Reality consists of two halves: the external and the internal. Any attempt at realism must be honest in its portrayal of both halves, and of the ways in which they interact with each other.
No other art bears the burden of expressing the internal reality of thought to the degree that literature does. Even the earliest known pieces of literature move to engage with this alien process. Would the earliest literary device for representing thought be the monologue? We’ll say it is: the monologue in all its forms: in plays, poems, eventually novels.
But a monologue is not a direct representation of thought. Whether it’s internal or external is besides the point. Nobody thinks in the way that a character speaks in a monologue; this is thought visualized, architectured into speech: streamlined and neatened up and plaited into a coherent and pleasing shape. A monologue is a sculpture. And it honestly conveys the texture of thought, the ways in which a human mind analyzes and reanalyzes a person, a situation, a feeling; but structurally, it’s entirely artifice, and has more in common with a shopping list than in the ungraspable outwebbing and inwebbing complexity of thought.
In Shakespeare’s monologues, the embroidered, poetic language symbolizes the tortured, non-Euclidean baroqueness of actual thought. The “Blow, winds” monologue in Lear conveys Lear’s agony through its agonized poetic burden, the vertiginously heightened language, the canted diction, the apocalyptic imagery. In a reading of King Lear dedicated to scrupulously analyzing the realism of it, we’d have to treat the speech as a metaphor, because it isn’t something that King Lear, the person, or any person, could actually say. But it’s meant to be an artifact that evokes what he is thinking, how he feels. This sort of evocation without representation is the common purview of poetry, but in literature of any kind we often see it used in the depiction of thought.
There’s an analogue to this synechdochal quality in video games. In the Uncharted games it has been pointed out over and over again how the amount of men Nathan Drake kills is absurd, genocide on a mindbending level. In most any game with combat in it, the amount of combat would be inconceivable in real life. Amy Hennig, main writer for most of the Uncharted games, made the point that the amount of people Drake kills can be looked at metaphorically: that he’s really fighting a smaller amount of people, and that the bombastic gunfights are a representation of this actual encounter that has been overblown and exaggerated, both to be fun for the player and to convey at the scale of gameplay (which is different than the scale of life) some sensation of the difficulty of a real life firefight.
I’m making these allusions from memory, and am not looking up to verify, by the way. The point stands, even if all the specifics are false or misremembered.
In a novel, sometimes the monologue will be broken up into discrete little segments. We might be told that somebody thought one specific thing, rather than be given the entire circumnavigation all at once or ever. You see this in Anna Karenina all over the place. And then, in contrast, there’s an extended internal monologue that Anna gives in an excellent chapter that I read last night; I won’t spoil it here, suffice it to say that it approached the length and tenor of a dramatic or poetic monologue.
Late in the 19th and into the 20th century, writers began to play with the stream-of-consciousness technique. Most famously employed in Ulysses, this style of writing was supposed to accurately convey the flowing, associational nature of our actual internal monologue.
The internal monologues in Ulysses, while beautifully done and artistically valid, are more artistically successful than they are faithful to reality, specifically because they are beautifully done. Nobody thinks like Bloom or Stephen, whose internal voices, erudition aside, are too sustained, well-paced, and harmoniously structured to bear any comparison to the ruleless churn of thought. The callbacks, echoes, repetitions, and mirrorings are all aesthetic choices that create beauty, but don’t develop a direct, representational honesty with the real nature of thought.
Maybe the only way to be honest to thought’s complexity would be to disinclude it. Create book where thought is only show indirectly, where the text gives no straightforward reference to what a character is thinking, but somehow furnishes you with all the evidence needed, through their actions and words, to put together an impression of their thought process all the same. Some fiction does some stuff like this – novels that trade in implication, like Snow Country – but still, this exact thing I’m envisioning is something else.
Thought is so difficult to be faithful to in art, which is an aesthetic practice of truth, because, truthfully, we don’t understand it ourselves. Thought is as continuous as gravity in us, and even though it’s the element that bears us along ceaselessly forward, even though it is inside our head, it’s as inscrutable as darkness. Maybe there’s something about all essential things that defies description: try and describe the taste of water, for instance. The strange distance and intimacy of thought brings us too close and puts us too far, hopelessly away. What comes out of this mystery into the world, the pieces of our personalities, are comparatively superficial, and even these superficial elements are almost too much for us or anyone to bear.