My Thoughts on Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram

                If I understood it correctly, David Abram, in his book Spell of the Sensuous, seems to posit that language and sensation have a reciprocal relationship.  He explains that “only if words are felt, bodily presences, like echoes or waterfalls, can we understand the powers of spoken language to influence, alter, and transform the perceptible world” (89).  How are our alphabetically induced words felt? “When those images came to be associated, alphabetically, with purely human made sounds, and even the names of letters lost all worldly, extrahuman significance… speech or language [comes] to be experienced as an exclusively human power” (132).  At this point “civilization [enters] into the wholly self-reflexive mode of animism, or magic, that still holds us in a spell” (132). 

                Our magic is our linguistic technique.  As Abram notes “to spell, to correctly arrange letters to form a name or a phrase, thus seemed at the same time, to cast a spell, to exert a new and everlasting power over the thing spelled” (135).  However, while we are empowered by this ‘magic,’ words as technique wields power over us as well.  We cannot simply walk around spelling out elements as we encounter them because language, as a structure, although arbitrary, preexists and thus molds us.  If you lack a word for something, can you possibly make logical sense of it?

                Similarly, in another one of my classes we were recently discussing the prospect of language preceding thought.  The question then arose: does an expanded lexicon relay a more nuanced and complex perception of the world?  Perhaps not at a sensory level but I would venture to say that a larger vocabulary allows for a heightened level of cognition.  Naming an element appropriates it for our use, changing it from an occurrence of nature into something qualified and thus dominated by humans. 

                Abrams also seems to draw on the notion of literary symbolism perpetuated by a word.  Having grappled with the somewhat foreign notion of mystical symbolism and its relationship with the symbolist literary movement in other classes I began to understand the concept after reading the following excerpt from Gershom Scholem’s book Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism.  Scholem explains the symbol as “a form of expression which radically transcends the sphere of allegory…the thing which becomes a symbol retains its original form and its original content.  It does not become, so to speak, an empty shell into which another content is poured; in itself, through its own existence, it makes another reality transparent which cannot appear in any other form” (27).”  So a word proves to be a portal for synthesizing and thereby understanding many tenuously related elements.  “The symbol ‘signifies’ nothing and communicates nothing but makes something transparent which is beyond all expressions” (27).  In this vein the ‘word’ certainly acts as a portal for understanding.

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Print.
Scholem, Gershom Gerhard. Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. New York: Schocken, 1961. Print.
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