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KRONOS Vol III, No. 4
THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND by JULIAN JAYNES
(Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1976; 467 pages, $12.50)
Jaynes' Origin of Consciousness is an exciting and exasperating book. It is exciting because it breaks important new ground and challenges a host of unwarranted assumptions about the development of the human mind since the Upper Paleolithic Period. Yet it is exasperating, not only because Jaynes writes as though no one but he had ever before discussed fundamental transformations in our perceptual and conceptual behavior, but also because his book is marred by flagrant errors of various kinds, most of them philological.
His thesis, in brief, is this: Till the Neolithic Period, about 10,000 years ago, people lived exclusively in small hunting bands. In such communities, everyone knew everyone else, and social control was assured by bonds of neighborly familiarity. But then, with the advent of farming, population grew so rapidly that people no longer knew all members of their village communities. The resulting estrangement threatened to produce social disorder. The psychological defense that early peasants developed against this threat was "bi-cameralism," which literally means a two-chambered condition. The "chambers" that Jaynes is referring to here are the right and left hemispheres of the cerebral cortex in the brain. Today, most of us rely almost exclusively on the left hemisphere for verbal and analytical activities, relegating our non-verbal and intuitive responses to the right hemisphere. In the pre-Christian era, however, the two chambers were used more equally, the right hemisphere functioning primarily to receive hallucinated admonitory messages from the newly conceived gods and the left hemisphere to verbalize these messages sufficiently for transmission to other people.
About 5,000 years ago, says Jaynes, urbanization began slowly to undermine the bicameral order in two ways. First, cities attracted people of different ethnic backgrounds, whose gods gave them mutually contradictory counsels, leading to dissension. And second, writing produced a visual authority that challenged the auditory authority of divine voices. Consequently, by the second millennium B.C., most people had ceased hearing divine voices and had to rely on spiritual practitioners to inform them of the will of the gods. In the first millennium B.C., even prophets and oracles ceased to transmit clear supernatural instructions. In the first millennium A.D., religious authority was embodied almost exclusively in sacred texts, as interpreted by theologians. And, in the second millennium A.D., even scriptural authority was weakened to the extent that we now look primarily to secular sources for social and psychological guidance.
To appreciate Jaynes' argument, we must understand that he is using the term "consciousness" in its narrowest sense, to refer solely to the waking state in which we perform most of our gainful employment and engage in a majority of our other utilitarian activities. Although he discusses mental states like dreaming and trance at considerable length, he defines them as varieties of unconsciousness. To be conscious, he holds, we must be at least minimally critical and self-aware.
Among the precursors whom Jaynes fails to acknowledge in his discussion of archaic mentalities is that inveterate rationalist H. G. Wells, who wrote "... the... Palaeolithic... hunter... killed for reasons we can still understand; Neolithic man... killed for monstrous and now incredible ideas... and... sacrificed... men, women, and children whenever... he... thought the gods were athirst. All these things were passed into the Bronze Age. Hitherto a social consciousness had been asleep and not even dreaming... Before it awakened it produced nightmares..."(1) Shifting from the Eastern to the Western Hemisphere, Wells then added, "The art of the Maya civilization... perplexes by... a sort of insane intricacy... Many Maya inscriptions resemble... elaborate drawing made by lunatics in European asylums... linking these aberrant American civilizations to the idea of a general mental aberration..."(2) I am another precursor on the subject of how archaic men managed to erect immense stone monuments without literally dying of fatigue. While Jaynes suggests (on pp. 426 & 427) that they did it by operating in a schizoid rather than subjectively "conscious" state, I suggested "... that the megalith erectors were operating in a manner psychologically more antlike than manlike (as we normally understand that latter term) – in short, that they labored almost exclusively in a state of protracted trance."(3)
Yet another set of predecessors whom he ignores are Louis Pauwels, Robert Charroux, and Ronald Willis,(4) all of whom anticipated not only the best-sellers of Erich von Daeniken but Jaynes' own statement (on p. 235) that "... the Ziggurat of Neo-Babylon, the Biblical Tower of Babel, was... a heavenly landing for the... celestialized gods."
