Tuesday, December 2, 2008

the rabbi, the rebbe, the yogi, the cross, the pentacle, the holly bough


Helen has a spirited little takedown of Martin Buber that is, sorry for her, more little than spirited, though it's a game effort. I love Buber's work to the bottom of my frenzied little mind, so I think a defense is in order-- and I think it may be time to chip away at this "politics of manner" business.

The first thing to say is that for me there is no god the way there was Yahweh for Buber, and so I have no particular religious insight to offer to rebut Helen's discomfort with Buber's notion about closeness with god and man. In that, I'm probably handicapped from the get-go, and do Buber no favors from a religious-argument standpoint. (When I was defending Conor Friedersdorf from those who would expel him from the conservative coalition for criticizing Sarah Palin, I eventually realized that I was probably doing him no favors-- look at that liberal defending you!) But I think that you can defend Buber, and love his work, and be staunchly a-theistic. More, I think that defense can inform a religious reader, in a meaningful way. (Hidden away in that interoperability, I suspect, lies hope for my politics of love.)

The funny thing about Ich und Du, as many have pointed out, is that while I and Thou may be the best literal translation (and I have no expertise in that area), content-wise, You and Me would perhaps make the most sense. This is because Ich und Du is about a personal relationship between god and man. Buber says that we must stand naked before god, to abandon our defenses and our pretense to invincibility. Only then can we have the personal relationship with god that Buber believed to be at the heart of the quest for the divine. Once we've so opened ourselves before god, we can begin the process of opening ourselves up to our fellow men. And, in Buber's vision, this will lead to a fuller life. It is the emotional, mental and spiritual divides which man shores up against other men that have greatly contributed to the modern default of alienation and ennui. This defensiveness, and this use of other men as means instead of ends, ensures a society of callousness, though largely prevents one of brutality.

This is the state which Helen, and I believe James Poulos, want all of our casual interactions and associations to take place in. No content, only form, all human interaction divided and ordered by the set of rules and mores we casually call manners. This is our "politics of love/politics of rules" divide. I've been remiss in not defending my politics of love, mostly because it's hard to defend, haha. But I equally find this society of well-mannered automatons that James and Helen imagine to be much more problematic than either supposes. Manners are as insufficient as any list of rules to the job of crafting a working civic polity. Surely James, who chafes at our ubiquitous talk of rights, recognizes that. The fact of the matter is that manners are no defense against evil, or sociopathy, and reducing our societal responsibility to being well-mannered ensures that people will obey the form of civility while working actively to undermine what we desire its effects to be. Our literature and cinema is filled with charming psychopaths and well-mannered devils because such people exist. Helen would like to believe that by painting lines of good form and decorum, people will play within them. They might. History tells us they can do so while (charmingly, politely) slitting our throat. No, courtesy is not enough.

The New Age author and lecturer (and yogi, and assorted other things) Ram Dass (nee Richard Alpert) talks about the creation of identity in childhood as the construction of a space suit. According to Ram Dass, as you grow into adulthood, the process of socialization is not merely about teaching children rules and social expectations, but convincing them that they have to "be somebody," that they have to have a cohesive exterior social identity. We create a story about ourselves that fits in our culture's preconceptions of what is a proper life. That story, according to Ram Dass, is inevitably and inherently chafing. Since it is a construct, a mold designed to flatter others rather than to enable us to live, eventually, we feel burdened by our suit, and that burden is exacerbated by the tendency of our suit to act the way any costume does: we eventually feel like phonies. (If you are squeamish about Ram Dass's New Agey identity, perhaps you will be soothed by the fact that he was once a psychiatrist teaching at Harvard.)

