David Abram has breathed new life into Phenomenology. Exploring his work gave me a greater appreciation for concepts grappled with by Transcendental Idealsim. Alphabetic writing had tremendous influence upon the emergence of the concepts of homogeneous “space” and linear “time.” Oral cultures had no concept of “linear time” – for a time that is cyclical, or circular, is just as much spatial as it is temporal. Schopenhauer made clear that time and space are two sides of the same coin, that one cannot define one without reference to the other, and so are the same – part of the mental apparatus of the nervous system.
In the oral universe, there is no distinction of space and time at all. Unlike a straight line, a circle demarcates and encloses a spatial field. The Lakota define the year as a circle around the border of the world. The circle is both the symbol of the earth (with its encircling horizons) and the symbol of time. The changes of sunup and sundown around the horizon during the course of the year delineate the contours of time, time as part of space. Navajo experience calls for a complex notion of space-time or “time-space” rather than clearly distinct concepts of one dimensional time and three dimensional space. Benjamin Lee Whorf discovered a similar situation in his analysis of the Hopi language.
Whorf found no analog, in the Hopi language, to the linear, sequential, uniformly flowing time that Western civilization takes for granted. Whorf found no references to any independent temporal dimension of reality. The language of the Hopi belongs to the Uto-Aztecan family of languages. The neighboring Navajo speak an Athapaskan language.
Navajo language also seems to maintain a broad notion of the influence of human desire and imagination upon a continually emergent world, a notion very analogous to that found by Whorf among the Hopi. (Abram 1996) Existence should be understood as a continuous manifestation. So where did this “focus on history” come from? What we know of as “history” is only 0.1% of our lived-story.99.9% of the story is prehistoric. Writing is a necessary condition for the belief in an entirely distinct space and time.
According to Mircea Eliade, the ancient Hebrews were the first people to “discover” a linear, nonrepeating mode of time. The Hebrews are the first alphabetic culture we know of, the first “People of the Book.”
At the time when the written commandments were revealed by YHWH, about 3200 years ago, at the time of the exodus from Egypt, the 22 letter consonantal aleph-beth was coming into use in the area of Canaan, or Palestine. The new recognition of NONMYTHOLOGICAL, nonrepeating time by the Hebrew scribes can only be comprehended with reference to alphabetic writing itself. The variously scribed layers of the Hebrew bible are the first sustained record of this new sensibility (linear time and three dimensional space).
The ancient aleph-beth, as the first thoroughly phonetic writing system, prioritized the human voice. The increasingly literate Israelites found themselves caught up in a vital relationship with an all powerful human voice. It was a voice that preceded and outlasted every individual life. The written text became a portable homeland for the Hebrew people. Many of the stories are about displacement and exile. (Abram 1996)
The Hebrews were the first real caretakers of this great and difficult magic – alphabetic literacy.
The pain, the sadness of this exile, is precisely the trace of what has been lost – FORGOTTEN INTIMACY.
It seems as though the Greeks may have further objectified space and time into distinct dimensions. Time becomes inseperable from number and sequence. The thorough differentiation of “time” from “space” was impossible so long as large portions of the populace still experienced the surrounding terrain as animate and alive.
The burning of tens of thousands of women (most of them herbalists from peasant backgrounds) as “witches” during the 16th and 17th centuries may be understood as the nearly successful extermination of the last orally preserved traditions of Europe in order to clear the way for the dominion of alphabetic reason over a natural world increasingly construed as a passive and mechanical set of objects. (Abram 1996)
In 1781, Immanual Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, agreed with Newton that time and space were absolute, that they were independent of any objects. However, these distinct dimensions did not belong to the surrounding world as it exists in itself, but where necessary forms of human awareness, the two forms by which the human mind structures the things it perceives.
Kant actually hardwires space and time into the structure of our wetware. Is there no escape for us? How do we dig our way out of this? How to get disentangled from this web of reason within our own thought processes? JACOB’S LADDER: “The only way up is down.”
