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The Spell Of The Sensuous: Book Review

Updated on January 14, 2015

A Book That Makes One Think...and Feel...and Dream.

David Abram's controversial The Spell of the Sensuous explores how much of what we see and hear is shaped not by our actual senses, but by upbringing, culture, and what we read. We have been taught that senses are not to be trusted and may give us misleading information. That is true. But 2500 years of thinking in that fashion has blinded us to the world around us, cut us off from our senses, and cut us off from ourselves.

I do not always agree with Abram, but his poetic, beautifully-written book has given me much food for thought. Below, I would like to share with you a few excerpts and ideas I gleaned from this book.

A poetic, thoughtful book that could change the way you experience life.

The Spell Of The Sensuous

The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World
"Long awaited, revoluntionary... This book ponders the violent disconnection of the body from the natural world and what this means about how we live and die in it." — The Los Angeles Times, 1996

Phenomenology? What's That?

It's Okay to Listen to the Wind

Science has taught us about biology, physics. Yet our senses do not register the world in terms of scientific labels and concepts. We feel the world. We taste the world. Our human experience of life is part of who we are. Abram's book introduced me to the field of phenomenology, which attempts to study and describe the world as we experience it.

"The everyday world in which we hunger and make love is hardly the mathematically determined "object" toward which the sciences direct themselves. Despite all the mechanical artifacts that surround us, the world in which we find ourselves before we set out to calculate and measure it is not an inert or mechanical object but a living field, an open and dynamic landscape subject to its own moods and metamorphoses.

"My life and the world's life are deeply intertwined: when I wake up one morning to find that a week-long illness has subsided and that my strength has returned, the world, when I step outside, fairly sparkles with energy and activity: swallows are swooping by in vivid flight; waves of heat rise from the newly paved road smelling strongly of tar; the old red barn across the field at an intense angle. Likewise, when a haze descends on the valley in which I dwell, it descends upon my awareness as well, muddling my thoughts, and making my muscles yearn for sleep." -- The Spell of The Sensuous pp. 32-33

The world doesn't really respond to us, and we don't really respond to it-- or do we?

After reading much of this book, I begin to wonder just how much of our blinkered experience ("that's not really what's happening," says science!) is due to science's inability to account for the intangible, the spiritual. Science is good at measuring things, analyzing their parts and how they work together. It's not so good at finding the God between the atoms, or characterizing the power of a hawk's keening cry. Science can exist side by side with poetry and music, but science only knows the heart as a biological organ-- it can't get at the heart that feels love. Both are true, and both are vitally important to the lives we live.

The Impact of Writing on Senses - A Form of Artificial Synaesthesia

As a poet and writer, I live by the written word. The internet lets it fly across continents and lets us "speak" to people far and wide. But Abram points out two profound things about writing: that it is a form of sensory deprivation, and that it causes us to detach from nature and hear books speak the way native cultures once heard the natural world speak.

Synaesthesia? That's a word that Abram tosses around a lot. We've heard about it as a mental disease in Oliver Sacks' famous book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. In this disease, people may "hear" colors or "see" sounds. Sensory input is scrambled. Or is it? Abram points out that prior to scientific training telling us that color and sound are different phenomena, we experience the input of our senses as a complete fabric, a continuum, not discreet channels. So, he says, we still talk of "loud" colors and "brittle" sounds, of "clear" tastes and "sharp" scents.

Reading and writing, Abram points out, are an artificial form of synaesthesia. Writing converts sounds into images: the letters on the page. When we read, we hear the words we see. Incredible!

But there is an unfortunate side effect to this process. The act of reading and writing forces us to disengage part of our senses and perception from the world around us. We take our eyes off the sky. We transfer our hearing to the words we "hear" from the book. We "see" what we read. The real world recedes from our awareness.

Over the centuries, we have learned to detach ourselves from the natural world, treat it as "outside". We look at it "objectively" -- as a thing, an object, not part of "us" anymore. By degrees, we have learned to ignore, mistrust, exploit and abuse the world we inhabit, the air we breathe, the waters we drink, our natural surroundings, and our living non-human neighbors. When we learned to read, we forgot how to hear what the birds, trees, seasons and soil had to say to us.

"In learning to read we must break the spontaneous participation of our eyes and our ears in the surrounding terrain (where they had ceaselessly converged in the synaesthetic encounter with animals, plants, trees) in order to recouple those senses on the flat surface of the page. As a Zuñi elder focuses her eyes upon a cactus and hears the cactus begin to speak, so we focus our eyes upon these printed marks and immediately hear voices. We hear spoken words, witness strange scenes or visions, even experience other lives. As nonhuman animals, plants, and even "inanimate" rivers once spoke to our tribal ancestors, so the "inert" letters on the page now speak to us! This is aform of animism that we take for granted, but it is animism nonetheless--as mysterious as a talking stone.

"And indeed, it is only when a culture shifts its participation to these printed letters that the stones fall silent. Only as our senses transfer their animating magic to the written word do the trees become mute, the other animals dumb." -- The Spell of The Sensuous p. 131

Amazing. What he says feels so right. Yet it makes no rational, logical sense. I am a daughter of two scientists, and I cannot really believe in a natural world that speaks to me. Yet I wonder. And I know there are still millions of people alive today who know perfectly well what the birds, the trees, the sea and the wind are telling them, who would think me crazy for "hearing voices" when I read marks on a piece of paper or computer screen.

When I was a child, I knew what many of the birdsongs meant in the woods where I lived. I knew how to imitate baby birds so that wrens and finches would come looking for me. They would perch on nearby branches, and we'd talk. I don't know what we were saying, but we were communicating, or at least communing.

Nowadays, if I Twitter, I'm writing a text message of 140 characters or less.

I am a writer, and I am not giving up my internet and my writing. Yet I envy those to whom the world still speaks.

On Australian Aborigine Traditions

"The Australian continent is crisscrossed by thousands of meandering 'songlines'... Wherever a woman finds herself when she feels the quickening--the first kick within her womb--she knows that spirit child has just leapt into her body from the earth...The elders then examine the land at that spot, discerning which Ancestor's songline was involved, and precisely which stanzas of that Ancestor's song will belong to the child." -- The Spell of the Sensuous

Creative Commons © 2005 E. Brundige.

© 2009 Ellen Brundige


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