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I and Thou (Talk 2 of 4)

Talk on Martin Buber's Philosophical Work "I and Thou"

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jan 25, 2006
Location: Awakened Heart Project for Contemplative Judaism
In topic: Philosophy
"For Buber, we are created moment by moment by what we encounter." Buber's philosophy is discussed as a "philosophy of relationship and dialogue." "Buber is saying there is no such thing as a person without a person-in-relation."
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I and Thou Talk 2

Zoketsu Norman Fischer

January 25, 2006 

Abridged and edited by Anne Johnson, Barbara Byrum, and Cynthia Schrager 

Note: When quoting Buber, Norman has substituted gender neutral language for Buber's typical use of the masculine pronoun, which was current at that time.

 

 We established the idea that Buber’s basic concept of “I and Thou” is something really simple and obvious, and at the same time, revolutionary and startling. This can be seen in his discussion of the difference between an “I – it” relationship and an “I – thou” relationship to a tree: 

I contemplate a tree. 

I can accept it as a picture: a rigid pole in a flood of light, or splashes of green traversed by the gentleness of the blue silver ground. 

I can feel it as movement: the flowing veins around the sturdy, striving core… infinite commerce with the earth and air and the growing itself in its darkness. 

I can assign it to a species. 

“But,” he says, “throughout all of this, the tree remains my object and has its place and its time span.” 

The I – it relationship is not trivial or unsophisticated. There are many things you can appreciate about this tree, while it still remains an object to you.  However, he also describes a different kind of relationship: 

But it can happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It. The power of exclusiveness has seized me. 

Exclusiveness means that this tree, the one right in front of me, becomes the whole world. It’s not one among many trees; it’s not just an illustration of tree-ness; it’s not just a function of the laws of nature. The being of this tree covers everything. “This does not require me to forgo any of the modes of contemplation,” he explains.  I can still see the tree in all the ways I saw it before, but now, the spirit and the attitude and the sense of it are completely different: “Whatever belongs to the tree is included…. [Now the tree] confronts me bodily, and has to deal with me and I with it – only differently.” 

Buber continues, “One should not try to dilute the meaning of the relation: relation is reciprocity.” I think a lot of people don’t understand this. We think relation is about me, my experience, but actually it’s reciprocity. It’s not just my experience; it’s an encounter. I don’t know what will happen, and I’m not in charge of what will happen. That is why it is so scary to be in this kind of relation, because, in the case of a person, I have to give myself to what could happen with a person. If I open myself to the exclusivity of the person, and I am confronted bodily by the person, it might require something of me. It might require that I let go of my comfort zone, let go of my point of view. Relation is reciprocity. 

When I confront a human being as my You and speak the basic word I - You to that person, then the person is no thing among things, nor does the person consist of things. 

The person is no longer He or She, limited by other Hes or Shes-- a dot in the world grid of space and time, nor a condition that can be experienced and described. A person is not an experience that can be conditioned and described. 

A person is not a loose bundle of named qualities. He’s a lawyer. She’s a doctor

Neighborless and seamless” [without peer, just exclusively there] the person is You and fills the firmament.  Not as if there were nothing but that person; but everything else lives in his or her light. 

The whole world is lit up by that encounter when it is a You encounter. I can abstract various qualities from a person, but as soon as I’ve done that, as soon as I have identified the person in various ways, the person is no longer a You; the person becomes an It. 

Buber tell us,  “I do not find the human being to whom I say You in any Sometime and Somewhere.” So this relationship is outside of space and time. Buber is deeply considering what it means to be in relationship. We all have an idea about relationship and what it means to be in a relation to a person. Buber is saying you don’t really know what a relation is. It is a much deeper and complex set of events than you thought it was. It is unusual to say that a relationship is outside of space and time. Whoever thought of such a thing! But he says that if you are really in this depth of relationship, it doesn’t happen in time and space. 

I can place a person there [in time and space] and have to do this again and again, but immediately he becomes a He or She, an It, and no longer remains my You. 

This tells us that the I – You relationship is not an on-going experience that flickers on and off. The I – You relationship must include an I – It relationship too.

“The human being to whom I say You I do not experience,” Buber says.  Remember his earlier discussion about experience in which he says that experience by its nature is superficial. It’s always I – It. But an I – You is not experience, it is relation. So, the person with whom I have an I – You relationship is not somebody I experience: 

But I stand in relation to that person, in the sacred basic word.  Only when I step out of this do I experience the person again. Experience is remoteness from You. 

