Disentangling from the Celestial Dream: Rejecting Duality to Engage Empathy

by Erin D. Matson

April 26, 2017

Abstract: Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me (2015) seeks to inspire a valuation of the black body in contradiction to a white supremacist ontology that devalues and dehumanizes black lives. Similarly, David Abram, in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2011), identifies a destructive duality between the animate and the inanimate in Western thought and calls for us to return to the sensual experience of our bodies, in order to become more fully human. Both authors’ rejection of false dichotomies and emphasis on the individual work of experiencing and valuing our bodies speak to and seek to address the ubiquitous and destructive realities of racial and environmental oppression and exploitation. Coates addresses his words explicitly to his son and implicitly to all black Americans who would strive to survive and thrive and, given his framing of white supremacy, stops at the individual level in his call to struggle. Abram, however, speaks to a broader and whiter audience; therefore, his call to empathy can perhaps provide a hope that Coates’ vision lacks, simply because Abram speaks directly to an audience with greater power. Both Abram and Coates contend that a retreat to the comforts of the logical mind will not save a planet and a people in peril. Only through a deliberate disconnect from an objective and idealistic mind, and a re-engaging of our sensate and sensual bodies, can we come to a place of hope and healing. 
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Intellectualism is a handy refuge... 

...for an embattled environmentalist facing a society whose primary aim, contrary to all calls for moderation and sensibility, seems to be the wholesale dismantling and destruction of the life-giving earth. It is entirely possible that we could not have designed a more inefficient and extractive economy with fewer mechanisms to avert baked-in, long-term disaster if we had tried. And so, the world-weary environmentalist is easily tempted to call for a “defense of science!” while mocking those who ignore the dismal data and the settled consensus as dullards, ignorant, or stupid, even. And yet, a retreat to the comforts of the logical mind will not save a planet and a people in peril. Only through a deliberate disconnect from an objective and idealistic mind, and a re-engaging of our sensate and sensual bodies, can we come to a place of hope and healing. So contend two authors whose lived experiences are vastly disparate, but whose conclusions, on the power of the material body, work in tandem to support and clarify each other. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes directly and succinctly on the precarious position of the black body in America today in his open letter to his only son, Between the World and Me (2015). David Abram, meanwhile, seeks to address a broader audience in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology (2011), a call to those who can listen to return to the basis of our animal existence in order to become more fully human. Both authors’ rejection of false dichotomies and emphasis on the individual work of experiencing and valuing our bodies speak to and seek to address the ubiquitous and destructive realities of racial and environmental oppression and exploitation.

Entangling Dualities

Both Ta-Nehisi Coates and David Abram begin their projects by highlighting the destructiveness of the traditional dualisms of Western thought. In philosophy, this duality has traditionally been represented by idealism, in contrast to a unitary materialism. On the one hand, idealism embraces the “idea” of a true world above or apart from the one we perceive, composed entirely of spiritual or mental structures, while the world we live in is essentially inert, removed “from the divine” and therefore lifeless and meaningless (Abram 2011, 46). Materialism, on the other, blends the spirit and the body into one inextricable, animate being, by claiming that all which is perceived and conceived is the direct result of the fact of and interactions between matter itself. Both Abram and Coates, to some extent and in their own ways, reject society’s idealist duality in favor of the urgent necessity of engaging fully, bodily, with our personal experiences of the material world.

Abram’s framing of society’s duality consists of the animate, spiritual realm contrasted to the inert, physical world. He contends that we need to reintegrate our understandings of meaning, purpose, and significance with the tangible experiences of our senses. To explain his understanding of the dichotomy of ideal versus material that he sees, he recalls long-running oral stories that have informed traditional understandings of the workings of the world, such as the sun’s daily journey across the sky and nightly traversal of the underworld (Abram 2011, 295). Defying the modern split of truth into “literal” and “metaphorical” that has plagued language since the inception of writing (295), Abram contends that the most useful and natural way to be in and understand to world is through a “metamorphic” collapse of these two meanings into one. A metamorphic framework understands that each material object is both physical and spiritual; both tangible to our senses and resonant with the spark of life within us. It does not matter, then, whether the sun literally revolves around the earth or vice versa; nor does the story present a purely figurative morality tale. The story of the sun’s journey around the earth simultaneously jibes with our sensory perceptions and illustrates a fundamental truth of daily regeneration. Only through breaking the dichotomy of literal versus metaphoric do we come to the useful meaning of fused, metamorphic understanding.

