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Booklog: I and Thou

September 10, 2007

I and Thou
Martin Buber
Read: 8.17.07
Rating: Good

This being my third attempt at I and Thou, I decided for a reason (hence lost to me) to begin without reading the Prologue. I don’t have a rule about reading introductions or prologues, typically just acting on whim, so this isn’t unusual. The Prologue to I and Thou is atypical, however, in that it has a title of it’s own, “I and You,” and is written by the translator (Walter Kauffman) in a style similar to the text itself. It begins: “Man’s world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold” — a response to Buber’s opening sentence: “The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude.” This beginning led me to believe that the Prologue was a work unto itself, one that was more a response to or continuation of Buber’s text — so I ignored it and dove right in.

Had I read the Prologue, this following translator’s note, which Kauffman placed on page 164, a mere four pages from the book’s conclusion, would not have struck me as a revelation:

The main problem with this kind of writing is that those who take it seriously are led to devote their whole attention to what might be meant, and the question is rarely asked whether what is meant is true, or what grounds there might be for either believing or disbelieving it.

An odd translator’s note, this. I imagine that Kauffman must have been tempted to unleash it much earlier in the text, but managed to hold off until he nearly reached its conclusion. Had I read the Prologue, in which Kauffman deals at length with the difficulty of the book’s language and the near impossibility of discerning what numerous passages mean, I would have been spared the trouble. It was liberating to discover, on page 164, and subsequently in the Prologue, that the translator thought of the book in much the same way I did: that the obscurity of I and Thou‘s language is tantalizingly difficult, almost excitingly obtuse, but all too often simply impossible.

One of the easiest things to grasp is the basic outline of the book’s vocabulary: the “twofold” world mentioned in the first sentence. Buber splits the world into two different “word pairs”: I-It and I-You. I-It is the world of experience, objects, content and information (“O piling up of information! It, it it!”). I-You is the world of relation, and it is described in mystical terms: unquantifiable, it approaches but cannot be approached, it arrives but cannot be sought, etc. I-it is anchored in the past, I-You is always present. Buber’s split is not the separation of the world into “matter” and “ideas” or something similarly Platonic; both of these would fall into the It world. The world of “I-You” is not transcendent in terms of location, but it is similarly separate from everyday experience. It is certainly supernatural — it is important to keep in mind that Buber is a religious mystic, and the state (relationship) that he attempts to describe is one that lacks content. Here is a typically beautiful passage:

There are moments of the secret ground in which world order is beheld as present. The the tone is heard all of a sudden whose uninterpretable score the ordered world is. These moments are immortal; none are more evanescent. They leave no content that could be preserved, but their force enters into the creation and into man’s knowledge, and the radiation of its force penetrates to ordered world and thaws it again and again. Thus the history of the individual, thus the history of the race.

These ideas (the mystical ones), as expressed by Buber, are very appealing from the perspective of the creative process and the creation of art. Buber describes art as a process in which “a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him,” a process of actualization of an eternal form that confronts the artist. This is a familiar description, one that I’ve always liked, and one that was all over Gaddis’s The Recognitions, so I was excited by the possibility that Buber was really onto something. Unfortunately, as I read on I didn’t see how much he was actually contributing to this idea with his framework. For many people, fitting a theory about the creative process into one about religious experience is very important; for me it’s the other way around, so Buber wasn’t quite the fit I was initially hoping for.

My favorite part of Buber’s twofold paradigm is how it speaks to the individual’s existence in the world, and his relations to other individuals. Where Buber strays into the territory we typically associate with existential philosophy, he’s brilliant. Buber believes that relations to other people can be, and on a level always are, I-You relationships, because there is something eternal and unquantifiable about each member of the encounter. He sets the act of love against mere experience and utility. This is my favorite passage in the text:

Feelings one “has”; love occurs. Feelings dwell in man, but man dwells in love. This is no metaphor but actuality: love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its “content” or its object; it is between I and You. Whoever does not know this, know this with his being, does not know love, even if he should ascribe to it the feelings that he lives through, experiences, enjoys, and expresses. Love is a cosmic force. For those who stand in it and behold in it, men emerge from their entanglement in busy-ness; and the good and the evil, the clever and the foolish, the beautiful and the ugly, one after another become actual and a You for them; that is, liberated emerging into a unique confrontation.

