A few months back, I was running a seminar on language development. The seminar examines phonology, syntax, semantics — all the objective bric-a-brac that we cognitive psychologists like to talk about when we talk about language. Midway through the introductory session, I stopped to ask if there were questions. A mature student asked, ‘I don’t see how all these things relate to language itself. You know, as a creative, breathing thing that people use to express what they are about.’
Silence on my part. I looked over their heads, out the window.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, ‘that’s probably a really stupid question.’
Some of the students laughed.
‘No, it’s the most important question you could ask in psychology. There isn’t any answer that I can think of.’ I paused again. ‘No, psychology isn’t good enough to answer that yet. It probably never will be.’
What you have, in psychology and in fiction, is an objective linguistic framework that attempts to describe the mind. It omits the subjective. That is, it has nothing to say on what it is like to be in possession of a mind. There are those who believe that an objective framework is sufficient for a science of the mind like psychology, but I’m not one of them. And I think this problem applies to fiction. How do we, using an objective, linguistic framework, provide a sense of what it is like to be our characters?
Imagine this. Imagine that.
How do you brush your teeth in a Swiss garret in 1907? How much does a piece of cheese cost in a Zurich market? How anti-semitic are certain groups?
But what is it like to be a character? The novel is an objective record, and the reader conjures something subjective from this. What will they conjure?
These are my thoughts as I finish The Amber Rooms, join the dots, spend some time being someone else until it’s all over.