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Friday, September 04, 2020

Martin Buber and the tree 1


Freud once famously said thaat sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar. In fact, the Freud who said this might well be the folklore Freud. Still, the Apocrypha counts. Derrida famously tried to show that an example is never just an example, although as far as I know, he never approached Freud’s cigar ( he confined himself to Baudelaire’s tobacco use).

I’m with Derrida on this. The cigar example is a good example of an example that goes a bit far, part of the identikit of Freud with the masculine-marked brown tube in his mouth. What is interesting about the fake saying is that it is supposed to be an example of something that isn’t an example, that will stubbornly remain the thing that it is, just the thing that it is. And in making it exemplarily non-exemplary, the fake Freud is offering us a counterfeit, something  parasitic on a systems of markers of value that isn’t, as it happens, what it seems to be. How was the cigar chosen to be this exemplary non-example – that is the question.

I don’t want to ask that question of the cigar, though. I want to take up the logic of self-identification and its melodrama as it applies to the tree.

I ran into the tree while reading, for the first time, Martin Buber’s I and You (I and thou in the English translation, although the “thou” is a bit too muschmouthed for the plain old German “du”). I have never read this book because Buber has a vague reputation, one I can’t quite pin down, as one of the middle class prophets, the wise men who talk about the “crisis of man”, to borrow the title of Mark Greif’s book. And just as Humbert Humbert is (unjustly) snobby about Charlotte Haze’s “Great Books”, I, too, have been unjustly snobby about the American wisemen of the fifties – the Niebuhrs, the Herschels, et al. – and the Europeans that were published under their aegis – a gallery that definitely included “I and Thou”, published by Simon and Schuster, and licked by the PR department ever since. The term “dialogue”, which had quite the history at the height of American liberalism in the 1960s, owes a debt to Buber.

Snobbishness is the counterfeit of good taste. I’ve laid it down and laid it down as I’ve gotten old and gray. And I occasionally remember that what I know about intellectual history is based, ultimately, on the Will and Ariel Durant books that I read in the seventh and eighth grade – still a good place to get an education, albeit a Eurocentricl one.

To summarize a bit: Buber starts out contrasting the I-you and the I-it relations. He elides the third person, at first, altogether. There’s an anecdote in a wonderful essay on Buber by Avishai Margalit for the NYRB, November 4, 1993, that backgrounds the he/she/they aversion:

“Buber describes an encounter he had in Berlin with the aged, influential pastor Wilhelm Hechler. After several hours of conversation Hechler was suspicious of Buber and before they parted asked him directly, “Do you believe in God?” Buber tried to reassure Hechler that he did, but the answer he thought he ought to have given him, the answer he spent his whole life trying to articulate, came to him on the way home: “If belief in God means speaking about Him in the third person, then I don’t believe in God. But if belief means being able to speak to Him in the second person, then I do believe.’”

For Buber, the I-you relationship creates the possibility for there being a moral and religious domain – or I should perhaps put this in reverse: that there is a moral and religious domain points to the possibility of there being an I-you relationship. Although, unlike Kierkegaard, Buber does not want us to clearly distinguish the moral from the religious. This is an important point: Buber’s supposed existentialism differs in significant ways from other existentialists.

Post-Shoah Jewish philosophers, strongly influenced by Levinas, begin the moral and religious realm with the face. The human face.

Buber, however, begins not with the human face, but with a tree.

A tree.

  “I and You” was published in 1923. Like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, it reflects both the pre-war sense of an old world coming apart and the catastrophe that occurred when the old world committed suicide by trench. There are textual commonalities: although we now look at the Tractatus as a philosophy text, in comparison with philosophy treatises both then and now. It doesn’t reference other arguments, or rarely, it is all about stating (The world is all the case is), and of course at the end of the book it pulls the ladder up and reveals that the book, in as much as it has been philosophical, has been nonsensical .  Wittgenstein once remarked that he wondered if philosophy could be written as a joke book – forgetting that he’d already done that with the Tractatus.

Buber had different teachers – notably George Simmel – and was evidently influenced by the Expressionists, who were evidently influenced by Zarathustra. I and You looks like a philosophical poem, just as Simmel’s sociology often looks like Baudelaire’s poems in prose.

Like Simmel, Buber was fascinated by links, connections, relations. For him, these are primary. In this, he’s following not only Simmel, but a Kabbalistic thematic. Marc-Alain Ouaknin, in Lire aux eclats (1993), writes of the dialogue between the masters of the Midrash or Talmud (the mahloquet) ax proceeding in a space of between that reflects on and in the interval.

“Thought is the thought of the interval, of the entre-deux. Rather than a distinct and certain point of view, each perspective represents a crossing of threads knotted interiorly, an infinitely complicated network, always turning and always subject to turn.”

Ouaknin is a rabbi, while Buber was a non-practicing Jew. As a Rabbi, Ouaknin resists the absolute overturning of hierarchies and oppositions that would destructure, for instance, man/animal (for instance) (that is quite an instance( (an overdetermined instance that turns and is subject to turn).

Buber was not so sure.

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