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In Pursuit of Buber's Unity of Being

by Sheldon James Martin

Main Entry: solipsism

Pronunciation: 'sO-l&p-"si-z&m, 's-
Function: noun
Etymology: Latin solus alone + ipse self

: a theory holding that the self can know nothing but its own modifications and that the self is the only existent thing

The best story I can tell regarding relationship and how it may affect the subjective solipsistic nature is through a working illustration (although comedic and hence exaggerated) that comes out of one of the episodes from the Jerry Seinfeld Show from the 1990's. The comedian encountered many women relationships during the nine years and 180 episodes — but none stands out so well as the time Jerry met his match. Their attraction was immediate and the conversation the couple fell into was alarmingly self-gratifying for the most part. It seems their overt personalities were quite similar at first blush: they 'saw' things in the same perspective, both trivial and major perceptions were not uncommon. Their physical reactions were also similar. And beyond the exterior or personality veneers lay an also-sameness so close to the narrow ledge of a blade that neither could stand together too long before falling off into the an awaiting abyss. Or at least, it seemed heading for a certain conclusion. What first was the electric meeting of two minds or hearts — their commonality of personality, mannerisms, phrasing and even similar-sounding inflections — came to an immediate but not instant recognition that two personalities may be one and the same. Jerry had found his mind and mannerism double somewhere after their first date and before their third. Yet, the in-tuneness he initially felt such rapture for, and was intrigued by...including their sameness of 'walk and talk' eventually — or else somewhere in the middle of the episode, became reason enough to realize the one he had fallen in love with ever so briefly — was also someone he really could not tolerate too much longer. Every response she made, every inflection intended and gesture performed, began to remind him, ever so often now, even to the point of repulsion, that the one nature contained in both, the self-awareness of recognizing that just perhaps a parallel reality does exist in the 'other' was the very point of departure and rejection of his so-called soul mate. One solipsist at a time please!

And what's more, from that time forward, each time their eyes met in a midtown Manhattan restaurant booth, it became almost disgustingly obvious from his startled humor reactions to his mirror image across the booth: he couldn't stand 'himself' — because he realized he didn't want to live each day with a partner who was his mind-a-like double, (although she was female). The corresponding natures of Jerry and his girlfriend were consistent in fact right down the line: from metaphor to who's-a-whore... they mirrored the other. So who is the solipsist here? From the time when Jerry realized he was like her — the same mind and consciousness in a male and female body — doesn't he self-admit that it is difficult or even impossible to 'see' oneself so fully and completely as 'the another', especially when that other is a potential lifetime partner?

What that little episode told me is how seemingly impossible it is to live with one we believe or consider to be much like ourselves in personality, manner, motivations and even similar to in awareness of perceptions. That is, if we can't tolerate ourselves in the body and mind of another then we must recognize the importance of dissimilarities between each. The idea that the ideal solipsist cannot imagine anyone but his own consciousness lingering day by day seems to make little empirical sense when we realize in fact, the 'other' is out there as long as there is two individuals left on the planet. And when we come 'close' to seeing another with the same outward mannerisms and gestures, how can we assure we are 'in them' and they 'in us'. Another legitimate theory that the self is not the only thing that can be recognized, known and verified, is to state simply: "how do we know our self" when that one constant stream of conscious and shifting atoms of which we are composed hardly stands still for an exacting absorption and analysis. When we go looking into our own natures, what do we turn up? Or what can we admit is there, even to our private selves? I think what the solipsist may really be looking for is someone who understands 'him' in his own nature and skin — thereby verifying his primary reality. Isn't that what ultimately we attempt in argument, criticism, and war?... and how we spend our days eliciting opinions we hope will ultimately point to the either the acceptance or rejection of or view or views of this and that? And finally, someone, somewhere will accept, at least support our view of ourselves — accept us, again, for who we think we might be. Not quite one who perceives his reality only as solipsist? when the need for approvals large and small stands in the humid, wavering air of recognition by other. In this argument, the anti-solipsist is more like to prevail — rather than the idealized version-in-waiting who wonders aloud if anyone has a conscious nature beyond himself?

