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I and Thou: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Art of Relationship and What Makes Us Real to One Another

“The primary word I–Thou can only be spoken with the whole being. The primary word I–It can never be spoken with the whole being.”

I and Thou: Philosopher Martin Buber on the Art of Relationship and What Makes Us Real to One Another

“Relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance,” the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature — wrote in contemplating human nature and the interdependence of existence. Relationship is what makes a forest a forest and an ocean an ocean. To meet the world on its own terms and respect the reality of another as an expression of that world as fundamental and inalienable as your own reality is an art immensely rewarding yet immensely difficult — especially in an era when we have ceased to meet one another as whole persons and instead collide as fragments.

How to master the orientation of heart, mind, and spirit essential for the art of sincere and honorable relationship is what philosopher Martin Buber (February 8, 1878–June 13, 1965) explores in his 1923 classic I and Thou (public library) — the foundation of Buber’s influential existentialist philosophy of dialogue.

Martin Buber

Three decades before Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts cautioned that “Life and Reality are not things you can have for yourself unless you accord them to all others,” Buber considers the layers of reality across which life and relationship unfold:

To the man the world is twofold, in accordance with his twofold attitude.

The attitude of man is twofold, in accordance with the twofold nature of the primary words which he speaks.

The primary words are not isolated words, but combined words.

The one primary word is the combination I–Thou.

The other primary word is the combination I–It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.

Hence the I of man is also twofold. For the I of the primary word I–Thou is a different I from that of the primary word I–It.

In consonance with poet Elizabeth Alexander’s beautiful insistence that “we encounter each other in words… words to consider, reconsider,” and with bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer’s conviction that words confer dignity upon that which they name, Buber adds:

Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations.

Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence.

Primary words are spoken from the being.

If Thou is said, the I of the combination I–Thou is said along with it.

If It is said, the I of the combination I–It is said along with it.

The primary word I–Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.

The primary word I–It can never be spoken with the whole being.

[…]

Every It is bounded by others; It exists only through being bounded by others. But when Thou is spoken, there is no thing. Thou has no bounds.

When Thou is spoken, the speaker has no thing; he has indeed nothing. But he takes his stand in relation.

Art by Olivier Tallec from Big Wolf & Little Wolf — a tender tale of transformation through relationship

Each battery, Buber argues, has a place and a function in human life — I–It establishes the world of experience and sensation, which arises in the space between the person and the world by its own accord, and I–Thou establishes the world of relationship, which asks of each person a participatory intimacy. Thou addresses another not as an object but as a presence — the highest in philosopher Amelie Rorty’s seven layers of personhood, which she defines as “the return of the unchartable soul.” Buber writes:

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I–Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.

Thus human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; nor is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbour, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light.

Buber offers a symphonic counterpoint to the presently fashionable fragmentation of whole human beings into sub-identities:

Just as the melody is not made up of notes nor the verse of words nor the statue of lines, but they must be tugged and dragged till their unity has been scattered into these many pieces, so with the man to whom I say Thou. I can take out from him the colour of his hair, or of his speech, or of his goodness. I must continually do this. But each time I do it he ceases to be Thou.

[…]

I do not experience the man to whom I say Thou. But I take my stand in relation to him, in the sanctity of the primary word. Only when I step out of it do I experience him once more… Even if the man to whom I say Thou is not aware of it in the midst of his experience, yet relation may exist. For Thou is more that It realises. No deception penetrates here; here is the cradle of the Real Life.

“Real isn’t how you are made… It’s a thing that happens to you.” Illustration for The Velveteen Rabbit by Japanese artist Komako Sakai.

To address another as Thou, Buber suggests, requires a certain self-surrender that springs from inhabiting one’s own presence while at the same time stepping outside one’s self. Only then does the other cease to be a means to one’s own ends and becomes real. Buber writes:

The primary word I–Thou can be spoken only with the whole being. Concentration and fusion into the whole being can never take place through my agency, nor can it ever take place without me. I become through my relation to the Thou; as I become I, I say Thou.

All real living is meeting.

[…]

No aim, no lust, and no anticipation intervene between I and Thou. Desire itself is transformed as it plunges out of its dream into the appearance. Every means is an obstacle. Only when every means has collapsed does the meeting come about.

I and Thou, translated by Ronald Gregor Smith, is a sublime read in its entirety. Complement it with physicist David Bohm on the art of dialogue and what is keeping us from listening to one another, Amin Maalouf on identity and belonging, and Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of real human communication.

