The core problems of human existence are rooted in the mystery of the mind. Existential dilemmas, political conflicts, icy family feuds, and all the fruitless self-whipping in which we engage to fix or improve our personal lives: all these and more arise from the dark inner workings of the psyche. Take any social policy you like and you’ll see that the greatest obstacles are “political.” Take any self-destructive behavior and the main problem to overcome? “The desire to continue the behavior.”
We do not understand the bewilderment and loneliness we feel in the face of the contemplation of the vast universe and our existence in it (what are we, and what is all this?) or the sudden influx of powerful ecstasy when listening to a piece of music or the nostalgia we feel on seeing a beautiful person or the strange sacred quality time is lent on a rainy afternoon, or that power of charisma that some possess, or the way our beliefs change when we read a persuasive text, or the odd thoughts that occur to us as our mind wanders as we walk down the street or just before going to bed. A million million such examples may be found.
Take victims of domestic violence – why will they often defend their attackers? Take any sports team down on morale: why won’t their spirits lift? What makes someone fall in love with someone else? What are the roots of addiction? How do the desires and points of view of a society change and cause war and peace, alter art, evolve customs?
Social, historical, technological, economic, and other factors play a role in explanation, but only a subsidiary one. The real ever-lasting question – meaning the name of that thing that actually plagues us, that endless itch we wish to scratch – as to why things turn out as they do, the inextricable pebble in our shoe, always comes back to the mind and to the mind alone, and in fact to the case of each of our own, individual minds, which is the first and final source of interest.
It comes down not to just any part of the mind, but to its bizarre depths, its strangenesses. I mean those mental phenomena which involve the greatest emotional tumult, that are the haziest, the difficult to define, the hardest to see because most glimmering, and to fix in memory once seen, the closest to our own defensive desires to protect our self-image and to feel certain, the most perspectivally variable, and the most resistant of articulation – the closest to ineffability.
These are the areas of intense love in close relationships, patriotism, religious fervor, artistic inspiration, spirituality, nostalgia, dream and memory and imagination, the divine and the demonic and the daemonic. Here are the Archimedean levers at the forges of desire and perspective.
Experiences in these domains may be so swirling, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, and illusory, so evasive and blinking and polymorphous, that they can only be seen with peripheral vision. They are so dependent on the total context of our selves at that moment that later on, be it only seconds later on, if we have changed, they can seem impossible to recall or comprehend or relate to, like dreams upon waking, until we see them once more with a start, unexpectedly, like apparitions, and then lapse into forgetting again.
These domains of mind control all the other great spheres of human concern.
We tinker at the margins with this or that new tool or theory while the great oceans of energy and image seethe and boil in dark turmoil in vast complexes we do not comprehend, cannot see, can barely conceive. We fool ourselves into believing we capture them adequately in scientific symbol, in the dry notation of biology or psychology suitable to describing things.
Yet the things that dwell in these places are barely things at all. They are neo-things, inchoate things, seeds of things, or remnants of things. Things are well-defined, have clear boundaries. Whereas these aspects of our mental life are not well-defined, are themselves features of our perception that distort other things, that send us into tizzies, that alter the ways we interpret ourselves, that vex and nettle us into quests for god knows what and we think we know what but in fact do not. Like staring at the sun, these phenomena daze us if we look at them without the proper instruments.
Science cannot help much with this project. Science, when it examines inner experience, correlates the brain and the environment to words and other symbols that represent that experience. Yet our symbols cannot withstand that purpose. Our experiences are too individual to be represented adequately in clichéd verbal conventions, yet such is the language science necessarily uses to compare experiences between people. Each of us has such vastly different and specific experiences in such different mental contexts that we each need to build our own tremulous and idiosyncratic vocabularies to grasp them. By our mental context I mean our memories, our anticipations, our self-images, and all the other things that form the background for any particular experience. The inability to account for the richness of inner context renders science too blunt to penetrate the fleeting objects of our inquiry. It can make crude statements, nothing more.
We need to see these strange experiences. The seeing requires each individual to look deep and long within, to introspect, to reflect, and to express what they find as part of a picture of the whole of themselves. Science is about abstracting away from extreme subjective detail and color and specificity. Yet in the realm of these experiences, it is precisely the merest shifting details that grant meaning to the whole, and it is only by noticing those details first that we can start to see patterns.
Because we have not effectively seen these aspects of the mind in all their fullness, because they are so individual, and because we have not articulated them, science is far from the point where it can act effectively. Academic psychology tends to study more easily measurable behavior, in fact nowhere near these most subjective spheres, though it may claim otherwise. Its methods of questionnaire and experiment and even field study cannot effectively enter the private subjective experiences of their subjects, for that would require those subjects to come up with the reflective art that would alone express that subjectivity.
Psychotherapy, and psychoanalysis in particular, are the quasi-exceptions. They do try to tackle these subterranean areas of the mind. Unfortunately, they are filled with jargon and rigid theoretical models and are often contradictory within themselves. Indeed, they are worse than inconsistent. They are, within their warring schools, often incomparable. Psychoanalysts, for example, often don’t even disagree with each other because they don’t truly speak the same language. They use the same words, but understand them differently. They nod their heads at each other’s speeches, thinking that everyone is on the same page when they are not.