The dichotomy that Coates perceives in his lived experience of American society is the essential disconnect of the American Dream — a promise of a house in the suburbs and a life of safety and security — with the lived experience of black bodies as dehumanized, broken and pillaged for the sake of that dream. Like Abram, Coates does not believe in dividing the world into an idealized “real” world of the mind, where only humans have access to true beauty and intelligence, and the simple material world, full of inanimate objects functioning on a pre-programmed, deterministic pattern. This dichotomy of animate versus inanimate has directly led, in his estimation, to the devaluation of black people as less-than-human because they are viewed solely as tools to achieve the Dream. “The Dream rests on our backs,” Coates explains, “the bedding made from our bodies” (2015, 11). Coates’s ubiquitous advice to his son, to live “in the struggle” is another way of admonishing him to “stay grounded in harsh reality” rather than allow himself to believe in an idealized vision of the world that can never be attained. By contrast, Coates would have his son meld the two concepts of the spirit and the flesh into one material reality, because the material world is all there is. Coates rejects the metaphor of the soul as an intangible and immortal essence; instead, that essence is truly present in the material flow of shed blood. “The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the cotton” (Coates 2015, 104). When Coates describes the blood of a young man, shed, flowing on the street or on the field, he is not expressing a metaphor. And yet neither should we take his words “literally,” for the idea of a “soul,” as commonly framed — ethereal, insubstantial, beyond form — is inherently incompatible with the materiality of sticky, cooling and coagulating blood. Yet, Coates means exactly what he says. The blood was the essence of that boy, who is now gone, and nothing remains of what he was. He has been, in Coates’ refrain, utterly destroyed. The flow of blood is that destruction of a soul, and that is no metaphor.

The Celestial Daze of the Dream

The dream of a spiritual world beyond the material is a guiding source of hope for many Americans who believe that faith and good works will deliver them from this fallen world. But both Coates and Abram understand that it is faith in this dream, in this supranatural realm of mind and spirit, that keeps people removed from the immediacy of the living world. And yet, the existence of this false dream begs the question, how did we become so dazed to our sensory perceptions, blind to our lived experiences?

Ibram X. Kendi offers one explanation for the racist ideas that undergird Coates’ ontology of white supremacy.[1]  In the historical tome, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Kendi proposes a classic question: which comes first, the material disparities between two groups, or the conceptual explanation for or justification of that disparity? He then outlines the typical racism-begets-policy-begets-disparity narrative before flipping it on its head. Instead, he claims, racist ideas have long been manufactured by those who already hold power in order to perpetuate and create further inequity, and to justify policies designed to do so. The white masses of America, shut out of real power but included in the superiority and attendant privilege of white skin, absorb these racist ideas and accept that they represent the “natural order,” because it suits them to sit a notch above their poor black brethren on the hierarchy of the nation. Race, and racism, are not natural, Kendi claims. Both ideas stem from conscious decisions to manipulate the social order to benefit the few.

This manufactured idea, this Dream of superiority, is what Coates bases his admonition to his son on — avoid getting ensnared in the Dream, he says, because it will not serve you. It is a “new idea” that has birthed a “new people,” those who have been raised to “believe that they are white” (Coates 2015, 7). Both Abram and Coates contend that the majority of Americans live in a dreamworld fundamentally removed from the cold, hard reality of material nature. Abram asserts that, of all of our human senses, humans have come to rely primarily on a limited, two-dimensional engagement of sight — “Even if we venture beyond the walls of our office or metropolis, we often find ourselves merely staring at the scenery” (Abram 2011, 91). Therefore we allow ourselves to remain in a state of “celestial daze” (15) at the expense of other sensory experience. Similarly, for Coates, folding the Dream “over [his] head like a blanket” (2015, 11) would not protect him and his family from its harms — “the Dream persists by warring with the known world” (Coates 2015, 11).

