Tuesday, May 15, 2018

`More Often Than Purely Delightful Men'

There’s nothing systematic about my approach to reading. If I look hard enough, serendipity always becomes evident. Consider how I first encountered Martin Buber. Not long after it was published I read Allen Seager’s The Glass House: The Life of Theodore Roethke (1968). In 1952, Seager reported, Roethke was awarded a Ford Foundation grant to study philosophy and theology. Among the writers he pursued were Paul Tillich, Meister Eckhart, Jacob Boehme and Buber. The names were new to me, and I read them with varying degrees of understanding and interest. Buber stuck, at least for a few years, and I read I and Thou, Between Man and Man and Tales of the Hasidim.  

Serendipity stepped in again recently when I saw a copy of Buber’s Meetings: Autobiographical Fragments (ed. Maurice Friedman, Routledge, 2002) left on a table in the library. I leafed through it, read a few passages and decided to borrow it. The book is brief, 113 pages, of which the last forty are a bibliography. The story-telling impulse in Buber is strong. He illustrates thought with narrative. The last of the twenty pieces collected in Meetings, “Books and Men,” is only two pages long. It begins:

“If I had been asked in my early youth whether I preferred to have dealings only with men or only with books, my answer would certainly have been in favor of books. In later years this has become less and less the case. Not that I have had so much better experiences with men than with books; on the contrary, purely delightful books even now come my way more often than purely delightful men. But the many bad experiences with men have nourished the meadow of my life as the noblest book could not do, and the good experiences have made the earth into a garden for me.”

Buber’s experience resembles my own. I was shy and had little confidence. With books I felt at home among peers. They never intimidated me. With people, I was hesitant and uncertain. Only in college did I meet men and women (mostly men) who weaponized books. I was sickened and saw what I could become. To this day I recognize a similar weaponizing impulse among many practitioners and followers of the avant-garde and so-called “experimental” literature. Perhaps it’s just old-fashioned snobbery with academic pretensions. For Buber, as for me, the either/or tension between people and books is never resolved: “The spirit hovers above me powerfully and pours out his exalted gift of speech, books; how glorious, how weird! But she, the human world, needs only to cast a wordless smile, and I cannot live without her.” Resolution is unnecessary. The two worlds are one. Read Buber’s conclusion:
“Here is an infallible test. Imagine yourself in a situation where you are alone, wholly alone on earth, and you are offered one of the two, books or men. I often hear men prizing their solitude, but that is only because there are still men somewhere on earth, even though in the far distance. I knew nothing of books when I came forth from the womb of my mother, and I shall die without books, with another human hand in my own. I do, indeed, close my door at times and surrender myself to a book, but only because I can open the door again and see a human being looking at me.”

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