Martin Buber on Wombs, Babies, Child Development, and the “Longing for Relation”


Many great thinkers and writers of the 20th century were interested in children and in the experience of becoming childlike. One need only think of Freud and his obsession with the child’s development. Walter Benjamin wrote of childhood throughout his career, Kafka wrote of characters who had child-like sensibilities, nearly every story by Robert Walser has children or childlike narrators, James Joyce’s Bloom is a man-child who gets lost in experience, and Fyodor Dostoevsky was obsessed, in his novel, The Idiot, with Prince Myshkin’s childlike sensibility. And in his novel, Ferdydurke, Witold Gombrowicz has a narrator and children whose childishness evokes deep questions about the meaning of humanity. There are many other examples of childhood exploration by modernist writers and thinkers. And one need not look farther than thinkers like Jean-Francois Lyotard, Giorgio Agamben, Emmanuel Levinas, or Jean-Luc Nancy to see how fascinated they are with the meaning of “infancy” or what Lyotard calls the “debt to childhood.”

What one needs to keep in mind, however, is what these writers and thinkers were trying to explore or demonstrate in their writings on infancy and childhood. One very interesting exploration of childhood can be found in Martin Buber’s most famous book, I and Thou.   In search of the most primal experience of the “you” and relationality, Buber addresses the child in the womb and outside the womb as a kind of model or as evidence for the ontological roots of relationality and the I-thou encounter:

The pre-natal life of a child is a pure natural association, a flowing toward each other, a bodily reciprocity; and the life horizon of the developing being appears uniquely inscribed, and yet also not inscribed, in that of the being that carries it; for the womb in which it dwells is not solely that of the human mother. (76)

Buber, misreading a famous Midrash about a baby in the womb (who, according to the actual Midrash, remembers the entire Torah before birth), argues that the baby has a relation to the cosmos which, at birth, is forgotten:

This association is so cosmic that it seems like the imperfect deciphering of a primeval inscription when we are told in the language of Jewish myth that in his mother’s womb a man knows the universe and forgets it at birth. (76)

What remains with us, according to Buber, is “this association” which he calls “the secret image of a wish.” Buber warns us that it is not a wish to return to the womb so much as a desire to relate.   The words he uses to describe this relation – which retains difference – are poetic and ambiguous: “What this longing aims for is the cosmic association of the being that has burst into spirit with its true You”(76).

From here, Buber talks about the child outside the womb that “detaches itself to enter a personal life.” He focuses on the meaning of this “detachment” by pointing out that it is “not sudden and catastrophic like that from the bodily mother.” So…the metaphor, it seems, stops here. Rather, says Buber, “the human child is grated some time to exchange the natural association with the world that is slipping away for a spiritual association – a relationship”(77). In other words, the desire for relation, which must relate to “detachment” at some point of development, is not traumatic (contrary to someone like Emmanuel Levinas who, in his book Otherwise than Being, notes that we are “traumatized by the other”). For Buber, one eases in to this relationship. We “step into” the “cool and light creation” out of the “glowing chaos.” We are not “thrown,” as Martin Heidegger would say, and we are not “exposed” as Levinas would say. We “step” in to relationality.

Although this is a step, Buber notes that there is still, regardless, a “longing for relation”(77). That is there from the primal womb stages to our detachment. As evidence of this “longing for relation,” he describes how babies look and try desperately to find focus:

Before any particulars can be perceived, dull glances push into unclear space toward the indefinite; and at times when there is obviously no desire for nourishment, soft projections of the hands reach, aimlessly to all appearances, into the empty air toward the indefinite. (77)

This “longing for relation” eventually finds an object. And it is “primary.” The metaphor Buber uses to describe this turns the I-You experience, which is prior to language, into something infantile:

The longing for relation is primary, the cupped hand into which that being that confronts us nestles; and the relation to that, which is a wordless anticipation of saying You, comes second. (78)

Language, the first word, “you,” is born out of a longing to relate. It “comes second,” the desire comes first. Out of this, Buber crafts his own Biblical kind of declaration. Relation, basically, is the basis of everything (philosophy, religion, psychology, etc):

In the beginning is the relation – as the category of being, as readiness, as a form that reaches out to be filled, as a model of the soul; the a priori of relation; the innate You. (78)

And the “innate You” is “realized” in the “You we encounter.” For Buber, this realization is the goal. Children, however, go through a stage of “craving” and “disappointment” before they can experience it:

The development of the child’s soul is connected indissolubly with his craving for the You, with the fulfillments and disappointments of this craving, with the play of his experiments and his tragic seriousness when he feels at a total loss. (79)

His hope, one can surmise, is that the mature adult relation to the You is one that grows up and leaves behind these “cravings” and this “tragic seriousness” that goes along with “experiments” and “disappointments.”   One will be satisfied, eventually, with the desire to relate and relation as such. This, it seems, is the joy of what Buber thinks may be attained not just in the I-thou experience but in the philosophical-religious acceptance and understanding of….relation. But, as Buber suggests, this acceptance and understanding has to do with an apprehension of the infant and its primal, secret longing for relation. It has to with relation, not language, which comes “second.”

2 thoughts on “Martin Buber on Wombs, Babies, Child Development, and the “Longing for Relation”

  1. Rank, in his Trauma of Birth, attributes nearly all forms of alienation to the traumatic ripping, or primal cut that is “experienced” at birth. Buber can be read as the introduction of the inside/outside binary which recapitulates itself throughout life. Birth becomes a deathlike fall into the world of subjective relationality.

  2. Can you elaborate on the last thing you said: “Birth becomes a deathlike fall into the world of subjective relationality”? It’s interesting because I wonder if Buber’s notion of relation to the primal – relation as such – is a way of “redeeming” this fall into “disappointments,” “cravings,” etc

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