John Fire Lame Deer:
Let us become like stones, plants, and trees. Let us be animals, think and feel like animals. Listen to the air. You can hear it, feel it, smell it, taste it.
Woniya wakan – the holy air – which renews all by its breath. Wo-ni-ya, woniya wakan – spirit, life, breath, renewal – it means all that.
Woniya – we sit together, don’t touch, but something is there; we feel it between us, as a presence. A good way to start thinking about nature, talk about it. Rather talk to it, talk to the rivers, to the lakes, to the winds as to our relatives.
We may very well have to psychologically and spiritually “step out” of alphabetic civilization in order to alter our mode of experience. May we continue to work on our own personal “instruction manuals” on how to develop fully human (and nonhuman) powers of perception, field guides for “escaping from Taker Prison.” Of course, the most important “instruction manual” will be the invisible one made of “air” or “mind.” As animals, we transcend our sociologically constructed identities and become one with our breathing bodies, one with angry polluted earth, air, and waters.
This intellectual adventure leads us outside of our alphabetic heritage into deeper waters where the air, the wind, and the breath are aspects of a singularly sacred power. For oral peoples (that’s all of our ancestors), the air is the archetype for all that is unknowable yet undeniably real. Air is tied to breath and to spoken word.
For the Lakota Nation, the most sacred or wakan aspect of Wakan Tanka, the Great Mysterious (in English, sometimes addressed as the Great Spirit), is Taku Skanskan, the Enveloping Sky – known to the shamans as simply Skan. We, and everything around us (rocks, leaves, other people), are crystallizations of conscious awareness. Western science calls this creative but unseen realm from which conscious forms arise “the unconscious.” It is the source of all psychology and psychoanalysis. It is the invisible medium between entities.
The Navajo identification of awareness with the air – their intuition that PSYCHE is not an immaterial power that resides inside us, but is rather the invisible yet thoroughly palpable medium in which we (along with trees, the squirrels, and the clouds) are immersed must seem bizarre, even outrageous, to persons of European ancestry. Yet a little etymological research reveals the English term psyche – together with its modern offsprings “psychology,” “psychiatry,” and “psychotherapy” – is derived from the ancient Greek word psyche, which signified not merely the “soul,” or the “mind,” but also “breath,” or “a gust of wind.” The Greek noun was derived from the verb psychein, which meant “to breath.”
The word “spirit” itself is directly related to the bodily term “respiration” through their common Latin root word spiritus, which signified both “breath” and “wind.”
The Latin word for “soul,” anima – from whence have evolved such English terms as “animal,” “animation,” “animism,” and “unaminous” (being of one mind, or one soul), also signified “air” and “breath.”
Anima, like psyche, originally named an elemental phenomenon that somehow comprised both what we now call “the air” and what we now term “the soul.” The more specific Latin word animus, which signified “that which thinks in us,” was derived from the same “airy” root, anima, itself derived from the older Greek term anemos,
We find identical association of the “mind” with the “wind” in many ancient languages. The word “atmosphere” has ancestral ties to the Sanskrit word atman, which signified “soul” as well as the “air” and the “breath.”
For ancient Mediteranean cultures no less than for the Lakota and the Navajo, the air was once a singularly sacred presence. As the experiential source of both psyche and spirit, it would seem that the air was once felt to be the very matter of awareness, the subtle body of the mind.
How did air come to lose its psychological quality?
Abram breathes life into philosophy, proving that the unutterable need not be the unthinkable.
He explains “the forgetting of the air” by taking us inside a circle not normally exposed to the unannointed. In this way, he makes quantum leaps, inviting universal understanding as members of this magical and warped species of ours. We are entangled in a great web together.
Like many ancient languages, Hebrew has a single word for both “spirit” and “wind” – ruach. We tend to view ancient Hebraic culture through the lens of Greek and Christian thought; (Abrams) “even Jewish scholarship, and much contemporary Jewish self-understanding has been influenced and informed by centuries of Hellenistic and Christian interpretation.”
