We’re having a lot of fun with Banksy’s viral art shredding prank, which took place exactly one week ago at Sotheby’s London and has had the world atwitter ever since. Fun as it is, though, it does raise some major questions that remain to be answered.
We know, we know: So much digital ink has been spilled about this already. What more is there to say? But as it stands, the whole thing still doesn’t add up!
Details are slowly trickling out. Yesterday, the auction house released a statement that the street artist/prankster had officially renamed the now partially destroyed work, and that the buyer—an unnamed woman—had decided to keep it.
At Sotheby’s, it seems, all sides have won: the collector gets, if not the exact thing she wanted, a great story and a work that will now presumably only escalate in value; Banksy gets another big price (the highest in 10 years and now the second highest on record) and another major achievement; Sotheby’s gets a ton of extra publicity and doesn’t have to give anything—or pay anyone—back.
Nevertheless, everyone still wants to know just exactly how this whole unbelievable art auction action came together. The answers have more than trivial consequences. Here are the speculation-filled questions still on our minds.
1. So… Who’s Getting Fired?
From the moment Girl With Balloon came to life in the auction room, observers have suspected that Sotheby’s must have been in on it. Its slick press release touting the importance of the now rechristened artwork only furthers those suspicions. Yet some auction insiders suggest that as a publicly traded company, a stunt like this would be too big a risk because Sotheby’s has to answer to shareholders.
A funny thing about the story as it stands now is how the fact that nobody believes Sotheby’s when they say they weren’t in on it actually works to their favor, saving them from having to answer some really important questions.
Imagine: If they didn’t know, this would be one serious security breach. Someone hid an electronic device in a frame and remotely activated it. That’s a pretty big potential category of threats! Better hope that they are scanning their lots for remotely detonated self-destruct devices in the future!
Asked for comment, a Sotheby’s representative told artnet News: “We don’t discuss our security procedures but I can tell you that at no point was anyone in any danger.”
2. Insurance Implications?
A boring but important topic: Having unsuspectingly auctioned off a potentially booby-trapped work of art has got to raise all kinds of questions for insurers, right?
If you take seriously the notion that Sotheby’s didn’t notice the shredder embedded in the painting, how thoroughly can they have assessed the risks associated with any of their works?
Imagine: You sold an artwork you own for $1.4 million that self-destructs in front of everyone. That has got to raise your premiums, right?
When we asked if there were any insurance implications or if Sotheby’s had received any related questions from clients or insurers, the rep said there have been none.
3. Doesn’t This Erode Client Trust?
Trying to make its own PR out of uncertainty about Sotheby’s role in this whole affair, earlier this week Julien’s Auctions in Los Angeles flagged an upcoming Banksy in its November sale with the e-mail subject line: “Guaranteed Not to Shred.” The release included a comment from Darren Julien: “We can’t guarantee that our Banksy’s [sic] will shred or explode but they will sell to the highest bidder.”
The whole fracas puts a spotlight on a note in the Sotheby’s condition report: “Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby’s is merely a subjective, qualified opinion.” That “qualified opinion” just got a lot more qualified!
It would be nice to know if any of the potential bidders on the lot actually did avail themselves of their own inspection. The fact that, as far as we know (or at least, as far as anybody is saying), nobody suspected this stunt in advance highlights how much trust potential buyers put in an auction house to validate something.
If we were clients, and took seriously Sotheby’s official claim it was in the dark, we’d definitely be taking very little for granted in the future…
Asked if any concerned clients had reached out with these types of questions, Sotheby’s said no.
4. Who Was That Mystery Seller?
Supposedly, the work was acquired by the seller directly from the artist, Banksy himself, in 2006. That’s all we know.
It seems that this wild tale has a happy ending for Sotheby’s, with the winning bidder being so chill about it and all. Regardless, that doesn’t settle the matter. With more than a million pounds on the line, all risked on the final buyer being cool, wouldn’t the auction house have some very serious questions for whoever gave them the work? We would!
In that way, it’s worth saying that the whole thing shows what a black box the art auction market is. Banksy’s real booby trap is a lot less dodgy than some of the more ethical booby traps that go along with anonymous sellers.
Sotheby’s responded: “As a matter of practice, we don’t comment on our clients.”
