202 of 207 people found the following review helpful
The Spell of the Sensuous reveals how our Western worldview has evolved to be based on literacy, abstract thought, and separation from the body. By "the body" I mean not just our individual, animal bodies, but the body of the earth and the material cosmos. By removing ourselves from this sensuous realm, we have lost the connection to "the living dream that we share with the soaring hawk, the spider, and the stone silently sprouting lichens on its coarse surface."
There is a paradox here, because Abrams' book exposes the drawbacks of literacy and abstract, logical thinking. But it is itself a piece of very well-argued written discourse. However, it works, and not just because Abrams' arguments are so convincing. Part of their power stems from the fact that Abrams is an artist; he has the gift of using words and imagery that can reach below the logical brain to inspire a more direct way of perceiving the world. The result is a book which is a moving combination of philosophical writing and pure poetry.
Abrams works from a phenomenological standpoint, and the book begins with a discussion of phenomenology's history and major ideas.* This is a readable and unintimidating introduction to the subject. Abrams then proceeds to show how, starting at the time of alphabetization, the Western mind began to grow away from direct physical knowing of the world and toward abstract, conceptual representations. Our language became removed from nature, and helped us to remove ourselves from it and to inhabit an almost entirely human-centered world.
As a counterpoint to the Western use of language, Abrams goes on to show how people in non-literate cultures use language as a way to connect with the body and the physical realm. In these oral cultures language "is experienced not as the exclusive property of humankind, but as a property of the sensuous life-world." In other words, the world--the animals, plants, stones, wind--speaks a language that most of us can no longer hear. Abrams explores indigenous oral poetry and stories to illustrate this entirely other way of experiencing language.
My first reading of this book triggered a conversion of sorts. It spun me 180 degrees, from the world of concepts to the world of immediate perception. I'm on my third reading now and still incorporating teachings passed over previously. I am finding that returning my gaze to the uninterpreted physical world is a difficult practice, as I have been conditioned (like most Westerners) to run my experience through a filter of concepts and judgments. But, like meditation, this practice can help to loosen one's psyche from its "mind-forg'd manacles." For this reason, The Spell of the Sensuous is really a manual for liberating one's inner and outer vision.
*Phenomenology is the study of how we experience consciousness. Unlike many branches of philosophy which rely on arguments built in logical steps, phenomenology is more about how we perceive and feel the immediate play of events around and within ourselves. Thus it is less abstract and more experiential than many branches of philosophy. See [...] for more information.
57 of 57 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2002
I read this and loved it. Afterward, it occurred on me that I wouldn't be able to find anything as good for quite a while so I immediately read it again. Sure its about the intertwined relationship of our perceptions, language and the environment. I expected that. What I didn't expect and was very surprised by was how, after reading 80 or so pages, I walked outside and the world looked very different, much more alive and involving than before. I think that maybe after a new kidney or heart for the sake of a transplant, this may be the best present I could get. Its a great primer for folks lost in the muck of analytic philosophy about the world they live in. And for the people that don't care about philosphy, its like a wonderful love letter to the earth. This book rocks. I am anxiously awaiting the next book from David Abram. I've been waiting for about 4 years now. Dave, are you listening? We want another book. Thanks.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2005
This book lays out, in a very clear and readable, yet sophisticated, manner something that I have been struggling with for years. When I was younger I spent a lot of time with animals and loved to be in the forest. I learned a lot about human nature by learning about animal nature. Since then, it seems all of my education (a bachelor's, master's, and about to enter a PhD program) has "taught" me that all of that learning I did was useless, illusory. Something in that never quite sat right with me. It seemed, and still seems, arrogant, ignorant, unrealistic, and self-aggrandizing. Abrams does an excellent job of summing up what that feeling was about for me, while also providing a compelling argument for how the state of our (industrialized civilization's) knowledge gaining and knowledge sharing processes came to be what they currently are. He then frames the problems with this state of affairs and suggests, but does not fully outline, a solution.
