This week’s guest is not a person, but a book called “The Spell of the Sensuous”. The author, David Abram, is a philosopher and cultural ecologist who has lived among the indiginous people of Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Nepal, as well as the American Southwest, and studied their customs and beliefs. Mr. Abrams is also an accomplished magician and this doubtlessly countributes to his revealing insights about perception.
The central theme of “The Spell of the Sensuous”, published in 1996, is the alienation of modern man from his environment, which Mr. Abram attributes by and large to the invention of phonetic script. In phonetic script, he argues, things are not represented as themselves, as in pictograms, but by a human utterance. As a consequence, we perceive what Mr. Abrams calls the more-than-human world indirectly, through the self-reflective mirror of our own speech, effectively placing ourselves outside it. It is rather like mistaking the map for the land. Or checking the weather on your smartphone instead of sticking your head out the window. We are literally out-of-touch with our environment. We don’t sense it – hence the title of the book – we just register it and, therefore, we have no compunctions about doing the cold things that we do to it.
“Do not to others as you would not have them do to you”, says the Golden Rule. But that only applies to humans. We do have a sense how other humans would react if we treated them badly. But we do not have such empathy for animals or plants, let alone for things we consider inanimate, like mountains and rivers and seas. They have no soul, after all.
But what if they did?
In a chapter titled “The Forgetting and Remembering of the Air”, Mr. Abram tells of the deep veneration in which the Dineh – more widely known as the Navajo – hold the air. To them, the air is the most powerful force in nature, because it is invisible and omnipresent.
The Dineh regard the air as the carrier of awareness and, by extension, of thought. At face value, that notion may seem alien to modern Western culture, but it lives there too: the original meaning of the word psyche as well as the word spirit is actually ‘breath’.
As air flows through everything on earth, to the Dineh all things, including the earth itself, are breathing and, therefore, are alive and aware. What is more, awareness is not confined to the individual, but flows, like the air, from the one to the other. In Mr. Abram’s words: “Any undue harm that befalls the land is readily felt within the awareness of all who dwell within that land. And thus the health, balance and well-being of each person is inseparabe from the health and well-being of the enveloping earthly terrain.”
“The Spell of the Sensuous” is not a nostalgic cry for a return to the old days and old ways; it is pointing ahead to a time when old wisdom and new knowledge will merge into a more loving relationship with the living, breathing earth.