In reconstructing the prehistory of consciousness, Jaynes ranges freely over continents and millennia and takes hundreds of pages to do it. Considering this scope and the detail into which he goes, I find it surprising that he ignores such concrete, relevant, and historically well-attested data as the replacement of bronze by steel, the invention of coinage and the alphabet, and the wide-spread domestication of the horse. These developments collectively composed an Iron Age complex, which germinated in the second millennium and flowered in the first. Among its more dramatic products were intercontinental empires, such as the Achaemenid monarchy of Persia, and scriptural world-creeds, like Buddhism. So crucial has the intellectual aspect of this Iron Age revolution seemed to some philosophers of history that they have followed German existentialist Karl Jaspers in referring to it as the Axial Age – a relatively brief period that separates the essentially archaic mentality of the Sumerians and Egyptians from the essentially modern mentality of the Greeks and West Europeans.
In addition to his enviable range, Jaynes exhibits an admirable willingness to speculate on matters from which most archeologists and historians have shied away. Yet here too I find myself struck quite as much by the speculations he avoids as by those in which he engages. Although at one point he ventures as far back in time as two million years, he never considers the possibility, discussed by a number of anthropologists, that Lower Paleolithic Man made tools the same way termites build nests – by instinct rather than by learning. Nor does he discuss such poorly delimited but perennially controversial phenomena as cannibalism, phallicism, and matricentricity, all of which must have involved attitudes fundamentally different from those which prevail today. Still less does he give serious consideration to Biblical traditions asserting, in keeping with much other folklore, that there were once men who lived for centuries and that giants then shared the earth with people of normal stature.
In a few cases, Jaynes even overlooks some fairly obvious material supporting his central thesis that early urban man lived by listening to gods. Among those cases are these facts: that the goddess Vac, "Voice" or "Speech," was a member of the early Hindu pantheon; that the Latin word fatum, from which we derive the word fate, literally meant "that which is spoken"; and that even today we refer to occupations and professions as vocations or callings, implying that we are summoned to our work by the voice of God.
In other cases, Jaynes' conclusions on various issues are unclear, often because one section of his book seems to contradict another. More than thirty times, for example, he describes the godly voices of protohistory as hallucinations. Yet on pp. 202 and 203, he insists that "The gods were in no sense 'figments of the imagination' of anyone. They were man's volition. They occupied his nervous system... I have by no means dared the bottom of the matter..." Throughout the book, he characterizes schizophrenia, which he regards as the contemporary equivalent of bicameralism, as "loss", "dissolution", "erosion", "failure", "relapse", and "disorientation". On p. 427, however (without crediting or even citing Wilhelm Reich, who made the point earlier and more forcefully), he concedes that schizophrenics are far more perceptive, in a purely quantitative sense, than persons with normal consciousness. Although for the most part he mentions few if any physical correlates for the huge psychological shifts he describes, on pp. 208 and 209, under the heading "Failure of the Gods", he startlingly declares, without having prepared his readers for any such bombshell, "The second millennium B.C. was heavy laden with profound and irreversible changes. Vast geological catastrophes occurred. Civilizations perished. Half the worlds' population became refugees." Here, as before, he omits all reference to scientific catastrophists from Georges Cuvier through Claude Schaeffer to Immanuel Velikovsky – the last of whom, like Jaynes himself, now dwells in splendid isolation in the midst of the bustling Princeton intellectual community. Then, as though belatedly recognizing the crying need for some explanation for such wide-spread disasters, he mentions "two major elements of these upheavals... the volcanic eruption of Thera and... the rise of Assyria..." But