Animism and the alphabet david abram essay


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Their primary work is to heal the relation the village and the land, to balance the equilibrium between the human gang and the more-than-human field of forces. If the magician was not simultaneously doing this work of offering prayers and praises and ritual gestures to the other animals and to the powers of the earth and the sky, then he might heal someone in the community and someone else would fall sick, and then he would heal that other person, and someone else would fall sick. The source of the illness is often perceived as an imbalance within the person, but it is actually in the relation between the human village and the land that supports it, the land that yields up its food, its animals for skins for clothing, and its plants for food and medicine.

The magician ensures that that boundary is a membrane through which there is this two-way flow, and that the boundary never becomes a barrier shutting out the other-than-human powers from our awareness. London : Do we have any equivalents of medicine people in Western culture, people who perform a similar function? Abram : We do have some distant equivalents, such as field biologists who are able to enter into a close rapport with the other species that they are studying.

But we tend not to believe in magic in Western civilization. And so we've largely forgotten the place of magic. Most magicians end up performing somewhere like Las Vegas. But they themselves don't believe in magic. What a sad state the craft of magic has fallen into in the world.

It would be as if most musicians and concert artists didn't really believe that real music existed. Then you would have pianists who had pianos with flashing lights all over them and women dancing in sequence around them as they played their flashy music.

Magic has been reduced to that in the West. It really doesn't exist for us anymore. Abram : One thing is that its relation to the natural landscape is tremendously impoverished.


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It seems to us, in our culture, to be a kind of passive backdrop against which all of our human events unfold, and it's human events that are meaningful and what happens in nature, well, we don't really notice it, it's not really there. It's not vital. How different that is from the awareness of a magical or animistic culture for whom everything we do as humans is so profoundly influenced by our interactions with the earth underfoot and the air that swirls around us and the other animals.

London : You said that some field biologists are able to capture the essence of magic in their work. Abram : Absolutely. I do think that some of the nature writers are doing an exquisitely important work of magic. London : And yet in The Spell of the Sensuous you point out that language has gone a long way toward severing our sensuous relationship with the natural world. Abram : Yes, because so many of the ways we speak in our culture continually deny the reciprocity between our senses and the rest of the sensuous world, between our bodies and the vast body of the earth.

When we speak of the earth as an object, we are denying our relationship with the earth. When we speak of nature as a set of objects, rather than a community of subjects, we basically close our senses to all of the other voices that surround us. Abram : Well, it was very important to me to write a book that would speak to the so-called "experts," to write a book that couldn't be shrugged off as fiction, or as "mere" poetry.

We don't realize that language originates in poetry and in poetics, and ends up there. And yet I wanted to express this in a way that would reach the scholarly community, the community of those who make decisions in our culture. But I didn't want to do that just by writing a scholarly or scientific analysis of indigenous, animistic ways of thinking. I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to do an animistic analysis of rationality and the Western intellect, and to show that our Western, civilized ways of thinking are themselves a form of magic.

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Abram : Everything that we speak of as Western civilization we could speak of as alphabetic civilization. We are the culture of the alphabet, and the alphabet itself could be seen as a very potent form of magic. You know, we open up the newspaper in the morning and we focus our eyes on these little inert bits of ink on the page, and we immediately hear voices and we see visions and we experience conversations happening in other places and times.

That is magic! It's outrageous: as soon as we look at these printed letters on the page we see what they say. They speak to us. That is not so different from a Hopi elder stepping out of her pueblo and focusing her eyes on a stone and hearing the stone speak. Or a Lakota man stepping out and seeing a spider crawling up a tree and focusing his eyes on that spider and hearing himself addressed by that spider.

We do just the same thing, but we do it with our own written marks on the page. We look at them, and they speak to us. It's an intensely concentrated form of animism. But it's animism nonetheless, as outrageous as a talking stone. But it is still a form of magic. London : And we do it in our heads, not our bodies.

As psychotherapist Marion Woodman says, the modern Westerner as a person who walks around with his head suspended two feet above the rest of his body. Abram : Yes.

Animism and the Alphabet Essay Sample

It is not by being abstract intellects that we are going to fall in love again with the rest of nature. It's by beginning to honor and value our direct sensory experience: the tastes and smells in the air, the feel of the wind as it caresses the skin, the feel of the ground under our feet as we walk upon it. And how much easier it is to feel that ground if you allow yourself to sense that the ground itself is feeling your steps as you walk upon it. London : You pointed out that the more we enter into the world of the alphabet, as you called it, the more we close ourselves off to the living world.

Perhaps teaching kids to read when they are three or four is not such a good idea after all? Abram : It's terrible. Also, children are now being encouraged to get on-line and onto the computer as rapidly as possible. It's funny because we don't realize that the astonishing linguistic capacity of the human brain did not evolve in relation to the computer, nor even in relation to written texts. Rather, it evolved in relation to stories that were passed down orally.