5. What Did Sotheby’s Make of the Instagram Video Showing Banksy Installing the Shredder?
The video, posted to the artist’s account after the sale, raises as many questions as it answers. When was the shredder installed? In 2006, when the work was made? Or at some point afterward (it actually only says “A few years ago”)? Documentation has always been part of his practice, but did Banksy really shoot a video of the installation more than a decade ago (pre-smartphone and definitely pre-Instagram), and hang on to it just in case?
Sotheby’s maintains it has no idea how this whole thing happened. “Like the entire art world, we were surprised,” the rep said.
6. Was It Market Manipulation?
If, as many people speculate, the most logical person to have sold the work was actually Banksy himself or some front for Banksy, and the stunt really affected the value of a work sold at public auction, one way or another, doesn’t that count as a kind of market manipulation?
For that matter, if the auction house knew about (or even suspected) the impending stunt, gave out an estimate, and let bidders believe it, knowing that some event was about to happen that would change its value—isn’t that misleading too?
7. Was the Buyer in on It?
It is truly lucky for Sotheby’s that this anonymous female buyer is so pleasant about this whole thing (and note, interestingly, that if it was an “anonymous male” buyer, people would still be guessing it was Banksy…), but we still have to wonder.
It would be interesting to know what backstage negotiations took place post- (or pre-) sale. The buyer says she was disappointed at first when Girl With Balloon shredded itself, but ultimately came around.
If Sotheby’s was in on the gag—which we hope they were, because otherwise they look really bumbling—surely they risked irritating all those clients they described as having engaged in an “intense bidding battle… in the room and on the phones”?
“Like Sotheby’s, the purchaser had absolutely nothing to do with the prank,” the auction house spokesperson said. “Beyond that, we don’t comment on conversations with our clients.”
8. Now That We Are Looking at This More Closely, Did Sotheby’s Really Write This Incredibly Dismissive and Vaguely Prophetic Description of the Work?
Here’s the catalogue description for the work formerly known as Girl With Balloon. (Sotheby’s told artnet News the note was written by the contemporary team in London.)
“Bordered by an ornate gilded frame, an integral element of the artwork chosen by Banksy himself, the present work is a kitschy emblem of pathos. Instantly gettable, Banksy’s graffiti image is a perfect encapsulation of human emotion for the short-attention span of our social media age: it seditiously pokes fun at high-minded art world savoir faire and in doing so appeals to many, for whom it represents a contemporary expression of sanctity, a bright and vivid symbol of hope everlasting. Ultimately, however, Girl with Balloon is the poster-child of Banksy’s art: whether you are for or against him, this image utterly encapsulates the immediacy and controversy surrounding the artist’s mission.”
Someone got got alright! We’re still figuring out who!
is a writer, historian and consultant. She co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, where she remains an honorary senior research fellow in history. Her books include This Mortal Coil (2016) and A Biography of Loneliness (forthcoming, 2019). She lives in London.
One is the loneliest number: the history of a Western problem
Girl sitting alone in the Sea Grill, a bar and restaurant in Washington, DC, 1943. Photo by Esther Bubley/Library of Congress
‘God, but life is loneliness,’ declared the writer Sylvia Plath in her private journals. Despite all the grins and smiles we exchange, she says, despite all the opiates we take:
when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long.
By the 21st century, loneliness has become ubiquitous. Commentators call it ‘an epidemic’, a condition akin to ‘leprosy’, and a ‘silent plague’ of civilisation. In 2018, the United Kingdom went so far as to appoint a Minister for Loneliness. Yet loneliness is not a universal condition; nor is it a purely visceral, internal experience. It is less a single emotion and more a complex cluster of feelings, composed of anger, grief, fear, anxiety, sadness and shame. It also has social and political dimensions, shifting through time according ideas about the self, God and the natural world. Loneliness, in other words, has a history.
The term ‘loneliness’ first crops up in English around 1800. Before then, the closest word was ‘oneliness’, simply the state of being alone. As with solitude – from the Latin ‘solus’ which meant ‘alone’ – ‘oneliness’ was not coloured by any suggestion of emotional lack. Solitude or oneliness was not unhealthy or undesirable, but rather a necessary space for reflection with God, or with one’s deepest thoughts. Since God was always nearby, a person was never truly alone. Skip forward a century or two, however, and the use of ‘loneliness’ – burdened with associations of emptiness and the absence of social connection – has well and truly surpassed oneliness. What happened?
