Rational thinking cannot easily overturn unconscious attitudes

Freud and Adler and their followers were able to show that in some cases what we regard as rational decisions are in fact expressions of unconscious tendencies. A young man who went to join the Indian civil service found that he cold not sleep because of the howling of pariah dogs near his official residence. Others were undisturbed, but he was becoming ill from lack of sleep. A friend recommended that while he was lying awake he should try to recover early memories connected with dogs. That night after trying to dredge up everything he had seen or heard about dogs, he slept a little. The next night he found early childhood memories surfacing and on the third night he dozed into a dream that he was standing in front of two great white pillars, from between which a hideous monster charged out onto him. He woke up screaming, but after a little time he fell asleep deeply for the rest of the night. He wrote back home to his parents describing the dream and his mother wrote back: When you were two years old we were standing at our gate. We did not notice when you toddled a few steps to our neighbours gate which had two white gate posts. As you stood there their friendly little spaniel came out, puts its paws on your shoulders and tried to lick your face. You screamed and we ran to pick you up. But you never liked dogs after that, though you forgot the actual memory. After his dream the Indian Civil Servant was able to sleep peacefully.

When I was fifteen, I had like most teenagers read a couple of popular books on Freud and the others with their doctrine of the individual Unconscious. It occurred to me that perhaps our society itself was only partly based on rational considerations and had an Unconscious of it’s own, an irrational social Unconscious. I tried to think what were some of the obviously absurd bases of society that would surely come to awareness and be thrown off. One was our alphabet in which our whole intellectual and business activity is expressed. Surely, I thought, people will come to realise how idiotically inefficient it is – confusingly similar letters such as c and e, b and h, and a whole separate alphabet of capital letters. Everyone will learn shorthand. Books will shrink to a sixth of their present size and we shall be able to write as fast as we speak and almost as fast as we think.

So before going to university I spent a few months at Pitman’s college in London learning among other things Pitman’s shorthand. I got a certificate for 160 words a minute, which is parliamentary reporting speed. At London University I took down all the law lectures verbatim, which saved me the trouble of writing up notes, and all my life I’ve used shorthand for recording valuable lectures. I can still read such notes after 60 years.

I learnt, incidentally, that Bernard Shaw had the same idea when he was young. He wrote his plays in shorthand. I have seen some extracts: correct outlines beautifully and precisely written.

But I suppose we both reckoned without the Freudian insight that rational thinking cannot easily overturn unconscious attitudes. People still persist with the alphabet though the computer keyboard makes it quicker to write (if you touch-type and have a keyboard). This is simply getting more facility and the fundamental weakness is not met. It just means that the Indian Civil Servant tries to get some sleep by putting plugs into his ears.

© Trevor Leggett

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