Through some recent conversations, some interesting aesthetic ideas have come up. I was continuing a conversation with my friend Chris today and remembered that I have written on the subject using Buber’s dialogical hermeneutic as a basis for interpretation. It’s dense reading, so I’m mostly posting it so that Chris and I can continue our conversation. If you want to trudge through it, I think the ideas are worthwhile.
MARTIN BUBER’S DIALOGICAL HERMENEUTIC
The implications of the “linguistic turn”
in philosophy have been one of the chief problems confronting twentieth century thinkers.
It has resulted in what some scholars have begun to refer to as a “crisis in the human sciences.”
Textual interpretation (be it literary or musical) is one of the primary victims of this seismic shift in the academic Weltanschuang.
In his translator’s preface to Derrida’s Grammatology
, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, outlines some of the chief areas that have been problematized by post-structuralist thought.
Meaning is no longer stable because “two readings of the ‘same’ book show an identity that can only be defined as a difference.”
Indeed, Derrida goes so far as to suggest that this implies that “the text has no stable identity, no stable origin, no stable end.”
Despite the non-linguistic nature of the medium, the musical arts have been affected by these philosophic trends as well.
The issue manifests itself significantly in the area of performance practice.
When a performer approaches a musical text, interpretation of the text includes answering some of the following questions:
the exact tempo, whether alterations of the written rhythms are allowed or expected, which sonorities are best suited to the piece being played, how each not should be articulated, whether or not melodic embellishments are permitted or forbidden within the convention in question, whether the players are expected to improvise…sections of the composition, and so on.
In addition to these practical questions that necessarily have to be answered, there are many more questions of a more abstract nature.
The piece of music has a theoretical structure, a historic context, and a performing tradition.
Recent trends in musical research (following the work of the linguist Saussure) have seen the development of a discipline of musical semiotics which introduces the idea of “topics” and other extra-musical associations into the text.
To what extent is a performer responsible for appropriating these abstract issues for the purpose of “de-contextualizing” the score before presenting it to the public?
Is it possible to create an “authentic” performance, and if so, what does that mean?
The work of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (1878-1965) provides an interesting solution to textual interpretation in the various arts for a number of reasons.
Shmel N. Eisenstadt suggests that one of the principal causes for the renewed scholarly interest in Buber’s thought is “the feeling that Buber’s approach may provide at least one answer to some of the problems raised by postmodern culture and ideas.”
Buber’s development of a dialogical hermeneutic in his seminal work I and Thou
provides a strategy for interpreting texts in the context of modern scholarship without sacrificing meaning
(as the post-structuralists have done.)
Buber’s thought is particularly relevant for twenty-first century performers because his own personal development traversed the path of rigorous German scholarship, mysticism, and existentialism.
The dichotomy of his earlier phases can serve as a convenient framework to discuss some of the more prevalent tendencies and problems of textual interpretation that are still current in our own day.
Later in his life, Buber also formulated some very practical principals for approaching a text that can serve as a model for performing musicians when confronting a new text.
I suspect that much of what Buber has to say will not sound new or innovative to most performers.
The process that he describes is probably more standard fair in the discipline of musical performance than it is in any other field of study.
However, an overview of his approach can serve to prevent certain pitfalls from creeping into our thinking and also provide a vocabulary with which to describe the process.
When confronted with a text or an art-object, the tendency of post-modern scholars has generally been one of appropriating the work by breaking it into smaller pieces for assessment.
Adir Cohen describes this process saying that post-structuralist scholars “conceive the whole of their task to be the dismantlement of the objects of their study into constituent parts, which yields a profligate accumulation of analyses of works of literature and of the plastic arts.”
Indeed, this very “dismantlement” is the “process by which an art object becomes known
In musical circles, the superficial side of this process is so ubiquitous that the analyses have become clichés which are the shibboleths of an educated musician.
If singer performs an African America Spiritual, he/she mentions that there is code language for the underground railroad in the text.
If a pianist does a Mazurka, he/she talks about the influence of Polish dance on Chopin.
If a theorist describes a Schoenberg piece, he/she talks about his use of the twelve-tone method.
If a historian describes a Gesualdo piece, he/she tells us that he that Gesualdo killed his wife.
These various “parts” that came together to make a work of music supposedly give us some sort of insight into the work.
This “insight” happens despite the fact that most of the listeners have never traveled the underground railroad, danced a Mazurka, written a twelve-tone piece, or killed their respective wives.
The more sophisticated side of this occurs (with the same result!) when the theorist who can describe the Schenkerian Urline
or the musicologist who can provide an Urtext edition is assumed to know
the piece better.
In these cases, the gnosis
does not come from extra-musical association, but from the text itself.