BP

Poet Ross Gay on the Body as an Instrument of Thought and the Delights of Writing by Hand

In praise of the manual-mental “loop-de-looping we call language.”

Poet Ross Gay on the Body as an Instrument of Thought and the Delights of Writing by Hand

The late, great neurologist and poetic science writer Oliver Sacks spent his entire life writing only by hand — an act he considered “an indispensable form of talking to [oneself].” In his wonderful reflection on the psychology of writing and what his poet-friend Thom Gunn taught him about creativity, Sacks observed how “ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.”

This singular interplay between the manual and the mental, between the mechanics and the magic of writing, is what Ross Gay — another poet with a playful spirit and an expansive mind, whom Sacks would have gleefully befriended — considers in a passage from his immeasurably delightful Book of Delights (public library) — one of the most satisfying books of 2019.

Ross Gay

Having written his “essayettes” on delight by hand, Gay reflects on the “surprising and utter delight” of this mode of composition — a courageously countercultural delight, I must add as my own fingertips press into the cold plastic with the blind faith that an invisible wizardry of ones, zeroes, and silicon will translate motion into meaning. Gay writes:

The process of thinking that writing is, made disappearable by the delete button, makes a whole part of the experience of writing, which is the production of a good deal of florid detritus, flotsam and jetsam, all those words that mean what you have written and cannot disappear (the scratch-out its own archive), which is the weird path toward what you have come to know, which is called thinking, which is what writing is.

In a passage evocative of Lewis Thomas’s splendid meta-illustrations of the subtleties of language, he adds:

For instance, the previous run-on sentence is a sentence fragment, and it happened in part because of the really nice time my body was having making this lavender Le Pen make the loop-de-looping we call language. I mean writing.

[…]

Consequently, some important aspect of my thinking, particularly the breathlessness, the accruing syntax, the not quite articulate pleasure that evades or could give a fuck about the computer’s green corrective lines (how they injure us!) would be chiseled, likely with a semicolon and a proper predicate, into something correct, and, maybe, dull. To be sure, it would have less of the actual magic writing is, which comes from our bodies, which we actually think with, quiet as it’s kept.

The evolution of Emily Dickinson’s handwriting across her thirties, forties, and fifties (Morgan Library & Museum; photograph: Maria Popova)

Couple with John Steinbeck on how the joy of handwriting helps us draft the meaning of life, then revisit Ursula K. Le Guin on the magic of analog human conversation and astronomer Maria Mitchell on the sewing needle as an instrument of the mind.

BP

What You Need to Be Warm: Neil Gaiman Reads His Humanistic Poem for Refugees, Composed from a Thousand Definitions of Warmth from Around the World

“Sometimes it only takes a stranger, in a dark place, to hold out a badly-knitted scarf, to offer a kind word, to say we have the right to be here, to make us warm in the coldest season.”

“There is a huge abyss within every mind. When we belong, we have an outside mooring to prevent us from falling into ourselves,” the late, great Irish poet and philosopher John O’Donohue wrote as he channeled ancient Celtic wisdom on belonging. But given this mooring is already difficult enough a triumph in the privacy of each personhood, given the abyss already gapes fathomless enough in each inner world, what happens when the outside world — a world in which, as Toni Morrison poignantly put it, “walls and weapons feature as prominently now as they once did in medieval times” — begins to politicize and barricade belonging?

Art by Lia Halloran for The Universe in Verse. Available as a print.

A century and a half after Walt Whitman wrote, in the middle of a civil war, that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Neil Gaiman takes up the question of our shared belonging in a project of uncommon originality.

As an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he has been lending his voice to the catastrophe of inhumanity we call a “refugee crisis” since its dark dawn. One of the most beloved storytellers of our time, in recent years he has been turning his talents increasingly toward poetry. In 2019, as the cold season drew near and UNHCR launched its winter emergency appeal to help Syrian refugee families survive their eighth below-freezing winter away from home, he invited his sizable Twitter following to share memories and meanings of warmth. Fully aware of the general mediocrity of crowdsourced art, he approached the challenge with an artist’s soaring ability to see the larger pattern tessellated from the constituent parts. Out of the nearly one thousand responses from around the world, out of their cumulative 25,000 words, out of the cabinet of commonplaces — boiling kettles, burning stoves, grandmother-knitted scarves — he wrests something entirely original and beautiful and alive: the sensitive insight that memories of warmth spring not from a quantity of temperature but from a contrast in quality of feeling against the cold — a contrast most memorably kindled by the small kindnesses that make us human.

