Hearing Voices

Over the summer, I finally got around to reading Julian Jaynes’s magnum opus, The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Although I was already somewhat familiar with Jaynes’s ideas, going to their source provides its own rewards. Jaynes cast his intellectual nets far and wide, synthesizing knowledge from multiple disciplines (history, archeology, textual analysis, psychology, brain science) and drawing on contexts that range from Mesopotamian statuary to modern-day case studies of schizophrenics. He also writes with elegance and precision; his book is a pleasure to read.

His central proposition can be summed up fairly simply: humans in an earlier era (up until around 2,000 B.C.E.) were prone to auditory hallucinations which they took to be the voices of gods, due to a form of mental organization which he terms “the bicameral mind.”  Entire societies, he asserts, were organized around these gods and their commands, which were actually heard. As societies became more complex, hallucinated commands from divine entities no longer sufficed as a force for social organization, and the system broke down.

Concurrently, the invention of writing led people to think in a radically different way, bringing about such things as subjective self-awareness, philosophical inquiry, and skepticism. The gods were heard less distinctly and less often, and finally fell silent -- although certain people today still experience auditory hallucinations, sometimes in the form of commands.

The power of Jayne’s thesis lies in its ability to illuminate several puzzling aspects of human behavior. Why do we build homes for our gods and provide them with food and offerings? Because, at one time, they were real presences to us. Why do the characters in The Iliad seem so lacking in introspection, as though they were mere pawns being operated by the warring deities? Because The Iliad predates the emergence of introspection and reflects a bicameral mindset -- unlike the The Odyssey, with its self-aware protagonist.  Why, in modern times, do certain people hallucinate voices, endow these voices with absolute authority, and follow their commands -- which can include commands resulting in self-harm or harm to others? Because, according to Jaynes, their brains operate in a way that was once characteristic of humans in general.

A dazzling thesis that has broad explanatory power can, of course, be dead wrong, and it’s possible that Jaynes belongs to the club of ambitious thinkers who have given us brilliant, bad ideas. He is not by any means, however, the only psychologist to have claimed the human mind operates in two basically distinct ways. Notably, Jonathan Evans presented his "dual process theory" in the mid-1970s and it remains influential today. 

According to Evans, "there are two distinct cognitive systems underlying reasoning. System 1 is old in evolutionary terms and shared with other animals: it comprises a set of autonomous subsystems that include both innate input modules and domain-specific knowledge acquired by a domain-general learning mechanism.”

“System 2 is evolutionarily recent and distinctively human: it permits abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking, but is constrained by working memory capacity and correlated with measures of general intelligence."

One difference: James believed that bicameralism survives only as a marginal relic, among people deemed irrational or mad (schizophrenics, prophets, poets), whereas dual process theorists regard System 1 as something that is still present and active in the minds of modern people generally. As Evans puts it, the two processes “compete for control of our inferences and actions.” We act rationally some of the time, while at others times we seem to obey commands and instructions. 

All said, though, there is enough overlap to suggest compatibility between these two models of human thought and behavior. The question then becomes: what to do about System 1? Do we sublimate it, or channel it into those arenas where it can help rather than harm? (And what are those arenas, exactly?) Do we try and suppress/eradicate it? Alternatively, do we exalt it over reason and introspection? To this latter option, the answer seems a definite no -- it’s been tried before, with cataclysmic results. The rest remains an open question.

Cowboys and Englishmen

Ray Davies wrote many of the songs I love best, but he wrote nearly all of them prior to 1972. That was the year Everybody’s In Show-Biz -- the last really good Kinks album or, for some, the first not-so-good one -- came out. Although the band enjoyed a commercial resurgence at the end of the seventies, Davies’s songwriting generally lacked the sustained inspiration that distinguished the Kinks’ “golden era,” and often enough he simply pandered to arena-rock crowds and cashed the checks.

The Kinks broke up in the 1990s. Davies’s solo albums did not mark a return to form; rather, they tended to sound like later Kinks songs, but with session men instead of a band. After the disappointments (mostly) of Other People’s Lives and Workingman’s Cafe, I didn’t greet news of his latest release, Americana, with overly high expectations.

Americana follows Ray’s book of the same name, and develops some of the material found therein. For this outing, he decided to ditch the session men and go with a well-regarded indie band, The Jayhawks, as his backup. They deliver a warm, country-rock sound and keyboardist/vocalist Karen Grotberg takes the lead on two tracks, to evocative effect. Subject-wise, the songs draw their inspiration from American mythology somewhat in the way Davies did in the early seventies, with his tribute to Hollywood, “Celluloid Heroes.” This time his subjects include cowboys, roaming buffalo and spacious landscapes. If these topics sound fusty and out-of-date -- well, at times Americana is exactly that. At its worst (“The Great Highway”) it serves up cliches: jukeboxes in smoky bars, malted milkshakes, the soda-sipping, shades-sporting girl in denim who “might be a dreamer.”

