Friday, August 29, 2008

Annotation: Myths We Live By by Joseph Campbell

It’s important to note at the outset that Joseph Campbell did not write this book as a cohesive piece. It was pieced together by Johnson E. Fairchild of the Cooper union Form from a series of twenty-five talks Dr. Campbell gave at Forum between the years 1958 and 1971. As such, the talks vary on them and content and do not carry through them a cohesive thought or focus. However, all the talks were on the subject of mythology, and Campbell’s work is cohesive enough that they stand together well as a collected work.
Given that the chapters each encompass a specific (but different) subject, I have tried to read the book with the main questions of my study in the forefront of my thought. Those questions are:
- What does it mean to be truly human?
- How have different cultures and beliefs answered that question through the ages?
- How can we (as individuals and as a society) work to realize the highest potential within the human?

And ultimately:
- How will the answers to these questions impact my own practice and daily life?

With that in mind, I attempted to approach this book critically, looking for any instances where Campbell specifically speaks to the issues of humanity and human potential. Perhaps the best way to annotate this particular book is to those instances as I have notated them, and try to draw a cohesive thread through them.

Beginning with Chapter 1: The Impact of Science on Myth, Campbell brings out his main themes, the inescapable patterns that exist in all myths, the “meta-narratives” that can be found to recur in myths throughout cultures and times. Campbell believes that these recurring narratives are a significant part of what makes us human. He states, “Comparative cultural studies have now demonstrated beyond question that similar mythic tales are to be found in every quarter of this earth.” He describes how Cortez and his Spanish explorers found stories in Aztec Mexico that so closely paralleled their own “True Faith” that they could not explain the similarity. They explained this by inventing myths of their own, one about the early apostles actually journeying to North America, and the second about the devil deliberately “throwing up parodies of the Christian faith, to frustrate missionaries”(p. 09).

It would seem then, that perhaps one of the things it means to be human is to have a narrative, a story, in which to place ourselves. That narrative often (but not always) seems to involve a creation tale, a flood, a virgin birth, and a hero incarnate who dies and is resurrected. And don’t mistake that I’m talking just about Christian history here; you could do an extensive study of ancient myths with those characteristics and never even need to involve Christianity.

Campbell also seems to believe that it is inherent within human cultures to think themselves to be somehow special, or “elect.” Some, like Eckhart Tolle in his book A New Earth, would say that this is the “Ego” within the human being, and that it is more an indication of our current state of evolution than it is representative of humanity as a species. Campbell himself, after a long list of cultures and beliefs that he says have been “prone to interpret their symbols literally, and so to regard them selves as favored in a special way, in direct contact with the absolute,” then goes on to state that such claims can “no longer be taken seriously” and seems to indicate that he himself thinks we have already moved past this stage (p. 10).

Moving forward in chronology of humanity, Campbell traces the shift from cultural myth to scientific inquiry. But he is quick to point out that science doesn’t seem to have brought us closer to any final answers about meaning or existence. Science itself, he says can only make its hypotheses based on what is known at the time. Thus there must always be room for development and change, as more information becomes known. In fact, he says, it is that change, not arrival at “truth” that is the point of the process:

“And is there no implied intention, then, to rest satisfied with some final body or sufficient number of facts?
No indeed! There is to be only a continuing search for more—as of a mind eager to grow. And that growth, as long as it lasts, will be the measure of the life of modern Western man…”(p. 17).

Indeed, he says later about the search for knowledge and meaning that, “the only absolute is mystery”(p. 18).

In dealing with the question of what separates us from the rest of the natural order, Campbell points to a “differentiating figure” separating human from animal physiology; he states it in the form of two “fundamental realizations:”
1. Knowledge of individual death (our own mortality) and
2. Endurance of the Social Order (that things will go on without us)(p. 22, 23).

It is this second realization, that things will go on without us after we are gone, that, when combined with the apparent stability of the current social order, has led to people (at least in the modern West) taking those social orders for granted. Whereas primitive or previous human societies devoted great portions of their time to simply preserving that social order, today it seems to have a life of its own. Without this need to “participate” in order for the social structures to be maintained, the individual becomes an end in himself. This is an undeniably significant change from ages past, and creates an entirely new relationship between humans and the stories they use to find meaning.