For Derrida, this discussion of a text’s constituent parts is fruitless if the goal is a search for meaning because
words refer only to other words and therefore lack a referential capacity, that texts are labyrinths in which meaning, truth, and argument necessarily get lost, and finally, that the ‘self’ is an insubstantial fiction which is only further obscured when brought to language.
This is doubly complicated if the text is musical because not only are the words describing the score a meaningless self-referential system, but the music qua
music is also a self-referential system with no possibility of meaning outside itself.
Martin Buber was raised in the tradition of Jewish Enlightenment scholarship.
His early education and University study was in the milieu of rigorous German scholarship.
Buber never gave up his love of scholarship.
He maintained throughout his life that scientific and aesthetic understanding were necessary “but it should do its work faithfully and immerse itself and disappear in that truth of the relation which surpasses understanding and embraces what is understandable.”
His earliest solution to the problem of discovering meaning in a text was a turn from scholarly appropriation to mysticism.
Steven Kepnes describes this as Buber’s “psychological, romantic hermeneutic method.”
This took place when Buber discovered Chasidic Judaism and began translating tales about the famous Chassid, Rabbi Nachman of Brestlav.
The approach to a text was not by “dismantling the text” but by achieving mystical union with Rabbi Nachman himself(!).
Buber even claimed that his mystical union was closer than Nachman’s own students.
I experienced, even in entirely new pieces that I inserted, my unity with the spirit of Rabbi Nachman.
I had found the true faithfulness:
more adequately than the direct disciples, I received and completed the task, a latter messenger in a foreign realm.
The important part to notice is that, at this point in his development, Buber believes his “powers of empathy and creativity allow him to understand the Hasidic masters even better
than did the direct disciples.”
This early “romantic” hermeneutic afforded Buber enough confidence to “exercise ‘elective’ freedom to retell Nahman’s tales.”
The “elective freedom” described here is an approach to translation/interpretation in which Buber freely adds in whole sentences and paragraphs that are not contained in the original text.
The loose approach to textual interpretation stems from Buber’s early belief that “textual authenticity was not the central hermeneutic problem.”
In his mystic period, Buber, like other Romantics “despaired of the ability of language to express the deepest experience (Erlebnis)
of mystical unity and the deepest reality.”
Interpreting/translating a text and experiencing its “deepest reality” meant not
a simple one to one semiotic correspondence between languages, but “re-experiencing, re-creating, reliving – and not in the terms of textual authenticity and historical criticism.”
Buber ultimately pulled away from his earlier hermeneutic approach.
While it is not advisable to “de-construct” his personal development, Buber mentions one event that was influential in his turn from mysticism to a philosophy of dialogue.
The event is worth quoting in full.
One forenoon after a morning of mystic rapture, Buber had a visit from an unknown young man named Mehé.
Buber was friendly toward the young man but, inwardly absorbed by the mystical experience that he had just emerged from, he was not present in spirit.
It is not that Buber was indifferent or abstracted in the usual sense…He conversed attentively and openly with Mehé and answered the questions which he was asked.
But he failed to guess the question that the young man did not put.
Two months later one of Mehé’s friends came to see Buber and told him of Mehé’s death and
of what his talk with Buber had meant to him.
He had come to Buber not casually, but as if borne by destiny, not for a chat but for a decision.
The decision was one of life or death.
Mehé died fighting in the First World War, according to Buber, from “that kind of despair that
may be defined partially as ‘no longer opposing one’s own death.”
Maurice Friedman writes that “Buber experienced this event as a judgment and responded to it with a ‘conversion’ which changed his whole life.”
From this point on, “Buber gave up the…perfect and satisfying fullness of mystic rapture…for the always imperfect fullness of the common world of speech-with meaning built up through ever-demanding, ever-painful meetings with others.”
This pull away from the mystic approach had drastic implications for his hermeneutic.
For Buber, the romantic hermeneutic was no longer valid because it did not “produce a meeting of the reader with the author or with the text.”
The problem, for Buber, is that the romantic hermeneutic “focuses too much attention on the reader’s own experience as the basis of the empathy through which the author’s experience is divined.”
However, in pulling away from the Romantic hermeneutic, Buber did not turn to a post-structural model. As his dialogical hermeneutic developed he began to separate further “from poststructuralist theorists like Jacques Derrida.”
For Buber, “deconstruction, without the constructive search for ultimate value risks being reduced to a nihilistic de
Buber retained many of the features of deconstructionism,
but Eisenstadt points out that:
Buber’s deconstructionism differs from that of the postmodern era.
His encounter with a text was always connected with the search for a center of gravity according to which it could be judged, with which its ‘deconstruction’ would be meaningless.
Buber’s search for meaning after deconstruction took the form of a dialogical hermeneutic.
He laid the foundations for this new approach in his seminal work Ich und Du
In Ich und Du
, Buber describes a relational approach to theology and philosophy in which one’s interaction with the universe is bifurcated into two opposing realities.