The contemporary notion of loneliness stems from cultural and economic transformations that have taken place in the modern West. Industrialisation, the growth of the consumer economy, the declining influence of religion and the popularity of evolutionary biology all served to emphasise that the individual was what mattered – not traditional, paternalistic visions of a society in which everyone had a place.
In the 19th century, political philosophers used Charles Darwin’s theories about the ‘survival of the fittest’ to justify the pursuit of individual wealth to Victorians. Scientific medicine, with its emphasis on brain-centred emotions and experiences, and the classification of the body into ‘normal’ and abnormal states, underlined this shift. The four humours (phlegmatic, sanguine, choleric, melancholic) that had dominated Western medicine for 2,000 years and made people into ‘types’, fell away in favour of a new model of health dependent on the physical, individual body.
In the 20th century, the new sciences of the mind – especially psychiatry and psychology – took centre-stage in defining the healthy and unhealthy emotions an individual should experience. Carl Jung was the first to identify ‘introvert’ and ‘extravert’ personalities (to use the original spelling) in his Psychological Types (1921). Introversion became associated with neuroticism and loneliness, while extroversion was linked to sociability, gregariousness and self-reliance. In the US, these ideas took on special significance as they were linked to individual qualities associated with self-improvement, independence and the go-getting American dream.
The negative associations of introversion help to explain why loneliness now carries such social stigma. Lonely people seldom want to admit they are lonely. While loneliness can create empathy, lonely people have also been subjects of contempt; those with strong social networks often avoid the lonely. It is almost as though loneliness were contagious, like the diseases with which it is now compared. When we use the language of a modern epidemic, we contribute to a moral panic about loneliness that can aggravate the underlying problem. Presuming that loneliness is a widespread but fundamentally individual affliction will make it nearly impossible to address.
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For centuries, writers have recognised the relationship between mental health and belonging to a community. Serving society was another way to serve the individual – because, as the poet Alexander Pope put it in his poemAnEssay on Man (1734): ‘True self-love and social are the same’. It’s not surprising, then, to find that loneliness serves a physiological and social function, as the late neuroscientist John Cacioppo argued: like hunger, it signals a threat to our wellbeing, born of exclusion from our group or tribe.
‘No man is an island,’ wrote the poet John Donne in a similar spirit, in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions (1624) – nor woman either, for each one formed ‘a piece of the continent, a part of the main.’ If a ‘clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind’ . For some of us, Donne’s remarks take on special poignancy in light of the UK’s departure from Europe, or the narcissism of Donald Trump’s US presidency. They also return us to medical metaphors: Donne’s references to the body politic being destroyed is reminiscent of modern loneliness as a physical affliction, a plague of modernity.
We urgently need a more nuanced appraisal of who is lonely, when and why. Loneliness is lamented by politicians because it is expensive, especially for an ageing population. People who are lonely are more likely to develop illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and depression, and 50 per cent more likely to die prematurely than non-lonely counterparts. But there is nothing inevitable about being old and alone – even in the UK and the US where, unlike much of Europe, there isn’t a history of inter-familial care of the aged. Loneliness and economic individualism are connected.
Until the 1830s in the UK, elderly people were cared for by neighbours, friends and family, as well as by the parish. But then Parliament passed the New Poor Law, a reform that abolished financial aid for people except the aged and infirm, restricting that help to those in workhouses, and considered poverty relief to be loans that were administered via a bureaucratic, impersonal process. The rise of city living and the breakdown of local communities, as well as the grouping of the needy together in purpose-built buildings, produced more isolated, elderly people. It is likely, given their histories, that individualistic countries (including the UK, South Africa, the US, Germany and Australia) might experience loneliness differently to collectivist countries (such as Japan, China, Korea, Guatemala, Argentina and Brazil). Loneliness, then, is experienced differently across place as well as time.
