by Sam Buntz
Jean Paul Sartre once said, “Hell is other people.” This was all quite French of him, of course, but I don’t really understand what this statement means. “Other People” aren’t really at all like hell – in my experience (though they can sometimes be pretty bad). I don’t think that I’m so excessively wrapped up in myself that I can’t enter into another person’s perspective or imagine it with a certain degree of accuracy, and I don’t feel like the judgments other people make on my own character are particularly final or hell-like (which is what Sartre meant, apparently) – but other people are, if we are willing to take them seriously, hieroglyphic and “difficult” – in the poetic sense. It’s easy enough to relate to each other in terms of the masks we put on – and I don’t suggest that it’s wrong to put on a mask, sometimes, or even all the time if what you’ve got going on really is outright terrible – but when it comes to imagining the internal monologue of another person, we run into problems. There are some close friends whose internal monologues, at this point, I think I can parody or occasionally channel poorly – but there is a vast hoard of acquaintances, friends and relatives out there whose inner selves remain totally mysterious to me: their outward actions provide no Rosetta Stone by which to interpret the characters etched on the tablet of the Inner Self. And I’m not suggesting that these people are at all bad or are hiding a writhing nest of insecurities and anxieties (although, in some cases, that’s surely possible.) It’s just that the things they say give me no idea of what they think about during the dull, vacant moments of today – which, unless you’re trying desperately to distract yourself, comprise most of the moments of the day.
I know that this problem might not be so troubling – I know that no healthy person sits around tearing out his/her hair because he/she can’t imagine someone’s internal monologue (though, I mean, it happens.) But I know that in my vacant moments, my mind is constantly trying to figure things out, always trying to unravel the loops and tangles of thought and self, continually inter-knitting. It’s a very Russian sort of affair, with a lot of re-circulating arguments about death and God and love. Yet I am intrigued by the processes that must go on in a mind that is not afflicted with this near-constant need to disentangle reality. What would it be like to let the knot of self-and-world alone, and abide between the pillars of the Mystery, watching them stretch off into shadow before and behind? Does anyone really just think things like, “I’m going to walk my dog later and get some ice cream! That’ll be so nice,” and not immediately follow it up with some sort of intense probing into the nature of ice cream or dogs? Is it possible to just think in clear, vivid, declarative statements, without entertaining questions like this one, and not be bored?
Whenever I ask my little sister what she thinks about (because she puzzles me) she always says that she’s looking forward to going to the park and hanging out with her friends (or whatever) – but I don’t believe her. No one thinks about that kind of stuff (unless, as I suggested, they do.) I would assume that they’re actually wondering or worrying about something. My sister seems too smart not to be internally aggravating herself with some trivial problem or titanic searching of the soul – though she’s infinitely more “well-adjusted” than I was at her age. But, I mean, I assume it’s possible. I’ve also considered that many people might think primarily in images – I’ve heard that this is true of autistics, for example (in some cases.) And for a really steak-y frat bro, he might just have images of boobs flashing in front of his inner eye when he’s not trying to make some appreciative comments about Dave Matthews or or football or porn (which might just be true for the male of the species, generally). But that seems like a vile caricature – it seems unnecessarily dismissive. You also need to wonder what sort of material was going through your own mind as an infant or a very small child (a related question) – were you just a passive acceptor of all the information falling into you? Or did you spit out something of your own, mentally? I would imagine you had some process going on inside, were not just a creation of the environmental stuff getting poured into you – but I can’t say what, lacking language, that could really be. Samuel Beckett claimed that he remembered being trapped in his mother’s womb and desiring desperately to escape – though he said he felt like he never really did escape. So maybe there’s more going on in the infant/fetal mind than we suspect. Maybe it thinks in Sanskrit or something.
