Books can be
great in several ways. Some
encapsulate the spirit of their time.
Some grow in profundity, as the reader returns to them again and again,
marveling at how much the author is saying that had been missed in earlier
encounters. Some make
break-throughs in established fields of knowledge. And some, a very few, leave you experiencing the world
differently after you’ve read them, never to return to what seemed obvious
before the encounter.
wrote one of these few with his book The Spell of the Sensuous. Now, alone among all I have ever
read, he has done it again with his just released Becoming Animal: An
Earthly Cosmology. Mind, the self, the world – all take on a new visage.
Animal takes the reader to places I had
long thought the printed word could not go: into that visceral non-verbal
multi-sensory encounter with the more-than-human world within which we are
immersed. We encounter this world
all the time, with every breath, but we have learned to be tone deaf and blind
to it. It has become invisible to
all of us much of the time, and much invisible to many of us all of the time.
Abram helps us
notice that while our eyes have been open, we have not been using them to see,
nor our open ears to really listen, our skin to feel, our nose to smell. More importantly still, he leads us to
appreciate what our collective cultural autism costs us, and the world within
which we live. He teaches us to
see, feel, taste, and smell this world, and when we do, it is magic. (Not with
a ‘k’ because we are seeing what is there, often for the first time, not
bending it to our will.)
Over and over
again after reading a passage I would think “Yea! I’ve been there, but never really noticed, or never could
put it into words if I did.” Abram
of the human relationship with a living Nature fits into much recent research
that has demonstrated the human mind can only exist because we have bodies,
emotions, and other basic traits usually considered distinct from and even
hostile to our minds. But Abram
takes these insights by people such as Antonio Damasio and George Lakoff even further, and argues our mind is immersed within and part of a far vaster
mind, that of this earth. In my
opinion he does an unequalled job of describing our own half0conscious
experience of this vastly more-than-human mind.
When I read Spell
of the Sensuous, as transformative and
wonderful as it wad, I always thought Abram took his readers to a certain
point, and then pulled his punches.
I see now that I was right, but that to take his readers that further
distance needed more work on his part to do justice to what he then chose not
to write about except through allusion.
Animal he resumes his journey.
Abram asks “once we acknowledge that our
awareness is inseperable – even in some sense indistinguishable – from our own
material physiology, can we really continue to maintain that mind remains alien
to the rest of material nature?” (109)
Recently a fascinating report of research on wild
chimpanzees funded by the National geographic Society has become available on
youtube. Chimpanzees that live on
the edge of forestland, and spend much of their time in a savannah environment
thought to be similar to the one where humans first diverged from apes, have
been discovered acting in hitherto unexpected ways. They make caves their home, relax in waterholes on hot days,
and make primitive spears to hunt other mammals. Some were observed sharpening the points of these simple
spears with their teeth.
Apparently it took the savannah to bring
about this change in behavior, illustrating Abram’s point that “Sentience is
not an attribute of a body in isolation: it emerges from the ongoing encounter
between our flesh and the forest of rhythms in which it finds itself…” (110)
Mind exists embedded within our relationships in a far more intimate way than
had been normally conceived.
As we come to realize this viscerally we
begin healing the radical Cartesian break between ourselves and the rest of
life. Animals are “in a constant
and mostly unmediated relation with their sensory surroundings, [they] think
with the whole of their bodies. . . . Equipped with proclivities and patterned behaviors
genetically inherited from its ancestors, each wild creature must nonetheless
adapt such propensities to the elemental particulars of the place and moment
where it finds itself. . .” (189)
If you want to experience something akin
to animal awareness, go for a walk or ride a bicycle. As Abram notes “we humans also think with our muscled limbs.
. . . It’s an ongoing and attentive response to the unpredictable nuance of the
present moment, a corporeal decision-making that underlies all our abstract
But it is not just animals who are aware,
nor even animals and plants combined.
The world itself is aware and consciousness is not confined tour brains,
or even tour bodies.
Nor are ideas simply constructions of our
minds. In a discussion that will
be especially meaningful to those of us aware of thought forms, Abram takes the
role of ideas and their nature in far more exciting directions than I have ever
encountered before. There is material and insight here for a lifetime’s
pondering and, even more, investigation.
We live in a world-pathic civilization,
focused on a cultural narcissism that reaches its zenith in Tea Parties and a
nihilistic obsession with power and possession that has reached its own height
in corporate oligarchy and its military enablers. This is modernity’s ultimate expression, and it is
What we need to do is to be able to see
through the autistic walls our culture has erected between itself and the world
that sustains us all. David
Abram’s book accomplishes this better than anything else I have ever read.