Archive for September, 2007

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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.