With his customary generosity of spirit, Neil kindly obliged my request to record himself reading for Brain Pickings the resulting free-verse poem, which stands as a testament to Ada Lovelace’s insistence that the hallmark of creativity is the ability to compose something cohesive, original, and symphonic out of disjoined, seemingly dissonant parts.

WHAT YOU NEED TO BE WARM
by Neil Gaiman

A baked potato of a winter’s night to wrap your hands around or burn your mouth.
A blanket knitted by your mother’s cunning fingers. Or your grandmother’s.
A smile, a touch, trust, as you walk in from the snow
or return to it, the tips of your ears pricked pink and frozen.

The tink tink tink of iron radiators waking in an old house.
To surface from dreams in a bed, burrowed beneath blankets and comforters,
the change of state from cold to warm is all that matters, and you think
just one more minute snuggled here before you face the chill. Just one.

Places we slept as children: they warm us in the memory.
We travel to an inside from the outside. To the orange flames of the fireplace
or the wood burning in the stove. Breath-ice on the inside of windows,
to be scratched off with a fingernail, melted with a whole hand.

Frost on the ground that stays in the shadows, waiting for us.
Wear a scarf. Wear a coat. Wear a sweater. Wear socks. Wear thick gloves.
An infant as she sleeps between us. A tumble of dogs,
a kindle of cats and kittens. Come inside. You’re safe now.

A kettle boiling at the stove. Your family or friends are there. They smile.
Cocoa or chocolate, tea or coffee, soup or toddy, what you know you need.
A heat exchange, they give it to you, you take the mug
and start to thaw. While outside, for some of us, the journey began

as we walked away from our grandparents’ houses
away from the places we knew as children: changes of state and state and state,
to stumble across a stony desert, or to brave the deep waters,
while food and friends, home, a bed, even a blanket become just memories.

Sometimes it only takes a stranger, in a dark place,
to hold out a badly-knitted scarf, to offer a kind word, to say
we have the right to be here, to make us warm in the coldest season.

You have the right to be here.

Complement with Borderless Lullabies — a gorgeous compilation of music and spoken word, benefiting the legal defense of refugee children — and Over the Rooftops, Under the Moon — a lyrical illustrated meditation on otherness and belonging — then revisit Gaiman’s wondrous poetic tributes to the woman who catalyzed the environmental movement, the queer young astronomer who catapulted Einstein into celebrity, and the ancient, unheralded history of women as the original scientists.

BP

Extraordinary Letters on Love, Life, Death, Courage, and Moral Purpose Without Religion from a Victorian Woman Who Lived and Died with Uncommon Bravery

“Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give.”

Extraordinary Letters on Love, Life, Death, Courage, and Moral Purpose Without Religion from a Victorian Woman Who Lived and Died with Uncommon Bravery

Half a century before Frida Kahlo made her impassioned case for atheism as a supreme form of freedom and moral courage, before Robinson Jeffers insisted that the greatest spiritual calling lies in contributing to the world’s store of moral beauty, before Simone de Beauvoir looked back on her life to observe that “faith allows an evasion of those difficulties which the atheist confronts honestly [while] the believer derives a sense of great superiority from this very cowardice itself,” a German-Jewish Englishwoman by the name of Olga Jacoby (August 15, 1874–May 5, 1913) — the young mother of four adopted children — took up the subject of living and dying without religion, with moral courage, with kindness, with radiant receptivity to beauty, in stunning letters to her pious physician, who had just given her a terminal diagnosis. These are more than letters — they are symphonies of thought, miniature manifestos for reason and humanism, poetic odes to the glory of living and the dignity of dying in full assent to reality.

First published anonymously by her husband in 1919 and hurled out of print by wartime want, the letters were discovered a century after their composition by the scholar Trevor Moore, who was so taken with them that he set about identifying their author. Drawing on the family dynamics unfolding in the letters and poring over the British census, he eventually uncovered Jacoby’s identity, tracked down her descendants, and teamed up with her great-granddaughter, Jocelyn Catty, to publish these forgotten treasures of thought and feeling as Words in Pain: Letters on Life and Death (public library).

Art by the English artist Margaret C. Cook from a rare edition of Whitman’s poems, published in the final year of Jacoby’s life. (Available as a print)

In 1909, at age thirty-five, Jacoby was diagnosed with a terminal illness she never names in her letters. Perhaps she was never told — it was customary at the time, and would be for generations to come, for doctors to treat female patients as children and to withhold the reality of their own bodies from them. But she refers to it in her characteristic good-natured humor as a disease of having loved so hard as to have strained her heart.

