Once in a blue moon there comes along a book that changes everything. This year, that book for me is David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (1997).
Abram’s book is a philosophical and deeply personal investigation into what it is that has led us to our current states of crises: Environmental, psychological and, indeed, civilisational. My copy is a new edition of a book that was described, when it was first published more than 20 years back, by the Los Angeles Times as “revolutionary”, a richly deserved description. It’s a book that leaves you thinking about everything — including ‘thinking’ itself — in a radically new way, making behavioural change seem inevitable.
Abram asks: If the natural world can speak, what is it saying to us? He invokes indigenous ways of being, and being involved in the non-human world that, if taken seriously, forces us to reconsider everything about who we are, how we are, and what we are among all living beings with whom we share this Earth.
“[…] it is not only those entities acknowledged by Western civilization as ‘alive’, not only the other animals and the plants that speak, as spirits, to the senses of an oral culture, but also the meandering river from which those animals drink and the torrential monsoon rains, and the stone that fits neatly into the palm of the hand. The mountain, too, has its thoughts. The forest birds whirring and chattering as the sun slips below the horizon are vocal organs of the rain forest itself.”
I’ve never come across a more lucid or profoundly researched explanation of linguistic concepts, nor the potent magic of reading. But The Spell is not just a book about linguistics, or about writing — it’s about the very nature of perception. How do we translate what we feel (touch, sight, hearing, taste and so on) into what we think — in other words, how does sensation make sense?
Cognitive neuroscientists and philosophers have been wrestling with what Australian philosopher David Chalmers in 1995 called “the hard problem” of consciousness. Basically, how and why it is (and I can do no better than quote from Wikipedia on this one) “that some internal states are felt states, such as heat or pain, rather than unfelt states, as in a thermostat or a toaster”.
Born in 1957, Abram is an American poet, a philosopher and an academic. He is also a professional sleight-of-hand magician and has spent years among the shamans of Indonesia and Nepal. He does something with the hard problem that makes you gasp, as you would watching a coin disappear from one hand and reappear from behind your ear. It is only ‘hard’ because we are trying to force together two apparently different realms: The outside full of ‘things’ and the inside full of ‘thoughts’ or ‘feelings’. Once you understand that perception arises from and involves itself with the physical universe, the whole world changes. Take time, for example. We routinely think of time as made of three distinct parts: The future, the past and the now. For most of us, ‘now’ is a vanishingly small blip between the future coming towards us and the past streaming out behind.
As a phenomenologist, Abram argues that our mental constructs arise out of the physical world. With that in mind, he takes these three realms of time and asks what would be their physical correlates. And then, in the most incandescent chapter in the book, discovers that future is the horizon (beyond which things are withheld), the past is the Earth itself (beneath which things are hidden) and the present — well, the present is a conundrum. “Is there some other obvious style of absence, in the very thickness of the present, that is unique to itself, and not a mere modification of the under-the-ground or the beyond-the-horizon?” ” He closes his eyes, and focuses on his breathing. And then it comes to him and he reveals with a beautifully timed flourish: “It is the invisibility of the air.”
We live in a sentient world, at the triangulation point of the horizon, the Earth and the air. It is only by denying this, and seeing the non-human world as a ‘pretty backdrop’ to human affairs, that we can exploit the land and its creatures so mercilessly. We are slowly — far too slowly — realising the disastrous repercussions of this disconnect, not only for the climate, for the corals of the Barrier Reef and the Amazon forests, but the very air upon which we depend for our moment-by-moment existence.
On the one hand, I despair. Abram’s book came out in 1997 when there were 360 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. Today it has climbed to over 400. Around 90 per cent of all sea birds have plastic in their stomachs. Wildlife populations have collapsed as the global human population has surged from 5.7 billion to 7.5 billion. It looks like the revolution has failed. Or, perhaps, it is just starting. A new edition suggests there are readers, now, willing to hear — and to act on — his words. Read it. Weep, if you must (and you must), and then allow its slow magic to turn you inside out.
First published The Hindu Business Line 20.9.19