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.