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Put down your books; learn to read the world around you. . .
on January 15, 2001
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.