The Ecology of Magic:
An Interview with David Abram
By Scott London
David Abram is an unusual combination of anthropologist, philosopher and sleight-of-hand magician. Though he worked as a magician in the United States and Europe for a number of years, he attributes most of what he knows about magic to the time he spent in Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka learning from indigenous medicine people.
This interview was adapted
from the public radio series
"Insight & Outlook."
Performing magic is not simply about entertaining, he points out in this interview. "The task of the magician is to startle our senses and free us from outmoded ways of thinking." The magician also plays an important ecological function, he says, by mediating between the human world and the "more-than-human" world that we inhabit.
When Abram published his book The Spell of the Sensuous in 1996, the reviewers practically exhausted their superlatives in praise of it. The Village Voice declared that Abram had "one of those rare minds which, like the mind of a musician or a great mathematician, fuses dreaminess with smarts." The Utne Reader called Abram a "visionary" for "casting magic spells through his writing and lecturing" and for his deepening influence on the environmental movement.
The book touches on a wide range of themes, from our perception of the natural world to the way we use of language and symbols to process our experience. I spoke with Abram in Claremont, California.
Scott London: How did you become interested in sleight-of-hand magic?
David Abram: I first saw a magician perform when I was a kid of about eight or nine and after that I tried to learn some magic. But I was clumsy and couldn't really get any of it right. I came back to it when I was about sixteen. I got very caught up in the craft of trying to make something "impossible" happen to create an impossible experience, an experience that was so shot through with mystery that it would startle people out of all of their preconceptions. When a magician is successful making a stone vanish, and then plucking it back into thin air, or making a coin float from one hand to the other hand, it leaves us without any framework of explanation. We are suddenly floating in that open space of direct sensory experience, actually encountering the world without preconceptions, even if just for a moment. The magician is one who frees the senses from the static holding patterns that they are held in by assumptions, by outmoded ways of thinking, and by the styles of speech and discourse. Discovering this is what began to really galvanize my own magic.
London: Is it true that you supported yourself during your college years by doing magic at the famous Alice's Restaurant?
Abram: Yes, I started my professional life as house magician at Alice's, the restaurant in the wonderful song by Arlo Guthrie. I would perform there several times a week working from table to table doing sleight-of-hand between courses. It was for families or young couples. You know, they would beckon over the magician and ask him to do something with a coin or a deck of cards. I had to be careful though not to do anything too powerful, because I didn't want to wreck someone's appetite by startling them too much.
London: Sawing a woman in half, or something like that.
Abram: Exactly. So I stayed away from those sorts of effects for that gig. I worked at Alice's for three or four years. Then I began performing throughout New England. Later, I took off a year from college to wander as a street-magician through Europe.
London: How did that lead to your subsequent interests in ecology and anthropology?
Abram: When I decided to return to college to finish my degree, I became very interested in the uses of magic in medicine. It struck me that this was a very old connection that in traditional societies the healers were often magicians. So I traveled as an itinerant magician into various indigenous, traditional cultures in Southeast Asia Sri Lanka, various parts of Indonesia, and Nepal in the hopes of using my own skills as a sleight-of-hand magician to meet and come to know some of the traditional magicians, or medicine people, who apply their craft in those cultures.
London: Were they open to sharing their secrets with an American?
Abram: Yes, in fact it was very successful. When these magicians learned that there was this Westerner who actually had some access to the ancestors (as they spoke of them) or who had some interchange with the spirits, I was invited into their homes and asked to trade secrets with them. Sometimes I was even invited to participate in their ceremonies.
London: And yet you practiced a very different form of magic than they did.
Abram: Yes, I had learned my craft from American magicians and from books and had thought of magic as a craft that originates as a form of entertainment. But it turned out that it was the oldest craft there is. Sleight-of-hand itself has its origins in the work of the shaman or sorcerer in altering perception and the organization of the senses.
London: Do medicine people ever practice sleight-of-hand magic?
Abram: Some do, but not all of them.
London: Such as what?
Abram: Well, we've all heard of psychic surgeons, these folks who use a certain style of what we could call magic. In the Philippines, for example, they extract illness from a person's body by passing their hand over it and making a kind of invisible incision. Then they reach into the body and draw out some bloody, gory object, and fling it into the fire. This is sleight-of-hand. These so-called psychic surgeons are using a very often-used technique that one finds around the world. Unfortunately, many of these folks in the Philippines are using this very old technique just to make money for themselves. So it isn't often as effective as it can be when it is genuinely used in service not just to human health but to the health of the whole web of life.
