Thursday, October 16, 2008

Between I and Thou

In a class this week someone mentioned Martin Buber in the context of a discussion on the responsibility of an editor. Since I'd never heard of this fellow before, I started doing some informal research to see what he was all about. So here's me thinking out loud about what I found...

One of the ideas Buber is most known for is the "I/thou" and "I/it" perspective on religion (and, by expansion, relationships of many kinds). "Between I and Thou there is no purpose, no greed and no anticipation," he wrote (I and Thou). Real living is composed of I/thou encounters, spaces in which each participant exists unreservedly in the presence of the other. There must be two because they affirm one another.

I/it occurs when the I is imposed, as it almost always must be at some point, by preconception, assumption, or objectification, onto the other, taking away its independent existence by conceiving it as a construction in the mind of the I.

If we think of the editor of a text as the I, then we can think of the original author(s), previous editors, potential readers, and the text itself as the thous. And I have to wonder if its possible for an editor to maintain any of these I/thou relationships and still perform her/his function, which is, essentially, about making assumptions and impositions. Is it something to strive for anyway? I want to say yes, because I think my approach as an editor (in different kinds of situations) has generally been grounded in an essential respect for the text and its creator(s). It doesn't have to be-you don't have to be-what I expect/assume/want you to be.

It very quickly begins to sound very vague and touchy-feely, but that's not what I mean at all. It's not that the I/thou encounter takes away the power of the participants; rather, it enhances their power because it is a relationship in which no one takes anything away from the other. In a relationship with a thou, I am not asked to be less than I am by another's expectations. It's something we experience in the best kinds of friendships, with people who know us better than we know ourselves, people from whom we don't need to hide anything.

"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."

"I think no human being can give more than this. Making life possible for the other, if only for a moment."

Martin Buber.

And, in a similar vein, here's a really charming book cover I stumbled across (via)(check the link for an interview with the designer:

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