19 December 2007

Dense, intricate, important look at the somatic side of Western history

Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West

Morris Berman
Bantam, 1990

Morris Berman begins his exploration of the "hidden history" of the West with a discussion of the nemo, a word he borrows from John Fowles' The Aristos which connotes the sense of non-existence at the core of the existential condition. The experience of this nemo, according to Berman, results from a developmental split between the felt sense of embodiment (somatic awareness) and the mental self image that comes from how others see us (specular awareness). Berman uses the history of mirrors and the human relationship to animals to demonstrate how this split has led historically to a de-valuation of somatic, embodied experience, a consequent preference for "cognitively top-heavy" abstraction, and various attempts to heal the breach between the two.

The core of the book is an exploration of four different periods in Western history---the origins of Christianity and Gnosticism, the Cathar/Albigensian heresy in Southern France, the rise of modern science from the practice of alchemy, and the modern phenomenon of Nazism. Berman investigates how these periods relate to the suppression of the body in favor of the abstracted intellect and to the return of that suppressed somatic experience in different forms (e.g,. Gnostic mysticism, romantic love, scientific abstraction, and Nazi mass murder).

Finally, Berman looks at our prospects for the future. Since the abstraction/experience split and our attempts to smooth it over are still going strong in modern Western societies, Berman fears the potential for a resurgence of fascism. (Given the tenor of the 21st century so far, it would seem that his fears are well founded.) Instead of advocating another mystical or political attempt to heal over the split and to fill in the nemo, Berman discusses the possibility of a "gesture of balance"---learning to accept the split and the feeling of the nemo without being compelled to fill it in or smooth it over. This radical acceptance of the gap might be the key to "resolving" the gap altogether.

In short, this is a book that demands serious attention from students of history, politics, religion, philosophy, psychology, and also for those dedicated to pursuing a spiritual path.

(This review was originally written on June 7, 2006.)

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