It’s a pity in a way that The Spectator magazine doesn’t focus exclusively on culture. As it is, the columns that muse so brilliantly on art or life, or the well-informed book reviews, are missed by those who are turned off by the political stuff: Brexit speculation, who’s vying to be the next Labour Party leader and so on and so forth.
Matthew Parris writes one such column. In the Christmas issue he used it to reflect on how long it has taken him to get to know himself (he is 67) – to know that other Matthew in his mind, the Matthew who offers wise advice.
In giving an example of this advice, he draws on an experience in Peru while researching a travel book.
In short, he nearly turned down a lift in a lorry, worried about enduring the highly uncomfortable, crowded conditions for three days. But his inner voice dispassionately told him that he would regret giving up the opportunity.
He stresses that this voice was, and is, neither judgmental nor exhortatory. It ‘simply forecasts’. He took heed of the forecast in Peru and decided to get in the lorry.
The result? “That journey, and the peasants, prostitutes and chancers who became my comrades, formed the centrepiece and best chapters of Inca-Kola, still in print today”.
Now, I have read some philosophy. I have read arguments about the question of consciousness, I have worn out my braincells trying to understand explanations of the so-called ‘problem’ of knowledge. Yet Parris’ little insight is crystal clear, and punches well above its weight.
Yes, I’ve always known about good conscience, bad conscience – the angel on one shoulder, the devil on the other. But Parris is talking about something different, about that voice inside us that is our ‘companion and adviser’. It is the self whom we never know completely but get closer to as our youth shuffles off (that’s why the column’s heading is ‘The one thing that really gets better with age’).
I may be Jasper, but have I always trusted the voice of that inner Jasper, telling me what I should be doing? I certainly didn’t in my twenties. I did things that are not really ‘me’, because I was trying to be something I thought I was but was not, too readily allowing society or external forces push me into doing these things.
It’s not quite about listening to my instinct. Rather, about listening to that inner wisdom and reasoning I sometimes choose to ignore.
People constantly say, ‘This sort of music isn’t really my thing’, or ‘I don’t know what I want’, or ‘I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep my cool’. Our everyday utterances point to the truth that even as mature adults we are still getting to know ourselves.
A final point. Not knowing yourself, not trusting yourself, not able to be yourself (which is hard, when you don’t yet know yourself) – it all sounds like the sources of anxiety that the existentialists identified. If this disturbance fades with age, then that’s one consolation for grey hair and stiff limbs.