The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Anglais) Broché – 25 février 1997
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"Long awaited, revolutionary...This book ponders the violent disconnection of the body from the natural world and what this means about how we live and die in it."--Los Angeles Times
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There is a paradox here, because Abrams' book exposes the drawbacks of literacy and abstract, logical thinking. But it is itself a piece of very well-argued written discourse. However, it works, and not just because Abrams' arguments are so convincing. Part of their power stems from the fact that Abrams is an artist; he has the gift of using words and imagery that can reach below the logical brain to inspire a more direct way of perceiving the world. The result is a book which is a moving combination of philosophical writing and pure poetry.
Abrams works from a phenomenological standpoint, and the book begins with a discussion of phenomenology's history and major ideas.* This is a readable and unintimidating introduction to the subject. Abrams then proceeds to show how, starting at the time of alphabetization, the Western mind began to grow away from direct physical knowing of the world and toward abstract, conceptual representations. Our language became removed from nature, and helped us to remove ourselves from it and to inhabit an almost entirely human-centered world.
As a counterpoint to the Western use of language, Abrams goes on to show how people in non-literate cultures use language as a way to connect with the body and the physical realm. In these oral cultures language "is experienced not as the exclusive property of humankind, but as a property of the sensuous life-world." In other words, the world--the animals, plants, stones, wind--speaks a language that most of us can no longer hear. Abrams explores indigenous oral poetry and stories to illustrate this entirely other way of experiencing language.
My first reading of this book triggered a conversion of sorts. It spun me 180 degrees, from the world of concepts to the world of immediate perception. I'm on my third reading now and still incorporating teachings passed over previously. I am finding that returning my gaze to the uninterpreted physical world is a difficult practice, as I have been conditioned (like most Westerners) to run my experience through a filter of concepts and judgments. But, like meditation, this practice can help to loosen one's psyche from its "mind-forg'd manacles." For this reason, The Spell of the Sensuous is really a manual for liberating one's inner and outer vision.
*Phenomenology is the study of how we experience consciousness. Unlike many branches of philosophy which rely on arguments built in logical steps, phenomenology is more about how we perceive and feel the immediate play of events around and within ourselves. Thus it is less abstract and more experiential than many branches of philosophy. See [...] for more information.
The first chapter, about Abram's experiences as a sleight-of-hand magician in Nepal and Indonesia, is lyrical and gorgeous. I admit that I also caught myself thinking, "Dude! I want some of what you are smoking!"
I thought chapter two might advocate wearing amethyst pendants. Not remotely. The next two chapters -- on philosophy and linguistics -- require black coffee and a clear-headed morning. It is exhilarating to watch someone think this way -- like watching a daredevil making leaps over cars -- except the leaps he is making are not sport but the leaps we need to survive on the planet.
Abram investigates the present, the past, the future, and where each can be found in the landscape. He even goes so far as to offer, on page 202, a meditation on how to dissolve time. (Of course I annotated my copy; you never know when you're going to need just this sort of thing.) The last section is about writing, how the Hebrews left out the sacred vowels but the Greeks left us marooned in the abstract. My crude summary does violence to the text. It is exhilarating to read.
Then comes the coda and, a few pages before the end, he says, basically, "This might be true and it might not and what is true anyway? Truth is what heals the planet and falsehood is what harms it." Part of me agreed and part of me felt like the victim of a sleight-of-hand magician. I want my truths to be, well, true and not just gorgeous. The whole section made me feel uneasy.
I do not mean to condemn the book. Not at all. I have told everyone I know to read it -- I want people discuss it with! Abram gave me raptures, lectures, arguments and questions. A beautiful book, well worth wrestling with and re-visiting.
Abrams shares this basic idea with others - phenomenologists, philosophers, linguists, ethnographers and anthropologists many of whom performed research on indigenous peoples from around the world. For an indigenous person the intimacy between the landscape and the inner space of feeling is rather ordinary and normal, certainly nothing special. That someone has to argue that this communication even exists is, to someone living close to nature almost incomprehensible.
Be that as it may, Abrams quotes other people (indigenous folks and their observers) copiously and not always consistently. His own contribution I find a bit sketchy and perhaps even problematic. For example, he goes to great length trying to shift the blame for the ecological blindness of Western man away from his/her absurd belief in a warlike, genocidal and jealous Hebrew deity onto Greek philosophers and their use of abstract language. This is not a little disingenuous, since it wasn't ancient pagans who wrecked the relationship between the Western World and forces of nature, but rather the fanatic followers of the 3 monotheistic religions blindly marching towards promised salvation. Now the entire planet is paying for soteriological orthodoxy and its distrust of the body and nature.
Perhaps a more serious concern is that although Abrams pays lip service to the indigenous relationship with the landscape, he does this through the prism of his own logocentric viewpoint rooted in Western anthropology and phenomenology (ie, the book is based on Husserl and Merleau-Ponty). Abrams' use of concepts which is ostensibly aiming at disentanglement from the conceptual double-bind(s) reminds me of a fly ineffectually buzzing around spider's web. Apart from the Introduction - which is promising, as it suggests Abrams will use the book to talk about his personal experiences, insights or revelations, the book itself is a brainy, abstract and a superconceptual treatise, I personally had to skip pages as it sometimes simply got too boring. The diametric opposite of SOTS would probably be Jensen's Language Older Than Words - a brilliant personal expose on the same topic which, for reasons unclear to me, received much less attention. Be that as it may, the interest in SOTS signifies that ecophenomenology is here to stay and i personally am happy about it.
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