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For countless millennia, stories and story-telling were the way we humans learned our language. Spoken stories are something that we enter into with our bodies. We feel our way around inside a story. I think children really need to experience stories and to hear their parents and their uncles and their aunts telling them stories. And I don't mean reading stories to them, but simply improvising stories face-to-face with a child.

Or stepping outside and pointing to the forest edge and saying, "Do you know what happens inside that forest every full moon? Do you know how the river feels whenever the salmon returns to its waters? It feels this way, and this is the story that tells why. Rejuvenating oral culture is necessary because to enter so directly into the literate world of texts, and now into the world of the computer screen, is to enter all too rapidly into that purely cognitive dimension of symbol and symbol-manipulation.

What a child needs first is to enter into language bodily, and to have a sense that all of his senses can be engaged within the language.


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  6. That's something that stories and oral story-telling alone can do for us. Abram : No, and we certainly can't even if we wanted to. I don't think we should do away with writing or with books either. But I do think that the culture of books and computers are functional only to the extent that they are rooted in a thriving oral culture of stories. London : Anne Wilson Schaef has written about her experiences with a tribe of aborigines in Australia.

    As she describes it, one of the elders had a favorite story that he used to tell again and again. On the third or fourth hearing, Schaef began to tune it out since she already knew the story quite well. But over time, hearing it again and again, she began to notice that the story was slightly different on each telling. As she started paying attention to the subtle nuances, she discovered that the story was advancing in a very deliberate way. The full meaning of the story couldn't be captured on a single hearing, or even on two, because it required the active participation of the listener.

    This is a vivid example of what is lost when we shift from an oral to a written culture. Once we write those stories down they don't change any more. And then we become fundamentalists and say, "The way it's written is the only way it really is. London : What I hear you saying is that we need to expand our modes of awareness to include not just language and the alphabet, but also the magical realm of the senses.

    Abram : That's right. I'm not trying to demonize the alphabet at all. I don't think the alphabet is bad. What I'm trying to get people to realize is that it's a very intense form of magic. And that it therefore needs to be used responsibly. To spell a word, or to cast a magic spell. It's just that some things move slower than other things, like the mountains or the ground itself.

    But everything has its movement, has its life. And the magicians were precisely those individuals who were most susceptible to the solicitations of these other-than-human shapes. It was the magicians who could most easily enter into some kind of rapport with another being, like an oak tree, or with a frog. Abram : Every magician that I met had a number of animals or plants or forms of nature that were their close familiars. Just as we speak of the witch's black cat as her "familiar," so in these animistic societies the magician might have crows and frogs and perhaps a certain kind of rubber plant as his familiars.

    Abram : Right. Other animals function for the magician as another set of senses, another angle from which he can see and hear and sense what's going on in the surrounding ecology, because we are limited by our human senses, our nervous-system, and our two arms and our two legs. Birds know so much more about what's going on in the air, in the invisible winds, than we humans can know.

    If we watch the birds closely, we can begin to learn about what's going on in the sky and in the air simply by watching their flight patterns. Abram : That boundary is not drawn in traditional cultures. In indigenous, tribal, or oral cultures, magic is the way of the world. There is nothing that is not in some way magic, because the fact that the world exists is already quite a wonder. That it stays existing, that it continually keeps holding itself in existence, this is the mystery of mysteries.

    Magic is the way of the world. It's that sense of being in contact with so many other shapes of awareness, most of which are so different from our own, that is the basic experience of magic from which all other forms of magic derive. Abram : As I said, the shamans and sorcerers whom I encountered in my travels always said that their ability to heal people was a by-product of a different kind of healing.

    Their primary work is to heal the relation the village and the land, to balance the equilibrium between the human gang and the more-than-human field of forces. If the magician was not simultaneously doing this work of offering prayers and praises and ritual gestures to the other animals and to the powers of the earth and the sky, then he might heal someone in the community and someone else would fall sick, and then he would heal that other person, and someone else would fall sick.

    The source of the illness is often perceived as an imbalance within the person, but it is actually in the relation between the human village and the land that supports it, the land that yields up its food, its animals for skins for clothing, and its plants for food and medicine. The magician ensures that that boundary is a membrane through which there is this two-way flow, and that the boundary never becomes a barrier shutting out the other-than-human powers from our awareness.

    London : Do we have any equivalents of medicine people in Western culture, people who perform a similar function? Abram : We do have some distant equivalents, such as field biologists who are able to enter into a close rapport with the other species that they are studying. But we tend not to believe in magic in Western civilization. And so we've largely forgotten the place of magic.

