Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Warring monologues

Martin Buber, via Wikipedia.
Yesterday was philosophy day in Brooksville! "Read Buber, Not the Polls!"
There has been so much bad communication over the past year: people talking in warring monologues past each other, ignoring the facts and using lazy stereotypes like “elites” and “Trumpeans” to reduce complex individuals into simplistic categories. Meanwhile, our main candidates are poor connectors. We’ve got the self-enclosed narcissism of Donald Trump and, to a lesser degree, the mistrustful defensiveness of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
Using a lazy stereotype like "mistrustful defensiveness" to reduce Hillary Clinton to a simplistic category.
As an antidote for all this, I’ve been reading the work of Martin Buber, the early 20th century Jewish theologian who dedicated his career to understanding deep intimacy. Buber is famous for the distinction between I-It relationships and I-Thou relationships.
Question to Radio Yerevan: Did Martin Buber, the early 20th-century theologian, dedicate his career to understanding deep intimacy?

Answer: In principle, yes, but
  • first of all, he is not normally called a theologian, though he has had immense influence on theologians, especially Protestant, but a philosopher, religious thinker or phenomenologist of religion, political activist, and educator, "theology" representing an overly narrow view of his interests in just one of his departments;
  • second of all, he didn't dedicate his career to understanding the "I-Thou" relationship, if that's what "deep intimacy" is about, but felt he had understood it pretty well when he published his (short) book on the subject in 1923, 42 years before his death, in a career that included an enormous anthropological (as opposed to theological) study of Hasidic Jews, a complete translation of the Hebrew Bible into German, an extremely wide-ranging philosophy of education, and a central figure in a progressive socialist Zionism that rejected the concept of a "Jewish state" in favor of a binational state in which Jewish and Arab I's and Thou's would fully recognize one another's humanity; and
  • third of all, "deep intimacy"? really? must you always make philosophy sound like porn?
A better word for the character of what he felt people needed to bring into their relationships with others would have been "immediacy".

Has he really "been reading" Buber's I and Thou? My guess is he's been mostly looking at Kenneth Kramer's Martin Buber's I and Thou: Practicing Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2003), a kind of Buber self-help manual (looks like a pretty good one as these things go, I should say), which
puts into practice and vigorously affirms the moral validity of Buber's philosophy, with its extension to love, marriage, the family, the community, and God, in the conviction that genuine dialogue will effect better relations with one another, the world and God.... with a glossary of Buberian terms, practice exercises for true dialoguing, and discussion questions.... A must-read for undergraduates, as well as relationship counselors, therapists, and general readers, who will benefit from the work's clarity and ease of expression.
Mainly because that's pretty clearly where he got the wording for his unintentionally comical summary of Buber's emotional biography:
Buber’s story is also apt because he overcame betrayal to come to a posture of trust. When he was a small boy, his mother eloped with an Army officer and wasn’t seen for 30 years. But he still had the courage to throw himself wholly in with his wife, Paula.
Since Kramer's book is unique among available sources in using the words "eloped with an army officer" (p. 45) and mentioning the term of Buber's separation from his mother as 30 years (p. 46). The Buberian technical expression "mutually animated describing", which Brooks mentions in the column, is cited on p. 86 with a reference to Buber's separation or "mismeeting" from his mother and his "meeting" with Paula, and other Buberian expressions Brooks uses, "all living is meeting" on pp. 21 and 22 and "the exalted melancholy of our fate" on pp. 25 and 26, though his long quotation on "the development of the soul in the child" is not there and seems likely to have come directly from Buber's book (p. 26 of the familiar translation by Ronald Gregor Smith). Incidentally, poor Paula seems to have gotten lost in the struggle, in Brooks's view, since he sees Buber's I-Thou relationship as being with his marriage instead of with her.
Their marriage became a living example of a true and equal Thou.
Ha. Guess who else converted to Judaism when she hooked up with a future public intellectual? But it didn't work out as well for Mrs. Brooks as it did for Mrs. Buber. Perhaps Brooks didn't toss himself into the marital mosh pit with the requisite abandon.

What I can't find anywhere is the concept Brooks ascribes to Buber of how communities "begin":
Some organizations and leaders nurture openhearted bonds. Such communities usually began, Buber wrote, with some sacred Thou moment — like the Exodus story for the Jews or the revolutionary struggles of the early Americans. Leaders connect current problems to that “living effective center” and set the table for situations of caring and trust.
The passage he's referring to, from p. 45 of I and Thou (89-90 of the Kramer book, but I can't get far enough in to it to guess how Kramer interprets it), in opposition to "men who suffer distress in the realisation that institutions yield no public life", who complain about the failure of the "mechanical state" to promote a "being together" and call for the state to "be replaced by the community of love"—

The true community does not arise through peoples having feelings for one another (though indeed not without it), but through, first, their taking their stand in living mutual relation with a living Centre, and, second, their being in living mutual relation with one another. The second has its source in the first, but is not given when the first alone is given. Living mutual relation includes feelings, but does not originate with them. The community is built up out of living mutual relation, but the builder is the living effective Centre. 
—is certainly not about the American Revolution and presumably not about the Exodus either, or any historical or mythical "moment" as much as an evolution, and specifically an argument against people like Brooks: not to ask "leaders" to abandon the mechanical state and turn to inspiring folks to love one another, but to allow the state to keep doing what it does as individuals enter into their own unmediated relations with that Center (something Buber isn't comfortable calling "God" in this context).

Brooks and his distress are the problem, in Buber's view.

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