Gotham Diary:
Week in Progress
November 2017 (III)

Thursday 16th

Just the other day, a link from The Browser to Nautilus carried me away. Veronique Greenwood wrote a piece about a book from 1976, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. I could imagine what I would have thought of it when it was published (not much), but now I had to have it. Jaynes’s theory, which is that consciousness as we understand it did not exist until about three thousand years ago, makes a great deal of sense to me these days. The fact that the nature of consciousness remains somewhat mysterious even to thinkers like philosopher Daniel Dennett (who keeps “figuring it out”) and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio does not of course imply that consciousness is necessarily of recent origin, but its connections to language do. (I have long believed that true consciousness is an essentially verbal phenomenon. Perhaps it would be better to say that consciousness is shaped by verbal experience.) Jaynes hypothesizes that, before there was consciousness, there was the bicameral mind, in which the voice of gods called out from the right side of the brain to the left, human or self side. I am not going to begin to try to defend this theory, although I think that it’s probably correct.

Thanks to Amazon, a copy of the book arrived yesterday. It is fairly easy reading, at least for me, now. A great deal of it is familiar, not because I’ve read it elsewhere but because I’ve arrived at the same conclusions from experience. I’ll go into details some other time. I make the point about sailing through the book because what I’m really attending to is the marvelously peculiar prose. Here is the beginning of Chapter 2:

Thus having chiseled away some of the major misconceptions about consciousness, what then have we left? If consciousness is not all these things, if it is not so extensive as we think, not a copy of experience or the necessary focus of learning, judgment, or even thought, what is it? And as we stare into the dust and rubble of the last chapter, hoping Pygmalion-like to see consciousness newly step forth pure and pristine out of the detritus, let us ramble out and around the subject a little way as the dust settles, talking of other things.(46)

Let us speak of metaphor.

In the room, the women fairly come and go. In another passage, about thunderstorms, Jaynes writes of “bulgeous banks of burly air.” I just looked up “bulgeous” on the computer and, oh, dear, it is a word: it’s used to describe the fit of too-tight trousers at the male groin. The talk of metaphor is interesting, although I am not convinced that Jayne’s ideas are so different from those of I A Richards, who distinguished the tenor from the vehicle of metaphor, that we need new terms, metaphrand and metaphier. The important point, however, is that language is indeed largely metaphorical. We have a few words for simple things and functions — parts of the body, common objects, and basic actions — and from these we have elaborated clouds of nuance.

Because in our brief lives we catch so little of the vastnesses of history, we tend too much to think of language as being solid as a dictionary, with a granite-like permanence, rather than as the rampant restless sea of metaphor which it is. Indeed, if we consider the changes in vocabulary that have occurred over the last few millennia, and project them several millennia hence, an interesting paradox arises. For if we ever achieve a language that has the power of expressing everything, then metaphor will no longer be possible. I would not say, in that case, my love is like a red, red rose, for love would have exploded into terms for its thousands of nuances, and applying the correct therm would leave the rose metaphorically dead. (51-2)

This is quite true. As I’m sure I’ve already written somewhere else, a lot of the power of ancient texts comes from the compression into single words of meanings that have long since split into words of their own. The “knowledge” that Adam and Eve digested along with the forbidden fruit is a fine example. A great deal of poetic force, if not actual poetry, owes to inarticulacy.


Consciousness is occasioned by stress. I’m not going to argue that right now, either. It’s my first law of consciousness, the second being the point about verbal origins. Consciousness is the attempt to answer questions presented by stressful situations. Many people respond to stressful situations without resorting to consciousness at all; possibly most people do. They just run, perhaps. Well, everybody runs. But the conscious person is someone who wants to analyse the problem, and no matter how richly supported by graphic aids, analysis is a communicable function. It is not a private, personal thing, but something that ought to be intelligible to any intelligent person. (The common belief that you can know what you mean even if you can’t put it into words is twaddle. You’re not talking about knowing, but about day-dreaming.) The close connection of stress and analysis means that most conscious people are critics.

The person who is neither reading, writing, listening nor talking is not conscious. Sentient, perhaps; aware, perhaps; but not conscious. Again, I think that this describes most people, most of the time. And it might explain why most people, and not just Hofstadter’s anti-intellectual Americans, dislike critics. It is not the specifics of the criticism so much as the persistence of stress. Why must the critic keep talking about a stressful situation that has been dealt with?

I often wonder about consciousness when I am listening to music, especially music that I know very well. To the extent that I am listening closely, and not following the thoughts that music can inspire, I don’t believe that I am conscious. That may be why I love music: it is a consciousness-blocker. Music somehow transfigures stress; it preserves our physical responses but eliminates agitation and fear. Even when music makes me want to dance, I remain contentedly passive. The great composers are in complete control of their complex structures: everything goes exactly where it ought to go. There is nothing for me to do but tag along, whistling.

More anon.