A self-probing question for you – do you often have discussions with yourself? I must confess that I do. I talk aloud to myself when I’m alone, sometimes in Bulgarian, but sometimes in English, I enact hypothetical situations, or replay conversations of the past. I plan my to do list and rehearse agenda items I shouldn’t forget.
I’m afraid you must have already dismissed me as completely loony, but I’ll attempt to hold my own by saying that talking to oneself is an integral part of the way humans think and is also, arguably, a vestige of the way our brains were wired as far back as the time of Homer’s Iliad.
(If you don’t want to become like me, or suddenly start hearing eerie voices in your head, please go on reading post text and illustrated supplement separately.)
Oscar Wilde may have said in his inimitable style that talking to oneself at least guarantees one a most intelligent and agreeable interlocutor, but this article in The New Yorker paints a much darker picture by claiming that “Others experience auditory hallucinations, verbal promptings from voices that are not theirs but those of loved ones, long-departed mentors, unidentified influencers, their conscience, or even God.“
In previous discussions, we have already established that the process of individuation of the self in the Western civilisation started with the emergence of logic as part of Middle Age Scholasticism, developed during the Italian Rinascimento and flourished during the 18th-century Enlightenment.
Stepping on a thought tradition going back to ancient Greece and its discussions on whether universal ideas or words denoting our ideas of them come first, well-read people in the 14th and the 15th centuries were able to discern that their logical arguments, though purportedly based on universal grounds, inevitably contained traces of the material world around them. This psychological representation of a sensory perception is called imago.
People not exposed to the tradition of thought that the western civilisation has stepped on and further developed, like the inhabitants of secluded islands in far away seas or the peoples native to Northern America as Columbus found it for example, may not be similarly capable of distinguishing between imago and reality because their logic is less able to abstract, meaning to suppress or absorb, the sensory power of the image. Thus in many cases what is imagined, or dreamed, is considered as real as what is seen, and sensory perceptions such as hearing voices and sensing smells act as powerful evidence of the reality of the experience. In this case, to hear voices and have hallucinations is essentially to think, thereby mixing the objective with the subjective, as pioneer explorer and ethnologist John Wesley Powell (1834-1902) said in his time. Rather than an abstract activity, thinking in this case is sensory, visual and aural in nature, and this is a very important distinction indeed.
Another way to call this perceived equation between imago and reality, based on the power of sensory perceptions unmitigated (or not abstracted) by logic, is psychological realism, Carl Gustav Jung wrote in his marvelous book on Psychological Types.
Psychological realism, Jung argues, explains the belief of such peoples in spirits, visions and the magic power of words and thoughts. As I am sure anyone who has struggled to see a project through would wholeheartedly agree, thinking is not quite the same as doing, but this subtle European differentiation is quite secular in character and is only about five centuries old. Even today, religion within the Western civilisation demands total control over thoughts and actions alike, and for people outside this cultural realm, the relationship between thinking and doing has been found to be of a completely different character altogether.
The contribution to European philosophy of Middle Age philosopher Pierre Abelard, namely of converging the objectivity of the universal being with the subjectivity of our perceptions of it into the Soul, or the esse in anima, has provided the European civilisation’s inventory of ideas with a new term – Fantasy.
Fantasy is essentially what the soul does. It is neither a pure reflex to sensory stimulation, nor a repository of universal notions. To put it in the language of Jung, of which I spoke here, fantasy is one’s bridge between one’s extroversion and introversion. Its activities are largely based on one’s Unconscious and as such, fantasy is typically perceived as a thorn in the flesh by fields such as religion and science, aiming to supply ready answers or codify acceptable ways to arrive at them.
According to art historian Kenneth Clark, the lack of an abstract spiritual life among the cavemen has made their paintings so expressive even by the standards of today.
At school, we Bulgarians have been taught that the Ottoman dominion had been so stultifying to the spiritual life and the free expression of our people, women in particular, that they had poured their entire souls and inarticulate life philosophy into the embroidered decoration of the clothing they used to sew by hand for their families.
So having fantasy is a crowning achievement of evolution and the dark (or bright?) side of abstract thinking.
Now if we were to return to The Iliad, with which we started, we would end up with this – a memorable takeaway from The New Yorker.
“The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grabs Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon. It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath on the beach by his black ships. . . . It is one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go, and another who then clothes him in a golden fire reaching up to heaven and screams through his throat across the bloodied trench at the Trojans, rousing in them ungovernable panic. In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness.“
This is a view expressed by Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes in his book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,” published in the mid 20th century. Odysseus, on the other hand, The New Yorker goes on, “who is constantly reflecting and planning, manifests a self-consciousness of mind. The poem’s emphasis on Odysseus’ cunning starts to seem like the celebration of the emergence of a new kind of consciousness.“
More or less the same view is held also by Jung, who claims that Greek mythology and mythologies of time immemorial in general, are full of inarticulate psychology, originating from underdeveloped abilities for self-analysis and abstract reasoning. Thus, events taking place in myths are explainable and justifiable in terms of psychology, but are neither explained nor justified in this way, and are presented as the workings of powers outside of the characters instead.
Speaking of Jung, here is a gem of a thought for you – all parables and talk of the Devil’s temptations in the desert, C.G. claims, were in fact means of expression Jesus had adopted to give shape to his Unconscious which eventually became obligatory for all his disciples to the present day. The communal prayers and constant activities monks are engaged in are intended to eradicate their own individual streams of unconscious-ness, supplanting them with the officially sanctioned version, preserved in treasure binding.
Communism – essentially a religion without God – was also allergic to introverted people longing for intellectual and spatial privacy, whom it suspected of political subversion or solitary pleasure activities. Oh dear…
For goodbye, one of the soundtracks of my youth, Candlelight Fantasia by Symphony X. I still adore each and every line of those lyrics.
Just one more night,
one more score…,