London: I remember reading a story in a magazine (I think it was the Atlantic Monthly) some years ago. An English filmmaker wrote about filming an elaborate ritual in a village square in India or Pakistan in the early 1960s. The whole thing was very impressive and culminated with a sword-wielding fakir actually butchering a small boy alive, then gathering the bloody limbs together in a sack. The filmmaker was completely stunned upon witnessing this, just as many of the other spectators were. But he was even more stunned when he returned to England and processed the film. It revealed that the whole act had been a sophisticated illusion, a perceptual trick on an entire group of people.
Abram: Yes, the magician is one who works with perception. Sometimes he works with the senses of a single individual, sometimes a group of people, and sometimes with many other beings humans and other. It's important to realize that the magician himself, or herself, is often experiencing the very same things that the others watching are experiencing. It's only by the magician entering deeply into that trance that the others will be led to experience the trance as richly and as deeply as the magician. So it's not as if he's standing apart from the whole thing manipulating it from outside, as a hypnotist would be thought to be doing here in the West.
But this kind of event that you're referring to is already very different from the uses of magic in a fully indigenous, tribal context where the magic is not being used ever for entertainment. It is being used as a way of keeping the world alive and healthy, and of keeping humans in a healthy connection with the rest of the natural world.
London: You have used the phrase "boundary keeper" to describe the magician. What do you mean by that?
Abram: I discovered that very few of the medicine people that I met considered their work as healers to be their primary role or function for their communities. So even though they were the healers, or the medicine people, for their villages, they saw their ability to heal as a by-product of their more primary work. This more primary work had to do with the fact that these magicians rarely live at the middle of their communities or in the heart of the village. They always live out at the edge or just outside of the village out among the rice paddies or in a cluster of wild boulders because their skills are not encompassed within the human modality. They are, as it were, the intermediaries between the human community and the more-than-human community the animals, the plants, the trees, even whole forests are considered to be living, intelligent forces. Even the winds and the weather patterns are seen as living beings. Everything is animate. Everything moves. It's just that some things move slower than other things, like the mountains or the ground itself. But everything has its movement, has its life. And the magicians were precisely those individuals who were most susceptible to the solicitations of these other-than-human shapes. It was the magicians who could most easily enter into some kind of rapport with another being, like an oak tree, or with a frog.
London: What sort of rapport?
Abram: Every magician that I met had a number of animals or plants or forms of nature that were their close familiars. Just as we speak of the witch's black cat as her "familiar," so in these animistic societies the magician might have crows and frogs and perhaps a certain kind of rubber plant as his familiars. It might also be a certain kind of storm a thunder-storm a being that, when it appeared in the sky, would tell the magician that it was time to go outside and just gaze at those clouds and learn from them what they might have to teach.
London: In the same way, perhaps, that horses can sense an impending earthquake.
Abram: Right. Other animals function for the magician as another set of senses, another angle from which he can see and hear and sense what's going on in the surrounding ecology, because we are limited by our human senses, our nervous-system, and our two arms and our two legs. Birds know so much more about what's going on in the air, in the invisible winds, than we humans can know. If we watch the birds closely, we can begin to learn about what's going on in the sky and in the air simply by watching their flight patterns.
London: Where do they draw the boundary between magic and reality?
Abram: That boundary is not drawn in traditional cultures. In indigenous, tribal, or oral cultures, magic is the way of the world. There is nothing that is not in some way magic, because the fact that the world exists is already quite a wonder. That it stays existing, that it continually keeps holding itself in existence, this is the mystery of mysteries. Magic is the way of the world. It's that sense of being in contact with so many other shapes of awareness, most of which are so different from our own, that is the basic experience of magic from which all other forms of magic derive.
London: How do they heal people?
Abram: As I said, the shamans and sorcerers whom I encountered in my travels always said that their ability to heal people was a by-product of a different kind of healing. Their primary work is to heal the relation the village and the land, to balance the equilibrium between the human gang and the more-than-human field of forces. If the magician was not simultaneously doing this work of offering prayers and praises and ritual gestures to the other animals and to the powers of the earth and the sky, then he might heal someone in the community and someone else would fall sick, and then he would heal that other person, and someone else would fall sick. The source of the illness is often perceived as an imbalance within the person, but it is actually in the relation between the human village and the land that supports it, the land that yields up its food, its animals for skins for clothing, and its plants for food and medicine. Humans take so much from the land, and the magician's task is to make sure that we humans always return something to the land so that there is a two-way flow, that the boundary between us the human culture and the rest of nature stays a porous boundary. The magician ensures that that boundary is a membrane through which there is this two-way flow, and that the boundary never becomes a barrier shutting out the other-than-human powers from our awareness.
London: Do we have any equivalents of medicine people in Western culture, people who perform a similar function?