When encountering something/someone, Buber says that we either say “I-Thou” to that something/someone or “I-It”.
Kepnes summarizes the dichotomy with the following passage:
The primary word I-It establishes a world of discrete objects and discrete experiences.
Speaking the word I-It, the individual probes his or her own experience; the individual uses the objects and persons of the world to reflect his or her own inner state or condition.
The primary word I-Thou, on the other hand, “Establishes relation.”
In speaking this word, the person discovers the others, the uniqueness and concrete reality of others.
And since the word I-Thou has a dialogical quality, the I is not lost in the other but is affirmed through it.
The word I-Thou is the word of mutuality and reciprocity.
It is an affirmation of the other and of the I at the same time.
The I-It relation takes an object and “compares it with other objects, classifies and analyzes it and registers it in the structure of knowledge.”
The I-Thou relationship takes an object and “grasps it in its incomparable uniqueness.”
In a famous passage from I and Thou
, Buber describes the difference between the two approaches in relation to a tree.
If the tree is approached as an It, it may be contemplated poetically as “a rigid pillar in a flood of light”.
It may be contemplated as “movement” in “the infinite commerce with the earth and air”.
He continues with many examples where the tree is observed as a specific instance of a species, a form that is an expression of a law, or a number.
The passage concludes with Buber’s attempt to describe the tree as a Thou.
The passage deserves to be quoted in full because of its implications for relating to art objects.
But it can also happen, if will and grace are joined, that as I contemplate the tree I am drawn into a relation, and the tree ceases to be an It.
The power of exclusiveness has seized me.
This does not require me to forego any of the modes of contemplation.
There is nothing that I must not see in order to see, and there is no knowledge that I must forget.
Rather is everything, picture and movement, species and instance, law and number included and inseparable fused.
Whatever belongs to the tree is included:
its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars – all this in its entirety.
The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no aspect of a mood; it confronts me bodily and has to deal with me as I must deal with it – only differently.
It will be important to keep several issues in mind as we transition from descriptions of the I-Thou relationship to its application to art.
As the passage quoted above shows, the I-Thou relationship cannot be forced.
It is a combination of “will and grace”
Friedman explains that the “grace” is included because “we will only our own side, which is indispensable…but not sufficient.”
For an I-Thou relationship to occur, it is unnecessary to block out any analytical understanding because “there is no knowledge that I must forget.”
“Rather is everything” (the analytical as well as the poetic) “included and inseparably fused.”
Buber says that the tree does not just exist in an imaginary world.
It is “no impression…it confronts me bodily.”
There is a final issue that will become very important to clarify as we apply the I-Thou relationship as a hermeneutic to art objects in general and musical works specifically.
The establishment of an I-Thou relationship does not result in a special gnosis
about the work.
In Buber’s early work, his mystical communion with the author of a text resulted in a gnosis
that allowed him to change the text itself in the interpretive process.
The problem with this approach was that “it locates the object inside of the I and by this token excludes any Thou from the outset.
Gnosis represents the sheer impossibility of a relationship with a Thou.”
Buber’s dialogical theology does not include mystical identification with the Thou.
In describing the I-Thou relationship, what Buber experienced was not “specific ‘content’ [read hear gnosis
] but a Presence, a Presence as power.”
This experience of “presence” was not for Buber to be identified with a mystical communion with something outside of the world, but an experience that occurred “here and now, demanding confirmation in this life and in relation with this world.”
He adds that this “included the whole fullness of real mutual action, the inexpressible confirmation of meaning.
This “meaning” was not understood as a grasping of the constituent parts of a Thou (as in post-structural deconstructionism).
Someone in an I-Thou relationship with a text “will not be able to separate out content and rhythm; they receive nothing but the indivisible wholeness of something spoken.” Friedman clarifies this issue further saying of Buber’s conversion:
Buber did not mean…any specific religious experience or religious ecstasy.
On the contrary, he meant something that transcended all experience and seized him as a whole, transporting him in all
his being, his capacity for thought and reason included.
In contrast to his earlier mystical hermeneutic, Buber’s I-Thou hermeneutic did not result in “message that he might transmit.”
An I-Thou relationship with a musical work will not result in secret knowledge about the piece of music; it will result in an authentic relationship.
The nature of Buber’s relational theology precludes any sort of systematic document of aesthetic theory.
If the I-Thou relationship is non-systematic at its fundamental level, a systematic treatment of its application to a specific subject would contradict the intention of the very nature of the relationship.
However, Buber understood that there was a “close and necessary tie between…[his] theory of knowledge and his theory of art.”
Buber suggests that the very nature of the creative process is an I-Thou relationship between the artist and the form that he/she is creating.
He says that “a human being confronts a form that wants to become a work through him.”
