The Art of Self-Knowledge

As a writer, I’m my own worst critic. I don’t see every flaw in my work. I only see the flaws. The difference is slight, but one results in the willingness to revise and the other in creative paralysis.

I remember having similar experiences as a kid when I took piano lessons. Some days I would practice a single scale until I could play it perfectly. The imperfections motivated me to keep practicing. But on other days, the imperfections were too much to handle. I wished I could push the piano out of a ten story building, light all of the copies of music on fire, and yell, “To hell with it!”

So when Kurt Vonnegut’s letter to a class of high school students surfaced in my news feed this past week, I felt convicted:

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to Kurt Vonnegut Jr.experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.”

He reminds me that the practice of art is more like exploration and less like decoration–it is about the soul of the artist. My worse criticism of my own writing stems from this confusion. Instead of asking myself, “What does this blog, poem, or essay say about my soul?” I ask whether it compares well to the writing of my peers or my favorite authors.

The same principle applies to the way I consume art. Instead of worrying whether I like the right movies or books, I could inquire about how my response to particular stories reveals some new aspect of my soul.

In an interview from 1968, Ray Bradbury describes human beings as “tension collecting animals.” We sometimes suppress violence, grief, and joy because those impulses are not always appropriate to the situation we find ourselves in. These tensions, however, accumulate over time and need to be exercised.

We usually don’t know what tensions we’ve accumulated. Sometimes we just feel feelings without a clear understanding of where they’ve come from or why we’re feeling them. So, ray-bradburyas Bradbury says, the artist will come along and help us discover what they are and allow us to exercise them. It’s a form of catharsis—an often neglected avenue for self-knowledge.

Whether creating or consuming art, we should learn to posture ourselves for inquiry. We don’t always know what tensions we need to exercise on a particular day, so we need to go exploring. Because of my own propensity to care more about art as decoration instead of exploration, I’ve set up some guidelines to follow:

1. Follow Vonnegut’s advice: “…starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives…Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.”  If Vonnegut’s advice were a rule, I think it would read, “Create first, edit later (but only if you want to).” I regularly stifle my own creativity by editing the first draft of a poem as I’m writing it. From here on out, I plan to write the poem and only edit once I’ve written everything I want to write.

2. Don’t overwhelm yourself with art. Instead, allow yourself the space to get to know one painting, sculpture, poem, or song. Inquire about your experience by asking “what tensions am I feeling? What tensions is the artist representing?”

3. Pay attention to your preferences and start there. If you’re wondering what counts as good art, then you’re thinking about this backwards. If you do not find Van Gogh intellectually or emotionally engaging, then don’t try to force yourself to like him just because everyone else does. Exploring art isn’t a competition, and it doesn’t require a refined taste. Like the things you like and ask yourself “why do I like this?” Only when you start reflecting on your own experience will you eventually begin to see what makes an artist like Van Gogh great.

4. Be aware of how much art you are consuming and how much you are creating. You’ll always consume more art than you create. It takes several years to create a movie but only an hour and half to watch it. If, however, you find that you haven’t created anything in a long time (paintings, poems, music, mashed potatoes faces etc.), then consider making time for your own art. Creating art often has the effect of not only revealing something new about your soul to yourself but of helping you to better appreciate good art when you see it.

5. Finally, follow Vonnegut’s last instruction: don’t show your art to anyone because “you will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded…You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.” For a host of obviously bad reasons, this is a hard rule to follow. I like it when people like the things I create, and without fail, this desire eclipses the real rewards of making art. Art as self-expression is the act of exploration. Who knows what knew thing I’ll discover about myself or about the world through the crappy poem I wrote today? My job is only to be interested. The rest is not my business.


