Doug Bruns

“…to measure their experience…”

In Creativity, Life, Literature, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Writers on May 16, 2012 at 8:00 am

I’m traveling. This is a repost.


I read recently an interview in The Paris Review with Norman Mailer. In it he referred to his audience “which has no tradition by which to measure their experience but the intensity and clarity of their inner lives.” I was struck by this phrase: the intensity and clarity of an inner life. What does that mean, really? Does it mean a life of the mind, in the classic sense, a trained, disciplined and well-educated mind? How else does one develop an inner life, but by a mind of disciplined introspection? Mystics have an inner life and so on. I must obviously have little clarity if I can’t even discern what a true inner life is. As a species we are unique in our ability to be introspective, or so we think. (Imagine the guilt if someday we should learn that the whale and elephant and a few other great beasts had self-consciousness, a life of the mind, an inner life!)

I think a life that is intense and has clarity would be directed and purposeful, perhaps that of a successful entrepreneur, an artist or architect. Great travelers and adventurers, Sir Richard Burton, Magellan, Scott would qualify too. But the exterior, the husk of life does not necessarily bespeak the inner life. Mailer was thinking of the reader of his work who would, by inner experience, weigh and gauge his writing. My inner life lacks clarity. It lacks intensity too, as I leap from this to that without mastery. I’m interested in many things, but intensity I have none. Passion yes. Obsession, even, I have. But I frankly feel intense about little, if anything. Family, virtues, good over evil are things I have intensity for. That is a start. Clarity? If Mailer was referring to a pool filled with gin-clear water, my clarity is a pebble-strewn eddy barely visible through collected surface foam.

It was posited in The Breakdown of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind that the inner life developed late in the evolution of man, somewhere if I recall in the 15th or 16th century. It is a wild thought, but interesting, in that one might speculate that not all of us have developed the same degree of intensity and clarity of an inner life, that some maybe have missed the gene altogether.

  1. Jayne’s Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is one of my hallmark books. The inner life developed much earlier (Gilgamesh?), except, I believe, that he thought that the unicameral mind still existed in Aztec culture in the time of the Spanish conquest.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Dennis. I appreciate th clarification. It’s been a very long time since I read the book. But I seem to recall Jaynes citing Joan of Arc and her hearing of voices as a transitional figure in the development of consciousness. But, to your point, that does seem awfully late in the scheme of things.

      I appreciate you “stopping in.”

I welcome your comments. Thanks for reading.

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