The Feasta Review, number 2



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Jonathan Dawson is Executive Secretary of GEN-Europe (the Global Ecovillage Network). He is also a storyteller and sustainability educator and lives at the Findhorn Foundation community in Scotland.
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The mistaken turning on humankind's path

The Spell of the Sensuous

David Abram
Vintage 1996
ISBN 0 67977 639 7 £14.00

The Other Side of Eden

Hunter-gatherers, farmers and the shaping of the world

Hugh Brody
Faber and Faber Ltd 2000
ISBN 0 57120 502 X £9.99

review by Jonathan Dawson

The way our ancestors regarded the world may have a lot to teach us about where, and why, our thinking went wrong and how it can be corrected. We need to feel as much a part of nature as they did.

A man leaves his home in American academia to immerse himself in the world of shamanism in Bali and Nepal. After some time, he finds himself becoming ever more deeply immersed in the natural world. Encounters with condors, with spiders, with rocks and grasses, recounted in spell-bindingly beautiful prose, are full of meaning to him. His habitual feelings of duality - of self set against other, of humankind set against the rest of the natural world - are progressively dissolved. In a fundamental sense, he feels himself to have truly come home.

Then, he leaves Asia and returns to the country of his birth. Within a short space of time, his feelings of oneness with the world around him evaporate and he finds himself once again back in a primarily man-made environment, looking out at the rest of creation as a stranger.

What happened? If the state of non-separation and identification with the natural world, apparently so accessible to our aboriginal ancestors and neighbours, is our natural state of being, how did he so easily lose it? Further, how have we collectively as a species so easily lost it? These are the great questions at the heart of David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous.

All the tracks he follows, and there are many, lead him to what he posits to be the single most important technological innovation our species has achieved: the phonetic alphabet. Drawing on extensive anthropological literature, he demonstrates that the way oral, pre-literate cultures experienced the world is radically different from our own. To begin with, time was (is) experienced as cyclical in nature, with great, repeating mythological stories defining the cycle of the year. No meaningful distinction was made between time and space. Story and meaning derived from and were tied indissolubly to place: the body of wisdom developed by a community, often in the form of songs and stories, represented its store of wisdom on how to live well and sustainably in its own, unique place.

Then, in the wake of the agricultural revolution, as human societies grew in size and complexity, scripts emerged. At first, the symbols were clear representations of the natural world (Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese ideograms). However, the trend was towards ever-greater abstraction and the Jews (the People of the Book) became the first people to develop a phonetic alphabet, largely (but not completely) divorced from reference to the non-human world.

With the development of widespread literacy among the Jews, 'a new sense of time as a non-repeating sequence (of events) begins to make itself felt over and against the ceaseless cycling of the cosmos' and history was born. Written down and thus recountable at will, stories become divorced from specificity of place. And between people and their earthly environments is inserted a human artifact that bears no direct relationship to the non-human world - the alphabet. The natural world becomes an object of (progressively more abstract) study rather than the sensuously experienced root and locus of all being. And the illusion of separation of people from the rest of the natural world grows apace.

And then there is the breath, the means by which humans participate in the great intermingling with all other beings in the all-enveloping air. For aboriginal peoples, Abram shows, the air is the sacred and 'thoroughly palpable medium in which we (along with the trees, the squirrels and the clouds) are immersed'. He suggests that the sacredness of breath for the Jews is the reason why their alphabet includes only consonants, the vowels being the breathed, sacred spaces between, the very name of God, the ultimate mystery.

When the Greeks adopted the Jewish alphabet wholesale and, not having the spiritual sensitivities of the Jews, introduced letters to represent the vowels, the last gap through which the natural world and a sense of the sacred might breathe is closed off. The alphabet becomes entirely airtight and self-referential. Now, humans can relate to each other and reflect on the world around them without any reference to the source of what was, for our aboriginal ancestors and neighbours, the source of all life and meaning - the sensuous earth.

Here, Abram introduces his most radical and exciting idea. For the pre-literate Greeks of Homer's time, the term psyche referred, in the words of the Milesian philosopher, Anaximenes, to the 'breath and air (that) hold together the entire universe and give it life'. By the time of Socrates (who lived at the beginning of the period of mass literacy among the educated classes in Greece), psyche has been isolated and imprisoned within the individual, human skull; the source of 'mind' is enclosed and privatised, and man left alone and lonely, cut off from the natural world and the great enveloping mystery. (Here, another pearl of poetic insight: the melancholy of exile that fell over the Jews and that remains with them still, suggests Abram, attaches itself not just or even primarily to the fact of physical exile, but rather to a much more deeply felt exile from the sensuous earth imposed on them by their adoption of the alphabet.)

