The Thousand Masks of the Unreal

November 20, 2019   •   By Sam Gee

Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent

Paul Mendes-Flohr

Daniel: Dialogues on Realization

Martin Buber

MARTIN BUBER WAS a man of paradoxes: a devout Jew who rejected Rabbinic law, a philosopher with a distaste for abstraction, and a Zionist who despaired over nationalism and advocated for the rights of Arabs in Palestine. Born in Vienna in 1878, he spent many of his productive years in Germany, and fought to maintain both a German and a Jewish identity even as Adolf Hitler rose to power. A youthful activist for a national Jewish renaissance, he only reluctantly fled to Palestine in 1938, and was never as comfortable in Hebrew as he was in German. In his early book, Daniel, Buber sought to make sense of his own inner contradictions in universal terms. “There is in reality no I,” he wrote, “except the I of a tension.” This self held together only by its continuous engagement with its own and the world’s teeming confusions — this was Buber’s own self.

Paul Mendes-Flohr’s excellent recent biography, Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, brings coherence to the tangles of Buber’s life and thought, while never smoothing out the tensions that defined them. For many, the name of Martin Buber is associated chiefly — or even solely — with his 1923 book, I and Thou, which proclaimed Buber’s full-fledged “philosophy of dialogue.” Here Buber distinguished between two ways of being in the world, or two basic “attitudes”: the I-It, in which the self views other beings as mere things to be used or experienced, and the I-Thou, in which one enters into immediate relationship with the other as a really existing, present being. As these terms came to define Buber, the full significance and reach of his work has perhaps been obscured.

Indeed, the Buber of I and Thou was not the only Buber, and Mendes-Flohr’s biography fully captures the dramatic evolution of his thought. Buber’s journey from a Jewish youth leader, embroiled in Zionist politics, to an interpreter of mystical texts and advocate of subjective religious experience to a philosopher of dialogue and encounter is one of the more interesting intellectual itineraries of the 20th century. Mendes-Flohr traces these personal and philosophical developments, while also maintaining a sense of the deep continuities in Buber’s work. Until his death in 1965, Buber tirelessly advocated a radically humane, deeply religious “Hebrew humanism” that affirmed the value of the human person, spoke to the need for community, and taught the presence of the God who lives where we are truly present with the others who surround us.

Interpreters of Buber have tended to divide his writings into two stages: an early, mystical phase, and a later philosophy of dialogue. This division is, however, somewhat misleading. Buber himself preferred to say that he had undergone a process of “clarification” rather than “conversion.” Mendes-Flohr shows that dialogical concerns — questions about the self’s (dis)connection and relatedness to other beings — run through even Buber’s earliest works. And Buber’s interest in Hasidism did not end after the 1910s; indeed, Buber published some of his most notable books on Hasidism in the ’40s and ’50s. Even this late work on Hasidism was somewhat mystical in nature. Much to the chagrin of Buber’s friend and self-styled rival, Gershom Scholem, Buber’s writings were far more concerned with interpreting the spiritual significance of Hasidic life rather than reconstructing its historical reality.

Despite these continuities, Buber’s writings reflect a clear development. Most important is the transition from Buber’s early “Erlebnis-mysticism,” as Mendes-Flohr calls it, to his later focus on “encounter,” relationship, and community. Erlebnis, a German word Buber picked up from his teacher Wilhelm Dilthey, means “lived experience.” In his early work, Buber seemingly advocated the individual’s intense connection to her own Erlebnis, echoing — in a distinctly German way — broader trends in inter-continental religious thought as found, for example, in the fascination with individual religious experience displayed in William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). With the publication of I and Thou, however, Buber had choice words for experience: “Those who experience do not participate in the world. For the experience is ‘in them’ and not between them and the world.” This was not as simple as a rejection of all mysticism, as Buber’s so-called mature thought still posited an unmediated connection with the divine. Buber did not reject mysticism per se, only the obsession of contemporary mystically inclined religious thinkers to focus on subjective, internal religious experience. Buber’s dialogic philosophy sought to bring God out of human consciousness and back into the world. In so doing, Buber advanced his fundamental project of erasing the lines between the sacred and the profane. By making space for God in everyday life, he aimed to create unity out of the divine-mundane duality.

Readers of Buber have received a renewed opportunity to consider the place of his early work with last year’s republication of his 1913 book Daniel: Dialogues on Realization. A series of five dialogues (which have nothing to do with the Hebrew prophet Daniel), the book is by turns euphoric, baffling, beautiful, and deeply troubling. One finds in it lines of great literary elegance: “[D]o you not know what the moment which you allow to fulfill itself brings to you, what a flood of song and light?” But the grace of such words floats on top of a thick layer of anxiety, reflecting Buber’s gnawing feelings of unreality and alienation, which he believed were characteristic of the modern age. Considering the mass of people in a nearby city, the protagonist Daniel muses that “the unreal has a thousand masks.” Speaking with a friend, he gives voice to his deepest wish: “If I could only redeem these specters to reality!”