None of this is meant to sentimentalise communal living or suggest that there was no social isolation prior to the Victorian period. Rather, my claim is that human emotions are inseparable from their social, economic and ideological contexts. The righteous anger of the morally affronted, for instance, would be impossible without a belief in right and wrong, and personal accountability. Likewise, loneliness can exist only in a world where the individual is conceived as separate from, rather than part of, the social fabric. It’s clear that the rise of individualism corroded social and communal ties, and led to a language of loneliness that didn’t exist prior to around 1800.
Where once philosophers asked what it took to live a meaningful life, the cultural focus has shifted to questions about individual choice, desire and accomplishment. It is no coincidence that the term ‘individualism’ was first used (and was a pejorative term) in the 1830s, at the same time that loneliness was in the ascendant. If loneliness is a modern epidemic, then its causes are also modern – and an awareness of its history just might be what saves us.
I think, therefore I am,’ the 17th-century philosopher René Descartes proclaimed as a first truth. That truth was rediscovered in 1887 by Helen Keller, a deaf and blind girl, then seven years of age: ‘I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no world … When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something,’ she later explained, ‘I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.’ As both these pioneers knew, a fundamental part of conscious experience is ‘inner speech’ – the experience of verbal thought, expressed in one’s ‘inner voice’. Your inner voice is you.
That voice isn’t the sound of anything. It’s not even physical – we can’t observe it or measure it in any direct way. If it’s not physical, then we can arguably only attempt to study it by contemplation or introspection; students of the inner voice are ‘thinking about thinking’, an act that feels vague. William James, the 19th-century philosopher who is often touted as the originator of American psychology, compared the act to ‘trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks’.
Yet through new methods of experimentation in the last few decades, the nature of inner speech is finally being revealed. In one set of studies, scans are allowing researchers to study the brain regions linked with inner speech. In other studies, researchers are investigating links between internal and external speech – that which we say aloud.
The roots of the new work trace back to the 1920s and the Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who said the human mind was shaped by social activity and culture, beginning in childhood. The self, he hypothesised, was forged in what he called the ‘zone of proximal development’, the cognitive territory just beyond reach and impossible to tackle without some help. Children build learning partnerships with adults to master a skill in the zone, said Vygotsky, then go off on their own, speaking aloud to replace the voice of the adult, now gone from the scene. As mastery increases, this ‘self-talk’ becomes internalised and then increasingly muted until it is mostly silent – still part of the ongoing dialogue with oneself, but more intimate and no longer pronounced to the world. This voice – at first uttered aloud but finally only internal – was, from Vygotsky’s perspective, the engine of development and consciousness itself.
Vygotsky’s theory of childhood development contrasted sharply with those of his Western counterparts. William James had a complete disdain for the study of inner speech, because, to him, it was a ghost: impossible to observe. The French developmental psychologist Jean Piaget insisted that private speech signified simple inability – it was the babble of a child without capacity for social communication with no relation to cognitive functioning at all. Through much of the 20th century, Piaget seized the reigns of child development, insisting that children had to reach a developmental stage before learning could occur. Which came first: the chicken or the egg? Vygotsky said that learning occurred, then the brain developed. Piaget said the brain developed, then learning occurred.
Over years of meticulous experiment behind the Iron Curtain, Vygotsky continued to make his case. One thing he did was study children in the zone of proximal development as they worked with adults to accomplish tasks. In the experiments, the child would be presented with a challenge and a tool for overcoming it. In the zone, Vygotsky observed what he called ‘private speech’ – self-talk that children between the ages of two and eight often engage in. This intermediate stage, he held, was connected on one end to a prior period when we had no thread of memory (and no inner voice) and on the other end to true inner speech so crucial to self-reflection, narrative memory, and development of cognitive skills.
Within the newly forming Soviet Union, Vygotsky’s research was stigmatised, in large part because it used intelligence testing to validate some concepts; IQ testing itself had been banned as a challenge to Marxist principles of equality. Despite the roadblocks, in 1934 (the year of his death) Vygotsky finally published his opus on inner speech and childhood development, Thought and Language. It was a potent challenge to Piaget but, shrouded by the Stalinist censor, his ideas remained under wraps.
Meanwhile, in the West, newer work in developmental psychology began to chip away at the acceptance of Piaget. When Thought and Language was finally rediscovered and published in English by MIT Press in 1962, it was the perfect moment. The book provided a rational, alternative way to conceive the development of the mind. And further translations of Vygotsky’s writings led to a plethora of hypotheses ripe for testing.
