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The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage) [Paperback]

David Abram
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
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Book Description

31 Mar 1997 Vintage
David Abram draws on sources as diverse as the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Balinese shamanism, Apache storytelling, and his own experience as an accomplished sleight-of-hand magician to reveal the subtle dependence of human cognition on the natural environment. He explores the character of perception and excavates the sensual foundations of language, which--even at its most abstract--echoes the calls and cries of the earth. On every page of this lyrical work, Abram weaves his arguments with passion and intellectual daring.

"Long awaited, revolutionary...This book ponders the violent disconnection of the body from the natural world and what this means about how we live and die in it."--Los Angeles Times

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The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (Vintage) + Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (Vintage) + Wild: An Elemental Journey
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Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage Books; 1st Vintage Books Ed edition (31 Mar 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679776397
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679776390
  • Product Dimensions: 20.3 x 13.2 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 10,651 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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From the Author

Interview with the author under "related articles."
This is just to let readers know that there is an interview with Dave Abram, to be accessed by clicking "related articles" in the upper left corner of this book page. In case folks are curious, here are some of the published comments on this book by other authors from various fields:

"A truly original work. Abram...puts forth his daring hypothesis with a poetic vigor and argumentative insight that stimulate reconsideration of the technological commonplace. . .With Abram anthropology becomes a bridge between science and its others." ~Science (journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science)

"The Spell of the Sensuous does more than place itself on the cutting edge where ecology meets philosophy, psychology, and history. It magically subverts the dichotomies of culture and nature, body and mind, opening a vista of organic being and human possibility that is often imagined but seldom described. Reader beware, the message is spell-binding. One cannot read this book without risk of entering into an altered state of perceptual possibility." ~Max Oelschlager, author of The Idea of Wilderness

"A masterpiece — combining poetic passion with intellectual rigor and daring. Electric with energy, it offers us a new approach to scholarly inquiry: as a fully embodied human animal. It opens pathways and vistas that will be fruitfully explored for years, indeed for generations, to come." ~Joanna Macy, Buddhist scholar and activist

"Speculative, learned, and always 'lucid and precise' as the eye of the vulture that confronted him once on a cliff ledge, Abram has once of those rare minds which, like the mind of a musician or a great mathematician, fuses dreaminess with smarts." ~The Village Voice

"David Abram's passionate knowledge of language, mythology, landscape — and his meditations on the human senses — all make for highly-charged, memorable reading. Without sermon, dogma, or academic bluster, The Spell of the Sensuous deftly tours us through interior and exterior terrains of the spirit, right up to the present. This is a major work of research and intuitive brilliance, an archive of clear ideas. At the end of our century of precarious ecology, the Spell of the Sensuous strikes the deepest notes of celebration and alertness — an indispensible book!" ~Howard Norman, folklorist and novelist, author of The Bird Artist

"I am breaking a vow to cease all blurb-writing for three years, but Abram's Spell must be praised. It's so well done, well-written, well thought. I know of no work more valuable for shifting our thinking and feeling about the place of humans in the world. Your children and their children will be grateful to him. The planet itself must be glad." ~James Hillman, author of ReVisioning Psychology and The Soul's Code

"Disclosing the sentience of all nature, and revealing the unsuspected effect of the more-than-human on our language and our lives, in unprecedented fashion, Abram generates true philosophy for the twenty-first century." ~Lynn Margulis, co-originator of the Gaia Hypothesis, author of Symbiosis in Cellular Evolution

"A tour-de-force of sustained intelligence, broad scholarship, and a graceful prose style that has produced one of the most interesting books about nature published during the past decade." ~ Jack Turner, writing in Terra Nova

"When rumor had it that David Abram was writing a book, we expected it to be very special and very powerful. Those expectations were justified. This book has the ability to awaken us. . ." ~Arne Naess, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Oslo; originator of deep ecology

"Brilliant in its own field of environmental philosophy, it is destined to change the way we think about linguistics, literature, anthropology, and comparative religion, as well as the living landscape around us. . . . Beautifully written, elegantly argued, immensely original, The Spell of the Sensuous is the kind of book that comes along once in a generation. Like Carson's Silent Spring, it will become the touchstone for environmental literacy in the years to come." ~Christopher Manes, author of Other Creations, writing in Wild Earth

"This book by David Abram lights up the landscape of language, flesh, mind, history, mapping us back into the world. . ." ~Gary Snyder