This shift can certainly be seen in much current debate about Christian theology, as in the dominant themes of popular Christian theologian (and Anglican Bishop) Tom Wright, who, in his book What St. Paul Really Said, takes direct aim at the ‘individualized’ brand of belief we have inherited, stating instead that the Apostle Paul’s message was “not how individuals… come to faith… but rather the question of who belongs to Abraham’s family”(p. 121). In other words, who has a covenant with God, (as the Jews believed they did), and is by association, “saved.” This notion of corporate versus individual redemption could be said to be at the heart of why so much modern religion fails to connect with the ills of society.

Campbell again picks up this them in Chapter 3: “The Importance of Rites.” Here he reinforces the need for social structures, and the idea that we find our place, our meaning, often through our relationship to those structures. He draws a parallel between structure and hierarchy in the natural sphere, and the need for structure in the fully realized human life and society. Referring to the tendency in Western culture to abandon many of its long-held traditions and rites, Campbell states: “the crude notion that energy and strength can be represented or rendered by abandoning and breaking structures is refuted by all we know about the evolution and history of life”(p. 44).

Here he is raising a very important question in terms of the development—the evolution—of the human being, and seems to be stating clearly that destruction in any form cannot go hand in hand with what we might call progress. His thought could be said to correspond with that of Wendell Berry who, in his essay “Style and Grace” in What are People For, talks of the “connective power of culture… that confirms the completeness, and indeed the immortality, of love”(p. 66). Berry is here speaking in the context of shared experiences that build relationship and community. He is specifically talking about fishing, but it’s not a huge stretch to see that fishing for him is every bit the “rite” about which Campbell speaks. By association, we might be able to say that “love” in the sense Berry uses it here, is analogous to that second “differentiating figure” which Campbell takes as the mark of human awareness. It is the realization that things will go on after us, and that perhaps they are worth investing in (whether people, cultures, relationships) just because they, or their effects, will outlive us.

If there is a conclusion to be drawn about Campbell’s idea of human potential, and the responsibility we bear toward the fulfillment of that potential, it might be summed up in the story he tells at the end of Chapter 5: “The Confrontation of East and West in Religion,” the legend of Shiva and Kirttimukha. Shiva, having been confronted by a terrible demon that threatened the overthrow of the gods, created a ferocious beast, with the head of a lion and a voracious hunger. The demon wisely threw himself at Shiva’s mercy, which left Shiva to deal with a ravenous beast of his own creation. The beast, seeing that Shiva was protecting his supposed prey said to Shiva, “What then shall I eat?” Shiva replied, “Why not eat yourself?”
So the beast began consuming his body, all the way up until he reached the face, where Campbell writes:

“…the god, thereupon, was enchanted. For here at last was a perfect image of the monstrous thing that is life itself, which lives on itself. And to that sunlike mask, which was now all that was left of that lionlike vision of hunger, Shiva said, exulting, ‘I shall call you “Face of Glory,” Kirttimukha, and you shall shine above the doors to all my temples. No one who refuses to honor and worship you will come ever knowledge of me’”(p. 103).

Campbell draws this meaning from the tale: that life is wondrous and terrible, that all societies are horrid and inequitable, and that they will always be, but that the message is to learn how to live in it, to work to change yourself in the midst of it, and make peace with both the wonder and the terror that is life. He concludes:

“So if you really want to help this world, what you have to teach is how to live in it. And that no one can do who has not himself learned how to live in it in the joyful sorrow and sorrowful joy of the knowledge of life as it is” (p. 104).

This then is the goal, or at least one of them: not to avoid the suffering inherent in life, but to embrace it as counterpart to the good; to recognize that the wonder and the pain are counterparts, and that they are meaningless without each other. To be fully human is to be fully alive to the depth of joy and sadness that life brings, and to experience both as willingly and readily as one can. It also means that we must not experience these emotions in isolation, but that they are fully realized only when they are shared with others, and lived out in the context of relationships. There the sadness can be turned to wisdom, the immediate joy refined into lasting happiness, because we realize that yes, we are mortal, and we will one day fade. But the relationships that we form, the structures we build around them in the forms of families and communities… these will live long after we fade, and they are our lasting gift to those we love.

