internal talk

The Mind Postponing Action in Indecision

Excerpt from "The Chattering Mind," by Tim ParksThe New York Review of Books, June 29, 2012:

“Who is the most memorable character in the novels of the twentieth century?”

It’s a typical radio ploy to fill some mental space on a Saturday morning. Dutifully, people phone in. Studio guests discuss their choices. The obvious: Leopold Bloom, Gatsby. The wry, Jeeves, Sir Peter Wimsey. To select Proust’s unnamed narrator in In Search of Lost Time indicates a certain sophistication. Somebody, not a child, proposes Harry Potter. Then Miss Marple, Svevo’s Zeno, James Bond, Gustav von Aschenbach, Richard Hannay. People are telling us about themselves of course. They want to talk about themselves. There’s no question of establishing if Frodo Baggins is really more influential than José Arcadio Buendía or Bellow’s Herzog. But Sherlock Holmes can be safely ruled out because first published in the nineteenth century and Lisbeth Salander because she doesn’t turn up until 2005.

I can’t be bothered to think of a name myself. I resist these games—the most this, the best that. Surely these characters are all actors in a grand cast; they all have their roles in the larger drama of the collective psyche. But now suddenly it occurs to me that by far the main protagonist of twentieth century literature must be 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...

...Seeing the pros and cons of every possible move, this modern man is paralysed, half-envying those less intelligent than himself who throw themselves instinctively into the fray: “[The man of action] is stupid, I won’t argue with you about that, but perhaps a normal man ought to be stupid.” And the voice is actually pleased with this formulation. It’s great to feel superior to those happier than oneself.

In the twentieth century this monstrously heightened consciousness meshes with the swelling background noise of modern life and we have the full-blown performing mind of modernist literature. It starts perhaps in that room where the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Soon Leopold Bloom is diffusing his anxiety about Molly’s betrayal in the shop signs and newspaper advertisements of Dublin. In Mrs Dalloway’s London people muddle thoughts of their private lives with airborne advertisements for toffee, striking clocks, sandwich men, omnibuses, chauffeur-driven celebrities.

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Thinking in Feelings Instead of Words

Crab Apple Tree, by Susan Lirakis

Excerpts from “Quiet, Please: Gordon Hempton on the Search for Silence in a Noisy World,” by Leslie Goodman, The Sun Magazine, September 2010:

Leslie Goodman: You’ve written that, before entering nature, you go through a process to clear your mind and make it more receptive to silence. You might spend a night in the forest so that, by morning, your ears will be “relaxed” enough and your mind clear enough to hear the river valley “singing.” Are most of us oblivious to the sounds of nature because we’re constantly bombarded with our own mental chatter?

Gordon Hempton: Our mental condition reflects our external environment. Most of us live in cities, which are noisy, chaotic places. As a result we tend to have a lot of mental chatter, not all of it coherent. When you go to a naturally quiet place, you’ll notice first how physically loud you are — voice, footsteps, food wrappers, Velcro, zippers — but then you’ll notice internal noise as well. After a day or a week you’ll experience an internal shift: your to-do list will fall away, your body will find its rhythm, your ears will attune themselves to your new surroundings, and your mental chatter will quiet. You will recognize unnecessary thoughts as just that — unnecessary — and become acquainted with the place you’re in rather than staying inside your head.

Goodman: You blame “mental chatter” on modern life, but people have been trying to escape their thoughts for centuries.

Hempton: Some people, yes. It’s related to the pace of life, which has not always been as fast as it is now. Go to a quiet place in nature, and after a few hours you will notice that your thoughts have slowed; you are no longer thinking in words but in feelings. The mind is capable of taking in enormous amounts of information when we let go of our mental filtering system and open ourselves to pure perception.

Read the rest of this interview…

The Theater of the Mind

Charles Bonnet said he wondered how ‘the theater of the mind’ could be generated by the machinery of the brain. Now, two hundred and fifty years later, I think we’re beginning to glimpse how this is done.”

~ Oliver Sacks, from “What Hallucination Reveals about Our Minds,” TED Talks (February 2009)

Ideas Come as Little Phrases or Images

From The Story from the Static: On Writing and Painting by Audrey Niffenegger:

I have spent most of my life feeling like a woman trying to listen to the radio in a thunderstorm. I am trying to get an idea, something I can turn into a picture, or a novel, and occasionally such a thing does whiz into my brain and it's my job to pick it out from all the static of daily life and find out if it means anything.

Before I can think very hard about this idea I have to figure out if it's a word The Letter, 2005thing or a picture thing. Ideas tend to come to me in the form of little phrases ("the time traveler's wife"; "self-portrait as Siamese twins") or as images (three women with long hair sitting together but refusing to speak to each other; a lady reading a book with a giant spider perched on her hat, also reading the book). These four ideas became a novel, a painting, a picture book, a tiny drawing. They could have taken other forms. I have to take each idea and turn it over in my head, trying it out to see what it does, to see how I can make it bigger and stronger. Mostly I am just trying to see, period. I'm trying to look at it, listen to it, attend to it; I'm trying to find out what it wants.

It takes me a long time to make things, and that's good. The more time I have, the more I can add and subtract, the better the thing will be.

My novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, began as a phrase that came to me while The Time Traveler's Wifedrawing. I could see the main character as an old woman, waiting for her time traveler. But was it a picture, or something else? The characters suddenly had names; as I went about my daily life they began to have personalities, desires, schemes. At this point I realized that a picture book wasn't going to work. Still images are always the present, and they don't capture the fluidity of time. I had the choice of trying to write a novel (which I'd never done) or make a movie (very expensive and requiring the help of other people). I began to write.

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