    Most magicians end up performing somewhere like Las Vegas. But they themselves don't believe in magic. What a sad state the craft of magic has fallen into in the world. It would be as if most musicians and concert artists didn't really believe that real music existed. Then you would have pianists who had pianos with flashing lights all over them and women dancing in sequence around them as they played their flashy music.

    Magic has been reduced to that in the West. It really doesn't exist for us anymore. Abram : One thing is that its relation to the natural landscape is tremendously impoverished. It seems to us, in our culture, to be a kind of passive backdrop against which all of our human events unfold, and it's human events that are meaningful and what happens in nature, well, we don't really notice it, it's not really there.

    It's not vital. How different that is from the awareness of a magical or animistic culture for whom everything we do as humans is so profoundly influenced by our interactions with the earth underfoot and the air that swirls around us and the other animals. London : You said that some field biologists are able to capture the essence of magic in their work.

    Abram : Absolutely. I do think that some of the nature writers are doing an exquisitely important work of magic. London : And yet in The Spell of the Sensuous you point out that language has gone a long way toward severing our sensuous relationship with the natural world. Abram : Yes, because so many of the ways we speak in our culture continually deny the reciprocity between our senses and the rest of the sensuous world, between our bodies and the vast body of the earth.

    When we speak of the earth as an object, we are denying our relationship with the earth.

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    When we speak of nature as a set of objects, rather than a community of subjects, we basically close our senses to all of the other voices that surround us. Abram : Well, it was very important to me to write a book that would speak to the so-called "experts," to write a book that couldn't be shrugged off as fiction, or as "mere" poetry. We don't realize that language originates in poetry and in poetics, and ends up there. And yet I wanted to express this in a way that would reach the scholarly community, the community of those who make decisions in our culture.

    But I didn't want to do that just by writing a scholarly or scientific analysis of indigenous, animistic ways of thinking. I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to do an animistic analysis of rationality and the Western intellect, and to show that our Western, civilized ways of thinking are themselves a form of magic. Abram : Everything that we speak of as Western civilization we could speak of as alphabetic civilization.

    We are the culture of the alphabet, and the alphabet itself could be seen as a very potent form of magic. You know, we open up the newspaper in the morning and we focus our eyes on these little inert bits of ink on the page, and we immediately hear voices and we see visions and we experience conversations happening in other places and times. That is magic! It's outrageous: as soon as we look at these printed letters on the page we see what they say. They speak to us.

    That is not so different from a Hopi elder stepping out of her pueblo and focusing her eyes on a stone and hearing the stone speak. Or a Lakota man stepping out and seeing a spider crawling up a tree and focusing his eyes on that spider and hearing himself addressed by that spider.

    Animism and the Alphabet Essay Sample

    We do just the same thing, but we do it with our own written marks on the page. We look at them, and they speak to us. It's an intensely concentrated form of animism. But it's animism nonetheless, as outrageous as a talking stone. But it is still a form of magic. London : And we do it in our heads, not our bodies. As psychotherapist Marion Woodman says, the modern Westerner as a person who walks around with his head suspended two feet above the rest of his body. Abram : Yes. It is not by being abstract intellects that we are going to fall in love again with the rest of nature.

    It's by beginning to honor and value our direct sensory experience: the tastes and smells in the air, the feel of the wind as it caresses the skin, the feel of the ground under our feet as we walk upon it. And how much easier it is to feel that ground if you allow yourself to sense that the ground itself is feeling your steps as you walk upon it. London : You pointed out that the more we enter into the world of the alphabet, as you called it, the more we close ourselves off to the living world. Perhaps teaching kids to read when they are three or four is not such a good idea after all?

    Abram : It's terrible. Also, children are now being encouraged to get on-line and onto the computer as rapidly as possible. It's funny because we don't realize that the astonishing linguistic capacity of the human brain did not evolve in relation to the computer, nor even in relation to written texts. Rather, it evolved in relation to stories that were passed down orally. For countless millennia, stories and story-telling were the way we humans learned our language. Spoken stories are something that we enter into with our bodies.

    We feel our way around inside a story. I think children really need to experience stories and to hear their parents and their uncles and their aunts telling them stories. And I don't mean reading stories to them, but simply improvising stories face-to-face with a child. Or stepping outside and pointing to the forest edge and saying, "Do you know what happens inside that forest every full moon?


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    Do you know how the river feels whenever the salmon returns to its waters? It feels this way, and this is the story that tells why. Rejuvenating oral culture is necessary because to enter so directly into the literate world of texts, and now into the world of the computer screen, is to enter all too rapidly into that purely cognitive dimension of symbol and symbol-manipulation. What a child needs first is to enter into language bodily, and to have a sense that all of his senses can be engaged within the language.

    That's something that stories and oral story-telling alone can do for us.

    Abram : No, and we certainly can't even if we wanted to. I don't think we should do away with writing or with books either.

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