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Showing 1-10 of 15 reviews(4 star). Show all reviews
on February 14, 2009
David Abram has written an extraordinary book about how we stopped perceiving the world as sacred and came to feel cut off. It's a daring darting mix of ecology, linguistics, indigenous traditions and philosophy. It is also is a book that is remarkably different from chapter to chapter.

The first chapter, about Abram's experiences as a sleight-of-hand magician in Nepal and Indonesia, is lyrical and gorgeous. I admit that I also caught myself thinking, "Dude! I want some of what you are smoking!"

I thought chapter two might advocate wearing amethyst pendants. Not remotely. The next two chapters -- on philosophy and linguistics -- require black coffee and a clear-headed morning. It is exhilarating to watch someone think this way -- like watching a daredevil making leaps over cars -- except the leaps he is making are not sport but the leaps we need to survive on the planet.

Abram investigates the present, the past, the future, and where each can be found in the landscape. He even goes so far as to offer, on page 202, a meditation on how to dissolve time. (Of course I annotated my copy; you never know when you're going to need just this sort of thing.) The last section is about writing, how the Hebrews left out the sacred vowels but the Greeks left us marooned in the abstract. My crude summary does violence to the text. It is exhilarating to read.

Then comes the coda and, a few pages before the end, he says, basically, "This might be true and it might not and what is true anyway? Truth is what heals the planet and falsehood is what harms it." Part of me agreed and part of me felt like the victim of a sleight-of-hand magician. I want my truths to be, well, true and not just gorgeous. The whole section made me feel uneasy.

I do not mean to condemn the book. Not at all. I have told everyone I know to read it -- I want people discuss it with! Abram gave me raptures, lectures, arguments and questions. A beautiful book, well worth wrestling with and re-visiting.
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on October 5, 1999
A fascinating odyssey through the mind, first with the philosophical viewpoint of phenomenology which at last tries to describe reailty as it shows itself to us/itself and the perspective of the other both indigenous peoples and animals and plants. At times lyrical and deeply personal and at others academic it nevertheless doesn't let go of the connection it forms at the beginning with tales of Abrams life. One feels that the experience of the world so honestly told throughout the book at times, provide the true wonder evident in Abrams life. It is a pity more of these experiences were not forthcoming. It reminds me of the answer given by a Zen student in Japan when asked about his practice : "the world is so beautiful you almost can't stand it"
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"A butterfly glides by, golden wings navigating delicate air currents with a few momentary flutters before they settle on a white flower...Fragrant whiffs from the new blossoms in the overgrown orchard by the creek stir...My sensing body now vividly awake to the world." ~ pg. 223

"The Spell of the Sensuous" is a fairly complex read that takes you on a journey through a myriad of experiences as related to the natural world. Through this journey we gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human in a sensuous world. Language, lore and cultural heritage is also a focus.

David Abram subtly draws a stark contrast between how tribal cultures have viewed the earth and how modern man seems far removed from nature's protective beauty. Whether he is speaking about Native Americans or the Ancient Greeks he explores their culture from the viewpoint of how they relate to the land and air.

"The emergence or adoption of a formal writing system significantly solidifies the ephemeral perceptual boundary already established by a common tongue; now the spoken language has a visible counterpart that floats, fixed and immobile, between the human body and the sensuous world." ~ pg. 256

While at first this may seem like a casual discussion of how cultures pass along their traditions, you may soon realize that this is much more a serious investigation into how people either preserve or destroy the living breathing environment. A discussion of how cultures moved from oral traditions to the written word is fascinating. You can see how even today some cultures show a remarkable respect for their environments while others seem to have lost their connection to the earth.

At times highly intellectual and at other times pure, spiritual and poetic, David Abram's writing weaves through your soul to bring you to a higher awareness of the land in which you live and the importance of preserving your natural heritage.

~The Rebecca Review
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on August 25, 2013
I'm really glad I read Abram's more recent book BECOMING ANIMAL before I read THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS. Why? Well, I found BECOMING ANIMAL to be a more elegant introduction to his ideas. The prose is really beautiful. BECOMING ANIMAL does not have lots of endnotes like SPELL does, which I guess is because SPELL is used as a supplemental text for ecology classes. Anyway, they are both very worthwhile reads if you're interested in getting outside of your Western mind for a while.

First the good stuff about SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS: It's a great introduction to some major differences in how indigenous/oral-language people experience, interact with, and communicate with their world vs. how written-language people do, which, Abram says, basically happened after the Greek alphabet came into use, which was the first completely phonetic alphabet (no symbols left that involve imagery that ties the alphabetic letter to the tangible world). He uses great examples of Australian Aborigines, Inuit, and southwestern Native Americans to show how oral-language people communicate with their natural world, and not just with animals, but plants and rocks and rivers and really everything. He emphasizes the importance of place in the indigenous culture and how "story" is so completely and intimately integrated with geography that story can't even sensibly be understood apart from place. He talks a lot about Western linear time vs. the indigenous tendency toward cyclical time, and how oral-language people's life events are a continual re-creation of their world--a fascinating concept. There really is so much that's amazing about this book and it is clear that Abram has spent much of his life studying and researching these ideas, as he has lived with indigenous peoples and learned from shamans. He also weaves in the research of others very effectively. His analyses are filtered through his understanding of phenomenology--another really interesting aspect of the book.

