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On Talking To One's Self Post by :whitebear Category :Essays Author :A. G. Gardiner Date :October 2011 Read :1015

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On Talking To One's Self

I was at dinner at a well-known restaurant the other evening when I became aware that some one sitting alone at a table near by was engaged in an exciting conversation with himself. As he bent over his plate his face was contorted with emotion, apparently intense anger, and he talked with furious energy, only pausing briefly in the intervals of actual mastication. Many glances were turned covertly upon him, but he seemed wholly unconscious of them, and, so far as I could judge, he was unaware that he was doing anything abnormal. In repose his face was that of an ordinary business man, sane and self-controlled, and when he rose to go his agitation was over, and he looked like a man who had won his point.

It is probable that this habit of talking to one's self has a less sinister meaning than it superficially suggests. It may be due simply to the energy of one's thought and to a concentration of mind that completely shuts out the external world. In the case I have mentioned it was clear that the man was temporarily detached from all his surroundings, that he was so absorbed by his subject that his eyes had ceased to see and his ears to hear. He was alone with himself, or perhaps with his adversary, and he only came back to the present with the end of his dinner and the paying of his bill. He was like a man who had emerged from another state of consciousness, from a waking sleep filled with tumultuous dreams. Obviously he was unaware that he had been haranguing the room in quite an audible voice for half an hour, and I daresay that if he were told that he had the habit of talking to himself he would deny it as passionately as you (or I) would deny that you (or I) snore in our sleep. And he would deny it for precisely the same reason. He doesn't know.

And here a dreadful thought assails me. What if I talk to myself, too? What if, like this man, I get so absorbed in the drama of my own mind that I cannot hear my own tongue going nineteen to the dozen? It is a disquieting idea. A strong conviction to the contrary, I see, amounts to nothing. This man, doubtless, had a strong conviction to the contrary--probably expressed an amused interest in any one talking to himself as he passed him in the street. And the fact that my friends have never told me of the failing goes for nothing also. They may think I like to talk to myself. More probably, they may know that I do not like to hear of my failings. I must watch myself. But, no, that won't do. I might as well say I would watch my dreams and keep them in check. How can the conscious state keep an eye on the unconscious? If I do not know that I am talking how can I stop myself talking?

Ah, happy thought. I recall occasions when I have talked to myself, and have been quite conscious of the sound of my voice. They have been remarks I have made on the golf links, brief, emphatic remarks dealing with the perversity of golf clubs and the sullen intractability of golf balls. Those remarks I have heard distinctly, and at the sound of them I have come to myself with a shock, and have even looked round to see whether the lady in the red jacket playing at the next hole was likely to have heard me or (still worse) to have seen me.

I think this is evidence conclusive, for the man who talks to himself habitually never hears himself. His words are only the echo of his thoughts, and they correspond so perfectly that, like a chord in music, there is no dissonance. It was thus with the art student I saw copying a picture at the Tate Gallery. "Ah, a little more blue," he said, as he turned from the original to his own canvas, and a little later: "Yes, that line wants better drawing." Several people stood by watching his work and smiling at his uttered thoughts. He alone was unconscious that he had spoken.

There are, it is true, cases in which the conscious and unconscious states seem to mingle--in which the intentional word and the unintentional come out almost in the same breath. It was so with Thomas Landseer, the father of Sir Edwin. He was one day visiting an artist, and inspecting his work. "Ah, very nice, indeed!" he said to his friend. "Excellent colour; excellent!" Then, as if all around him had vanished, and he was alone with himself, he added: "Poor chap, he thinks he can paint!"

And this instance shows that whether the habit is a mental weakness or only a physical defect it is capable of extremely awkward consequences, as in the case of the banker who was ruined by unwittingly revealing his secrets while walking in the street. How is it possible to keep a secret or conduct a bargain if your tongue is uncontrollable? What is the use of Jones explaining to his wife that he has been kept late at the office if his tongue goes on to say, entirely without his knowledge or consent, that had he declared "no trumps" in that last hand he would have been in pocket by his evening at the club? I see horrible visions of domestic complications and public disaster arising from this not uncommon habit.

And yet might there not be gain also from a universal practice of uttering our thoughts aloud? Imagine a world in which nobody had any secrets from anybody--could have no secrets from anybody. I see the Kaiser, after consciously declaring that his only purpose is peace, unconsciously blurting out to the British Ambassador that the ultimatum to Serbia is a "plant"--that what Germany means is war, that she proposes to attack Belgium, and so on. And I see the British Ambassador, having explained that England is entirely free from commitments, adding dreamily, "But if there's a war we shall be in it." In the same way Jones, after making Smith a firm offer of L30 for his horse, would say, absentmindedly, "Of course it would be cheap at L50, and I might spring L55 if he is stiff about it."

It would be a world in which lies would have no value and deception would be a waste of time--a world in which truth would no longer be at the bottom of the well, but on the tip of every man's tongue. We should have all the rascals in prison and all the dishonest traders in the bankruptcy court. Secret diplomacy would no longer play with the lives of men, for there would be no secrets. Those little perverse concealments that wreck so many lives would vanish. You, sir, who find it so easy to nag at home and so difficult to say the kind thing that you know to be true, would be discovered to your great advantage and to the peace of your household.

Yes, I think the world would go very well if we all had tongues that told our true thoughts in spite of us. But what a lot of us would be found out. My own face crimsons at the thought. So, I think, does yours.

(The end)
A. G. Gardiner's essay: On Talking To One's Self

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