“Returning to Our Senses”
A review of
An Earthly Cosmology.
by David Abram.
Reviewed by Marilyn Matevia.
An Earthly Cosmology.
Hardback: Random House, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
In his thought-provoking 1996 book, The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram argued that the emergence of phonetic writing fundamentally changed the nature of human perception and human interaction with other beings and the earth. In Western hands, written words were combined to abstract, symbolize and ultimately sever contact and engagement with the rest of nature, leaving us disenchanted, disembodied and disconnected. In his new book, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, Abram combines words in rich, wild, sometimes surprising ways in an attempt to help us return to our senses. Abram aims for “a new way of speaking, one that enacts our interbeing with the earth rather than blinding us to it. … A style of speech that opens our senses to the sensuous in all its multiform strangeness.”
Abram is an environmental philosopher, but Becoming Animal is an unconventional philosophy book. If there is a thesis, it is a continuation of what he proposed in The Spell of the Sensuous: we deepen our alienation from the rest of the natural world when we mediate experience through the printed word, electronic/digital gadgets and other technological barriers and filters. “Re-minding” (to borrow a particularly fitting phrase from Amory Lovins’ jacket blurb) ourselves of our connections to and dependence on other beings cannot help but have healing ramifications for the way we live on the planet. But Abram spends very little time making that case, and much more on what he calls “a necessary work of recuperation:” enticing the reader back into touch with their animal capacities for sensation and perception through his lush descriptions of various settings and encounters. For this book, the journey is indeed the destination.
“This book is about becoming a two-legged animal,” Abram says at the beginning. Of course, humans already are animals, but he means “becoming more deeply human by acknowledging, affirming, and growing into our animality.” Abram awakens the senses by describing ordinary things in extraordinary detail. The first chapters contemplate the nature and dynamics of shadows, the “soul” of a house, the dynamism of stone, and the trickster qualities of depth. “Check this, reader, against your own experience: unlike the height of a mountain range, and the width or span of a valley, the depth of a terrain – the relation between the near and far aspects of that land – depends entirely upon where you are standing within that terrain. As you move, bodily, within that landscape, the depth of the scape alters around you.” Subsequent chapters illustrate the ways in which we share “more complex powers” with other beings and landscapes – minds, moods, language, and the varieties of forms they take. “Never having separated their sentience from their sensate bodies – having little reason to sequester their intelligence in a separate region of their skull where it might dialogue steadily with itself – many undomesticated animals, when awake, move in a fairly constant dialogue not with themselves but with their surroundings. Here it is not an isolated mind but rather the sensate, muscled body itself that is doing the thinking, its diverse senses and its flexing limbs playing off one another as it feels out fresh solutions to problems posed, adjusting old habits (and ancestral patterns) to present circumstances.” In the closing chapters, Abram explores the “shape-shifting” abilities of human perception. “Incomplete on its own, the body is precisely our capacity for metamorphosis. Each being that we perceive enacts a subtle integration within us, even as it alters our prior organization. The sensing body is like an open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the surrounding earth.” Abram uses the final chapter to urge the rejuvenation of oral-story telling tradition in cultures where it has been lost (a point raised in The Spell of the Sensuous, as well). He sees this as an “ecological imperative.” “When oral culture degrades, the mediated mind loses its bearings, forgetting its ongoing debt to the body and the breathing earth. Left to itself the literate intellect, adrift in the play of signs, comes to view nature as a sign, or a complex of signs. It forgets that the land is not first and foremost an arcane text to be read, but a community of living, speaking beings to whom we are beholden.” Certainly all human language obscures and complicates our relations with the rest of “the animate earth,” but Abram sees written language as a thicker barrier. The physicality and musicality of oral language allies us more closely with the earth and its many “living, speaking beings.”
It is worth reading Becoming Animal slowly and patiently – Abram’s writing style almost leaves you no choice – to let yourself do the imagining and sensing Abram is trying to stir. It is a book to be absorbed and “embodied.” His descriptions and observations are thick, rich and evocative. He uses many different words to convey an elusive idea, and when the words fail, he makes up new ones. In so doing, he helps to make his point: we can’t always pin things down on paper. There is a whiff of irony in the air when the writer of books on nature philosophy argues that the written word contributes to our ecological estrangement. But as Abram acknowledged in The Spell of the Sensuous, the written word can create “a pivotal magic;” he is certainly not advocating its renunciation, and indeed attempts to create his own pivotal magic here – with frequent success. Be patient and willing to wander through Abram’s observations and meditations, suspend what he calls “hyper-rational objectivity,” and Becoming Animal casts its own sensuous spell.