Things are not what they seem. This is the great message of all art and science, indeed of all thought worth the name. But what if thought itself is not what it seems? This is Julian Jaynes’s point of departure in a book that will enlighten and Infuriate any reader who gets past the forbidding (hut characteristically precise) title and meets the author halfway.
Jaynes is a filtyish professor of psychology at Princeton University. He is also, on the evidence of this book, a polymath and monomaniac who takes all knowledge as his province and squeezes it down into a corroboratory footnote to his central argument. Which is that consciousness is a kind of fraud that we have played on ourselves. Far from being the hallmark of human existence, the senseof‐self that we get when we become subjectively aware of our thought processes is a relatively recent invention—no more than 3,000 years old. Before that, people did not think as we do. To be precise, they did not
Note the date‐3,000 years ago. Jaynes is not talking about a troop of hairy dawn‐men exchanging admonitory grunts as they close in on a wounded woolly mammoth. He is explicitly challenging the conventional wisdom that consciousness developed in the prehistoric era when Homo sapiens evolved from his primate forebears. According to Jaynes, civilization was created by people who were not conscious—in the sense that they never introspected, never agonized over choices, never pondered their destiny, never had a moment’s un. certainty. Instead, they acted—either out of habit or, in times of stress, out of unquestioning obedience to “voices” that came from inside their own brains but which they took to be commands from powerful beings outside themselves.
These beings were first conceived of as “dead” ancestors; then they were deified. Thus, the voices of the gods originated as auditory hallucinations. But—this is the crucial point—such voices were as real to those who heard them as the voice of a living parent or child. And the people who heard and obeyed these voices were the people who built the pyramids and sacked Troy and recorded their exploits on stone tablets and in orally transmitted epics which later ages have completely misinterpreted—until now.
In defending this extraordinary thesis, Jaynes comes on like a combination of Jung, Velikovsky and F. R. Leavis. By sheer force of will, he brings together three divergent lines of evidence—and dares the reader to come up with a better interpretation. One line of evidence derives from the recent discovery that the two sides of the human brain—the two cerebral By Julian Jaynes. Illustrated. 467 pp. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. $12.95. hemispheres — are specialized to perform quite different tasks. In most people today the left hemisphere handles all the verbal chores and does all the math; it excels at any lob that calls for sequential operations. The right hemisphere deals best with structural relationships in space and time; it excels at grasping Gestalts, such as those expressed in geometrical shapes or musical phrases. In our daily behavior, we integrate these two modes of information‐processing. But according to Jaynes, the mind of pre‐conscious man was truly “bicameral,” i.e., two‐chambered; the right hemisphere “spoke.” the left hemisphere “heard” and obeyed.
A second line of evidence derives from the auditory hallucinations of schizophrenic patients. Jaynes suggests that schizophrenics are throwbacks to early bicameral man; they are considered crazy today because they hear voices telling them what to do. But in the days when everyone heard voices and the advice the voices gave was usually good advice, schizophrenia was the norm.
To get some idea of what life was like in those days, Jaynes turns to archeology and ancient literature. He seems to have read all the proper authorities, but he picks his way among them, choosing only those interpretations that buttress his argument. For example, he contends that “The Iliad” is a record of a bicameral society. Heroes like Achilles never commune with themselves; they simply listen to their gods. Any hint of sub, jective awareness on the part of the characters, according to Jaynes, is either the result of a mistranslation or a later emendation. “The Odyssey,” on the other hand, shows the breakdown of the bicameral mind; in celebrating the wily Odysseus, the poem testifies to the emergence of deceit—a notion that could never have occurred to pre‐conscious minds which knew nothing of past or future and had no “intentions” to ceonceal.
Jaynes traces the breakdown of the bicameral mind to the unstable conditions in the Mediterranean world at the beginning of the first millenium B.C.—the result of natural disasters, the mixing of varied cultures through trade and the development of writing (which made thought‐processes more palpable and undermined the authority of the spoken word). Whatever the reason, people began to hear god‐voices less and less, and what they heard had less relevance to their problems.
This was a traumatic experience — and it reverberates through religious literature down to our day; “My God. My God, why has thou forsaken me?” is its undying theme. With the gods (the right hemisphere) silent, man was forced to reorganize his mental faculties: now he had to think things through (the verbal left hemisphere) In some kind of order. In place of certainty, there arose the internal debates —the wrestling with “good” and “evil,” the oscillation between faith and rebellion —that characterize modern man. “Consciousness” is a metaphOr we have invented to describe the “space” in which these debates take place.
Only a bicameral man could read through Jaynes’s hook without writhing In protest at least once on every page. Jaynes writes with an almost breathtaking arrogance: “Here then is the beginning of civilization.” “This is what religion is.” He never lets a paucity of data hinder his speculations: on the basis of some elaborate ceremonial graves at one Mesolithic site, he concludes that men first began using personal names between 10.000 B.C. and 8000 B.C.
The more specific the evidence Jaynes offers, the weaker his argument seems. A literary critic might accept his description of “The Iliad” as a poem in which all conflicts are treated externally — add yet point out that this is exactly the strategy that a bard in a non‐literate society would use to convey interior experiences. The same failure to consider the symbolic nature of art vitiates his discussion of the “hallucinogenic” properties of votive statues; when the ancient transcriptions say that the stone figures “talked,” Jaynes insists that this proves that bicameral man literally heard “voices” while communing with his gods—which is curious coming from a man who has previously told us that “metaphor.”
The real excitement in a book like this is not to be found in the reductionist thesis per se but the fresh approach to old problems that the author forces his readers to take. Why did the man invent his gods in the first place? Why did certain early empires collapse almost overnight? Is it possible to think without language? Why do we have two functionally different cerebral hemispheres? Things are not what they seem—and Jaynes never lets you forget It