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Monday, December 19, 2011

Getting Back in Touch


The Spell of the Sensuous is a book by a philosopher who is also a sleight-of-hand artist. Right away that puts the book in a class by itself, no? David Abram's argument--and the book is couched as very careful, philosophical argument, with citations and support throughout--is that people in oral cultures did/do not feel themselves separate from the earth, trees, mountains, plants, other animals. The surrounding world speaks to them; the relationship is reciprocal. Lots about stories.... David Abram sees a huge shift having taken place with the Hebrew aleph-beth, a phonetic form of writing in which letters correspond to speech sounds rather than (as in pictographs and ideograms) symbols corresponding to aspects of the sensuous, surrounding life-world. There are many references to Husserl, Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger. 

One aspect of sacred existence and correspondence remained for the Hebrews, however, according to Abram: because their language lacked vowels, breath was necessary to make writing come alive, and no text alone could be definitive, as all required contextual interpretation. But then along came the Greeks, who added vowels, and the separation of writer from the natural world was complete. 

Now instead of an environment of which a speaker or singer is part, writers conceptualize abstract time, distinguish it from abstract space, and see themselves as separate from everything else in existence. A member of an oral culture sees himself or herself as residing within the world's mind; the Cartesian or Kantian autonomous individual sees his or her mind as separate from the world. What was all, at one time, both natural and spiritual, has now been separated into material and immaterial. 
It was only with the plugging of these last pores--with the insertion of visible letters for the vowels themselves--that the perceptual boundary established by the common language was effectively sealed, and what had once been a porous membrane became an impenetrable barrier, a hall of mirrors. ... With the addition of written wowels ... human language became a largely self-referential system closed off from the larger world that once engendered it....
I can't tell if the author is aware of the irony involved. He is, after all, writing a book, using a phonetic language (English) and proceeding to argue, in quite classic Western European philosophical ways, for the perspective he wants us to adopt. I don't mind. He is using our common language to reach us. What he wants us to do is become aware of what we lost and how we lost it and, as far as is possible, recover, repossess and be repossessed by preliterate meanings. It is no less than becoming responsive to and taking responsibility for our natural world, each of us acknowledging our particular place in it, rather than pretending to inhabit some abstract realm above and beyond the earth. 

Since I am a pantheist at heart. this argument--or call it a plea--speaks to me in a very immediate fashion, and I find the argument very convincing. In fact, it has inspired me to set out on a new project for the year ahead. But more on that when we turn the page and begin a new year....

8 comments:

Gerry said...

A pantheist, eh? I'm rolling that over on my tongue.

P. J. Grath said...

It's what makes sense to me. Renounce this natural world? Never!

Lista said...

Interesting. The Addition of Vowels to our Language Reminds me of the Phrase, "Do you want me to Spell it Out for you?" Perhaps when too much is Explained and not Enough is Left to the Imagination, a small Part of Imagination and Creativity is Lost. Likewise, I've been Told that sometimes, "Less is More".

Even so, though, I have a Tendency to Explain because I get the Feeling that when I don't, the More Simple and less Intuitive Minded miss what is not Explained.

Naturally, being a Christian, I do not Agree with your Pantheistic Conclusions, as if to suggest that Belief in a God and in an "Abstract Realm above and beyond the Earth", somehow hinders our Ability to Interact in an Intimate way with His Creation.

I Fail to see how Appreciation for a Creator Hinders the Intimacy we Feel when Interacting with the Creation. Instead, I Think that the Creator Adds to this Intimacy and Makes Life and Experience all that much more Intimate and Beautiful.

P. J. Grath said...

My pantheistic tendency is not a conclusion that I draw from Abram's argument, Lista. It is simply that, for me, my tendency is consonant with his encouragement that we feel unity with nature rather than alienation from it. The idea of an abstract, immaterial realm leaves me cold. On the other hand, on a beautiful day my response is often "Thank you, thank you, thank you!" In your conceptual scheme, I am thanking the Creator, and I don't argue with that interpretation. It's simply that I don't want to have my preconceptual responses forced into anyone's conceptual scheme. If only religion stopped at music and ritual and didn't get into theology! WE are not gods, so how do we presume to have all the answers? I am happy to stay with questions and gratitude.

Lista said...

Huh? Apparently, I had left something in my Word Processor Yesterday and then got Distracted and did not Submit it as a Comment. Here it is...

When we Understand how the Abstract and Immaterial is Connected to the Material, Grath, it doesn't Feel quite so Cold. Also, perhaps Theology is not for everyone. It is not Actually Necessary to be a Theologian in Order to be a Christian and it is always Relationship that is more Important then Theology, as well as Rules and Rituals.

Unfortunately, it is just not Possible to Please everyone in any One Approach to Religion or even Christianity. Some Find Unanswered Questions to be a Stumbling Block and others Find our Attempts to Answer them a Stumbling Block. God is not the Problem, though. It is always His People that Create the Obstacles that Hinder and often even Offend. I send my Apologies on their Behalf.

Also, I Commend you for your ability to be Grateful even when all of your Questions are not Answered. This is a Gift that not everyone has. I guess that is why Theology Exists and Perhaps those of us who do not Need it, are just going to have to be Patient with those who do.

Lista said...

On Further Thought, Grath, I've been thinking of how it is just a Little Odd that you Like Philosophy and yet not Theology, for the two are similar.

Philosophy is about the Nature of Life and Existence. Theology is about the Nature of God. For some Reason you are Interested in Existence, but not in God.

Perhaps it is just the Arrogance and Certainty that is Expressed by Religious Folks. Christians are often too Dogmatic and sure of themselves and don't allow enough room for People to Discover and Figure Things Out for themselves. This is Frustrating to me too, yet it is not God that is expressing this Arrogance, but His People.

If we Approached Theology in a more Humble Manner and it was more like Philosophy, then you would probably not have such an aversion to it.

P. J. Grath said...

Lista, I started my undergraduate career in theatre. Later (after dropping in and out for years) I switched my major to religion, but soon I realized that the questions of religion that meant the most to me were the philosophical questions: questions of existence, or knowledge, but particularly of ethics. How we treat others and how we treat our world--these are my primary religious concerns, and I can't help feeling that any God worthy of the name expects us to focus on these questions.

Lista said...

For now, I Feel like I should Limit what I say for the Sake of Avoiding a Theological Debate. I am Thinking about some Verses that relate to God's Attitude towards His Own Creation. It is my Opinion that the actual Creator should be the Authority on that and not those of us who Live here as a Part of His Creation.

Perhaps I'll share some of those Verses Later, perhaps Tomorrow, or some other day, yet for now, I'm just going to Take a Rest from this Subject and just say that Certainly Man is expected to Treat God's Creation with at least some small level of Respect and not Ravish her until she is Totally Barren and Empty of her ability to Sustain Life.

Such a Level of Disrespect should not even be given to that which we have been Given Dominion Over. Certainly we should be Better Stewards of that which God has entrusted to us.