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A Contemplation of Chattering Minds

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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On Friday I read a post by novelist and essayist Tim Parks on the New York Review of Books blog. Parks argues that the most memorable character in novels of the twentieth century is “the chattering mind, which usually means the mind that can’t make up its mind, the mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry.”

Although I enjoyed Parks’s post overall, I take issue with aspects of his analysis. Twentieth century novels certainly feature many chattering minds—minds that converse with themselves page after page in a mixed language of traditional narration and interior monologue. But what is the basis for Parks’s notion that such minds are chronically constipated, prevented from action by indecision? Parks points to the narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground (first published in 1864), whom he says is “prone to qualification, self-contradiction, interminable complication.” That may be true, but Dostoyevsky’s bitter narrator is not representative of the diverse minds that appear in all novels published between 1900 and 2000. More importantly, qualification and self-contradiction—which feature in any human mind—are not barriers to action, progress or change. Parks would have us believe that twentieth century literature is populated by minds that are always thinking, but never doing, never getting anywhere—minds that whir in angry circles, like a toy race car flipped on its side. But thought is action.

As Clarissa Dalloway hurries about the streets of London, buying flowers and decorations for her party, her mind flies from carriages and motorcars to memories of past romance to thoughts of death and back to a roll of tweed in a shop on Bond Street. Just about every sentence we read is filtered through Clarissa’s mind or one of the other minds in the novel. Woolf rarely describes the world in objective third person, deliberately shifting the focus of her fiction away from external reality toward thought, memory and consciousness. She is interested in what happens inside people’s heads and she knows that so much more can happen in a single moment of mental time than in a moment of linear narrative. Clarissa’s mind is not postponing action of any kind—it continually bustles.

Parks further insists that minds in twentieth century novels demonstrate “monstrously heightened consciousness” and that they are so indecisive and indeterminate precisely because of this “excess of intellectual activity.” Excess? Yes, twentieth century novels boast many brilliant and hyperactive minds. But the novelists most seriously committed to depicting the mind in language did not fixate exclusively on geniuses or madmen or otherwise extraordinary minds. Leopold Bloom does not possess a surplus of intellect. Nor does Mrs. Dalloway. Faulkner inhabits minds of varying intellect, tempo and perspicacity. All these novelists celebrate the complexity of everyday thought—they wanted to portray universal aspects of mental life. If the minds they create seem unusually lively, like pots of soup threatening to bubble over, it is because these novelists recognize and revel in the glorious energy of any human mind and because they lend their own mental fervor to the thoughts of others.

Despite all this supposed excess intellect—or perhaps because of it—the mind remains vulnerable, Parks argues. “Virginia Woolf sounds darker notes,” he writes, “warning us that the mind risks being submerged by the urgent blather of modern life.” This interpretation struck me as particularly odd. “The urgent blather of modern life” is surely a phrase Woolf would have detested. She craved London’s energy, even if she recognized its dangers. The minds in her novels do not drown in their own prattle, nor are they overpowered by the frenzy of modern life—rather, they rejoice in it. Consider these passages from Mrs. Dalloway:

“Such fools we all are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh…In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.” (P. 4)

“She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. So that to know her, or any one, one must seek out the people who completed them; even the places. Odd affinities she had with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the street, some man behind a counter – even trees, or barns. It ended in a transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to believe, or say that she believed (for all her scepticism), that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places after death (P. 153)

Woolf is not sounding dark notes; she is not warning us to protect our precious minds from modern life. Rather, she reveals how the mind invents the world it sees—”creating it every moment afresh”—and how each individual mind, though it may seem an autonomous entity, is in fact inextricable from the world around it, from the minds of others, even from trees and barns. Shared memories emanate from the many minds in Mrs. Dalloway, merging with one another like overlapping ripples on the surface of a pond. Wherever they intersect, they form an invisible web, which is itself enmeshed with the city of London. It is this interconnectedness, this net into which we are woven, that “spreads wide” and saves us from complete annihilation in the end.

If we believe Parks, then Woolf and other twentieth century novelists only invented stream of consciousness “to allow the pain of a mind whose chatter is out of control to be transformed into a strange new beauty, which then encompasses the one action available to the stalled self: suicide.” What a bold and restrictive proclamation about one of the most versatile innovations in literature. In her essays and diaries, Woolf articulated her motivations for trying a new kind of novel—a novel that did not preoccupy itself with verbose descriptions of the physical, but rather with psychological realism. She wanted to remake a living mind in language. Again, Woolf, Joyce, Proust Faulkner and others did not fixate on minds whose chatter was out of control—they invented a new way of writing about the mind, a style that revealed just how wonderfully chaotic, seemingly purposeless and cantankerous an ordinary mind could be. The beauty of their novels is not strange; it is intimately familiar—the same voices we all hear in our heads every day, albeit more eloquent than we have ever known them.