Art results not from “a figment of his soul but something that appears to the soul and demands the soul’s creative power.”
The artist, in an I-Thou relationship with that appearance responds with “a deed” done “with his whole being.”
The art work comes when the artist responds to “an incipient form which desires concreteness, which ‘desires to be made into a work.”
This immediately begs the question, where do these “forms” that “appear” come from?
Kepnes points out that Buber uses purposefully vague language here “exploiting the multivalency of the German word [Geist] and the variety of philosophic usages” that it can conjure.
Kepnes concludes that Buber’s intent is for us to “conceive of spirit [Geist] as a transempirical reality, something ‘in its own realm,’ which contains incipient forms which can gain concrete status if fashioned into works by humans with the attitude of I-Thou.”
Buber calls the art object that results from the artist’s I-Thou relationship with the form a “geistige Wesenheit.”
It is important to understand that for Buber, the creation of art is “not a subjective activity taking place within the soul of its maker, but is rather the outcome of an encounter with a phenomenon…It is for the artists to enact the I-Thou
in respect of the manifest image.
Creation, in short, is dialogue.”
In his lectures on “Religion as Presence”, Buber suggests that the dialogue between an artist qua
I and his/her geistige Wesenheit qua
Thou maintains the same ineffable characteristics as all other I-Thou relations.
An artist who has a conception of his work and stands over against this work as his Thou…does not know this in such a way that he could say anything about it, describe it, indicate its place in space and time, but only so that he can realize it.
And nonetheless one would totally deceive oneself under the spell of academic philosophy if one wanted to conceive this work as if it were a psychic event, a fiction, something that this person devises and which he only then makes real.
But in truth this work is as much in the world of the real of which we speak as the beloved person or as nature addressed as Thou.
By placing the creative process and the resultant geistige Wesenheit
within the I-Thou framework, Buber allows the act of encountering the art work to also occur in an I-Thou relationship.
This does not happen directly.
In the process of creation, the artist “lead[s] the form across – into the world of It.
The created work is a thing among things and can be experienced and described as an aggregate of qualities.”
Now in the world of It, the general tendency is to approach the work as a “detached object of observation, use, and analysis.”
Goutam Biswas reminds us that the scope of the I-It relation in the context of a work of art extends beyond rational detachment.
“Cartesian dualism has always instigated us to ask whether aesthetic awareness is subjective or objective, and then led the way either to subjectivism or objectivism.”
Buber is trying to lead us away from both the German rationalism that led to objective relations and the mysticism that led to subjective relations.
Buber’s I-Thou relationship transcends the distinctions between subjective and objective truth.
Cohen rightly says that, “Buber believes that the cognition of a work of art is nothing other than the encounter between the viewer, hearer, or reader with the art object.”
However, Cohen’s “encounter” for Biswas “has to be dialogic in character because the aesthetic object which is really no object
defies any other description, use, or analysis than being confronted as a Thou.”
The “ontology of art is to be sought in terms of one’s relation to it, i.e. in the ontology of the between.”
For Buber, the breakthrough to I and Thou can occur between an observer and a geistige Wesenheit
because even though the work is in the world of It, it can potentially become a Thou.
Even though the artist “banishes it [the work] to be a ‘structure’, an It,”
“whatever has thus been changed into It and frozen into a thing among things is still endowed with the meaning and the destiny to change back ever again.”
The work of art as It can “’blaze up into presentness,’ into the status of a Thou, again.”
The potential of establishing an I-Thou relationship with a work of art is described by Buber with the wonderful sentence, “Aber dem empfangend Schauenden
kann es Mal um Mal leibhaft gegenübertreten.”
“But the receptive viewer
can be bodily faced from time to time.”
In order to apply a Buberian hermeneutic to a specific work of art (in this case a piece of music), an essential question needs to be answered.
How do we become an empfangend Schauenden
, a receptive viewer, in order to create the potential for geistige Wesenheit
as It to “blaze up” into a Thou?
In Buber’s description of his I-Thou encounter with a tree, we learned that the I-Thou relationship does not imply a puerile throwing off of analytical knowledge.
The “objective” knowledge about the tree was “included and inseparably fused” to the I-Thou relationship.
Analytical knowledge is not wrong as long as we understand that it is in the world of I-It.
In fact, Buber emphasized the importance of analytical knowledge and “advised what today would be called deconstructing the text.”
The process of deconstruction was not a dismantling of meaning, but a means by which an interpreter ensured the otherness and strangeness of the text.
In order to have an I-Thou relationship, there must be a Thou.
“Interpretation always involves an otherness to which the person has to set him or herself in a relation.”
In the true I-Thou relation, however, “no observed facts are interpreted here which can be adjusted to a general scientific outlook or a common sense structure of meaning.”
The “facts” exist, but they are subsumed in the “transempirical” nature of the relation.