"The outer world of nature is what awakens our inner world in all its capacities for understanding, affection and aesthetic appreciation. The wind, the rain, the mountains and rivers, the woodlands and meadows and all their inhabitants; we need these perhaps even more for our psyche than for our physical survival. No one that I know of has presented all this with the literary skill as well as the understanding that we find in this work of David Abram. It should be one of the most widely read and discussed books of these times." ~Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth

"Abram shows that it is possible to reawaken the animistic dimension of perception and feeling without renouncing rationality and intellectual analysis. . . The Spell of the Sensuous is a joy to read and a brilliant gift to our rapidly darkening world." ~Shambhala Sun

"Nobody writes about the ecological depths of the human and more-than-human world with more love and lyrical sensitivity than David Abram." ~Theodore Roszak, author of Where the Wasteland Ends

"Read it and get your gourd rattled smartly." ~ Jim Harrison, author of Legends of the Fall and Dalva


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LATE ONE EVENING I STEPPED OUT OF MY LITTLE HUT IN THE rice paddies of eastern Bali and found myself falling through space. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
4.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
40 of 41 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A surprising look at nature and the alphabet 19 Jun 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
David Abram argues persuasively that the alphabet and written language have alienated us from the world in which we live. He compares our platonism, which imprisons intelligence and subjectivity within humans and denies them to other creatures, to the animism of oral cultures, which regards all beings as intelligent subjects. The alphabet, invented by Semites and perfected by the Greeks, was instrumental in this great change. The knowledge and wisdom that our ancestors learned from other creatures we now find in the printed word. Abram, an ecologist and philosopher now living in New Mexico, says we are intelligent, subjective beings because we are part of an intelligent, subjective universe. The unfinished task he leaves us with is to reconcile the beauty of the written language of books with the living language of our environment.
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33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars paying respect 23 Feb 2008
Format:Paperback
Review from Jay Griffiths, author of "Wild: An Elemental Journey"

This is one of the rarest, most utterly original books there is, and indeed could ever be. It is written by someone whose soul is that of a magician and poet and whose art is so triumphant with sheer spirit that every sentence is radical and radicalizing. It is a book whose comprehension of the human condition is generous, natural and enormous. It describes the necessity of nature not just for human being but for human thinking; this is a cry for the protection of the human mind.

