There is a place,
Where I can go,
When I feel low,
When I feel blue.
And it's my mind,
And there's no time when I'm alone.
Where I can go,
When I feel low,
When I feel blue.
And it's my mind,
And there's no time when I'm alone.
– The Beatles, ‘There’s a Place’
Jean Paul Sartre begins the essay ‘Being and Nothingness’ writing that philosophy has discarded many of the dualisms that inhibited its progress in past eras. Among these outmoded dualisms, is the belief that every human existent consists of both an interior and exterior which sit in opposition to each other. The interior is typically understood to be a privileged space, the realm of essential identity, substance and being. By contrast, the exterior is nothing but appearance and delusion; it is the realm of the senses, a world of dazzling colors and phantasmal shapes which taunt the viewer, underscoring the frailty of human perception. But as Sartre explains, “The appearances which manifest the existent are neither interior nor exterior; they are all equal, they all refer to other appearances, and none of them is privileged” (p. 3). Thus he goes on to conclude that “The obvious conclusion is that the dualism of being and appearance is no longer entitled to any legal status within philosophy” (p. 4).
While it is probably safe to say that few people today would dispute the soundness of Sartre’s conclusion, the full implications of this simple observation – namely, the unity of the existent or, more broadly, phenomena – have yet to be assimilated. This is only to be expected. After all, one of the basic tenets of existentialist thought is the idea that the introduction of every human to earth is, in its own small way, a revolution. For every new person – for that is what they are, a new person – is suddenly tasked with (re)inventing humanity. Every generation must start from scratch, learning, inventing or perverting humanity all over again.
Thus, for every person the heliocentric revolution might just as well have occurred during freshman science class, and the polemics of Socrates first argued in the middle of sophomore literature. In short, if there are still many people who still believe their “true” self to be unknowable to all but themselves, residing in some nebulous interior space, this should not be all that surprising. Again, the merits of this Cartesian dualism, the opposition of the interior to the exterior, are likely to be debated as long as there are humans plodding the earth. At the very least, learning about this dualism will always be a small revolution for each new person, the introduction of – for them – a new problem, footnote or solution.
Yet there are more persistent causes that compel people to organize their worldview spatially into interior and exterior realms than simple intellectual confusion. By severing one’s world into two realms – one public and partial, the other private and complete – the human existent erects a defensive mental terrain that protects them from the pressures of reality. It is a self-defense measure, though perhaps not in the traditional sense of the phrase. Within the familiar redoubt of one’s interior space, the pressures and criticisms of the exterior world are easily repulsed. The towers of the interior are impenetrable, its walls made of a material too foreign to grasp, its heights too lofty to scale. Carving out an interior space accords its occupant a position of power and privilege, for only they get to occupy it; indeed, only they are capable of occupying it.
In contrast, the exterior is like some strange frontier, foreign and dangerous. The interior realm can hover over the exterior’s lonely plains or cast its gaze upon its sun-baked hills, but their borders are never wholly transgressed; they are like oil and water. Indeed, the fact that the human existent can occupy both the interior world and the exterior at the same time illustrates their enduring polarity. The existence of one is confirmed by the other, just as a great hero demands a nemesis, the depths of whose perversity mirrors the great magnitude of their righteousness. Considerable psychic tension is generated when the two confront one another, confirming the existence of both and compelling the existent to withdraw to the interior. An awareness of their mastery of the interior helps dull a sense of helplessness that is now and then piqued by the knowledge of their impotence out in the dangerous exterior. But this inability to master the exterior does not phase the existent – at least, that is what they tell themselves – since all that is true and worth knowing ultimately lies within the interior, their interior. What good, after all, is it to entertain falsehood, to be courted by lies?
The interior-exterior dualism consequently embodies as much of a human propensity for self-understanding as it does a purely intellectual theorem. Cast into the world, naked and bloody, the human existent is confronted by the startling fact of their existence. What makes their existence alarming is not the fact of life itself, but the peculiar relation of the individual to the imposing world in which they find themselves thrown. It is a world of marvelous complexity and beauty, as well as tragedy and conflict. But in all its contours and cataclysms, this world is frustrating for the human existent, for even its grandeur seems to remind the existent of their unfolding mortality, impotence and general inability to master this ever-expanding world.
By carving out an interior space, however, they score a subtle but important victory. First, by establishing the fiction of an interior space they create a realm that is inaccessible to others but one in which they know everything. It is outside the control and knowledge of the threatening exterior, yet completely within their mastery and realm of comprehension. And by investing their own personhood and identity within this cloistered world they implicitly take themselves out of the exterior one. In doing so, they gain control of their lives – or, at least, the feeling of control.
