Introversion as character?

Holy pop-psychology, Batman! Introverts are asserting themselves all over the place! At least, you might think so based on current media trending. There was that insightful and rather humorous  2003 article called “The Care and Feeding of Your Introvert” in The Atlantic magazine. More recently, Susan Cain has brought us the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. When popular culture embraces an idea, parodies and simplifications and misinterpretations spawn in the stream of cultural consciousness. Some of these are charming, such as Dr. Carmella’s Guide to Understanding the Introverted, with its hamster-ball analogy. Mostly, the chatter masks any actual usefulness of categorization. Categorization as a method of understanding has had its pros and cons going all the way back to that master of the process, Aristotle.

Batman is copyrighted by DC Comics

Batman is copyrighted by DC Comics

Recently, I’ve been participating in discussions, virtual and face-to-face, around the topic of introversion and extraversion as personality or character traits, and the value or lack of value of the categories as well as the definitions of these words. Popular culture, which perhaps ought to be called majority culture, as usual flattens and simplifies the concepts. “Introverts” are shy and quiet, “extraverts” are sociable and talkative.

Or not. The current psychological meaning of introvert is based on the work of Isabel Briggs Myers and her colleagues and means, broadly speaking, a person “predominantly concerned” with his or her interior thoughts or sensations and less concerned with “external things.” An extravert (sometimes confused with the non-psychological, more general term extrovert), by contrast–naturally–is more concerned with life’s “practical realities” and gains more gratification from what is outside the self.

A friend of mine recently blasted the Myers-Briggs type indicator assessment as being responsible for promoting stereotyped ideas of introverts and extraverts and claimed the assessment is worthless (she used an earthier term). I don’t agree that Myers-Briggs is worthless; like any assessment tool, however, it cannot provide anything more than a snapshot of a personality. It can provide useful insight when combined with careful observation, professional knowledge, and other methods of determining character and personality. Just because Myers-Briggs is probably the most-applied or most-trusted personality assessment tool in the world does not mean it is always accurate or can be interpreted by laypeople…or even by experts. Brief forms of the test online are just that: brief forms, less complex, and therefore–as human beings and the mind and consciousness and personality are exceedingly complex–considerably less reliable as to results.

Then there is the whole concept on which the test, and others like it, are based. Carl Jung posited the notion of two dichotomous pairs of cognitive functions operating in the human psyche, and the test is derived from his initial explorations concerning those dichotomies. Well, that works–if you are a dualist. Not all of us buy into the categorization program, and many skeptics suggest that the world is far more interesting than just pairing opposites can explain.

Yin-Yang

I love the idea of harmony the taoist symbol represents, but my sense of the universe’s fractal and relational saved-from-chaos-by-a-thread “reality” tells me things are not that simple. We simplify them to attempt understanding at the human level, but oversimplification leads to stereotypes and fallacies, outcasts and enemies. Introverts and extraverts can face off and talk about how different they are; but Jung and Myers would remind us that these “types” exist on a continuum, despite the dichotomous origin of the concepts. Some people test out right near the middle of the two; some are only partway between the extreme ends of their type. Furthermore, how one defines these terms makes a big difference in how the types are perceived…and people do change as we develop along our own continua.

My father was an early proponent of the Myers-Briggs assessment and has administered the test to me three times (when I was 17, about 26, and in my late 30s). As I matured, my introversion factor changed slightly. Of course, I could have told him that without the test! I had more time for daydreaming at 17, and fewer external responsibilities. By the time I was nearing 40, I had to deal with some significant external realities: my young children and all the practicalities of external life that child-raising entails. The other aspects the indicator assesses changed a bit less, but there was movement; human beings are not stone carvings, and even stone carvings wear down, break, and change.

My own definition of what it means to be an introvert is that I “recharge” best when I am alone or with another person who is quietly reading or walking or daydreaming alongside me. I do not like being lonely; loneliness can occur even when surrounded by society, however, and solitary hours aren’t necessarily accompanied by a sense of loneliness. After spending a day at work, talking with students and colleagues–activities I enjoy–I need to go up to my room and get out of my work clothes and unwind without immediately chatting about my day. Parties can be fun, but afterwards, I need to spend a little time by myself. Concerts and tourist-clogged beaches can overwhelm me, yet that doesn’t mean I find no joy in attending them. I just need to pad the experience with some quiet time before and afterwards. Some of my family members, though, feel drained when they are quiet for too long. They recharge by socializing, or by making and doing things (ah, those “practical realities”!).

I was considered shy as a child and adolescent, but few of my current friends would say that shyness is one of my most obvious characteristics. These things are matters of environment and perception, not merely of some implacable temperament. In fact, I have several friends who appear much “shyer” than I am but who are extraverts, because they feel a sense of increased energy after social interactions or going to concerts or cities, whereas I need to retire, book in hand, to my quiet chair for recuperation. Ask anyone who knows me and you’ll learn that I love to talk and can be quite gregarious. Sometimes. And after awhile, my need to transmit and receive sort of slows down. After that, I don’t need to have anyone attend to me, converse, or ask me if I need anything. I don’t need interaction anymore–I’m like a cellphone nestled in its charger.

