There Is Only Awe

  • Marcel Kuijsten. Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited. Julian Jaynes Society, January 2007.

Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton, had little patience for his colleagues, who spent hours in the lab doing “petty, petty humdrum things.” He dismissed their “objective aridity,” “cunning lingo,” and “valiant nonsense.” The field of psychology, he wrote, was little more than “bad poetry disguised as science.”

Jaynes published only one book, in 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which tells the story of how mankind learned to think. Critics described it as a bizarre and reckless masterpiece—the American Journal of Psychiatry called Jaynes “as startling as Freud in the Interpretation of Dreams.” Drawing on evidence from neurology, archaeology, art history, theology, and Greek poetry, Jaynes captured the experience of modern consciousness—“a whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can”—as sensitively and tragically as any great novelist.

Jaynes knew that he would be punished for “hustling into territories jealously guarded by myriad aggressive specialists.” Although his book anticipated theories in linguistics, neuroscience, and philosophy, he has been more or less eliminated from the history of ideas. The first book on Jaynes’s life and work is long overdue; it was published by the Julian Jaynes Society, a cultish group of scholars and enthusiasts. The society’s founder, Marcel Kuijsten, who has a degree in business, has filled two volumes with nearly all Jaynes’s interviews and papers—on dreams, hallucinations, poetry, animal cognition, and cave paintings. The first volume, called Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness, opens with a biography of Jaynes, written by William Woodward, a historian of science, and June Tower, Jaynes’s old neighbor. Narrated in a spare, humorless tone, the biography describes Jaynes as a psychological prophet who oriented his life around a single question. He felt almost afflicted by his need for a scientific theory for consciousness, a narrative that would allow all the mysteries of the world to “shiveringly fall into accurate and wonderful place.”

Born the son of a Unitarian minister in Newton, Massachusetts, Jaynes was mystified by his own capacity for inwardness, a nagging stream of desires, worries, invented futures, and humiliations. He attributed the inspiration for Origins to an episode of “darkest distress” when he was lying on his couch, despairing over the question of “how we can know anything at all”: “Suddenly, out of an absolute quiet, there came a firm, distinct loud voice from my upper right which said, ‘Include the knower in the known!’ It lugged me to my feet absurdly exclaiming, ‘Hello?’”

As a doctoral student at Yale, Jaynes produced highly regarded papers on animal learning, but he became increasingly frustrated by the principles of behaviorism, the reigning school of psychology at the time, which took a mechanistic view of the human mind and the scientist’s role in observing it. Jaynes mocked himself for running paramecia and protozoa through mazes, “all on the naive assumption that I was chronicling the grand evolution of consciousness. Ridiculous!” He moved up in the animal kingdom, studying learning in worms, fish, rats, chicks, and cats, before finally realizing that he had fallen prey to a “huge historical neurosis.” He concluded that consciousness had no location in the brain. Instead, it was a function of language.

Jaynes began inspecting the world’s earliest literature for the first signs of human consciousness. “I started off like in a detective story,” he told a reporter for the Princeton radio station. As he moved backward through the centuries, he saw that consciousness, as he had defined it, disappeared somewhere between the Odyssey and the Iliad. Odysseus is a modern hero, introspective and deceptive. In the Iliad, the writing of which scholars date some three hundred years earlier, the characters are passive and mentally inert. They have no concept of a private mental space. The word “psyche” referred only to actual substances in the body, breath, and blood, which leave the warrior’s body as soon as he dies. The gods, emerging from mists or clouds or the sea, handle the warrior’s decisions. When Achilles accuses Agamemnon of stealing his mistress, Agamemnon insists he had no agency. “Not I was the cause of this act, but Zeus,” he explains. “So what could I do? Gods always have their way.”

Critics have interpreted the meddling presence of the god as poetic devices, but Jaynes accused translators of imputing a modern mentality to people with subjectivities foreign to us. “The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination,’” he wrote. “They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system, probably his right hemisphere.” Jaynes drew on research with patients with severed corpora callossa, the band of fibers that separates the two hemispheres of the brain, which showed that the two chambers can function independently, without conscious awareness of information processed in the other half. Jaynes proposed that the Trojan War was fought by men with a kind of split brain, a “bicameral mind.” In moments of stress, the left hemisphere, “slave-like,” perceived hallucinated voices in the right hemisphere—the god hemisphere—as direct commands.

By roughly 1,000 B.C., earthquakes and overpopulation in the Mediterranean led to mass migrations, which caused an unprecedented degree of social upheaval, according to Jaynes’s speculation. The gods, who had provided guidance by transforming habit and intuition into speech, fell silent in the face of novel dilemmas. They retreated to the sky, where they gave ambiguous signs of their watchful presence. Humans were left alone, groping for answers. They still heard a voice, but they knew it was their own: they silently narrated their days, weighing options, imagining what others would think, making sudden pronouncements that they immediately doubted. Jaynes describes the muting of the gods as an excruciating loss from which we still have not recovered. “The mighty themes of the religions of the world are here sounded for the first time,” he writes. “Why have the gods left us? Like friends who depart from us, they must be offended. Our misfortunes are our punishments for our offenses. We go down on our knees, begging to be forgiven.”