A Fly-by Summary of “Speaker’s Meaning” by Owen Barfield

obIn Speaker’s Meaning, Owen Barfield considers the process by which meaning occurs, as well as how current trends in research methods fail to account for meaning in almost every field of inquiry. Barfield begins with the observation that the methods of research and inquiry have been co-opted by the scientific method. Every field of research (e.g. literature, history, philosophy, etc.) abides by the method of observe, hypothesize, test, and theorize. The scientific method itself, Barfield reminds his readers, emerged in the 17th century when scientists realized that the natural sciences could no longer be classified as a sub-class of philosophy because, “it had acquired an entirely new method of cognition—a new way of approach to experience as a whole” (18). The scientific method stemmed from a new understanding of the human experience, which argued that the external world has no spiritual link with man. Physical nature was no longer a living, spiritual entity, but a machine-like structure, the function of which could be predicted, tested, and even manipulated with enough careful research. The mechanistic conception of the natural world marked a significant divergence from the classical and medieval models of the universe, which viewed individual persons as microcosms of the divinely ordered macrocosm. Instead, man isolated himself from the universe as only another part of the mechanized whole.

The consequences of the machine metaphor are various and sundry, but Barfield focuses on two important ones in Speaker’s Meaning. The first problem is the misapplication of the machine metaphor to research within the humanities. Quoting from R.G. Collingwood, Barfield first observes that the scientific method is only useful for studying impassive biological objects. In other words, as long as the object of research is an unconscious physical substance, then testing function and patterns is fine. The object of study in history, however, is the exact opposite of an impassive biological substance—history is the study of human intention and thought. Historians are not satisfied by the fact that Caesar crossed the Rubicon; they want to know why he crossed it. A historian is interested in the thoughts and motivations behind a particular event—what Collingwood calls the “inside” of history. Without an inside, historical events have no significance aside from being interesting bits of trivia. For this reason, Barfield frequently employs Collingwood’s famous definition that “all real history is the history of thought” (20). The same is true for literary and philosophical research because both literature and philosophy are the products of human intention, not the impersonal shaping forces of time and nature.

The second problem of the machine metaphor is the philosophical assumptions it imposes on studies in the humanities. Specifically, Barfield argues against the belief that life evolved from simplicity to complexity; such a view of history assumes that matter preceded consciousness, which suggests that human consciousness arose out of non-consciousness. Darwinian evolution might be a fine explanation for the development of biological phenomena, but it does not and cannot accurately explain the development of human consciousness. The reason for the inadequacy is the fact that the scientific method denies an “inside” to its objects of research. When the scientific method is applied to a subject like history, it will naturally exclude important information and therefore come to incomplete conclusions because the subjects of history have an “inside.” In response to this dilemma, Barfield suggests that historians take a semantic approach to history.

For Barfield, the study of language on its own terms, as opposed to the methods of the natural sciences, gives a more complete picture of the inner workings and evolutionary pattern of man’s consciousness. Language is tied to consciousness because it is a verbal expression of an inner, immaterial experience. Changes and developments in language would indicate changes and development in consciousness. Earlier in Speaker’s Meaning, Barfield argues that the meaning of any word or phrase necessarily begins with speaker’s meaning—the idea/experience one person intends to communicate or express. Meaning itself stems from a person’s inner world of experience. Over time, speaker’s meaning contracts into a more stable lexical meaning—a fixed definition for a particular word or phrase which resulted from habitual use by a majority of people. Speaker’s meaning and lexical meaning, however, continue to interact—sometimes in conflict with one another—so that words not only contract in meaning but expand as well. For instance, words, when used figuratively, often acquire new meanings and revive older meanings.

The meanings of words, however, not only have an inner immaterial meaning but, like the study of historical events, also have an outer meaning. The process of contraction can help reveal the tension between these inner and outer meanings. On the one hand, a word like “heart” can signify passion, or the seat of human passions; and on the other hand, “heart” signifies a physical organ. As Barfield continues to trace the history of words, he argues that there was once a time when language consisted of a majority of words like “heart” in which inner and outer meanings were more difficult to divide. He uses, for example, the Greek word pneuma which can mean either spirit, breath, or wind. The Greeks used this word without making a distinction between these three concepts. In the third chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, John himself uses the word three times in the same passage (John 3:6-8). And in each case, the English translators had to use a different word to translate pneuma. For Saint John and his audience, the word itself is not metaphorical. John is not creating an image for his readers; he is speaking literally. Spirit, breath, and wind were one thing.