In other words, if I have a moment of “You” relationship, afterward, when I describe it, then it is experience. But in the moment, it is beyond description. So in the same way, the I – You relationship is both an experience and not an experience. When I describe it, when I decide to make use of it, when it becomes part of my personal history, it is an I – It experience, but in the moment of the true encounter, it is not an experience. 

The relation can obtain even if the human being to whom I say You does not hear it in his experience. For You is more that It knows. You does more, and more happens to it than It knows. No deception reaches this far: here is the cradle of actual life.

So even if the relationship is not reciprocated, even if the person is not capable of coming that far to meet you, it doesn’t matter.

In the next section, he talks about art. A poet friend of mine was writing an essay about art, and I referred her to this particular passage in Buber, because this is one of the most brilliant analyses of art work, making of art and the experience of art that I have ever read in a short one page. 

This is the eternal origin of art that a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through the person. Not a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands something of the soul’s creative power. 

I always say that in my poetry, writing is not self-expression. I’m not trying to express and explain my experiences. I’m trying to respond to the demands of the form of the poem. 

What is required is a deed that people do with their whole being; if they commit it and speak with their being the basic word to the form that appears, then the creative power is released and the work comes into being. 

So the form is not yet existing, but something speaks to you. This is exactly my experience in writing poems. I don’t want to write about something. I don’t even have a sense of exactly what the poem is going to be, but something is speaking to me as a form in words, and I try to meet that thing with my whole being. Out of that encounter the poem arises. 

For Buber: “The deed involves a sacrifice and a risk.” The sacrifice is that everything that you could have done has gone away. All the other possible poems that could have been are gone, and there is just this one. So that’s the sacrifice. The risk is that this process can only be done with the whole being. You can’t hold yourself back. And it is scary. The work does not permit me to relax like I could relax if I wanted to have a superficial relationship with a tree or a person. This process won’t allow that sort of partial giving of myself. I have to give my whole self:if I do not serve it properly [meaning with my whole self], it breaks, or it breaks me. 

The form that confronts me I cannot experience nor describe; I can only actualize it.And yet I see it, radiant in the splendor of the confrontation, far more clearly than all clarity of all the experienced world.

 This is completely true. I can’t explain it. I can’t describe it. And yet I feel it more than I feel anything in this world that can be an experience or an object in this world: “Not as a thing among the ‘internal things,’ not as a figment of the ‘imagination,’ but as what is present.” 

So this is interesting: my poem is not an expression of an internal state. It’s not a product of my imagination. It’s a presence. Throughout the text, you will notice that Buber often uses the word present in this very special way that goes along with the I – You relationship. It is exactly the way the word “present”is used in Zen. It’s a deeper, present momentthat is timeless. 

Tested for its objectivity, the form is not ‘there’ at all; but what can equal its presence?

And it is in an actual relation: it acts on me as I act on it.” And that happens. A work of art can change your life. You are not the same afterward. 

“Such work is creation, inventing is finding. Forming is discovery. As I actualize, I uncover. I lead the form across – into the world of It.” So it becomes an object; it becomes an It. “The created work is a thing among things and can be experienced and described as an aggregate of qualities. But the receptive beholder may be bodily confronted now and again.” 

I think this is why the making of art is such a mysterious and wonderful process, and why the beholding of art is such a rare and life changing experience. It is very strange isn’t it? 

--What, then, does one experience of the You?

--Nothing at all. For one does not experience it.

--What, then, does one know of the You?

--Only everything. For one no longer knows particulars.  

Through the encounter with the You, you know everything, because you are not concerned with particulars any more. There is a sense of being connected with the whole world. 

“The You encounters me by grace – it cannot be found by seeking. But that I speak the basic word to it is a deed of my whole being, is my essential deed.” This is a deed that I must do with my whole being. This is the essential defining deed of my human life; I speak this word You. 

The relationship to the You is both active and passive. I must speak that word, and yet I must also passively receive the You. So the fusion into a whole being, which is the “I – You” relationship, can never be accomplished by me. I can’t make it happen. This is one of the great frustrations of spiritual practice, especially in something like Zen. You can sit longer and harder on the cushion. But it’s frustrating when you figure out that you can’t make this relationship happen. This can’t be accomplished by me. It is hopeless. But it can never be accomplished without me. Right? I can’t do it, but if I am not there, it can’t be done. Everybody has that responsibility. And in a way you could say that is the big learning. You absolutely have to be there with your whole being, and then what needs to happen for your life will happen. It can never be accomplished by me, but it can never be accomplished without me. 

