Commentary and review of The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram (New York: Pantheon Books, 1996)
“Pluck the Magic: It’s all around you. This is Air!”
The state of my mind after reading David Abram’s book, The Spell of the Sensuous, reminded me of the way I felt after my head-spinning introduction to Carl Jung’s works, after discovering the power in sorcerer Don Juan’s lessons in Carlos Castaneda’s fictions, after listening to Krishnamurti’s wonderful Eselin lectures, and after being preached to by my millionaire New Age friend about living the leisure life as a mystical guru. It is always enlivening to come upon something that seems new, a super charge to have a rejuvenation of poetic awareness. I praise Abram’s Spell because it reinforces my desire to devote more time to poetry and painting. No doubt about it: Abram’s writings did me some good; a friendlier wind is blowing in dark corners of my brain. It might help to put many readers’ shaken minds in good order. I wish every super-literate, philosophical, cognitive-heavy academic might benefit from the encouragement to enjoy nature as Abram’s professes one can. Furthermore, in these difficult economic times, my wish goes out to every student before entering college that he/she take time to read The Spell of the Sensuous. But, absolutely, do not take too seriously Abram’s indictment of writing as the cause of humanity’s undoing. Writing, after all, is the technological medium through which Abram’s message will reach most of his audience.
Indeed, Abram’s book did wonders for my intellectual enjoyment. It spurred me to reflect upon some of the major characters of our literature club’s book choices over the years, considering how out of touch most of the protagonists were with the natural life-world about them, how unable they were to come to their senses for an enhancement of life and the resolution of their despair. By the mid-twentieth century George Steiner, the famous don of serious literary criticism, had announced that literature was dead, that modernist writers had failed to find a way out of the dilemma of subjective existence which their protagonists suffered from. Many of the novels we have read over the past three years bear out Steiner’s pessimism. Think of brilliant Malcolm Lowry’s wrestling with his own alcoholism during his writing of the Consul’s psychotic addictions in Under the Volcano. Think of J.D. Salinger’s manic-depressive Glass family, those child prodigies who played geniuses on early quiz shows. What good did their brilliance and early success do for them? The eldest, Seymour, suicided in “Bananafish;” Franny, a successful actress in her adult career, was chronically depressed, and in Zooey was close to slitting her wrists; Zooey’s wisdom in advising his miserable sister was that she must pull her socks up and imagine Jesus as the rich Fat Lady in the front row she must play to with all her heart. Jesus! Need I remind readers of Dostoevsky’s maniacal Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment? Or the pathetic protagonist of William Young’s The Shack, who has to fantasize a conference with the Holy Trinity to get back to normal dutiful existence? Jesus and religion have been used extensively to redeem hopeless characters, but resolution by that means is, for me, old hat, stale, clichéd. Consider, then, the strange Gustav Von Aschenbach in Mann’s Death in Venice, who lost himself writing about logocentric historic characters, fearing a collapse into the abyss if he dare enjoy eating a peach. Then, on his Venetian holiday, too late in life, with no practice at love, he bumps into Eros and Dionysus, and through his attraction to a Polish youth’s classical beauty, he stays on too long and catches the cholera. Opening himself to his senses, poor Gustav loses his good sense and lives out his last days in choleraic morbidity. A dreadful warning for us all. Recount the sad denouement of Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence. How few books we’ve read had good outcomes for their tragic protagonists? Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance had a positive resolution; many of us sensed in it an awakening of the protagonist’s senses and finally his paying attention to his ward, the bright and beautiful boy, Chris. In spite of the present reality of ongoing bloodshed and barbaric struggle, A Thousand Splendid Suns (by Kahled Hosseini) gave promise of better times to come for Afghanis. All in all, the tradition of great literature has shown that human beings wander for much of their lives through dark landscapes and yet the message we draw from the travails is that light must ever be sought, even if it seems impossible.