Abram: We do have some distant equivalents, such as field biologists who are able to enter into a close rapport with the other species that they are studying. But we tend not to believe in magic in Western civilization. And so we've largely forgotten the place of magic. Most magicians end up performing somewhere like Las Vegas. They see themselves as "illusionists" as people trying to create the illusion of magic. But they themselves don't believe in magic. What a sad state the craft of magic has fallen into in the world. It would be as if most musicians and concert artists didn't really believe that real music existed. Then you would have pianists who had pianos with flashing lights all over them and women dancing in sequence around them as they played their flashy music. Magic has been reduced to that in the West. It really doesn't exist for us anymore.
London: What happens to a culture bereft of magic?
Abram: One thing is that its relation to the natural landscape is tremendously impoverished. In fact, by our obliviousness, by our forgetfulness of all of these other styles of awareness the other animals, the plants, the waters we have brought about a crisis in the natural world of unprecedented proportions not out of any meanness, but simply because we really don't recognize that nature is there. It seems to us, in our culture, to be a kind of passive backdrop against which all of our human events unfold, and it's human events that are meaningful and what happens in nature, well, we don't really notice it, it's not really there. It's not vital.
How different that is from the awareness of a magical or animistic culture for whom everything we do as humans is so profoundly influenced by our interactions with the earth underfoot and the air that swirls around us and the other animals.
London: You said that some field biologists are able to capture the essence of magic in their work. I can think of some nature writers who also serve that same function people like Peter Mathiessen, Terry Tempest Williams, and Barry Lopez.
Abram: Absolutely. I do think that some of the nature writers are doing an exquisitely important work of magic. They are doing what we might think of as word magic very carefully taking up the language and trying to use it in new ways, trying to work out how to speak without violating our kinship with the rest of the animate earth.
London: And yet in The Spell of the Sensuous you point out that language has gone a long way toward severing our sensuous relationship with the natural world.
Abram: Yes, because so many of the ways we speak in our culture continually deny the reciprocity between our senses and the rest of the sensuous world, between our bodies and the vast body of the earth. When we speak of the earth as an object, we are denying our relationship with the earth. When we speak of nature as a set of objects, rather than a community of subjects, we basically close our senses to all of the other voices that surround us.
London: I'm sure I'm not the first to ask you why you decided to write a book using words and abstract arguments to make this point.
Abram: Well, it was very important to me to write a book that would speak to the so-called "experts," to write a book that couldn't be shrugged off as fiction, or as "mere" poetry. Not that I believe there is anything "mere" about poetry, but so many people in our culture do they tend to think of poetry as a kind of secondary use of language. We don't realize that language originates in poetry and in poetics, and ends up there.
That's why we need to pay so much attention to the ways in which we speak, and to the beauty of our words and our ways of putting words together so that we speak to each other not as disembodied minds but as embodied, feeling-ful, animal-beings. I think it's so important that we realize we are animals an extraordinary animal, no doubt, but an animal nonetheless and, hence, one of the various beings that live in and on this world.
And yet I wanted to express this in a way that would reach the scholarly community, the community of those who make decisions in our culture. So, that was very much the intent of the book, to bridge the gap between the world of the imagination the kind of magical world of these indigenous, traditional societies and the world of academia, the intelligentsia, and the scientific elite. But I didn't want to do that just by writing a scholarly or scientific analysis of indigenous, animistic ways of thinking. I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to do an animistic analysis of rationality and the Western intellect, and to show that our Western, civilized ways of thinking are themselves a form of magic.
London: How so?
Abram: Everything that we speak of as Western civilization we could speak of as alphabetic civilization. We are the culture of the alphabet, and the alphabet itself could be seen as a very potent form of magic. You know, we open up the newspaper in the morning and we focus our eyes on these little inert bits of ink on the page, and we immediately hear voices and we see visions and we experience conversations happening in other places and times. That is magic!
It's outrageous: as soon as we look at these printed letters on the page we see what they say. They speak to us. That is not so different from a Hopi elder stepping out of her pueblo and focusing her eyes on a stone and hearing the stone speak. Or a Lakota man stepping out and seeing a spider crawling up a tree and focusing his eyes on that spider and hearing himself addressed by that spider. We do just the same thing, but we do it with our own written marks on the page. We look at them, and they speak to us. It's an intensely concentrated form of animism. But it's animism nonetheless, as outrageous as a talking stone.
In fact, it's such an intense form of animism that it has effectively eclipsed all of the other forms of animistic participation in which we used to engage with leaves, with stones, with winds. But it is still a form of magic.
London: And we do it in our heads, not our bodies. As psychotherapist Marion Woodman says, the modern Westerner as a person who walks around with his head suspended two feet above the rest of his body.