Perhaps it became obvious to the story line that to fall in love with ones own 'self' is intolerable. Even disgusting when the "I" must be shared even from accidental circumstances by another random individual. Looking past the coffee and creamer to discover the unique nature we attributed to our own image also existed in that persona just a few feet away can be much too much to absorb. The definition of the solipsist that incorporates the idea that the self is the only existing thing for Seinfeld may have been too much to acknowledge even to himself. The world of "I" is no longer subjective when it must be shared with someone else — the mirror "I". Or so it seems. That uniqueness of the subjective "I" was threatened by another subjective "I" apparently in the form of the subjective nature of another who happened to be a woman. And that implies a mere intimacy of association on the part of the two subjective "I's".

Therefore it seems somewhat appropriate to examine the elements of the solipsistic nature in situations where over time the existence of more intimate relationships has its place in philosophical inquiry. It also seems rather natural when we recognize that over a lifetime, the way we respond to family, friends and spouses who we owe or offer up more of our personal emotional selves in relating,-- comes closer to defining or using considerably more intellectual and emotional energy than more formal sets of relationships found outside these realms of behavior. That's where Martin Buber' I and Thou comes into the picture: in hopes of informing us in subjective or even objective ways of how we may relate to other by virtue of how first we relate to ourselves.

I cannot argue with the thought that human existence may well be defined by the way we engage the other in words, ideas, and other forms of dialogue we reach for in human intercourse and conversation. That fundamental precept ignites the fuel that flames our very communicable conscious selves at all levels and ages it appears. Walter Kaufman, in the I and Thou prologue wrote eloquently by making a case for the complexity of precisely defining the I and Thou --"Man's world is manifold, and his attitudes are manifold. What is manifold is often frightening because it is not neat and simple. Men prefer to forget how many possibilities are open to them" . He further tells us in more finite language that 'man' would rather choose between two options, one always being the superior one. "Mundus vult deipi — the world wants to be deceived. The truth is too complex and frightening; the taste for the truth is an acquired taste that few acquire." It seems Kaufman is preparing us for Buber to color our world as endless perceptions that we must encounter 10,000 times each and still not summon the courage to call forth that the clear answer is not for everyone. Or even many. Without viewpoint, comment, credential, or compassion, some may seem more like madmen babbling in Times Square or Trafalgar Square, being quickly passed by the embarrassed throng, or being followed by a ridiculing few who would rather harangue the insanity then recognize an authentic core in its madness.

Yet the I/Thou word play that gives life to Buber's masterpiece of complex relationship metaphor — through the combination sets so crisply laid out in the first few pages of Kaufman's prologue — is fundamental in relationship to the subjective levels in which the individual interacts with others:

I-I I-It It-It We-We Us-Them... and I/You

Keep in mind as we examine these sets of potential intimacies of language and their intimations of higher-lower levels of human usefulness, what we are doing is confounding ourselves in an attempt it seems for some purpose or the other... most likely, a hierarchal distinction of the more intimate (or not) levels of communication we establish between and among our fellow man in our conscious lifetime. Buber early on establishes 'basic word sets' as a way in which each of us relates to all others.These word pairs become their own 'mode' of existence for Buber. And in as much as Buber is working the foundations of word intent here, he does so by establishing up front the notion that word choice is in itself the foundation of or for the intent that follows. That is, the perception of ourselves and how we relate to the other is a matter of the word pairs used in the act of 'relating'. Through the mereness of words comes what is to follow: the intent of one to relate or speak to the totality of the other in degrees of authenticity — or in another way spoken — each of these word pairs tend to represent how we perceive the 'other' in relation to ourselves. (If we hold a low opinion of ourselves, or lack self-esteem in sufficient quantity, how do we then begin to assign a word set that is in proportion to these variable of metaphoric symbols?)

