(Continued from Part 5)
6. Staros and the response to the transcendent
It may be, however, that Sgt. Welsh has misinterpreted Capt. Staros’s reaction. Staros is, after all, more concerned about the men under his command than he is interested in the military or its ethic. Already having his own sense of a Levinasian – a transcendent – responsibility, it may be that Staros was reacting to having seen the reality of a great goodness, a goodness which he had seen in or because of Welsh’s act. It may be that an awe-filled joy overcame Staros as an uncontainable ebullience which Staros let pour forth in praise of Welsh not only because Staros had seen the great goodness owing to Welsh but also because that goodness would not have appeared as it did, where it did, and when it did had it not been for Welsh allowing and enabling – frankly, effecting – its manifestation. Could Staros have done differently? Should he have done something else instead? Buber says:
Spirit is not in the I, but between I and Thou. It is not like the blood that circulates in you, but like the air in which you breathe. Man lives in the spirit … if he is able to respond to his Thou….
But the … stronger the response the more strongly does it bind up the Thou and banish it to be an object [an It]. Only silence before the Thou … leaves the Thou free, and permits man to take his stand with it in the reserve where the spirit is not manifest, but [instead simply and fully] is. Every response binds up the Thou in the world of It. That is the melancholy of man, and his greatness. For that is how knowledge comes about, a work is achieved, and image and symbol made, in the midst of living things.8
Staros could have responded to Welsh with the deeply personal silence of an acknowledging touch and look. However, just as a man is not to place his light under a bushel but, instead, upon a pedestal,9 so too is a man not to hide the light of another man, because that light is to be given for all others who might see it. Accordingly, it is not wrong of Staros to want the attention of others to be set upon what Welsh has done so that they, too, might see or hear and become aware of the great goodness that can be made manifest as was done so by or because of Welsh. This is also why Staros could not have said something like “I have seen something wonderful” and left it at that.
At the same time, Welsh was not wrong with his concern about the praise. But such is the condition of the person who in effect has some sense of the transcendent, the person who in Buber’s words is aware of the spirit: “He knows that his mortal life swings by nature between Thou and It,” between other-worldliness and this-worldliness. “It suffices him to be able to cross again and again the threshold of the holy place wherein he was not able to remain; the very fact that he must leave it again and again is inwardly bound up for him with the meaning and the character of this life.”10
Welsh’s numerous denials of transcendent other-worldliness never amount to a philosophical challenge as much as they indicate a bitterness over the very necessity of having to repeatedly give manifestation to the transcendent. Alternatively, his bitterness might stem from the fact that so very few are astute enough or dedicated enough to making manifestation of the transcendent less out of the ordinary. But, whichever the case, that bitterness is essentially the product of a demand that reality be as Welsh wants it to be.
It is, in effect, the very sort of demand which Pvt. Witt, on the other hand, thinks is never to be made, even if only because that demand which endures as bitterness can distract from the responsibility towards others. In Welsh, that bitterness – despite its ineffectualness – has not given way to the hopelessness of the so-called “bliss” in which there is no feeling. Although that bitterness may sometimes be distracting, it never eliminates from Welsh what is effectively a sense of responsibility towards the other men of Charlie Company.
Continued in Part 7
8 Martin Buber, I and Thou (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958), pp. 39-40.
9 Matthew 5: 15-16.
10 Op. cit., Buber, pp. 52-53.