Stop Making Sense

• • • How Automatic Writing Can Free Your Mind and Change the World

Automatic writing was a sort of manual for the psychologists of the 1880s and ‘90s. Given the enormous number of fatuous communications signed by the most reputable ghosts of history, it seemed unlikely that the mediums’ messages all came from the Beyond. Some of them, if not all, must have been unwittingly invented by the mediums themselves. Among the investigators who studied automatic writing in the hope that it would reveal the workings of the mind were William James, the French psychologist Pierre Janet, and the British team of F.W. Myers and Edmund Gurney, who, undiscouraged by what they discovered, would go on to found the Society for Psychical Research. Each of them came to more or less the same conclusion: Automatic writing was produced by a part of the mind of which the writer had no awareness. Myers called it the “co-conscious”; Janet called it “mental automatism,” and James, prudently, called it nothing at all. A decade later Freud would call it the unconscious, and the name would stick. The study of mediums and other automatic writers was to have an enormous influence on the not-yet-born field of psychoanalysis; indeed, Freud’s technique of free association is, in a sense, nothing more than automatic talking. At the same time, automatic writing pointed another group of psychologists in a different direction: The idea that the mind, or at least part of it, worked like a machine, suggested that it could be studied with the same objectivity as chemical compounds or moving bodies. The study of mental automatism, as manifested in writing (and, to be fair, in other behaviors as well), inspired the psychometric experiments of Fechner and Helmholtz, which were in turn the foundation of the modern discipline of experimental psychology.

Among the early experimentalists, we ought to note, was one of James’s most brilliant students, a Harvard undergraduate named Gertrude Stein. Together with a graduate student named Leon Solomons, Stein conducted experiments on “normal motor automatism,” the ability of the nervous system to operate without conscious control. Writing was one of the activities they studied: Stein put her arm in a sling and hid it from her view with a screen; Solomons distracted her while her writing hand went about its business. The results sound like . . . well, like Stein: “Hence there is no possible way of avoiding what I have spoken of, and if this is not believed by the people of whom you have spoken, then it is not possible to prevent the people of whom you have spoken of so glibly.” Stein’s literary work was not, as far as we know, automatically written, but the influence of automatic writing on her rhythm and syntax is unmistakable—so much so that B.F. Skinner jokingly argued that she could not claim to be the author of Tender Buttons, as it had so clearly been produced by forces more or less beyond her control.

Stein’s experiments notwithstanding, automatic writing didn’t really connect with literature—at least, not in the way Börne had suggested—until the 1920s, when the French Surrealists, with an admirable nostalgia for the discredited practices of the last century, revived the mediums’ old technique. (If this assertion vexes you, consider that Stein would doubtless have scoffed at the notion that what she was doing was effortless, or without control.) André Breton, who wrote the manifestos to which the other Surrealists affixed their names, had studied Freud and was a partisan of psychoanalysis. He believed that automatic writing had, in addition to its kitsch value, the virtue of revealing the “real mechanism of thought,” and also of uniting the conscious and unconscious minds. The effect of this union would, he predicted, be revolutionary: All distinctions, as between perception and representation, subject and object, waking and sleep, sanity and madness, would collapse, and the subject would be freed from what the bourgeoisie, for their own nefarious ends, called “reality.” Breton hoped for a revolution that would be more than artistic: If everyone liberated their minds by means of automatism, the result might be political change, the collapse of the State, the institution of some real and meaningful communication between minds. Of course this never happened, nor did Breton do much to bring it about. Having achieved literary fame, he seems to have felt no particular compulsion to jeopardize it by inciting a riot.

illustration by Charlene Potts

However feckless and French Breton’s protestations may have been, his methods have had—or could have—a real effect on the world. The works that he and his collaborators Philippe Soupault and Paul Éluard produced automatically are, for many people, boring and unreadable—nothing but sentences like “That’s what they call the uncovered place where the water is made up of all those peasants’ movements” and “The grass at night gulps down a great number of white pebbles and talks more loudly than the echoing caves,” one after another. If you can let go of your expectation that the text will tell a story in the same way that, say, Scott Turow tells a story, though, the sentences take on something almost like beauty. Your mind wants so hard to make sense of things that you end up finding patterns and connections even in the most haphazard and incongruous collection of poetic enigmas, and at the end of the day you’re left with a satisfaction incomparably greater than the discovery that his wife did it: You know that his wife, or your wife, if you prefer, did Goethe while the Turks waged war at Fonk’s trial. By breaking the world up and jumbling it together, you have seen things in a new way.

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