No Going Back, Coming Full Circle: "The Spell of the Sensuous," by David Abram

Dolores Brien reviews David Abram's groundbreaking exploration of our scientific estrangement from the natural world and discusses its relevance for Jungian thought. 

No Going Back, Coming Full Circle

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language
In a More-Than-Human World
. Vintage Books. 1996.
You can click here to order this book through The Jung Center of Houston's online bookstore.

Reviewed by Dolores E. Brien

The Spell of the Sensuous is the story, eloquently told, of how, in our long history, our intimate, sentient relationship with nature gave way to a preference for abstractions, scientific objectivity and man-made technologies.  Published a decade ago, it earned widespread praise from those concerned with the threat of a global environmental catastrophe. This threat, as we all must know by now, has evolved into a denial-proof, impending catastrophe, making this book even more relevant today, a must-read—an exceptionally engaging one, I might add.

The author David Abram does not deal directly with specific environmental issues; rather, he returns us to our origins, to our primordial relationship with nature from which we have become estranged to the detriment of our planet. We may well ask of what use will this be? Are those primal origins now too far removed from us, denizens, as we are, of a highly evolved technological civilization? What can we possibly learn by returning to the past that would help us understand and cope with our present crisis? As Abram points out, we are accustomed to thinking of nature as separate from and external to us, forgetting that we too are a part of nature. This forgetting is a root cause of our environmental crisis. The Spell of the Sensuous is about how this forgetting came about and offers a fresh vision, a possibility of “remembering,” without resorting to a romantic primitivism, such as we witnessed in the sixties. Abram sees it not as a “going back” which in any case is impossible and undesirable, but as  “coming full cycle,” a process combining our capacity for rationality with bodily and sensorial ways of knowing, through which we can recover our solidarity with all other sentient beings on our planet. As part of this process, our accepted notion of psyche will be altered as we come to understand its own primal beginning in the natural world.

David Abram is a philosopher and depth ecologist but it was as a sleight-of-hand magician living, studying and practicing his magic among the shamans of Indonesia and India, that led him to look more deeply into the relationship that the people of indigenous, oral cultures have to the living, natural world. Contrary to the conventional view, Abram discovered shamanic “magic” cannot be interpreted as dealing with “the supernatural” or “the Spirit world” Neither has it to do with the personal psyche, the “inner world” of the shaman or of the individuals he seeks to heal. These are misconceptions derived from Western Christian beliefs and modern psychology and do not reflect the experience of the shamans and the communities they serve.

The “spirits” in the experience of people of an indigenous culture are, according to Abram, “modes of intelligence or awareness” belonging to all phenomena that are non-human, not just what we think of as being “alive” but everything in nature, such as water, stone and air.  Even the “spirits” of the dead, unlike in the Christian tradition, do not inhabit a realm beyond the natural, physical realm. As their bodies decompose, the dead are reintegrated into the land from which they came. In the natural world,  everything—living and dead,  animate and inanimate, human and non human are intimately and reciprocally connected with each other.

In his Preface, Abram advises that there are two introductions to his book. The first chapter, “The Ecology of Magic” is an enthralling personal introduction in which he tells of his experiences living as a sleight-of-hand magician among traditional, indigenous shamans in rural Asia. He learned that their commitment was primarily “to the earthly web of relationships” in which the community was embedded. The shaman served first and foremost as an intermediary between the human and the nonhuman; healing was secondary. His or her primary task was to help maintain the balance between the human community and the nonhuman environment.

It is not by sending his awareness out beyond the natural world that the shaman makes contact with the purveyors of life and health, nor by journeying into his personal psyche; rather, it is by propelling his awareness laterally outward into the depths of the landscape at once both sensuous and psychological . . .

These indigenous communities participate in a natural, nonhuman world that is alive, full of mystery and to which utmost attention and respect must be given.  Our contact with nature, on the contrary, is now largely confined to parks and nature preserves, to zoos, to nature programs on TV and to our pets.  So estranged are we from nature that we think it our right to exploit it as an infinitely available resource (or so we thought) for our insatiable needs.

