Category Archives: philosophy

The Spell of the Sensuous

The Spell of the SensuousFor those of us who care for an earth not encompassed by machines – a world of textures, tastes and sounds other than those that we have engineered – our task is that of taking up the written word, with all 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. Finding phrases that place us in contact with the trembling neck-muscles of a deer holding its antlers high as it swims toward the mainland, or onto the ant dragging a scavenged rice-grain through the grasses. Planting words, like seeds, under rocks and fallen logs – letting language take root, once again, in the earthen silence of shadow and bone and leaf.

The rain surrounded the cabin…with a whole world of meaning, of secrecy, of rumor. Think of it: all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody, drenching the thick mulch of dead leaves, soaking the trees, filling the gullies and crannies of the wood with water, washing out the places where men have stripped the hillside…Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, the rain. As long as it talks, I am going to listen.
~~ Thomas Merton

Our strictly human heavens and hells have only recently been abstracted from the sensuous world that surrounds us, from this more-than-human realm that abounds in its own winged intelligences and cloven-hoofed powers. For almost all oral cultures, the enveloping and sensuous earth remains the dwelling place of both the living and the dead. The “body” – whether human or otherwise – is not yet a mechanical object in such cultures, but is a magical entity, the mind’s own sensuous aspect, and at death the body’s decomposition into soil, worms and dust can only signify the gradual reintegration of one’s ancestors and elders into the living landscape, from which all, too, are born.

This cycling of the human back into the larger world ensures that the other forms of experience that we encounter – whether ants, or willow trees, or clouds – are never absolutely alien to ourselves. It is, paradoxically, this perceived kinship that renders the difference, or otherness, so eerily potent.

Gradually, then, our senses awaken to the world. We become aware of the thoughts that are thinking all around us – in the bushes, under the tumbled stones. As we watch the crows, our own limbs begin to feel the intelligence of feathered muscles adjusting to the wind. Our toes listen to roots sending capillaries in search of water, and our skin replies to the lichens radiating in slow waves across the surface of the upthrust bones of the hill. Walking along the pebbled beach, we notice the ground itself responding to our footfalls – the hermit crabs all diving for cover – and sense the many-voiced forest listening to us as we speak. And so we adjust our own speaking, taking new care with our gestures and actions…

Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner – what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming
~~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Excerpted from The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram.

A brief summary of animism at Anthropik.

The Star Thrower

Every time we walk along a beach some ancient urge disturbs us so that we find ourselves shedding shoes and garments or scavenging among seaweed and whitened timbers like the homesick refugees of a long war. . . Mostly the animals understand their roles, but man, by comparison, seems troubled by a message that, it is often said, he cannot quite remember or has gotten wrong. . . Bereft of instinct, he must search continually for meanings. . .

starfishIn a pool of sand and silt a starfish had thrust its arms up stiffly and was holding its body away from the stifling mud.

“It’s still alive,” I ventured.

“Yes,” he said, and with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea. It sunk in a burst of spume, and the waters roared once more.

…”There are not many who come this far,” I said, groping in a sudden embarrassment for words. “Do you collect?”

“Only like this,” he said softly, gesturing amidst the wreckage of the shore. “And only for the living.”

He stooped again, oblivious of my curiosity, and skipped another star neatly across the water.

“The stars,” he said, “throw well. One can help them.”

The Star Thrower is part of a sixteen page essay of the same name by Loren Eiseley (1907–1977). It was published in 1969 in The Unexpected Universe. The Star Thrower is also the title of a 1978 anthology of Eiseley’s works (including the essay) which he completed shortly before his death.

Loren Eiseley has been described as the 20th century’s answer to Henry David Thoreau. He writes in a thought-provoking, almost mystical style. He is a naturalist, poet, realist, existentialist, haunted mystic, evolutionary anthropologist, environmental advocate, historian, and human being.

This book is an anthology of his best work, selected from several past publications including some of his poetry. His reflections on humankind, time, evolution, the Earth, the natural world, the unknown, and even the very nature of existence itself are more powerful than the most dense scientific formulae or the most sacred tomes of Scripture. He looks at our mysterious universe with the eyes of a human being, and he looks at his own soul in the process… This is not the work of a theologian or a secularist; these are the stories of a complex human being who admits that there is far more in heaven and earth than we dream.

Review excerpted from Amazon.

The Fioretti of Saint Francis

Saint FrancisFioretti di San Francesco (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis) is a florilegium – a collection of excerpts – divided into 53 short chapters, on the life of the fabled saint, which was composed at the end of the 14th century.

The anonymous Italian text, almost certainly by a Tuscan author, is a version of the Latin Actus beati Francisci et sociorum eius, of which the earliest extant manuscript is one of 1390 A.D. The text has been ascribed to Fra. Ugolino da Santa Maria, whose name occurs three times in the Actus.

The text has been the most popular account of his life and relates many colorful anecdotes, miracles and pious examples from the lives of Francis and his followers.

It is said that one day while Francis was traveling with some companions they happened upon a place in the road where birds filled the trees on either side. Francis told his companions to “wait for me while I go to preach to my sisters the birds”. The birds surrounded him, drawn by the power of his voice, and not one of them flew away. Francis spoke to them:

My sister birds, you owe much to God, and you must always and in everyplace give praise to Him; for He has given you freedom to wing through the sky and He has clothed you…you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you and gives you rivers and fountains for your thirst, and mountains and valleys for shelter, and tall trees for your nests. And although you neither know how to spin or weave, God dresses you and your children, for the Creator loves you greatly and He blesses you abundantly. Therefore… always seek to praise God.