“The relation to the You is unmediated. Nothing conceptual intervenes between I and You….” This is a recurring point in Zen, the recognition that so much of what we live is conceptual. Things like “me” and “I” are concepts. We certainly have experiences of subjectivity, so it’s not as if we don’t exist. But what we think of as ourselves is 85% conceptual. No wonder we’re unhappy with ourselves. We can never get a handle on it. Nothing intervenes, 

...no prior knowledge and no imagination; and memory itself is changed as it plunges from particularity to wholeness. No purpose intervenes between I and You, no greed and no anticipation; and longing itself is changed as it plunges from the dream into appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only where all means have disintegrated encounters occur. 

So it’s not instrumental. You can’t manipulate it. There’s no purpose to it; there’s just the pure encounter. 

The present--not that which is like a point and merely designates whatever our thoughts may posit as the end of an ‘elapsed’ time, the fiction of the fixed lapse, but the actual and fulfilled present-- exists only in so far as presentness, encounter and relation exist. Only as the You becomes present does presence come into being. 

The I of the I-It and the It of the I-It has no presence. It has no present. It only has a past but no presence. So most of us are living in the past, right? Most of the time, we are living in the moment just past. We usually live instrumentally, using What do I want and what is good for me? What don’t I like and what can I avoid? as our guiding light. We are living with our self as an object, and when we have nothing but objects, we are never living in the present instance of our lives. 

 “That direct relationships involve some action on what confronts us becomes clear in one of the three examples.” Here Buber talks about what is required of us in this encounter. What do we have to do in this encounter? 

The essential deed of art determines the process whereby the form becomes a work. That which confronts me is fulfilled through the encounter through which it enters into the world of things in order to remain incessantly effective, incessantly It – but  also infinitely able to become again a You, enchanting and inspiring. It becomes ‘incarnate’: out of the flood of spaceless and timeless presence it rises to the shore of continued existence. 

So in the case of art, I have to bring it into the world of thingness. This is the great paradox of art. This is the tragedy of it, right? After I make the painting, everybody fights over it and make prices and it becomes my creation. It becomes a commodity. And yet I have to do that. I have to make it incarnate.

That’s in relation to art. But it’s a little more complicated in relation to a human You. 

“The essential act that here establishes directness is usually understood as a feeling, and thus misunderstood.” We do think our relationships are about our feelings, the way that we feel about one another, the emotions that we have in relation to one another. But Buber tells us, “Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it.”

There are feelings, yes, and they’re important. They go along with love, but they are not the love. And sometimes the feelings that we may have in regard to love might be quite various. Sometimes they can be negative feelings. And then he gives the example of Jesus. Incidentally, this was very scandalous to Jewish people who couldn’t understand how a Jewish theologian was quoting Jesus, with appreciation, in a text. 

Jesus’ feeling for the possessed man is different from his feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is one. [In other words, the feelings are different but it’s exactly the same love.] Feelings one “has”; love occurs. Feelings dwell in human beings, but human beings dwell in love. This is no metaphor but actuality; love does not cling to an I, as if the You were merely its “content” or object; it is between I and You. 

It is something that happens between us. 

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.

So love is not those feelings. Love is something that gives rise to those feelings. 

“Love is a cosmic force. For those who stand in it and behold in it, people emerge from their entanglement in busy-ness” That’s germane to our busy world. When you stand in the midst of love, you emerge from your entanglement in busy-ness;"…[a]nd the good and the evil, the clever and the foolish, the beautiful and the ugly, one after another becomes actual and a You for them; that is, liberated, emerging into a unique confrontation." 

When there is a full on relation with it, despite the variety of feelings you may have in relation to different stimulations, when there is love there is that confrontation, that bodily confrontation through which we are liberated, released. 

“Exclusiveness comes into being miraculous again and again--and now one can act, help, heal, educate, raise, redeem.” Real love comes not out of one’s feelings and emotions but out of this real encounter.  

Here is the capping phrase: “Love is a responsibility.” Not a feeling. “Love is responsibility of an I for a You; in this consists what cannot consist in any feeling – the equality of all lovers, from the smallest to the greatest.” In other words, everyone who really loves, whether it is a woman who loves her child, a man who loves his dog, or a man who loves all humanity, in the loving, they are all equal. This is the kind of ultimate achievement of human kind. Everyone who really loves is equal. 

“Relation is reciprocity. My You acts on me as I act on it. Our students teach us, our works form us.” Whatever you encounter changes you. If you are really a teacher, your students teach you. If you are really an artist or someone who accomplishes something, everything that you do changes you.