With their extraordinary intellectual elegance and generosity of spirit, her letters constellate into a masterwork of reason argued with a literary artist’s splendor of expression. Early into the correspondence with her doctor, Jacoby lays out her existential credo:

We always fear the unknown. I am not a coward and do not fear death, which to me means nothing more than sleep, but I cannot become resigned to leave this beautiful world with all the treasures it holds for me and for everyone who knows how to understand and appreciate them… To leave a good example to those I love [is] my only understanding of immortality.

A year into her diagnosis, she magnifies the sentiment with feeling:

Whatever we cannot know let us simply and truthfully agree not to know, but no one must be expected to take for granted what reason refuses to admit. More and more to me this simplest of thoughts seems right: Live, live keenly, live fully; make ample use of every power that has been given us to use, to use for the good end. Blind yourself to nothing; look straight at sadness, loss, evil; but at the same time look with such intense delight at all that is good and noble that quite naturally the heart’s longing will be to help the glory to triumph, and that to have been a strong fighter in that cause will appear the only end worth achieving. The length of life does not depend on us, but as long as we can look back to no waste of time we can face the end with a clear conscience, with cheerful if somewhat tired eyes and ready for the deserved rest with no hope or anxiety for what may come. To me all the effort of man seems vain, and his ideal thrown ruthlessly to the ground by himself, when, after a life of free and joyful effort, he stoops to pick up a reward he does not deserve for having simply done his duty.

Emanating from her letters is evidence of how Jacoby lived her values — her reverence for beauty, her devotion to generosity — in the minutest details of her life. One day, perturbed by the fact that her doctor didn’t have his own volume of Shelley’s poems, she spent two hours hunting the West End of London for the perfect copy that “can be put in your pocket when you go on a lonely ramble amongst the mountains.” Triumphant, with the perfect edition in tow, she told her doctor: “I don’t think any man or woman who has once been happy can read some of his small pieces without feeling all aglow with the beauty of them.” A dying woman, fully alive by the braided life-strands of beauty, generosity, and poetry.

Without the forceful self-righteousness with which fundamentalists impose their views on others, she came to see the fear of death as “only a misunderstanding of Nature.” She writes:

Not to be afraid when you are all alone is the only true way of being not afraid. Where does your courage come in, when you cannot find it in your own self but always have to grasp God morally?

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a the 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

When her doctor insists that she must turn to “God” for salvation, Jacoby responds with an exquisite manifesto for what can best be described as the secular spirituality of humanism and the reverence of nature:

My Dear Doctor,

Like you I believe in a higher power, but, unlike yours, mine is not a kind fatherly one. It is Nature, who with all its forces, beauties and necessary evils, rules our destinies according to its own irrevocable laws. I can love that power for the beauty it has brought into the world, and admire it for the strength that makes us understand how futile and useless it would be to appeal to it in prayer. But towards a kind and fatherly God, who, being almighty, prefers to leave us in misery, when by his mere wish he could obtain the same end without so much suffering, I feel a great revolt and bitterness. Nature makes us know that it cannot take into individual consideration the atoms we are, and for her I have no blame; no more than I could think of blaming you for having during your walks stepped on and killed many a worm (it was a pity the worm happened to be under your foot); but if during these walks your eyes were resting on the beauties of skies and trees, or your mind was solving some difficult problem, was that not a nobler occupation than had you walked eyes downwards, intent only on not killing. I think that Nature is striving towards perfection and that each human being has the duty to help towards it by making his life a fit example for others and by awaking ideals which will be more nearly approached by coming generations. In this way life itself offers enough explanation for living; and believing our existence to finish with death, we naturally make the most of our opportunities… Unable to appeal to a God for help, we find ourselves dependent only on our own strong will — not to overcome misfortune, but to try to bear it as bravely as possible. Religion having for an end the more perfect and moral condition of humanity, I truly think that these ideas are as religious as any dogmatic ones.

With a parent- or teacher-like magnanimity, Jacoby extends extraordinary patience to her doctor. To his self-righteous and patronizing remark that he pities her children on account of her atheism, she responds with a humble, generous reflection on how she hopes her nonreligious morality and spirituality would sculpt her children’s character:

I always feel that we, who are better off, are responsible for having let the poor get so low, and that it is duty, not charity, to help. Charles [her young son], the farmer that is to be, has promised always to keep a cow, to call it by my name, and let the milk of that cow go to the poor around his farm. Should he choose another profession, he will find that the idea of the cow can be worked differently. I hope he will follow my lead in living happy and dying content.

