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Thoughts from Linda:

 

The Spell of the Sensuous

Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World

By David Abram

1996

 

This book is a terrific partner to our other June reviewed book, The World Until Yesterday. It goes deeply into the development of language from the indigenous world and traces it from a phenomenological approach into modern times. I am especially interested in this book because it touches two areas of my life that intersect in it: our own experience in Bali, Indonesia, and our friendship with one of the world’s most erudite and accomplished language scholars of Linear A and Linear B and the modern Greek language, Athan Anagnostopoulos, who sadly, passed away last year.

David Abram is an American ecologist and philosopher best known for his work bridging the philosophical tradition of phenomenology with environmental and ecological issues. He is also the author of Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2010). He received the Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction for his work, The Spell of the Sensuous.

In 1996 Abram coined the phrase "the more-than-human world," which has become a key phrase within the writings of the broad ecological movement.  In recent writings, Abram sometimes refers to the more-than-human world as "the commonwealth of breath." 

My husband and I worked in Bali, Indonesia, for much of the first two decades of this century, first in a volunteer capacity with the Bali Institute for Global Renewal and then as the CEO and CFO of this organization beginning in 2012. We spent time in our Ubud, Bali headquarters and appreciate the specific stories that Abram tells about his almost mystical experiences when he was there, touring as a magician.  The Balinese philosophy of ‘tri hita karana’ speaks to the three principles that govern the Balinese paradigm of the world: man’s relationship to man, man’s relationship to the spiritual world, and man’s relationship to mother earth. This worldview is evident in all of their daily activities, including the numerous ceremonies and the strong reverence that the Balinese have toward the earth. In many ways, if we ‘double click’ on that paradigm, we find the substance of this book. He suggests we have become unconscious of so many earthly connections in our modern world based on language itself and that we can broaden our perspectives by slowing down (as happens in Bali) and remembering, in a physical way, how to connect to the earth.

In a beautifully written ‘Personal Introduction to the Inquiry,’ he takes us on his own personal journey of reflection and awareness of the sensual nature of the island and people of Bali, who are remarkably conscious of their connection to the natural world.

What follows is a most engaging journey through seven chapters, entitled: The Ecology of Magic, Philosophy on the Way to Ecology, The Flesh of Language, Animism and the Alphabet, In the Landscape of Language, Time-Space-and the Eclipse of the Earth, and The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air. 

 

In his chapter, The Flesh of Language, he takes us on a journey through the phenomenon of language itself. He begins with this conundrum: “Every attempt to definitively say what language is, is subject to a curious limitation. For the only medium with which we can define language is language itself.” He introduces us to several scholars, some familiar and some less so, including Merleau-Ponty, who, as he notes, “… spent much of his life demonstrating that the event of perception unfolds as a reciprocal exchange between the living body and the animate world that surrounds it “ and goes on to note that “… he had begun to work out the notion of human language as a profoundly carnal phenomenon, rooted in our sensorial experience of each other and the world, writing about the genesis of language itself.”

Our good friend, Athan, who spent much of his academic career advancing knowledge of the many contributions of Greeks in so many domains, especially in that of language, would have had much to say on this, I believe.  Abram spends quite a bit of real estate on the Greeks in this book, noting their exceptional contributions to the development of language itself. He reminds us that the Platonic dialogues were written in the fourth century B.C.E., inscribing for the first time many of the mental patterns or thought styles that today we take for granted in our literate cultures. He notes that the Greek alphabet was first invented (or adapted from the Semitic aleph-beth) several centuries before Plato. Also of interest is the revelation that the new technology of language and the alphabet did not spread rapidly through Greece, rather encountering resistance in the form of a highly developed and ritualized oral culture.  (Havelock, Erick)

He also strongly notes the unintended consequences of the subsequent separation of our human connection to our world, resulting from how we think and conceive of words and express them through the written word. He addresses the theory of language itself and puts it in the context of our own ability to be ‘fully human.’ 

It is an exciting and most amazing short book. It represents an important addition for all of us as we are called to address our planetary issues, including the climate, with a strong sense of urgency today. As The World Until Yesterday posited, there are thousands of experiments and lessons from the past 11,000 years and beyond. This book will advance your understanding of the human approach to numerous topics, including language, giving pause to think about many things. 

As one reviewer, Bill McKibben, noted: “This is a landmark book. Scholars will doubtless recognize its brilliance, but they may overlook the most important part of Aram’s achievement:  he has written the best instruction manual yet for becoming fully human. I walked outside when I was done, and the world was a different place.” 

Let’s all take that walk!