I would have given THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS five stars except for something Abram did toward the end, which I saw as a bit unfair. He creates a somewhat plausible argument based on the ancient Hebrew alphabet (no vowels) for why Judaism has been somewhat unfairly labeled anti-nature. I have no problem with this. But then he uses this as his departure point for laying at the feet of Christianity (its texts written in Greek) the real split between man and nature. Well, believe me, I'm no defender of Christianity (I'm agnostic) and I realize it has wreaked havoc with indigenous cultures and with nature. But, please! I have read the Old Testament and the New, and even though the Old Testament includes some very beautiful intertwining with nature--the pastoral scenes in Psalms, for example, and the Song of Solomon--it also has plenty of violence and destruction of nature by the Hebrews--especially from the time of Moses on. My real problem with what Abram does here is that his evidence is so one-legged and flimsy. Dr. Abram, why even bring this up if you're not willing to defend it better than you have here? Maybe you can write a whole book on this topic, and if you do I will gladly read it. But you've yet to convince me that Judaism is philosophically any more innocent than Christianity in its attitude toward nature!
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on July 13, 2015
Mr Abram spent 250 some pages painstakingly building an argument that the human race was, but is no more, grounded in the wisdom and in communion with the natural world. He challenges the perception of past, present, and future as being separate and builds a case for renewal through reconnecting our surroundings.

The average reader could get discouraged by the seven chapters of analysis and hypotheses written in formal, if not scientific language, that begged the necessity of the Kindle dictionary at many of the page turns.

But, the Coda. Ahh, the Coda at the end is beautiful prose filled with hope and wisdom for seekers who, in their hearts, know that connection with our earth and each other is the only sustainable path forward.
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on June 12, 2007
This amazing study has put me back in touch with a truth I have always known in part, but now understand at a new depth. David Abram's understanding of language as the medium of all connexion with the world we are part of is profound and opens a realm of experience that few in the so-called developed cultures are now even dimly aware of. An enlightened and timely addition to the renewed human search for meaning.
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on May 15, 2008
An interesting discussion regarding the egocentric modern world. Abram makes reference to a myriad of unconsciously driven facets of human existence, now either ignored or forgotten. Although he limits his argument to the issue of language, his overall thesis is certainly something to consider and apply.
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on December 31, 2015
Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous is well-written, passionate and a source of revelation in connection with the role language has played in forming worldviews. Its concern for the ecology is, of course, timely and welcome, but the participatory role with nature that it recommends is a bit misguided. For example, while under the influence of reading his participatory experiences, I was moved to help a field mouse escape a minor predicament, for which my only thanks was a bite on the finger that drew blood. Fortunately, I haven’t detected any signs of rabies or Hanta yet!

Actually, I had hoped to see a more precise model for this improved rapport with nature. Where might his proposal lie on a spectrum between, say, an Eden full of vegetarian humans and pets (much like our suburban gardens and pets) and the eat-or-be-eaten wilderness of crouching predators and stinging insects (most jungles and savannas)? Where would modern urban society fit in? Surely, we can’t all go back to being hunter-gatherers.

It sounds as though he has a somewhat romanticised view of oral cultural landscapes (like Rousseau’s painting The Dream). But as pointed out by other commenters, “primitive” participation with nature is still that of the hunter and the hunted (as alluded to in some of his examples) – quite violent but often with a respectful “sorry” after bagging dinner. Admittedly, it’s better than bulldozing nature aside for factories, shopping malls and the ever-present car culture, but more realistic depictions of primitive lifestyles can be gleaned from Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature and either one of Jared Diamond’s Collapse or The World Until Yesterday. Sensorial activity in these cultures is more about being watchful of opportunities and threats than becoming one with nature. Still, Abram’s point about getting out there and participating with nature as a motivational boost toward preserving it is well taken, even if participation with the details of modelling that harmonious relationship is lacking.
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on December 22, 2015
A fascinating analysis of how written phonetic language has contributed to our cultural disengagement from the natural world, the author argues that beginning with the introduction of written language humanity began to lose its deep and profound connection with the natural world, replacing our perception of the language of nature with a kind of animistic interaction with written words. Thought-provoking, even if tedious at times. Whatever you think of the rest of the book, be sure not to miss the final chapter (Coda), which is brilliant and beautiful.

As an aside, I tried the meditative technique the author recommends in Part II of Chapter 6 and was thrilled with the results. Highly recommended.
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on May 16, 2009
This book has brings into focus what is so easily forgotten or ignored. It hasn't opened my eyes much (much that I've already known) but it has made me think. We live in a society that ignores most living things and regard as less than intelligent and worth little attention. This book reminds us of what is really important and it's time we start listening.
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