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Today is Bloomsday: Five stream-of-consciousness novels

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June 16 is the day recounted in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Five Books has an apposite recommendation:

Is it possible to describe or study our inner experience, and – if so – how might one go about it? Charles Fernyhough, professor of psychology and author of The Voices Within chooses five of the best books that employ or examine streams of consciousness.

What do we mean, when we talk about ‘streams of consciousness’?

My book, The Voices Within, is about a phenomenon that many people report: that they are producing, participating, and listening to an internal conversation, or an internal monologue, a verbal stream of consciousness. Not everybody reports this, some people’s thinking seems to be very highly visual, or it doesn’t have any sensory elements. But many people identify with this idea that we are talking to ourselves a lot of the time. We are either talking to ourselves completely silently in our heads, or sometimes we talk to ourselves out loud. There are good reasons for thinking that these are all part of the same phenomenon.

This is a really hard thing to study scientifically. You are talking about somebody’s internal private conversations. What changed in the last 20 years or so is that we have better techniques and better methods both psychological and neuroscientific for getting at it.

Often when you talk about this topic, people start talking back to you about the ‘inner voice,’ and this is a term I avoid because it is vague and metaphorical, as I say quite early in the book. The term ‘inner voice,’ is used to refer to everything from gut instincts to artistic inspiration. Scientists don’t use the term. I find it more helpful to focus on something that you can be more specific about, using terms like ‘inner speech,’ or ‘internal monologue,’ or ‘internal dialogue.’

You have written two novels, and there are three novels on this list. What is the relationship between the novelistic voice and the inner voices you are describing?

Try to avoid the term ‘inner voice.’ ‘Inner speech’ is the right term. For a start, it is not a single voice; it’s voices. I think there are voices in our consciousness. In relation to literature, the term voice gets used in this vast variety of ways. When writers like Joyce or Woolf try to portray someone in speech — through internal monologue or stream of consciousness — there are absolutely connections between what psychologists study and what these writers are bringing to life on the page.

But there’s another way in which internal voice is used in relation to writing. If you talk to a writer about finding his or her voice, you’re going to get a writer’s standard answer about where their creativity comes from. But if you say to writers, ‘Do you hear the voices of your characters? Do they actually speak? Do you hear them?’ and then you say to them, ‘Tell me exactly what that is like,’ then you can get into something much more specific, and I think much more interesting. That’s what we’ve been trying to do in our research. Okay, it is a cliché that writers hear the voices of their characters, let’s try to find out: do they really hear the voices of their characters, and if so, what is that like?

If Joyce, for example, is trying to depict Leopold Bloom in a monologue, then—if he is successful in that task—when you read Ulysses you’re going to hear that voice resonating in your head. And so, another big part of this project for me was thinking about what effects writers have on their readers. When we read, do we hear these voices activated in our heads? There’s some fascinating science showing that yes, these voices are activated when we read, and writers play all sort of games with them. This is one of the main ways in which they create their effects and give us the pleasure we get from reading.

So these voices become part of us?

You can take on these fictional inner dialogues and you can become someone else. You can enter into the mind of Stephen Dedalus, for example. You can really be him, you can think his thoughts, and you can go to the places that he goes to. You can become Leopold Bloom at the end of Ulysses, you can become Clarissa Dalloway, you can become Mary Hooligan lying in her bed in Edna O’Brien’s Night. You can become history, but then you can come back to who you are. And it is a cliché that writers give us a way of being other than we are, they take us into different worlds. Of course they do, and they do that in all sorts of interesting ways. One of the ways they do it is by filling our heads with voices.

Why is Ulysses (1922) on your list?

It is seen as the archetypal stream of consciousness novel. With more ambition than possibly any other writer, Joyce tries to get us into the inner monologues and dialogues of Leopold Bloom, Molly Bloom, and Stephen Dedalus. He didn’t invent the technique. He credited the French writer Édouard Dujardin in a novel from the 1880s as starting to explore this technique, but others have argued that the stream of consciousness style started much earlier than that. In fact, the term ‘stream of consciousness’ appeared in literature for the first time in a discussion of the British novelist Dorothy Richardson’s work.

So Joyce didn’t invent it, but he makes it flourish in the most extraordinary way. I’m particularly interested in how he depicts inner speech. He gives us a stream of consciousness that doesn’t seem like a standard novelistic narrative. He is trying to capture the particular qualities you would notice if you listened to someone else’s inner speech. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 June 2017 at 3:04 pm

Posted in Books

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