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Vision, Madness, and Morality: Poetry and the Theory of the Bicameral Mind

Judith Weissman
The Georgia-Review, 1979, 33 (1): 118-148.


Julian Jaynes's recent speculative and iconoclastic book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, disturbs many of the assumptions with which we have lived comfortably for generations, and has been greeted with both excitement and scorn. Jaynes first suggests that what we know as consciousness is not necessary for many processes of thought - reactivity, learning, even reasoning - which would have been necessary for any life that we could call human; and then, more startlingly, he suggests that not only the earliest men, who did not have language, but also the men of the early civilizations of Greece, Israel, Mesopotamia, and South America did not possess consciousness. On the basis of impressive archaeological and literary evidence he suggests that the early human civilizations possessed, instead of consciousness, what he calls bicameral minds. Rather than thinking consciously about what to do in novel situations, early men listened to auditory hallucinations, the "bicameral voice which with the stored up admonitory wisdom of his life would tell him nonconsciously what to do" (Jaynes, p. 85). This admonitory wisdom was shared or common wisdom in early civilizations; different people heard similar voices because they believed that they would, and so were bound together in their social organizations. Consciousness, Jaynes believes, developed only when these early civilizations broke down under the stress of invasion or natural disaster.