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Vestiges of the Gods: The Influence of Julian Jaynes on North American Literature

Robert Vincent Matrone
Bachelor's Thesis, New College of Florida, 2006.


In 1976, Julian Jaynes wrote The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, his only major published work during a lifetime of research. In this book, Jaynes proposes the controversial theory that consciousness, as we know it today, did not exist in ancient peoples. Instead, societies were based around the bicameral mind, in which citizens hallucinated the commands of god, the king, and relatives, and followed them accordingly. Despite, or perhaps because, of the controversy surrounding the book, it became the inspiration for a number of authors. Margaret Atwood utilizes Jaynes' theory in two works: Two-Headed Poem and Life Before Man. In Two-Headed Poems, Atwood uses Jaynesian imagery to comment upon poetry, language, and the political struggles of Canada in the mid-1970's. In poems such as "Right Hand Fights the Left," Atwood utilizes the duality which Jaynes establishes in his work, with the right hand representing the gods and the left hand representing consciousness. In the title poem, Atwood applies Jaynes' theory to the trouble of bilingualism in Quebec and Canada, highlighting his discussion of the role of language and culture in the formation of consciousness and the demise of bicamerality.

In her subsequent novel, Life Before Man, Atwood continues to use Jaynes to comment on the world. Here, she focuses less on society and more on the individual. The novel is built around a series of love affairs, all centered around Elizabeth, whose ex-lover has just committed suicide. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth shows a number of signs of schizophrenia, all of which are sketched by Jaynes in his section on the disorder. For Jaynes, schizophrenia is a remnant of the neural structures left over from the switch from the bicameral to consciousness. Atwood uses these characteristic to define Elizabeth as a character on the verge of the bicameral and longing for a simpler past. In addition, Lesje, of mixed Jewish-Ukrainian descent, continues the theme from Two-Headed Poems of the clash of cultures and its role in shaping consciousness. Neal Stephenson's most prominent work, Snow Crash, seems to be built around Jaynes theory. The novel depicts a futuristic world, where people interact in the Metaverse, which becomes an analog consciousness, in Jaynes' definition. The world is threatened by an evil business magnate who is attempting to return the world to the bicameral, with his own voice commanding society. He plans on infecting America with the Snow Crash virus, which causes glossolalia in its victims. Jaynes' discussion of the remainders of the bicameral mind in modem society contains a section on the phenomenon of glossolalia, and the myths and artifacts which Stephenson uses throughout the book are heavily used throughout Jaynes' study.