The second chapter, “Philosophy on the Way to Ecology” Abram calls a “technical introduction” and generously suggests that since it deals with philosophical matters some readers might want to skip it. In my opinion, that would be a loss. Abram is such a clear and graceful writer that no one should be put off by fears that the chapter is too technical, when in fact it is just as engrossing as his first, personal chapter, although different necessarily in content and style. In this chapter the conceptual, philosophical background Abram provides complements and supports his reflections drawn from direct experience.

As it developed from the 16th century on, modern science has been based on a deterministic view of reality that can only understood by mathematical analysis and experimentation. The physical body and the incorporeal mind (or soul or spirit) were seen as distinct. The “subjective” was rejected as being “unreal.”  What science ignored, says Abram, was the evidence of our everyday experience. We simply do not find the world around us to be mere matter but relate to it with the full range of our human faculties. “The landscape [the total environment] as I experience it, is hardly a determinate object; it is an ambiguous realm that responds to my emotions and calls forth feelings from me in turn.” Because of the powerful influence of science we assume that what we experience with our senses is somehow less real than that which can be quantified and measured. Even for psychology, which deals with the subjective, the psyche has become an object to be studied like any other object.

Drawing primarily upon the work of its founder Edmund Husserl and the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Abram finds phenomenology to be the philosophy that most persuasively challenges these assumptions. Frustrated by science’s rejection of immediate experience in favor of a mechanized and mathematical universe in which mind is just another object, Husserl turned to “things themselves”. We intuitively recognize that other, nonhuman bodies as centers of experience, are subjects like ourselves. The real world is not made up of objects stripped of any subjectivity, as science would have it. On the contrary, it is “an intertwined matrix of sensations and perceptions, a collective field of experience, lived through from many different angles,” This “intersubjectivity” is the condition of everyday, common experience of life, which Husserl called “the life-world.”  Husserl believed that the integrity of science depended on the recognition that it too is grounded in the same everyday world, the “life-world,” that it evolved from it and is sustained by it. Only in reference to this “primordial and open realm” of the life-world does science have value or meaning.

Merleau-Ponty also observed that science “is built upon the world as directly experienced.” From this fundamental experience of the world, science follows as a “second order of expression . . . an abstract and derivative sign-language, as is geography in relation to the countryside in which we have learnt beforehand what a forest, a prairie or a river is.”  The  innermost essence of the self, according to Merleau-Ponty  is not incorporeal nor is it independent of the body. On the contrary the experiencing self is identified with the body. Everything we think or do has its origins in the body. It is with my body that I am able to enter into a relationship with all things.

Abram further comments

The breathing, sensing body draws is sustenance and its very substance from the soils, plants, and elements that surround it; it continually contributes itself, in turn to the air, the composting earth, to the nourishment of insects and oak trees and squirrels, ceaselessly spreading out of itself as well as breathing the world into itself, so that it is very difficult to discern, at any moment precisely where the living body begins and where it ends. Considered phenomenologically—that is, as we actually experience and live it—the body is a creative, shape-shifting reality.

Once we truly accept this bodily life of ours, we perforce acknowledge that we are also animals. We have qualities and capacities unique to ourselves, to be sure, but our place is not on the top of the heap of the animate world as we have arrogantly and mistakenly assumed, but in its midst.

Abram covers much more in this chapter that can be summarized here. But at the heart of his discourse is perception, which as the dictionary defines it, is the ability to see, hear, or become aware of something  through the senses. As Abram interprets it, following Merleau-Ponty, perception is not, as we conventionally suppose, an act of the one perceiving while the perceived remains passive.  Rather, perception is an interaction between the body and other bodies or things, a reciprocal act in which there is a symbiosis or “sympathetic relation with the perceived.” Perception then is a participatory act, because it always involves “ an active interplay” between the perceiver and the perceived. 

Perception, as a mode of mutual awareness and reciprocity, came naturally, so to speak, to indigenous, oral cultures of which Abram gives numerous examples. We in the West, however, have all but lost it, considering ourselves as being outside of, detached from, and superior to nature. A new environmental ethic, in Abram’s view, can come about only if we can recover this perceptual dimension but we can do so only by acknowledging the bodily, sentient dimension of our experience which is not ours alone but that of all other bodies. The biosphere is not an abstract, objectified  entity of science, but experienced and lived “by the attentive human animal who is entirely a part of the world that he, or she, experiences.”

