‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ by David Abram

Vintage Books, 1997, 326pp

ISBN: 978-0679776390

Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain

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David Abram, ecologist, philosopher, anthropologist, psychotherapist, sleight-of-hand magician and teacher/storyteller par excellence took a long while to get around to publishing this, his first book, but when he did, in 1997, he produced an extraordinary gem.

Part personal story, it begins among the bright green terraced rice paddies of Bali as the author sets out on a study tour through Asia to document the relationship between magic and medicine. Rather than travelling as an academic, he goes simply as a magician, using his own well-developed magic skills to make a collegial connection with the various sorcerers and shamans he meets along the way. Soon, however, he begins to discover the deeper truths of the shamanic role in community, which is to be the knowing, sensing bridge between the community and the greater reality, both psychic and organic, in which all our human communities are embedded.

What he begins to realize, as he drops ever further into his own animal body and develops his own skills of communication with other species, is the extent to which we humans have attempted to distance ourselves from our true nature and in so doing, torn the fabric of connectedness that sustains us and lost some of what makes us human. “Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds and shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.”

For me, the most poignant moment in the book is when Abram returns to the US, discovers that he can now understand the language of the local squirrels but then, over the ensuing weeks, gradually loses the ability to do so as the purely human world reclaims him and he finds himself walking around in self-absorbed thought like everybody else.

A substantial portion of the book is an exploration of the part that written speech—in particular the development of the alphabet—has played in our alienation from Nature, divorcing meaning from symbol, ripping our ancestral stories out of the landscape and putting us all at one remove from our lived experience. In this section, Abram draws on the work of various philosophers, particularly phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and (leaving me in no doubt that he really is a magician!!) actually rendering the latter’s theories comprehensible to me at long last.

However he points out that the new environmental ethic we so badly need is likely to come not via philosophy nor politics but “…through a renewed attentiveness to (the) perceptual dimension that underlies all our logics, through a rejuvenation of our carnal, sensorial empathy with the living land that sustains us.”

This is a profound book that has changed many lives, including mine. I highly recommend it.

 

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