Though the Dream is in itself destructive, Coates does not place harsh blame on the dreamers. Instead, he expresses pity and empathy for them, understanding that they must “not just believe in [the Dream] but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works” (2015, 98). Each person must believe that they are the hero of their own story, that they are living with honor in this world, or they will not be able to live with the incongruity of action and belief inside them. In the same way, though Abram posits that the dichotomy between animate and inanimate is just as harmful, just as blind as the dream of whiteness is to the reality of daily black struggle, he also does not blame those who would claim to perceive the world through objective eyes — “How easy it is for inherited concepts to stifle our senses!” (Abram 2011, 188). Abram’s duality still causes harm, he shows, by denying “the erotic creativity of matter” (12f) and thereby leading us to discount the agency, the value of the world outside of ourselves. And yet, both Coates and Abram allow that it is so easy to be lulled into the false security on the Dream of a beyond-material reality.

The Shadow and the Struggle

Abram’s answer to the celestial daze is the cool embrace of shadow. Shadow, or shade, literally provides a respite from the harsh and blinding light of the sun. Metamorphically, resting in the shade of a larger body, be it a tree or the earth itself, allows us to enter “a different mindscape” (Abram 2011, 15), one where thoughts of mere survival can take a backseat and creativity can emerge. Shade trees have long been associated with spirituality and imagination (Anderson 2003, 1), in part at least because their shading branches provide us “coolness and clarity” (Abram 2011, 20).

In philosophy, physicalism goes beyond materialism to incorporate those aspects of sensible experience beyond “matter” itself, namely the forces, like gravity, that act upon matter no less perceptibly than the crash of two bodies. Abram engages this physicality in describing the quiet, epic clash of sun and shadow, a war waged upon and within the material beings of the earth. As the sun’s rays pour upon the earth in all their dominance and penetration, the human body, or any body, can effect a material disruption of that hegemony of light to create space for the cool depth of shade — the dark evidence of the body’s materiality. When the body stands in opposition to the powerful, fiery force from above, it reveals, in its steadfast defiance, the “elegant enigma” (18) of the “country of shadow” (15), which though hidden “is always with us” (18).

This bodily insertion of the self into the path of the celestial daze of the Dream is analogous to Coates’ conception of struggle. Struggle, for Coates, is an ongoing rejection of the fantasy of living in the Dream while grounding oneself in the bodily experience of beauty and suffering. Coates warns his son not to get caught up in the false hope of the Dream, which contrary to its promise can never free him from the reality of the subordinate place of his black body in America. Escaping into the Dream would disallow perception of the reality of the black body’s tenuous hold on existence. The principal danger in this disconnect from reality seems to be, in Coates’ estimation, the lack of vigilance that stems therefrom. In a world where destruction of black bodies is not just tolerated or allowed, but “heritage” (Coates 2015, 103, emphasis in original), annihilation can come at any moment. So, Coates tell his son, you cannot afford the luxury of a moment’s respite. “The struggle is really all I have for you,” he says, because the literal fight for your very body’s existence must be the primary aim of your every moment (107). Your body’s very continued existence is the most effective defiance against the ontology of white supremacy that you can hope to muster. You can stand in defiance of the dazzling Dream, the celestial daze that blinds the Americans who think themselves white, simply by making space for your own shadow to express itself — to give space for the material evidence of your own physicality.

 

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The Benefits of Living Bodily

Where Abram and Coates diverge in their embrace of materialism, or “matter-realism” as Abram deftly realigns it (2011, 12f), is in the shape and flavor of the benefits that come from engaging deeply in the effort to sink fully into our bodies. For Abram, a return to “being animal” amounts to a resurrection, a liberation from the damning confines of assumed objectivity, an escape from the prison of the sterile mind constructing ever more layers between us and the indulgent, “erotic” sensuousness of worldly experience. More than this, living bodily is the first step toward developing true human empathy — yet the immediate benefits are undoubtedly pleasurable for Abram, and undeniably liberating. For Coates, though, an embrace of the body over the dream is a gaining of freedom, yes, but the kind of freedom that comes from deep and settled resignation. Coates does not see Abram’s joy and release in the bodily experience. He does not call his son to nature, to make love to the earth, to thrill on the speech of birds and the cool embrace of the earth’s shadow, as Abram might. Those experiences, should Coates’ son ever have any opportunity to encounter them, pale against the sheer crushing, cracking, shuddering physicality of the bodily annihilation that Coates and his son must fear every day. For Coates, the benefit of existing bodily, fully, within this animate construction of flesh and blood, is the dream’s rejection itself. The struggle to achieve bodily awareness and appreciation has allowed Coates to “reject magic in all its forms” (2015, 13),  where “magic” is all of the narratives which claim to surety but are in fact false and supranatural. The struggle has given him presence of mind and an acute awareness of reality. He rejects the false comfort of religion and spirituality, yet the process of struggle itself keeps him from falling into despair. Through action, through the universe’s preference of “verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope,” Coates perseveres (2015, 72). The Struggle is hope itself — activated and in motion, not stagnated.