Art by Olivier Tallec from What If… — a child’s vision for a kinder and more equitable world

Jacoby takes particular issue with the idea of original sin, with which young minds are so ruthlessly branded and scarred under Christian dogma:

Why start an infant’s life with ideas of fear and sin? Let love be their only religion — a love they can understand and handle. With so many people hungering for love, why give so great a part up to Deity? Acknowledge, Doctor, if you had not had your good share of human love, a mother’s, a wife’s, and your children’s, you would not so well understand the other. A child, I think, is taught untruthfulness when you make him say that he loves God.

[…]

Have you ever come across a baby whose eyes were not all innocence and inquiry? And from the first you crush that innocence with those terrible biblical words. Mind you, they are words only. A sincere man will never agree to them when it comes to his own children, and a generous heart must repel them as strongly when they apply to others.

One of William Blake’s rare illustrations for Paradise Lost

She turns to another damaging aspect of religious dogma — its stunting of children’s natural curiosity about how the world works by keeping certain scientific truths from them or deliberately displacing those truths with mythic fictions:

As to children’s inquiries, they are often wrongly answered, and the higher the subject, the more you think yourself justified in lying to them. From these same children you expect in return truly felt love, good acts, truthfulness and a desire to learn… You absolutely cripple a child by not allowing him to think clearly on all subjects — and no dogmatic religion will stand thinking.

Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Jacoby proceeds to offer a lucid and luminous vision for what our moral and spiritual life could look like without religious delusion:

My idea is not a life without religion; it is a nobler religion I want. Of course, very good men have lived and are living, to whom your religion has been a help, but science is progressing daily, and in harmony with it our moral standard should be higher — high enough to do right simply because it is right. A religion that has helped mankind to get somewhat better should be resigned to let a still better one take its place. Like a growing child, humanity must outgrow its infancy, must stand alone one day and be able to stand straight without support.

In a sentiment our modern spiritual elder Parker Palmer would echo a century later in his lovely insistence that “wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life,” she adds:

To me a good man with his failings seems a better ideal than a perfect God. We feel nearer to him and nearer to the possibility of attaining his standard. This kind of ideal actually helps people to improve, and is therefore of more value to the world.

I do believe strongly in universal good, but not in individual good. As I ask for no help from God, I ask for no explanation from him of my sufferings. I just try to suffer the least possible, and still get a fair part of my aim in life — happiness. You see, I am not ashamed to say that to be happy seems to me a reason for living — as long as you don’t make others unhappy.

When her doctor condemns and insults her credo as a weakness, she responds with a passionate defense of what the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell termed our native “hunger of the mind,” which is the supreme strength of our species:

It is knowledge we want, the better and better understanding of magnificent Nature with its powerful laws that forces our soul to love, admire and submit. That is religion! My religion! How can you call it a weak and godless one?

[…]

Science is turning on the light, but at every step forward dogmatic religion attempts to turn it out, and as it cannot succeed it puts blinkers on its followers, and tries to make them believe that to remove them would be sin. This is the only way in which I can understand their continual warning against knowledge.

Illustration from Flashlight by Lizi Boyd

Four years after her terminal diagnosis, as two world wars staked on religious ideology lay in wait for her children, after four savaging surgeries and a heart attack had left her in constant acute pain, the 38-year-old Olga Jacoby died by self-induced euthanasia, intent to “go to sleep with a good conscience,” a pioneer of what we today call the right-to-die movement — another fundamental human right stymied only by the legal residue of religiosity. Inscribed into her letters is the beautiful source-code of a moral and spiritual alternative to religion — a courageous case for the right to live by truth, beauty, and altruism rather than by dogma and delusion, the heart of which beats in a passage from a letter she penned in the dead of winter two years into her diagnosis:

Charles may have to suffer from too tender a heart, but the world will be the richer for it, and because of that for his life.

[…]

Love, like strength and courage, is a strange thing; the more we give the more we find we have to give. Once given out love is set rolling for ever to amass more, resembling an avalanche by the irresistible force with which it sweeps aside all obstacles, but utterly unlike in its effect, for it brings happiness wherever it passes and lands destruction nowhere.

Complement the thoroughly inspiriting Words in Pain with Jacoby’s contemporary Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant younger sister — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Tolstoy and Gandhi’s forgotten correspondence from the same era about love as humanity’s only real spiritual foundation.

BP

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