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.

Shakespeare is a great developer of those moments when a character is allowed to drift, to the point of apparent irrelevance. It is through this rambling mode that absent-mindedness in the modern novel (I use the phrase in all its senses) appears. In Shakespeare, these moments generally occur not in soliloquy but in conversation, when a character lapses into monologue. There is an interesting moment, for instance, in All’s Well that Ends Well, when Bertram is first introduced to the King of France. Instead of receiving Bertram in the usual way, and asking after him, the King starts reminiscing about Bertram’s father, whom he obviously loved:

     Youth, thou bear’st thy father’s face;
Frank nature, rather curious than in haste,
Hath well compos’d thee ...
I would I had that corporal soundness now
As when thy father and myself in friendship
First tried our soldiership. He did look far
Into the service of the time, and was
Discipled of the bravest. He lasted long,
But on us both did haggish age steal on,
And wore us out of act. It much repairs me
To talk of your good father. In his youth
He had the wit which I can well observe
Today in our young lords ...

Bertram tries to interject with various politenesses, but the King rambles on self-involvedly for another forty or so lines. Bertram thanks the King for remembering his father so royally, and the King starts again:

Would I were with him! He would always say –
Methinks I hear him now; his plausive words
He scatter’d not in ears, but grafted them
To grow there and to bear ...
            ‘Let me not live,’ quoth he,
‘After my flame lacks oil, to be the snuff
Of younger spirits, whose apprehensive senses
All but new things disdain, whose judgments are
Mere fathers of their garments, whose constancies
Expire before their fashions.’ This he wish’d.
I, after him, do after him wish too ...

When a courtier reminds the King that he is loved, he ignores him and asks Bertram how long it has been since the death of the physician – culpable by inference – who ministered to his old friend on his deathbed. Six months, replies Bertram. ‘If he were living I would try him yet,’ the King says. The King is a bit like Hotspur, who talks only to himself and who is reprimanded for ‘tying his ear only to his own tongue’. The elegiac comedy of this scene lies in the spectacle of a man clinging fiercely to his past and self-involvedly ignoring his interlocutor. The King talks as if he is in conversation, but he is in conversation with himself, and happily contradicts himself, saying at the start that he sees the same kind of wit in the young lords as he did in his late friend, and ending by saying that he agrees with his late friend that the young are feckless, and he wishes he was in his grave.

We are in the presence of a character who may be mistaken but who is not inauthentic. Memory is amoral because, in literature, authenticity trumps morals. Memory may allow a character to live in error, as it were, but always be forgiven, since what is important is that it should seem true to that character. Shakespeare’s characters feel real to us in part because they feel real to themselves and take their own private universes for granted. They manage to sustain the paradox of feeling real to themselves without necessarily knowing themselves, which is the very paradox of consciousness, since I have no way of knowing that I do not actually know myself. There is a sense in which memory is like a benign travelling assizes, moving from county to county, unique to each character, in which a character is cross-examined, judged and absolved all at once.

In a soliloquising world, like Shakespeare’s, in which characters speak at each other while mistakenly supposing that they are having a conversation with each other, the distinction between private and public thought collapses. Both are failed privacies. What we say to ourselves is often quite similar to what we say to each other, because we have forgotten about the distinction. Sterne, Dickens, Chekhov and on occasion Joyce are the great developers of this insight. Consider, for example, a moment in one of Chekhov’s earliest stories, ‘The Steppe’. A little boy, Yegorushka, is going to a new school. He has hitched a ride with two men, a wool trader named Kuzmichov, and a priest called Father Christopher. At the beginning of the journey, as they leave the boy’s home village, they pass the cemetery in which his father and grandmother are buried:

From behind the wall cheerful white crosses and tombstones peeped out, nestling in the foliage of cherry trees and seen as white patches from a distance. At blossom time, Yegorushka remembered, the white patches mingled with the cherry blooms in a sea of white, and when the cherries had ripened the white tombs and crosses were crimson-spotted, as if with blood. Under the cherries behind the wall the boy’s father and his grandmother Zinaida slept day and night. When Grandmother had died she had been put in a long, narrow coffin, and five-copeck pieces had been placed on her eyes, which would not stay shut. Before dying she had been alive, and she had brought him soft poppy-seed bun rings from the market, but now she just slept and slept.

This is a form of stream of consciousness, which captures not only how a small boy thinks but how all of us think, with useless banality, about the dead: ‘Before dying, she had been alive ... but now she just slept and slept.’ Joyce admired Chekhov, and little Yegorushka’s drifting thought perhaps reminds us of Dignam’s memory of his dead father in Ulysses:

His face got all grey instead of being red like it was and there was a fly walking over it up to his eye. The scrunch that was when they were screwing the screws into the coffin: and the bumps when they were bringing it downstairs.

  Pa was inside it and ma crying in the parlour and uncle Barney telling the men how to get it round the bend. A big coffin it was, and high and heavylooking. How was that? The last night pa was boosed he was standing on the landing there bawling out for his boots to go out to Tunney’s for to boose more and he looked butty and short in his shirt. Never see him again. Death, that is. Pa is dead. My father is dead. He told me to be a good son to ma. I couldn’t hear the other things he said but I saw his tongue and his teeth trying to say it better. Poor pa. That was Mr Dignam, my father. I hope he is in purgatory now because he went to confession to Father Conroy on Saturday night.

