Friday, May 21, 2010

Talking about invisible things

Nowadays, my children Emmanuelle and François do a lot of traveling, often for professional reasons. I think back with nostalgia to the days in 1978 when I suggested that they might accompany me on an excursion to England and Scotland when I was working on my future tourist guide. One of the highlights of our trip was a car journey alongside Loch Ness. Naturally, the children quizzed me at length for precise information concerning the monster. My 9-year-old son digested all these explanations in silence, obviously trying to form his own personal analysis of the affair. When his words emerged, they were a splendid summary of subtle psychology, bordering on existentialist philosophy.

FRANCOIS: "Papa, suppose the monster exists, hidden in the depths of Loch Ness. Do you think he worries a lot about whether or not we tourists exist?"

WILLIAM: "No, I don't suppose so."

FRANCOIS: "Well, if the monster isn't worrying a lot about whether or not we tourists exist, then why should all of us be wasting our time talking about whether or not the monster exists?"

I seem to recall that this line of thought corresponds to an argument in one of the appendices of the wonderful novel by Rebecca Goldstein, which I described recently in an article entitled God travels incognito [display]. In blunt negative terms: If God doesn't give a damn about us, then why care about Him? My son's question reminds me, above all, of the ad on the atheist bus:

Normally, we humans are on firm grounds when we talk about "things" that we can actually see, like our homes and our neighborhoods, our families and friends, etc. Past memories (like the story I've just told) are almost in that visible category, because we're absolutely convinced that we did in fact see the people and places we describe, once upon a time. On the other hand, there's a big category of "things" that we talk about regularly, without ever having seen them… like the Loch Ness monster. The "things" I'm thinking of are… thoughts in the minds of other people. This is an intriguing branch of contemporary psychology designated by an unusual but nevertheless precise expression: the theory of mind. Here's a tiny video masterpiece that sums up this subject very nicely:

Robert Seyfarth has done a wonderful didactic job in presenting these sophisticated notions so tersely. Recently, by chance, I've noticed quite a few references to this kind of intellectual inquiry, which seems to be currently fashionable. Somebody pointed out that, in the narrations of an "ordinary" novelist such as Jane Austen (it goes without saying that she's in no way "ordinary"), the convoluted descriptions of what is said to be going on in the minds of her characters are extraordinarily complex. Indeed, on the reader's part, it takes a high degree of intelligence and concentration to be able to keep track of what's happening.

In French, a delightful little expression designates all this invisible stuff that is so vital in human relationships. It's referred to as the non-dit: the things that are "not said". Maybe the title of this article should be Talking (and NOT talking) about invisible things.

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