I mentioned David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous in an earlier post, written when I was about halfway through the book. I still recommend it, even though Abram goes off the rails a bit in the last half.
The problem is that he’s looking for “the Big Ah-Hah”—the singular insight that explains everything that counts. How did we in the West become so cut off from the natural world? Abram concludes, all too neatly, that it’s because the West embraced the alphabet, thus giving up the nature-infused language of oral culture for a vitiated “alphabetic civilization”:
Today the speaking self looks out at a purely “exterior” nature from a purely “interior” zone, presumably located somewhere inside the physical body or brain. Within alphabetic civilization, virtually every human ppsyche construes itself as just such an individual “interior,” a private “mind” or “consciousness” unrelated to the other “minds” that surround it, or to the environing earth. For there is no longer any common medium, no reciprocity, no respiration between the inside and the outside. There is no longer any flow between the self-reflexive domain of alphabetized awareness and all that exceeds, or subtends, this determinate realm. Between consciousness and the unconscious. Between civilization and the wilderness.
Abram goes on to caution that the reader should not make the “perilous mistake” of thinking that he wants us to “simply relinquish the written word.” No, Abram writes,
[o]ur task, rather, is that of taking up the written word, with all of its potency, and patiently, carefully, writing language back into the land. Our craft is that of releasing the budded, earthly intelligence of our words, freeing them to respond to the speech of the things themselves—to the green uttering-forth of leaves from the spring branches. It is the practice of spinning stories that have the rhythm and lilt of the local soundscape, tales for the tongue, tales that want to be told, again and again, sliding off the digital screen and slipping off the lettered page to inhabit these coastal forests, those desert canyons, those whispering grasslands and valleys and swamps….
This sounds to me like Abram wants more poetry! But his recommendation is more quixotic than that.
According to the Population Reference Bureau, “In 2008, for the first time, the world’s population was evenly split between urban and rural areas. There were more than 400 cities over 1 million and 19 over 10 million. […] It is expected that 70 percent of the world population will be urban by 2050….” Mary McCarthy nutshells the meaning of this at the end of her beautiful but depressing novel Birds of America (1971), when her idealistic young protagonist Peter, having been bitten by a swan at the Jardin des Plantes, is treated with penicillin—to which he is allergic. He slips into a delirium, and the novel ends with Peter’s vision of his intellectual hero, Immanuel Kant, who appears to him and whispers, “Nature is dead, mein kind.” There is undiluted bitterness there, but also a kind of realism that “nature writing” of the kind Abram seems to recommend cannot address. After all, writers simply can’t make it their mission to bring their readers news of what they, the readers, no longer experience. Can they?
Well, I’ve depressed my damn self now! Because, in my heart of hearts, I think Abram is right about what needs to happen with language for a healthy poetry to survive; and he’s right that it is tied to the physical preservation and psychological re-sacralization of nature. (See the wonderful documentary 180 Degrees South to get a feel for exactly what this involves.) But the trends are against us. And are we not obligated to speak from where we stand—that is, in a state of radical division? And is it not this division, dating at least to Gilgamesh but only now becoming the human norm, that we are obligated to address? Or is it the job of poets to find and celebrate clues to a healing way forward? (I think it’s Yvon Chouinard [or maybe it’s his great friend Doug Tompkins] who observes, at the end of 180 Degrees South, that if you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, the way forward is to turn 180 degrees and go back.) Or maybe our job is all of it at once….