For similar reasons, the book’s Second Part is the best of the three, for it concerns the question of the individual and his relationship with the world. Buber eloquently regulates and demotes the typical “saviors” of man, especially the societal and governmental, to the It-world. Experience, the piling up of information, hardly helps, for it takes a man farther from the world of relation. There are no solutions in this section, just the tearing down of worldly idols. Here is Buber’s conclusion: “Thus feels man in the hours when he collects himself: overcome by horror, pondering, without direction” — a classic case of alienation.

What will help is relation to the “eternal You,” that is, God — “the supreme encounter” of mystical experience. Buber makes his intentions clear early in the Third Part (the God Part). He does not believe that it is possible to say what is needed, at least not by way of prescription. Rather, things need to be given up: self-affirmation, the love of things, all that is particular. What I like best about Buber’s mysticism is that it is decidedly not an escape; it is not even a search: “in truth, there is no God-seeking because there is nothing where one could not find him.” There is only longing and encounter. No flight from the world is necessary. This is a fine line for Buber to walk, considering his It-You dichotomy, but I believe he pulls it off, and I think this is pretty impressive.

If and when an encounter with the eternal You does occur, it involves “the inexpressible confirmation of meaning. It is guaranteed. Nothing, nothing can henceforth be meaningless. The question about the meaning of life has vanished.” No content is conveyed, so it cannot be expressed or even experienced, but no definition is necessary. The meaning here is not otherworldly, “but that that of this our life, not that of ‘beyond’ but of this our world.” The end result of such an experience is only manifest in actions:

We cannot go to others with what we have received, saying: This is what needs to be known, this is what needs to be done. We can only go and put to the proof in action. And even this is not what we “ought to” do: rather we can — we cannot do otherwise.

This is where understanding runs into a wall, probably the very one Buber describes. For much of the book’s Third Part, Buber is explaining what it is like to have a religious experience, something that he clearly is familiar with. He insists that there is no prescription, that the relation has no content, but this is the very problem with attempting to describe ones own mystical encounters. Buber uses some wildly creative and beautiful language in his attempt to do so, but I eventually return to:

The main problem with this kind of writing is that those who take it seriously are led to devote their whole attention to what might be meant, and the question is rarely asked whether what is meant is true, or what grounds there might be for either believing or disbelieving it.

This brings me back to the question of art, specifically writing, for what Buber is attempting to do is bring the form of his encounter into words. It’s not as abstract as a novel or a sculpture, but the basic attempt is the same. How does one form an experience, one that lacks content, into a string of words so that the meaning (content?) is conveyed to the reader?

Two novels I’ve read recently tackle this problem directly. Gaddis, in The Recognitions, treats what Buber would call the “world of I-It” with ruthless disdain, using satire and bitterness to destroy the reader’s faith in things he would typically turn to for meaning. The book’s protagonist, Wyatt, calls for an entirely new way of thinking and talking about what is good and true, and attempts to capture it in his paintings. Also, the “recognitions” that populate the book are extremely similar to the description Buber gives of art. On a different level, Virginia Woolf, who I believe is, like Buber, concerned with mystical experience that takes place firmly in the world and not out of it, searches for unity in Jacob’s Room. If man is to achieve unity, despite the alarming number of particulars that occupy his existence, it will only be through attention to detail and impression, truly occupying the present, and putting into words the fleeting moments of almost mystical unity that are more than just experience, but something much greater and more fulfilling.

I love Buber’s attempt. I don’t find it wholly successful, partly because I am disinclined towards religion, but mostly because his writing, though it is occasionally beautiful, is too often impenetrable. Problematically, when it is penetrable, it frequently disintegrates into platitudes. Buber has more than his share of brilliant flashes, but I don’t think their brilliance is sustainable.

