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Deciphering the curious act of talking to oneself

by Michael Hoffman

Contributing Writer

Talking to oneself is not respectable. It suggests many things, none of them good: abysmal loneliness, a mental screw loose, a social wire frayed, insanity, dementia. Shukan Post magazine this month cites experts in dementia who see solitary dialogue as a potential premonitory sign — not a conclusive one, but one that bears watching, as a symptom or a cause of a descent into a place we’d all rather avoid, from which few return alive.

And yet, there are things one can say only to oneself! Thoughts, ideas, feelings — nameless joy, unaccountable sadness — well up in the soul; they demand expression. A musician can express them in music, a dancer in dance, but such transcendent talents belong to very few. The rest of us have only language. If what we seek to express is beyond language, our talk will sound like babble — demented.

The sympathetic and understanding ear of a friend is priceless but rare — a truth recognized of old. To take it no farther back than the 14th century, the monk Kenko (1284-1350), in “Essays in Idleness,” mused: “How delightful it would be to converse intimately with someone of the same mind, sharing with him the pleasures of uninhibited conversation on the amusing and foolish things of this world, but such friends are hard to find. If you must take care that your opinions do not differ in the least from those of the person with whom you are talking, you might just as well be alone.”

Alone in silence? Whether or not Kenko himself indulged in talking to himself we don’t know, but referring to his innocent habit of scribbling down his snippets of thoughts and observations, which he had no idea would be published posthumously and survive the centuries as a classic, he explained (to himself): “If I fail to say what lies on my mind, it gives me a feeling of flatulence; I shall therefore give my brush free rein. Mine is a foolish diversion, but these pages are meant to be torn up, and no one is likely to see them.” Any devotee of the fine art of — or victim of the disease of — irrepressible soliloquy will smile in self-recognition.

One might ask Kenko, “Why must we take care that our opinions do not differ?” Surely friendship can survive, even feed on, difference of opinion? Maybe, maybe not. The modern tendency, often remarked, to seek virtual company only among those who agree with us shows him to have been on to something. That aside, opinions are one thing; the vague, sometimes incoherent wisps of thoughts and feelings that might bewilder, frighten or even repel even our nearest and dearest are not uttered to be argued with; they’re uttered because … well, just because!

Psychiatrist Tashiro Iwase, in conversation with Shukan Post, divides soliloquizing into two broad categories. What do we talk to ourselves about? Ourselves, mostly — the things we’ve done, the things we will do. The latter category he finds benign. The former worries him. What we’ve done we can’t undo. We can only congratulate ourselves or castigate ourselves. Of self-congratulation he says nothing, but in self-castigation, carried beyond certain limits, he sees malignant potential. Regrets are not bad in themselves and may even be good, a vehicle toward self-knowledge, but the stress hormone cortisol lurks in the background, eagerly responsive to any stimulus that boosts its impact, harrying us to insomnia at best, nervous collapse at worst. Regrets over an unalterable past are one such stimulus.

They are scarcely avoidable, as one grows older and (hopefully) wiser. It’s a question of degree. There’s a difference, observes gerontologist Yuta Makabe, between thinking and vocalizing. Speaking your regrets out loud, if only to yourself — especially to yourself? — amplifies them in the mind more than silently thinking them does. What is one to do then: Clamp the throat shut, suppress the voice that would burst forth, choking on it if necessary? If sanity is the goal, that hardly seems the key to it.

Shukan Post extends no helping hand over that barrier. It turns instead to the inescapable image problem. To be seen talking to yourself is to expose yourself to the pitying or condescending thoughts of anyone who sees you — family members, friends, enemies certainly, even total strangers. One can say to hell with them, which is exhilarating but alienating. Alternatively, one can be, or force oneself to at least seem, altogether unaware of them, but how healthy is that? Is retreating into a world of one’s own not conducive to a deepening of the very dementia that Makabe sees potentially foreshadowed in soliloquies?

How, one wonders, did talking to oneself acquire such odium? Is “oneself” really such an unacceptable interlocutor? Who understands oneself better? Whose sympathy runs deeper? A medical problem or a social problem, budding or in full bloom, soliloquizing may well be at times, but it is surely not only and always that. How much of the world’s poetry, past and present, began life as the solitary incoherent mumbling of a poet whose poem had yet to ripen into full-blooded coherence? Or how much lonely mumbling, speechifying, haranguing, chattering, babbling and so on may be nothing more — and nothing less — than a plea for an ear, a listener, “someone of the same mind,” in Kenko’s phrase, not necessarily someone who agrees with us but, even better, maybe, someone who disagrees, even violently, without being any less a friend?

Last month, the weekly Spa ran a story on a new kind of katsu (social activity): ani-katsu (seeking an “older brother”). There are many kinds of katsu: shu-katsu (job-hunting), kon-katsu (spouse-hunting), papa- or mama-katsu (trolling for an older man or woman for pocket money and/or sex), and so on. Ani-katsu stands apart, having little to do with either money or sex. Its ultimate goal seems to be simply finding someone to talk to.

“I’m an only child, I never had an older brother,” a 21-year-old woman tells the magazine.

The next time you see someone on the street, in the train, wherever, talking to themselves, perhaps think of it as a kind of ani-katsu, and be indulgent.

Big in Japan is a weekly column that focuses on issues being discussed by domestic media organizations. Michael Hoffman’s latest book is an essay collection titled “Fuji, Sinai, Olympos.”