The Personal Work of Politics

While Coates has been said to speak to white people only inasmuch as he does not directly address them,[2] Abram can be assumed to be speaking, if not exclusively, at least primarily to those with the privileges that accompany white skin in America.[3] While he does not frame his discussion in terms of race, he does address in his introduction that he is seeking to begin “the necessary work of recuperation” rather than prescribing broad-base solutions for the ills of the “social or political spheres” (9).  I interpret this call for recuperation as a basic rephrasing of the common relationship advice to work on yourself and your own issues before trying to improve your relationships with others. (How often have we heard “You have to love yourself before you can love someone else?”) Abram, in a Skype call on April 19, 2017, elaborated on this idea: humans have replaced one type of relationship — an engagement with the natural world — with an exclusive focus on human relationships. When we are cut off from the natural world through the disengagement of our senses, the essential, animal part of our inherent selves are deprived of the connections we crave. Seeking those connections from our fellow humans only makes our human relationships more tenuous, more fragile. And when those relationships inevitably fail to give us the breadth of experience we need, we are that much more likely to lash out in violent and destructive ways. Therefore, Abram explained, healing our human differences — ending the cycle of human violence — depends upon each of us reconnecting with our natural bodies and with the joys and pain of animal existence. Whether this work must be individual or societal — though Abram indicates that it can be individual, as evidenced the relating of his individual experiences and the kinds of exercises he suggests throughout his book — it falls to those still blinded by the “celestial daze” to do this work. Importantly, Abram does not claim that those with an indigenous worldview, who embrace an earthly cosmology already, have any self-work to do beyond, if willing, generously sharing their wisdom with those who would seek it.

Coates, meanwhile, is passing the inherited knowledge of the black experience, which he gained from his father, to his son. Coates has never been blinded by the “celestial daze” of the Dream of whiteness, though he was tempted by it. He has always sensed an incongruity between the Dream he saw on TV and his lived experience in West Baltimore, concluding early on that “my country was a galaxy” and that “some inscrutable energy preserved the breach” between these divergent worlds (2015, 20). Coates’s experience, when it comes to existing as black in America, possesses a not-small portion of the “shadowed savvy of our indigenous brother and sisters” that Abram associates with a metamorphic awareness of nature (Abram 2011, 148). Coates and his son do not require the kind of internal decolonization or “shock treatment” (Abram 2011, 221) that the Dreamers require to attain a oneness with their bodies. Black Americans “were born and bred to understand cause and effect” (Coates 2015, 107). Coates has been aware of his body’s materiality, its fragility, almost his whole life.

It is those of us who are living within the Dream who have to break ourselves out of the delusion of the separateness, the objectivity of the mind. Just as it is not the responsibility of people of color to educate white people on the effects of oppression, it is not a black person’s work to resist the ontology of white supremacy. That very ontology can only be disrupted by those who perpetuate it.

From Sensate to Social

Where is the hope? This is a question that not a few critics of Between the World and Me have posed.[4] Coates prescribes a life of Struggle to his son, but he does not imply that such a life of bodily engagement would have any effect on anything of consequence beyond his son’s own experience of the world. Coates’ struggle stops at the individual black body, simply because he does not believe that anything beyond that is “under your control” (107). In Coates’ version of America, it cannot be his son’s responsibility to change anything beyond himself simply because he is not given social standing to do so. However, Abram’s audience is explicitly broader and therefore has access to more social capital. In fact, Abram’s call (to his predominantly white, and therefore more powerful audience) for a return to sensate experience may actually offer the hope that Coates is lacking.