Big gaping question about what we "actually are" if we aren't the suits, ok, and it certainly rubs a Sartrean like myself the wrong way to be dealing with notions of who we "really are." I imagine Ram Dass would tell us we're nothing, or we should be, in the zazen/yogic sense, which is a whole other ball of wax that I can't get into here. But I think his point is valuable for this lesson: people cannot be reduced to form or behavior, and if you are going to confront the problem of how best to interact with others, trying to do so is folly. Emotions and internality have to be accounted for. (Or spirituality, if that's your interest.) What Helen seems to me to advocate is an ethic that treats everyone around us as nothing but our space suits, to make interaction outside of friendship, romance or family to be matters of mere robotics. James mocks the idea that we should have a politics of love as "eros lo volt". James believes in exclusivity, and more power to him. But I find that confronting human life in the defensive crouch makes a colder world colder still, and I also don't think we will ever achieve the kind of society we want to without more than what he offers.

All of this is either true or it isn't-- it is either pragmatically preferable to open yourself to the emotional fullness of human beings who you aren't actively in love with, or it isn't. I think it's essential for the evolution of the human condition, but I've been wrong before. And, no, I don't think you can go around standing naked in front of the guy at the gas station or the nice ladies in your yogalates class. (Metaphorically.) Neither, though, do I think that we can or should shut ourselves out to their internal lives completely, and indeed I question how Helen or James or anyone else can invite those from the outside into the shroud of their friendship and love if not through some access to their thinking hearts. And that's where Buber comes in, lonely old courage teacher that he is, counseling us that armor is fine for battle but inimical to what we might call the abundant life.

I don't know precisely to what degree Buber wants us to have an Ich-Du (as opposed to Ich-Es, the kind of relationship Helen prefers) interaction with the everyday Joe on the street. I don't think he advises us to extend it to everyone, but I'd love the input of a smarter and better-read Buber scholar than myself. But say he thought that we must confront each among us in Ich-Du relationships. It's true, that wouldn't be workable, though you know my love for impossible moral codes. What it would be is Christian.

What all of this gets me thinking about, actually, is Gawain and the Green Knight, the classic Middle English epic poem about the Arthurian knight, and his pursuit of his duty. This work, too, is about love and manners, and that which must be pursued. (A modern English translation is necessary for most of us; I don't have an opinion on which translation is best. If you do look for one, though, make sure it's in poetry form!)

Gawain finds in his quest involving the Green Knight-- the pursuit of his duty-- that he is following two sets of codes, the pentacle and the holly bob, the strict code of chivalry and the stricter code of Christian love. What is revealed to Gawain, and the Gawain poet's point, is that he can't follow both. It is too much to ask of any man, even the greatest knight in Camelot. Trying to follow these two codes ensures that he will give short shrift to both. The code of chivalry and manners insists on form and on correctness. The Christian code insists on love. And, as the poet makes plain, god insists that the Christian code is the one followed by all good knights, by all worthy men.

Helen is the kind of thinker I have immediate admiration for; she's well-read, feisty and thoughtful. But I've been consistently unable to reconcile her ethic of impersonality and the politics of courtesy with her Christianity. This is a skepticism and disquiet I feel when I confront the pomocons in general, all of whom I believe are Christians. One of the greater tragedies of the Christian evolution in America, concurrent with the terrible policy positions it has led to, is the gradual watering down of the teachings of a genuine radical into bland pablum. Jesus does not merely advocate charity. He advocates charity at almost any cost. Some people say give 'til it hurts, Jesus says that hurting is no excuse to stop giving. Turning the other cheek does not just mean don't fight back. It means present your other cheek for your attacker to hit you again, to extend the bonds of charity to such an extent that it involves helping someone who wants to hurt you to hurt you. That's eros, alright, but there's nothing lo volt about it. This is as unlivable as Buber's defenseless living, but then, the advocacy of the impossible is the best of religion. It's a truism, of course, that Christianity can be bent to mean anything by its adherents, if they try hard enough. But it seems abundantly clear to me that while the armored life may be pragmatically preferable, it is not Christian.

