Between Authenticity and Distraction: Sebastian Smee on the inner life

When I was in year eleven, my English Literature class studied To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Initially the length of the sentences, some of which are half a page long, came as a shock. On the surface not much happens, also a strange reading experience for a group of pimply students who had come to understand plot as a series of external events inducing an effect on the protagonist. Mr and Mrs Ramsay, their eight children and some guests including the aspiring painter Lily Briscoe rent a cottage by the beach, where they all grapple with the elusive nature of meaning and the ephemerality of being. Written in stream of consciousness from multiple characters’ perspectives, the structure and flow of the novel challenged the prevailing view of history as objective; a current of external events whose footprint was material. Towering over the characters both literally and figuratively is the lighthouse, a beacon of security in rough weather, and a guiding light in a dark night of the soul. The characters set off to reach the lighthouse, and their physical journey outward to it parallels their individual journeys inward to a place of greater understanding.

I grew to love this book, and Woolf’s work more broadly. There was something soothing in the way she drew connections between her characters’ inner states and the world around them. She acknowledged that we process events and observations on a profound level, and that the passage of time is experienced subjectively. The fluidity, ambiguity and bracketed interruptions that mark her style represent the interplay between our inner and outer worlds, and reveal the ways in which the material is superseded by memory. An experience can be fleeting, but its effect is felt, and can take on a life of its own, in one’s inner eye for long afterwards – perhaps a lifetime.

It is this inner life that concerns art critic Sebastian Smee in the latest Quarterly Essay. While the inner life is a concept that remains difficult to define and pin down, Smee is certain (and I agree with him) that we are losing our ability to both cultivate it and appreciate it. Smee argues that this is largely due to our willingness to give ourselves over to social media and other forms of technology which promise us connectivity, new relationships and entertainment. He asks whether we are adapting ourselves to fit this software and, consequently, reducing the depth of human connection and understanding that we bring to our existence. His fear, and the whole point of the essay, is that “as we live more and more of our lives online and attached to our phones, and as we are battered and buffeted by all the informational, corporate and political surges of contemporary life, this notion of an elusive but somehow sustaining inner self is eroding.”

I came across Woolf at a precipitous moment in history. It was 2006, a few years after Facebook was launched. Even then Facebook seemed to be more than a passing fad amongst teenagers; the “responsible adults,” namely parents and teachers, were also using it. Though the craze could partly be explained by its novelty, evidence was already there of the enduring clique it was to become. A few years later, one of my friends revealed he had missed a few weddings because the invitations were only sent out on Facebook. A colleague of my mother found out on Facebook that her grandfather in England had died because her cousin posted about it before anyone bothered to telephone the extended family in Australia. “Is nothing private anymore?” my mother wondered. But privacy is distinct from inner life. “Privacy,” writes Smee, “is linked to political freedom” and “refers to what you do and think away from the interested, potentially controlling eyes of others. Inner life is different. Next to it -and despite all we hear about privacy- privacy is a shallow concept.”

But what is the inner life? The idea of an inner self is an abstract concept. Both the experience of it and its definition are, like the lighthouse in Woolf’s novel, elusive. From the essay’s early pages, Smee grounds his exposition in art and literature, rather than science, arguing that our capacity for rich internality is infinitely more complex than corporations, armed with their algorithms, would have us believe. His description of the possible constituents of an inner life is profound and beautiful:

It has to do, I assume, with your age and personal history, with the ebb and flow of chemicals inside your brain, and with your body’s itches and aches. But also, I would say, with your apprehensions of beauty, your intimations of death, what is going on inside you when you are in love, or when your whole being is in turmoil.

Instead of turning to psychology and theories of consciousness and personality, Smee turns to writers and artists such as Chekhov and Lucian Freud. Chekhov is invoked as a unifying reference throughout the essay. Smee refers to his short story, “The Lady with the Dog,” about a man with two lives: “everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him… was hidden from other people” and “all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth…. All that was open.”

A key question invited by the premise of Smee’s essay is: if our capacity for nurturing and paying attention to our inner lives is eroding, when was its heyday? It is easy to romanticise the past and yearn for an imagined time when things were simpler. Smee acknowledges that the distinction between public and private selves is not a unique twenty-first century phenomenon. It makes me think of Oscar Wilde, whose complex position as both insider and outsider allowed him to write theatre that revealed his contemporaries’ public fashions and private fancies. I also think of Jane Austen, who cannily dissected her society’s performative selves, false friendships and mercenary hypocrisies. But surely in the historical moments in which Austen and Wilde were writing, there were times when they would have been genuinely alone. Death was never far away. Apart from social occasions, their connection to the outside world was through the postal service, which was limited by human or equine energy, the weather, and the quality of the roads. Austen lived her whole life without going abroad because of the war between England and France. So, presumably, alone at night with only the candlelight for company, people had to nurture their imaginations, and found it more difficult to be distracted from the contemplation of the human condition. Today, conversely, as we “stare at our screens all day” and “feel visibly bereft without our phones” it “gets harder… to be alone with ourselves or to pick up a book; harder still to stay with it.”

