« Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point : on le sait en mille choses. » (“The heart has reasons which reason knows nothing of. We know it in a thousand things.”)
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Modern civilizations often pride themselves on rationality and spirit of free enterprise. These ideals, however, were thrown into doubt with the conclusion of the First World War. Blaming the deadly global conflict on, among other things, excessive rational thought and capitalist values, artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers voiced their protest through Dadaism, a cultural movement that embraced irrationality and disorder. Abstract artist Jean Arp, for instance, dropped paper shapes randomly on a background and glued them on the spots they landed on. Others drew up elaborate diagrams crammed full of gears, pistons, levers, pulleys and dials that explained nothing. Poets like Hugo Ball wrote sound poems (e.g. “gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori […]”) that rejected language conventions and showcased pure sounds possessing only their own primal meanings. To the Dadaists, they were merely replacing the “logical nonsense” prevailing in Western societies with “illogical nonsense,” engaging in antics no more absurd than the war.
The movement, nonetheless, was short-lived. Dadaists started to wonder if the fault with modern life lay with under-utilization of the mind rather than over-utilization of it. Onto the scene came surrealism, an arts and intellectual movement inspired by Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious mind. Freud claimed that humans experience certain automatic thoughts that have been so repressed they are not available to ordinary introspection. Surrealists theorized that by allowing these psychic phenomena to float to the surface we can tap on mental resources other than logic to expand the possibilities of life visible to us. To accomplish this, they immersed themselves in dream states, experimented with concepts not found in ordinary reality, and let ideas or impulses that occurred to them flow freely on the page and canvas. The term “Surrealism,” in fact, referred to the pursuit of a “superior reality” augmented by the unbridled imagination of the subliminal mind.
Mirror (by Yi Sang)
Inside the mirror, there is no sound
There is no world as quiet as this
Inside the mirror too are my ears
Two pathetic ears which do not understand my words
I am a left-hander inside the mirror
A left-hander who cannot receive my handshake……and does not know how to do a handshake
Because of this mirror, I cannot touch my mirror self
But if not for the mirror, how could I ever meet myself in the mirror?
I do not have a mirror on me now but my mirror self is always inside a mirror
I do not know for sure but he is probably preoccupied with some solitary project
My mirror self is the complete opposite of me yet so similar to me
I feel sorry for my inability to worry over and examine my other self in the mirror
The last two lines were recited by a prince, Yul, reflecting on his mother (a widowed and deposed crown princess)’s sinister plan to restore him as the next-in-line successor to the throne in Princess Hours, a romance drama set in an alternate, modern Korea ruled by a constitutional monarchy. Although mother and son shared a tight bond after spending many years in exile together, Prince Yul was himself uninterested in the throne at that time. While he did not voice any objection to the plan, he could not feel at ease with her dark ambitions either.
Yi Sang’s poem echoed the sense of loss Prince Yul felt as he compared his inner self with the self being shaped by maternal expectations. As with the poet’s defiance of modern Korean writing conventions through his omission of spaces between words, the mirror in the poem works in the opposite way to what is expected of mirrors. Instead of a faithful duplication of the visual appearance of the individual before it, the mirror casts away his physical shell to reveal his fragmented psyche.
On the other hand, it can be said that “Mirror” more properly reflects the limits of the type of self-scrutiny displayed in surrealism and the drama than the narrator’s true self. The poem seems to engage with not two but three mental selves: the conscious self, the unconscious self visible to the conscious self, and the unconscious self invisible to the conscious self. Although the narrator can observe a self the reverse of his apparent nature through the mirror, he cannot close the communication gap between them, as evident from the references to incapacity of hearing, shaking hands and touching. In the last line, he even notes that he is unable to take a careful, close-up view of his unconscious self and acquaint himself with the latter’s troubles. A significant part of the unconscious self thus lies outside his field of vision.
There are a few possible explanations for this gulf in knowledge. One is that the unconscious is, after all, being viewed through the lens of the conscious. What a person knows about himself can color his investigation of what he does not know about himself. Someone who firmly believes in his inferiority, for instance, may place more attention on signs of his inadequacies and neglect evidence of his strengths, even when both are present in the introspection outcomes. Another is that people can, at most, give up conscious control of themselves, but they can barely dismantle any unconscious defense mechanism suppressing their unconscious thoughts by themselves. Lastly, the interpretation of the unconscious (and, in fact, conscious) can be a very value-laden process. An individual may view her desire to help people in great danger as a sign of altruism, whereas someone more cynical may regard it as a self-serving wish to prove his moral worth or a superficial obsession with acts of bravado. Such self-judgments may also involve assumptions of dubious validity, as when a person thinks that his interest in buying pets and releasing them in the wild illustrates his kindness, or when somebody treats his fondness for teasing acquaintances as indication of his affability without knowing that it has driven a past contact to suicide.
Breaking through these limits may require that introspection be aided by, surprisingly, extrospection. Conversation with individuals with different personalities and/or backgrounds can enable one to see himself from an alternate perspective. Consultation with psychotherapists may be a better bet for dismantling unconscious defenses. Careful tracing of the long-term consequences of our actions, meanwhile, may help us understand whether we actually display certain traits or merely intend to display them. These do not suggest that solitary reflection is inherently of little worth and that we can only be at the mercy of the (possibly ill-informed) judgment of others and unpredictable events. Rather, introspection and extrospection should each be applied judiciously and complement each other.
These pitfalls of and remedies to navel-gazing may hold lessons for political ideologies. A more desirable socio-political model to the partisanship and radicalism characterizing much of global politics now and then may be a culture of open-mindedness, wherein different political factions and schools of thought learn from each other’s merits and mistakes rather than throw the baby out with the bath water. Also vital, perhaps, is the need to moderate ideological zeal with empiricism. Whichever side of any political divide we stand on, it may be wiser to regard our own policy opinions with some healthy degree of skepticism until they are backed by long-term evidence. This may imply that before policy outcomes, which may take decades to fully manifest, are clear, supporters and dissidents alike should exercise restraint in the types of harm they inflict to achieve political objectives.
Both the mysterious workings of the heart and the mysterious workings of the human universe call for circumspection and temperance.