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

David Abram
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (23 customer reviews)
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Book Description

31 Mar 1997
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 + Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology + 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 (23 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 15,152 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

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

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
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
41 of 42 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
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
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
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
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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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Nearly perfect 4 Sep 1997
By A Customer
Abram has woven many abstract, complex ideas into this wonderful book. His concepts of participation, of a reciprocity between the inanimate (as well as animals) and humans, of a tension and exchange, helped me solidify many concepts I found seeds of in fiction books (especially Pynchon, Delillo, and Abbey). He never comes off as tacky New Age or bored academician--everything presented in this book is sincere, thoughtful, and thoroughly engrossing.
The book bogs down slightly in the latter stages, as he discusses the nature of language, and his tone is on even keel throughout (only rarely does he stab with his words when something particularly bothers him), but overall this book will be remembered a decade from now as a landmark; hopefully, as the germ for a school of thought that will help America, and the world, to find a solution to our cancerous growth habits.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deserving of wider academic readership 2 Dec 2008
As a classicist I found this little book totally revisoned my understanding of early Greek 'literature.' Traditional approaches to Homer, for example, are usually divided between the radical Parryists (an almost extinct bunch named after Millman Parry) who analyse the poems for formulaic patterns and produce detailed statistical data for occurences and repetitions, and those who rebel against this trend claiming it devalues Homeric poetry. David Abram not only made me realise that Homer must be understood in relation to oral poetry, he taught me what it means to understand oral poetry. I also found his ideas shaping my awareness of the early Milesian presocratics, especially Anaximenes.
Of course, Abram's arguments have been weaved together from a wide variety of sources. Being a classicist I was already aware of the work of Eric Havelock and Walter Ong to whom Abram is deeply indebted. But it is this eclectic mix of ideas that makes this book a fresh and dazzling experience in a crusty old subject.
Being also interested in recent studies in cognitive science, I was overjoyed to see that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson' 'Philosophy in the Flesh' culminates with a brief description of Abram's ideas.
For those wanting to read more Abram, check out the website for the Allinance of Wild Ethics, though this remains his only book to date.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Very helpful for children.
Published 1 month ago by Sarah
5.0 out of 5 stars If you want to read a book that will change ...
If you want to read a book that will change how you feel about and your relationship to the world - this and his later book Becoming Animal are it.
Published 2 months ago by Daniel Gandolfi
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 10 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 17 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
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