Warning: Philosophical flight ahead, soaring high into the ether, bearing little or no entertainment value and no direct references to Mormonism, the election, or Prop 8. Just so you know.
These fall mornings, to get blood going to my brain, I walk out into the desert near my house. A few days ago I went up onto a nearby ATV route that beats a bare path south. This I followed a short distance, heading to a spot having clear views east to Sleeping Ute Mountain in Colorado, southeast to Shiprock in New Mexico, and south-southeast to the Carrizo Mountains in Arizona.
Heavily traveled wildlife trails intersected mine—crusted, salmon-colored soil deer hooves had minced, coming and going. Since the Hunter’s Moon in October, animal traffic across the mesa has shifted from sparse to concentrated and diverse. Everything is on the move, especially the deer, who are flowing down with the last of the water from their summer range on the Abajos, heading to their winter range around the mountains’ shins and down into the desert canyons. All summer, the history animals write in dust showed only occasional Cervidae passage, their cloven hoof prints. Now, the parchment shows constant streams of deer flowing back and forth, up and down. Often on morning walks I hear or see them around me, snorting or bounding for cover.
This time, though, something different. As I neared my view point, I came upon a mule deer, a doe, standing in the open less than fifty feet away. She stood broadside to me, a posture that has particular meaning in the animal world, though I haven’t worked out quite what. By the time I saw her, her senses had already fallen fully upon me. Her gaze was open and inquiring. She displayed little obvious alarm, standing fully exposed, caught up in regarding my presence.
I stopped and dropped my hands down in front. For a few seconds, we exchanged questioning looks. Then I said, “Good morning.” Her ears twitched as they caught my words. Then, breaking her gaze, she dropped the moment between us and ambled into the junipers, where I last saw her nosing about, looking for something edible.
The deer didn’t flee—not in the usual way of a frightened deer—though at my words, if not at the constancy of my looking at her, she dropped back. In that gesture I left the focus of her thought; she relegated me to an object in her world. For a few seconds, I had seen the guttering of some flame of regard in her doe eyes, but it went out at the language I laid between us. I became an it to her. A benign it rather than a predatory it, but an it all the same.
Over the last year I’ve been working my way through Martin Buber’s treatise on relation, I and Thou. This experience with the doe recalled for me Buber’s story about his cat, which I happened to have read the night before. “An animal’s eyes,” he says, “have the power to speak a great language.” He explains that this language expresses through the animal eye “the mystery in its natural prison, the anxiety of becoming.” This anxiety is the tension a creature feels between “the realms of [its] vegetable security and spiritual venture.”
Buber says his cat doesn’t have the capacity to address him in language, only the capacity to turn its glance upon him. He remarks how, under his gaze, the cat’s gaze lights up and indisputably questions him, but the questioning extinguishes itself quickly in disquietude. The sun of relation rises and sets in the cat’s eyes as a single movement. “For other events,” he says, “possessed between morning and evening their day, even though it might be brief, but here morning and evening flowed pitilessly mingled together, the bright Thou appeared and was gone.”
The bright Thou. In Buber’s map of relation, man speaks primary words in accordance with his attitude toward being in the world. These primary words are actually word pairs: I-Thou and I-It.
I-Thou is spoken with the whole being and takes its stand in relation. Between the I and Thou in I-Thou, there is no subject-object span of distance and no bounds. In I-Thou, there is “mutual giving: you say Thou to it and give yourself to it, it says Thou to you and gives itself to you.” The I-Thou word of relation does not sustain you in this life in any practical manner, as I-It does, though it immerses you in eternity for brief or possibly more extended moments. Furthermore, the meeting with Thou “tears us away to dangerous extremes, loosening the well-tried context, leaving more questions than satisfaction behind them, shattering security—in short, uncanny moments we can well dispense with.”
The primary word I-It is never spoken with the whole being and takes its stand in the world of experience, or of separation: I perceive something, I imagine something, I will something, I feel something. In the speaking of the I-It primary word, I becomes a subject which experiences and uses, objectifying what it sees with “the field glass of remote inspection,” separating particulars and arranging them according to casual, advantageous connections that the I makes for its own purposes. In I-It, the I profits itself, turning any given moment toward “the sustaining, relieving, and equipping of human life.”
The success of a person’s life in the world depends on his/her ability to move back and forth between the I-Thou, I-It dual human reality, but the deeper a person ventures toward speaking Thou to what and who he/she meets, the more sustained is that person’s constancy of immersion into “the whole stuff of life” and the more fully the mystery of life, even the face of God, turns its gaze upon you. “Thus the time of human life is shaped into a fullness of reality, and even though human life neither can nor ought to overcome the connexion with It, [that connexion] is so penetrated with relation that relation wins in it a shining streaming constancy: the moments of supreme meeting are then not flashes in darkness but like the rising moon in a clear starlit night.”