This is how I see Helen, and James, and Will Wilson and the pomocons: like Sir Gawain, they labor under the burden of two masters, religion and ideology, and can't have both. I am eternally sympathetic to lost causes, and I neither mock nor deride their challenge. But I think the contradiction remains, between their faith and their code, and one strains against the other. If they'll permit even more of my intellectual vanity-- I think they have to choose.

In any event, I don't find Martin Buber silly, or weak, or dispensable. I find him, in fact, essential in a world of existential void. There's no god, but there's you and me, and if we can't stand defenseless before each other, we risk a permanent confinement to what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described as the sad condition of the modern man: "Living in fear, he thinks that the ambush is the normal dwelling place of all men."

16 comments:

Alan Jacobs said...

Freddie, it's great to see the props for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I just finished teaching a couple of weeks ago. For what its worth, I just love the translation by Keith Harrison (Oxford World's Classics edition).

Jay said...

Freddie, this is a fantastic discussion. I can't speak for the reactions of your intended targets, but I found your discussion of the consequences of Christianity to be particularly insightful and powerful. You really achieved a sympathetic treatment of ideas you do not share here. It's hard to believe that the same person who wrote this piece has also littered the libertarian blogosphere with virtually identical posts that basically amount to: "I JUST CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE." (backhanded-compliment I know; but I really am amazed at the dichotomy. I guess we all have our buttons).

But what are the consequences of the inverse? Buber's argument ultimately rests on the designed relationship between creator and created. I think the commands of Jesus carry moral weight -- and maybe even appeal to nonbelievers -- because they not only require us to live lives of perfect love, but they also rest on the premise that those are the lives were were designed to live -- even if for a bunch of reasons they are now impossible (the fall, sin, etc.).

But you (and I) believe we aren't actually "designed" to love. Our capacity for selfless love is a product of adaptation and survival. There is a compelling evolutionary story for how (with a buttload of effort that often nonetheless leads to failure) we can come to trust and love our sexual partner or our immediate family -- and stand before them "naked and unafraid" -- but I haven't heard one that plausibly extends the circle much beyond that.

So, if Helen's ideology conflicts with her theology, well, does not yours also?

ryan said...

First, I think Jay's points are well-made. If this is a problem for Helen, that doesn't begin to describe the problem that this is for you.

But second, though I think your criticism of Helen has merit, in that her rejection of Buber goes a bit too far, I also think you pose something of a false dichotomy here. It is entirely possible to "open yourself to the emotional fullness of human beings who you aren't actively in love with" sometimes. Which isn't a very satisfying answer, because it doesn't actually tell you what to do. But then again, that shouldn't be a problem for you, as you're willing to punt the whole politics-as-rules bit.

I agree with you that love is not just rules. It has to be. But part of the wisdom of love is discerning when it is appropriate--or necessary--to enter into someone else's world and permit them to enter yours, and when it is not. So while when I pay for my gas I treat the clerk largely as an instrument and am treated as an instrument by him in return, that's okay, provided I am willing to turn around and meet him with open arms under different circumstances, say, for example, should I see him on the Jericho road. Love enables me to care for him in the latter case, and wisdom shows me when it is okay to be anonymous.

It isn't possible to always treat everyone with the kind of care that Buber describes, and that's not just because we're sinful, but because we're finite. Of necessity, should I put my energy into treating you that way it means that I'm not treating someone else that way. This would not be different in a perfect world. So treating sometimes people as instruments may in fact be critical to caring for people, even the people we sometimes treat as instruments, because we as humans are limited in our capacities.

Ultimately, I think it's impossible to come up with rules for relationship that are any more complicated than God's commands, i.e. don't murder, commit adultery, steal, covet, etc. Unfortunately, that doesn't actually cover most of the situations in which you're likely to find yourself, and the only way of living with that is by wisdom. For Christians, this comes in the form of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so announcing two ideals that seem to be in tension is not necessarily a problem: most things are resolved on a case-by-case basis anyways. Christianity holds out many ideals which we cannot achieve, trusting that the Spirit will, over time, change our hearts, and that all will be well at the resurrection.

