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....
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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.
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....