By 1970, the push to validate Vygotsky’s ideas had picked up steam. A leader of that era was the American psychologist Laura Berk, professor emeritus at Illinois State University, an expert on childhood play. Berk observed children engage in imaginative, ‘make-believe’ play, and demonstrated that the substitution of objects – say a cup for a hat – requires internal thought (and self-talk) rather than impulse. Her studies show that during imaginative play, children’s self-talk helps them guide their own thoughts and behaviour and exert true self-control. She and many other child psychologists demonstrated the importance of the inner voice, beyond a doubt, elevating Vygotsky and burying Piaget for good.
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With inner speech clearly established as a chisel for the young mind, many more questions remained. Do people in adulthood experience inner speech in the same way as children – or even as each other? Do most of us even have an inner voice – an internal commentator narrating our lives and experiences from one moment to the next?
These were deeply controversial and introspective questions in the 1970s, and they captured the imagination of Russell Hurlburt, an aeronautical engineer-turned-clinical-psychology graduate student at the University of South Dakota. Hurlburt had envisioned a way to accurately sample others’ random inner experiences. Today a professor of psychology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he’s been honing the technique ever since.
Hurlburt calls his methodology Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES), and it works by sampling the inner thoughts of a given interviewee during those moments when a beeper randomly goes off. After extracting the contents of inner experience from countless interviews, Hurlburt has defined an array of phenomena typically shared by humans – auditory and visual imagery, emotion, awareness of real stimuli and a category of thoughts that occur without words, images or symbols of any kind. The main contribution here, though, is actually DES itself. Before its inception, introspective methods had been shunned for decades, if not centuries, as being too highly influenced by bias to be taken seriously. Now, with DES, Hurlburt believes in the possibility of obtaining unbiased, accurate snapshots of inner experience that includes inner speech.
Freed from the mundane confines of a laboratory, the data come from ‘the wild’, as Hurlburt puts it. A participant wears the beeper, which can go off at any moment throughout the day. They go about their daily activities and are likely to forget its presence. When the beeper does go off, the participant makes a careful note of exactly what their inner experience was immediately beforehand. Subsequently, they are questioned by Hurlburt about that experience in a thorough but open-ended interview.
The interview process itself requires an exacting, friendly yet trial-like probe of what occurred. In one unedited transcript in Hurlburt’s book Exploring Inner Experience (2006), a participant named Sandy is quoted following a beep: ‘I was reading. I was starting with the word “life”… and I had an image in my head – it was a black and white image, by the way – of… OK, I was staring at the word “life” and I had said to myself “life” in my own tone of voice.’
Sandy was referring to inner speech using the word ‘life’. For the next six minutes Hurlburt probed her about this experience. His questions eventually helped Sandy divulge that as she was inwardly speaking the word ‘life’ she simultaneously ‘saw an image of that word in an old-courier like font – black on a white background’ and a moving image of ‘sand pouring’ from a hand of unknown agency below her face.
In a sample of bulimic participants, Hurlburt found the propensity for multiple inner voices at the same time
DES requires careful skill to capture these kinds of experiences accurately – what Hurlburt terms, ‘high-fidelity, pristine’ inner speech as it naturally occurs. He takes care not to bias the participant in any way. ‘There are a lot of people who believe that you talk to yourself allof the time, so that’s a form of external pressure to say you were inner speaking when maybe you weren’t,’ he notes. For example, noted consciousness researcher Bernard Baars has asserted that ‘overt speech takes up perhaps a tenth of the waking day; but inner speech goes on all the time’. Hurlburt’s research shows this isn’t true; he finds that inner speech consumes about 25 per cent of an average person’s day, and thus, he is careful to not communicate any assumption about what type of inner experience a DES interviewee may have had at the time of the beep.
Thanks to the accuracy of DES, Hurlburt has found thought patterns associated with various clinical populations, including those with schizophrenia, bulimia nervosa, and autism. In a sample of bulimic participants, for instance, he’s found the propensity for multiple inner voices experienced at the same time. Take ‘Jessica’, a patient watching television when the DES beep occurred. In the front of her head, Hurlburt explains, she was inwardly saying ‘blond’, ‘skinny’, ‘guys’, and ‘stare’ in what was her own, unspoken voice. At the same time, in the back part of her head, she was saying, in another, quieter inner voice, still her own: ‘Why is it that movies and TV shows always have ‘girls for’, ‘to’, and ‘at’? Importantly, such experiences are not often perceived by the experiencers themselves, let alone revealed to anyone else.