From perception Abram then moves to that of language as a function of perception. Language too is rooted in the experience of the senses, beginning with our bodily gestures that express intention and emotion. It is a complex interchange that goes on continually between our own body and the body of the world. This view contradicts the currently accepted idea that language is a system of signs or symbols representing things and events, with no inherent connection with that which it represents. Language is also thought to be a characteristic unique to human beings, that which sets us apart other animate beings and superior to them— a convenient rationale, Abram suggests, for scientific experiments and the exploitation of nonhuman nature for our own purposes. But if we accept that language itself is rooted in our bodily, sensory life, we cannot claim that it is a uniquely human characteristic. “Ultimately, it is not the human body alone, but the whole of the sensuous world that provides the deep structure of language.”

If our primordial experience, including the origins of language, is grounded in a participatory, bodily, sensate interchange with all animate beings, when did this change and why? How do we account for the loss of this experience? Although Abram acknowledges that many factors were involved, he singles out the evolution of human language as one of, if not the most important event that led to this estrangement from nature. In several engrossing chapters, he describes how this happened.

Our alienation from the nature began with the invention of the alphabet which Abram attributes to Semitic tribes around 1500 B.C.E. Prior to that communication was oral or pictorial. The epics of Homer originally were sung and re-sung long before they were written down around the 7thcentury B.C.E. but by the 4th century B.C.E., the dialogues of Plato were written and  reading and writing were spreading throughout Greece. Once written down the epics and myths  or Platonic discourse were accessible in a visible, fixed form which could be read, examined, disputed. A far-reaching consequence was the initiation of a new stage of reflective and abstract thinking not possible without written language. The virtues, for example, had always been  personified: this god or goddess exemplified a certain virtue. With the advent of writing, it was possible to describe virtue and the virtuous without reference to its personification, but as autonomous and unchanging.

With his text before him, the writer acquired a new sense of being an autonomous self, distinct not only from his fellow human beings, but from one’s own surroundings.  It was at this point, Abram believes, that language separated from “the intimate flux of the world” and became a presence in its own right and with it a more abstract mode of thinking. Abram relates a story from Plato’s Phaedrus which suggests that Greek society had already begun distancing itself from the natural environment.  Socrates tells a young friend, who had been surprised that Socrates knew so little of the countryside: “You must forgive me, my friend. I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything whereas men in the town do.”

With the advent of alphabetic writing, notions of space and time were radically altered.  Not only did writing undermine the human participatory relationship with the  natural landscape, it also dissolved the intimate link with particular places in which ancestral stories or myths took place. This  “double retreat,” as Abram calls it, opened the way to  a “pure and featureless ‘space’— “an abstract conception that today seems to us more primordial and real than the earthly places in which we remain corporeally embedded.” Once written down a people’s history becomes an account of irreversible and progressive events and time becomes linear.

Abram places the ancient Hebrews in the context of this radically new sense of space/time. They were, Abram reminds us, “the first truly alphabetic culture that we know of, the first ‘People of the Book.’” Writing had also given preeminence to the human voice as opposed to the multiple and layered interplay of the human voice with that of the nonhuman. For the Hebrews this “voice” was omnipotent and eternal, but spoke nevertheless to the Hebrew people directly through its scriptures.

Abram traces this evolving sense of time and space as separate entities from the Greeks, through Euclid, to the invention of the printing press, and finally with Newton, who with his clockwork universe gave this notion of time and space as being separable its accepted formulation, until challenged centuries later, with Einstein’ s theory of the unitary nature of space/time. But this did nothing to change our assumption that space and time were distinct. Only with the phenomenologists and principally the German philosopher Martin Heidegger were efforts made to reconcile space and time.

Why is this important? For the indigenous, oral cultures this separation of time and space did not exist. They experienced only the present in which space and time were one. This enabled them to embrace the natural world around them as the only reality. As Abram sees it, this distinction between time that is linear and progressive and space which is abstract and featureless as a hindrance to our being aware of our human dependence on the earth. “Only when space and time are reconciled into a single, unified field of phenomena does the encompassing earth become evident, once again, in all it power and its depth, as the very ground and horizon of all our knowing.”

