Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology

By David Abram (Pantheon)

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, Sept. 1

David Abram, ecologist and author of Spell of the Sensuous (1996), is the hierophant of a group best described as environmental ecstatics—nature writers with a primary interest not in studying or saving the earth, but in reveling in its metaphysical powers. In his new book, Becoming Animal, Abram is on a particularly complicated, mystical, and almost messianic mission: He wants to reclaim “creatureness”—our animal senses and subjectivity—in a society in thrall to the “cult of the expertise” and the tyranny of machines. He hopes to reintroduce us to a pungent, unpredictable world of “resplendent weirdness.”

The book is not, however, purely a call to the wild. Abram has a clear sense of the world we’re in and why it exists. “To identify with the sheer physicality of one’s flesh may well seem lunatic,” Abram writes, because the body is so vulnerable to “scars and the scorn of others, to diseases, decay, and death.” It’s understandable, the author points out, that we abstract our physical selves and seek sanctuary in virtual worlds. But—and here the book’s dervish dance of an argument begins—in doing so we renounce our vast stores of “mammalian intelligence” and our citizenship in the natural world. In an effort to counteract these tendencies, Abram delivers meandering disquisitions on birdsong, the beauty of shadows, indigenous lore, and why good rhythm can protect you from the wrath of sea lions.

Abram’s sentences are lush, unpruned, and unfashionable: References to the “wombish earth” and “chthonic powers” pop up with dismaying frequency. But his indifference to irony, economy, and current literary fashions can also be refreshing. He allows himself to be expansive, sentimental, and more than a little mad (“The feathered ones,” he writes of birds, “have long been crucial allies for our kind”). When he succeeds, his book is transformative, animated by piercing observations and hallucinatory intensity. He observes how his shadow, “never violating its Pythagorean proportions, expand[s] imperceptibly toward the eastern horizon.” And how, in van Gogh’s paintings, objects “are not situated in space but actively deploy or secrete the space between them.” Still, he misfires with regularity: Cloying neologisms accrue (“mothertouch,” “fathersong”), and everything is alive in a wide-eyed Disney movie kind of way (stones “hunker” adorably into the soil, his house “glowers” at him). Abram’s peculiar consciousness can become so strong that the reader can feel stuck, even claustrophobic. To commune with the natural world, here, seems to mean communing with a world bearing Abram’s unmistakable thumbprint.

Abram excoriates anything that mediates our relationship with the earth—shoes, chairs, language—and his book falters when he shifts into activist mode. His prescriptions for addressing climate change and the devastation of biospheres (more farmer’s markets, more oral storytelling) is naïve at best and dangerously feckless at worst. But in the end no one will read Becoming Animal for its authority or even its acuity. This lopsided book so exalts in imperfection and idiosyncrasy that it practically seems to celebrate its own blemishes. Its contradictions—solipsism mixed with compassion, overheated prose mixed with precise observation—couple to create a work of inconsistent genius.

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