The semantic unity indicated by the word pneuma leads Barfield to argue that since language is intimately connected to the consciousness of man, our predecessors must have had a very different experience of the world. To support his claim, Barfield analyzes the evolution of aesthetic theory. Before the time of Plato, the ancient Greeks believed that the artist was at the mercy of the muses, and that inspiration for creative works of art only occurred when an artist was possessed by a spirit. Over the course of history, however, that view of passive inspiration evolved into the belief that an artist was in full control of his creative faculties. Barfield writes, “It is a transition from the being taken hold of by something, some force or being…to an active taking hold of something by the poet—a producing, an animating or reanimating of something within himself…” [Barfield’s emphasis] (84-85). The pattern of contraction illustrated in the development of language and in the evolving theories of art do not support the traditionally held view that man’s consciousness arose out of non-consciousness; instead, it suggests that man’s evolution is defined by a kind of contraction from a greater pan-consciousness. In Barfield’s view, language, art, history, and philosophy support the idea that mind precedes matter, not the other way around.

By the end of Speaker’s Meaning, Barfield reiterates two important conclusions for more serious consideration. The first is that by using the scientific method to inquire into the speakersnature of history, researchers inevitably impose an inappropriate set of assumptions on to their subject. It assumes that the raw data of history is akin to the raw data of science—impassive physical organisms—when in fact the subject of history concerns itself primarily with the inner world of the human experience, the thoughts and intentions that precipitate and guide actions. As Barfield describes it, the scientific method can only look onto history; it cannot look into history. And secondly, a more thorough study of language can allow researchers to take a semantic approach to history without the trappings of scientific methodology. Barfield, however, is aware of the dangers of what he is suggesting. His theories infringe on the “tabus” of the current cultural and intellectual climate of the 20th century which has digested the philosophy and methodology of the natural sciences beginning with Auguste Comte’s Positivism up through Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection (97). By tabus, he does not mean “impolite conversation/topics,” but the basic assumptions about the whole of the human experience that have worked their way into the subconscious unexamined. If for no other reason, a study of language and a semantic approach to history are important simply because, “the most fundamental assumptions of any age are those that are implicit in the meanings of its common words. In our time, these happen to be largely the assumptions of nineteenth-century positivism” (44). Speaker’s Meaning is an attempt not only to identify those assumptions but to examine them again for the first time.

Works Cited

Barfield, Owen. Speaker’s Meaning. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1984. Print.

The Vindication of Sadness: Pixar Wins Again

*Just a heads up: I’m writing this review with the assumption that you’ve already seen the movie. If you haven’t seen the movie, GO SEE IT. Otherwise, prepare for spoilers and summaries that don’t make sense without the context.

On Sunday, I walked into the movie theatre with a three year old, a nine year old, and a handful of adults to watch Pixar’s new film “Inside Out.” Ten minutes in to the movie we were all glued to the screen.

“Inside Out” is one of the most important movies I’ve seen this year. In true Pixar form, “Inside Out” is silly enough to entertain young children, sophisticated enough to interest adults, and profound enough to teach everyone something about what it means to be human.

One of the things I love about Pixar is their attention to detail. From colors, to set design, to plot structure, to each line of dialogue, everything is fixed with meaning and purpose. This is especially true in the appearance, personality, and character arc of Joy and Sadness.

Inside Riley’s head, we are introduced to five personified emotions who help operate Riley’s daily interactions and develop her personality. They all work in the “headquarters” (get it?). At the helm is Joy. She works tirelessly to ensure that every one of Riley’s childhood “core memories” are happy. Memories in this case are colored glass balls formed and stored after significant experiences in Riley’s life. For example, yellow is the color for Joy; so if the glass ball is yellow, then Riley has created a happy memory.

