Complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between!

Those words, said by Richard Dawkins of Julian Jaynes’ one-off oh-what-a-wonder The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is among my most coveted of critical comments (another being “unholy masterpiece,” although that’s becoming such a popular epithet as to border upon cliche) but befits a book that is a kind of theory of everything, in that everything we theorize is perceived by a consciousness which remains largely mysterious to us. I bought the book at a used bookshop as a young graduate student and recall it as a formative work of intellectual history—probably the first such book I’d read—that fueled my own desire to be a smart person. A good summation of Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind as the form of primitive consciousness.

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.

I like reviews of older books, and Rachel Aviv in this N+1 essay covering Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited (2007), will maybe introduce someone to this strange book—maybe a kind of literary, speculative scholarship hard to publish these days—who needs to know of it, since browsing in used book shops is also becoming a thing more and more difficult to do. The world might end before we do. The context of her quoting this last bit is how Jaynes backed off of his own theories as he aged, but it’s still a fantastic passage if you are of a mind to agree with it, meaning you have probably never attended CPAC: “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.”