In Parks’s view, a chattering mind is a suffering mind: “Our twentieth century author is simply not interested in a mind that does not suffer.” He explains how, while attending a meditation retreat, it became “all too evident how obsessively the mind seeks to construct self-narrative, how ready it is to take interest in its own pain, to congratulate itself on the fertility of its reflection…But alas, you cannot sit cross-legged without pain unless you learn to relax your body very deeply. And, as neuroscience has recently confirmed, when the mind churns words, the body tenses.”

Twentieth century literature—in fact, literature from every age—is interested in suffering minds, but no era of literature is exclusively interested in mental agony. Woolf, Joyce and Proust penned many painful thoughts—contemplations of suicide, loneliness, self-pity—but they also honored the mind’s moment of triumphs. Sometimes minds in twentieth century novels work hard for their revelations: after struggling to quell self-doubt and the echoes of sexist men who deny her talent, not to mention grappling with the philosophical quandary of objective reality, the young painter Lily Briscoe finally completes her portrait of Mrs. Ramsay—she “has her vision,” if only for a moment, on the very last page of To The Lighthouse. Other times minds stumble onto moments of new understanding, or what Woolf called “little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark.”

Psychologists, too, have discovered the benefits of mental chatter, which they call self-talk, private speech or inner voice. Mental rumination is the tendency to mull over one’s frustrations. People who ruminate a lot seem to be especially susceptible to depression, but some psychologists have proposed that a certain level of rumination is advantageous—if we focus on a problem, we are more likely to find a solution. Private speech also plays an important role in the way children learn language and we all rely on self-talk to psych ourselves up before the big game, the job interview or the first date.

More fundamentally, many neuroscientists and psychologists think that without our constant interior monologue—or the mind’s obsessive need to construct self-narrative, as Parks puts it—we would have no sense of self, or at least not the same sense of self most of us understand. Helen Keller wrote that before she learned language, “I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness…Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another.” The self is a story we continually revise, just like Clarissa making it all up as she goes along. One of the greatest accomplishments of fiction writers in the twentieth century was learning to recreate this self-narration so realistically that reading their writing feels like slipping into someone else’s mind. Their thoughts become our thoughts. In an earlier post, Parks concludes that we do not need these kinds of novels or any stories for that matter, nor do we need the narrative self. True, we do not need novels the same way we need water, but when it comes to stories, we do not have a choice. We do not wake up one day in toddlerhood and say, “Now I shall begin to tell the story of my Self!” It just happens. Our brains are evolved storytellers.

For me, the choice Parks sets up at the end of his post—the choice between quietness and Roth, between well-being and David Foster Wallace, between mental health and “literary sickness”—is a false choice. I realize Parks might intend a little humor and hyperbole here, but this subject means too much to me to treat so lightly. We should not conflate the narrative mind with suffering, nor quiet with health. Yes, we talk to ourselves—our minds chatter incessantly—and we are all the saner for it.

About the Author: Ferris Jabr is an associate editor focusing on neuroscience and psychology. Follow on Twitter @ferrisjabr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. leafwarbler 3:00 pm 06/30/2012

    Lovely. Thank you for posting this. It reminds me of something I came across just last night in an old notebook of mine, something I jotted down in the corner of a page: “Silent waters run deep they say… but stagnant (shallow) waters are silent too.” Funny I should have been pondering that old thought to find your brilliant piece contemplating the chattering mind.

    I would like to add that springing into action without much chatter in the mind is also hugely problematic. I would say mindless action lies behind many of our problems – especially environmental ones. If only we nurtured and allowed more room for some more internal chatter to slow down our often-damaging external actions…

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  2. 2. lorie vernier 5:26 pm 06/30/2012

    Excellent! A decades-old waste of time. Thanks for putting it out of our collective minds.

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  3. 3. crenshawseeds 5:03 pm 07/12/2012

    Great post!
    - Cheers to V. Woolf! I love the way she captures the way a mind works. Clarissa’s response to the streets reminds me of my own. (Yes, I’m talking about myself.)
    - I agree that thought can be action, particular if you think by writing.
    - I think Woolf would have liked Parks’ comment about “mind postponing action in indecision and, if we’re lucky, poetry.” In “A Room of One’s Own” Woolf presented poetry as the high point of writing. I’m glad Parks at least agrees that poetry is lucky!

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