Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Dancing with Shadows

It can be difficult, as I discussed recently, to find good Pagan books. This week, I've begun reading -- and am being blown away by -- David Abram's Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Abram, to my knowledge, doesn't self-identify as a Pagan, although his bio at The Alliance for Wild Ethics says that Abram is:
An accomplished storyteller and sleight-of-hand magician who has lived and traded magic with indigenous sorcerers in Indonesia, Nepal, and the Americas . . . .
and he's certainly studied and written about magic. Becoming Animal is, in any event, a Pagan book, in the true sense of the word. The Politics and Prose write-up says:
The shapeshifting of ravens, the erotic nature of gravity, the eloquence of thunder, the pleasures of being edible: all have their place in Abram’s investigation. He shows that from the awakened perspective of the human animal, awareness (or mind) is not an exclusive possession of our species but a lucid quality of the biosphere itself—a quality in which we, along with the oaks and the spiders, steadily participate.

I'm particularly struck by Abram's discussion of shadows. Having worked with James Hillman, it's not surprising that Abram writes about shadows in ways that have multiple meanings. Although he's ostensibly talking about the kind of shadows we cast upon the ground when the sun is shining, I find some of his passages to be equally applicable (and I can't believe Abram isn't aware of what he's doing) to Jungian shadows, as well. Here's a small example:
One of the marks of our obliviousness, one of the countless signs that our thinking minds have grown estranged from the intelligence of our sensing bodies, is that today a great many people seem to believe that shadows are flat. . . . We identify our shadow, in other words, with that visible shape we see projected on the pavement or the whitewashed wall. Since what we glimpse there is a being without depth [heh], we naturally assume that shadows themselves are basically flat -- and if we are asked by a curious child about the life of shadows [again, heh] we are apt to reply that their lives exist in only two dimensions [ok, I'll stop with the "heh"s, but I think you see my point].

. . .

[M]y actual shadow is an enigma more substantial than that flat shape on the ground. That silhouette is only my shadow's outermost surface. . . . [The] apparent gap between myself and that flat swath of darkness is what prompts me, now and then, to accept its invitation to dance, the two of us then strutting and ducking in an improvised pas de deux wherein it's never very clear which one of us is leading [heh; can't help myself] and which is following. It is now obvious, however, that that shape slinking along on the pavement is merely the outermost edge of a thick volume of shade, an umbral depth that extends from the pavement right on up to my knees, torso, and head -- a shadow touching me not just at my feet, but at every point of my person.

Or maybe I'm completely wrong and Abram, trying heroically to get us back in actual touch with the physical shadows cast by our bodies, would berate me for needing to find verbal twists and psychological constructs literally breaking through his words. Indeed, in the essay on magic, linked above, Abram says:
For it is likely that the "inner world" of our Western psychological experience, like the supernatural heaven of Christian belief, originated in the loss of our ancestral reciprocity with the living landscape. When the animate presences with whom we have evolved over several million years are suddenly construed as having less significance than ourselves, when the generative earth that gave birth to us is defined as a soulless or determinate object devoid of sensitivity and sentience, then that wild otherness with which human life had always been entwined must migrate, either into a supersensory heaven beyond the natural world, or else into the human skull itself--the only allowable refuge, in this world, for what is ineffable and unfathomable.

At any rate, it's a meaty book (odd choice of words, perhaps, for a book entitled "Becoming Animal") and one full of the Pagan understanding that EVERYTHING is alive and longing to be in communion, that, "it's all real; it's all [heh] metaphor; there's always more."

If you've read it, or Abram's earlier book, The Spell of the Sensuous I'd love to know your reactions.

Update: As the stumbling oral reading above makes clear, this is a book written to be read, not spoken. The language is lush, almost rococo, and one needs to remain fully present to read it. I'm reading it, as a result, as a series of amuses-gueule, and not in one or two "swell foops," as my grandma used to say.


Aquila ka Hecate said...

..the pleasures of being edible..

Oh my - a book I must add to my essential reading list.
Now, where was I?...

Terri in the rain in Joburg

Hecate said...

Heh. I noticed that, as well. And, of course, why not?

Cari Ferraro said...

Ah, Hecate, thanks for this post. I'm looking forward to reading this new book. He is a real visionary. I was absolutely bowled over by his first book "The Spell of the Sensuous," to such an extent that it was probably the seed that led me down the merry path to creating my bookwork "Spelling Words" as I began to ponder the two different meanings of the words spell and wondered how we had lost the view of written language as being magical, a perspective that is alive and well in other cultures that practice calligrapher. As a scribe this idea wouldn't leave me alone, until I finally found a way to present it in a visual form. Not to take up too much more space here about it, but you can see photos of the book at my website here: and the first of the trackbacks at the bottom of that page will take you to my blog post where I wrote further on this idea: "A Book about Letter Magic."

Kid Cutbank said...

I'm reading this right now as well. It's so wonderful! Thanks for this post.

Take care,

Anonymous said...

I'm in the middle of it right now, and it is rocking my world on every level. Possibly one of the most important books I've ever read in my life! The chapter on mind nearly did me in. :)


Kid Cutbank said...


Same for me. I just finished "The Discourse of Birds" which was indescribably amazing. I agree that it's one of the most important books i've ever read and is definitely already changing my life.