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Two kinds of introspection
Cy Twombly’s studio
On June 19, the singer Nick Cave published a letter sent to him by Kellie, a woman from Norwich, England, who presented herself by saying she didn’t know who she was. Her father, she wrote, had been a difficult man, his heart “sad and angry at what had happened to him in his own childhood.” Being forced into the role of her mother’s protector, Kellie felt she had never developed properly as an adult. She was a chronic people pleaser. But inside she felt that, perhaps, like Cave, and like her father, she was an artist. But not knowing who she was, she felt blocked and unable to create. “I guess I’m asking how I can find my own identity.”
The letter is part of a series that Cave has answered in public over the last five years, in a turn toward communion and conversation which has marked the singer's life since the death of his son in 2015. Answering Kellie, Cave opens by saying, “You don’t need to know who you are to become an artist. Art molds us into the shape it wants us to be and the thing that serves it best.”
The self is not something you can set out looking for; it reveals itself gradually through the choices you make.
We must cease to concern ourselves with our unique suffering – whether we are happy or sad, fortunate or unfortunate, good or bad – and give up our neurotic and debilitating journeys of self-discovery. Art of true value requires, like a jealous and possessive god, nothing less than our complete obedience. It insists that we retract our ego, our sense of self, the cosmetics of identity and let it do its thing.
The way Cave frames it, introspection stands in the way of art. To make art, you need to lose yourself; you need to become a receiver of whatever art wants to communicate. If you spend too much time with a therapist, for instance, building up a complex model of who you are, that model is going to limit what you allow yourself to do.
I find it liberating to be permitted to not know myself. But to me, framing that as a case against introspection, against developing a sense of the shape of your self, doesn’t feel exact. It is more a case against a certain kind of introspection and in favor of another.
When Cave sits down each day from 9 to 5:30 pm—he’s a punctual man—hammering out lyrics, listening for the “supreme spiritual potential that only comes into its true and full being if we abandon all those cherished ideas about who we think we are or are not”, he pretends to be battling with the muses. This is the game he plays with himself. But there are no muses. The voice he hears at his typewriter when he listens carefully and blocks out the opinions of others is the voice of Nick Cave pretending to be the possessive god of art.
He is introspecting, but he’s not introspecting by meditating on his existence or talking to a therapist (though maybe he should); he’s introspecting by acting on the world. He’s introspecting by doing stuff and then observing how it makes him feel—as if he was running a million small experiments trying to figure out the composition of this object that is Nick Cave. He is ascribing the feelings he is hearing to the muses, and that might be a good way to think about it as an artist, but the feelings are his. When the muses tell him to lean into a song, to expand it, it is his taste and experience talking.
This kind of introspection is wholly different from the kind that seems to paralyze Kellie. Kellie is introspecting passively, trying to find some essence in herself (“my identity”). She wants to know who she is, at her core, independent of any concrete decision she’s making.
Another way to make a distinction between them is to say that Cave is trying to figure out what his voice is trying to say right here, right now, while Kellie wants to hear her voice tell her what is true about her across time.
But they are both introspecting in the sense that they want to know what a voice inside them says if they block out the expectations of broken fathers, society, or the audience.
I’m not sure how useful this distinction is, nor how well it matches what Cave and Kellie have in mind. But it does resonate with my experiences—I get anxious and confused when I meditate on myself, and I discover myself in my work.
Why might it be that it is more productive for me to introspect by doing things, rather than by peering into my head more directly?
One reason is that doing things gives me more data to analyze. If you want to understand who you are or could become, it is helpful to learn more things and be active: improve your craft, put yourself in new situations, push yourself. How else are you going to have a sample of reactions to study? Kellie thinks that she might be an artist, but unless she has worked for hours trying to get something out of herself, she doesn’t know how she’ll react to that stimuli; most hate it. And if her craft is limited and her taste underdeveloped, she won’t be able to notice possibilities. Maybe she is a great painter of frescoes, but unless she learns how to mix lime plaster and apply color to it and steer the way the color floats, she can’t know. Getting out into the world will teach you a lot about yourself, and it will give you skills and mental models that allow you to better perceive options that might be right for you.
Besides, introspection of the kind that Kellie seems to be doing is often asking for too much (“I guess I’m asking how I can find my own identity”), which can give you a sort of all-directional vertigo and make you blocked. Cave, despite his apparent excess as a person, is more modest than Kellie here. He is asking not who he is, but, in a roundabout way, who am I in relation to this song, this book, this tour? (Is there potential in this song? How can I open it up? What does it want?) Those questions are hard, but not as hard as “Who am I”, and can often be solved in a few hours at the desk.
Any situation where you act is a possibility for active introspection. You can approach conversations like this; work; books you read; streets you walk. Do I want to keep talking to this person? If so, what do I sense might be the most interesting topic we could approach? And the work I’m doing, is there some way I could use what I know about myself and the world to do it better? Does it even need to be done?
Introspection through doing has its limitations.
I often feel like I’m accumulating insight when I’m doing, but it doesn’t translate into changes in my action and perception unless I take a pause from doing. When acting on the world, I am like a dam filling with potential energy, but it is only in silence and stillness the dam can open up, and the insights I have accumulated can transform into kinetic energy, washing me away to more interesting regions. I had this experience last December when after a year of intense work and change, I fell ill and had to spend three weeks in bed. Through all of the change I experienced in 2022, I had somehow remained the unchanged Henrik, but then, when I got out of bed after three weeks right before New Year's Eve, I was someone new. And the first thing I wrote during those dying days of the year—Looking for Alice—accessed something real and powerful inside me in a way that nothing I had written before had. (It should be noted, that I wasn’t doing passive introspection to reach that place either; I wasn’t thinking about who I was or where I wanted to go; I just had fever dreams.)
I used to be quite confused and frustrated and unbalanced in my work. That shifted when I learned to use some techniques from internal family systems therapy, which helped me integrate the warring needs and emotions in me. Without that kind of introspection, which I suspect that Cave would find debilitating, I suspect that I, like Cave, could work my life to pieces.
Those caveats aside, I find it liberating to remind myself that it is perfectly ok to not know who I am or where I am going. Knowing yourself is not a prerequisite for a good life. I just need to take one step in the most promising direction, and then another—submitting to the jealous and possessive god of my life.