Hurlburt has found that we typically self-talk in voices we regard as our own and, though silent, we attribute to these voices sonic characteristics such as tone, pitch and pacing. We invest them with emotional qualities similar to external speech. Finally, inner speech mostly occurs in complete sentences and is nearly always actively produced rather than passively experienced.
Recently, Hurlburt teamed up with Charles Fernyhough, a leading researcher of inner speech and auditory hallucination at Durham University in the United Kingdom. To conduct their collaboration, they put DES participants into brain scanners using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which detects metabolic changes in the brain. Like other participants, these subjects were asked to record inner speech and experience occurring just prior to a beep – but this time, brains would be scanned. These scans were compared with others that were captured when participants inwardly repeated words that they read on a screen – a method for investigating inner speech that had been used in many previous studies. The researchers found that activity increased in a brain region called Heschl’s gyrus during spontaneous inner speech, but not when the self-talk is prompted – indicating that the neural nature of pristine self-talk is unique, indeed.
Picking up where Vygotsky and researchers like Berk left off, Fernyhough has been investigating the role that inner speech plays in developing, evolving minds. After the private speech of childhood has finally been internalised, suggests Fernyhough, inner speech emerges in a multiplicity of ways – each comparable to speech spoken out loud.
Fernyhough calls the most familiar level of inner speech ‘expanded’ because it is basically the same as external speech – grammatical and fully formed, but not vocal. He believes this kind of inner speech is most likely engaged when we are under stress or cognitive pressure. Imagine, for example, while travelling, that you are making an important phone call regarding a lost passport. While on hold there’s a good chance that you’ll mentally rehearse exactly what you are about to say to the official on the other end – your story about how your passport went missing – in language that is full and complete.
To date, Fernyhough and colleagues have devised clever ways of exploring expanded speech through its tight connection with out-loud speech. For example, they’ve shown that external speech can interfere with inner speech when it is required for memorisation. If participants try to silently memorise a list of items – a task that requires inner speech – while they recite out loud the days of the week, they can’t do it. Speaking aloud effectively annihilates the role that expanded inner speech would otherwise play.
In another study, Fernyhough and his colleague Simon McCarthy-Jones captured fMRI images of brain activity linked with a form of expanded speech labelled ‘dialogic’ because it involves envisioning a dialogue with another. To do the experiment, the researchers had participants imagine themselves in a variety of scenarios, like going to their old school or meeting the Prime Minister. In these imaginary scenarios, they inwardly conversed with their old teacher or interviewed the Prime Minister, while the scanner recorded the active areas in their brains. These scans revealed that, in a manner similar to real communication, inner dialogues can also recruit neural regions such as the posterior temporal cortex, involved in what’s called ‘theory of mind’ – the ability to attribute mental states to others that are different from one’s own. This happens even if the dialogue is solely within the mind of the self.
The second broad category of inner speech defined by Fernyhough is considerably more mysterious and enigmatic. He calls it ‘condensed’ inner speech, borne out of Vygotsky’s belief that as speech becomes internalised it can undergo profound transformations that set it distinctly apart from the expanded version. Condensed inner speech is defined as a highly abbreviated and ungrammatical version of regular speech. Although possibly linguistic – comprised of words – it is not intended to be communicated or even understood by others. For example, as a habit in the winter since my younger days, I often think to myself, ‘passlockmoney’ before heading out the door to go snowboarding. For you to understand what I mean, I’m required to expand this term: Remember your ticket or pass if it is still valid, your snowboard lock, and cash or credit card for getting lunch (and après beer).
Sometimes there are holes in your inner speech; sometimes all words are missing and yet you still experience yourself speaking
The variety of ‘condensed’ experiences people have are remarkably unique because we already know the meanings of the contents of our own thoughts – there’s simply no need for a brain to slog out a rich, grammatical format of inner thought that can be understood by others, when thinking to ourselves. Thus, beyond the abbreviation of ‘passlockmoney’, the condensation of inner speech can result in ‘thinking in pure meanings’ as originally stated by Vygotsky. Condensed inner speech can even have most of its auditory qualities stripped away, such that ‘there isn’t much speechy about it’, say Fernyhough.
