"Let me keep my mind on what matters
Which is mostly standing still
And learning to be astonished"

~ Mary Oliver ~

Monday, October 10, 2011

David Abram, Becoming Animal

August 31, 2011  Speaking engagement at the Centre for Peace:

I was first taken with David Abram, anthropologist, philosopher and sleight-of-hand magician, during the course work for my Masters degree.  The Spell of the Sensuous, his 1997 book, truly cast a spell on me, as the writing was a proliferation of evocative and sensual language and an embodiment of his topic – the dependence of human cognition on the natural environment and, in particular, the sensual foundations of language. In my thesis, I quoted many of Abram’s ideas, mainly to do with animated text and the differences I saw between oral and written stories.  Through his connections to native lore, Merleau-Ponty’s work in phenomenology, and his own experience, Abram made me take a look at my earlier notions that only oral story-telling could embody the lived experience, with its gestures, inflections, tonality and expression, to speak directly from heart to mouth, and recognize the possibility, or perhaps I should say the necessity, of looking at written work as also emanating from the animate, living world, expressing the Earth through living letters.

When he arrived to speak in Vancouver about his new book, Becoming Animal, I was able to pick him out in the crowd immediately.  He walked in with a leaf dangling from the back of his right shoe, and I jotted in my notebook – “He is earth, tree, outgrowth of the soil.”  From the side, he’s a dead ringer for Woody Allen, and when he began to speak, he moved just as he writes – hopping bird-like, tiptoeing, lunging, pouncing, to illustrate his points.  He demonstrated before our eyes what he sees as the strong and celebratory human connection to nature, i.e., our animal nature as human beings. 

Abram took it further yet, connecting us not only to animal life but to the earth itself.  He asked us to view this connection as if it were “Eros,” to see the “allure” we hold for the ground, rather than the physical laws or force of “gravity.”  We hold the “allure” just as the moon and oceans hold this strong “attraction.”  We need to recognize that we are part of the old and powerful mystery, says Abram, and learn to speak differently about who we are.

We are part of the earth, part of its face, just as the clouds are part of the earth and move with it.  We are in it, in the earth.  There is a commonwealth of breath, the air between us thick with meaning, mystery and enigma.  We breathe this planet and it breathes us.
Abram spoke of the mind as something we can’t see and can’t grasp, yet something we can’t get outside of.  Like the air.  We are bodily embedded in mind as in air.  Strangely, he explained, the ancient Greek word origins for wind, mind, breath and animal are all related and similar.  We need to see all as interconnected, part of the same thing.  The quality of air is like the awareness of mind.  Foggy, rainy or clear days can be seen as different moods of the earth that we all inhabit.  Changes in climate are the earth talking back, the return of the repressed.

The earth, then, according to Abram, is my real body, ours, the coyote’s, each of us experiencing it differently, uniquely, with our own senses.  The world shows itself to us when we are “creaturely” present.

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner -- what is it?
if not the intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Sometimes we need mediators, magicians, shaman, who can play an important ecological function, he says, by mediating between the human world and the "more-than-human" world that we inhabit. 
He then spoke of language and communication in relation to his way of looking at humans as animal.  “Language is shaped breath,” he says.  Our lips, tongue and teeth vibrate in certain ways.  Our breath travels to communicate.  The air itself is the real medium of communication, and we must accord the earth its primacy.  We must remember that the virtual world is rooted in the real one and that people who pray are people talking to the world.  Old or new, ritual or inventive, all modes of communication call us into connection.  Even initiation practices in various cultures connect us to the cosmos, adding yet another layer.  In relation to the animals, plants and mountains, we become part of the wider conversation.

Although our sense of the animate was interrupted by the written word (alphabet), writing became a new form of magic.  Ideographics were closer to the visible world, but the alphabet necessitated that only sounds could speak.  It was a huge move away from the visual, visceral world.  And it is exclusively human.  We need to remember the written word’s connection to oral stories, which live in the land and are utterly necessary for the healing of wounds of the earth.  The native peoples are closer to this than most of us are, and there is much we can learn from them.

Because you did not have the privileged experience of listening and watching David Abrams as I did, I will close with a quote that will give you the flavour of the man and his work.  It’s Abrams’ last paragraph in Becoming Animal: an earthly cosmology:

The stars glimmer in the solstice dark, their faint light mirrored in glints off the crusted snow.  Far below these blanketed fields, deep beneath the bedrock, a lustrous power slumbers, fitfully, like a bear in its cave.  The resplendence it carries by day is now subdued and smoldering – a slow burn, crackling within its hearth at the heart of the Earth.  As this power sleeps, it dreams.  The dreams roil and flicker and seethe, curling back upon themselves and sometimes flaring, scorching the walls and scattering sparks.  A few sparks embed themselves like seeds in the enfolding dark; others wink out and vanish.  Meanwhile, the power sleeps, pulsing like a muscle, its vigor radiating outward in waves through the viscosity of molten metal and the slow solidity of rock ... percolating outward as magma or propagating upward through the density of basalt and granite, rising later through thickets of feldspar and quartzite and the stratified soils near the surface, channelled outward through stems of dandelions and trunks of sequoias, through cattails and sugar maples and the upright backbones of smooth-skinned primates, finally fountaining into the open biosphere through blossoms and budded leaves and through the craft of our fingers, through the gleam in your lover’s eye and the fluted music upwelling now from the beak of a blackbird.