Monday, June 15, 2009

Martin Buber's "I and Thou"

"The world is twofold for man in accordance with his twofold attitude," begins Buber, translated by Walter Kaufmann. The twofold attitude to the world, I-You and I-It, is elaborated and contrasted at length in the First Part of this three-part treatise. The world as experience and use belongs to I-It, whereas I-You establishes the world of relation. When I encounter the Other (nature, human being, or spiritual being) as my You, he is not a thing among things nor does he consist of things. As You, he fills the firmament, "not as if there were nothing but he; but everything else lives in his light" (p. 59). 

The Second Part explains the history of the human race as an unfortunate increase of the It-world, and calls for a return to I-You. The Third Part argues that, whereas all other I-You's must lapse into I-It, the only eternal I-You is that which inheres in our relationship with God, the eternal You.  Relation, and not union, with God. 

I am glad I read Buber's text before Kaufmann's Prologue. In doing so, I experienced something of the spell Buber must have cast on his first readers. Primed to receive a word of wisdom and authority, I heard Buber as the You he describes. For a period of two days, I saw everything else in his light, and the light was melancholic, ecstatic and humbling. It was the light as voice, as language, attenuated as it was in translation. 

Yet Kaufmann insists that Buber's most significant ideas are not tied to his extraordinary language. In summarizing his ideas--the sacred is here and now; God is no object of discourse, knowledge, or even experience; God cannot be spoken of, but he can be spoken to--Kaufman breaks the spell. He puts Buber in context, which means Buber becomes a thing among things, and so is subject to analysis, judgment and use. How necessary It is, and splendid is I-It.

Key to his qualified admiration of Buber is Kaufmann's contention that "Man's world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold," and not twofold as Buber states. In attitudes without a You, Kaufmann differentiates between I-I, It-It, We-We and Us-Them, apart from I-It. Even I-You comes in different modes. We like to be told, however, there are two worlds and two ways because that scheme is so tidy and comforting. And philosophers and prophets oblige us with different versions of twofoldedness. Freud's Das Ich und das Es came out in the same year as I and Thou, and its thinking too is deeply dualistic. 

Kaufmann has also interesting things to say about how much closer Buber is to Judaism than to Christianity, despite his adoption by Protestant theologians. In Buber's call for a return to God, the same return in the Book of Jonah read every year on Yom Kippur, there is no need for a sacrifice like Jesus's on the cross. To return, for Buber, is to re-encounter in the every day "the countenance of God."

Having just read Paz's "Modernity and Poetry" essay yesterday, I was struck by Buber's emphasis on the present (as opposed to the past and the future), and the presence of God. To dwell on--in--the present cures nostalgia for the past as well as fever for an utopian future. 


Eshuneutics said...

Nicely put, Jee. There are many bits of interest, but what struck me, as a young man, and produced that flash of light many years ago, was the statememnt that human relations exist in "quality" not in the participants. Relationship isn't right or wrong according to gender, but validated entirely by the "Thou" of the participants. Amidst the beauty of language are some massive political statements.
Yes? I am so glad that you got round to Buber.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Dear Eshu,
I am very glad I read it. I agree important political implications can be drawn from Buber's work, but the fact that "I and Thou" is nowhere explicit about gender means that homophobic ideas can be extrapolated from it as well, or at least the work does not prevent its use by homophobic writers. My guess is that Protestant theologians take to Buber because he gives acceptable contemporary language to ideas they hold dear. He gives them cover for ideas already largely rejected by secular societies.