Schnitzler’s voice

I’ve mentioned my interest in the theory that as the history of humankind has unfolded, our basic experience of being alive has changed, perhaps radically. I was reminded of this today as I continued to read the book “The Age of Insight.” At one point in the book, we are introduced to Arthur Schnitzler, a writer and playwright who lived in Vienna in the early 1900s and purportedly invented the technique of internal dialogue. This is the practice of presenting the character’s inner voice on the page. An example included in the book is from Schnitzler’s story “Lieutenant Gustle.”

How long is this thing going to last? Let me look at my watch… it’s probably not good manners at a serious concert like this, but who’s going to notice? If anyone does, he’s not paying any more attention than I am, so I really don’t need to be embarrassed… it’s only a quarter to ten?

And on and on…

Internal dialogue probably found its most prominent use in the thought balloons of comic book characters, as I’ve mentioned here.

The problem, of course, is that nobody really thinks that way. You don’t think, “Gee, I really need to get to work. I guess I’ll wear my blue tie today.” You just have a general sense of being late, and a fleeting desire to put on your blue tie. Maybe a few of the words pop into your head – “late,” “blue” – but you don’t think in full sentences.

Having said that, I do sometimes find myself kind of thinking in full sentences. Maybe that’s based on some assumption on my part that that’s how I “should” be thinking — because that’s how people think in books, movies and comic books. And I wonder if this idea, this concept of thinking in internal dialogue, is something relatively new to our species, perhaps starting with Schnitzler’s invention.

There’s another area be explored here. To think in even a kind of broken down internal dialogue requires us to have language. How do creatures without language — cavemen, or children raised by wolves — “think?”

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