Also, there’s this weird dysfunction that occurs when a lot of people get near a blank page or a pen or keyboard, which I think is related to my inability to determine from their speech and action what their thoughts are – their writing never has the fluency of their conversation. I suppose we usually talk from a different and more external layer of the self, than we do when we write. For myself, the case is the exact opposite – my conversation never has the fluency of my writing. I think this, again, has something to do with the mysteries of the inner self, of the mind. Whenever Lord Byron expressed himself through a character, he wrote tragically and melodramatically. Whenever he wrote directly of and as himself, he was jocular and bemused. But the former was the “deep” Byron, and the latter more superficial. This is clearly related to that disjunction between the introspective part of the self and the external, expressive self that I was just discussing. I wish that I, for one, had a more fluid connection between the two, and could speak with the same degree of ease and articulation with which I immodestly believe I write: Christopher Hitchens had this ability, and so did, say, Oscar Wilde or Samuel Johnson. Apparently, Wilde could speak in extremely articulate compound sentences, as if composing a highly polished essay on the spot, without pause. Yet he himself but infrequently exposed his inner self, and instead, consciously assumed a series of masks and poses – it probably would’ve been difficult to speak sincerely, from the heart of the deep self, and also remain so fluent.
Digressing, I am now considering whether the self presented in this casual essay – or in everything I’ve written – is, in fact, the real self, or but another mask. The investigation of these other inscrutable and yet unnamed friends and acquaintances, which I’ve herein been indirectly undergoing, may apply more finely to myself. Perhaps some sort of stable soul is implicit in what I write, but the feeling is that of simply channeling a flow of thoughts – arising from and receding into the dark uncertainties of a mind that probably does not have a unified identity (not to suggest that I have multiple-personality disorder.) I mean, I think we’re all like this to some degree – that, aside from when the soul decides to make its appearance, we exist “on many a thousand grains that issue out of dust.” And this returns me to the original question, which I have addressed haphazardly, as to what the inner selves of other people (specifically, of the people who prove so mysterious to me and probably appear mysterious even to the people who are those people) actually are. Aside from that strange constancy of soul, which we sense lurking beneath the mind’s own inconstant and often contradictory yearnings and mutterings, the inner self may just be a fiction – it may simply be a dreamy flowing away, which most of us are only vaguely aware of.
The stream flows onward, but never ripples back, as it runs up against reality’s crags and stones, to reflect on itself, except in relatively infrequent cases. I’m not suggesting that the mind’s own inner excavations are necessary in order to live a good life – in fact, the people who live good lives probably don’t have too much of this, or have shaken it off (it’s clearly more important to be good than to be smart) and retain just the ingredient of reflective consciousness necessary for making correct moral judgments – but if you are afflicted with such a mixed-blessing-curse (that of being hyper-reflective) it is perhaps relieving to realize that the self’s propensity to gnaw on its own tail is not always helpful, nor is it inevitable – that another way of knowing the self and other selves probably exists, in which the self does not know by thinking, but just by simply being and seeing. The mind of the poet differs from the mind of the philosopher, in that the former has more of this later kind of knowledge. Through this knowledge, one simply sees things and people as they are and appreciates them for their beloved and fatal qualities (instead of evaluating or judging them – a faculty which is more useful in navigating the business of life than in knowing others.) Perhaps both forms of knowledge – seeking after the self and others with thought, and seeking after the self and others with direct perception/awareness – are useful and necessary, though the accent must be placed on the latter mode. When the self fully sees and exists with what is there before it, without forcing its claims, we generally call that experience “love.” You can see the soul not through the lens of thought but through the lens of poetic perception, of the inner eye. And – not to get sappy and dramatically unoriginal – this needs to be the last word on what we ought to make of “other people.” For the soul, in my humble opinion, is not what flows away, but the silver hint of something more enduring – it is not the everyday self, but the Platonic Form of the self, the Big Self. Yet to see the soul, one must enter into that strange mode of timeless creative and spiritual perception described by William Blake: “the single pulse of the artery, in which the poet’s work is done.”