David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous

Many readers of Red Clay, Blood River have been struck by the voice of Earth as narrator. It is Earth’s memory in which we find our own. It is in Earth’s life that we find the deeper sources of our human reconciliation. For me, this was a literary exploration following intuitions sensitized by years of work in ethics and theology.

Now I have had a great delight in discovering David Abram’s engaging work, The Spell of the Sensuous (Random House, 1996). In it he argues that we have lost our connection with Earth – our discourse with Earth – in large part because of the development of alphabetic writing.

In treating this writing as the source of the sacred – the “Word” of God writ large and small – we have lost our capacity to communicate with Earth. Moreover, we have isolated our psyches (souls, spirits) within our reading selves, just as we have created an abstract, distant heaven which is the location of our ultimate life.

Abram wants us to try to retrieve the relation with Earth bound to oral cultures. For him, “we are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human.” (ix) Indeed, he says, “…my body is a sort of open circuit that completes itself only in things, in others, in the encompassing earth.” (62) Thus, humans must primarily understand themselves in a communicative relation with their world. And it is a world trying to speak to us. “In indigenous, oral cultures, nature itself is articulate; it speaks.

The human voice in an oral culture is always to some extent participant with the voices of wolves, wind and waves – participant, that is, with the encompassing discourse of an animate earth.” (116) Indeed, to reverse John’s Gospel, in us, the flesh becomes word. Our problem is how to regain our bodies as the fundament of our words.And indeed our own basic categories of time and space must be reconstrued in terms of Earth’s own configuration.

For Earth, place, with its specific characteristics, takes precedence over an abstract notion of space. Time is not an abstract line from an infinite past to an infinite (or apocalyptic) future. It is a future “beyond the horizon” and a past “within the earth,” both aspects of the present experience on the land (or ocean, for that matter).

“It is precisely the ground and the horizon that transform abstract space into space-time. And these characteristics – the ground and horizon – are granted to us only by the earth.” (216)

Air is the medium of our connectiveness. In recovering ourselves as breathers – as spirited, animated, psychic beings – we might recover ourselves as beings in relationship. It reminds me of the old passage from Saint Paul – “The letter kills but the Spirit gives life.” (2 Corinthians 3:6)

David Abram has sought to promote a style of thinking “that associates truth not with static fact, but with a quality of relationship.” For him “a human community that lives in a mutually beneficial relation with the surrounding earth is a community, we might say, that lives in truth.” (264)

And, I would say, experiences the depths of reconciliation. All of this seems to lay out an entire philosophical framework for Red Clay, Blood River (and I haven’t even mentioned his debt to Merleau-Ponty, Husserl, and Heidegger!)

Indeed, I feel as if I had tried to respond to his implicit invitation: “We have forgotten the poise that comes from living in storied relation and reciprocity with the myriad things, the myriad beings, that perceptually surround us.” (270)

But, he concludes, rather that give up our literacy, “our task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all of its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land.” (273)

For you Earth talkers and readers out there, I highly recommend starting with this challenging account. For more about Abram’s work go to WildEthics.org.