Week 11 - In the Presence of Thou

Guiding Question: Who is Black Elk's "Thou?"

    The hero, Lancelot - loved by all (especially the queen), owes much of his honor to his spiritual qualities.  He is a sincere seeker of the Grail but, because of his worldly attachments, he must experience the glories of the Grail at a greater distance than those whose very essence has marked them as participants in its holy mysteries.  He truly has what Buber describes as a “distracted, weakened, degenerated, contradictory spirituality.”  Yet, he has been able to “reach again the life of spirit which can utter Thou.”  “Thou” is used by Martin Buber in his landmark text I and Thou to denote the presence of a consciousness which is revered by a subject - I.
    As Buber held, and Lancelot's experience in the Quest testify, living in too close proximity with one's Thou may prove too intense.  Buber stated that  “. . . it is not possible to live in the bare present.  Life would be quite consumed if precautions were not taken to subdue the present speedily and thoroughly.  But it is possible to live in the bare past, indeed only in it may a life be organized."
    Buber continues, “. . . And in all the seriousness of truth, hear this:  Without It man cannot live.  But he who lives with It alone is not a man.”  The It here denotes the conceptions of the world as objective, as contrasted to the subjective presence of the self (I) and the other (Thou).  But It can as well stand for using another person as an object.  Thus, It may be, and often is, another human being. Lancelot knows no such objectification of his beloved, and on Buber's terms has certainly proved himself to be a man; for he was shot through with a paralyzing fire caused by his coming too near the Thou of his beloved.  This "Thou," for Lancelot is his lover, but what if we consider Thou as it appears in varied forms from time to time, culture to culture, person to person?  The saints and shamans of every culture seem to identify, and personify, a large portion of the universe within their “Thou.”  Thus the universe itself becomes sacred, intimate and alive.  What happens to this highly subjective world view when a consumer-oriented world, which often perceives nature as a resource only, and thus an It, encroaches on their sacred sense of all nature as a “Thou?”
    Black Elk was a holy man, a mystical elder of the Lakotas.  His story tells of a major cultural change among his people.  He relates how his “Thou” had been transformed to the functional “It” of people of a foreign culture.  He shows his remorse as a man whose vision has lost its power and he seems to partially blame his own lack of strength for this loss.  It is not mentioned in the introduction that Black Elk was also a devout Catholic who taught the Catechism to his people.  Black Elk Speaks is a melding of his native shamanism, the structure of Christian liturgy and the poetic vision of John Neihardt.  As the modern pow wow movement has spread among Native peoples across the U.S. bringing together both reservation and urban Indians displaced from their own traditions,  Black Elk Speaks has become a kind of Pan-Indian Bible.  The blending of styles mentioned above has caused the work to speak to those whose own cultures have become a blend of European and Indigenous American perceptions.

Required Reading:  "Week 11" in the Study Guide; The Quest of the Holy Grail, pp. 253-268; John G. Neidhardt and Black Elk: Black Elk Speaks (1932); Martin Buber: I and Thou (1958).

Please read Martin Buber's I and Thou and then use the ideas learned from this work to analyze the clash of world views described in Black Elk Speaks. Keep a log of your analysis in you online journal, making notes as you are able to find correlations between the texts.

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