Finding true self-acceptance by entering the dialogue with God. An adaption of Martin Buber’s dialogism on Siri Hustvedt’s “The Shaking Woman”
“I am because you are in me”
Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2016 16 Pages
Table of Contents
2. Martin Buber’s I and Thou Dialogism
2.1 The Eternal Thou
3. The ambiguity of the self in Siri Hustvedt’s “The Shaking Woman”
4. The “Shaking Woman” enters the dialogue
6. Works Cited
6.1 Primary Literature
6.2 Secondary Literature
…”the Almighty addresses our hearts at the moment in which our being becomes one”
Knowing one’s own self has been defined as one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish in our lives. Nevertheless, all of us feel the inner need to relate to ourselves in order to become holistic1 beings. But how do we get to know the self? In contrast to collectivism, individualism is considered an egoistical doctrine that selfishly ignores the needs of others (cf Oldenquist 24). However, the terms do not necessarily exclude each other. On the contrary, identity is based on relationships and on the dialogue with others.
During the twentieth century, existential philosophy developed as a discipline which faced those big existential questions and tried to provide a guideline to find one’s personal identity in life. Eventually, existential philosophers such as Martin Buber and Mikhail Bakthin became known as pioneers of the so-called dialogical philosophy.
In opposition to individualism2, Buber established a concept of getting to know the self from a totally different point of view. Instead of focusing exclusively on the subject as an individual, Buber presents an approach which stresses the importance of the other person. In his view, two individuals establish an intersubjective relationship in order to achieve self-formation.
In her book “The Shaking Woman” Siri Hustvedt describes her struggle of self-identification and self-acceptance. Hustvedt suffers from physical shaking but no one is able to find a certain diagnosis for her illness. Nevertheless, Hustvedt manages her inner conflict and finds self-acceptance in the end.
This paper shall provide evidence in how far Buber’s concept of dialogism supports Siri Hustvedt in order to resolve her inner conflict. By entering the dialogue with the other3 we are able to find and accept our true self. In relation to Martin Buber’s approach of dialogism, the act of entering the dialogue happens by addressing God, the so-called Eternal Thou. Therefore, the act of self-acceptance which occurs in “The Shaking Woman” can be also considered as religious experience.
First, this paper will explain Martin Buber’s dialogical approach and its relevance for the “Shaking Woman”. Further, I will point out the relevance of the Eternal Thou which provides healing and reconciliation with the self. Afterwards, this paper will analyze Siri Hustvedt’s conflict of the self and how she reaches self-acceptance by entering the dialogue in terms of Buber’s philosophy.
2. Martin Buber’s I and Thou Dialogism
Martin Buber has been considered one of the pioneers of existential philosophy and he has become especially famous with his book “I and Thou”. In his philosophy he stresses the importance of interpersonal relationships which newly establish the way we encounter the other person in front of us.
It is essential for Buber’s philosophy that relation is not the consequence of entering the dialogue:
In the beginning is relation -as category of being, readiness, grasping form, mould for the soul; it is the a priori of relation” (Lothstein 35), the “inborn Thou” (Buber 27). The capacity of saying Thou […] is constitutive of our human essence; we are the kind of beings who can say “Thou” to the world and its inhabitants and by the same token say “Thou” to the God who has endowed us with this epistemic and spiritual capacity for saying “Thou” (Lothstein 35f.).
Significantly, a main difference between “I-Thou” and “I-It” is that “I- Thou” “encompasses a world of relation, while “I-It” refers to the world as experience, in which we each reflect on the other and on the dialogue”4 (Greverus 17).
In order to understand Buber’s approach it is important to know that “I“ and “Thou” are not beings which are separated from each other. The I-Thou dialogism presents the view that an individual is just able to know itself by encountering its counterpart in a dialogical relationship. Therefore, the human being becomes an “I” by the “Thou” (cf. Buber 25). Accordingly, the “I” represents the construct of the relationship with the other counterpart and is not considered as separate entity.
A central point in Buber’s philosophy is the encounter (cf. Buber 12). which enables the human being to enter the dialogue. Every encounter between I and Thou ends and turns back into an I-It relationship. Through the encounter it is also possible for the It, to become “Thou” again. Nevertheless, every I- Thou relationship turns back into an I-It relationship but the potential to return to the I-Thou world remains (cf. Buber 33).
Moreover, Buber’s I-Thou dialogism is not just limited to interpersonal relationships between human beings. It is also possible to enter the dialogue with natural and spiritual entities like the Eternal Thou. In terms of Buber, the so-called “Eternal Thou” is described as God5.
Buber, who considered himself as spiritual, followed Hassidism, a branch of Jewish belief which greatly influenced him. Although Buber rejects religious dogmatism, Hassidism was very important for the establishment of Buber’s dialogism. By understanding “that all genuine relations converge into the Eternal,” Hassidism claims that “whenever human beings genuinely relate to another, and to other entities, they relate to God” (Guilherme 369). Instead of believing in a certain God, Buber emphasizes that we rather “live” together with him (cf. Guilherme 372).