The Thou in the relationship must be preserved from objectification as an It.
At the same time, the Thou must be preserved against collapse by mystical union.
Buber’s repudiation of his earlier work centered around what he felt was a flaw in mysticism.
By identifying with the Thou in mystic communion, Buber wound up without an other
with whom to take on relation.
His early romantic hermeneutic “is a technique through which the reader uses the text to probe his or her own imaginative and creative faculties…that ultimately excludes the text and the author.”
It is important to note Buber’s subtlety on the subjective side of the problem.
Just as the objective facts can be included in the I-Thou relation, so too can the subjective issues.
An interpreter is always biased for many reasons, but Buber wanted the subjective biases included in the I-Thou relation as well.
Buber did demand that the interpreter as “I” stand his or her ground before the text as “Thou.”
One could say that demanding that the presuppositions of one’s culture and tradition be given a positive role in hermeneutic activity is tantamount to the I demanding it be appreciated in its fullness in its dialogue with the text.
The second protection against an overly subjective approach is provided when Buber reminds us that the I-Thou relationship does not happen in the vacuum of interpreter and text.
He “directs the process of interpretation away from the intersubjective I-Thou relationship between an individual reader and the text toward the testing waters of public dialogue.”
The reader is also in a relation with the community.
The “question of interpretation cannot be merely a matter of individual response but must be a public and communal matter.”
Interpreters establishing a relation with a work of art must confront the text (include here paintings and musical scores, etc.) as a Thou, and understand in the process that “this act of addressing involves the whole of our being.”
The dialogical nature between the interpreter and the work involves the objective/subjective knowledge of the interpreter and the active preservation of the distinction between the I and Thou.
In fact, the “phenomenological symbiosis of I (Man-Woman) and Thou (the aesthetic object) determines the being or art.”
Cohen elucidates the nature of the of the relation with the following:
The encounter with art is not one in which the work of art offers itself whole of passive reception, but is an active encounter wherein the spectator or auditor commits himself to finishing what is left unsaid by the work of art, to replying to the questions posed by it, to enacting a relation with it – in brief, to engaging in dialogue.
Buber’s own conception of the tension and activity involved in the dialogue can be seen in a delightful story he wrote which includes what Kepnes describes as “rich hermeneutic relections.”
The Bretons believe in the demonic book.
It has different names, one in each region.
In that of Quimper it is called Ar Vif,
that is The Living.
It is a gigantic book.
When it stands upright, it has the height of a man.
The pages are red, the letters are black.
But he who goes up to it and opens it sees nothing except red.
The black signs become visible only when one has fought with the Vif
and overpowered it.
For this book lives.
And it will not let itself be questioned.
Only he who conquers it tears it from its mystery…I think that every real book is Ar Vif.
It would be a mistake to read this as if Buber believed a final or conclusive meaning could be gleaned from a text.
Biswas explains that since the “whole possible world-sphere percolates through it,” a work of art “generates new meanings in it for the spectator or audience.”
In contrast to post-structuralist thought, the text is full of meaning.
The meaning is not ultimately stable, however, “because we are in an unending dialogue with the image-work under perception.”
Ultimately, what Buber wanted for hermeneuts “beyond theories about sources and modes of interpretations, was to listen to the text.”
Buber’s conception of the I-Thou relationship being predicated on “grace” would seem to exclude any sort of technique as such that could procure the relationship.
In I and Thou
, Buber at times seems to describe himself as empfangend Schauenden
living in a predominantly I-It relationship with the world.
That world occasionally sheds its illusions and allows I-Thou relationships to occur with an eye to the ultimate I-Thou relationship with God.
It is important to remember, however, that the “grace” side of the relationship applies to the Thou for Buber.
The I side of the relationship is determined by “will.”
Later in life, he allowed for some practical principals for helping an I become an emfangend Schauenden
Kepnes summarizes Buber’s hermeneutic with four steps:
The first step calls for treating the text as a Thou and with the passive attitude of receptive waiting.
This quickly moves the reader to a more active give-and-take dialogue.
The interpreter moves into the second stage of interpretation when the otherness of the text brings to consciousness the interpreter’s own individual and cultural presuppositions and the interpreter wins a distance on these presuppositions which allows him or her to see the world of the text more clearly.
The third stage of interpretation begins when the interpreter exercises critical distance and employs methods of explanation to analyze the structure and rhetoric of the text.
The fourth stage is gained as the interpreter reflects on the author, who serves as a reminder to reconnect the text to life.
The application of the message to the text to the interpreter’s life entails sharing the interpretation of the message with a community of inquiry which will challenge and refine the interpretation through a common dialogue.
Before parsing out what this might look like for a performer confronting a next text of music, it is helpful to consider two final points.
An I-Thou relationship with a musical text will not help a performer uncover a hidden principal (i.e. a Schenkerian Urline
, or a semiotic topic).
