Altered beast 

Abram pulls a rabbit out of convoluted hat

When there's a book titled Becoming Animal, written by a cultural ecologist and sleight-of-hand street performer, about the cosmology of the biosphere, wherein it is claimed that man can shift his mind into the body of a raven, there's a good chance it's going to be an unusual read. As with his previous work, The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram's latest is concerned with the body and the earth, two organisms, he says, that have been disassociated for far too long. Humans are not separate from the earth, he argues, and they should return to a time when all natural things communicated fluently and freely without printed words.

"The rejuvenation of oral culture," Abram writes, "is an ecological imperative."

The book's premise comes from Abram's experience with a shaman years ago. While scouring villages in Nepal and Indonesia for guidance, and performing magic tricks in various towns, Abram met and was tutored by the shaman, whom one day he thought he witnessed shape-shift into a raven and back again. The trickery of the encounter was nothing more than an illusion, and yet Abram began the protracted technique of shifting his mind into a bird's so as to edge closer to becoming truly animal.

click to enlarge Becoming Animal - David Abram - hardcover, Pantheon - 336 pages, $26.95
  • Becoming AnimalDavid Abramhardcover, Pantheon336 pages, $26.95

Becoming Animal is a personal, diaristic expedition through the intelligence of our overlooked surroundings, by an author who writes beautifully but whose pseudo-scientific concepts are often hard to buy into, let alone grasp. To become animal, Abram asserts, it is crucial to reconfigure our awareness in a way that leaves us not on earth, but in it. He briefly explores ideas about perception, mind and matter through a selective list of thinkers such as Plato, Spinoza, Merleau-Ponty and Van Gogh—an example of someone who believed that "there is nothing that is not alive," from a cypress to an over-worn pair of shoes. He then goes on to chart the demarcation of the animate from the inanimate, a steadily widening expanse once goaded by medieval churchmen, and today by reductionists, creationists and the untrained irresponsibility of our own senses.

It's the lyrical richness of Becoming Animal that makes it worth reading, even though the ideas are often flighty. Abram's insistence that everything is interconnected—the beauty of dank ponds and thunderclouds no more intensely than urban sewage systems and skyscrapers—is easier to get behind because of his seductive language. He addresses a multitude of ideas—Darwin's phenomenology, an extended argument on the triple-dimension of shadows, the psychology of an old house—all pondered through chimerical metaphysics in a charming tone of curiosity. Talking of gravity, he concludes with striking imagery that the downward pull of the earth's center is an erotic longing for our bodies, the lover to whom we all belong.

In light of Abram's stunning word craft, his central premise is odd. From the art of listening and communicating with everything around him, Abram stumbles upon the idea of the written word's rigidity: Our earth is the original storyteller, he writes, yet its vernacular has been silenced by a variety of man-made innovations. The planet is an unfailing mnemonic instrument, and "we find ourselves situated in the land, with its transformations and cycles of change, much as protagonists are situated in a story." Ecological catastrophes are prevalent, but they can possibly be undone if we simply listen to the wind, Abram believes, and perhaps more quickly if we actually reply.

Writing a book condemning civilized language might be a child's example of irony, but presented by an intelligent man it is simply weird. While grabbing us with its enthralling imagery, Becoming Animal never reaches the heightened perspective it tries so desperately to achieve. Occasionally it leaps headfirst over the boundary of the reasonable and strays into New Age silliness; its half-hearted diagnosis of science as a callous retreat from reality is nothing more than a romanticized yearning for a folklorish world.

Yet much of what makes the writing so provocative is the author's gorgeous prose; the entire book is onomatopoetic of the shifting it describes. Through his giddy, wide-eyed descriptions it's easy to acknowledge the book's intended seriousness because of the diligent, rather naïve fascination that Abram injects into his cosmic journey. The singsong of his reiterated theme is blanketed by penetrating imagery; it is almost enough to make us haze over the fact that this is a repetitive series of journal entries whose importance lies in a small portion of the work's length. At certain moments, however, Becoming Animal and its descriptive prowess is captivating.

As a literal magician, Abram has a grasp of depth and perception that allows him to dislocate from the first person and distinguish the world through the gaze of natural objects. It's an uncommon perspective in environmental studies, in that it never bludgeons us with how we must care for nature, but patiently elucidates how nature has always cared for us. He offers a puerile theory of the universe explained in ravishing detail.

A book should rarely be recommended for how expertly its style diverts from its content, but that is exactly how Becoming Animal succeeds. When all the shape-shifting has been done and the sea-lions stop talking to him, Abram turns out to be a tremendous writer.

David Abram reads from Becoming Animal at Fact & Fiction Wednesday, Oct. 20, at 7 PM. Free.

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