“It is thus that many persons today associate the ancient Hebrews with such anachronistic notions as the belief in an otherwordly heaven and hell, or a faith in the immateriality and immortality of the personal soul. Yet dualistic notions have no real place in the Hebrew Bible.”
We do know that the Ancient Hebrews were among the first communities to make sustained use of phonetic writing – the first bearers of an alphabet.
Unlike other Semitic peoples, they did not restrict their use of the alphabet to economic and political record keeping, but used it to record ancestral stories, traditions, and laws.
They were perhaps the first nation to so thoroughly shift their sensory participation away from the forms of surrounding nature to a purely phonetic set of signs, and so to experience the profound epistemological independence from the natural environment that was made possible by this potent new technology. To actively participate with the visible forms of nature became idolatry by the ancient Hebrews; it was not the land but the written letters that now carried the ancestral wisdom. (Abram 1996)
Although the Hebrews renounced animism, they retained a participatory relationship with the wind and the breath – the relationship is inferred from the structure of the Hebrew writing system.
In contrast to its “European” derivatives, the aleph-beth had no letters for “vowels.” The 22 letters of the Hebrew aleph-beth are all consonants. In order to read a text written in traditional Hebrew, one had to INFER the appropriate “vowel sounds” from the CONSONANTAL CONTEXT, and add them when sounding out the written syllables.
The vowels are nothing other than sounded breath.
The breath, for the ancient Semites, was the very mystery of life and awareness, a mystery inseparable from the invisible ruach – the holy wind, the holy spirit.
The avoidance of vowel notation marks a profound difference between the ancient Semitic aleph-beth and the subsequent European alphabets.
[Abram about how one goes about reading traditional Hebrew text] “The reader must actively respond to the Torah, must bring his own individual creativity into dialogue with the teachings in order to reveal new and unsuspected nuances.”
Some people read the numerical patterns. Most scripted symbols have in and of themselves some original symbolic meaning, but the beholder draws out the meaning necessary at that moment. The I Ching works that way – the Runes …
The true manner of pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name, YHWH, often written in non-Hebrew texts as Yahweh, is said to have been forgotten.
This leads us to an answer to our question, how did air lose its psychological quality?
Some esoteric traditions of Jewish mysticism consider each letter of the aleph-beth to be alive. This is much closer to the way the tribal peoples of Northern Europe, who worshipped the spirits of the forests, air, and waters, were implementing their “runes.”
The most holy of God’s names, the four letter Tetragrammaton, is composed of the most breath-like consonants in the Hebrew aleph-beth (the same three letters, Y, H, and W, that were sometimes used by ancient scribes to stand in for particular vowels).
Abram is a trip: Some contemporary students of Kabbalah suggest that the forgotten pronunciation of the name may have entailed forming the first syllable, “Y-H,” on the whispered inbreath, and the second syllable, “W-H,” on the whispered outbreath – the whole name thus forming a single cycle of the breath.
Is the mystery invoked by the Tetragrammaton the same mystery that breaths our bodies? Breathing connects our being to the atmosphere we are inseparable from. Breathing binds us to the invisible! How have we come to forget the spirit of the air?
On the journey across the Mediteranean, on the journy to Greece, the letters of the aleph-beth left behind their ties to “the enveloping life-world.” The alpha-beth became a much more abstract set of symbols. The Greek scribes introduced vowels. The resulting alphabet was a different kind of tool from its earlier Semitic incarnation.
Text had lost its ambiguity and mystery, leaving less for creative imagination to interpret. There is one correct way to read it. Active interpretation is not invited. There is no longer any choice about which vowels to insert. By using visible characters to represent the sounded breath, the Greeks effectively DESACRALIZED the breath and the air. By giving form to the invisible, they nullified the mysteriousness of the enveloping atmosphere. The alphabet met with resistance: The Milesian philosopher Anaximenes asserted, “As the psyche, being air, holds a man together and gives him life, so breath and air hold together the entire universe and give it life.”
