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The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World Paperback – February 25, 1997

4.5 out of 5 stars 110 customer reviews

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Amazon.com Review

David Abram's writing casts a spell of its own as he weaves the reader through a meticulously researched work that gently addresses such seemingly daunting topics as where the past and future exist, the relationship between space and time, and how the written word serves to sever humans from their primordial source of sustenance: the earth.

"Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient associations with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air," writes Abram of the separation caused by the proliferation of the written word.

In writing The Spell of the Sensuous, Abram consulted an engaging collection of peoples and works. He uses aboriginal song lines, stories from the Koyukon people of northwestern Alaska, the philosophy of phenomenology, and the speeches of Socrates to paint a poetic landscape that explains how we became separated from the earth in the first place. With minimal environmental doomsaying, Abram discusses how we can begin to recover a sustainable relationship with the earth and the nonhuman beings who live among us--in the more-than-human world. --Kathryn True

From Publishers Weekly

How did Western civilization become so estranged from nonhuman nature that we condone the ongoing destruction of forests, rivers, valleys, species and ecosystems? Santa Fe ecologist/philosopher Abram's search for an answer to this dilemma led him to mingle with shamans in Nepal and sorcerers in Indonesia, where he studied how traditional healers monitor relations between the human community and the animate environment. In this stimulating inquiry, he also delves into the philosophy of phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who replaced the conventional view of a single, wholly determinable reality with a fluid picture of the mind/body as a participatory organism that reciprocally interacts with its surroundings. Abram blames the invention of the phonetic alphabet for triggering a trend toward increasing abstraction and alienation from nature. He gleans insights into how to heal the rift from Australian aborigines' concept of the Dreamtime (the perpetual emerging of the world from chaos), the Navajo concept of a Holy Wind and the importance of breath in Jewish mysticism.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (February 25, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679776397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679776390
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.1 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (110 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #38,313 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Ruth Henriquez Lyon VINE VOICE on January 15, 2001
Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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.
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By kaioatey on August 4, 2007
Format: Paperback
In this elegantly titled book Abrams argues about a "language older than words" - a language of immediacy imbued with connectedness between an (indigenous) person and her environemnt. The landscape talks and sensitive and attuned people listen and hear it speak. Abrams' `ecophenomenology' coincides with a plethora of similarly well-intentioned works that have appeared in recent years.

Abrams shares this basic idea with others - phenomenologists, philosophers, linguists, ethnographers and anthropologists many of whom performed research on indigenous peoples from around the world. For an indigenous person the intimacy between the landscape and the inner space of feeling is rather ordinary and normal, certainly nothing special. That someone has to argue that this communication even exists is, to someone living close to nature almost incomprehensible.

Be that as it may, Abrams quotes other people (indigenous folks and their observers) copiously and not always consistently. His own contribution I find a bit sketchy and perhaps even problematic. For example, he goes to great length trying to shift the blame for the ecological blindness of Western man away from his/her absurd belief in a warlike, genocidal and jealous Hebrew deity onto Greek philosophers and their use of abstract language. This is not a little disingenuous, since it wasn't ancient pagans who wrecked the relationship between the Western World and forces of nature, but rather the fanatic followers of the 3 monotheistic religions blindly marching towards promised salvation. Now the entire planet is paying for soteriological orthodoxy and its distrust of the body and nature.
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