Monday, September 8, 2014

I and Thou

Martin Buber

"To Man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude. He perceives what exists round about him - simply things, and beings as things; and what happens round about him - simply events, and actions as events; things consisting of qualities, events of moments; things entered in the graph of place, events in that of time; things and events bounded by others things and events, measured by them, comparable with them: he perceives an ordered and detached world. It is to some extent a reliable world, having density and duration. Its organisation can be surveyed and brought out again and again; gone over with closed eyes, and verified with open eyes. It is always there, next to your skin, if you look on it that way, cowering in your soul, if you prefer it so. It is your object, remains it as long as you wish, and remains a total stranger, within you and without. You perceive it, take it to yourself as the 'truth', and it lets itself be taken; but it does not give itself to you. Only concerning it may you make yourself 'understood' with others; it is ready, though attached to everyone in a different way, to be an object common to you all. But you cannot meet others in it. You cannot hold on to life without it, its reliability sustains you; but should you die in it, your grave would be in nothingness.

"Or, on the other hand, Man meets what exists and becomes as what is over against him, always simply a single being and each thing simply as being. What exists is opened to him in happenings, and what happens affects him as what is. Nothing is present for him except this one being, but it implicates the whole world. Measure and comparison have disappeared; it lies with yourself how much of the immeasurable becomes reality for you. These meetings are not organised to make the world, but each is a sign of the world-order. They are not linked up with one another, but each assures you of your solidarity with the world. The world which appears to you in this way is unreliable, for it takes on a continually new appearance; you cannot hold it to its word. It has no density, for everything in it penetrates everything else; no duration, for it comes even when it is not summoned, and vanishes even when it is tightly held. It cannot be surveyed, and if you wish to make it capable of survey you lose it. It comes, and comes to bring you out; if it does not reach you, meet you, then it vanishes; but it comes back in another form. It is not outside you, it stirs in the depth of you; if you say 'Soul of my soul' you have not said too much. But guard against anything wishing to remove it into your soul - for then you annihilate it. It is your present; only while you have it do you have the present. You can make it into an object for yourself, to experience and to use; you must continually do this - and as you do it you have no more present. Between you and it there is mutual giving: you say Thou to it and give yourself to it, it says Thou to you and gives itself to you. You cannot make yourself understood with others concerning it, you are alone with it. But it teaches you to meet others, and to hold your ground when you meet them. Through the graciousness of its comings and the solemn sadness of its goings it leads you away to the Thou in which the parallel lines of relations meet. It does not help to sustain you in life, it only helps you to glimpse eternity."

I could, easily enough, have gone to the Internet to find the text, and cut-and-pasted it into this blog; but I have typed out every word myself, because it seems to me that this is what Buber is telling us, that the act of direct and immediate personal engagement is what life, and the understanding of life, is all about: 

* the difference between standing on the football terrace to support a team, and being out there on the field playing for the team, or even skipping the "big match" in order to gather your own team in some park somewhere, and why was the "big match" so important anyway, when you just played your own. 

* the difference between the vicarious and the lived. 

* the business of intensity, which Jewish Buber would probably have preferred to call "kavanah", a word that contains two meanings, both inward concentration and sincerity. 

The act of typing out required me to focus on his every word, to recognise that every word had been selected where another word might have been and therefore meant precisely what it meant and nothing else (in the original anyway; sadly I am not completely convinced that this is so in the translation; to which Buber would say: then go back to my original, and make your own translation; the lived not the vicarious, the direct not the indirect...)

The act of typing engaged me personally, obliging me to unravel meanings for myself, to pay heed to the internal arguments with their slow but eventual resolutions of internal contradictions, with their minor clarifications that were not always immediately apparent within the total act of clarification; obliged me to notice every element of punctuation too, and to observe the several occasions when, it seemed to me, the punctuation was faulty. To write by hand, or to type by fingers, focuses the mind more deeply than the act of reading, and the act of reading more deeply than the act of looking, at a TV or a movie screen, let alone reality. It is a matter of igniting the cognitive machinery. The same, in Buber's view, applies to love, to family, to friendship, to neighbourliness, to politics, to life. Intensity - kavanah - always intensity. To write at the level that one wants to write, one must first learn to live at the level that one wants to write. And vice versa.

Buber published "I and Thou" in Vienna in 1923 - and note that the original German title is "Ich und Du" and not "Ich und Sie", a subtlety that simply does not have an equivalent amid the universal informalities of English, not even by rendering it as "Thou" instead of "You". Where other philosophers require volumes to explain their conception of life in all its forms, Buber contrived the minor miracle of saying everything he had to say in a slim volume of less than a hundred pages. The consequence, of course, of applying his own theories to himself.

But books don't just happen. If we too apply Buber's theories back to himself, we might assume that, given the intensity of his engagement with life, the book must have emerged out of the process of deep reflection and concentration. And yes it did, but only at a secondary stage. Because the first stage was the very opposite. The book emerged precisely because Buber had failed to engage, had failed to reflect, had failed to pay attention, even superficially. Later he would tell the tale of this himself, but in two versions, identical until the endings; and while there is a significant element of guilt in both versions, it is somewhat 
expiated in the first version, considerably extenuated in the second; and as this differential also elucidates the "twofold" concept of I-and-Thou extremely lucidly, we may choose to assume that he deliberately established the conundrum as an analogy, by creating the two versions.
Born in Vienna in 1878, he had spent most of his twenties and thirties in Germany, studying and teaching both philosophy and religion, writing books about both religious and mystical experience. And then, "nel mezzo del cammin di sua vita", as Dante might have put it, at the mid-point of his life both intellectually and chronologically, there came a morning when he was working in his upstairs room at home, meditating, praying, writing, and he was interrupted by a knock at his front door. A former student was standing there, one with whom he had been extremely close, a tutor as much as a teacher. Buber greeted him warmly, spoke to him for a few moments, was glad when he went away again before too long, because work was awaiting him upstairs, and he had hoped not to be interrupted.

So far the two versions are identical. But now they change.

In the first version ("It was in the late autumn of 1914", according to a letter from Buber to Maurice Friedman, written in August 1954)
, Buber tells that he never saw the young man again, that shortly afterwards the student was called into the army, and died in battle. Regrets that he didn't engage him deeper; sadness that one so young, so full of potential, should have been taken for so pointless a reason. Sentimental regrets, no more than that.

In the second version, Buber tells what he later learned from a mutual friend, that the young man had come to him that day in need of help, at a moment of personal identity crisis, in the hope that, if anyone could provide the basic affirmation of life that he was needing, then surely his beloved former tutor could. But his former tutor was preoccupied, uninterested, anxious to get back to his work, didn't even invite the young man indoors, for tea, a biscuit, a question about his current work, and life. Oh, he was polite, cordial, friendly, but only on the doorstep, not really interested. The young man seeking affirmation had received negation. That night he took an overdose of drugs and brought negation to fulfilment.
"Ever since then," Buber wrote in "Between Man and Man" in 1947, "I have given up the sacred. Or rather it has given me up. I know now no fullness but each mortal hour's fullness." The Mystery, he says, was no longer "out there" for him, but was instead to be found in the present moment with the present person, in the present world. Direct, personal engagement. I-and-Thou.

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