Buber writes concerning his Biblical hermeneutics that “Nowhere here can one pursue a given primary what
which has clothed itself in this how
and which, at the same time, can assume another how”
For Buber, this means that the unique otherness of a text, cannot be discovered by separating “content from form.”
Every Beethoven Sonata is an absolutely unique geistige Wesenheit.
We cannot appropriate it by separating a content (again e.g. Schenkerian Urline
or semotic topic) from the absolutely unique form that it takes.
It is a Thou confronting us.
Finally, our description of the I-Thou relationship will not be able to be expressed in systematic discreet terms.
Buber himself seldom writes about what this might look like in relation to music.
However, the one passage he does write is instructive.
What had the strongest effect on me there was undoubtedly hearing Bach’s music, and in truth Bach’s music so sung and played – of that I was certain at that time and have remained certain – as Bach himself wished that it be sung and played.
But it would be fruitless for me to undertake to say, indeed, I cannot even make clear to myself – in what way Bach had influenced my thinking.
The ground-tone of my life was obviously modified in some manner and through that my thinking as well.
Buber spoke of how “slowly, waveringly” there grew in him “the insight into the problematic reality of human existence and into the fragile possibility of doing justice to it.”
This momentous statement is followed by the simple but poignant phrase, “Bach helped me.”
The end goal of the I-Thou relationship to a musical text (and any other I-Thou relationship for that matter) is the relationship itself.
It is not to have a mystical experience that can necessarily be communicated.
In fact, Kepnes argues
To be true to the hemeneutic philosophy of I and Thou
, the most authentic form of interpretation of a work of art would have to be something like what Buber produced in his early performative retellings of the Hasidic tales:
it would have to be another geistige Wesenheit,
another work of art!
To restate something that I mentioned in the introduction, I do not believe that the application of Buber’s hermeneutic to a musical text will seem particularly earth shattering to most performers.
I believe that the process most performers go through when confronting a new work looks very much like Kepnes’ outline of the four steps of Buber’s hermeneutic.
Describing the process will at least allow us to frame it in a vocabulary that is articulable to the wider disciplines.
Kepnes says that the “first step calls for treating the text as a Thou and with the passive attitude of receptive waiting.”
For a musician confronting a new work, this would simply mean coming to the score with as few pre-conceptions as possible.
While learning notes and rhythms, the performer as interpreter simply listens to what the score has to communicate.
This receptive waiting period does not include analytic information like theoretical or historical information.
Here is one of the areas where I think performing musicians have an advantage.
Performers are accustomed to dealing with meaning in terms of ineffable knowledge.
For a musician, dynamics, tempo changes, and harmonic and rhythmic structures all contain a meaning for them that is both profound and ineffable.
Kepnes’ second stage is when “the otherness of the text brings to consciousness the interpreter’s own individual and cultural presuppositions and the interpreter wins a distance on these presuppositions which allows him or her to see the world of the text more clearly.”
A performers presumptions about a musical text would include things like the assumption that the score itself is faithful to the composer’s intentions, that an open fifth means the same thing to me as it did to the composer and the cultural context for which he/she wrote, that the use of Italian terms maintained a stable definition over the course of many years, that the modern instrument that I am playing can communicate the ideas written for a period instrument, etc.
When confronting a new text Buber opposed “being tied down by any dogma”.
One of the things that the Thou of the score forces us to confront is our own preconceptions about how something should be played.
As these preconceptions come into view, we enter the third stage “when the interpreter exercises critical distance and employs methods of explanation to analyze the structure and rhetoric of the text.”
It is at this point (and not before!) that a performer should allow him/herself to be informed by the latest theoretical and musicological research about a particular piece and the many aspects of its performance tradition.
This analytical knowledge will eventually be “included and inseparably fused” to our relationship with the piece of music.
The fourth stage is when “the interpreter reflects on the author, who serves as a reminder to reconnect the text to life.”
It is important to note that Buber is not reverting to mysticism here or trying a slight of hand by which to get behind the intentional fallacy.
The point is not to discover what the author may or may not have intended.
The point is to remember that the text was created by a unique human being responding to his/her world.
I as a unique human being am entering into a relationship with the art object (geistige Wesenheit) that emerged from that encounter.
This is no “object” in the true sense, but the other, the Thou in all his/her uniqueness.
Finally, the interpreter’s conclusions about the work must be manifested.
The I-Thou between interpreter and text has to be included in the larger I-Thou of the community.
The “application of the message to the text to the interpreter’s life entails sharing the interpretation of the message with a community of inquiry which will challenge and refine the interpretation through a common dialogue.”
For performers, this means that each interpretation is forming part of a larger dialogue about interpretation.
A performer can never get to the place where he/she cannot hear criticism or praise from the community of interpreters.