Chekhov, I think, does it better than Joyce, who cannot resist a flash of the literary (‘A big coffin it was, and high and heavylooking’; ‘Pa is dead. My father is dead’) and a tinge of the stock-comic – the Irish drinker telling his son to be good to his mother and going to confession just in time. By risking a greater banality, Chekhov wins a greater naturalness from his little boy. A page later Yegorushka cries because he misses his mother. ‘Never mind, son,’ Father Christopher says. ‘Call on God. Lomonosov once travelled just like this with the fishermen and he became famous throughout Europe. Learning conjoined with faith yields fruit pleasing to God. What does the prayer say? “For the glory of the Creator, for our parent’s comfort, for the benefit of the church and country”. That’s the way of it.’ Of course, Father Christopher is not comforting the boy at all; he is entirely self-involved, in a way we are familiar with from Chekhov’s later work, especially the plays. He is speaking his mind, literally. It is a stream of consciousness. And he speaks in the apparently arbitrary manner in which the boy also thinks, that is to say, aimlessly.

What is the function of aimless thought? There is a marvellous example of the authenticity of random memory in Henry IV, Part 2. In a famous scene in the tavern at Eastcheap, Mistress Quickly is trying to get Falstaff to pay his debts. He feigns not to remember that he has borrowed money from her and she launches into a tirade:

Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my Dolphin chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson week, when the Prince broke thy head for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor, thou didst swear to me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me and make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife Keech, the butcher’s wife, come in then and call me ‘Gossip Quickly’? Coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar, telling us she had a good dish of prawns, whereby thou didst desire to eat some, whereby I told thee they were ill for a green wound? And didst thou not, when she was gone downstairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people, saying that ere long they should call me ‘madam’? And didst thou not kiss me and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings? I put thee now to thy book oath. Deny it if thou canst.

This moment is so lively and funny because it seems to show us a mind at work: it is continually remembering more, and most of it is useless information. But useless to whom? Useless to those around her, yet who is Mistress Quickly reminding here? Is it Falstaff, or is it not, really, herself? The irrelevance – the sea-coal fire, the wife with her dish of prawns, and so on – is funny because the Mistress is unwittingly writing a kind of parody of narrative, adding more and more detail. The spectacle of Mistress Quickly’s tirade suggests that if the mind were allowed to narrate itself, it would produce a narrative that simply never stops. It is, in other words, unknowable even at its most characteristic, its most expressive, precisely because it exceeds narration.

As well as comedy, there is pathos in the mind’s inability to represent itself. Mistress Quickly uses detail as if she were constructing a narrative, seeking to create verisimilitude (the dish of prawns etc). In a sense, she is succeeding; she is trying to persuade Falstaff that he was there. Yet this involves her in the recitation of many details which she already knows, but which, in the telling, appear for the first time as narrative, however haphazard and rambling it is. She is in the paradoxical position of convincing herself, like Socrates’ mathematician, of what she already knows.

Thus a certain desperate quality attaches to the Mistress’s defiant challenge to Falstaff, ‘Deny it if thou canst.’ For if the Mistress is telling the assembled company that she is speaking the truth and Falstaff isn’t, she is also telling them that what she remembers, what she experiences, is as real as the great fat seigneurial slab of reality who sits in front of her. ‘Deny it if thou canst.’ Falstaff can deny it, and does so, outrageously, but we cannot, and do not. Even if every detail is beside the point, even if it were subsequently proved that the Mistress made it up, we cannot deny what is so true to a character. Perhaps this is what Henry James meant when he talked about the irresponsibility of characters (‘in the old, plastic, irresponsible sense’ is the phrase, from an essay about George Eliot). Characters are irresponsible, art is irresponsible when compared to life, because it is first and foremost important that a character is real, and as readers or watchers we tend to applaud the construction of that reality. We do not, of course, indulge actual people in the world in the same way. In real life, the fact that something seems real to someone is not enough to interest us, or to convince us that we might find that reality is interesting. But the reality-to-self of fictional characters is deeply engrossing, which is why villains are lovable in literature in ways that they are not in life.

Mistress Quickly’s randomness of thought is what makes her a comic and forlorn character at this moment. But one is still puzzled by the idea of truly random thought. For when thought is random and detail is recalled for no obvious reason, then remembered detail has no obvious metaphysical superiority, or privilege, over what has actually been forgotten. One of the reasons that random thought is indeed random is that it is treading over what is forgotten, over the corpses of thoughts. Thought becomes a little like the fiendish punishment that used to be handed out in schools, in which the offender had to colour in every other square on a piece of graph paper. There is no necessary difference between a coloured square and one left blank.

The delicate question then becomes, what is the status of irrelevant detail? Is it remembered data or forgotten data? Is it the very definition of the self, or everything but the self? Are absent-mindedness and present-mindedness the same things? As Augustine points out in the Confessions, memory is partly convincing yourself of what you knew all along; and the representation of consciousness, the speaking-aloud of consciousness, is a further redundant self-convincing. We are always forgetting things until the moment we actually remember them. And at that moment, are we really recalling them, or merely paying a kind of tribute to their forgettability? Likewise, there is no such thing as forgetting, because one can’t really identify the point at which something was forgotten; by definition, it has disappeared. Mistress Quickly’s irrelevances, like those of her fictional heirs in Chekhov and Joyce, are sad and funny because they have the aspect of remembered detail but the status of forgotten detail.