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Falling Behind

September 5, 2007

Ugh. This has got to be my least favorite part about book blogging: I have recently finished three books, but can’t find the time or energy to write them up in a way I would find satisfactory. (I’m not counting The Recognitions in this tally, even though I finished it in May and still can’t figure out how to properly respond.)

Here are the booklogs I need to write, in the order I finished the books:

  1. The Recognitions (May 19)
  2. I and Thou (August 17)
  3. Jacob’s Room (August 21)
  4. The Corrections (August 30)

Hopefully, if all is well, I can write at least three of these (probably excepting The Recognitions) before I finish any more books, or at any rate before I leave for vacation in two weeks.

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John Hancocks

August 22, 2007

Via Books, Words, and Writing, a fun-to-browse collection of signatures.

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Booklog: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

August 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Read: 7.21.07
Rating: Good

(I’ve been waiting to post this to avoid any spoilers, but by now you’ve had plenty of time).

At a certain point I began to expect too much from Harry Potter, to the point where a letdown was all but assured. I’d say this came in three stages: (1) the day I finished book four in a frenzy, and Dumbledore spoke of a war beginning — clearly this is the moment when the stakes were raised and I realized I was reading something that was already very good and had the potential to be engrossingly wonderful; (2) when most of my best friends caught on as well, and we found ourselves hypothesizing and dissecting and generally getting way too excited about what was and probably still is a children’s book (or, at least, an adolescent’s book), and, more specifically, (3) when I opened Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a few minutes after midnight and saw this epigraph by Aeschylus:

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

Ohmygod! the nerdiest aspect of my being screamed: an epigraph! by Aeschylus! from The Libation Bearers! I love Aeschylus! Surely this book will be magnificent!

But then it wasn’t. It was good, and in different ways than I expected. What happened was that my favorite aspects of the series — “what’s going to happen to my favorite characters?” “how will this mystery be resolved?” “is Snape a good guy or not?” etc — were less than stellar in this concluding book; but its surprising reach, that the arc of Harry Potter would approach that of high tragedy, nearly made up for the book’s other weaknesses. This at least, I told myself for at least two weeks after finishing, was a major success.

Now I’m not so sure. I was willing to convince myself that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the series in general, was serious — certainly not “great literature,” but something close, at least in terms of the Big Ideas of Theme, Message, and Meaning. Written down a level, to be sure, but getting there, reaching for it, and sometimes grasping it. I was crying, after all, at the end of each of the last three books — didn’t this count for something?

Now the backlash has begun, as a result of Book 7’s disappointing conclusion. I’m not a fan who had an ideal ending in mind, and I still don’t, but I wish Rowling hadn’t tried to have it both ways. Sam Anderson, writing for New York, explains what I mean. The whole paragraph is very funny, so I’ll quote in full:

I’m not opposed to happy endings per se — I’m just opposed to an author trying to get emotional credit for both a tragic and a happy ending without actually earning either. Rowling had been gathering storm clouds for ten years; her fictional sky was as purple and lumpy as a Quidditch stadium full of plums, and the whole world had lined up to watch it rain. She owed this ritual sacrifice to the immortal gods of narrative: either the life of her hero or—infinitely harder to pull off—his convincing and improbable survival. With Harry’s death, the series would have graduated instantly from “light and possibly fluky popular megasuccess” to Heavy Tragic Fantasy Classic. Instead, at the last possible moment, she tacked on an episode of Leave It to Beaver. This is roughly the equivalent of Oedipus Rex’s tearing his eyes out, then stumbling across a wise old friend who tells him: “Hey, guess what, buddy? You know how you just killed your dad and slept with your mom, like the oracle predicted? Well, since you did it all with totally innocent love in your heart, it doesn’t count! Go tell your mom to untie that noose! And look, your eyes just grew back! All is well!” Rowling seems to misunderstand the power of catharsis. It’s not simple reassurance, it’s a primal release.