If they do, they can rest assured that it is no longer an I-Thou relationship with the text, but an I-I relationship which has failed to respect the uniqueness and otherness of the text’s “bodily confrontation.”
The renewed scholarly interest in Martin Buber’s philosophy has occurred across the disciplines.
Buber does give us a starting point from which to confront the assertions of meaninglessness proposed by Derrida and the post-structuralist thinkers.
That the interest is occurring across the disciplines (and not just in philosophy and literary theory) shows that the breadth and depth of what the I-Thou relationship communicates far exceeds some petty academic philosophical problem.
In addition to post-structuralism, Buber steers us clear of some of the dangers of mysticism in which the “I” part of the relationship is so consumed in religious ecstasy that the Thou of the community is forgotten.
When Buber’s hermeneutic is applied to a work of art, we are given not only a practical method for the possibility of a work of art “blazing up into presentness”, but a vocabulary with which to discuss that phenomenon even if we cannot fully articulate it.
In fact, the aesthetic implications of the I-Thou relationship may be as unique as an I-Thou relationship itself.
His [Buber’s] stand is exceptional because he sees communion (I-Thou) as the most fundamental phenomenon, which cannot be subsumed under the category of subjectivity or feeling or objectivity.
Communion precedes feelings.
It is not the feeling which conjures up the aesthetic present but the other way around:
communion in simultaneity with the presence conjures up the feeling.
Aesthetic experience without this relation is inconceivable.
It is the “relation’s own being” which becomes manifest as the being of art.
And the being of art can be conceived concretely in relation (i.e., the experience in
Bibliography of Works Consulted
Barzun, Jacques. Classic, Romantic, and Modern
The University of Chicago Press,
Biemann, Asher D. ed. The Martin Buber reader: essential writings.
New York: Palgrave
Brown, Howard Mayer et al. “Performing practice.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music
Buber, Martin. Ich un du. Köln: J. Hegner, 1996.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou. A new translation with a prologue “I and You” and notes by Walter
Kaufmann. ed. Walter Arnold Kaufmann. New York: Scribner, 1970.
“Aesthetics and Aesthetic Education in Martin Buber’s Thought” Journal of
Aesthetic Education, Vol. 14, No. 1
Dallmayr, Fred R. and Thomas A. McCarthy, eds. Understanding and Social Inquiry
University of Notre Dame Press, 1977.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology.
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Friedman, Maurice S. Martin Buber’s life and work: the early years, 1878-1923
Friedman, Maurice S.
ed. Martin Buber and the human sciences.
University of New York Press, 1996.
Gordon, Hayim. The other Martin Buber: recollections of his contemporaries
Ohio University Press, 1988.
Kepnes, Steven. The text as thou: Martin Buber’s dialogical hermeneutics and narrative
Indiana University Press, 1992.
Mendes-Flohr, Paul R. ed. Martin Buber: a contemporary perspective.
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse
University Press; Jerusalem:
Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2002.
The Oxford Companion to Philosophy,
ed. Ted Honderich.
Oxford: Oxford University Press,
Rorty, Richard. ed. The Linguistic turn: essays in philosophical method.
Chicago: University of
The term refers to a general philosophic movement of the 20th
century that asserts that “there are no ‘facts’ outside of language, and no ‘reality’ other than that which presents itself under some linguistic description.” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy,
ed. Ted Honderich.
(Oxford University Press, 1995.)
For a general overview of its various implications, see The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method
ed. Richard M. Rorty.
The University of Chicago Press, 1992.)
Fred R. Dallmayr and Thomas A. McCarthy, eds. Understanding and Social Inquiry
University of Notre Dame Press, 1977), 3.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology.
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), xii.
Howard Mayer Brown, et al. “Performing practice.” In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, http://0www.oxfordmusiconline.com.library.unl.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/40272pg1 (accessed December 8, 2008).
For a full discussion of some of these concepts see Playing with signs: a semiotic interpretation of classic music
by Kofi Agawu or Musical semiotics in growth
ed. by Eero Tarasti.
We might even include something controversial like Susan McClary’s gender based theoretical analyses.
Shmuel N. Eisenstadt.
“Martin Buber in the Postmodern Age:
Utopia, Community and Education in the Contemporary Era.”
in Martin Buber: A Contemporary Perspective
ed. Paul Mendes – Flohr. (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press; Jerusalem :Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 2002), 174.
For a full discussion of Buber’s philosophical development see Maurice Friedman’s Martin Buber: Life and Works: the early years, 1878-1923
. (New York: Dutton, 1981).
“Aesthetics and Aesthetic Education in Martin Buber’s Thought” Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 14, No. 1
Kepnes, Steven. The Text as Thou: Martin Buber’s dialogical hermeneutics and narrative theolgy.
Indiana University Press, 1992), xi.