it is hard to see how events so restricted to western Eurasia could have had such momentous repercussions in places as far afield as India and China, which seem to have suffered equally destructive fires, floods, and invasions of desperate pastoral nomads. Another puzzle which he does little to solve is the apparent contradiction between the postulated universality of ancient bicameralism and the attested hierarchicalism of Neolithic and Bronze Age politics. "Each individual, king or serf," he writes, on pp. 183 and 184, "had his own personal god whose voice he heard and obeyed." Yet, if serfs had gods to direct them, why did they also have kings? While declaring himself "well aware of the problem," Jaynes suggests that these two patterns of authority were not really redundant because the gods themselves were hierarchical, kings' gods issuing orders to serfs' gods. I find this explanation circular in terms of Jaynes' own claim that the gods' voices were hallucinatory to begin with. On the other hand, his explanation would be at least logically defensible if he were to invert the contrast he now draws between schizoid ancients and realistic moderns and, following the rule of nihil e nihilo, re-characterize it as one between ultraperceptive ancients and inwardly deaf moderns. Whichever way we describe the polarity between ancient and modern mentalities, however, there seems to be no place in it for the tertium quid of prehistoric hunting-and-gathering mentality. In negative terms, Jaynes clearly implies that this mentality was neither conscious (in his sense) nor hallucinative; but he never even hints at what, in positive terms, it was. There is, finally, a striking inconsistency between his assessment of the value of his book in the 13th chapter and his assessment of it in the 15th chapter. On p. 317, summarizing the preceding twelve chapters, he grandiloquently proclaims, "We are now at last in a position where we can look back and see the history of mankind on this planet in its proper values for the first time..." Yet on p. 374 he refers self-depreciatively to "the theory... I am trying to state in this scraggly collation of passages..." Without either glorifying or denigrating Jaynes' accomplishment, I would prefer to view it as an important but tentative new approach to the age-old quest for human self-understanding.
Some of the bones I have to pick with Jaynes are matters of taste rather than of substance. In his transliterations of Greek words, he regularly employs mutually incongruous spellings. Examples are the word katochos, "spiritually possessed or divinely inspired (person)," and the word pair wanax, "divine being," and aoidos, "minstrel." In the former case, the Hellenizing use of two k's and the Latinate use of two c's are equally acceptable to Classicists. But the use of c in the base with k in the prefix is discordant. In the latter case, while either the archaic forms wanaks and awoidos or the later forms anaks and aoidos are congruent, mixtures look jumbled. Sometimes the inconsistencies spring from capricious use of dialect sources, as when Jaynes cites the Ionic word kradie, "heart," instead of the familiar and expected Attic form kardia (from which we derive the English adjective cardiac). Occasionally he produces pseudo-Hellenisms, as in the case of the Jaynesian coinage aptic, which looks as though it were derived from a Greek verbal base *ap-, "to enable," but which actually is synonymous with, and partially abridged from, the Latin derived word "aptitudinal." In at least one case, he reduces not only the suffixes but also the base of a Classical term, as when he coins the words metaphier and metaphrand, based on the Greek-derived word metaphor and meaning "a relationship of similarity" and "something to be described," respectively. Predictably, he does not scruple to cross languages in producing coinages, as in the case of his Greco-Latin neologism introcosm, meaning "inner world," where most Classicists would of course prefer an unhybridized form, such as *endocosm, which is of wholly Greek origin.
Even apart from his use of Classical vocabulary, Jaynes' style is ornate and his diction mannered. For the most part, moreover, his rhetorical flourishes are eccentric rather than poetic, as when he speaks regretfully of a question that lacks "a truly robust answer" or remarks, while discussing the sources of literary inspiration, that "dear Shelley said it plain."