Right on! And about that “Epilogue,” my final, non-tear-stained, analysis is roughly: are you fucking kidding me! What kind of writer deems it a good idea to conclude her seven-volume epic with the worst piece of writing in the entire series? (But apparently, not everyone thinks so: Stephen King finds the epilogue “gorgeous.” For my response to this, see the words in italics just above.)

Really, though, at the end of the day, the Harry Potter series is more in the line (okay, at the front of the line) of a top-tier blockbuster movie franchise or comic-book story-arc. (This is one reason why the movies are so good.) Think Spiderman. There are plenty of awesome characters, some marvelous plot developments, plenty of reference to significance that the form can’t quite hold, plenty of contrivances, and most importantly, lots of things that make you think: “That was awesome!” This is a good thing, but not much more than that. I wish she wouldn’t have fooled me with the Aeschylus.

Recommended further reading:

‘New York’ Book Critic Sam Anderson’s ‘Deathly Hallows’ Reading Diary

The reaction Mr. Anderson reports is very similar, albeit more composed, to what I experienced around 7:30 on Saturday morning (a nap wasn’t really a possibility for me).

Sunday, 6:38 p.m. Page 738. And here’s the cop-out. Harry Potter is actually Jesus Christ. It turns out that, because of the purity of his sacrifice, he doesn’t actually have to die — he gets to go back and kill Voldemort. And just as a bonus, his sacrifice has redeemed humanity

Tetsubo Productions – Wherein It’s Completely Legal Now So Bite Me

Another reading diary, this one much longer and completely hysterical. This gentleman, judging from his story, had a — ahem — hard time getting “a hold of” the book.

Page 7: Voldy: “That Potter lives is due more to my errors than his triumphs.” I refer you to David R. Henry’s old maxim about fiction: when the characters themselves echo common complaints about the plot, there are Issues.

Dispatches: Harry Potter and Hallowed Death

This 3quarksdaily post is everything mine is not: thoughtful, well-written, and fair.

In Deathly Hallows, after five hundred pages of strangely penitent plot starvation comes an emetic span in which the main storylines, and masses of other loose ends, are tied up within a hundred pages: plot bulimia.

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Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote: Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

August 16, 2007

(cross posted on Tilting at Windmills)

Yes, I still plan on reading and posting on the entirety of Nabokov’s Lectures on Don Quixote. I stopped in May because so much of what Nabokov spoke of would have “spoiled” the book for those still reading it, and I would have to take great care not to mention any specific events that occur later in the text. Now it’s September, and quite a few have finished with the novel, and even those yet to finish have read enough so that I don’t have to worry about ruining (quite so much). Onward!

Nabokov does not think very highly of Sancho Panza. His first true lecture, “Two Portraits: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza,” begins:

Even if allowance is made for the falling away of the Spanish in the twilight of translation, even so Sancho’s cracks and proverbs are not very mirth provoking either in themselves or in their repetitious accumulation. The corniest modern gag is funnier.

I disagree with this and, judging from what I’ve read, most of the members of this group probably do as well. But this stance fits with Nabokov’s general approach to Don Quixote, namely to highlight the cruelty of the book and not its whimsy. His reading of the book’s two main characters is the first aspect of this approach:

The Knight of the Mournful Countenance is as unique individual; with some reservations, Sancho of the matted beard and tomato nose is the generalized clown.

Let’s consider them each in turn.

The Man Don Quixote

Nabokov first considers the “gruesome details” of the Don’s appearance: he is gaunt and grizzled, with a suit of armor that is “old, black, and moldy,” and a horse that is the image of its master. Despite this less-than-inspiration exterior, Nabokov considers Don Quixote to be “a gallant gentleman, a man of infinite courage, a hero in the truest sense of the word,” even insisting in parenthesis “(This important point should be kept in mind.)” Nabokov’s Don Quixote is “without malice” and “trustful as a child.”