Berry, W. (July 1991). What are people for?. London: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Random House Publisher Record.

Campbell, J., & Fairchild, J. E. (Feb. 1993). Myths to live by. New York: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Penguin (Non-Classics) [Imprint]; Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated Publisher Record.

Tolle, E. (Feb. 2008). A new earth: Awakening to your life's purpose. Farmington Hills: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Walker Large Print [Imprint]; Gale Publisher Record.

Wright, N. T. (Aug. 1997). What saint paul really said: Was paul of tarsus the real founder of christianity. Cincinnati: Books In Print, (c) 2005 R.R. Bowker LLC; Forward Movement Publications Publisher Record.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Annotation: Three by Wendell Berry

Critical Annotations: Three books by Wendell Berry
- What Are People For?
- In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for a Changed World
- Sayings and Doings

Wendell Berry wears many hats. He is (or has been) an ecologist, a writer, a farmer, an activist, a father, a poet, a teacher… the list goes on. But at heart, it would be fair to say that Berry is a human being. He is someone intimately concerned with what it means to live, to be, and to do so effectively, with grace, love, and humility. The three works referenced here are all written with that goal clearly and obviously in mind. Berry writes almost exclusively from the realm of his personal experience. He is unquestionably concerned with the larger world, but searches for answers and perspective in his daily life and in the community of people, animals and natural phenomena that surround him.

What Are People For? Is a collection of essays (and a couple of poems) that span the years from 1975 to 1990, all dealing with the question of the human in some way, what it means to be human, how we interact with each other and with the planet. The individual essays are wonderful, but the book, when taken as a whole, creates a grid by which you can begin to see Berry’s over-arching worldview. This is a man (one could imagine) who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, who has great affection for the things that could be considered “real” (people, animals, food, relationships), and who will not be complicit (either by action or by inaction) in the ills and wrongs he sees in the world around him.

The book begins with two poems titled “Damage” and “Healing.” The first, written in 1975, is a four-page work that tells of a pond he attempted to sculpt from a hillside on his Kentucky farm. It is the story of the failure of that effort, when a heavy rain caused the downhill levy of the pond to give way, flooding several acres of his farm, and damaging not only land, but equipment and dwellings. He takes full responsibility for this failure, and feels not only the responsibility, but also the regret, deeply:

“And yet there is damage—to my place, and to me. I have carried out, before my own eyes and against my intention, a part of the modern tragedy: I have made a lasting flaw in the face of the earth, for no lasting good.

Until that wound in the hillside, my place, is healed, there will be something impaired in my mind. My peace is damaged. I will not be able to forget it”(p. 6).

The second poem, “Healing,” is a meditation on grace, upon what he calls “The grace that is the health of creatures,” and which, “can only be held in common”(p. 9).

These poems set the tone for the book, much of which could be considered cultural critique, firmly in the context of personal responsibility. Berry is not interested primarily in telling others how to live their lives; he is interested in further discovering how to live his. But his passion for authenticity, and for the protection of the earth, of lives, of relationships and resources, necessarily forces him to take on the mantle of activist from time to time. It’s not enough to retreat to your farm in Kentucky when you see that the strip mining is corrupting the land, polluting the water, and poisoning the air.

The book is divided in to three parts. The first–the two poems already mentioned. The second part is consists of stories he tells of people who have lived on the land, and have done so (at least in some ways) rightly. He tells the story of Nate Shaw, a black sharecropper in Alabama in the late 1800’s who, despite any real education, knew the land, knew the value of people, and believed in his knowledge so fiercely that refused a plea bargain and spent twelve years in jail after confronting a group of sheriff’s deputies who had come to take another man’s stock. Berry makes it clear that “Shaw is not potentially admirable; he is admirable as he is”(p. 24). In other words, he is not to be admired for what he could have been had he not been so disadvantaged, he is to be admired for exactly who he was.

