The Interior World
In one of the stories by Frank O’Connor, “The Ugly Duckling” — the title is of course a reference to Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fairy tale, but this story about a tomboy girl is as Irish as it gets — there is a wonderful observation about certain types of people who, because of certain inadequacy or perceived inadequacy in their early life (poverty, ugliness, shyness, family problems etc), they escape their outside circumstances by creating for themselves a “rich interior world.”
I suppose this is common enough. A child or teenager withdraws into himself and, if he’s at least a little bit creative, he will put his feelings into writing or drawing or singing. Some of these unhappy children or teenagers will later on grow up to become poets or artists or drunkards or saints, but not all.
It has nothing to do with talent, necessarily, but with forging a sort of barrier against the perceived rejection by the world. As Paul Simon described the feeling in his classic song “I am a rock“:
I am a rock
I am an island
I’ve built walls
A fortress, steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain
Its laughter and its loving I disdain
This phenomenon is related to, but also not exactly the same, as the contrast between introversion and extroversion. Introversion and extroversion are more related to our abilities to socialize, but not to our creative impulse, although perhaps there is a relation there too. Introverted people will probably tend to go more towards solitary arts like writing and painting, while extroverted people will probably prefer more social arts such as acting or singing or dancing.
But I have noticed — and it was almost a shock at the beginning — that there’s many people who have no creative or even meditative impulse whatsoever. All their energy is purely directed to the outside world, to action, to the material: to consuming and moving and talking and watching. People who can’t stay five seconds with their own thoughts, or they’d go mad. I’ve seen them, I even talked to them. Take away their smartphone for ten seconds and they start to panic: “And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen / Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about.” (T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”) Or, as Pascal said, “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to stay quietly in a room alone.”
Introspection does not necessarily mean being alone. In fact, there is probably more loneliness among young people today than at any other period in history, and lots of people, perhaps even a third of all adults, live alone. It doesn’t mean they are introspective — they will be chatting online or watching pornography or playing video games or doing any para-social activity that will occupy their time, but mostly in negative ways.
As our society creates more and more noisy distractions to avoid the horrors of inner gazing, people become less interested, not only in creating, but even in reading or watching more meditative, introspective forms of art. Instead of retreating into an interior world, they desire, on the contrary, to escape it at all costs.
There was a time when film directors such as Ozu, Tarkovsky or Bresson could create slow, atmospheric films without “plot points” or special effects, and still be relatively successful, or at least find their niche audience. I watched Bresson’s “Mouchette” for the first time recently and it is such a masterpiece — the George Bernanos’ novel in which it is based is very good too.
(Here’s a short clip about the filming that includes a brief interview with Bresson).
Sure, it’s not a film for everyone. Reading the comments on a trailer of the movie, I saw a comment of someone who showed the film to a group of teenagers. All of them walked out in the first fifteen minutes, but one kid remained, and then when the film ended he asked: “can I watch it again?”
I have similar experiences teaching film or literature in college. I would show a movie or talk about a book and most students would be bored out of their minds, but there would be that one kid or that one girl who loved the book or the movie because it touched deeply into his or her soul.
Bresson and Tarkovsky and Ozu kept making movies until the end of their lives. But, as they say, those were different times. Is there anyone who even tries to do such kind of films today? Would he find someone to finance him? Or someone who creates actual poetry, or actual painting? Very few. Even when many people still have talent — and there’s always talented people in every generation — modern culture seem to lack the depth and spirituality to generate great transcending art. Almost everything these days seems to be done either just for money or to promote some kind of political message.
But things will change, surely. I think that the last decades of the Western world, or this period of accelerated social change that we’ve seen from, say, the mid-1960s until today, is in the end an anomaly. Already we see cracks on the façade, and the yearning of many young people for something different. The New World Order will break apart, and I don’t think it will take that long.
In the meantime, we can cultivate our interior world.