Buber Paper - Blogs @ Butler

Emily Ketzner
RL 370
Buber Essay
Buber’s Cat
Buber’s ideas are very interesting to me. As I was reading I and Thou I found myself
agreeing with him in many of the things he said. One of the most thought-provoking passages in
my opinion is the passage where Buber talks about his cat. There are many different ways that
this section of the book can be interpreted, and I am going to explore those interpretations in this
paper. Buber’s statements about his cat can be a metaphor for how we should treat
animals/nature, how we should treat other humans, or how we should approach our relationship
with God.
Upon one’s first reading of the passage about Buber’s cat, one might not see all the
possibilities of the metaphor. It may seem to be only a statement about us humans and our
interaction with nature. When I first read it, this section inspired me to recognize the I/Thou
relationship in places that I would usually see an I/It. I found the simplicity of the idea to be
something very beautiful. Cats are not my favorite animals; that Buber could see the I/Thou
relationship in a household pet is something that just makes me smile. Buber encourages us to
find I/Thou relationships in everyday life, and cats are something that we experience all the time.
Before continuing, I want to address an important question. Why should we seek I/Thou
relationships? For Buber, God is an irreducible You. (I will be using Thou and You
interchangeably in this essay.) God cannot ever be an It. Therefore, we should seek those
I/Thou relationships because that is the type of relationship we have with God. God is found in
the You dimension. When we create an I/Thou relationship we go beyond the one “you” of the
relationship and also elevate other beings to Thous. In doing this, we are able to find God and
learn how to create and maintain the relationship that we have with God, the ultimate You.
So we know why we want to seek I/Thou relationships, and I have already discussed the
inspiration that comes from Buber being able to see an I/Thou relationship in something as
simple as a cat. However, I do not think that Buber’s anecdote about his cat was only meant to
show that we can elevate any relationship from an I/It to an I/Thou. My first contemplation on
this passage led me to the conclusion that this was a metaphor for how we are supposed to treat
each other. I assumed that the cat stood for other humans, and Buber’s comments were meant to
direct us in our everyday interactions with those around us.
Buber wrote, “The domesticated animal has not by any means received the gift of the truly
‘eloquent’ glance from us, as a human conceit suggests sometimes…” (pg 145) My
interpretation of this statement is that we do not always take the time to relate to others in the
way that we should. To me, this could be interpreted as a reprimand of humanity in general. We
humans are often too busy being self-centered to “eloquently” look upon the people with whom
we interact every day. I think Buber is saying that by not elevating our neighbors to the You
dimension, we are making them no better than a pet cat. This is a bold statement, I know, but it
is important, both to Buber and to me, that we treat humans as persons, not as Its to be used.
When in the book Buber remarked on how short a time the I/Thou relation with his cat was
sustained, I at first took that to be another comment about humanity. I now believe that Buber
meant something else, but the statement can have multiple meanings, and I do not think that my
first interpretation was completely false. I thought that Buber meant that even when we do
create an I/Thou relationship with others, we do not maintain that relationship. Instead, we let it
fall back to the I/It realm, and that is what I thought was melancholy. Buber did mean something
else when he wrote that part; what he believed to be melancholy I will discuss later in the paper.
However, it is a sad thing that we cannot sustain I/Thou relationships with the people around us.
For some reason, even when we are able to see another as a Thou, that experience usually goes
away quite quickly.
The most beautiful metaphor for Buber’s cat and the one that I now know Buber wanted us to
see when he wrote the passage is that the I/Thou relationship between Buber and his cat stands
for the I/Thou relationship between God and us. In this analogy, God is the human and we are
the cat. Buber’s cat looked at him with anxiety and confusion. According to Buber, this is how
we approach God. Buber said his cat’s glance was full of questions: “Can it be that you mean
me? Do you actually want that I should not merely do tricks for you? Do I concern you? Am I
there for you? Am I there?” (pg 145) These are the same questions that we ask God. As a
human, we cannot imagine that God wants to have an I/Thou relationship with us. It was too
much for the cat, and it is too much for us. We are not accustomed to being a Thou for anyone;
why should God accept us as a Thou?
In this passage Buber talks about being melancholy. He says that is it melancholy that the cat
cannot hold his gaze and maintain that I/Thou relationship for more than a brief instant. Of
course, Buber is not saddened by the cat’s lack of focus, but rather our own. We cannot hold the
gaze of God and hold ourselves in that Thou dimension. This is what is melancholy; this is what
saddens Buber. We keep falling back into the It world, and that means that we keep falling out
of a true relationship with our eternal You. What I believe to be the saddest part of this
predicament is that we cannot stop ourselves from this falling. Buber discussed “the fated lapse
into It of every single You.” (pg 146) In the same paragraph discussing this fall he wrote, “At
least I could still remember it, while the animal had sunk again from its stammering glance into
speechless anxiety, almost devoid of memory.” (pg 146) Not only is he saddened by our
inevitable fall back into the It realm, but Buber is also saddened by the fact that we cannot
remember what it is like to be in that Thou realm and experience a true relationship with God.
Buber’s contemplation about his cat revolves around the cat’s eyes; the I/Thou relationship
with the cat is created by one look exchanged between Buber and the cat. Buber’s initial
comments about the cat’s eyes can also be a part of the metaphor that comes from this passage.
Buber says that the cat can communicate “without any need of the assistance of sounds and
gestures”. (pg 144) This idea can symbolize for us how we are to approach our relationship with
God. The cat comes to Buber without vocalizing a need or an expectation; it simply comes and
looks at him. We should come to God in this way as well. In discussing the cat’s “language”,
Buber said, “This language is the stammering of nature under the initial grasp of spirit, before
language yields to spirit’s cosmic risk which we call man.” (pg 144-145) Words are a human
construction; they exist in the It world. The “stammering of nature” that Buber speaks of is more
than sufficient for the Thou world that we are entering into. The cat could capture everything it
needed to say in just one glance; there is no reason why we cannot do the same.
It is strange to think that our relationship with God is comparable to Buber’s relationship with
his pet cat. We humans tend to think of ourselves as higher than all other animals, and we
refrain from comparing ourselves to them. However, I believe Buber’s comparison is
extraordinary. He captures the essence of this kind of relationship in every parallel that can be
drawn from this anecdote. When one sits down and thinks about it, it is not difficult to realize
that what existed between Buber and his cat for just that brief instant is what we should be
striving for in our relationships with God. Yes, this story can be read at surface level and be
thought to only comment on our relationships with nature or even with other humans, but when it
is viewed with a different lens it can be extremely beautiful.