Within and Without

Do you ever find pieces of insight come in clusters, like the universe or your subconscious mind are trying to teach you something? Perhaps not synchronicity exactly; more that you’ve picked up on an idea that resonates and then begin noticing it in other places.

I just finished reading Passages by Ann Quin. I found the style really interesting: it’s a story told from two POVs in alternating sections of narrative (a woman in search of her brother) and journal entries (her lover and travel partner in search of himself). But what I liked best about it was that the narrative sections were a mix of first and third person, often changing mid-paragraph. This probably sounds like confusing, bad writing, but it’s surprising how easy it is to accept when done in such a controlled way. It becomes a sort of dual view, seeing the character from internal and external perspectives at once. This is an attribute of her constant concern for how she appears to others – do they think she is mad? – and the way this cuts right into her stream of consciousness. A preoccupation with seeing and being seen. But it is also, I think, a way to distance herself from the events she is retelling: if they don’t quite fit with how she sees herself today, she tells it in third person as though it happened to someone else.

Another book I read recently, Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth, looks at the use of writing to process trauma, be that through journaling, fiction or memoir. The way it “looks out into the world and back at me at the same time” and seems to be “at once personal and critical.” A safe space to assess truth, feelings and subjectivity. An external tool to look upon ourselves afresh. A way to rationalise and hence distance ourselves from pain. Ashworth uses many methods of writing within the book, including different perspectives, chapter structures and time-dicing.

Thoughts around these books built upon my recent article on Orchid’s Lantern about the many ways we choose to write the self; in particular the use of third person in autofiction and idea that everything we write is a way of exploring our inner worlds at varying degrees of separation from them. It also got me revisiting the idea of simultaneously being the observer and the observed as a solution to conflict – a phenomenon I’ve experienced many times in dreams which, aside from offering therapeutic benefits, almost feels like a natural and longed for state of lucidity.

I remember a friend once told me the reason we’re all so obsessed with taking selfies is that they show our faces the way we see them in the mirror (reversed), as opposed to ordinary photos which show us the way other people see us. We prefer them to any other image of us because they feel truer to the inner idea of ‘me’.

Then yesterday I read an article called Know Thyself in The Paris Review (well worth a read, find it here). The discussion is around how much control we have over the way others see us, and whether the ‘real’ self is the one we believe we are or the one they perceive.

“The drama of self-knowledge is often presented as a war between subjective and objective, an eternal tension between the first person and the omniscient third.”

Again, I found echoes of this same idea. Two perspectives – the inner and the outer – coming together to create a whole, balanced view; moving between them a method of varying our focus on our relationship with time, reality and space.

Back to my original comment, then: although this was all purposeful reading on my part, I never set out to specifically find writings on POV-switching and the phenomena of self-analysis within vs without. Yet that is the aspect calling to me right now. It’s on my mind. I am to do something to explore multiple perspectives of self, and I will.

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