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Our Inner Poet

Why we know so little about the inner lives of others.

Key points

  • We all carry a narrator who sees aspects of life invisible to ordinary perception.
  • The inner poet is better than the dream-narrator in that he or she is a clearer communicator.
  • A mature person is not someone who gives up on poetic ideals but someone who wants ideals without illusions.

Suppose you saw a person whipping himself mercilessly. What would you think? Is he a masochist? Going insane? Or is he, perhaps, forced to act as he does by a punisher with a twisted sense of justice?

You could not tell simply by looking. You would have to know the significance that the man’s actions have for him. Perhaps, he is a deeply religious person in a state of exultation. If so, the physical pain may be experienced by him as sublime and a route to the divine.

Woman looking up.
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

It is this ability we possess to endow both objects and our own actions with significance, with meaning that cannot be gauged from the outside, that I wish to call our “inner poet.” We all carry a narrator who sees aspects of life invisible to ordinary perception.

The Dreamer and the Inner Poet

Nietzsche suggests, by contrast, that we use up too much of our poetic energy in dreams to have any left for waking life. He says that dreams:

[C]ircumscribe our experiences or expectations or situations with such poetic boldness and decisiveness that in the morning we are always amazed at ourselves when we remember our dreams. We use up too much artistry in our dreams—and therefore, often are impoverished during the day.1

It is certainly true that dreams are generally suffused with meaning in a way waking life is not. There is almost nothing in dreams that's experienced as ordinary. The world created by the dreamer is like an enchanted forest in which everything is momentous.

But waking life is not, therefore, deprived of poetic boldness. In fact, the inner poet is better than the dream-narrator in one important respect: he or she is a clearer communicator. While in a dream, every element appears to have special significance, we are never quite certain what the meaning is. We feel as though we’ve been given an insight, but the insight remains elusive, and we are not even certain there is one.

The inner poet in waking life, unlike the dream-narrator, cannot infuse the entire world around us with special significance—some objects and events remain stubbornly ordinary—but the meaning is clearer.

Child, Adolescent, Adult

While Nietzsche, as we saw, compares the ability I have in mind to those of our dream-narrator and finds the former lacking, William James compares it to the poetic leaps of the very young. In an essay called “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” James writes:

It is said that a poet has died young in the breast of the most stolid. It may be contended rather that a (somewhat minor) bard in almost every case survives, and is the spice of life to his possessor.2

James is right that a minor bard survives in the breast of everyone, but is it true that a better poet dies?

I would argue that it is not. It is true that the ability I have in mind is very pronounced in children. Consider children who engage in make-believe in the course of play, and a broomstick becomes a knight’s sword while a straw wreath becomes a crown. No one usually teaches the very young to do these things. Children’s own budding inner poet seeks expression and finds it in imaginative pretense. Moreover, this poet is powerful and can transform just about everything into anything.

But the child’s poetic vision generally comes to an end when the play stops. Then the ordinary objects lose their special significance and become everyday things once again. The child's poet is, in one sense, powerful, but in another — weak, since all he or she can create are fantasies.

Children, of course, have the consolation that one day, they will grow up and do things of real significance. Adults have no such prospect to look forward to, so imaginative play is insufficient. Not surprisingly, for the self-flagellator, the ritual is not play, and its significance is not lost at dinner time. He is a religious man, not fantasizing about being one. An adult's inner poet cannot transform anything into everything, because the transformations have to be more than fantasies, and it is only in imagination that unbounded change is possible.

It can, perhaps, be argued that our poetic powers peak in adolescence and early adulthood when we no longer engage in imaginative pretense and make-believe in the way children do; we then undertake projects we believe to have real significance yet with the devotion and wholeheartedness of a child. That poet, perhaps—the adolescent's—may be said to be dead in an adult. This may explain why it is easier for young people to risk their lives for a cause or to undergo periods of extreme deprivation in the service of an ideal.

I think, however, that in fact, the adolescent's poet gets transformed into someone less inspired but more firmly committed to finding true significance rather than imagining it. A mature person is not someone who gives up on poetic ideals but someone who wants ideals without illusions.

The Impostor and the Absurd Man

There is no guarantee that we can always “spice” our lives, of course. The special significance of events, people, and ways of life may be lost to us. If the self-flagellator I began with loses his faith, he may come to see his prior religious fervor as self-deception. If he reveals this disillusionment to no one and continues going through the motions, he may come to feel as an impostor. (The opposite is possible too: a person may begin as an impostor but, gradually, become what he pretends to be.)

To lose not this or that ideal but our very capacity to endow life with meaning is to become what Albert Camus called the “absurd man.” The absurd man still has a need for meaning but sees the universe as incapable of satisfying that need. He believes that accepting the conflict between our longing for meaning and the world's silence is the only honest stance.

This attitude can be resisted. This brings me to my last point. In the essay I quoted from earlier, William James suggests that our lack of access to the inner lives of others, to the meaning they perceive, to their raptures and sorrows, limits greatly our view of them. It may even seem to us that only we have an inner poet while the lives of everyone else are plain ordinary. That is what James calls a “certain blindness” in human beings.

That seems right. What I would like to add here is that a certain kind of existentialist philosopher suggests not that no one has an inner poet but that no one's poet is capable of creating anything other than illusions. There is no meaning to be had, that philosopher argues, and accepting this is the only honest attitude. To suppose we have the power to breathe meaning into a meaningless universe is to fancy we can escape the human condition.

Maybe so. But it may also be that an escape is in fact possible. Success is never guaranteed, of course. We may not soar to the heights or get the rapture we hoped for, and even if we do, what we once perceived as deeply meaningful may come later to seem mundane. We may become disillusioned or impostors or both. Yet it would not follow from the mental block of our inner poet or even from his or her death that everyone else’s inner poet is but a liar and a coward who refuses to confront reality. It is the emotional anesthesia of the absurd man which makes the world around him seem meaningless. To assert that life must be meaningless for everyone independently of their state is to crown the blindness we have regarding each other’s minds and call it “candor” and "courage."

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[1] Nietzsche, F. (1989). On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo. New York, NY: Vintage Books., pp. 182-3.

[2] James, W. (2013). The Writings of William James, Kindle Edition. Random House, p. 1116.

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