The last chapter  “The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air,” is Abram’s most exhilarating, a tour de force, recalling to us, a presence that is absent to us. We are immersed in air. Being invisible, it is the medium through which we see everything else. It is the element on which our very life depends, but amazingly we take it for granted and scarcely give it a thought. This was not the case with indigenous peoples for whom air, wind, breath were aspects of a sacred power. Because it is invisible, yet pervades everything, air is all that is mysterious, unknowable and at the same time, real and powerful. 

Associated with speech as well as thought, ancestral people considered awareness or mind  not as something in their head, but as something they themselves are inside of.  For the Australian aboriginal peoples, air is that invisible but creative presence —what we call the “unconscious” —from which visible physical entities arise. According to Abram throughout North American Indian tribes, air is “the Holy Wind” and  among the Navajo, it is central to their view of the world. Permeating all of nature, Wind gives life and awareness to every being, and is the medium by which all beings and all the elements communicate with each other. For the Navajo, air is analogous to what we in the West speak of as “psyche,” but they do not see it as something we possess, but rather it is a “property of the encompassing world, in which humans—like all other beings—participate.

There is another striking difference between the Navajo understanding of psyche and ours. "Their intuition, " Abram tells us, "that the psyche is not an immaterial power that resides inside us, but is rather the invisible yet thoroughly palpable medium in which we (along with trees, the squirrels and the clouds) are immersed—must seem at first bizarre, even outrageous to persons of European ancestry." But look at the etymology of the word from the Greek psychȇ;  it meant not only “soul,” “mind”, but also “breath,” “a gust of wind.” Another word for air, wind, and breath was the Greek word pneuma that signified “spirit.”  The Latin term anima, defined as spirit or soul, was derived from a Greek term anemos, meaning  ‘wind.’  In Sanskrit the word atman signifies soul, but also air and breath.  These terms referring to an immaterial mind or spirit, were once derived from other terms which signify the “ breath. ”

If air was once believed to be the substance of awareness, and that invisible medium joining human beings with all other beings, Abram asks, “But how then, did the air come to lose its psychological reality? How did the psyche withdraw leaving nature without any psychological relevance? How did the psyche or spirit or mind retreat so thoroughly into the human skull, leaving air equated with no more than empty space?“   These are questions that will be of particular interest to Jungians, suggestive as they are of Jung’s own explorations of the relationship between spirit and matter, namely In his concepts of the psychoid, synchronicity and the unus mundus.

Abram traces again this process of separation beginning with the ancient Hebrews, as the first people to consistently use phonetic writing, through the ancient Greeks, notably Socrates and Plato, to the Christian era. Wherever the alphabet progressed —the spread of Christianity depended on it as it spread throughout Europe and then in the New World— language “loses its ancient association with the invisible breath, the spirit severs itself from the wind, the psyche dissociates itself from the environing air.  The air, once the very medium of expressive interchange, would become an increasingly empty and unnoticed phenomenon, displaced by the strange new medium of the written word.”

With the “forgetting of the air,” the medium in which all beings participate, the psyche itself becomes internalized. The modern individual self is thought to have a psyche, or mind, or consciousness, which is totally interior, that cannot be intrinsically related to other minds or to the surrounding world. There is no longer a medium through which this can be done. As Abram puts it, “no respiration between the inside and the outside.” As for the air itself, we don’t think much about it, (unless forced to today by its pollutants.) To communicate we rely on technology. But only if we begin to “remember” the air, Abram advises, to recognize it, not intellectually, but experientially as being immersed in it, will we be able to be once again fully understand ourselves as fully participants in nature.

The Spell of the Sensuous casts its own spell upon the reader. It is a rich, complex and profound work that defies summary. It is unsettling in that it disturbs the complacency of received truths and exciting because it replaces them with fresh thought that opens up possibilities even if they are not fully understood and remain open to question. In a coda, Abram refers to this as a “turning inside out.” Once we come to recognize the relationship between our interiorized, psychological selves and the natural world around us,  “we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere, freeing sentience to return to the sensible world that contains us.” 

The Spell of the  Sensuous invites not just attentive reading, but —to evoke that word so central to this work—a reciprocity, a willingness to engage with the book fully, not just intellectually but with feeling and imagination as well—sensorially.

You can click here to order this book through The Jung Center of Houston's online bookstore.