Steiner and others had prophesied that modernist literature had exhausted the subject of the difficult heroic life, for which no new paradigm of salvation or redemption could be shown. The epistemological struggle, striving subjectively to find the right way to know and understand, proved to have no exit from the interior psychic maze in order that a character might go forth with a healthful life purpose. So, it has often been stated that the problem of the protagonist in modernist literature is a crisis of consciousness, an inability to easily accept the unusual subjectivity of one’s existence, to give up the delusion of the old certainties and verities of supposedly objective truth. Instead of the person who fits into polite society, the modernist writers chose to depict characters in states of isolation, tracing or implying the unusual pattern of life by which the protagonist arrived at some weird impasse, feeling bereft of his senses or his soul. The heroic figure is mostly a loser. The end, no matter how bravely the game was played, was usually quite tragic or pathetic. Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin–what a brave failure! We’ve experienced it through many of our book choices. Being intellectually bright will not save one from misery. David Foster Wallace’s brilliant first novel, The Broom of the System, might fit into Abram’s philosophical theme through Wittgenstein’s linguistic dilemma—if there’s no picture in the word, it is ineffective communication. With Wallace one is encountering postmodernist solutions, but in good storytelling there is no reason not to fall back on the tried and true, even if it smacks of modernist techniques. So, Lenore Beadsman is another lost soul in a crisis of consciousness. Because of her heartless family’s ambitions and prosperity, through their vicious exploitation of one another, Lenore struggles to escape Beadsmanhood, being defined by others’ description of her place in the scheme of wealth management. Wallace, a genius and enfant terrible in his early years, wanted a positive future for his heroine, and in his plot he granted fay Lenore passage out of her miserable entrapment. Indeed, Lenore finds herself, comes to her senses, through old-fashioned romantic love-making with the once rather disgusting Wang-Dang Lang. Through conversational foreplay, hanging out in bed with Lang, when he shows some genuine heart-felt compassion for another human being, Lenore gives in and allows coitus. This is definitely falling back on old solutions, but Wallace gave his nod to the importance of feeling. Feeling something, feeling for someone, having the senses hang out there, is very, very important in living vitally. (See Wallace’s sensitive essay, “This is Water.” (Text in http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/sep/20/fiction)
David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous (SOS) intends to account for modern disenchantment with nature, for the distraction of our distance from participation, enjoyment and relishing of the world around us. From one perspective, the book is a very seductive, poetic enticement to help readers remember the full play of the senses that allow full awareness of the beauty and vitality of nature. As my 86-year-old friend Burk, a practicing artist of poetry and painting, commented: “I don’t think I needed the whole 300 pages of verbiage; the Coda summed it up fine—use your senses to enjoy life.” An unorthodox self-help work, if their ever was one, SOS presents a course of revival through a rediscovery of forgotten senses, ways of perceiving both the outside world of surrounding nature and the organic and mental sensations within us. Abram terms his sensuous perception a practice of “reciprocal participation” with nature, especially with the other-than-human nature, both organic and inorganic. Concomitant with the reawakening of the senses, there is a realignment of time and space, taking them out of abstract mental conceptions and putting them back into the living flux and matrix of nature and reality. Examples:
I find myself standing in the midst of an eternity, a vast and inexhaustible present. The whole world rests within itself—the trees at the field’s edge, the hum of crickets in the grass, cirrocumulus clouds rippling like waves across the sky, from horizon to horizon. In the distance I notice the curving dirt road and my rusty car parked at its edge—these, too, seem to have their place in this open moment of vision, this eternal present. And smells—the air is rich with faint whiffs from the forest, the heather, the soil underfoot—so many messages mingling between the different elements in the encircling land. The jagged snag of a single withered oak tree standing alone in the field does not, in this eternity, seem really dead. (p. 202-203)
I remain standing on this hill under rippled clouds, my skin tingling with sensations. The expansiveness of the present holds my body enthralled. My animal senses are all awake—my ears attuned to a multiplicity of minute sounds, the tiny hairs of my face registering every lull and shift in the breeze. I am embedded in this open moment, my muscles stretching and bending with the gusts. This present seems endless, inexhaustible. What has then become of the past and the future? (p. 206)
Passages such as these remind one of the state poets take advantage of or the small wonders that appear in moments of leisure and relaxation. In clichéd terms, they are an incitement to “get-back” or to “lay-back,” to enjoy some “down-time.” Poets, dreamers, and pot-smokers are familiar with such states, which are perfectly natural experiences. This is the truly attractive, sensuous and seductive aspect of the book.