Even a cellphone needs a few minutes when no one is talking. That doesn’t negate its role as a conduit for communication, does it? As any reader can tell from this blog, I am concerned with “interior” thoughts and sensations but speculate on and relate these thoughts to the wider world, which is also my main impetus for thinking these thoughts in the first place.

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Fragments

The web journal qarrtsiluni is running an issue on “fragments.” I feel a bit fragmented myself lately. Here are a few recent, fragmentary thoughts.

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I am reading Lewis Mumford’s tome The City in History and enjoying it for a number of reasons. One is Mumford’s ability to employ words such as “forfend” in a correct and even natural way. Another reason is the approach he takes to trying to reason through and tease out strains of pre-history that lead up to the establishment of cities world-wide, a kind of philosophical anthropology. Sixty years of subsequent archeological discovery and interpretation may alter his theories, or perhaps lean toward confirming them; I’m not enough of a scholar to know. I do, however, find his speculations appealing. One of his theories suggests that war developed along with hierarchical religion, kingship, and the city. It makes sense that militarization on any significant scale was not “invented” until there was population enough to support it and reasons (defend the king, the god, or the goods) to deploy a military body.

He does not say human beings are not inherently aggressive. He merely suggests that when we live in smaller, more isolated groups it is in our best interest to cooperate rather than to expend resources on warfare (soldiers, arms, defenses). Something to meditate upon in current times.

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Mumford was researching and writing this book in the late 1950s (publication date was 1961). Interesting to me, he cites Jung’s archetypes and theories–though not in a way that implies Mumford was in any way a Jungian–about the feminine and the masculine as regards the development of human social structures. Bachelard, writing at about the same time, also cites Jung when he discusses the poetic space. I think of Bachelard’s brief passage about how a bird creates its nest with its own body, its breast molding the shape of the container that is its temporary home, and how this correlates with Mumford’s observation that the tent, hut, or village dwelling–indeed, often the village itself (and later, the city)–tends toward a cup-shape; it is a container. The earliest communities of human beings needed to develop containers in order to improve their chances of survival: jugs, skins, gourds for water and covered bowls or jars for grain and seed storage. Once humans could last through times when game or gathered food was scarce, they could procreate more efficiently. Mumford defines irrigation ditches as containers, too, as “feminine” objects as per Jung.

The garden wall, the city wall contained the human community or the sustenance for the human community, especially once domesticated animals were added to our communities.

As for the masculine/phallic, Mumford’s examples are all the expected objects: tools and weapons and stele.

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The ancient Persian word that is the root for our “paradise” comes from the term for garden, specifically a walled garden. The Egyptian hieroglyph for “city” is a circle with “crossroads” inside it. A link to one of Notre Dame’s open course lecture pages has an illustration comparing this hieroglyph with other ancient representations of cities. (Notre Dame course on the geometry of buildings that demonstrates some of the universality of “containers” as Mumford observed: Geometry of Buildings.)

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Also, I wonder whether Jung’s archetype theories were still new enough in 1960 that it was kind of a trend to cite him in works like these two books. Jung does not seem to be as popular these days except among his devoted followers–a niche audience. Perhaps his ideas are now just accepted as given? Not all of his ideas, but the general understanding of archetypes, I mean. Or is he out of fashion? Or am I just missing the current books that base a significant understanding of human cultural development upon these aspects of his thinking?

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Man and His Symbols was an important book for me when I was a college freshman.

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I keep thinking of the places I find in the meadow where the deer bed down. They are round, cup-shaped, molded to the bodies of the deer. Containers, temporarily, for the warm animal that sleeps, that breathes.

Reveries toward childhood

My childhood was happy and full of isolation—bored, lonely, occasionally melancholy daydreams and reflections. Some readers will find contradiction in that opening sentence, but Gaston Bachelard would have understood. His chapter (in The Poetics of Reverie) on Childhood and Reverie resonates deeply with me.

The claims Bachelard makes for the crucial importance of childhood reverie are that the child, solitary, daydreaming, finds happiness as the “master” of his or her reveries and that poetry is the way adults can return to the deep daydreams of childhood in which humans are—briefly—free beings and fully receptive: “Poets convince us that all our childhood reveries are worth starting over again.”

He further claims that images “reveal the intimacy of the world” and that all poetic images are a kind of remembering. I suppose this particular claim for poetry puts Bachelard in the “deep image” arena of poetry—Rilke, for example, as filtered through the concepts of Carl Jung, whose influence appears everywhere in The Poetics of Reverie. I waver in my complete acceptance of this claim, though I can’t yet articulate why—because I do agree image can evoke, or even be part and parcel of, intimacy. It may not be the sole method of achieving the shock of recognition or the tug of familiarity among readers, however. I’d assert that Ammons, Menashe, even Ponsot (in her tiny poems in Springing) get there by other means.