As he tells the story of “Henry Claudill In The Cumberlands,” and “Wallace Stegner And The Great Community,” you begin to get a sense of what these men have in common, and why Berry holds them in such high esteem. It comes clear in “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey,” as he clarifies the difference between Abbey as an environmentalist, and Abbey as an autobiographer. He says:

“As an autobiographer, his work is self-defense; as a conservationist, it is to conserve himself as a human being. But this is self-defense and self-conservation of the largest and most noble kind, for Mr. Abbey understands that to defend and conserve oneself as a human being in the fullest, truest sense, one must defend and conserve many others and much else. What would be the hope being personally whole in a dismembered society, or personally healthy in a land scalped, scraped, eroded, and poisoned, or personally free in a land entirely controlled by the government, or personally enlightened in an age illuminated only by TV?”(p. 40)

This is Berry’s goal, not just his own conservation, but that of the world in which he lives, of the people with whom he lives and works.

The third part of the book, with this groundwork of context already complete, is devoted to his pointed essays and cultural critiques. Again, these are shorter essays (most are only three to five pages), written on specific issues. But presented as a whole, and in context, they build a powerful picture of the human, and of the value Berry places on work, ecology, and community in the process of defining that idea.

He speaks of protest in the chapter “A Poem of Difficult Hope,” writing about Hayden Carruth’s poem “On Being Asked to Write a Poem Against the War in Vietnam.” Berry speaks of the futility of social critique, and the pointlessness of individual action in the face of overwhelming cultural disagreement. He acknowledges the futility, but makes the point that the action is still necessary because, “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by the hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence”(p. 62).

In the chapter “Style and Grace,” he compares Hemmingway’s Big Two-Hearted River with Norman McLean’s A River Runs Through It, wondering why Hemingway’s work troubles him so, and eventually deciding that it’s because he can’t associate with Hemmingway’s ending because it has more to do with style than it does with grace. The grace he speaks of here is the same he mentioned earlier in the poem “Healing,” where it is a grace of community, of relationship:
”Fishing here is understood as an art, and as such it is emblematic of all that makes us companions with one another, joins us to nature, and joins the generations together. This is the connective power of culture. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails; when it fails, it fails into tragedy, but here it’s a tragedy that confirms the completeness, and indeed the immortality, of love”(p. 66).

This theme, of community, and its centrality to true human experience (love) is one that emerges, almost unexpectedly, as the book goes on. Berry equates ecology, our relationship with nature, others, and ourselves, as a truly holy ground. And out of that comes his definition (although he rarely uses the word) for love itself. But this is a love that requires great work, on both an individual and a societal level. Like the land itself, it is not something that will bear fruit without diligent effort, as he says in his essay on Huckleberry Finn, called “Writer and Region”:

“It is arguable, I think, that our country’s culture is still suspended as if at the end of Huckleberry Finn, assuming that its only choices are either a deadly ‘civilization’ of piety and violence, or an escape into some ‘territory’ where we may remain free of adulthood and community obligation… We have hardly begun to imagine community life, and the tragedy that is at the heart of community life”(p. 75).

It is his belief that these tragedies, this pain and growth of community life, are the way toward being fully human, that these experiences are the ones define our lives and give it meaning (although I doubt he would use those words… or that he would even conceive of a life “without meaning”). He concludes that Twain, at the end of Huckleberry Finn, foreshadows his own eventual obsession with:

“’…the damned human race’ and the malevolence of God—ideas that were severely isolating and, ultimately, self-indulgent. He was finally incapable of that magnanimity that is the most difficult and the most necessary: forgiveness of human nature and human circumstance. Given human nature and human circumstance, our only relief is in this forgiveness, which then restores us to community and its ancient cycle of loss and grief, hope and joy”(p. 79).