Literature is often no better, though it should be. It too often aims to produce the various mysterious effects of the mind in its reader by physically reproducing the relevant situation, but mimicry is not the same as understanding. Literature does not often enough aim for insight and for clarification of the states and areas of the mind.
There has been a general tendency in literature to either avoid the ineffable in favor of the historic or the mundane, or else to convey the ineffable by “epiphanic” writing that produces some little bit of silence at the end that is mistaken for profundity, like some sort of pillow mint left at the end of a meal at a fine restaurant that contents you. There is that little feeling of “ah!” and satisfaction — not insight. There are powerful exceptions (see Proust), but they are rare.
Yet even so, it is true that our interpretation of our own experiences is a great gift we can give others to help them interpret their experiences. By seeing our approach, others learn: not to imitate but to analogize. So perhaps there is room for a science of a different kind, one where each person is the principal investigator of their own private universe. Yet, by effectively communicating our findings, we can help others with their research. In expressing our most intimate and private perspectives, we reach the universal.
Art (and by this I mean a broad term that includes literature at its core) can and must be the instrument with which we see our inner recesses more clearly. To accomplish this aim, however, requires a new aesthetic.
There needs to be an aim to understand the mind and not merely create various effects. Effects are fine, but we must go a step further and reveal insight.
Insight takes place through the logical assimilation of inner experiences to images. To show that various previously inexplicable pieces are actually parts of a whole is insightful. Metaphors are how we understand things, and vision is the archetype of understanding. We see something, whole, complete, a synthesis – this is how we wish to know our mysterious inner lives. This vision must be accomplished by metaphorizing our experiences, analogizing what they are like to various images, and connecting these various images to each other in comprehensive logical and imagistic networks.
Images also have the benefit of being portable. A chapter in a book that describes an interesting experience by cinematically demonstrating the circumstances that might provoke the experience simply creates effects; it needs to specifically assimilate those effects to images so that someone may say, for example, “he compares Juliet to the sun.”
That metaphor, that image, then becomes a tool of discourse about the meaning of love.
This also means that, contra much writing advice, writers who wish to illuminate the mind – and not all must have this goal, of course – must tell and not just show. They must take a viewpoint and be didactic, see themselves as active inner scientists with a responsibility to contribute to the clarifying conversation.
The images which form the metaphors of experience themselves form a system that show how its author sees the world, the peculiar distortions and characterizations of the cavernous lens we call our individual perspective. And it is in virtue of this system of images and their implications, that is, the reasoning drawn upon them, that the author pursues goals. He who sees life as a battle, for example, draws different implications from an interaction than one who sees life as a party. They not only have different desires, but they see different worlds. Meanwhile, desire itself affects and shapes the perspective.
Image, reasons, desire, perspective: these are the key concepts of explanation which the artist must employ to metaphorize the subtle flickerings of inner experience. Build all the images into a perspective, show how desires act upon that perspective through the relevant reasons, and demonstrate the depths of a personality. Of course these change over time, and those dynamics, too, must be articulated.
We have to take into account the concept of defensiveness (a true psychoanalytic contribution), and attempt to make clear how defenses operate to distort perception, and be cognizant of their effect on ourselves as we write.
We need a multi-vocal view of the mind. Each of us contains within us many persons. One of the advantages of writing fiction is that these persons can be given independent voice. This radiating band of viewpoints within each of us is not portrayed often enough; instead, it is still assumed that if a thought crosses your mind, it is “your” thought. Not at all, of course. Each mind is a community, and only the considered judgment of it after deliberative reflection deserves to be considered “its opinion” – and even that does not negate the fact that it may have fully contradictory opinions still within it.
The tiny images that occur just before going to sleep and the little thoughts that occur to us as we walk along the street must be paid attention and assimilated to the larger images that they suggest. Too often are they washed out of the narrative when they have important things to say. So too is this true of what French writer Nathalie Sarraute dubbed “tropisms,” or the “delicate, minute inner movements” of the mind that underlie everyday actions, and that are not described nearly often enough.
We need to focus on honesty and clarity as opposed to artifice and emotion. Intellectual insight into the emotions is superior to moving an audience. We need to take on some of the documentarian’s responsibility.
Finally, and possibly most importantly, we must keep in mind at all times the relation of art to wisdom. Wisdom is an unfashionable word in many corners, assuming as it does that life may have a point. Wisdom is the knowledge of what is good and how to achieve it.
Every act we take in art is informed by assumptions about the good. To exert the effort to see clearly, for instance, is to privilege contemplation over action. To admit the multiplicity of viewpoints within a person is itself a viewpoint, and one that may detract from the unity of purpose that would push one cause, one socially just cause perhaps. So too that clarity is more valuable than emotional movement, or that that the inner world is worth valuing, or that science is inadequate in investigating it, or that theory is useful: all are moral statements, all are in the domain of wisdom. And of course, all are arguable. To see our inner lives will require a constant investigation into our modes of investigation and thus into wisdom.
What does it take to a paint a panorama of the interior world? Send me your thoughts.