As Smee argues, the internet has allowed our deceptions and social performances to become entrenched on a new level. Cyber bullying and trolling demonstrate how easy it is to nurture the fictional selves that we create online without being forced to confront their lack of authenticity, or question our motivations and the integrity of our relationships. Children “are encouraged to present performative versions of themselves online… concocted from who knows what combination of software design, peer pressure and fantasy” which “appear to take on greater and greater substance in the formation of their characters.” Are we able to tell what is real and what is not? Smee argues that, on some level, we understand that we are being duped, but that surrendering to the ulterior version of reality that technology offers is part of the attraction. He remains bewildered by, though empathetic towards, our apparent “eagerness… to make ourselves smaller” by conforming to tech companies’ goals of capturing and commodifying our time and attention, thus perpetuating the reductive algorithms that such corporations derive from our data footprint.

An explanation for our inability, or unwillingness, to break with the virtual world is the missing link in Smee’s essay. While lamenting our behaviour, he does not analyse how it is shaped by the social conditions arising from late capitalism. Ultimately, this impacts on the strength of his suggestions for reconnecting with our inner selves. At the end of the essay, he contends that nurturing an inner life is about acknowledging our own mortality and paying attention to the things around us. In a theoretical sense, this is obviously, manifestly, true. But in a practical sense, it is an oversimplification. Something is stopping us, so what it is? Smee himself acknowledges in an earlier part of the essay that our awareness of our mortality is not enough to make us turn inwards. Rather, as he observes, anxiety about death sends us outwards, to:

disperse ourselves, by being as widely visible as possible. Social media, and the internet generally, make this feel possible, to an unprecedented degree. They allow us to lay before the world (in the hope that the world will be watching) the things we love, the things we hate, and a mediated image of our lives that can seem to rescue us from the threat of oblivion.

Though it may be born out of panic, this state of affairs is also the logical endpoint of consumerism. The acquisition of material objects is a distraction from oblivion. I shop, therefore I am. Similarly, dispersing oneself through the panopticon of the internet is about the accumulation of likes and followers, and the pursuit of the viral. It bears a resemblance to shopping, but we pay with our performances and in return receive attention that we take to be an affirmation of human connection, although (at least to start with) we know that what we are experiencing is not necessarily authentic. Our devices offer us a simulacrum of human connection.

Simulacra is a concept of simulation popularised by the French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard posited that, as the simulacrum develops, its relationship to reality changes. In the words of theorist Robin DeRosa, “first, it reflects reality; next it hides it; then it hides that it is hiding it; and finally, it replaces it so that the original is impossible to decipher.” In the consumer age, as we exhaust material options, we pursue simulacra. Industry and science acquiesce to our demands for the next big thing, producing ever-more inflated versions of the previous big thing. A simple but ubiquitous example is the development of artificial flavours. Prior to the 1960s, artificial flavours were not expected to completely replace naturally occurring flavours but today, most products on supermarket shelves contain them. We are surrounded by simulacra, but often take it for granted that they are the real deal.

Our preference for simulacra also underlies our relationships with the internet and our devices. Social media and applications emerged from the same consumer ideology that governs most, if not all, other areas of our lives. They nurture our expectation of instant gratification. We’re not easily extricable from these devices because the logic that holds us captive to them – the logic of capitalism- is so ubiquitous, we have come to believe there is no alternative. The hyper-connectivity that we are promised is a kind of pseudo-connection, a hollowed out version of our most intimate need that has been sold back to us. In short, our addiction to our smart phones and social media represents the quintessential triumph of the capitalist model.

It then falls to Smee to suggest a way out of the mire. As important as art is to Smee, he avoids the easy claim that art and literature are panaceas. Instead, he suggests that “[finding] ways to pay attention again to our solitude” and “daring to hope that we may connect that solitude to the solitude of others,” constitute the balm we so desperately need. Nevertheless, I would argue that connection is a basic function of art. When an artist creates art, they are seeking to expunge themselves of something that disrupts their internal equilibrium, and to put out into the world an object that embodies this strive for clarity and meaning. When I engage with art that that really moves me or gets me thinking, I feel connected, in a small way or a larger way, to the artist and my fellow gallery visitors who are also caught up in the moment. Fundamentally, art is a way to find a moment of peace, the memory of which can sustain us after it has receded.

Woolf understood this predicament. In the third and final section of To The Lighthouse, as Mr Ramsay and two of his surviving children embark on their journey, Lily Briscoe seeks to finish the painting she started ten years before. As she tries to realise her vision, she focuses on a space on her canvas, which draws her “out of gossip, out of living, out of community with people into the presence of this formidable ancient enemy of hers- this other thing, this truth, this reality.” But in a moment, her vision, sequestered in a hidden part of herself, bursts through, providing an impulse for the completion of her painting:

She looked at the steps; they were empty; she looked at her canvas; it was blurred. With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done, it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.


Works cited

Beaudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, 1981.

Robin De Rosa, “Preface” in Simulation in Media and Culture: believing the hype, 2011.

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, 1927.