I thought my meeting with the doe so like what Buber described happening between him and his cat that I wondered, for a moment, about whether our life with nature indeed swayed “in gloom,” unable to cross “to the threshold of speech,” as he asserts. Maybe, I mused, Buber just had a stupid cat. They exist—I know it. As for the deer, this close-in meeting was our first. It would be too much to expect a deer or anybody else to engage in a hale volleying of Thous at first sight. Though sometimes I wonder about lizards. There’s something strangely forward going on with some of them.
Buber believes a person’s capacity to say Thou in speech to other people meets with greater success than his/her saying Thou to nature. Language , Buber says, is spirit’s primal act—it’s in speech that relation opens between people. Ultimately, through the saying of Thou, the relation between man and God lights up. Check out this extraordinary passage:
…there is a cosmos for man only when the universe becomes his home, with its holy hearth whereon he offers sacrifice; there is Eros for man only when beings become for him pictures of the eternal, and community is revealed along with them; and there is Logos for man only when he addresses the mystery with work and service for the spirit. Form’s silent asking, man’s loving speech, the mute proclamation of the creature, are all gates leading into the presence of the Word. But when the full and complete meeting is to take place, the gates are united in one gateway of real life, and you no longer know through which you have entered.
Nor, I think, do you care. You’re just there, and the other being’s there, God’s there, whether physically present, as with nature and its creatures, or whether, as is the way with humans, language and the revelatory moment catches you up in presence in streaming beams of Thou.
It’s a great temptation for human beings to abide in the I-It realm of experience, treating everything, including language, as just another It. Then we fall to using written or uttered speech as a hammer to drive home a point or a wheelbarrow to cart some matter from one spot to another, sometimes raising words as swords or guns, wielding them wholly in service to ourselves or to our interests. In so doing, we likewise reduce the receiver of our pointed meaning to It, some thing we are trying to do something to or with, perhaps fix into place or arrange to our liking. Human language, a teeming environment in which a person might happen, shrinks down to a processing device that limits prospects to the merely expedient. It’s I-It that greases the wheels and pulleys of deterministic systems of thought and rigs up the illusion that life bears no freedom. I-It, in the fictions it mocks up for itself, sets the confines of its stifling fate, the inevitable outcome. People are little more than machines “which must be taken into account and utilized for the Cause”; God becomes just “another means by which we profit.” The impulse to speak I-It to another is the stone in the clenched fist of Us-Them.
On the other hand, I-Thou, spoken with the whole being, steps into torrents of revelation, which in Buber’s language is not the same thing as the idea about God’s word being spoken through an anointed mouthpiece—a prophet—who dispenses it to those waiting for word. Revelation erupts in the meeting between man and his Thou, and when he emerges he comes out with “something more that has grown in him, of which he did not know before and whose origin he is not rightly able to indicate.” This is to say that, having gone through the moment that “tears us away to dangerous extremes, loosening the well-tried context, leaving more questions than satisfaction behind them, shattering security,” the man turns out differently. When he emerges from his Thou moment he leaves not only the moment but what he was prior to it, he advances toward his destiny. Destiny differs sharply from fate. For one thing, it moves in man through his mounting freedom. Freedom infuses the I-Thou relation because, unlike the world of It, the “world of Thou is not closed. He who goes out to it with concentrated being and risen power to enter into relation becomes aware of freedom. And to be freed from the belief that there is no freedom is indeed to be free.”
Buber’s model appears mostly to assign art to the realm of experience, an act of arranging matters to one’s liking, and thus to the world of I-It, since to attempt to express the inexpressible, especially the moment when your Thou steps in close to meet you, is to render it a thing, not to mention that your rendering becomes itself an exercise in futility. But I think there must be a way in which art can be a saying of Thou, not just in the act of creating, as address to the supreme Thou, but also to the reader of a work or the hearer of a musical composition or the soul whose gaze falls upon art in whatever form. Art might also stand at the doorway of revelation, I think, offering the potential for what Buber calls “turning.” He certainly sings with delight over the spirit in the work of Goethe, Socrates, and Jesus, their beaming I that abides in the shine of endless dialogue able to accompany man into the “stillness of death and becoming.” Whatever the case, even as It, there is hope for art when the artist’s immersion into the whole stuff of life results in his work transfusing and being transfused with the warmth and glow of relation.
In all fairness to Mr. Buber’s cat and that curious deer, I’ve been there, hung up in that tension between vegetable security and spiritual venture. If it hadn’t been for people in my life who, when the dawn of questioning did arise in my eye, stepped up to meet it before it set and slowed with their power the arc of the sun of each meeting, I might be there still. Sometimes I slip back toward that tension when matters become too much, I sink back toward the creature comfort of It. Yet experience shows that always the bright Thou awaits my return, meets my gaze for as long as I can sustain it, and teases me further out into the world and meaningfulness. For there’s a more radical dance to life than fate allows for, there’s always more to the story than what I try to write into it. Every word bends toward what lies beyond, aching to explode into showering fireworks of Thou.