Throughout the rest of the book, and the remaining essays, Berry delves into issues of politics and religion (“God and Country”), local economics and ecology (“An Argument for Diversity,” “Economy and Pleasure”), and even technology and gender relations (“Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” and “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine” – and yes, he does tie them together eventually), but for my questions, and my current search, it’s all icing on the cake. He has made his stand in terms of community, relationships and the worth of the human being. It’s stirring stuff.


Similarly, the book In the Presence of Fear: Three Essays for A Changed World is a collection of essays on a theme. It starts with an piece written for Orion magazine in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. This essay (bearing the same title as the book), in twenty-seven paragraphs states the clearest, most concise and coherent response to the tragedy I have ever read. Berry presages the “War on Terror,” predicting that any violent response will simply provoke greater violence. He starts from the observation that we will soon equate that date (9/11/01) with the “unquestioning technological and economic optimism that ended on that day”(p. 1), and quickly moves to further rumination about the nature of that optimism, the degree to which our culture has placed its faith (and its fate) entirely in the hands of those who would feed that “unquestioning optimism,” and eventually on to what he calls “National self-righteousness”(p. 5), and to the need for investment in true “peaceableness.” He ends the essay by stating that the only remedy, eventually, is to “teach our children (and learn ourselves) that we cannot spend and consume endlessly. We have got to learn to save and conserve… An economy based on waste is inherently and hopelessly violent, and war is its inevitable by-product. We need a peaceable economy”(p. 9)

Following this, are two longer-form essays, one titled “The Idea of a Local Economy,” in which he builds the case for a truly local system of exchange and production, and finally the essay, “In Distrust of Movements,” wherein he advances the insane and potentially revolutionary idea that people should ultimately take responsibility for their own destiny, and that we must stop giving the power for our most important decisions over to organizations where the decision-making is determined by corporate interest. This essay contains one of my favorite phrases of Berry’s:

“One way we could describe the task ahead is by saying that we need to enlarge the consciousness and the conscience of the economy. Our economy needs to know—and care—what it is doing. This is revolutionary, of course, if you have a taste for revolution, but it is also common sense”(p. 41).

This sums up Berry’s whole ethos. He is a revolutionary, but only because common sense has gone so entirely out of style that it is now considered sedition.


Berry’s small book of poetry Sayings and Doings is, in many ways just like the second chapter of What Are People For?. It is a series of small poems, often just three or four lines, that tell stories from his past. Sometimes they are just anecdotes re-recorded as they happened (almost like a “heard on the street” column in a newspaper), and sometimes they are longer pieces, designed to tell a story. But in every instance, and especially in totality, they present a picture of a time and place, a recollection of a life spent with people of the land, and of the wisdom that comes from people who have lived their lives with each other, and for each other.

There’s the story of the waking up in the night when he was six. His father had taken the tobacco crop to town to sell, and they stayed up all night talking about how it might go, whether he might get anything for it. It was “a bad time,” where “a year of a man’s work might be worth nothing.” And in the end, when his father came home, he “came back in the dark that night, without a dime.”

These are short clips, snapshots that speak thousands of words. As in the poem (they are not named, nor are the pages numbered) where two men meet after some hard times, where the markets were down, and the tobacco was too cheap to even sell:

“An old man
I knew came up to me at the sale and said,
‘Well, Harry, we made it,
and we didn’t commit suicide, did we?’
And I thought to myself, ‘No,
but you’ve thought about it.’”

Berry’s belief is that it is through community, in relationship with others, and in right relationship with the earth and with God that we discover the truth of who we are. He is not interested in Thoreau’s naturalist hermitage. As the poem “Healing” at the start of What are People For? states:

“In healing the scattered members come together.
In health the flesh is graced, the holy enters the world”(p. 9).

Berry, W. (July 1991). What are people for?. London: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Random House Publisher Record.
Berry, W. (June 2005). In the presence of fear: Three essays for a changed world (5th ed.). Great Barrington: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Orion Society, The Publisher Record.
Berry, W. (Oct. 1975). Sayings and doings. Frankfort: Books In Print, (c) 2006 R.R. Bowker LLC; Gnomon Press Publisher Record.

