The Rift Between Us, the Earth : THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram; Pantheon $25, 195 pages
David Abram’s much talked about, long-awaited, revolutionary book ponders the violent disconnection of the body from the natural world and what this means about how we live and die in it, in our work clothes, commuting, standing tall in the saddle, dead.
In these days of domestic cold war, when the battles fought are not subtle but immediate (should we have an Endangered Species Act or should individual property rights reign supreme?) it may seem luxurious to wonder about the wind and the stars and how we dream and talk about them. But sometimes, if you can diagnose the disease and its source you are halfway to curing it.
“To affirm our solidarity with this physical form,” writes Abram (ecologist, philosopher and magician), “is to acknowledge our existence as one of the Earth’s animals, and so to rejuvenate the organic basis of our thoughts and our intelligence.”
“The Spell of the Sensuous” explores how “the human mind came to renounce its sensuous bearings, isolating itself from the other animals and the animate Earth.”
Firmly grounded in the myth of human specialness, a myth encouraged by technology, we can feel free to exploit other animals and the Earth itself. But our very perception, our very human-ness, depends on a “synchronization” between our rhythms and the rhythms of the natural world. With technology, we use our minds to master functions; our senses are hardly used at all, certainly not as they are used experiencing or even imagining “icy streams tumbling down granite slopes, by owl wings and lichens, and by the unseen, imperturbable wind.”
New Age spiritualism, with its focus on mind and spirit, also alienates us from our own flesh, our own senses.
Language, once used to “enhance and accentuate the sensorial affinity between humans and the environing Earth” has evolved into a way of speaking to the world, says Abram, not about it, much less in the very voices of the wind and water and animals.
Words are increasingly merely signs, codes, not the “echo of the deeply interconnected matrix of sensorial reality” it once was and still is in some cultures (“a swirling garment of vapor and breath worn by the encompassing Earth itself”). The alphabet, the written character, no longer referred the user “to any sensible phenomenon,” further widening the gap between the senses and the natural world.
The only way to heal this rift, to bring meaning back to speech and to the written word is through the recognition that language must be flexible and that it is not our exclusive provenance. Animals speak, the Earth speaks; to us, about us, with us.
While we have come to mistrust the intellect in its increasing severance from experience, it is harder to recognize the alphabet as enemy, “short-circuiting the sensory reciprocity between [that] organism and the land,” loosening, in Abram’s words, the association of language with the breath, the wind, dissociating the psyche “from the environing air.”
“What are we supposed to do about it?” asks a practical friend, an environmentalist. Remember that there are many ways of resisting the changes in our environment, not all of them in the courtroom or the ballot box.
“A genuinely ecological approach,” writes Abram, does not work to attain a mentally envisioned future, but strives to enter, ever more deeply, into the sensorial present.” Language can help us do that if we write “language back into the land.”
“Our craft is that of releasing the budded, Earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the things themselves--to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches.” It may not mean that we speak the same language as the hostile judge or the corrupt politician, but at least as long as there’s breath in the trees we’ll be able to hear it.