In explaining Don Quixote’s madness, Nabokov reveals a highly amusing anecdote about his choice of food:

At fifty he plunged into the reading of books of chivalry and took to eating heavy suppers, including what one translator (Duffield) renders as “resurrection pie” (duelos y quebrantos — literally, pains and breakage), a “pot made of the flesh of animals who have died accidental deaths by falling down precipices and getting their neck bones broken.”

More important is Nabokov’s insistence that Don Quixote views the world in dual form: “Reality and illusion are invterwoven in the pattern of life.” He also remarks upon the fact that the Don, unlike many epic heroes (Odysseys and Aeneas are cited), does not have any divine support for his mission – he is completely on his own.

The Man Sancho Panza (The Pig Belly on Crane Legs)

Nabokov’s study of Sancho Panza is less than illuminating. After I finished it, my only thought was that Nabokov clearly did not find Sancho funny, at all, and that this is a flaw in his reading of the book. He insists that Sancho is a “product of generalization” who is “never as detailed as Don Quixote.” This is true only in the fact that Don Quixote is the namesake of the text, and Sancho the secondary character. He is remarkably round for a supporting actor, and far from the “perfect bore” that Nabokov portrays.

Near of the end of his lecture Nabokov slips in a nasty attack on readers with different taste than his, claiming that “all readers can be separated into Don Quixotes and Sancho Panzas.” You have one guess to determine which one Nabokov thinks that he is.

Nabokov’s determination not to see any humor in the book is a serious shortcoming, and one that will concern me as a read the rest of his lecture series. Read this, and you’ll see why:

Scholars who speak of sidesplitting episodes in the book do not reveal any permanent injury to their ribs. That in this book the humor contains, as one critic puts it, “a depth of philosophical insight and genuine humanity, in which qualities it has been excelled by no other writer” seems to me to be a staggering exaggeration. The Don is certainly not funny. His squire, with all his prodigious memory for old saws, is even less funny than his master.

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Best of On the Web: Number 3

August 14, 2007

It’s been even longer than I thought (two months!) since the last time I did this, so I’ll keep it short, recent and Potter-free.

  • I am planning on letting my subscription to the New Yorker expire, since most of their content is online, but the news that James Wood will be joining the staff is forcing me to reconsider.
  • I’m not very good at finding veiled sex in older novels, so the Little Professor’s “Handy-Dandy Guide to Code Words” in Victorian fiction is most helpful.
  • Best. Post. Ever. from The Existence Machine
  • If you’re wondering what postmodernism is, you could do worse than read litlove’s fantastic answer to the question: What is Postmodernism?
  • I agree with the judgment of this “classic review” of To Kill a Mockingbird which appeared in the Atlantic in 1960.
  • From Larval Subjects, a deep and thought provoking post on existing.
  • And finally, the god-awful results of the 2007 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest are in. Here’s my favorite:

The poetry teacher’s bullet-riddled body lay sprawled on the veranda floor like a patient etherized upon a table.

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Greatest Love Story Meme

August 14, 2007

It’s a slow day at work, perfect for a meme. (I got this from Ted).

Legend:

I’ve read it
I want to read it
I’ve seen the movie*
I’m indifferent
I have it on DVD**
I want to marry the leading man/lady!

The list:

  1. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë, 1847*
  2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813**
  3. Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare, 1597**
  4. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë, 1847*
  5. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell, 1936*
  6. The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje, 1992*
  7. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier, 1938*
  8. Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak, 1957
  9. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, DH Lawrence, 1928
  10. Far from The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy, 1874
  11. My Fair Lady, Alan Jay Lerner, 1956*
  12. The African Queen, CS Forester, 1935
  13. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald, 1925*
  14. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen, 1811*
  15. The Way We Were, Arthur Laurents, 1972
  16. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy, 1865
  17. Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne du Maurier, 1942
  18. Persuasion, Jane Austen, 1818*
  19. Take a Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis, 1960
  20. Daniel Deronda, George Eliot, 1876
  21. Maurice, E.M. Forester, 1971 (posth.)
  22. The Good Solider: A Tale of Passion, Ford Madox Ford, 1915
  23. The Goldbug Variations, Richard Powers, 1991
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