Wolf of GubbioFioretti tells that in the city of Gubbio, where Francis lived for some time, was a wolf “terrifying and ferocious, who devoured men as well as animals”. Francis had compassion upon the townsfolk, and went up into the hills to find the wolf. Soon, fear of the animal had caused all his companions to flee, though the saint pressed on. When he found the wolf, he made the sign of the cross and commanded the wolf to come to him and hurt no one. Miraculously the wolf closed his jaws and lay down at the feet of St. Francis.

“Brother Wolf, thou doest much harm in these parts and thou hast done great evil…” said Francis. “All these people accuse you and curse you…But brother wolf, I would make peace between you and the people.”

“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

In agreement the wolf placed one of its forepaws in Francis’ outstretched hand, and the oath was made. Francis then commanded the wolf to return with him to Gubbio.

Meanwhile the townsfolk, having heard of the miracle, gathered in the city marketplace to await Francis and his companion, and were shocked to see the ferocious wolf behaving as though his pet. When Francis reached the marketplace he offered the assembled crowd an impromptu sermon with the tame wolf at his feet. He is quoted as saying: “How much we ought to dread the jaws of hell, if the jaws of so small an animal as a wolf can make a whole city tremble through fear?”

Gubbio was freed from the menace of the predator. Francis, ever the lover of animals, even made a pact on behalf of the town dogs, that they would not bother the wolf again.

These legends exemplify the Franciscan mode of charity and poverty as well as the saint’s love of the natural world. Part of his appreciation of the environment is expressed in his Canticle of the Sun, a poem written by the saint in Umbrian Italian shortly before his death in 1226, which expresses a love and appreciation of Brother Sun, Sister Moon, Mother Earth, Brother Fire, and all of God’s creations personified in their fundamental forms. In Canticle of the Creatures, he wrote: “All praise to you, Oh Lord, for all these brother and sister creatures.” His Canticle is believed to be among the first works of literature, if not the first, written in the Italian language.

It is an affirmation of Francis’ personal theology as he often referred to animals as brothers and sisters to Mankind, and rejected material accumulation and sensual comforts in favour of “Lady Poverty”.

Image: Saint Francis instructs the Wolf, Carl Weidemeyer-Worpswede, 1911

L’enfer c’est les Autres

huis closWhen French playwright Jean-Paul Sartre’s contemporary existential masterpiece for stage, Huis Clos (No Exit) was first produced, theatre audiences and critics alike were disturbed by its unsympathetic characters and unrelentingly bleak thesis—succinctly stated by Garcin, the journalist-coward trapped in a room with two other craven individuals, all fated to act as each other’s torturers for eternity—”Hell is other people.”

The three damned souls – Garcin the army deserter and philanderer, Inez the lesbian who turned a wife against her husband, and Estelle the gold-digger and cheat – are ushered into a Second Empire style drawing room. They realize that they are in hell, and they fully expect to meet with the wrath of Satan and his minions.

Instead, they are politely shepherded into the single room together, one by one, after which the door is locked behind them. Quickly, they realize the hideous truth of their collective situation – each individual is to act as the torturer of the other two.

Resisting this fate, they decide they must fully understand and forgive each others’ sins in order to find salvation. As each character’s personal web of deceit unravels, they are all forced to face their own true nature.


ESTELLE: Ah yes, in your mind. But everything that goes on in one’s head is so vague, isn’t it? It makes one want to sleep. I’ve six big mirrors in my bedroom. There they are. I can see them. But they don’t see me. They’re reflecting the carpet, the settee, the window– but how empty it is, a glass in which I’m absent! When I talked to people I always made sure there was one near by in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as the others saw me…Oh dear! My lipstick! I’m sure I’ve put it on all crooked. No, I can’t do without a looking-glass for ever and ever. I simply can’t.

INEZ:Suppose I try to be your glass? Come and pay me a visit, dear. Here’s a place for you on my sofa.


The barriers come down, the denials fade, all attempts to self-justify are shot down, and the ugly truth of each sinner is revealed.

huis clos


GARCIN: Will night never come?

INEZ: Never.

GARCIN: You will always see me?

INEZ: Always.

GARCIN: This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales!There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!

ESTELLE: My darling! Please-

GARCIN: No, let me be. She is between us. I cannot love you when she’s watching.

ESTELLE: Right! In that case, I’ll stop her watching. (She picks up the PAPER knife and stabs Inez several times.)

INEZ: But, you crazy creature, what do you think you’re doing? You know quite well I’m dead.

ESTELLE: Dead?

INEZ: Dead! Dead! Dead! Knives, poison, ropes–useless. It has happened already, do you understand? Once and for all. SO here we are, forever.

ESTELLE: Forever. My God, how funny! Forever.

GARCIN: For ever, and ever, and ever.

(A long silence.)

GARCIN: Well, well, let’s get on with it…


First produced in Paris, 1944, Jean Paul Sartre’s famous one-act play Huis Clos is his clearest dramatic metaphor for his philosophy: We all hold the power of choice, and with that power comes the responsibility of consequence. It is in the judgement of our peers that the truth lies about who we really are.