I do fully agree with you about your take on the pomocons though. I have similar frustrations: there's all this interesting ideology out there, but it frequently strikes me as being a rather odd bit of work coming from a group of people who mostly self-identify as Christians. I've pushed that issue before.

BP said...

The best translation is Armitage's.

'a Sartrean': so that why you dissed James!

Freddie said...

I think, if you think about it for a bit, you'll see that those are both problems, but most assuredly not my problem.

Bob said...

More, lots more, oogedy-boogedy from ryan:


"I agree with you that love is not just rules. It has to be. But part of the wisdom of love is discerning when it is appropriate--or necessary--to enter into someone else's world and permit them to enter yours, and when it is not. So while when I pay for my gas I treat the clerk largely as an instrument and am treated as an instrument by him in return, that's okay, provided I am willing to turn around and meet him with open arms under different circumstances, say, for example, should I see him on the Jericho road. Love enables me to care for him in the latter case, and wisdom shows me when it is okay to be anonymous."

What the f_ _ k?

BP said...

This, 'it is either pragmatically preferable to open yourself to the emotional fullness of human beings who you aren't actively in love with, or it isn't. I think it's essential for the evolution of the human condition' is precisely 'the advocacy of the impossible'.

Freddie said...

Indeed, BP, I think you might be right.

Josh said...

@Bob: Made sense to me. Why do you think it's oogedy-boogedy?

Matoko said...

One of the greater tragedies of the Christian evolution in America, concurrent with the terrible policy positions it has led to, is the gradual watering down of the teachings of a genuine radical into bland pablum. Jesus does not merely advocate charity. He advocates charity at almost any cost. Some people say give 'til it hurts, Jesus says that hurting is no excuse to stop giving.

trudat.
Jesus was what Neal Stephenson describes as a neurolinguistic hacker.
I think you might just be one too, freddie.

Bob said...

Josh, the oogedy-boogedy comment was a broad attack on the entire topic, religion, spirituality, god, whatever else falls within those parameters. You name it, I'll poo-poo it, All hogwash to me.

That said, I did find the paragraph I copied from ryan particularly creepy. But worse than creepy, poorly written, not up to his usual out put. Perhaps just a pitfall of the slap and dash nature of this form of communication.

Glad it made sense to you.

I'll stand by oogedy-boogedy and creepy.

rob said...

@Bob:

I have a much harder time understanding your complaint (as anything other than a pre-rational dismissal of any paragraph that contains a reference to a religious text) than I do Ryan's paragraph.

paul said...

Oddly enough, I'm actually a Rosenzweig scholar, lol, but I don't know Buber well enough to give any 'input' in that sense.



"It means present your other cheek for your attacker to hit you again, to extend the bonds of charity to such an extent that it involves helping someone who wants to hurt you to hurt you. This is as unlivable as Buber's defenseless living, but then, the advocacy of the impossible is the best of religion."

It's absolutely liveable; I can give you literally hundreds of lives of saints (in Christianity but also Judaism) who live it in a complete and full way ... helping thieves carry away their belongings, not resisting a violent attack (despite the ability to) such that one saint couldn't walk properly for decades (St. Seraphim of Sarov), etc. It's partially this sort of thing that convinces me of the real existence of the transcendent, since I don't see how this is possible with merely human strength.

Bob said...

rob, I have absolutly no problem with you comment.

As David Byrne sang in "Psycho Killer," "Say something once, why say it again?"

So, I have had my say.

rob said...

@Bob:

Fair enough. I probably should have said:

"@Josh:

I agree."

BP said...

Adornheimer: '[the bourgeois family name] arouses a strange embarrassment in Americans. In order to hide the awkward distance between individuals, they call one another "Bob" and "Harry," as interchangeable team members. The practice reduces relations between human beings to the good fellowship of the sporting community and is a defence against the true kind of relationship.'