Rambling

James Wood writes about the way characters speak their minds

In the Theaetetus, Socrates is puzzled about how we make use of what we already know. Take a mathematician, he says. Such a person must already have in his head all the numbers he will work with. Yet when he counts, he sets out, as it were, to learn from himself things that he already knows, and the same is true of a scholar, starting to read the same book for the umpteenth time. This is a paradox of redundancy, in which we have unnaturally to forget what we would naturally remember in order to learn something ‘new’.

Plato’s examples suggestively describe how the flow of consciousness is depicted in fiction and drama. For one obvious element of the depiction of consciousness in literature is that it is paradoxically redundant. A flow of thought is invisible; it does not represent itself. The one thing we do not do with our minds is turn their contents into narratives, or even into unpunctuated monologues. Perhaps most of the time, as Nabokov complained about Joyce, we do not think in words at all. As soon as a fictional character thinks ‘aloud’ in any depth, the writer has to represent something which is not normally represented, and the character doing the thinking often has the air of Socrates’ mathematician, learning anew from himself something he would already know. The representation of consciousness in fiction hovers between a redundant remembering and a struggle against forgetting.

This is literature’s special burden, its special creation. For if the philosophical question is ‘how do we know ourselves?’ the literary question is always both the philosophical question and the literary-technical question: ‘how do we then represent knowing ourselves?’ The formal or technical redundancy is clear enough when we look at the origins of the stream-of-consciousness, which lie in the dramatic soliloquy; and in turn at the origins of the soliloquy, which lie in prayer. Often in Greek and Senecan tragedy, a character confides his thoughts or agonies or intentions to the audience at a moment of prayer or religious self-exhortation: the hero addresses a shrine, or makes a sacrifice, or calls on the gods to forgive or punish him (or punish his enemies), and the audience ‘overhears’ him – such is the convention. It is a little like reading the Psalms. Shakespeare’s soliloquies retain that prayerful or religious quality of expressed intention and self-exhortation: Edmund calling on the gods to stand up for bastards, or Lear petitioning and pleading with them, or Lady Macbeth’s ‘Unsex me here,’ or her husband’s final soliloquy (‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’), which borrows from Psalm 90.

Inasmuch as Shakespeare’s soliloquies are addressed to the audience, we become God by proxy, the Delphic oracle that never replies. Soliloquy may be seen, then, not merely as an address, but as speech with an interlocutor who does not respond – as blocked conversation and blocked intention. Again, this may flow from the idea of prayer, especially prayer as the frustration of wishes: for merely to speak to God is to be frustrated by His silence. This aspect of prayerful consciousness is obviously present in the novel in the form of the epiphany and the solitary fantasy; what is Proust’s madeleine but a secularised communion wafer, the Host by which the worshipper begins to examine himself?

Of course, it is the technical and literary purposes of authors that oblige heroes and heroines to speak to us non-responders. In some essential way, however, they are also reminding the reader and themselves that they exist. And this metaphysical function arises, in part, from the author’s literary-technical requirements. We are returned to Plato’s idea of paradoxical redundancy. In life, people do not narrate their intentions and feelings in the manner of the soliloquy. In the soliloquy, the mind describes itself as a narrator would, from the outside (as a narrator does, of course, in most novels). Always a dramatist, Shakespeare nonetheless prefigures the novel. For his is not so much a world of soliloquies as a soliloquising world, in which people speak at, rather than to, each other. In Shakespeare, the notion of the soliloquy as a blocked conversation is transferred to conversation itself between characters. Indeed, you might say that much of the conversation in Shakespeare is blocked soliloquy – and that in this sense he is the inventor of the stream of consciousness.

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