On the other hand, the treatise is also a highly intellectual, philosophical work, taxing the reader’s rational and imaginative resources with lengthy passages of phenomenological discourse, the language at times being so abstract and abstruse as to be decidedly un-seductive. It is odd, if not paradoxical, that one who wishes to arouse the senses to an aesthetic awareness would choose to base much of the argument for a return to nature on such an arch-rationalistic, intellectualistic foundation. In the sections of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s, Edmund Husserl’s, and Martin Heidegger’s philosophical disputations, abstractions march in phalanxes across the page. The thesis and argument demand a high level of literacy in the readership, even though some intellectual elements of that literacy are cited as the source of humans’ separation from nature. In other words, the author takes one deep inside the mind’s labyrinthine interiority in order to open windows onto the vibrant living outer world. How many of today’s younger generation will this heady mix appeal to? Because of the philosophical discourse Abram feels is the foundation of his argument, it seems to me the author is appealing mostly to readers sunk in logos-oriented existence, to the logically-minded academic who will be most affected or gratified by the poetic revelation that the forgotten sensorium can still be used to enjoy the world. Hey, you intellectuals, Carpe Diem! Wake up and smell the roses!
In many respects the concept reminds me of Carlos Castaneda’s artificial “Master’s Thesis” about the Indian brujo Don Juan (The Teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui Way of Knowledge). Castaneda had to give up his Western intellectualizing to effectively apprentice himself as an initiate into the spiritual magic in nature. In past decades I think we have been inundated with books that show the limitations of Western thought and its eradication of the mysteries that make life enchanting. The following are some examples of similar theses from the same era as Abram’s book: Morris Berman’s The Re-enchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West (1989) and Wandering God: a Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000). Berman sees the separation from nature in historical eras: in antiquity with the Christian emphasis on right “knowing” (the correct wisdom of the Church) against the Gnostic sects’ “gnosis,” which showed more somatic, intuitive awareness of being spiritually alive. In later eras the dominance of correct intellectualism policed the alternative, wayward movements that still maintained somatic participation with nature’s mysteries: the Cathar Gnostics, the Yellow Knights of Malta, the Albigensians, witches, and all brands of intelligent people of subjective self-knowledge. Abram seems quite unaware of Berman’s convincing philosophy, which in some ways parallels his own investigation. Berman, however, is pessimistic about closing and healing the psychic schism, which modern human beings seem to tolerate. It shows up in such phenomena as American specialism, by which horrors executed by others against the United States are much more heinous than similar despicable horrors the U.S. perpetrates against innocents of other countries. Fascism and nationalism emerge out of such a disconnection of a people’s self-image and the other’s perspective of a different image. How could bright, well-educated Germans become Nazis, quite convinced that Jews should be annihilated for the benefit of their culture? With the power of ego-consciousness, through an exaggerated sense of one’s psychic prowess, the magnanimous affections of sympathy and empathy are drowned out. Fixated true believers cannot easily heal their psychosis.
Other thinkers investigated the question of the schism from different perspectives. . Thomas Moore’s works of the mid-1990s come to mind: Care of the Soul and The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life, both containing very sensible, commonsense ways of getting back to a decent awareness of the meaning and enjoyment of life. The seduction of Jung’s works on archetypes, of Joseph Campbell’s universalist reinterpretation of myths, of the many therapies of re-sensitization in the 1960s and 1970s, worked on the idea that people had forgotten how to perceive the world healthfully. Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s Finding Flow: a Psychological Engagement with Everday Life. (Take a look at his TED.com talk), is very helpful in understanding artistic creativity, moments of happiness, and opening the clogged sensory passageways. One has to be convinced of the psychic dissociation after reading these books. In many ways they help explain how our political and cultural life, in the main, has become jaded and diseased.
