George Steiner On The ‘Unvoiced Soliloquy’ And Collaborative Creativity

In Grammars of Creation (Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 84-85), in making note of the ‘anxiety of influence,’ and the valorization of solitary creativity, George Steiner writes:

I want to point to the elected presences which makers construe within themselves or within their works, to the “fellow-travellers,” teachers, critics, dialectical partners, to those other voices within their own which can give to even the most complexly solitary and innovative of creative acts a shared, collective fabric. Elsewhere,¹ I have tried to draw attention to what remains a terra incognita in linguistics, in poetics, in epistemology….It is that of inward speech, of the discourse we conduct incessantly with ourselves. This unvoiced soliloquy in fact contains the bulk of speech-acts; it far exceeds in volume language used for outward communication. It also, I suspect, is under formative or inhibiting pressures of historical-social circumstance, of the state of public vocabularies and grammars, though it may add to them elements of a private argot. It could well be that, in Western cultures until recently, soliloquy has been the unheard eloquence, vituperation, poetry of countless women. Our true familiars are the “selves” or fantom-auditors and respondents to whom we address the lexical-grammatical-semantic currents of silent speech. Our consciousness, even when our inward audition and notice are fitful, is a monologue of the many whose creative powers, whose capacity to generate terror or solace, illusion or inhibition, are as yet scarcely analysed.

In a post here on ‘Imagined Interlocutors‘ I had made note of the incessant conversations I have with myself–with real and imagined figures; inner conversation allows for argumentation with those absent, temporarily or permanently. I could not do without these conversations. Indeed, I often frame material I will write later, here or elsewhere, by means of a ‘conversation in the head’–mostly while walking. Talking to myself is thus an integral part of my ‘thinking’ and writing; even here, at this most elementary level, creativity and creation are not solitary endeavors but active collaborations–perhaps unsurprising for a being whose consciousness is not a unitary entity. Consider that a creative work is formed over time; its creator, an always-in-flux entity changes too. It is a commonplace for authors and poets and artists to find out that a piece long in the making is simply not viable anymore; they have changed, their work must in response. The harshest critics of our works always lurk within us. Fail muster with them, and you cannot proceed.

Steiner’s suggestion that soliloquy is often the voice of the otherwise silenced is provocative. Sometimes talking to oneself is the only recourse when conversation with a larger world is denied. The woman confined to the private sphere, the prisoner in solitary confinement, the survivor in the wilderness; in all of these circumstances, we find that we cannot stop talking–whether directed inwards, or at walls, or at animals and trees and ocean waves. It’s the best way we know of keeping sane, even if at the risk of being judged insane by others.

Note#1: Steiner cites his On Difficulty here.

My Imagined Interlocutors

Sometimes I find myself conducting arguments with  myself; ‘in my head’, as it were. I walk along the streets, running their premises and conclusions through my mind; I refine their rhetorical pitch, I rehearse them; sometimes, I find myself overcome by the emotion associated with their content; indeed, one of the reasons I write here is that it helps me articulate those arguments in the written word, to see if they can withstand the light of day, to get them ‘out and about.’ Sometimes they stay in my cranium, revisited time and again, perennial occupants of its discursive spaces. Embarrassingly enough, as my wife has noted, these conversations are often visible to others; I can be seen talking to myself, mumbling and shuffling down the street, perhaps causing alarmed parents pushing strollers down the street to vacate the sidewalk.

Sometimes I notice that I seem to be debating an imagined interlocutor; a contestant, a sparring partner of sorts. Who are these folk?

Some of them can be recognized quite easily.

My brother, for one, whom I grew up debating and arguing with; he and I often disagreed about what we read about in the newspapers and in the books we read together; our arguments were quite passionate. On one memorable occasion, he stormed out of a dinner at a restaurant; my mother and I finished our meal and drove home to find him waiting for us. Now that we live on separate continents, our opportunities for these encounters–in person–have grown sharply limited. Not in my mind though, where I find myself anticipating his reaction to a news item or an event in my life, and responding to it. Sometimes I even subconsciously rehearse these arguments before I travel to India; I don’t always get the time on those hectic trips to actually articulate them, of course.

And then, of course, there is my wife, my constant companion and friend and partner in life’s daily challenges. There is plenty to dispute here, much to plan, and now, as joint stakeholders in the business of raising of a child, fundamental, existential, issues to be debated and resolved. So entwined are our lives, indeed, that I would find it surprising if I did not have more of these ‘conversations’ with her. We are both busy folk, so its only natural that some of these occur with her not physically  present.

Lastly, there are ghostly, not clearly discernible or identifiable figures; perhaps social gadflies who have gotten under my skin, perhaps political figures I deem threatening, perhaps fellow academics who might dispute my writings. Sometimes, on a more benign note, there are friends and acquaintances–and even acquisitions editors of publishing houses!–subjected to a friendly persuasion of sorts. My students too, show up here; I often shape and fashion and rehearse a verbal exegesis intended for them before finally delivering it.

Without this motley crew of companions, I daresay my solitary hours would be considerably less interesting and edifying. The possibility that I might be reckoned an eccentric by those around me seems like a small price to pay.