This book does not espouse that we return to mythologizing as a means of relaying knowledge from one generation to the next. Abrams does not hold that native, oral-based cultures possessed the "truth" in their worldviews, as some other reviewers seem to think he does. (Anyone who is still looking for "the truth" has clearly missed the boat that sailed 100+ years ago with Hume and Nietzsche.) Instead, what he is saying is that in the transition from an oral-based language, one that referred back to the world in its sounds and characters, to a purely written, phonetic language that refers back to nothing but itself, we have lost a vital link with our earth. Losing this vital link via language has led us to be estranged from the places that we live, forever locked into ourselves, in a near-constant internal dialogue about our own beliefs and ideas. If one doubts that this is the case, consider only the view of human nature that philosophers as varied as Descartes and Sartre have held, and even the current "cognitive science" model of human cognition: all are grossly self-involved. Our purely phonetic language encourages us to dwell on our own internal problems and processes, while also not encouraging us to look outward to deal with problems and processes outside of ourselves. I think it is fairly obvious that this has a very real, and very important, applicability to the current crisis we face, especially in industrialized nations, where it seems that all anyone has any interest in is self-realization, self-actualization, and self-fulfillment. What if all that focus on "self" has caused us to forget that our "selves" are really nothing at all without other "selves," including the non-human selves we depend on for oxygen and energy?
Finally, Abrams does not suggest that language alone is responsible for this current state of affairs. For example one other influence he cites is the switch from hunter-gatherer to agricultural society. He mentions this, and others, at the end of the book, noting that the purpose of the book is to speak only to the language piece of the puzzle.
Like Calvin Luther Martin's The Way of the Human Being, this book lays out a vastly different way of seeing the world and interacting with it: both are phenomenologies of our species' place in our world. The work of these two men I think will be crucial to our continued flourishing as a species.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on August 20, 2005
David Abram has written a remarkable book that deals with the effect of phonetic based language on how we perceive the world. He also looks at the nature of time and space from an aboriginal point of view. He draws on an eclectic array of sources and pulls everything together quite well. The chapters pertaining to the thinking of Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty are not easy to read but are worth the effort. Overall the reason I rated this book so highly is because of the originality of Abram's ideas and because they have huge implications for our daily life. Be forewarned that this book deals with significant issues and is not light reading.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on April 15, 2001
We live in a culture that is immersed in a futile solipsism of self-help philosophies based exclusively on how we interact with other human beings.
David Abram's landmark work, "The Spell of the Sensuous", jolts us out of this dim matrix with the power of a shaman who heals a terminal case of psychic amnesia.
We have become so institutionalized as social creatures that we have forgotten how many of our mental dislocations are not the results of social interaction, but stem from a lethal rejection of our connection to non-human elements.
Using a formidable writing style that conjures up a rapturous kind of sensory splendor, Abrams seduces the reader into "re-approaching" the very elements that constitute our living Universe. In the process, he reinvigorates our understanding of what it is to be not merely "human", but also an intricate part of a much broader existence. Once this is understood, one can be "informed" by the whisperings of the wind, the implicate energy of a tree, or the painfully beautiful colours of an autumn sky.
Scan the shelves of the self-help section at any large bookstore, and you can count on the fingers of one hand the books that deal with anything other than how to act/respond to/ignore/interpret/ make the most of/"don't sweat", etc., the actions and intrusions of other people. Here, at last, is a meditation on the expansive vistas of everything else that surrounds us, and how a reconnection to it all is a fundamental part of the balanced life.
"Going within", in the mystical sense, cannot be accomplished in the absence of "going out". Perhaps, in the end, the two are in fact one. It is a known fact that the iron in our bodies originates from the cosmic furnace of suns - that what we are, in the deepest physical sense, is part of an overarching, stellar dance of utterly universal proportions.
David Abrams makes you feel that connection. He makes you actually feel it.
If the bland diet of talk show inspired pabulum leaves you slightly jaded, read this book. The world will be transformed from shadowy monochromes to rich gradations of scintillating colour.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on February 7, 2003
There is much talk these days about a paradigm shift. I certainly hope that this is true. We really need one. And if there is, I am convinced that this book will be looked back on in the years to come as the most significant book of our times. It will be viewed as the book that cemented the shift.
I didn't think I would ever find a book like this. It not only gives beautiful expression to a world and a world of thought that I had come to think as irretrievably extinct, but it does it with so much power and background knowledge drawing with clarity and precision from many fields that are normally viewed as distinct disciplines (Philosophy, Anthropology, History, Linguistics) and puts it all together into a whole that is certainly greater than the sum of it's parts.
But it is also far more than an academic tour de force. David Abram is a magician in more than one sense. This book is itself truly a piece of magic.
For anyone who cares about planet earth, nature, mankind and our future, this book is an absolute must-read! Sure, some people will misinterpret it or read into it what they want. Maybe even reject it's basic premise outright. But if any book has the power to turn our thinking around (which I believe must happen for us to survive), this is it. Or at least, it's a fabulous start.
