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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Some time back I reread Saul Bellow’s rambling, kvetch-happy novel HERZOG.  Though I liked it, the book no longer seemed as profound to me as it did when I was in college.  Its titular protagonist makes various pronouncements on major philosophers like Nietzsche and Buber; pronouncements I now find muddled and meretricious.  Bellow gives Herzog a particular animus toward Buber but doesn’t adequately explain it.  The closest I can come is that Bellow, speaking through his protagonist, seems to think that Buber’s conception of the “I-it” relationship—on which I descanted in this essay —was some sort of license for any “I” to dick over anyone that person chose to regard as an “it.”

So I gave Buber’s I AND THOU a re-read.  I’d read it in college as well, but didn’t remember much about it beyond a basic favorable impression.  I AND THOU, first published in 1923 (though it became a college favorite in the 1960s), was written by a philosopher who had renounced the practice of the Rabbinic tradition but nevertheless incorporated that tradition into his philosophy.  I AND THOU, rather than offering a series of reasoned arguments, puts forth a concatenation of incantatory meditations, centered upon Buber’s two schemas of human relationship: the “I-thou” and the “I-it.” I found nothing in I AND THOU to substantiate Bellow’s weird take on Buber’s work. 

Technically, the word Buber uses in the original German is closer to the informal pronoun “you” than the more formal “thou."  However, the translator who used “thou” showed good marketing sense, for I AND THOU is certainly a more memorable title than the alternative.

Buber calls his two schemas “word pairs.”  By this he meant that even though he was well aware that all three words—“I,” “thou,” and “it”—were independent words, he believed that in terms of human relation it was impossible that any “I” could exist apart from its relationship to other phenomena.  Only two relationships were conceivable to Buber: either one's "I" related to a "thou" or an "it."   Thus he regards his two schemas as “word pairs” that are existentially insoluble.
It's occured to me that the four combinations of persona-types which I introduced here-- combinations I called "scenarios" and "metaphors" in Part 2-- are also "word pairs," in that I took the four proposed terms for the dominant personas-- "hero," "villain," "monster," and "victim"-- and combined each of them into symbols of the four Fryean mythoi.  I revised the application of these "persona-pairs" in Part 3, but the logic of the argument remained unchanged, as I did when I changed the term "victim" into the neologism "demihero" here.
Though I didn't say so in these 3 parts, the foundation of my argument about the "persona-pairs" is inseparable from the famous literary analysis of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, explored here.  To repeat a section therefrom:
the British literary critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch attempted to set down patterns as to what variety of entities or forces a story's protagonist might contend against. Quiller-Couch listes seven basic types of conflict, but many (including myself) tend to pare them down to less. My chosen four are as follows:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Himself
My "persona-pairs" can be adjusted to parallel any of these four oppositions.  Some permutation of Quiller-Couch's types of conflict is necessary to bring about a literary effect, whether one subscribes to Aristotle's idea of "complication/resolution,"  Frank Cioffi's concept of the anomaly, or Todorov's notion of equilibria.

The great failing of Quiller-Couch's breakdown is that its arrangement suggests that the "man" in the position of "protagonist" must be the main concern of the story, whereas I've detailed many examples in which the imaginative center can be the protagonist's villainous/monstrous opponent, whether it's a specific human threat (Fu Manchu), a natural phenomenon (Jules Verne's "Center of the Earth"), an unusual society, or a separate manifestation of one's own, as with Edward Hyde.  

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