Hurlburt says inner speech can indeed involve elimination of words entirely, while the linguistic experience remains intact. ‘Sometimes there are words that are missing – “holes” in your inner speech. Sometimes the whole thing [all words] are missing and yet you still experience yourself speaking,’ he states. In this case, the person reports the experience of speaking, including its production, sense of loudness, pace etc, and senses what is being said but does not experience any words in their usual sense.
He has also posited a passive form of inner speech that he calls ‘inner hearing’. ‘It’s possible to inner “hear” your own voice rather than speak your own voice,’ he tells me. Here, people listen to their own voice in their heads, perceiving the same sonic characteristics as expanded speech, but without the agency. Such experiences have been recalled by participants as their voice ‘just happening’, as ‘coming out of its own accord’, as ‘taking place’ rather than ‘being uttered’.
Some people passively experience inner speech in voices not their own – essentially as auditory hallucinations that they cannot control. Founding member of the Beach Boys Brian Wilson described the experience to Larry King in an interview on CNN in 2004: ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to hurt you’, an inner voice had continually repeated to him since his initial experiences with LSD in the 1960s. The value of understanding such hallucinations is self-evident: they are a hallmark of schizophrenia, a condition that affects almost 24 million people worldwide.
Of great fascination, Fernyhough has concluded that a small but significant part of the general population also experience auditory hallucinations – a phenomenon the researchers call ‘voice hearing’ to distinguish it from schizophrenia. Such voices have been reported by noted individuals throughout history, says Fernyhough. The Greek philosopher Socrates described what he called a ‘daemonic sign’, an inner voice warning him that he was about to make a mistake. Joan of Arc described hearing divine voices since childhood – the same ones that influenced her motivation to help in the siege of Orleans. The 15th-century mystic and autobiographer Margery Kempe wrote about inner conversations with God. Sigmund Freud was not immune: ‘During the days when I was living alone in a foreign city … I quite often heard my name suddenly called by an unmistakable and beloved voice.’
All this leads to another, confounding question: are verbal thoughts reaching awareness just the tip of a mental iceberg, offering only a glimpse of the unconscious mind? The possibility was posed by Vygotsky, but Fernyhough doesn’t like going there: ‘When we are talking about thinking, we are talking about conscious processes.’
Whatever we ultimately find, the work pioneered by Vygotsky in human development promises to illuminate more secrets of selfhood and consciousness over time. Today, the new science of inner speech is turning up the gas so fast it is lighting the dark.
A fado singer in Porto, 2008. Photo courtesy Wikimedia
‘I pray for friends I’ve lost, family, like my uncle who passed away,’ Bruno told me. We were chatting in the nave of the Church of the Santa Cruz of the Souls of the Hanged, a small Catholic church in central São Paulo. Built near the old city gallows, regulars go there to pray to the dead. ‘When I’m here, I feel well,’ he said. ‘I even feel that the other side is well.’ Bruno told me there was something special about the place, that it left him with a ‘sensation’. ‘The fact that you’re remembering, recalling someone that did right by you, it leaves you with even more saudade,’ he told me.
Saudade is a key emotion word for Portuguese speakers. Though akin to nostalgia or longing, the term has no direct equivalent in English. As the Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil sings in ‘Toda saudade’, it is the presence of absence, ‘of someone or some place – of something, anyway’. One can have saudades (the singular and plural forms are interchangeable) for people or places, as well as sounds, smells, and foods. One can even have saudades for saudade itself. That is because ‘it is good to have saudades’ (é bom ter saudades), as the common saying goes. There is a certain pleasure in the feeling. Though painful, the sting of saudades is a reminder of a good that came before.
Writing in 1912, the Portuguese poet Teixeira de Pascoaes defined saudade as ‘desire for the beloved thing, made painful by its absence’. It is an acute feeling, often described as occurring in the heart. The language of saudade is evocative. Portuguese speakers complain of ‘dying of saudades’ (morrendo de saudades), or wanting to ‘kill saudades’ (matar saudades) by fulfilling desire. Though hyperbolic, the word’s morbid poetics throw light on how affective ties make for a meaningful human life.
