On the Inner Voice

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In preparation for a move, I’ve been cleaning out my files, and today I found an article I clipped from the June 2005 issue of Harper’s Magazine and stowed away: The Inner Voice, by Denise Riley. (Subscription and registration is required to view it online.) She begins with the following:

“If a flower-streaked inward eye could construe Wordsworth’s bliss of solitude, the inward voice has fared less glamorously. Its mention doesn’t so much conjure up the consolation of inner riches recalled sotto voce as the pathos of a chattering internal radio for the antisocial; a poor comforter of enforced solitariness, or some misanthrope’s illusion of company in his flight from society. The very subject evokes an aura of loneliness… if by convention an index of solitude, our inner voice is at least faithful to us — it is reassuringly or irritatingly there on tap, and persists independently of our faltering memories. It offers us the unfailing if ambiguous company of a guest who does not plan to leave.”

Later on:

My daily mutterings to myself tend to be amiably prosaic and polyvocal. I’m better described as talking with myself rather than to myself. Much of this talking is agitated self-interrogation … there is an internal dialogue, but I occupy both sides of it, and there is no heavier side to my garrulous split self. I silently calm myself, debate with myself, or, more censoriously, berate myself, upbraid myself, goad myself along. But often I don’t actually address myself at all; there’s simply talking inside me. There is a voice. Questioned as to its origin, I have no doubt that it’s mine, but its habitual presence in me resembles a rapid low-grade commentary without authorship, rather in the manner of Samuel Beckett’s assessment: “whose voice, no one’s.”

And my absolute favorite quote from the thing:

The inner voice is no limpid stream of consciousness but a sludgy thing, thickened with reiterated quotation, choked with the rubble of the overheard, the strenuously sifted and hoarded, periodically dusted down but then crammed with mutterings of remembered accusations, irrepressible puns, archaic injunctions from hymns, monotonous citation, the embarrassing detritus of advertising, and pastel snatches of old song lyrics. And in this chaotic onrush, I have an impression of being arranged, puppetlike, to speak.

Full article available here to Harper’s subscribers.


Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →