Review: Ensouling Language

Ensouling Language: 
    On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life

by Stephen Harrod Buhner

Review by Karl Schlotterbeck

TEnsouling Language Book Coverhis is a marvelous that is remarkable in a number of ways. I was excited by the title when I first heard about it. When it arrived, I was dismayed at its heft (463 pages); amused at the irony of its cover illustration of a quill; and sorry when I came to the end of it. In the first pages, I was captured by the little story he told so well to demonstrate the affection and meaningfulness of words, books, and experience. My expectation had been of a formulaic how-to book of which we see so many, but it was itself a journey into the place of perception and creativity where words are as alive as we are, and reveal their sacredness as containers of soul and of meaning – and how to get to that place. Buhner pulled me deeper and deeper into the subject – stacking up meaning behind the words like water behind a dam, as he would say.

In fact, Ensouling Language called me back into myself, a reminder to write for what might be communicated about the interiority of my subject in its meaningfulness, and in the fact writer and readers’ communication occur well beyond (or deeply within) black text on white page, deeper than the dictionary definition of words. Rather, it occurs in the heart of the matter – where creation and some spirit of the nature of things seek to express themselves through the human heart and tongue and hand, and to result in something larger than either.

I struggle to find a descriptor for what he does. He nudges us out of a little ego’s perspective with its petty needs for common currency and approval, out of our humanocentric viewpoint, and out of any illusions of being objective. Perhaps it is this very difficulty in trying to “reduce” his effort to an easy few words that affirms the beauty and depth of his work.

I found him sometimes speaking as a shaman, sometimes as an analytical psychologist, sometimes as a prophet or Druid – and this is the work’s most direct relevance for us. For Buhner, words are not just things to be used to fill the space around us, nor are they something we use to avoid our fears by yakking about superficial things. Nor are they a tool to try to bridge our loneliness as human beings; but they have the capacity to take us to a place of discovery, where our fears are created, where our loneliness is rewarded and relationship is intimate – whether that be with a tree, a dolphin, another person’s experience or our own. As he says:

These moments of touch with the nonhuman world are what the ancient Greeks – the Athenians – called aisthesis. The get to aisthesis, those moments when we are touched in return, our nonphysical touching must go deeper than merely feeling the world. It must go to the place where touching travels both ways. And this, very definitely extends awareness a great deal further than our society wants it to go. It involves a living exchange between the human and the nonhuman world, eventually, with the world itself. By engaging in that exchange, we break a very powerful cultural injunction that is present in many Western cultures. We abandon the view of life that does not allow us to extend interiority to dolphins or trees or stones. (p. 143)

His writing was, in many ways, watching a deft psychoanalyst pay attention to a person’s utterances and what they reveal about the speaker, how they may fall short of their purpose and thereby shows the hidden baggage of the writer. He notes how one’s unresolved and unreflected upon personal issues become revealed and how hiding those issues flatten the work. Facing then directly gives depth and richness. It’s like my own work as a psychologist: not just listening to what people say, but how they say it in terms of the words they use, the tone of voice, facial expression, body language and context.

Something in me found a home in this book or, perhaps I should say, several aspects of me found a common heart through his writing: Druid, shaman, psychologist, writer, poet.

This is an easy book to recommend for its meaningfulness, its intelligence, depth, and genuineness in practicing what it is prescribing. He challenges the readers’ ways of perceiving and relating to the world, meanings put into words, framing of propositions and need to beware of the inevitable hidden baggage. But it’s not directly about a philosophy of genuineness, depth and presence: it’s a how-to manual (as he reminds us). He addresses the tension between “proper” grammar and writing for impact, dealing with editors, publishers and contracts; getting help and the whole business of delivering one’s words to the readers who hunger for them.

This is a book I can highly recommend, not only for aspiring writers, but for anyone who wants to engage the world deeply and recognizes the value of words in the exchange.

Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer's Life
Paperback: 480 pages
Publisher: Inner Traditions

Kindle Edition available!
File Size: 754 KB
ASIN: B00462RVFK

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Commentary on Reading Buhner’s Ensouling Language

Review by Karl Schlotterbeck, MA, CAS, LP - Archdruid

Photo of Karl Schlotterveck

Karl Schlotterbeck

I first heard of Buhner’s writings when a shamanic teacher recommended one of his earlier books, [amazon_link id="B004WLCSC6" target="_blank" ]The Lost Language of Plants [/amazon_link]  (2002 by Chelsea Green Publishing). In that book he wrote about the deep relationship between humanity and the natural world and how much of our human world is not only losing its ability to communicate with the natural world, but also altering it through our use of pharmaceuticals, most of which pass through the body unchanged into the environment.

