the subject of sensation and the sensible it cannot be held that one acts while the other suffers the action, or that one confers significance on the other. Apart from the probing of my eye or my hand, and before my body synchronizes with it, the sensible is nothing but a vague beckoning…

Synaesthetic [involving all the senses together] perception is the rule [among all life on Earth], and we are unaware of it only because scientific knowledge shifts the centre of gravity of experience, so that we have unlearned how to see, hear, and generally speaking, feel, in order to deduce, from our bodily organization and the world as the physicist sees it, what we are to see, hear and feel.

So, to me, Abram is saying that remembering our true place in nature, in the web of life on Earth, is simply a matter of opening ourselves up, to perceiving things we have been taught to block, conceptualize, and define abstractly. Just like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, it is more a matter of unlearning than of learning. Just as we can ‘unlearn’ how not to draw things as abstracted icons, so too can we ‘unlearn’ how not to live in a separate, abstracted world disconnected from our senses and from the incredible world of ever-changing form and life and knowledge and spirit all around us. In a section Abram wryly calls “Returning to our Senses” he describes the journey that will take of most of the rest of the book (and perhaps, most of the rest of our lives):

As we reacquaint ourselves with our breathing bodies, then the perceived world itself begins to shift and transform. When we begin to consciously frequent the wordless dimension of our sensory participations, certain phenomena that have habitually commanded our focus begin to lose their distinctive fascination and to slip toward the background, while hitherto unnoticed or overlooked presences begin to stand forth from the periphery and to engage our awareness. The countless human artefacts with which we are commonly involved — buildings, automobiles, television screens — all begin to exhibit a common style, and so to lose some of their distinctiveness; meanwhile, organic entities — crows, trees, rainfalls — all these begin to display a new vitality, each coaxing the breathing body into a unique dance. Even boulders and rocks seem to speak their own uncanny languages of gesture and shadow, inviting the body and its bones into silent communication. In contact with the native forms of the earth, one’s senses are slowly energized and awakened, combining and recombining in ever-shifting patterns.

Even language, the most seemingly abstract of our human inventions, is, in Merleau-Ponty’s and Abram’s philosophy, deeply rooted in the expression of our bodies and our senses. Here’s a delightful excerpt that particularly resonated with me, as I marvel at our ability to develop deep friendships online, and at the amazing depth of meaning that is carried in the tone of a voice, brought to me by Skype or one of the other technologies I’m studying, that is absent in the mere stream of words in an instant message:

If, for instance, one comes upon two human friends unexpectedly meeting for the first time in many months, and one chances to hear their initial words of surprise, greeting, and pleasure, one may readily notice, if one pays close enough attention, a tonal, melodic layer of communication beneath the explicit denotative meaning of the words — a rippling rise and fall of the voices in a sort of musical duet, rather like two birds singing to each other. Each voice, each side of the duet, mimes a bit of the other’s melody, while adding its own inflection and style, and then is echoed by the other in turn — the two singling bodies thus tuning and attuning to one another, rediscovering a common register, remembering each other. It requires only a slight shift in focus to realize that this melodic singing is carrying the bulk of communication in this encounter, and that the explicit meanings of the actual words ride on the surface of this depth like waves on the surface of the sea.


That is about as far as I have read. Just before he launches into the next section (which I will start reading this evening), Abram teases us with the promise of explaining the cause of Quinn’s “Great Forgetting”:

Nonhuman nature seems to have withdrawn from both our speaking and our senses. What event could have precipitated this double withdrawal, constricting our ways of speaking even as it muffled our ears and set a veil before our eyes?

I will write more about this book. I commend it to those who have not yet discovered it, or those who read it but weren’t yet ready for its challenging and profound message — please read it, or re-read it, with me, and share your thoughts. Let us take this journey, and re-learn, together.

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  1. shari says:

    Ahh. You’re describing what I call the illusion of separation: between life, between each one of us and between us and nature. I think this world is unfortunately set up to foster this illusion. However, our task is to overcome it. Not easy.I’ll have to read your recommendations. Your posts are always worth at least a week’s worth of thought, if not more.

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