Annotation: "The Spell of the Sensuous" by David Abram

In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram melds philosophy, language, magic, tribal ritual, and the nature of belief into one rich, magical stew - all trying to get at the question of true experience, of perception and reality, and specifically how they are related to (or colored by) language, as concepts are passed through the ages. It’s a fascinating book, and one that deftly walks the line between science and myth, between belief and experience.

Abram begins with the work of two early-twentieth century philosophers, Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Husserl inaugurated the study of phenomenology or the “science of experience”(p. 35), based on the notion that no observer is every truly separate from the object of his observation. We are all influencing the living world around us, and even formerly resistant areas of science are now admitting that, even at an atomic or energy level, there is an exchange taking place between the observer and the observed. Based on this concept, Husserl first, and Merleau-Ponty after him, worked to develop a new science, one that would take into account the interactivity (or “intersubjectivity” as Husserl called it) inherent in all research and observation. The goal was to further define what Abram calls the “participatory nature of perception,” in other words, the degree to which we are involved in the world that surrounds us, whether or not we recognize it.

This distinction, between being separate from the natural world or an active participant in it, is crucial to a world where separation reigns, where “objectivity” dominates the sciences, and where the resulting impact is a humanity distanced from the world in which we live, where our actions are not seen as having a deleterious effect on the natural environment, and where the goal with regard to nature is not interaction and harmony, but dominance and control.

Abram, as an accomplished ecologist and magician, studied at length with several tribal cultures in this regard, investigating the degree to which these supposedly “primitive” cultures continue to cultivate their own participatory relationship with nature. He describes in depth the degree to which the shaman in some cultures will cultivate the mystery (and even fear) that surrounds his mystique, not solely because he or she is “up to no good” but because they recognize that only a certain distance from the rest of the village (relationally and physically – as most of the shaman live on the outskirts of their tribes) can allow them the time and solitude they need to cultivate their ongoing relationship with the natural world. There they find the harmony that allows them to commune with nature, to determine and decode the signs in the weather and the actions of animals, to interpret these events and relay them in meaningful ways to their tribe (p. 7).

Turning from the more philosophical study of the phenomenologists, Abram begins to examine the relationship between perception and ecology, between our experience of the world in which we live, and our interaction with it. He writes in depth about Synaesthesia, or the “fusion of the senses”(p. 59). This is a condition wherein one sense may be experienced as another. For instance, musicians or singers with what we call “perfect pitch” often identify sounds as colors. This cross-identification allows them to name a pitch out of the air, because that sound or tone always carries the same color. So, if a “C” is always red, it’s easy to name.

Abram states that, far from being out of the ordinary, synaesthetic experience is more emblematic of the realms of perception that are available to us (which some turn to drugs to reenact) if we are tuned into the possibilities for experience inherent in our nature. Abram (building on Merleau-Ponty’s thought, as he does through most of this book) works to break down the idea that our senses are primarily “distinct modalities.” Instead, they are “divergent modalities of a single and unitary living body… complementary powers evolved in complex interdependence with one another”(p. 61). The point of this being: our very experience of ourselves and of nature is elusive. The phenomena by which we attach all meaning and value, our senses, are not only subject to change, they are often interchangeable, and far from being an unnatural or pathological experience, it would seem that the higher our level of function or awareness in many fields, the more common this is.

At this point Abram turns his focus almost entirely on language, and to what is ultimately the most stirring and thought provoking element his work. Starting from the pre-history of written language, he tells the story of language not just as a technological innovation, but as the story of man interacting with his surroundings. He describes the development of the phonetic written languages, first with the Hebrew Aleph-Bet, and through its conversion into the Greek Alpha-bet, showing how symbols that originally carried representational meaning were eventually stripped down to simply phonetic tools.

He intersperses stories of tribal and primitive cultures that, even today, maintain in their hunting and cultivation practices, such a close interaction with nature that the lines between mimicry and actual communication break down. With the Koyukon bird calls that are more than just mimicry (p. 145), the stories of Apache and Navajo place-names that carry meaning from generation to generation (p. 154), and the song-cycles of the Australian aborigine (p. 173), Abram weaves a web where language is so much more than just mere representative sounds, it is a field of perception and interaction where the human and the non-human meet and become partners in a grand natural order.