The idea of an interior world is perhaps most used when people are experiencing relational problems. How often have we heard the phrases “he/she does not understand me,” or “they just don’t get me.” If asked what is wrong, these sorry sops may even snap back that “you wouldn’t understand.” Read through the teeth, the insinuation is not so much that we would not understand their problems if told, as it is the assertion that we cannot understand their position; this is supposedly a psychic impossibility since the rest of us are not privy to their inaccessible interior. This worldview is, however, deeply problematic: it does not so much help the individual understand the world, as give them an excuse to give up trying to do so; and it does not empower the individual to confront their problems in the real world, but rather, provides them a fictive refuge to escape from this world, even as this interior world is inescapably a part of the real one. And lastly, it shifts the blame for their problems upon others, and this by default. There would not be a problem, we are told, if they understood. But they cannot, so there is no point in trying to reach a solution. Just as the interior never resolves itself to the existence of the exterior, the individual never resolves themselves to the existence of their fellow humanity. For it is just in these people, these others, that the enduring legacy of the exterior finds its most permanent expression.
Upon reflection, however, one realizes that there is a great deal about humans that are best appreciated by others. One’s mannerisms, temperament and silly passions are most keenly felt by those who supposedly regard only the exterior. A great friend, for instance, may be able to put into words the pain that their friend is experiencing even before this friend is able to articulate this suffering in their own words. What’s more, a parent will likely comprehend the trials and significance of school life better than their struggling student. “You don’t know what it’s like to be a high-schooler!” rebuts the teenage daughter, in all her alienated ardor. Struggling to hide a smile, the parent will know precisely what it is like to be a teenager attempting to negotiate peer groups, brave tests and overcome growing pains. At one time, they were the teenager. Even the endeavor of creating an interior identity and the motives that underlie it are shared experiences. It is highly unlikely that this dualism would be a general philosophical problem if others did not indulge in its creation and for similar reasons.
What ultimately makes the experience of others accessible is the fact that we are all human, and secondly, the fact that being human means being cast into a shared world – the same problem-riddled turf occupied by the rest of humanity. Each social experience is a shared experience. To entertain the pretense that others cannot understand it is ridiculous; by its very terms a social experience requires that others partake in it as well. But why then do people retreat to a fictive interior, especially when confronted by, to the contrary, a knowing other? To be known is to be vulnerable, to transcend the narrow bounds of one’s self, and acknowledge our interdependence as human existents. Yet it is only by committing this act of surrender, the dissolution of the interior, that one is fully enlivened. In other words, to be alive one must not only know but be known, that is, understood and accepted by the other. What good is an identity if there is no one to identify with?
In Christian philosophy, for example, this entails the admission of one’s sin and dependence on God; it is to reciprocate God’s love for the world back to God. A Christian’s identity then, comes not from attempts to garner respect, the pursuit of great deeds, or the accumulation of knowledge, but rather, from being known and loved by God. So Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 8:2-3 that “The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.” Put another way, the quest for intellectual mastery is an admission of insecurity. It is a frenzied attempt to create a new identity for one’s self rather than accept the identity that God already has for them – an identity that is based upon being known and loved by God, not temporal endeavors.
To follow God consequently means that one must admit their essential weakness, something that is very upsetting to those who have spent their lives attempting to find transcendence by means of their own devices, within their own interior space. Yet, within Christian philosophy, to be known by God is profoundly empowering: freed from ill-fated attempts to immortalize themselves – that is, to transcend their immanence by means of their own power – the disciple is empowered to look outwards and engage the “exterior,” the real world in which they reside. Or in the words of C.S. Lewis, their lives are buoyed with the knowledge that “eternity is now,” freed to live within the present rather than be enslaved to the demons of the past or fears of the future.
What does this all mean? The distinction between the interior and exterior betrays something deeper about humanity’s existential condition than mere intellectual confusion. Broadly interpreted, it signals an attempt to escape from the disorder and tension of every day, to make sense of the world by rearranging it spatially into realms which can be more easily controlled – or, more accurately, ones that we can more easily convince ourselves we control. Yet walls keep out just as much as they keep in. Friends are shirked, loved ones are rejected and knowledge is ignored through use of these manmade barriers. In this quest to know and be known we are then left with several uncomfortable questions. What are we trying to keep out? What are we trying to hide?
We must learn that “there is a place,” as John and Paul sing, where we can go when we feel “low” or “blue.” Yet it is not a place apart from the world of our problems but one planted firmly in it. It is the present, a place book-ended by the pillars of past and present, and grounded in the revelation that indeed eternity is now.