If the only shortcomings of Jaynes' writing were stylistic, criticism of them might be dismissed as captious. Unfortunately, however, he also makes errors of fact. Some of these are mistranslations, as when, on p. 348, he glosses Greek daimonizomai (misspelled dae-) as a noun meaning "demonization" when it is a verb meaning "I am possessed" or, on p. 51, he glosses the Sanskrit verb asmi as "breathe" when it means "am." Others are mistaken etymologies, such as the derivation, on p. 51, of English be from Sanskrit bhu or, on p. 331, of English sibyl (via Attic Greek sibulla, "seeress") from Aeolic Greek sios, "god," plus boule, "counsel." In each case, his etymology is an anachronism in the sense that no serious linguist of the past century would have proposed it. To my knowledge, no one since August Schleicher, who died in 1868, has regarded Sanskrit as lineally ancestral to any non-Indo-Aryan language. And the "Aeolic" compound, besides being a wholly fanciful source for the word sibyl (which should in any case take the form *siobule, if Jaynes is right), turns out not to be Aeolic anyhow but Laconian Greek.(5)
On one of the few occasions when Jaynes ventures to make pronouncements about non-Indo-European languages, he errs again. An example (from p. 186) is his statement that "... the Egyptian language... was concrete from first to last. To maintain that it is expressing abstract thoughts would seem [anachronistic] ". In point of fact, the Classical Egyptian of the Middle Kingdom, which is the earliest Nile Valley language of which we have extensive texts, had not only semantic abstractions, like KR, "evil," and HH, "eternity," but also morphological abstractions, constructed by adding either the qualitative suffix -W to adjectives or the collective/infinitive suffix -T to verbs. Examples are: NFRW, "beauty," from NFR, "beautiful"; MNMNT, "herd," from MNMN, "(to) mill about"; and SMT, "departure," from SM, "go". Jaynes' bald assertion, however, could be made acceptable by rephrasing it to read, first, that the proportion of abstract to concrete nouns was probably lower in Classical Egyptian than in, say, Classical Greek and, second, that there is no known pre-Alexandrian literature from Ancient Egypt which deals systematically with abstract philosophical conceptions.
Still other errors are wholly extralinguistic. One of these is Jaynes' claim, on p. 129, that the genus Homo is almost two million years old. To be sure, if we accept zoologist Ernst Mayr's view that the australopithecine man-apes of south-east Africa belong to our genus, there is no problem here. But no anthropologist that I know of will accede to such taxonomic lumping.(6) Most anthropologists date the earliest species of Homo to somewhere between half a million and one million years ago. The other error is his assertion, on p. 197, that during the interregnum between the Old and Middle Kingdoms of ancient Egypt "in the midst of... anarchy there was no rebellion, no striving of... sections for independence..." Here he runs afoul of general Egyptological opinion, which often refers to this period as The Feudal Age and characterizes it as highly fissiparous, marked by provincial secession, local insurrection, and feuding between rival power centers.
After this catalog of errors, it may be well to emphasize the strengths of Jaynes' argument, which are many and impressive. First of all, that argument is, in Adam Makkai's phrase, a "paradigmbuster." It breaks the mold of implicit uniformitarianism which has, since the nineteenth century, imprisoned Orientalists and historians quite as effectively as explicit uniformitarianism has imprisoned astronomers and paleontologists. In each case, the result has been an unjustified assumption that both the physical world and the human mind have remained essentially the same since the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, and that such changes as are obvious reflect only minor climatic fluctuations and the inevitable progress of man's technology. It is no small accomplishment of Jaynes' to have assembled provocative evidence of radical discontinuities in human behavior and experience within recent millennia. Since the self styled "psychohistorians" of the last two decades have perpetuated this uniformitarian bias, it may be that Jaynes is justified in coining the new term "psycho-archaeology" to describe his innovative style of social psychology.
In reviewing his own book, Jaynes notes that the overflow from it will now go into a second volume, to be published shortly. In his penultimate chapter, he also proposes a project to record, describe, and analyze the hallucinated voices of schizophrenics, not only for purposes of better clinical insight but, even more important, toward the end of deepening our understanding of Bronze Age bicameralism. I look forward to both these prospects, either singly or in combination, with keen anticipation. To be sure, the foregoing review has turned out to be a more critical one than I originally had in mind. The reason for this, I believe, is that Jaynes' book is, by its very nature, such as to arouse great expectations – greater, perhaps, than can readily be satisfied. But, however much I may object to its many defects of detail, I enthusiastically endorse what I take to be its central principle: that scholarship must never surrender to habit, however comfortable, nor to consensus, however intimidating, but must rather continue to search for fresh insights into even the hoariest of subject matters.
1. Herbert G. Wells, The Outline of History, Star Books, Garden City
Publishing Company Garden City, N.Y., revised edition, 1931; pp. 129 and