Thoughts on olin, Part 1 #

Written by jan Usawi

So. Can you olin a potato?

Tonight (1), myself and a few others in the ma pona server got talking about the usage of the word olin (󱥅) towards actions, and whether or not olin can refer to love for anything other than a person. And my brain, in its normal spiderweb-weaving fashion, went running.

As much as I love using the odd preverb here and there (sike (󱥜) especially), olin preverb is one I’ve never gotten on board with—I love writing, but “mi olin sitelen” is not how I’d express that passion.

kili pan (󱤚󱥋) (a sensible enough translation for potato?) li pona tawa mi (󱤴󱥅󱥠󱤧󱥔󱥩󱤴), taso that’s not olin. That much we all more or less agreed upon. But restricting olin to “people”—that seemed too limiting, too prone to the kind of semantic fuckery I’m not such a fan of (as opposed to the kind I love, because again, this is an essay on toki pona (󱥬󱦖󱥔).

So it seems I can’t olin potatoes, not by my nasin. The question quickly got posed, then—can one olin a potato? A specific one? How intense does one’s love for a potato have to get for it to be olin? How intense does one’s love for a person have to get for it to be olin?

At that, my mind went to Martin Buber (Wikipedia). What’s about to follow is a very incomplete summary of Martin Buber’s philosophy. I’m no studied expert on his work, and there is definitely much more to it than what I’m about to cover here.

The concept Buber is best known for is that of the I-It and I-Thou relationships. mi-ona—but perhaps more accurately, mi-ni—and mi-sina. An I-It relationship is subject-to-object; the individual meets with the “it” of the relationship insofar it benefits them, only ever really interacting with their personal concept of the object at hand. An “it” here could be a physical object—a tool, a vehicle, a toy, etc.—but just as easily could be a person. I recognize cognitively that the man who checks out my groceries is as full a person as I am, but that never alters the nature of our relationship, nor the fact that ultimately I’m looking to get something out of it—minimal conversation, some reassurance of my social standing, and my groceries. What I interact with is ultimately my own projection; I’m not relating to the Other that’s present here.

In an I-Thou relationship, two individuals meet. It’s subject-to-subject—no interference of expectations or judgements, no imposed structure or implicit content, just two holistic selves, together, in relation. Again, this can occur between two people—be they lovers or strangers on the train—but it doesn’t have to. One can have that same real experience—of one Self recognizing and appreciating and connecting to an Other—with trees and skies and tools and what have you as they can with a person. In my experience, I get there when I recognize that what I’m experiencing as a friend, a tree, etc. is just the series of hints that leads me to the entity underlying, one with an existence otherwise unrelated to my own—but here we are, together, inexplicably related anyway. An I and an I, and that numinous thing that is Both of Us.

The tree is no impression, no play of my imagination, no value depending on my mood; but it is bodied over against me and has to do with me, as I with it—only in a different way.

Let no attempt be made to sap the strength from the meaning of the relation: relation is mutual.

The tree will have a consciousness, then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate what which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.

- Martin Buber

If I face a human being as my Thou, and say the primary word I-Thou to him, he is not a thing among things, and does not consist of things.

This human being is not He or She, bounded from every other He and She, a specific point in space and time within the net of the world; not is he a nature able to be experienced and described, a loose bundle of named qualities. But with no neighbour, and whole in himself, he is Thou and fills the heavens. This does not mean that nothing exists except himself. But all else lives in his light.

- Martin Buber

As an aside, because I’ve been thinking about how strange the online law-of-attraction scene has seemed to get recently and spider-brain has gotten very excited—I think this is precisely what ticks me off about their whole mindset? Both LOA folks and Buber agree k i n d a on the essential immanence of God, I’ll give them that, but like. The sort of LOA I’m talking about here is like the reality-shifting-it-girl brand, the kind that says that You Are God, full stop, and you can make anything happen in your reality by changing how you feel about yourself because your reality is a reflection of you. External relationships have nothing to do with it. I don’t even mean that they’re irrelevant—I mean they’re incompatible with the framework. There’s no moral weight attached to manifesting major changes to a specific person without informing them or receiving consent, because that person doesn’t exist outside of you as far as they’re concerned. I’ve seen LOA bloggers go on about how everyone else doesn’t have free will and it’s just the w o r s t brand of solipsism. From an I-It/I-Thou perspective, it’s kinda no surprise that so much energy in the community is spent on manifesting material gains and romantic attractions. There’s no room for an I-Thou relationship of any kind and that’s kind of the whole point of their methodology and it kinda breaks my heart.
ᵃʰᵉᵐ anyway

It’s this that makes me hesitant to say that olin is a matter of personhood, or a matter of intensity. No matter how excited I get over a birthday gift, I’m still relating to the gift as it relates to me, and therefore, as an It. Hell, I’m even relating that way to the person who gave me the gift—however much I love them, the spur of that joy is usually the fact that they’ve given me something. I think I’ve have had interactions with tarot decks of mine that were closer to I-Thou than that.

So, currently, my thoughts on olin are that it has less to do with anything unique to personhood and more to do with the proximity to or potential for an I-Thou relationship. Actual I-Thou experiences tend to be rare, as Buber describes them, owing to the fact that actively pursuing one with something or someone tends to it-ify that entity, so I wouldn’t say that for me, olin is only I-Thou connection. But my understanding of olin is definitely colored by this framework.

Can I olin potatoes 🥔🥔🥔? Not as a concept, no, not as a food that tastes good or provides nutrition or is fun to cook or represents something about luck or humble resourcefulness or even love. These things are conditional, they’re material, they’re hinged upon my own narrative and benefit. But the potato 🫱🥔🫲 in my hand I wish, I’m writing this section from a small restaurant just off my college campus and I’m not sure? that they make anything that has potatoes in it), that exists, that is a full being in its own right? Who’s to say there can’t be olin there?

Language is by necessity vague, but the word “love” is almost painfully so, loaded as it is with multiple, sometimes contradictory, implications and contexts. But my experience with toki pona, a language that’s readily arguably much more vague, is entirely different. This is a language where I can say that tomo mi li lete lili and a plain response of “o kepeken len” reads as kind and sweet with no need for additional clarifiers; the fact that we are speaking in toki pona is the clarifier. This is a language where “sina pona tawa mi” is no less loving (in the colloquial English-language sense) than “mi olin e sina.” And so, I feel more freedom to get clear on what exactly I mean by olin, to make space within my usage of the language for personal philosophy and experience, and to communicate these distinctions in a pona manner.

I can love writing because of what role it plays in me and my life, but I can only really olin the potato 🥔 (or anyone/thing else, for that matter) because it is, and so am I.

At least, as long as I know that the potential for such a connection exists, as long as I am open to it (which, for Buber, is the way to start an I-Thou relationship), then mi la, there is olin.

There’s more I have to say on the matter—if olin isn’t just for people, is olin just for jan? Is olin subjective or objective in this nasin? How does this interact with solipsism? With mereological composition? With the concept of pona?

—but I wanted to keep this post at least somewhat concise. Expect more speculation and analysis on this in a part 2.

Till then, I’ll close out with one more Buber quote that I’ve been chewing on as I write this:

Feelings accompany the metaphysical and metapsychical fact of love, but they do not constitute it. The accompanying feelings can be of greatly differing kinds. The feeling of Jesus for the demoniac differs from his feeling for the beloved disciple; but the love is the one love. Feelings are “entertained”: love comes to pass. Feelings dwell in man; but man dwells in his love. That is no metaphor, but the actual truth. Love does not cling to the I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its “content,” its object; but love is between I and Thou.

- Martin Buber

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