In the album's best moments, though, Davies puts in the imaginative effort needed to turn this material into something vibrant and meaningful. The high point for me is “Rock 'n' Roll Cowboys,” where the obsolescent metaphor is appropriate because the subject is, in fact, obsolescence: that of Ray himself and that of his genre, rock songwriting. The title song of the album also works: it situates its Wild West within the mind of an English boy growing in the fifties, and also in that of a man in his seventies remembering how he once was that boy.

Ray’s singing is wistful and tender, without the hammy, hard-rock pretensions of the Kinks’ later period. Best of all, his melodic gift -- unrivaled by anyone in rock music, yet disappointingly absent during the last decades -- is in evidence again: for instance in “Message From the Road,” a Davies-Grotberg duet that channels heartbreak through double lenses of time and distance. I’d be wrong to say the entire Davies post-1973 catalog is without its redeeming moments; as utilitarian as they often are, the later Kinks albums -- and Ray’s solo efforts -- have almost always contained one or two gems. But Americana marks the first time in decades that Ray  the genius songwriter -- the one who gave us “Autumn Almanac” and “Waterloo Sunset” -- is present for more than half of an album. He’s let it be known that many more new songs are forthcoming, that the current album is just a small part of his recent output. Perhaps something better is indeed beginning.

Ulysses With Smartphone

For more than a quarter century, Joyce's Ulysses has been at or near the top of my literary bucket list.

I gave it a half-hearted shot during a hitchhike across Ireland during my twenties. Inspired by seeing the Martello Tower -- the outside of it, at least; the Joyce Museum was closed -- I managed about five or six pages. The tome mostly served to add extra weight to the backpack.

Over the last couple years, I've felt that maybe I'm now focused enough to succeed where my younger self failed. (My younger self was more interested in crawling Irish pubs). Also, my brother-in-law read it and has spoken to me on several occasions of his love for this book.  And he isn't even a current or former English major. I have a graduate degree in English but have not read Ulysses, one of the defining literary works of the modern era. There's less Someday available than there used to be. It's time.

In late May, I bought a copy of the Vintage paperback edition and set a goal of 10 pages a day, which I've been able to keep (and sometimes exceed). So far, it's lived up to its reputation for being worth the trouble: it has the linguistic virtuosity that I love in Shakespeare, and the eye for human ridiculousness that I love in Monty Python. It's by turns earthy, cerebral, satirical and compassionate; high points for me include the "Hades" episode, which details Leopold Bloom's journey to the funeral of one Paddy Dingnam, and the "Wandering Rocks" episode, a tour-de-force involving multiple points of view.

And yes, it's difficult -- although it presents varying kinds of difficulty. Often it's a matter of Joyce's methodology; he ditches a lot of conventional narrative glue in favor of jump-cuts, sudden shifts between interior monologue and exterior happening, free-associating banter among the characters, and so on. This requires more attention of me as a reader. In return for that closer attention, there's a sense of immediacy and direct access to the characters' experience of the world.

Another kind of difficulty in Ulysses arises from references and allusions, of which there are many -- particularly in the episodes centered on Stephen Dedalus, Joyce's fictional alter ego. If someone were to conduct a survey of readers who gave up on Ulysses, I wouldn't be surprised if the majority said they threw in the towel somewhere around page 36 or 37. This is the "Proteus" episode, which follows Stephen's trains of thought as he walks along Sandymount Strand. It's one philosophical, literary, cultural or political allusion after another, and making any sense out of the episode depends on understanding these allusions.  Without being a Jesuit-educated, early 20th-century Irish intellectual, that's not so likely.

UlyssesLuckily, we have Google. And not only do we have Google, we have browser-equipped smartphones.  For me, then, the experience of reading Ulysses has often involved alternating between a bulky, printed book and a considerably lighter electronic device that serves as a dictionary/encyclopedia/study guide. Thanks to mobile technology, I now know that Mananaan is the Irish god of the sea, and that some accounts have the Virgin Mary claiming she was impregnated by a pigeon.

Google's also a help in navigating the novel's vocabulary, which includes numerous visitors from the hinterlands of English. Do you own a gamp?  Are those birds over there rufous? How does one learn to walk in chopines? Not knowing these words makes me feel like a bosthoon

Sometimes I get the sense that Joyce had in mind an ideal reader, one who understands Irish history, Catholic theology, Greek and Gaelic mythologies, and the landmarks of Dublin well enough to get all the references.  With Google at hand, I can be that reader.