In the Hippie era of the Sixties, many college students deeply absorbed in traditionally intellectual studies found a relief from obsessive cerebration through drugs. For example, when marijuana’s THC first loosened my inhibitions to notice or express what I was sensing, I recall noticing how cavernous the glass was I had drunk out of, as though I was experiencing as never before a special volume in the inner cavity of the vessel. At some later time–for we students often discussed the experience of mind-expansion that some drugs seemed to elicit– I realized it was a degree of relaxation, of letting go, that allowed me to spend moments contemplating something I would otherwise take for granted and certainly not ponder over. Most of the time in those days my head was stuck in texts, grammar books and lexicons, keyed up cerebrally in order to be fully informed and prepared for some class or seminar discussion. Classics, i.e. ancient language studies, (should I have to state this?) was a very demanding field of regimented scholarship, offering hope of proficiency in the ancient languages only after decades of continuous study and reading (and re-reading). When, as a died-in-the-wool scholar, I went on vacation , camping with my family, I recall how it took some time to recover from my cubicle or carrel claustrophobia and the treadmill of the academic grind so I might adjust, relax, and enjoy the open air, the woods, the seashore. Why, there were some years I can hardly remember if I saw my infant children or even played with them, so intent was I on studious ambitions. Many of us graduate students were driven to distraction from all else, from the world out there, by the sheer quantity of work assigned and the research for term papers. No doubt greater nature had retreated from view, from my awareness, from my senses.
And yet here’s an example of my poetic jottings from the 1970s, when I was deeply engaged in reading, research, teaching, home-making and family life. Abram’s nature reveries reminded me of these poetic descriptions of past pleasures. Such writings from my old notebooks are signs I did escape periodically from the mechanical and practical hamster-wheel of study. Not all is lost through literacy:
[INTRO: After a late summer day trout fishing up and down Yellowjacket Creek near the Cispus River, I lay back on the bank to rest, a few native trout in my keeper bag for tomorrow’s breakfast or lunch, but not enough for a complete dinner. I felt sad for taking the little natives. They fought hard. Eagle Rock stared down upon me.]
Tower Rock, Gifford-Pinchot Nat’l Forest, Washington. Labor Day, 1977.
The field is fair.
Wheat-blonde grasses have grown strong,
Easy to bed down in.
Beneath the shaft-heads, steady below,
This body spreads itself out,
I stare like stone in roots
As the sun grazed in meads
Hydrangia-blue, pennanted by swallows.
Close to this block, I lie face-open;
By me, the light does not touch the groundlings.
What color can I speak
To depict the dapple of blade and leaf?
Not green, not gray, not blue.
Clover buds, rusted out
From heavy rains and early nights,
Begin to burst their rosy heads
To start lately summer again.
Teasel in the grass has grown stiff;
Round about—everywhere around—
Grasshoppers whistle and crackle,
Hop-flying and crash-landing
Against spines and vegetable posts.
The clamor of wings is stinging.
I wonder: what happens soon to bees?
Were they born from bulls’ innards?
How the hum of life vibrates as a breeze!.
Not many flying visitors stay.
I shudder: What was that?
Another stirring winged thing!
Along this flank a tribe of ants
Scamper, marking unseen mazes,
Over these ribs, they stagger in joy,
Having found this mound of storehouse carnage.
The tiny rude ones march over this beast
Massing upon the minotaur.
The laborers chaotically ponder
The balance and load of a festival weight.
How far from here is the Lilliputs’ home?
How far the field beyond the jungled ferns?
Moving now, I am gullivered up,
An encumbrance of life,
I lighten the cargo of my old stony bones
And they carry me forward,
A preponderance of being.
Though, in my poem, I am escaping as much as possible by casting myself forth in a body-consciousness, perceiving the play of nature, existentially alive to moments of enchantment, full of somatic awareness , still I have illustrated deep intellectual interests of mythology, using cognitively difficult classical allusion to Daedalus, the Cretan Minotaur, and later icons of “Leviathan” Gulliver and the tiny Lilliputians. What’s wrong with blending the sensory world, as poetry can do, with the interior cerebral world that draws on gained knowledge, which poetry and many other arts, verbal or not, can do?