For Hugh Brody too, in The Other Side of Eden, the Jews were centre-stage at the pivotal moment of our dislocation from the natural world. He describes Genesis as the farmer's version of history in which humans are forever exiled, cursed to bear children in pain but instructed to multiply, dominant over animals and the rest of the world but struggling to survive on harsh land and needing to move on to pastures new when it becomes exhausted. Hunter-gatherers, he asserts, would be astonished by this myth; for them, 'everything is founded on the conviction that home is already Eden and that exile must be avoided'.

This leads him to the startlingly useful insight that our habitual way of regarding hunter-gatherers and farmers has turned reality on its head. As he sees it, it is the hunter-gatherers who are entirely wedded to place and to the stories that bind them to it, to the point where, in Brody's words, those responsible for their displacement from their lands must be considered guilty of cultural genocide. It is the farmers who are rootless wanderers, finding it damagingly easy to obey God's instruction to 'Go forth and multiply....swarm through the earth and hold sway over it.'

The Other Side of Eden is a hymn of respect and affection to the indigenous people of North America (primarily the Inuit) among whom Brody has worked for many decades, and whose interests he has represented in numerous land rights trials. It is a deep meditation on how hunter-gatherers see and experience the world and what their vision has to teach us 'moderns'. In the loving descriptions of every-day life of the peoples among whom he moves, it is the perfect companion volume to Abram's more theoretical treatment of the same subject. Both works resonate with a deep-in-the-bone feeling of remembrance, beyond all romanticised nostalgia, for how we all once ancestrally lived on this earth.

Other than being lovingly crafted books and cracking good reads, what relevance do they have to the myriad predicaments in which we find ourselves today? I see three ways in which they can serve us.

First, they provide a refreshingly new and persuasive analysis of how we got into the mess in which we find ourselves. To remain happy, balanced and powerful, ours is a species that needs stories that make sense. These books provide just such stories, helping us understand the roots of our dislocation from the natural world and the dire consequences that have followed. It is easier to feel compassionate towards and even hopeful about the future of this lost, destructive species having read its story in this way: its deviance seems less of a malignant design fault, more of a simple missed turning on the path.

Second, they offer a startlingly simple but powerful critique of twenty-first century rational thought and its effects. Many of the stories of indigenous peoples, suggests Abram, appear to us strange, simplistic and, even if we are too polite and culturally sensitive to say so out loud, just plain misguided. But how are we to judge the validity of a people's stories, he argues, if not by how well and sustainably they enable us to live on this earth? By this measure (surely the only one of lasting value), it is our own stories, our own ways of understanding the world that are clearly unbalanced.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, they give us access to new ways of thinking about and experiencing the world that are full of potential for liberation of the type that shifts paradigms. The notion, for example, that 'mind' or 'intelligence' may reside not in the skull but in the enveloping air (and that this may have been the commonly-accepted belief for the great majority of human history!) is ripe to bursting with the potential for revolution.

True, few are likely to choose to spurn further use of the alphabet as a result of reading these books - they are much more likely to increase our appreciation of the joys of reading and send us scurrying back for more! Nonetheless, whole new sensibilities and ways of dreaming into the world become accessible where none had been apparent before; the value of silence and long moments of meditative exposure to the natural world sing out to us from the pages. If solutions cannot emerge out of the field of thought that create the problems in the first place, these books make accessible to us much, new, fertile territory. New stories lurk here that might just be the saving of us all.

Brody too asserts the primacy of story. 'The world is also shaped by stories.....Many hunter-gatherer ways of knowing the world have disappeared, along with hunter-gatherer languages. These are rich and unique parts of human history that cannot be recovered. If the words are gone, so are the stories. A particular shape is lost forever.....Each such case represents a harm that is inestimable: the cumulative loss of language constitutes a diminution in the range of what it means to be human'

The deep love for what we have lost that is evoked by these books fuels a surge of passion to fight for that which remains.

Continue to John Jopling's review of Enabling Innovation, by Boru Douthwaite
This book review is from
Growth:The Celtic Cancer,
the second Feasta Review. Copies of the Review can be ordered online from Green Books, priced at £9.95 plus postage and packaging.
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