2.1 The Eternal Thou
The “Eternal Thou” or “God” according to Buber is an essential part in Buber’s philosophy. The Eternal Thou is realized within the relationship between I and Thou and is just present between the two counterparts that enter the dialogue (cf. Buber 75).
In terms of a usual dialogue, the relationship between I and Thou is considered as being limited and after it ends, I and Thou come back to an I-It relationship. But this does not apply to the Eternal Thou which is constantly in the position of the Thou (cf. Buber 75).
Since Buber states that the Eternal Thou has been addressed by men “with many names,” he points at the variability of the term “Eternal Thou.” This implies that there is no concrete objective definition of it. In spite of the fact that there is no clear definition or portrait of God, all people’s views of God imply that “all God’s names are hallowed” which makes him the “most imperishable and most indispensable” (Buber 75).
Buber also mentions the critique that God’s name was often misused by others and that there were also men who reject him. Still, Buber says that just the belief in a certain God is not essential in order to enter the dialogue with him:
Manche wollen verweisen, das Wort Gott rechtmäßig zu gebrauchen, weil es so oft missbraucht sei. Und gewiss ist es das beladenste aller Menschenworte. Eben darum ist es das unvergänglichste und unumgänglichste. Und was wiegt alle Irr-Rede über Gottes Wesen und Werke(wiewohl es keine andere gegeben hat und geben kann) gegen die Eine Wahrheit, dass alle Menschen, die Gott angesprochen haben, ihn selbst meinten? Denn wer das Wort Gottes spricht und wirklich Du im Sinn hat, spricht, in welchem Wahn immer er befangen sei, das wahre Du seines Lebens an, das von keinem andern eingeschränkt zu werden vermag und zu dem er in einer Beziehung steht, die alle anderen einschließt. Aber auch wer den Namen verabscheut und gottlos zu sein wähnt, wenn er mit seinem ganzen hingegebenen Wesen das Du seines Lebens anspricht, als das von keinem andern eingeschränkt zu werden vermag, spricht er Gott an (Buber 71-72).
Here, Buber states that although a person claims not to believe in a certain God, this does not exclude someone from entering the dialogue with him. In the moment the person addresses the real “Thou,” the person is also addressing God. It is important to point out the Eternal Thou here since the Eternal Thou allows us to permanently stay in an I and Thou relationship.
This special and open-minded view of faith offers people a liberating view towards God which is applicable to many different kinds of religious perspectives without having to follow a certain dogma. Furthermore, Buber claims that we encounter God by hallowing life which stresses that we can encounter God in our daily surroundings (cf. Buber 75).
Guilherme even points out that Buber’s philosophy is understood as a sort of prayer which enables the individual to “seek reconciliation with itself, with others and with God” (Guilherme 365).
Therefore, dialogical philosophy remains distinct from the traditional Jewish belief and is transferable to any interpersonal relationship in our daily lives. God is considered as “Eternal Thou,” which means that only God is capable of maintaining a long-lasting relationship without falling back into the I-It world.
Additionally, it is important to stress that religion and everyday life are not two separated spheres; rather they are intrinsically interconnected (cf. Guilherme 370). Moreover, it is a core matter in his philosophy that “the true religious experience is not something particular to the religious virtuoso who enters into a mystic union with the deity […] but something that happens in our daily lives when we encounter the other through I-Thou relations” (Guilherme 370).
The relationship between the human being and the “Eternal Thou” serves as an extension of the I-Thou relationship between human being and nature. On a spiritual level the individual is guided to establish a relationship with the “Eternal Thou” but the worship or adoration of a certain God is not the primary issue. According to Buber, God does just exist in a dialogical relationship around all other relationships in the world. God is not considered as a single being distinct from other monotheistic religions like traditional Judaism, Christianity or Islam. Furthermore, Buber rejects all other religious views apart from dialogism.
1 Holism refers to the belief in the integration of body, mind and spirit as indivisible components of an individual being. Moreover, “holism is often applied to describe notions of balance, harmony, well-being and healing, and a holistic approach promises to restore this sense of unity” (Birch and Nissen 73).
2 Referring to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, individualism was a movement at its peak in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. “According to this doctrine, the source of morality, of moral values and principles, the creator of the very criteria of moral evaluation, is the individual” (Lukes 88).
3 To avoid confusion, I want to emphasize that this paper focusses on the establishment of an I- Thou relationship according to Martin Buber. Apart from other dialogical theories, which include a distinction between intra-and interpersonal dialogue (e.g. Rogers), this does not apply to Buber (cf. Cissna and Anderson 202). Therefore, the I-Thou relationship is not defined by the number of persons interacting within the dialogue. Consequently, even a soliloquy can be dialogic in terms of Buber.
4 Due to the limited pagination, this paper will not explain the I-It relationship in detail.
5 The Eternal Thou will be explained further in chapter 2.1.