Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Knowing People

As well as receiving that marvellous poem the other day I also received a letter from an American friend telling me his marriage had broken up. He is a poet so the letter, while troubled, is graceful and precise, as precise, that is, as anyone can be.

Since we knew them both, he and his wife - and what an old story this is, the marriage break up, so sometimes we feel there are perhaps just two or three marriages we know that have survived on some planet of their own - our feelings are of sadness. Or, rather, let me be precise: the feeling I have - I can't speak for C - is probably best described as sadness. I can't speak for C though we might both agree that sadness describes the feeling. I can't speak for her because though I love her and have lived with her for almost forty-one years, her mind and being are not an open book, nor would I want them to be, nor could they be.

And so I write the friend a long letter in which I think about these things, meaning why such things happen, and in the course of it I say I know him as both a poet and a man and that I like both, then immediately add, that knowing someone is not quite like that. One has a sense of knowing someone, meaning one has a feeling about them that involves trust and warmth and a reasonable length of communication, however sporadic. And that is what we mean.

Friend writes back very appreciatively but getting on with his own problems and potential new life with someone else, who seems attractive and interesting, and for him, certainly exciting, the way love and falling in love is exciting.

Knowing people is one of the great mysteries. I would quite like to give that a capital M. A Mystery. I say I stand in front of the mirror in the morning and feel hardly any connection with what I see there. I know what I know very intensely, but there is far more that I don't know. And if that is the case with the first person singular, how much more with the second, and then the third.

Martin Buber, if I remember right, set the relationship between man and God in terms of I-Thou. That made an impression on me (I was reading quite a lot of theology at the time, and that is the way God made sense.) I am pretty sure we recognize an I-Thou in various ways, while all the time knowing that the very fact that it is a Thou we are dealing with means that it is in some ways a formal relationship, an encounter with something whose core remains in the dark but whose external nature is a matter of address. You address the core, but the gesture is made in the light. And you might perhaps go on to think that it is precisely what is not known and yet may be addressed that is the nature of human relationship, even with oneself.

So my friend and his wife - and I liked her too - are cast into some other sphere now, which means that we might have to get to knowing them, and yes, him too, all over again from the beginning,and that we might fail, though I would not like to fail.

So the figure in the mirror too appears slightly changed, in some infinitesimally small degree. Our own private I-Thou with ourselves is the beginning of language, the same language that makes poems possible. Meanwhile, out there, there are mirrors and basins and bars of soap and tooth-brushes and the light in the window crackling through the frosted glass.


Anonymous said...

This is wonderful, George.

Julienne said...

this is lovely-- thanks for your insights.