But Joy isn’t the only emotion that colors Riley’s memories. There are four others:

  1. Disgust—a broccoli-green pretty-girl who can sense “cool” and “gross” a mile away.
  2. Anger—a red, stout, fire-hydrant-like character who looks for any excuse to give someone a piece of his mind.
  3. Fear—a purple, gangly, bug-eyed character who has a running list of everything Riley should be scared of.
  4. Sadness—a blue, short, round character with glasses two sizes too big who tends to mope and drag everyone down with her sensitivity to all things sad.


Each emotion helps Riley interpret and respond to the world around her. In this case, they literally color Riley’s world.

Joy, however, is peculiar compared to the other emotions. As the fifth and dominant emotion, she has a bright yellow body topped with deep blue hair almost identical to the color of Sadness. She also seems ephemeral; every time the caJoymera zooms in on Joy, the edges of her character look pixelated and blurry, as if she’s about to float out of the frame and disappear.

On her own, Joy has a tendency to forget the other emotions. She can also be utilitarian (almost tyrannical) in the way she uses the other emotions for her own benefit. She is particularly mean to and forgetful of Sadness.

So it’s odd that Joy also bears the color of Sadness since Sadness is opposite to Joy in almost every way. She’s short, round, and solid; she moves slowly; and she can usually be found rolling around and crying on the ground because it helps her “slow down and obsess over the weight of life’s problems.” While it would’ve been nice to tell a story that proved pure and unadulterated joy to be the ideal human emotion, the film-makers at Pixar know that life isn’t that simple.

One of my favorite moments in the movie is the scene where Sadness comforts Bing Bong, Riley’s imaginary friend. It is Sadness’ moment of vindication. She’s no longer the dead weight Joy drags around in the maze of long-term memory but a character who can empower others. At this point in the story, Bing Bong has fallen into deep melancholy realizing that Riley will forget him, and as a result he stops leading Joy and Sadness back to the Train of Thought. After several failed attempts to cheer Bing Bong up, Joy is prepared to leave him behind. But Sadness draws close to comfort him.


In Sadness, Bing Bong finds a friend, someone who can empathize with his loss. After a good cry and a friendly hug, Bing Bong is inspired to help Joy and Sadness finish their journey to headquarters. It’s no accident that Joy cannot comfort Bing Bong since her cheeriness and desire to get back to headquarters blinds her to Bing Bong’s own personal needs.

In the same way, it’s also no accident that Joy looks like she’ll float away and Sadness has to be dragged around. Joy needs Sadness to keep her grounded, to remind her that sometimes sad things happen to people and to deny it or to sugar coat it only makes it worse. Similarly, Sadness needs Joy so she doesn’t wallow in life’s overwhelming problems.

The final scene of the movie ends with a new aesthetic for Riley’s headquarters. The memory balls are no longer of one color, but of two or three. The control panel is larger and every emotion has a particular station essential to the overall emotional health of Riley. Joy no longer tasks Sadness with reading the operation manuals in a faraway corner of Riley’s mind; they now work side by side.

final image

If nothing else, “Inside Out” has provided a new and rich metaphor for how we think about the complexity of being human. In particular, “Inside Out” reminds us that our joy and sadness have to be reconciled to each other. An emotionally healthy human being is one in whom each emotion is balanced with the others. Any other relationship is just childish.

Sequels and prequels could be made (and I hope will be made) that explore the relationship between all five emotions. I’m especially interested in exploring what the effects of bullying, media saturation, violence, romantic relationships, and friendships look like in this analogy (also, who doesn’t want to hit the puberty button to see what happens to Riley’s emotions?). Pixar hinted at such explorations at the end of the movie as we got a glimpse into other character’s minds. I hope they follow through.