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Buhner advocates knowing things so deeply that there is a response from them. It is an active and interactive perception that does not just see, but is also aware of being seen by what, to the blind, is a lifeless object.

Thus, he advocates more than a writing style, but a deep way of being that has escaped many of the schools of psychology that purport to help us, and most of the religious movements that want to tell us how to live. He asks for nothing less than an awareness and integration of the imaginal, feeling and thinking realms – not just having emotions and thoughts, but developing the capacity to feel into a subject, to be able to touch something from a distance – a form on non-physical touch. He calls for integrity and being aware where one’s baggage interferes with one’s intent, and the kind of choice one has to make about reality.

Writers in our time are caught up in a great conflict between two competing worldviews. It is in many ways the great problem our species now faces: whether the world is alive, filled with intelligence and soul, or whether it is just a ball of resources hurtling around the sun, there for our use in any way we see fit. (p. 370)

This, of course, has implications regarding what rights and responsibilities we grant corporations, social movements, governments, trees, stones and soil. Our treatment of the vulnerable will reveal who we are; and we begin to see a link among women, children, the elderly, ill, homeless, poor, mentally ill – and the environment. Do we recognize value and worth only when something (or someone) is of use to us? Only for what can be mined from it? Or do we walk through the world with respect and honor, recognizing that we are part of a community – not only of people, but of spirits, creatures, stars and the earth itself? Thus, the act of writing, when done well, reflects a deep awareness (both objective and subjective), and deals honestly with suppositions about the nature of life that must be examined, decisions about the distribution of power (in all its forms) that will be healthy for a community, and how we place value on people and things, and whether one can actually tolerate truth.

In America there is debate about whether corporations have the same privacy rights as actual human beings, or whether real people have a right to know the truth about how the power of wealth is used to influence their lives; there is debate about the role of government in business, economic and sexual worlds, and about who has what responsibility for the vulnerable, and whether we as a community care at all about who owns our natural resources and who can profit from them.

Unfortunately much of the debate is framed in sound-bite-sized thoughts passed around with shrill commentaries, avoiding any deep thinking or examination of principles beyond surface allegiances. Instead, we have packaged opinions manufactured by both sides of the debate, poured into our media outlets with a force dependent not on their truth but on the wealth of their backers – as if the more times it is said the more true it must be.

This debate is healthy and necessary; its execution, however, has been dishonest. The Cup of Truth will have been shattered many times over; the Goddess of the Land will have withdrawn her favor at the lack of honor in too many leaders; tribal lords in the form of corporate bosses and religious tyrants run amuck like warlords who justify their predatory nature with religious, political or anarchic clichés under cover of some self-appointed “divine” mandate. This is not so different from Middle Eastern countries with their hunger to free control from an autocratic power only to be faced with tribal warlords who will fill the vacuum. The ordinary people who want to live, want to raise their families and protect their children, to do some honest work and to enjoy what this world’s beauty has to offer are used for fodder in military, political and economic warfare. It seems little different from what is happening here in America: we can see the dissatisfaction in things as they’ve been here.

In Western culture, it may well be the poets, writers and other artists who have been carrying the mantle of Druidry, seeking obedience to their gods, celebrating the life found in all of nature, and reminding us of the truths lost in media onslaught, the race for the next dollar and the manufactured propaganda of our politicians, corporate behemoths, separatist militias and religious movements.

Any piece of Nature, broken off, immediately begins to degrade. Everything here in this place is meant to be biodegradable (including ourselves). (p. 368)

What might all this mean for Druids? I propose that we should expect honest, evidence-based and respectful debate. There’s hardly one answer here, but some application of the principles of Truth, of Honor, and of Courage should carry some weight – perhaps to inspire us to hold our leaders (both governmental and business) accountable to community values, to the ancestors, and to the Natural world that we share and hope to pass down to our children. This is not an easy road. If we honor truth, we must honor it not only in our own positions, but also where it might be found in the position of our “enemies.” In America, it seems we have two great forces: one shaped by its fear, hatred and drive for conformity; and one by its guilt, lack of commitment and spinelessness.

It’s not the assertions of the right or the left that is my first allegiance, but what keeps us in healthy relationship with Nature, what honors our ancestors and what brings me alive. Is what I profess consistent with reverence for the Nature Spirits that, from the beginning of time, have given us the means to live? Does it honor our ancestors, which includes our elders who are soon to become ancestors, and the children for whom we will one day be an ancestor? Are my philosophies worthy of the gods I say I worship? If we approach this with honor, with truth, with awareness and integrity, it would be of great service to ourselves, our families, our communities, our world, our relationship with the Otherworld, and our Druidism.

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