When David Abram’s Becoming Animal first came out I published a review on Beliefnet. The Alliance for Wild Ethics later linked to my review in their own descriptions of the book. Since then I left Beliefnet and they have not maintained the formatting. The original post is a pain in the ass to read if you are patient enough to wait for it to come up. But Abram’s book is extraordinarily important. As Earth Day approaches I decided to repost the original review in a readable and accessible form. The only changes are removing references to Becoming Animal’s just being published and replacing a reference to a book by George Lakoff with another to a book by Lakoff and Mark Johnson.
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.
David Abram wrote one of these few with his book The Spell of the Sensuous. Alone among all I have ever read, he has done it again with his Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Mind, the self, the world – all take on a new visage.
Becoming 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 does.
Abram’s analysis 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 and Mark Johnson 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 half-conscious experience of this vastly more-than-human mind.
When I read Spell of the Sensuous, as transformative and wonderful as it was, 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. In Becoming 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 reflections.” (191)
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 to our 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 destroying us.
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.