Not two centuries later, Plato and Socrates were able to co-opt the term psyche, which for Anaximenes was associated with the breath and the air. Plato used the term psyche to indicate something not just invisible but utterly intangible. The psyche was now a thoroughly abstract phenomenon enclosed within the physical body as in a prison. Plato’s trancendent realm of eternal “Ideas” was itself dependent upon the new affinity between the literate intellect and the visible letters (and words) of the alphabet. Plato’s realm of pure bodiless Ideas was incorporeal, connected to the rational psyche much as the earlier, breathlike psyche was joined to the atmosphere.
Unlike the Hebrew Bible, the Christian New Testament was originally written primarily in the Greek alphabet. And wherever the alphabet advanced, it proceeded by dispelling the air of ghosts and invisible influences – by stripping the air of its anima, its psychic depth.
In the oral, animistic world of pre-Christian and peasant Europe, all things – animals, forests, rivers, and caves – had the power of expressive speech, and the primary medium of this collective discourse was the air.
Spontaneous sounds were inseparable from the exhaled breath. The spread of Christianity was dependent upon the spread of the alphabet. Only by training the senses to participate with the written word could one hope to break their spontaneous participation with the animate terrain.
Only as the written text began to speak would the voices of the forest, and of the river, begin to fade. And only then would language loosen its ancient association with the invisible breath, the spirit sever itself from the wind, the psyche dissociate itself from the environing air.
We live in a matrix of political, economic, and civilizational forces struggling to maintain themselves largely at the expense of the animate earth.
I am wondering if what Christians and Muslims call “demons” are simply “the old gods,” and I wonder if my spirit-helpers (Vonnegut, Carlin, etc) would be considered evil or demonic by those who have been brainwashed by the dogmas of the so-called religions that have displaced our true animistic religions.
The churches (and I guess I now have to also include mosques) have lost touch with the spiritual. What religion has become is rituals and sets of rules. There, of course, have always been spiritual healers, but for how many generations has the work of such healers been labeled as the work of the Devil?
I am really getting tired of being Mr. Nice Guy and just getting bulldozed over by those who would force their own submission on me, those who would want to force me into submission and rob my spirit-power … Losing patience … feeling a change coming over me.
David Abram: Sentience was never our private possession. We live immersed in intelligence, enveloped and informed by a creativity we cannot fathom.
We stress the importance of the primacy of felt experience as opposed to dogmatic ideologies. I think it is important for us to be open to the more-than-human non-human dimensions of our experienced reality. What psychologists call “the unconscious” is the entire cosmos: the sun, the stars, the earth itself, the waters, air, trees, rocks, mountains, clouds, and all life-forms … These exist always in what we moderns call “the unconscious,” but what our hunter/gatherer ancestors called “The Spirit World.”
I suppose that it is a sign of merit to be at odds with the dominant society. I hate to keep bringing up “the Devil” (the Christian Devil in particular), but isn’t it true that those who continued to practice animism were accused of worshiping the Devil? In that case, bad is good, and good is pretty bad indeed.
Now, how has this damaged our ability to be reshaped by the “spirits of the land?” When our bodies are repelled by the meaninglessness of our lives, that is the Force of Life within our blood and bones struggling to breathe free. This longing to breathe free, to return to the Natural World, or even to be idle in silent contemplation (viewed as laziness) are all in some way interconnected with our main Project, which is to “take our minds back from those who wish to control our mins, our spirit, our very Being.” We are part of the Natural World, and this system we live under has been abusing the natural world for thousands of years, long before the time of “Christ.”
Through the manipulation of our minds, they control our spirits. They know this is true. Those who want to control all life on this planet KNOW that their authority (their authority is artificial power) is based on ILLUSION, illusion such as the myth of private property. Their authority is enforced with violence and brutality.
While we may tend to idealize the animist state, sentimentalizing a relationship with the Natural World that we envy, it would be wrong to imagine these tribal societies living in a paradise on earth. Animism articulates the sense people have of a cruel and arbitrary fate. The “spirits” may be moody or fickle. The angry gods can withhold protection as easily as they can endow it: as the animist goes through life, he or she must negotiate a never-ending and often tragic drama. (Kerrigan 2011)