Sources of the Psychic Schism
In recent years, many other analysts of modern culture have found human beings’ loss of soul or divorce from nature in the turn toward logical mindedness. Karen Armstrong’s powerful argument in A Short History of Myth finds the schism in the disconnection from mythic consciousness (the realm of Mythos) in favor of intellectual, logical, scientific concerns (the realm of Logos). Some philosophers (cf. William Barrett’s Death of the Soul: From Descartes to the Computer (1986), Doubleday) see the demarcation in René Descartes’ foundation of reality, of being, in the thinking mind, putting awareness inside the organic brain works. Likewise Morris Berman (mentioned above, p. 4) would agree that it was the human self-consciousness, concern for how one (in appearance, thought, and behavior) was perceived by others. This goes to the extreme in narcissistic anxiety. The person distanced from such interior self-consciousness is the existential person, living minute-by-minute, aware only of the outer-natural world. Thomas Moore in The Renchantment of Everyday Life sees the root problem of humans’ separation from nature, not science or rationalism per se, but in religious belief. The belief Moore is thinking of is the focus on archaic scriptural principles, “the separation from everyday life and the obsession with moral purity.” The origin of modern discontent, our “psychic dissociation,” Moore might say, comes from a loss of natural religion, through which our conscience about the water, the air, the earth and the human community is increased. To enjoy the air of our planet, we must keep it good for breathing and not accept what toxins are pumped into it. Many religious people have no conscience to be good stewards as they procreate excessively and give up the careful tending of the earthly garden. For D.H. Lawrence, the British radical who espoused an arousal of the passions and senses, a return to nature through erotic sensibilities, felt religious belief was foolish, but not the enemy of nature as much as was wealth: money was the cause of the divorce. “It cuts us off from life, from vitality, from the alive sun and the alive earth, as nothing can. Nothing, not even the most fanatical dogmas of an ironbound religion, can insulate us from the inrush of life and inspiration as money can.” Unlike Abrams’ choice of the disconnection of human beings from surrounding nature, which he felt was the interiority acquired through writing, the authors we have read offered a variety of reasons for a protagonist’s loss of self or soul, the dilemma of psychotic dis-ease.
It is facile to pin the retreat of the sense on interiority connected solely with writing and the alphabet. Surely, it’s a complex of ways of human development through thinking, cerebration, ratiocination (and all the other nasty words for mental experience) towards the type of civilization we know from history and from living it. The difficulty is evident because we don’t know which elements of distraction or interiority (ways of “going inside” so to speak) are the more important, perhaps deleterious, and which are the negligible, or ordinary, harmless logical thoughts. There’s more than one reason for going inside the cave of self and getting lost.
David Lewis-Williams in his carefully argued treatise on the mind of Upper Paleolithic human beings (30,000-15,000B.C) discusses the myriad of theories or interpretations for the creation of Stone Age art. (The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art. London: Thames and Hudson, 2004) Investigating the motives of those inscrutable Homo sapiens whose major “artistic” record of their existence was the creation of amazing cave paintings, reliefs, and drawings of animals, Lewis-Williams finds himself confronted with several plausible explanations. Here is how he concludes his detailed examination of the evidence and the states of consciousness possible in the persons, artists or shamans, who descended into dark recesses to depicted all manner of animal forms, both realistic and abstract:
“I have reigned in my interpretations of Upper Paleolithic art, keeping them conservative and restricted to empirical evidence. Much more could be said about the variety of shamanistic beliefs and practices as they are recorded in transglobal ethnography. Readers of these records will repeatedly come across shamanistic activities that may well enlarge our understanding of what took place in the caves—and outside them. Sifting through the varied accounts, and through the neuropsychological literature, and tying ethnographic and neuropsychological specifics to specifics of Upper Paleolithic art and archeology will be a prolonged and delicate task. Some connections will prove more compelling than others, but, as I have pointed out, that is true of all archeological explanations. Researchers must not allow their imaginations to run riot and thereby discredit well-supported elements; they must not permit a plethora of facile connections of the kind that early researchers proposed or an undue emphasis on a single element, such as entopic phenomena, to swamp and by proximity weaken securely established explanations. (Italics and bolding mine, p.286).
My suspicion is that Abram, having lost himself in the magic of his language, has focused, if not fixated, too sharply on the development of one element of human interiority, namely writing and literacy, to explain the distractions that can divert human consciousness away from sensory attachment to nature. In the second part of my essay I will attempt to show his error, a logical lapse brought about by the charm of his personal spiritual quest. His is a shaman’s journey. My conclusion is that Abram descended too quickly into the cave of his own imagination, having turned away from the rational scholarly approach, the detailed abstract lexical pilgrimages of his idols, the philosophers Husserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. Magic and reality might very well co-exist harmoniously for the betterment of life.
David Gilmour (Gil4or)