Who is this "I" of Buber's you might ask? What is the nature of that psyche in which he dwells in relation to all others with whom he establishes his own model of personally engaged dialogue? — and can or should one man define the nature of Unity itself through the use of dialogue? Or is it the task for each of us to take Buber's lead? to simply recognize language does establish intent in degrees of formality, intimacy and unity? What system of ethic, morality or sociability allows us to determine the at "I" is the I our lives too — that we begin our relationship to other by coming to terms with the fundamental nature of who "I" happens to be. Yet, we seem to be safe in pursuing the "Thou" reference, ultimately safeguarded for Buber's notion of God. The mythologist Joseph Campbell once said in order to get to God we had to go past God. In other words, not get stuck on the metaphorical reference that God is 'this or that' — "God is a reference whose center is everywhere" Campbell would often say in radio and television interviews until his death in 1987. Buber seemed to be more in touch with the ultimate metaphor: God. Using the first person to begin his journey of relationship and connection with the ultimate divinity seems to imply that in relating, the "I" holds some sense of divinity already, and actually complements the Godhead.There appears to be god-like characterizations in the first person if you consider its connection with the ultimate form of consciousness.

The idea that I-Thou encounters eliminate the viewpoint that awareness in the consciousness-spiritual sense is fragmented, random and semi-meaningless gets lost most often because God is the object or goal to reach in this personal dialogue form. With God as the Thou-goal, how can we go wrong? in its name and pursuit... the relationship ends now — doesn't it? We have arrived. I-Thou is the complement we are seeking in dialogue with a selected few. We just have to continually open our conscious selves every time we meet and greet new people and friends. You are my I-Thou because I seek you, search for you, look for you every hour. And when I find you, I will not let go. You are my Bliss. My Thou. I don't need to search for God when I can treat you without reserve as equal. The mutuality and reciprocity between I-thou does not represent separateness and detachment as I-It. I can give over my whole self and will not suffer for it. (Does that include giving over my sexuality — it's so hard to draw lines in the sand when you are taking in the whole desert.) Especially when you are giving over your whole self to a Thou. It ain't easy, is it? But doesn't that beat the other relationship forms which represent distance, elemental isolation of ideas, and the 'other its' of less than personal dialogue and language? The I-Thou attitude and relation of subject-to-subject keenly focuses in on our awareness of each other, and therefore a unity or more purposeful event is taking place because we are sharing our whole selves with the other, who is also sharing their whole self with us.

There is humanity is this dialogue. God-like to be sure. The openness, the fearlessness, the reciprocity of it all makes me weep. In fact, it does. Exposing our humanity to another is a big deal. And it does appear to revolve around accepting the humanity of another at the same time. But how is this self-exposure on both parts of the dialogue going to be accepted by the other? With gratitude, revulsion, curiosity... will it be a turn off, or a turn on? Or will we ever know until we engage in the I-Thou its results in terms of one person attaching to the other? Or does it really matter at all? Perhaps simply entering into the dialogue of personal engagement sets an uncharted course, but it beats thinking of the other as an 'It' or as a element of some isolated experience that carries no real exuberance in the moment and for the future. And is the 'Thou' of you and the 'I' of me each needed to complement the other? After we explain who we are and what we feel, what's left? Or can we greet the other for all time knowing 'Thou' and 'I' gave it all we had in order for mankind's common ground to appear without establishing a physicality of sorts vs. solely the 'spiritual'?

Buber's call to the Thou is more closely an attempt at direct dialogue toward a more spiritual essence. Yet, we must ask, what is the 'spiritual' unto Buber, and how is it manifested from him to us? How should we 'see it'. How do we identify with it if our spiritual nature is so entwined as part of our subjective selves?

© 2004 Sheldon James Martin


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