There is a method of looking at personality adopted instinctively by all people. The story-teller, the talker, the speaker, the witness—anybody, in fact, who dominates the moment—is regarded by the most innocent spectator from two absolutely distinct points of view. What he says, and what he remembers and adds as time passes, form one train of interest. But the way he speaks forms another and quite independent train of interest. The witness is quite conscious of what he says, but he is only partly conscious, or unconscious, of the way he says it. The practical value of this lies in the fact that although people know that he may be unconscious, and readily accept the idea, yet his unconscious gestures and mannerisms are regarded as being of as much importance as the stream of words issuing from his mouth. It is not perhaps too much to say that often they are regarded as of far greater importance.
What bearing has this on mental background ?
It means that there is a natural tendency for people to look behind the conscious levels and conscious processes for the whole understanding of a man's actions. The eye instinctively focusses itself as much on mental background as on mental foreground, and in looking at mental background it sees some kind of activity at work that either corroborates, or gives a denial to, the processes occurring on mental foreground. How does this activity reveal itself ? It reveals itself in a great number of small ways in a language that is difficult to describe and yet unmistakable in its meaning. It is a curious minute language of gestures, hesitations, attitudes, and changes in colour, voice, tone, and expression. It is a language that shines through speech itself. It is read by the kind of words used, by the emphasis, by the reiterations or avoidances. It is a language that speaks in many other ways, some of which escape the power of words. Its peculiarity is that it is understood by all human beings, and apparently to a greater or less extent by animals. The more finished a statesman or diplomatist or man of the world is, the less easily can the language be read. It is not the language of conscious gesture. It is the language of unconscious gesture. Perhaps it is the channel most used in forming opinions of other people, and particularly is it the source of first impressions. Now this language, unconscious to the speaker, is read by the listener unconsciously. Later on, by careful thinking, some of its symbolism may be brought into consciousness, examined, and given an explanation, but that is not a common experiment, because it seems unnecessary. I have used the term symbolism in describing this language. In this connection a symbol can be defined as latent meaning. Its meaning is latent only in relationship to the intellect, because it appeals immediately to general intelligence. It is understood apart from the intellect. When the intellect is brought to bear on it, it requires to be unpicked and spread out. It is thus condensed as well as latent meaning.
The language of unconscious gesture is a language of condensed and latent meaning. But though condensed and latent, its effect is very powerful. Let us take an example as an illustration. A man is called upon to propose somebody's health at a public dinner. He makes a very adulatory speech, and then lifts his glass. His gesture is only partial. He raises his glass slowly, a little way off the table, and announces the toast. His action at once suggests a meaning. In spite of his words his enthusiasm is reluctant. The action at once flashes this meaning into every one present. That meaning is grasped long before any conscious reasoning comes into play. It may be designed 5 that is always a possibility. But it may be quite unconscious. The man may clumsily upset his glass at the moment the toast come§; the action produces a sense of awkwardness. Something has occurred that contradicts the outward spirit of the proceedings. It arouses a kind of suspicion. Or, to quote an actual occurrence, after an extremely friendly speech the man raised an empty glass instead of a glass of wine. He discovered his mistake and apologized. Now the mistake and the apology left behind them a curious flavour. The man's actions belied his words. That is a common phrase, but it sums up the position accurately. All these gestures are symbolisms. They are eloquent in themselves, but they convey meaning that is latent and condensed, or to use a better term, they contain un-focussed meaning. If they are brought up into full conscious examination they are capable of interpretation.
Interpretation is the handling of symbolism by the intellect. It is here that differences arise, because every man interprets with some bias—which may be momentary or permanent—in one direction or another. A friend will interpret the wineglass symbolisms in a different manner from an enemy. A believer in the future of humanity will interpret the signs of the times—which are symbolisms with prospective meaning—in a happier light than a believer in ancient tradition, who sees the golden age in the past. Now these disparities are fundamental, and are encountered whenever symbolism is under discussion. Focussed meaning covers a certain area which is reality. A bottle of ink or a lamp or a jackal are things with a certain clear circle of focussed meaning within which no argument occurs. But the expression of a face, the configuration of the stars, a poem or a dream are things that contain no clear circle of focused meaning.
Their meaning is blurred or unfocussed. They are capable of various interpretations, and therefore tend to belong to symbolisms rather than to realities. Naturally, if realities—that is, things with focussed meaning—are interrogated far enough, they lose their definition and pass into symbols. If you pass out of the clear circle of focussed meaning, you pass into symbolism. The reverse process—the passage from latent and blurred to clear and focussed meaning— has been the main trend of mental development recently and has made' modern science and the machine age possible.