A book – or at least an essay or two – should be written on the treatment of Martin Buber in Jewish-American fiction. Perhaps I will write it (or them). His book I and Thou gained a lot of attention in America when it was first translated. And although it was praised by many in the Jewish-American community (and outside of it), there were several critics, thinkers, and writers who found it to be flawed. The most interesting critiques, to my mind, are not to be found in books of philosophy or on the pages of this or that academic journal; they are to be found in fiction.
With respect to Jewish-American fiction, I am very interested in the treatment of Buber by Bernard Malamud and Saul Bellow. Since he names the main character (parodistically) Morris Bober, Malamud provides a deeply engaging treatment of Buber. What we get, with Bober, is a failure of the I-Thou. Malamud shows how, as a schlemiel, Bober is duped countless times by Frank Alpine. Alpine is a straggler who Bober trusts and treats as a thou but Alpine, to be sure, doesn’t return the favor. He lies to Bober and deceives him. This prompts Alpine to, eventually, realize his wrongs, repent, and even convert to Judaism (at the end of the novel). Nonetheless, there is no parity in their relationship (while both are alive). There are attempts to communicate and enter the I-Thou relationship, but they all fall flat and show it to be something unreal or impossible when it comes to the relationship between Jews and non-Jews in the 1950s. As his novel demonstrates, Malamud thinks of the I-Thou as unrealistic, delusional, and even harmful. The attempt is there, but reality contradicts Bober’s attempts to give the other (“you”) an attempt to be on the same level. In the end, there is a fundamental asymmetry that Malamud finds incompatible with what Buber would call the I-Thou. (This asymmetry, in fact, is closer to Emmanuel Levinas than Buber.)
Saul Bellow’s schlemiel, Herzog, also evokes Buber. But Herzog does so in relation to a friend who betrays him by sleeping with his wife. And that friend’s name is Valentine Gersbach. Bellow’s situation of Buber vis-à-vis Gersbach is worth noting in a careful manner since it discloses’ how Buber, for Bellow, is antithetical to what he values most in the schlemiel character.
Gersbach, for Herzog, is an important, though ambiguous, figure. When Herzog finds the responses of his psychoanalyst – Edvig – to his marriage crisis (which is also a conversion crisis – his second wife converts from Judaism to Catholicism), “unsatisfactory,” because they lack emotion, he turns to Gersbach:
When he needed a feeling reaction, Herzog had to get it from Valentine Gersbach. Accordingly, he took his troubles to him. (58)
But when he rings Gersbach’s door, Phoebe, Gersbach’s wife answers the door. She is, it seems, the anti-thesis of her husband:
She was looking very gaunt, dry, pale, strained. (58)
And the reason for this is because “Phoebe knew her husband was sleeping with Madeline. And Phoebe had only one business in life, one aim, to keep her husband and protect her child”(58). How, one wonders, can the reader identify with Gersbach after reading this? And, building on this, one wonders how Herzog could turn to him for support. The man, though “feeling,” seems like a real creep.
The narrator acknowledges Herzog’s foolishness for going to see Valentine; after all, Valentine was sleeping with his wife. Phoebe, Valentine’s wife, answers the door:
Answering the bell, she opened the door on foolish, feeling, suffering Herzog. He had come to see his friend. (58)
But…how could this man be “his friend?”
The narrator suggests that the difference between Herzog and Phoebe is that he could live with irony but she could not, and that drains the life out of her:
Phoebe was not strong; her energy was limited; she must have been past the point of irony. And as for pity, what would she have pitied him for? Non – adultery – that was too common to be taken seriously by either of them. (58)
The problem, as the narrator comically suggests, is that Phoebe has become indifferent to her husband’s adultery and that she doesn’t want to draw on the frission of irony. Herzog, it seems, does. The narrator notes that she “might have” pitied Herzog’s “suffering” and “absent mindedness,” but the fact is that she doesn’t. And the reason that the narrator provides us with has to do with her limited emotional resources, on the one hand, and Herzog’s encouragement of Valentine to becoming a high minded “cultural figure.” And this is where Buber comes into the picture:
But she probably had only enough feeling for the conduct of her own life, and no more. Moses was sure that she blamed him for aggravating Valentine’s ambitions – Gersbach the public figure, Gersbach the poet, the television intellectual, lecturing at the Hadassah on Martin Buber. (58)
The narrator focuses on Buber as a figure of deception. While Gersbach praises Buber and speaks with major flourishes, he treats his wife and best friend like objects. The narrator puts Gersbach on a pedestal so as to give the reader a painful sense of the trick he plays on Herzog and how Herzog foolishly takes the bait:
Dealing with Valentine was like dealing with a king. He had a thick grip. He might have held a scepter. He was a king, an emotional king, and the depth of his heart was his kingdom. He appropriated all the emotions about him, as if by divine or spiritual right. He could do more with them, and therefore he simply took them over. He was a big man, too big for anything but the truth. (Again, the truth!) Herzog had a weakness for grandeur, and even bogus grandeur (was it ever entirely bogus?). (61)
In the last pages of this chapter, the narrator is Herzog and he talks about how Gersbach, his wife Madeline (who fooled around with each other), and Edvig, his psychoanalyst, used religion to dupe everyone. He does this in a letter to his psychoanalyst:
Somehow I got into a religious competition. You and Madeline and Valentine Gersbach all talking religion to me – so I tried it out. To see how it would feel to act with humility. As though such idiotic passivity or masochistic crawling or cowardice were humility, or obedience, not terrible decadence. Loathsome! (64)
But it was Gersbach who pushed the Buber on Herzog and insisted that he learn it as one would learn the Bible – in search of “truth.”
He brought me books (by Martin Buber). He commanded me to study them. I sat reading I and Thou, Between God and Man, The Prophetic Faith in nervous fever. Then we discussed them. (64)
Herzog explains Buber to his psychoanalyst. And, near the end of the letter, Herzog, by way of a parody of Buber, admits that he was duped by Gersbach’s use of high mindedness and empathy to get what he wanted:
I’m sure you know the views of Buber. It is wrong to turn a man (a subject) into a thing (an object). By means of spiritual dialogue, the I-It relationship becomes an I-Thou relationship. God comes and goes in man’s soul. And men come and go in each other’s souls. Sometimes they come and go in each other’s beds, too. You have to dialogue with a man. You have intercourse with his wife. You hold the poor fellow’s hand. You look into his eyes. You give him consolation. All the while, you rearrange his life….You deprive him of his daughter (after the two separate, Gersbach and Madeline take Herzog’s child). And somehow it is all mysteriously translated into religious depth. And finally your suffering is greater than his, too, because you are the greater sinner. (64)
The point Bellow is trying to make is that Herzog was taken in by the “bogus grandeur” of not just Gersbach…but Buber as well. But, more importantly, Bellow is showing us how the schlemiel can be employed in a literary kind of critique of Buber’s philosophy and the religious way-of-life his books seem to suggest.