Buber Is Better

Based on the second-hand accounts of, commentaries on, and uses of Martin Buber’s I and Thou that I’ve read through the years, I was expecting a much cheesier, feel-good spirituality that, instead of saying anything new, would present a dumbed-down version of Levinasian thought and help to bolster the self-congratulatory spread of Oprah-esque platitudes. (It’s that general sort of unfounded assumption that, in addition to essentially letting others make my decision for me about Buber, kept me from reading his work.)

Well, it’s always good to have a solid reminder not to be such a tool. This little book is not only jam-packed with arguments against such easy spirituality (1); it’s also written with a dense sort of poeticism that refuses to let laziness or possible intimidation off the hook, respecting the reader enough to hold him/her to high standards by unapologetically laying down weighty ideas while also refraining from making those ideas purposefully inaccessible via labyrinthine language or big vocab words. I can’t think of any other scholar or academic theologian who employs such a style– and am additionally convinced that Anne Michaels must have read and absorbed the man’s writing at some point in her life– and if not, that she’s benefited from otherworldly input from the dude when crafting her prose.

I loved what could only badly be described as Buber’s non-fluffy, not-easy mysticism; his anti-dogmatism and assertion that encapsulating the Thou or telling anyone how to respond to it is impossible and misguided; and his valuation of real dialogue and relationship. But the book spoke to me most sympathetically via what felt like anachronistic support for what troubles me about the constantly networked nature of these here times. The philosopher might as well have been addressing the topic of grown adults obsessively checking in on Foursquare, and trying desperately to find some meaning and companionship in inarticulate texts while being too lazy or scared to actually talk to each other, when he wrote,

               The self-willed man does not believe and does not meet. He does not know
               solidarity of connexion, but only the feverish world outside and his feverish
               desire to use it… When this man says Thou, he means ‘O my ability to use,’
               and what he terms his destiny is only the equipping and sanctioning of his
               ability to use. He has in truth no destiny, but only a being that is defined by
               things and instincts… He intervenes continually, and that for the purpose of
               ‘letting things happen.’ Why should destiny, he says to you, not be given a
               helping hand? Why should the attainable means required by such a purpose
               not be utilised?… Without sacrifice and without grace, without meeting and
               without presentness, he has as his world a mediated world cluttered with
               purposes… Thus with all his sovereignty he is wholly and inextricably
               entangled in the unreal… he directs the best part of his spirituality to averting
               or at least to veiling his thoughts. (2)

The book was written in 1923, and Buber was talking about much more than human interaction with any technology– and so it would be dishonest of me to seize upon passages such as the lengthy one just cited and say, “See? See?! Take that, technophiles!” But methinks one of the hallmarks of any enduring examination of the human condition (whether that involves something transcendent or not) is its ability to relate, from beyond its author’s grave, to changing times. And so, like Greek drama speaking to veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, or the story of Macbeth still offering frighteningly relevant insights into the desire for power and what it entails, “the feverish world outside and [one’s] feverish desire to use it” to which Buber pointed almost a century ago continues to be able to take on new faces and characteristics while the way these things are described stay put in print.

(I would also be disingenuous in condemning tout court contemporary information technology; this is a blog, after all, and I’m giddily thankful for the interaction that ensues here, even if I’d rather be talking live, in the same geographical location, with the people who pop in. But I so often get the sense that all this information hoarding has spun wildly out of control, and you end up having to get out of the way of Borg-like people wearing Google Glass because reality as-is just doesn’t offer up enough thrills.[3])

Anyway, to summarize, Buber: better than imagined. Making judgments about something before checking it out yourself: folly. Finding disembodied support, when one often seems to be existing in a world unintentionally apart: priceless.

(1) For example, there’s the person, Buber says, whose “spiritual” leanings are essentially another form of self-involvement that engages in what Kant would call using things and people as means– whose approach to being in the world “lays bare the shame of the world-spirit which has degraded to spirituality.” Martin Buber, I and Thou, 2nd ed., transl. Ronald Gregor Smith (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons), 66.

(2) 60-1.

(3) If you’ve never come across someone wearing a pair of these things, it might be difficult to a) erase from your memory his/her undead stare that never seems to meet your eyes; b) wonder if you were being recorded, and for what purpose; and c) get Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” out of your head.



  1. lostgander

    Wow, footnotes! How exciting. Buber sounds intriguing. I understand what he is saying about people whose so-called spiritual leanings are really just more self-involvement. One can find them clustered around every modern “guru” peddling spiritual “truth.”

    Your application of Buber's words to modern technology reminded me of Thomas Merton's book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, in which he comments on how “technology has its own ethic of expediency and efficiency” that can easily become a ruthless and exploitative ethic for those who adopt it as their own. I think the parallel you draw is appropriate, as the constant information streams washing around and over us are just more distractions from living presently and in tune with our inner selves. Certainly, as you point out, information technology can be useful in fostering a form of community, but I agree that the full-on immersion in it that many people are exhibiting is a bit frightening.

    (I've yet to encounter someone wearing Google Glass but the Borg really freak me out, so I'm sure I'll be ill-prepared when it finally happens. Seems like the first step toward cyborgs.)


  2. Special K

    I do love a good footnote now and then; my favorite instances of footnotes-as-narrative come in Infinite Jest (DF Wallace) and House of Leaves (Mark Z. Danielewski).

    I need to check out …Bystander; I've only read The Seven Storey Mountain, and remember enjoying it tremendously.

    But at present, and speaking of demon technology, I need to get far, far away from a screen and tend to my allergy-ridden head. Nature has its own set of evil tricks up its sleeve…


  3. lostgander

    Reading Bystander is akin to reading Thomas Merton's personal blog, had he lived long enough to keep one. It's kind of all over the place (I believe most was excerpted from his journals), but in the best possible way.

    You have my empathy over the allergies. I use an herbal nasal spray called Sinusoothe, which works well, though sometimes nothing seems to help when the pollen count is at its height.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s