Abram: Yes. I don't think there is a way for those who work in service to the earth for environmentalists, ecologists to really woo our culture back into a reciprocal or sustainable relation with the land until we draw folks back to our senses, because our sensing bodies are our direct contact with the rest of the natural world. It is not by being abstract intellects that we are going to fall in love again with the rest of nature. It's by beginning to honor and value our direct sensory experience: the tastes and smells in the air, the feel of the wind as it caresses the skin, the feel of the ground under our feet as we walk upon it. And how much easier it is to feel that ground if you allow yourself to sense that the ground itself is feeling your steps as you walk upon it.
London: You pointed out that the more we enter into the world of the alphabet, as you called it, the more we close ourselves off to the living world. Perhaps teaching kids to read when they are three or four is not such a good idea after all?
Abram: It's terrible. Also, children are now being encouraged to get on-line and onto the computer as rapidly as possible. It's funny because we don't realize that the astonishing linguistic capacity of the human brain did not evolve in relation to the computer, nor even in relation to written texts. Rather, it evolved in relation to stories that were passed down orally. For countless millennia, stories and story-telling were the way we humans learned our language. Spoken stories are something that we enter into with our bodies. We feel our way around inside a story.
I think children really need to experience stories and to hear their parents and their uncles and their aunts telling them stories. And I don't mean reading stories to them, but simply improvising stories face-to-face with a child. Or stepping outside and pointing to the forest edge and saying, "Do you know what happens inside that forest every full moon?" Or, "Look at the river. Do you know how the river feels whenever the salmon returns to its waters? It feels this way, and this is the story that tells why."
Rejuvenating oral culture is necessary because to enter so directly into the literate world of texts, and now into the world of the computer screen, is to enter all too rapidly into that purely cognitive dimension of symbol and symbol-manipulation. What a child needs first is to enter into language bodily, and to have a sense that all of his senses can be engaged within the language. That's something that stories and oral story-telling alone can do for us.
London: Do you think we should do away with the computer?
Abram: No, and we certainly can't even if we wanted to. I don't think we should do away with writing or with books either. But I do think that the culture of books and computers are functional only to the extent that they are rooted in a thriving oral culture of stories.
London: Anne Wilson Schaef has written about her experiences with a tribe of aborigines in Australia. As she describes it, one of the elders had a favorite story that he used to tell again and again. On the third or fourth hearing, Schaef began to tune it out since she already knew the story quite well. But over time, hearing it again and again, she began to notice that the story was slightly different on each telling. As she started paying attention to the subtle nuances, she discovered that the story was advancing in a very deliberate way. The full meaning of the story couldn't be captured on a single hearing, or even on two, because it required the active participation of the listener. This is a vivid example of what is lost when we shift from an oral to a written culture.
Abram: Exactly. Once we write those stories down they don't change any more. And then we become fundamentalists and say, "The way it's written is the only way it really is." And we get caught up in our notions of literal truth "... true to the letter of the law." "Literal truth" only comes in with literacy.
London: What I hear you saying is that we need to expand our modes of awareness to include not just language and the alphabet, but also the magical realm of the senses.
Abram: That's right. I'm not trying to demonize the alphabet at all. I don't think the alphabet is bad. What I'm trying to get people to realize is that it's a very intense form of magic. And that it therefore needs to be used responsibly. I mean, it's not by coincidence that the word "spell" has this double meaning to arrange the letters in the right order to form a word, or to cast a magic. To spell a word, or to cast a magic spell. These two meanings were originally one and the same. In order to use this new technology, this new play of written shapes on the page, to learn to write and to read with the alphabet, was actually to learn a new form of magic, to exercise a new form of power in the world.
But it also meant casting a kind of spell on our own senses. Unless we recognize writing as a form of magic, then we will not take much care with it. It's only when we recognize how profoundly it has altered our experience of nature and the rest of the sensory world, how profoundly it has altered our senses, that we can begin to use writing responsibly because we see how potent and profound an effect it has.
No culture with the written word seems to experience the natural landscape as animate and alive through and through. Yet every culture without writing experiences the whole of the earth every aspect of the material world to be alive and intelligent. So what is it that writing does? It has a very powerful effect upon our experience of language and meaning.
London: What are some of the ways that we can bridge these two frames of reference?
Abram: One way is to simply let things be alive. Or, if you don't want to let things be alive, just to allow that things have their own active agency, their own influence upon us, whether it be a slab of granite, storm clouds, a stream, a raven, a spider.
There is a little poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that captures this in a gentle way:
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.
This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook." An Italian translation was prepared by Carlo Martini of comeDonChisciotte.