What I love about Bachelard’s philosophy on childhood reveries is the idea of “reveries toward childhood.” Interesting phrase, and I wonder if the translator (Daniel Russell) struggled with it. To dream toward childhood denotes an intentional action, a moving forward in order to reach back, a paradox. He claims we can almost reach (regain) the child’s “astonishment of being,” our “world of the first time,” through reading poems. We daydream with the poem itself…not with the poet, who remains a distinct individual with his or her own being and past.

I’ve experienced this feeling, and now Bachelard has described it for me.

The philosopher was late in his life when he composed these reflections; this is his last book. As he explores the “uselessness” of childhood memories, the flashes of recall through sensory stimuli, he posits that reveries toward childhood nourish the person who is in “the second half of life.” Combining memory and reverie can restore us, he says; and to do so, we first beautify our pasts—even our tragic episodes are reconsidered, reconstructed, through the lens of distant memory. (Hence the opportunity for sentiment). I think he means that once we have dealt with vivid past traumas earlier in adulthood, older people are able to recall the amazement of having once been new to the world. Perhaps this is merely sentiment, but it is certainly a phenomenon that appears in many works of drama, fiction, even memoir.

Bachelard describes such experiences as “the strange synthesis of regret and consolation” and adds that “a beautiful poem makes us pardon a very ancient grief.” (I love that sentence.)

In this way—among other ways, I might add—poetry’s images help us believe in the world, revive “abolished” reveries in a fresh light; the poet’s images may not be our images at all, yet they work to move the reader toward childhood, by which I mean toward a seeing-afresh of human experience. I may be parting ways with Msr. Bachelard here, for he classifies these images as almost wholly archetypal, and I do not; nonetheless, I don’t think our differences negate his claims nor hurt my general agreement with his insights. The amazement that took off the top of Emily Dickinson’s head when she read a great poem, the astonishment of being that arrives via the poem, strikes me (and the pun is intended) as exactly like the Zen whisk: “Wake up!”

And what is a child but a being who is wholly awake to the world?

“When we are children, people show us so many things that we lose the profound sense of seeing, Bachelard says. Yes, like Whitman when he “heard the learnéd astronomer”… Whitman’s speaker—the child in him—ventures outside to see the stars. He does not need to be shown.

This is a long blog entry, I know. But if you’ve gotten this far, I hope you are eager to go read some poems now.

Wake up and dream!

Still daydreaming in adolescence…(Switzerland, 1974)

Re-reading & reverie

Writing a book is a hard job. One is always tempted to limit himself to dreaming it.

Above all, the great books remain psychologically alive. You are never finished reading them.

–Gaston Bachelard

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In The Poetics of Reverie, Bachelard writes of reveries on words, then moves to reveries on reveries themselves, which brings him to books. Books (philosophy, fiction, and poetry books in particular) are, for Bachelard, a kind of dream made real. Books are places to dawdle and to dream as one reads, places in which the reader can interact with imagination: the reader’s  imagination, not the author’s imagination. The author’s work, if it is great, tempts readers into reverie. For this reason, Bachelard says he likes to read his favorite books many times. Each reading produces new reverie.

The chapter in which he makes his case for literature as reverie is an odd one, less of a philosophical argument and more a blend of literature, psychology–particularly along Jungian themes, and sociology, with side trips into discussions of duality (more on the masculine and feminine), the physiology of sleep/dreaming, alchemy (more Jung!), Strindberg, Goethe, Nietzsche, Henri Bosco, and Balzac.

I prefer the chapters on either side of this one (on words and on childhood). But this section made me consider the books I have re-read in my lifetime, and the idea of dreaming with literature. And the lovely idea of books as “psychologically alive.” What a terrific observation!

When I was a child, I preferred reading the next book to re-reading a favorite, although there were a few books I read over, more than once in some cases. As I read my way through high school and college, my inclination toward novelty continued. Why spend time reading books I had already read? The dreaming-with the book aspect Bachelard describes did happen for me, but the reflection lasted only as long as my engagement with each text. I was not a “close reader,” and as a result it was easy to get wrapped up in the dream-world when I read fiction. Still, the dream was the book’s dream, not my own. Closer reading is what leads to reverie, I think: re-reading and reflecting.

It was poetry that taught me to read more closely, to re-read, to dream with the text, to find true reverie in the process of reading. Poetry has always felt psychologically alive to me, and I agree that one is never finished reading a great poem. Or a great book.

I find I must also concur with Bachelard that “one of the functions of reverie is to liberate us from the burdens of life.” Nothing like a daydream, or a great piece of literature or art, to free us–however temporarily–from the things that weigh us down.