The twentieth century has seen composers completely capitulating to this sort of thinking and has led composers like Stravinsky to make statements about his compositions like, “There is nothing to discuss nor to criticize.” Classic, Romantic, and Modern
The University of Chicago Press, 1961.)
Again, for a full discussion of Buber’s development see Martin Buber’s Life and Works
by Maurice Friedman.
Buber, Martin. I and Thou
trans. Walter Kaufmann. (New York: Scribner, 1970), 91.
Friedman, Maurice. Martin Buber Life and Works.
For an example of a comparison of the original text with the translation see The Text as Thou
by Steven Kepnes.
Kepnes, Steven. The Text as Thou.
Friedman, Maurice. Martin Buber’s Life and Work
Shmuel N. Eisenstadt. “Martin Buber in the Postmodern Age:
Utopia, Community and Education in the Contemporary Era” in Martin Buber: A Contemporary Perspective
ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr, 183.
“Ich und Du” is variously translated as “I and Thou” or “I and You”.
It is vitally important for English speakers to keep in mind that whether “Thou” or “You” is used in the translation, Buber is always using the informal form of the second person pronoun.
Buber, Martin. Ich un Du
(Köln: J. Hegner, 1996), 1.
Friedman, Maurice. Martin Buber Life and Works
Buber, Martin. I and Thou
The I-Thou relationship has far reaching implications for many areas of study.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to parse out every application of the I-Thou/I-It duality.
However, one should keep in mind that Buber’s thought is primarily religious in orientation.
Though not discussed in the body of this paper, Buber discussed the possibility of I-Thou relationships to inanimate objects, plants, and animals, and art objects.
He also extended the concept to its ultimate end where God stands as the eternal Thou.
Every specific instance of an I-Thou relationship is on some level a manifestation of the ultimate I-Thou relationship between a specific human and God.
Friedman, Martin Buber Life and Works
In the original text, Buber has written “er leibt mir gegenüber”.
Kaufmann’s translation gets the sense in good English, but the controlling verb in the German is “leibt”.
A literal translation would require the transformation of the noun “body” into a verb.
It might be something like “it bodies against me.”
“How to Be in the World:
Gnosis, Religion, Philosophy.”
in Martin Buber: A Contemporary Perspective
ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr, 136.
Friedman, Martin Buber: Life and Works
Buber, I and Thou
We can gain some insight into Kepnes’ “transempirical reality” by considering the following text from I and Thou
where Buber inverts commonly held religious concepts.
Buber says, “prayer is not in time but time in prayer, the sacrifice not in space but space in the sacrifice – and whoever reverses the relation annuls the reality – I do not find the human being to whom I say You in any Sometime and Somewhere.
I can place him there and have to do this again and again, but immediately he becomes a He or a She, an It, and no longer remain my You.”
In the same sense (though I have been unable to locate the specific passage), I am quite sure the Buber would say that his concept of Spirit (Geist) is not something residing in humans, but that humans are residing in Spirit (Geist).
Friedman also makes sure that we understand (p.333) that Buber is not here referring to Platonic forms but “potentialities of form that arise from man’s meeting with the world.”
See also here Adir Cohen’s essay where he explains that “Art is the undertaking and the product of the relationship between human essence and the essence of objects; it is the intermediary sphere that has taken on an image.”
This is one of Buber’s frequent neo-logisms that is often translated as “form of spirit”.
Quite literally, it would be rendered with the awkward English phrase “spiritual being-ness”.
quoted in Friedman, 334.
Buber, I and Thou
“Martin Buber’s Concept of Art as Dialogue” in Martin Buber and the Human Sciences
ed. Maruice Friedman., 227.
Buber, I and Thou
Buber, Ich un Du,
This translation is mine.
Kaufman renders it, “But the receptive beholder may be bodily confronted now and again.”
On the surface, this comment can be hard to understand because we are so unaccustomed to speaking about works of art in relational terms.
We can easily come up with an observed fact like “sonata form” that can be applied to a specific Beethoven Sonata that seems to fit in with a “common sense structure of meaning.”
If we approach the problem from the other side, the statement becomes clearer.
A husband and wife have over the course of their marriage accumulated “facts” about each other, but the relation itself is not based on any facts or supposed meaning of those “facts”.
Indeed, most spouses would describe their relations (in both the best and worst times) with words more akin to Buber’s “bodily confrontations.”
When being honest, most would also say that when they are dealing with each other objectively on the basis of “observed facts” that there is a psychological distance implied by objective knowledge that does not speak to the unexplainable wonder of the relationship itself.
quoted in Kepnes, 71.
“Buber and the Bible:
Guiding Principles and the Legacy of His Interpretation” in Martin Buber: A Contemporary Perspective
ed. Paul Mendes-Flohr, 95.
Friedman, Life and Works