Becoming Animal by David Abram

by on November 30, 2010

I saw this book in the window of one of our four independent bookstores. I’d not heard of  David Abram, much less read his previous book, The Spell of the Sensuous; it was the dark beauty of the jacket, combined with the blend of militancy and intrigue in the title, that made me want to open the book and look inside. I was running late, but even so, I entered the store, and asked to see it.

The quotation at the beginning was from one of my favourite contemporary poets, Robert Bringhurst:

Voice: the breath’s tooth.

Thought: the brain’s bone.

Birdsong: an extension

of the beak. Speech:

the antler of the mind.


On the other hand, the first sentence of the introduction did not attract me,  largely because, horror of horrors,  it lacked a verb: “Owning up to being ananimal, a creature of earth.”    Reading on, I realised that the paragraph was more about rhythm than it was about grammar:  “Becoming earth. Becoming  animal. Becoming, in this manner, fully human.”  It was a kind of incantation.  By the second page,  things were getting  very interesting: “What if thought is not born within the human skull, but  is a creativity proper to the body as a whole, arising, spontaneously from the slippage between an organism and the folding terrain that it wanders?”  What if is, so far as I am concerned, one of the most lovely phrases we have. I flicked through the Table of Contents, and turned to page 57, Reciprocity, which invited me to “Consider one of your hands for a moment…” Since the human body and our relationship with/in it is a long-term interest of mine, and I am currently co-editing  a book on that topic, as well as drafting an essay about the human hand, the deal was done. I gladly paid the full hardback price and carried the Becoming Animal home with me.

What’s that?  My husband said when he saw it on my desk:  as an object, this book has a super-real, almost magical quality, which turns out to be completely appropriate. It insists on its own physicality, and even manages to suggest that it might, if it chose to, either vanish or change shape.

Becoming Animal is a book of philosophy, but unlike any I’ve read before (my experience is not vast) in that it is also a passionate, often poetic manifesto, written in  language that’s a fusion of  the immediate and visceral and the academic.

Abram’s thinking arises from a way of looking at the world called phenomenology, first articulated a century ago by Edmund Husserl,  then further developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Phenomenology  seeks “not to explain the world, but to describe as closely as possible the way the world makes itself evident to awareness , the way things  first arise in our direct, sensorial experience.”  Abram takes us back to the basics of how we perceive (and therefore conceive of and relate to) the natural world, and he looks in detail, always using his own personal experience, at how living in a largely man-made world  is altering  that experience.  It’s a book full of startling and revolutionary ideas. He reminds us, for example, that language  may seem like a representation of experience, but is,  first and foremost a thing of the body, a way of “singing ourselves into contact with others and with the cosmos, a way of  bridging the silence.”

Western culture, he argues, is “a civilization that has long since fallen under the spell of its own signs,” and, with terrible consequences, disconnected itself from awareness of and an interactive, reciprocal relationship with the  rest of the planet: animals, plants, rocks, water and so on.  Abram wants us to live a more aware life; he wants us to pull ourselves away from our screens and our texts, our abstractions and calculations,  and return to our senses: “to  the felt intelligence of our muscled flesh and its manifold solidarities.”  By this, I think he might mean: follow that excitement you feel in the city when there is a storm, and you are no longer just living in the man-made world, but part of the larger one, too.

If you pause for a moment and consider for a moment the (market) forces ranked against this return to our senses occurring on a large scale,  then Becoming Animal might  seem to be a very depressing book, a kind of elegy. But Abram is both  a visionary and an optimist and leaves no space for that kind of response. “The things of the world,” he writes “continue to beckon us from behind the cloud of words, speaking instead with gestures and subtle rhythms, calling out to our animal bodies, tempting our skin with  their varied textures and coaxing our muscles with their grace, inviting our thoughts to remember and rejoin the wider community of intelligence.”

Will we respond?

The book itself is a demonstration of just such a  rejoining/return.  Abram blends lyrical descriptions of experiences  ranging from the mundane (listening to the soundscape of his house),  to the spectacular and supernatural  (being apprenticed to a shaman in Nepal), with  careful explorations of  some of the basics of our society, such as writing. Writing down oral traditions, even to ‘save’ them,  he argues, we  have “divested the ground of its voice.”  Writing makes the story portable, but it also renders both the story-teller and the locale that gave birth to the story superfluous. Literacy, he says, is cosmopolitan, the internet is globalizing, both of the them ultimately depend for any true vitality on the local and oral.

In the end, Abram’s recipe is a simple  and practical; he turns out to be a realist, as well as a visionary and an optimist. He suggests that we “leave abundant space in our days for an interchange with one another and with our surroundings that is not mediated by technology: neither by computer not by television nor by cell phone, neither by the handheld computer nor by the GPS satellite (nor any of the newer digital allurements that promise to arrive in the coming years). Nor even the printed page.”

He is a voice singing in (and from, and for) the wilderness, and he is saying: use  these tools  wisely, and remember who/what you are and where you live.

I highly recommend Becoming Animal – there are a couple of slow passages but overall it is an exciting and inspiring read, one which could change the way you see the world, and even the way you live. It is a book to own and to read more than once. I’m already half-way through Abram’s previous  book, The Spell of the Sensuous, which lays the foundations for much of what is offered in Becoming Animal, and explores in detail how we came to – as he puts it – close ourselves within an entirely human filed of meanings.  It, too, is an astounding read, though sadly, I could only find it in a rather ordinary-looking paperback.


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