Popular tradition relatessaudade to the feeling of distance and loss suffered by the families of men off at sea during the age of Portuguese discoveries. While this folk history captures the term’s poetic ambivalence, its etymology is unclear. The archaic form soidade appears in 13th-century troubadour verses recounting the laments of distant lovers. Most scholars suggest that this form derives from the Latin solitate (solitude), and was possibly later influenced by the Portuguese word saudar (‘to greet’) before arriving at the present form. But some scholars have offered alternative etymologies, including one that traces saudadeto the Arabic sawdā, a word that can denote a dark or melancholy mood. It is a high-stakes debate: saudade is integral to Portuguese self-understanding, and the question of the word’s origins reflects deeper concerns about Portuguese ethnicity and identity.
Saudosismo, an early 20th-century literary movement, was largely responsible for establishing saudade as a marker of Portuguese identity. Founded two years after the 1910 republican revolution that ended a centuries-long monarchy, Saudosismo promised cultural renewal during a time of uncertainty. In ‘The Making of Saudade’ (2000), the Portuguese anthropologist João Leal writes that Saudosistas sought to restore the ‘lost splendour’ of Portuguese cultural life, ‘replacing foreign influences – held to be responsible for the decline of the country since the Age of Discoveries – with a cult of “Portuguese things”, reflecting the true “Portuguese soul”.’ Hailing saudade as the authentic expression of the ‘Lusitanian spirit’, the movement put the emotion at the cult’s centre.
Portuguese speakers commonly boast that saudade is untranslatable. Though an old claim – King Duarte of Portugal (who reigned 1433-38) asserted saudade’s singularity as early as the 15th century – the Saudosistas are responsible for its ubiquity today. In the movement’s manifesto, Pascoaes repeated the claim that the term could not be translated, and asserted that ‘the only people who feel saudade are the Portuguese’. Linking the feeling to Portuguese ethnogenesis, he argued that saudade’s sublime union of desire and pain reflected the ‘perfect synthesis’ of Aryan and Semitic blood that obtained in the Portuguese people. Though contemporaries pointed to close equivalents in other languages, Pascoaes’s nationalist embrace of saudade appealed to a cultural elite trying to find its way.
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Are there culturally specific emotions? At issue is whether the emotions signified by words such as saudade are unique to particular cultures, or instead whether humans everywhere can experience the same range of emotions but recognise and emphasise those emotions differently based on the cultural availability of certain emotion concepts. The psychologists Yu Niiya, Phoebe Ellsworth and Susumu Yamaguchi suggest that ‘emotions named by a language may act as magnets for emotional experience, attracting undefined feelings’ toward well-known concepts. This would also mean that emotion words such as nostalgia or saudade take on different affective shadings in different places and historical periods.
Brazilian intellectuals have often distinguished their saudade from that of the Portuguese. In 1940, the Brazilian writer Osvaldo Orico described Brazilian saudade as ‘more happy than sad, more imagination than pain … a saudade that does not cry, but sings’. Orico’s notion of a happy saudade reflected the joyous, optimistic notion of brasilidade (‘Brazilian-ness’) that emerged during the early years of the first Getúlio Vargas regime (1930-45). But saudade can also be critical or resentful. In his 2017 study of saudade in Brazilian cinema, the cultural studies scholar Jack Draper at the University of Missouri writes that midcentury directors such as Humberto Mauro deployed saudade for rural folk life as a way of commenting on developmentalism and rural-urban migration. And in today’s divisive political climate, some conservatives openly express saudades for Brazil’s military dictatorship, which they imagine as the antidote to rife corruption, violence and economic distress.
But can one really feel saudades for a dictatorship, empire or any other polity? Or is it that the word is so cherished, potent and prevalent that it is easily used for political ends? Perhaps both. Because if devotees such as Bruno at the Church of the Souls tell us anything, it is that saudade is always a pleasure and an indulgence. It is a feeling that manages to give, despite being a confrontation with what has been taken away. It is revelatory: when caught in saudade’s grip, we become aware of that which is most important to us, that which makes us what we are.