It has deeply influenced my own thinking, from the moment I read it, and has remained one of the best books I've ever read.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
One day I spotted a bird at my feeder that I didn't recognize. I got out my field guide, identified the bird, mentally patted myself on the back, then looked out at him again. He was a perky handful of mottled brown fluff, with delicate feet and shiny black eyes -- and it suddenly struck me that whatever name I applied to him was utterly irrelevant to the living reality of the bird himself.
Another pertinent story: I live in high desert country, where a fragile ecosystem has evolved over millennia, perfectly adapted to the region's harsh soil and scarce water. In recent years, a number of people have bought plots of land near my house and put mobile homes on them. They've then scraped every hint of vegetation off the lot. The ambitious ones do things with gravel and railroad ties and bags of fertilizer. But most just leave the soil bare, as if possession is exemplified by their victory over "weeds."
So I read Abram's book with a shock of recognition. His concepts aren't particularly original (I kept being reminded of the English Romantic poet Wordsworth), and he often takes for granted that his readers accept his assumptions. I find it ironic, too, that such an eloquent and persuasive writer should devalue language. While I think he takes that argument too far, he's absolutely right that by defining "knowledge" and "civilization" as "distance from the non-human," we've lost a sense of our place in nature that is endangering our planet's health and our survival as a species. It's unfortunate that the book is being marketed through New Age and ecological sources; it deserves a much wider readership.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Get caught up in the Spell--read and reflect!! 12 Mar 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Our graduate Micro-Sociology Theory course used this as one of the texts, along with Mead's Mind, Self, and Society, and Reynold's Symbolic Interactionism. I really enjoyed Spell of the Sensuous, it was a refreshing, creative evalution. His writing style was a very appropriate fit with the content. His eloquent pleas are convincingly supported. I'll be rereading this book (although my copy is falling apart already!) with great enthusiasm. This truly is an interactive experience between the reader and the text! I did not rate this a 10, as his theory does not always withstand scrutiny. Abram is not a sociologist by profession, but his observations, explanations, and predictions seem very plausible and on-target. This is a great interdisciplinary application. Highly recommended.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good Food for Thought 3 Sep 1998
By A Customer
Format:Paperback
This book was a pleasure to read. Skillfully written, reading it was a sensuous experience in and of itself. The content and the references are of high quality. On the down side, there are several repetitive passages throughout the book. Nonetheless, I recommend the book wholeheartedly. Also, as a companion piece, consider reading Kieran Egan's "The Educated Mind." Egan writes about the development of intellectual tools--somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic, and ironic. Abram's covers the somatic and mythic tools quite well. Egan cover's the whole set at a higher level but with less focus. Together, the two books complement each other nicely.
D. Wesley
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43 of 48 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing ideas, but confused and indulgent 30 Jun 2005
Format:Paperback
This is a difficult and fascinating book, exploring subtle and complex and ideas, not always convincingly. I found it deeply thought-provoking but was left yearning for more clarity, precision and depth of thought.
Broadly speaking the argument is that humanity has lost its intimate connection with nature, that this relates to the development of writing, and that it results in our modern capacity to disrespect and destroy nature.
In developing these themes the book dsiplays significant problems with its argumentation, its structure and its style. Together, I believe, these undermine its ability to do any more than pleasantly indulge already-committed environmentalists with muddy, half-baked thinking.
Abram develops fascinating ideas in probing the inner perspectives of cultures that have not lost their connection with nature. It was intriguing to get the beginnings of an understanding of what it might feel like to have such a different relationship with a homeland that one could almost read it, and how bereft one would be to move away from it. The connection with the development of writing is also imaginative and up to a point convincing. However, Abram is unfortunately distinctly weak at explicating subtle concepts and expressing nuances of feeling to the reader. Time and again I felt I half-grasped something that the author was muddily presenting through confused, slippery arguments. Time and again I was just not quite convinced, and just when a little more clarity was needed to help me comprehend, the author slpipped into poetic musings, seemingly abdicating explanation. The concepts of phenomonology in particular are extremely difficult. Abram is highly original in their application, but needs to be less vague.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Beautiful
This book is rich and deep, it slows me down to read each chapter and digest it before moving on. I think I will spend the rest of my life reading it!
Published 7 months ago by denise rowe
4.0 out of 5 stars Eco-Phenomenology
The general idea behind this book is that alphabetic writing has allowed a degree conceptual abstraction that has isolated us from a reciprocal engagement with the natural world,to... Read more
Published 14 months ago by nicholas hargreaves
5.0 out of 5 stars An evocation of the magic that lives in the senses
I found this an extraordinary book; I would suggest that if you want to find books with the same sensibility (but very different otherwise) you might be looking at Hermann Hesse's... Read more
Published on 30 Sep 2011 by Angus Jenkinson
5.0 out of 5 stars Words fail me...
Any words I think of to try to describe this book and the impact it had on me would just be mere hyberbole. Read more
Published on 29 July 2011 by electricdonut@hotmail.com
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent book!
I am not an animist, but this book is the best example of "ecophenomenology" I have read. Abram's application of Merleau-Ponty's phenomenology to the question of our relation to -... Read more
Published on 9 Feb 2011 by G. Andrejc
4.0 out of 5 stars language and the walls it generates
A fascinating odyssey through the mind, first with the philosophical viewpoint of phenomenology which at last tries to describe reailty as it shows itself to us/itself and the... Read more
Published on 1 Dec 2009 by Frank Bierbrauer
5.0 out of 5 stars The Earthly Reality
The Song of Songs of the concrete reality of the Earth is sung by David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous from 1996. Read more
Published on 10 Aug 2009 by Erland.Lagerroth
4.0 out of 5 stars wordy, but stick with it, it's worth it
The introduction was enchanting, but I found the first chapter hard; it takes us through the history of perception and makes a tour of how we ended up perceiving the world as we... Read more
Published on 28 Dec 2008 by Louisa
5.0 out of 5 stars Deserving of wider academic readership
As a classicist I found this little book totally revisoned my understanding of early Greek 'literature. Read more
Published on 2 Dec 2008 by E. K. Hirst
5.0 out of 5 stars Breathing the flesh of the landscape
The main thesis of this book is that the alphabet, or rather, the adaptation of the hebrew alphabet that the greeks effected, is to blame for our current state of separation from... Read more
Published on 16 April 2008 by both of us
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