 For Abram, living bodily is the first step on the only true path to human empathy. This journey begins by rejecting the dichotomy of idealism that dismisses the natural world as “a derivative reality” in contrast to the true, spiritual realm (Abram 2011, 68). Once we understand that the animate and the inanimate are metamorphically fused, singular entities both tangible and alive, we begin to understand the value of each being on (or in) the Earth. This understanding can only be forged through the personal work of disentangling ourselves from the dazzlement of the celestial daze, from the Dream of superiority, and giving ourselves over to the clarity of shadow, the visceral experience of the materiality of our bodies. However, the work is not over once our personal awareness of self is complete. We have to feel the reality of not just our own bodily experiences, but those of the other, of our neighbors, before we truly value them. For this step, Abram goes beyond engaging the senses to another fusion of seemingly disparate experiences. Using the literal-metaphor of synaesthesia — a condition where one sensory experience (i.e. sounds, music) is perceived as another (i.e. sight, colors) — Abram contends that all bodily experiences blend the senses in just this way. We do not perceive a dog as a neat arrangement of visual, auditory, and tactile clues, for example — we perceive it in its vibrant totality as our brains rapidly fuse nervous signals into a singular experience (252).

Abram explains: “This juncture, this conjoining of divergent senses over there, in the other, leads us to experience that other as a center of experience in its own right, and hence as another subject, another source of powers” (Abram 2011, 254). Engaging our senses goes beyond enlivening our experience of the natural world to actually engage us more fully with the “empathetic propensity of our body,” our human capacity to recognize some portion of our experience in others (254). Developing human empathy through animal, sensate experience guides us to a visceral and moral sensitivity to the other. Through understanding each being, each articulation of animate existence — whether tree, rock, or fellow human — as a unique and valuable source of agency and creativity, we can engage our senses of urgency and immediacy. We come to understand that when we lose something, it is gone forever. Matter, once destroyed, cannot be rebuilt in the same way.

Though Coates stops short of prescribing a strategy for societal change, Abram can do so precisely because his audience may actually have the power and numbers to do so. Those who are Dreaming this destructive dream of bodily and earthly plunder can become more animal and therefore more human, simply (could it be so simple?) by returning to a grounded sense of the entwined and immutable connection between our bodies, our minds, and the vibrant reality of the material earth.

 

Bibliography

Abram, David. 2011. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, New York: Vintage.

Anderson, Katharine. 2003. Nature, Culture, and Big Old Trees: Live Oaks and Ceibas in the Landscapes of Louisiana and Guatemala. University of Texas Press.

Bodenner, Chris. 2015. “Between the World and Me Book Club: Your Critical Thoughts.” The Atlantic. July 26. https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/07/ readers-critical-between-world-me-ta-nehisi-coates/399641/

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. 2015. Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel & Grau.

McMillan Cottom, Tressie. 2015. “Between the World and Me Book Club: Two Texts Masquerading as One.” The Atlantic. July 20. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/ archive/2015/07/ta-nehisi-coates-book-club/398972/

Weber, Joe and Selima Sultana. 2013. “Why Do So Few Minority People Visit National Parks? Visitation and the Accessibility of ‘America’s Best Idea.’” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 103:3, 437-464. DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2012.689240

 

[1] Atlantic reader and professor of African American Studies Melvin Roger submitted comments which were included in Bodenner’s 2015 article (“Book Club”). Roger critiques Coates’ framing of a world bereft of hope: “For him [Coates], white supremacy is not merely a historically emergent feature of the United States; it is an ontology. White supremacy, in other words, does not structure reality; it is reality.”

[2] Tressie McMillan Cottom (2015) is one reviewer who contended that Between the World and Me is two texts, with two different audiences (white and black), in one.

[3] Abram himself is white, and the kinds of engagement with nature that he describes - hikes in the mountains, the opportunity to travel abroad at a young age - are at least culturally associated with a well-off white experience of America. Data supports that black and Hispanic Americans visit national parks at dramatically lower rates than whites (see for example Weber and Sultana, 2013).

[4] Melvin Roger in Bodenner (2015) again, for example