The third dialogue — “On Meaning” — is both the book’s best and its most concerning. Here, Buber distinguishes between two modes of being in the world: the way of “orientation” and that of “realization.” Orientation (anticipating Buber’s later thoughts on the “I-It” relationship) is the attitude which seeks to classify, analyze, and create, in a variety of ways, a sense of stability and security in a dangerous world. Realization, on the other hand, embraces reality in its fullness. The realizing person confronts each new moment without forcing it to conform to prior concepts, acting out of a deep sense of “direction” and thereby creating a lived unity out of the world’s plurality. Buber mocks the God of theologians, the God of cause-and-effect and comforting stories as the God of the oriented. The living God, Buber proclaims through Daniel, is the God experienced when one takes on the existential risk of living the peaks and valleys of life without resorting to complacent ideas about the way things “really are,” whether theologically, philosophically, or even scientifically. “This is the kingdom of God,” Daniel preaches, “the kingdom of danger and of risk, of eternal beginning and of eternal becoming, of opened spirit and of deep realization, the kingdom of holy insecurity.” Again and again, Buber emphasizes the value of insecurity and risk in an unreal modern world, of living to the hilt. Daniel admonishes that one must “descend ever anew into the transforming abyss, risk your soul ever anew, ever anew vowed to the holy insecurity.”

Buber’s critique of intellectual and spiritual cop-outs and of psychological avoidance feels as salient today as it did to his enthusiastic readers in the 1910s. Indeed, Buber might sound like a more engaging and more philosophical version of today’s popular Buddhist self-help books and cognitive behavioral therapy manuals which counsel the acceptance of discomfort and insecurity. But Buber’s stirring vision of embracing reality with one’s whole being, of creating unity in one’s self, thereby realizing God, was not merely therapeutic. Indeed, his valorization of risk led him to an uncritical admiration of danger and heroism on the model of his then-idol Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Echoing Nietzsche as Buber does throughout Daniel, he advises “danger, danger, danger […] Your motto will be: God and danger. For danger is the door of deep reality, and reality is the highest price of life and God’s eternal birth.” As Mendes-Flohr uncompromisingly details in his biography, this high-blown mystical rhetoric led Buber into an ambivalent support of German nationalism during World War I. In Buber’s mind, Kriegserlebnis — the lived experience of war — could be a powerful force for bringing about an “eon of realization” which, among other things, would lead to the creation of “the flowering cross of community.” The experience of war would wake bourgeois civilization from its illusory slumber and, ultimately, create a new society of spiritually bonded, fully realized individuals; this is what Mendes-Flohr describes as Buber’s “metaphysical endorsement of German nationalism.” The irony, of course, was that Buber’s disdain for the unreality of modern bourgeois society allowed him to overlook the concrete facts of immense human suffering in the trenches.

If the pseudo-mystical nationalist Buber were the final Buber, he would almost certainly not be remembered today. Not everyone is allowed to move past such grievous errors of judgment as Buber made in his 30s, but here again, Buber’s story is remarkable. His best friend, a Jewish anarchist intellectual and activist named Gustav Landauer, refused to let him off the hook for what he perceived to be an inhumane position. In a fascinating real-life example of the power of dialogue, Landauer and Buber met for several days in 1916 at Landauer’s home. Mendes-Flohr argues that it was this extended conversation that radically changed Buber’s views on several key issues. For one, Buber utterly rejected nationalism for the rest of his life. Additionally, Buber revised his notion of Erlebnis and “genuine community.” Psychological, social, and spiritual unity were no longer to be achieved in one’s own consciousness, but rather between people in the act of direct encounter and relation.

The reader of Daniel, then, is left with a question: Is the book no more than a relic of Buber’s hopelessly misguided early subjectivism? And if so, what should one make of the moments of real beauty and insight which are shot through the five dialogues? There is no doubt that Buber improved upon Daniel in his later work, and that his innovations in religious thought, moving past the international neo-Romantic emphasis on individual experience, come only in the 1920s. That said, given that the ideas in Daniel did lead on to the better ideas of I and Thou and other works, it is possible to give Daniel a sympathetic reading. Buber’s thinking about the value of risk and insecurity, his rejection of pleasant fantasies in favor of the fullness of reality, his insistently this-worldly spirituality, and his first hazy efforts to describe how the self is born out of relation, all stand out as particularly inspired. Here Buber is struggling with fundamental questions that define all of his work: how to maintain a sense of individuality while still belonging to a community, how to overcome social alienation, how to think about death while passionately engaging in the life of the world. If the book is a strange mixture of life-affirming wisdom and distasteful fodder for Romantic nationalism, this is a contradiction that we should handle as Daniel would counsel us to do: to live with it, bear it, and find meaning within it. As Daniel would say, “To live the tension of the world is the highest test of our being,” and this applies very well to those who wish to admire and love the work of intellectuals who were complex and sometimes misguided human beings.

Buber lived in a time that witnessed world war not once, but twice; he learned that the country he considered to be his home had methodically slaughtered his people, while he saw his dream of an ethical, post-national Jewish state turn to dust; he survived the politically motivated murder of his best friend, Landauer, the premature death of another dear friend, Franz Rosenzweig, and the death of his beloved wife, Paula. That Buber nevertheless believed that this world could be made a home for God is a testament to the depth of his fire-tested faith.

Buber challenges us today to lead lives of risk — not violent, brash risk, but confident risk, the risk of the Hebrew prophets who witnessed to the highest truths in the face of great personal danger. Buber’s words call on all of us to bear this risk: to take on the responsibility of making the world ready for God by rejecting solitude, alienation, and the pursuit of interesting experiences, and by embracing the terribly difficult, arduous, and ultimately joyful path of encountering the other in our midst and extending to them that great invitation to community: “Thou.”


Sam Gee is a doctoral student in the University of Chicago’s Committee on Social Thought.