Good work, David!
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 1998
This book was a pleasure to read. Skillfully written, reading it was a sensuous experience in and of itself. The content and the references are of high quality. On the down side, there are several repetitive passages throughout the book. Nonetheless, I recommend the book wholeheartedly. Also, as a companion piece, consider reading Kieran Egan's "The Educated Mind." Egan writes about the development of intellectual tools--somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic, and ironic. Abram's covers the somatic and mythic tools quite well. Egan cover's the whole set at a higher level but with less focus. Together, the two books complement each other nicely.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on August 11, 2004
Abram's tract compares literate & pre-literate cultures, laments the loss of sensuous contact to the 'inside' and 'underneath' of our world's being and our 'presence' in it. In a bid to recover that contact, or even pose the question of its loss at the requisite depth, Abrams traces the western intellectual and linguistic structure through to twentieth phenomenologists, Husserl, Heidegger & Merleau-Ponty.It's a lucid presentation with enough personal experience to communicate to a reader coming to these big thinkers for the first time.I hope he reaches beyond converted environmentalists already actively redressing the deterioration of primal life and primary contacts. The penultimate chapter on our relationship to air is worth the price of the book alone; rhapsodic and persuasive. The Greeks, says Abrams, effectively desacrilised breath & air by introducing vowels into their written language. Vowels certainly have not impaired Abram's poetic utterances. This is a learned,sensuous and spell-binding book. I don't want to overclaim the author's importance in trepidation that he may be seen as yet another avatar of millenial disquiet. I worry, somewhat, that in areas he has not encountered first hand, he has trusted sources such as Bruce Chatwin, who himself was interpreting other people's field work. Given the largesse of the author's riches, this is a minor quibble.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on April 7, 2005
This is one of the most scholarly treatments of the of human disconnect from Nature I have read. From early indigenous peoples to Socrates and beyond, Abrams takes us on a journey in time to find where the disconnect from Nature begins and spells it out not only in terms of the first "civilized" humans, but also how language began to sophisticate, yet distance itself and us from that part of Nature reality or "life-world" when we knew where our sustenance and life support came from and we had a more direct and reverent sensibility of it.
Realizing the dynamics of the disconnection leads us back to the reconnection and is seen in many passages throughout this book such as: "SO THE RECUPERATION OF THE INCARNATE, SENSORIAL DIMENSION of experience brings with it a recuperation of the living landscape in which we are corporeally embedded. As we return to our senses, we gradually discover our sensory perceptions to be simply our part of a vast, interpenetrating webwork of perceptions and sensations borne by countless other bodies- supported that is, not just by ourselves, but by icy streams tumbling down granitic slopes, by owl wings and lichens, and by the unseen, imperturbable wind." (p 65)
"The earthly terrain in which we find ourselves, and upon which we depend for all our nourishment, is shot through with suggestive scrawls and traces, from the sinuous calligraphy of rivers winding across the land, inscribing arroyos and canyons into the parched earth of the desert, to the black slash burned by lightning into the trunk of an old elm." (p 95)
"THE SENSE OF BEING IMMERSED IN A SENTIENT WORLD IS preserved in the oral stories and songs of indigenous peoples- in the belief that sensible phenomena are all alive and aware, in the assumption that all things have the capacity of speech. Language, for oral peoples, is not a human invention but a gift from the land itself." (p 262-3)
This beautiful book is full of such passages and I keep it handy for continuous reference and enjoyment- it is one of the most marked-up and highlighted books in my possession. Thank you David Abrams!
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 1997
The trite things people say to promote a book, such as, "It will change your life" and "You can't put it down", are amazingly true for a book which takes you to the depths of serious issues of philosophy, language, anthropology and the analysis of empirical scientific methods. Abram is a magnificent writer, carrying you along smoothly with the consistency and clarity of his vision and the perfectly fitting poetic expression of that vision.
I bought this book for my son who studies philosophy, read it for myself as a long-time student of language and culture, decided my son the physicist must read it too and kept thinking of more and more people I know who should read it. Abram's ability to connect seemingly all fields of study attests to the depths or heights of his message.
He often uses the metaphor of a spider's web which is useful in describing the elegant web he has constructed to rejoin us to our living universe. It is also useful to describe the elimination of cobwebs which clutter our overly abstract, mechanical non-lives and disconnect us from our natural instincts.
In the hopes of saving our environment, Abram gives us a world view which can add richness and meaning to our everyday experiences.