Consciousness is impossible to describe, except through metaphor and analogy, but behavior became more predictable once people could refer to each other’s conscious minds as a collection of knowable parts. Each metaphor succeeded the previous one as a theory of human behavior. In the 1600s, consciousness was like a clock, in perpetual and regular motion. Two hundred years later, when chemistry was the fashionable science, consciousness was a compound structure that could be broken down into its elements—individual sensations and thoughts. By the industrial era, when Freud was beginning to develop his theories of mind, consciousness functioned like a steam engine: when emotional pressure and strain became too great, secret underground forces were recklessly released.

Jaynes didn’t live to see the computer become the dominant metaphor for consciousness, but he was one of the first to recognize that the brain was capable of a radical kind of plasticity.  “There is no such thing as a complete consciousness,” he writes. “All about us lie the remnants of our recent bicameral past.” He attributes one of the most mysterious mental phenomena—the sense that ideas come to us unbidden, from some external location—to the fact that our brains were once inhabited by gods. Artists in particular tend to describe their work in bicameral terms. They seem to be bragging when they describe writing as a form of listening: they hear a voice, almost audible, and then take dictation. It happens in moments of inspiration, late at night, when the writer is all alone.

Origin likely would have fared better had it been presented as literary provocation rather than scientific fact. But Jaynes saw his book as a work of science, and so it was critiqued, deconstructed, and made nearly irrelevant because the theories were impossible to test. Marcel Kuijsten, who describes his first encounter with Origin as a near religious experience, has devoted the past fifteen years to collecting the scraps of Jayne’s oeuvre, reaching out to Jaynes’s friends, colleagues, and students—anyone who might have one of Jaynes’s notebooks. But the new material, with its inevitable redundancies, dilutes the persuasive power and manic spirit of the original theory. One can see why Jaynes was unable to muster a second book. His theory was too total. He couldn’t let it go: he followed its logic past ancient Greece to modern poetry, hypnotism, schizophrenia, dreams, and ultimately science, where he let it implode. In the last chapter of Origin, he presents science as yet another attempt by humans, still grieving the loss of the gods, to establish contact with a “lost ocean of authority.”

Science offers a rational splendor that explains everything, a charismatic leader or succession of leaders who are highly visible and beyond criticism, a series of canonical texts which are somehow outside the usual arena of scientific criticism, certain gestures of ideas and rituals of interpretation, and a requirement of total commitment. In return the adherent receives what the religions had once given him more universally: a world view, a hierarchy of importances, and an auguring place where he may find out what to do and think, in short, a total explanation of man. And this totality is obtained not by actually explaining everything, but by an encasement of its activity, a severe and absolute restriction of attention, such that everything that is not explained is not in view.

The final chapter of Origin reads like a sermon, ecstatic and mournful. Jaynes describes human history as a story of substitutes, a search for “an eternal firmness of principle out there.” At the end, Jaynes abruptly concludes that his book, too, is a product of historical circumstances, another stage in the quest for authorization. “All of this,” he writes, referring to his theory, “is a part of this transitional period after the breakdown of the bicameral mind. And this essay is no exception.”

Critics have praised Origin for accounting for the role of religion in shaping consciousness—Richard Dawkins wrote that it is “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between!”—but thirty years after its publication, the book feels most relevant as a critique of science. In a 1970 essay, “The Study of the History of Psychology,” Jaynes criticizes psychologists for repeatedly asking the same questions, formulating them in increasingly obscure ways, while ignoring the long history in which these questions have already been studied. They fail to grasp that there is “a kind of truth in the history of a science which transcends the science itself,” Jaynes writes.

Jaynes recognized that the narrative he had created was itself a product of the features of mind it described: “consciousness is constantly fitting things into a story, putting a before and after around any event.” Throughout the book, he exposes his own intellectual process, detailing each “shimmering flash” of an epiphany as well as his mental limitations. (To understand the experience of having a bicameral mind, he crushes laurel leaves and smokes them only to find himself feeling “more and more Jaynesean, alas, then Apollonian.”) He wanted to revive the “disappearing idea that a psychologist enters his profession almost like a religious order, making himself a part of his own subject matter, and baring his soul.’”

Jaynes acknowledged in Origin that the book was just a “rough-hewn beginning, which I hope to develop in a future work.” He planned to call it The Consequences of Consciousness. He alluded to this forthcoming sequel so frequently that even after his death, in 1997, fans were still convinced that there was a secret manuscript. But Jaynes became increasingly concerned that he didn’t have enough material for the second book. Perhaps the voice he had been hearing had grown quiet. It didn’t help that he had become an alcoholic. He held the same job, never gaining tenure, for the rest of his career. He lived alone in a single room on Princeton’s campus, a bachelor all his life. He gave lectures around the country but complained that there was “something wearing about them, as if I should have to try to interest anyone.”

Jaynes felt that people had not read his book carefully enough, particularly the reviewers. Over the years, he simplified rather than expanded his theory. In some lectures and interviews in Kuijsten’s collection, Jaynes seems almost apologetic about his early boldness. In 1988, when Life asked Jaynes and several other thinkers to comment on the meaning of life, he responded that he had no answer. “Words have meaning, not life or persons or the universe itself,” he said. “Our search for certainty rests in our attempts at understanding the history of all individual selves and all civilizations. Beyond that, there is only awe.”

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