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."