For a person raised with much Christian (and by delineation Jewish) belief, Abram’s writing about the development of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet is nothing short of amazing. He describes how the original written Aleph-Bet consisted of twenty-two consonants, with no vowels. Consequently, the very act of reading the original Hebrew manuscripts was an act of translation. The rabbis and teachers, every time they read these writings to the people, had to insert their own vowel sounds. There were no clues within the text, other than the context. And, as in many languages, different inserted vowel sounds could lead to drastically different meanings.

This is in a period of great historical transition, in the time where almost exclusively oral history tradition was traded for the written word. It’s tempting to think that this transition happened quickly and perhaps without great resistance, but it was centuries of transition from one form to another. The stories that had been handed down orally for (in some cases) thousands of years were now written down and codified in ways that were not so fluid, that could not adapt and change with the culture and the times. But even through this original Aleph-bet there was much room for improvisation, for the change that time brings (p. 243).

However, once the Aleph-Bet met the Greek Culture, and definite vowel sounds were inserted, the stories were set. The interpretations were defined, and the development of the ideas within them (for all intents and purposes) stopped.

One particularly interesting section within this story concerns the name for the Hebrew God, Yaweh. As any good Bible student knows, the original biblical name for God was YHWH. They call it the “tetragrammaton,” the unpronounceable four-letter name of God. Most current teaching states that the name was unpronounceable because it was too holy to say. God’s name was too holy to be spoken aloud. But as Abram writes, there is a school of thought that much more closely resembles the Navajo idea of the Wakan Tanka – the Great Spirit or “Great Wind.” Some scholars believe that the name YHWH, composed as it is by “the most breath like consonants in the Hebrew aleph-bet… may have entailed forming the first syllable, ‘Y-H,’ on the whispered in-breath, and the second syllable, ‘W-H,’ on the whispered out-breath—the whole name thus forming a single cycle of breath”(p. 250.) In other words, to breathe is to say the very name of God. His name is not “unpronounceable,” it’s something you can never stop saying!

There is much in this book (speculative though it is in many ways) that is exciting, many ways in which previously competing and un-reconcilable beliefs and ideas can be seen to inhabit the same spheres. But most of all it’s a call for interaction, not just with the “non-human” world, but with everything around us, to open up our perceptive abilities and drink in the sounds and scents and cries and calls, and to respond to them. It’s also a warning of sorts, because we can’t afford to be that open if the sounds and calls and cries that surround us are damaging. We must be aware of the noises and words and intentions that we put out there… whether they are harmful or beneficial, to ourselves, to nature, to the universe.

This is part of what it means to be human: To be alive, and in right alignment with the world in which we live. To be respectful and cultivate honor for the things (and people) that were here before us, and the ones that will be after we are gone. Abram calls this (in his last chapter), “Turning Inside Out.” As humans we are so often obsessed with our internal world, but to become truly human requires an awareness as well of what is outside of us, and the realization that “truth” does not just come from (or reside) within, but is in our actions, and our relationship with our world:

“Ecologically considered, it is not primarily our verbal statements that are “true” or “false,” but rather the kind of relations that we sustain with the rest of nature. A human community that lives in a mutually beneficial relation with the surrounding earth is a community, we might say, that lives in truth. The ways of speaking common to that community—the claims and beliefs that enable such reciprocity to perpetuate itself—are, in this important sense, true. They are in accord with a right relation between these people and their world. Statements and beliefs, meanwhile, that foster violence toward the land, ways of speaking that enable the impairment or ruination of the surrounding field of beings, can be described as false ways of speaking—ways that encourage an unsustainable relation with the encompassing earth. 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” (p. 264).

Abram, D. (Feb. 1997). The spell of the sensuous: Perception and language in a more-than-human world. New York: Books In Print, (c) 2008 R.R. Bowker LLC; Vintage [Imprint]; Knopf Publishing Group Publisher Record.