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A holiday time of leisure invited me to revisit a book I’d sometime downloaded on my Kindle reader: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. I’ve owned this–as an actual book–ever since it first came out in 1976. It’s a bit intriguing that I decided I needed to read it again. Why this? Why now?

As you can guess from the title alone, it’s a challenging book. Jaynes, a psychologist, makes the case for a theory of how the human brain developed into a state of consciousness. He derives evidence from archaeological discoveries, works of ancient literature, and contemporary neurological research, among other things. If you’re seeking a major intellectual massage, this could be it.

I’m especially interested in two aspects of his discussion. First, the way Jaynes’s theory touches on Biblical accounts of prophecies, visitations, and divine instructions. These are reported as delivered via visions (eg. a burning bush, a ladder to heaven), voices, angels, and dreams, among other things. Second, how the advent of language and its cadences created a new way of transmitting information and ideas, and thus an entirely different experience of human thought that could be described as consciousness.

In a previous post, I spoke of my delight in words–words as artifacts involving sound and history, as well as meaning. As a poet, I’ve always been captivated by meter and rhyme, even, stubbornly, during the most unfashionable period of these poetic devices in American literary life in the mid-twentieth century. Jaynes’s theory suggests that I may, in fact, enjoy the inspiration of a muse–a muse who not only feeds me ideas, but also dictates in iambic meter. And like the prophets of old, I might receive a gift of transcendent meaning simply by taking notice: of a dream, a star, the murmur of water, the handful of words that starts the engine of thought. Or even…silence.

No sound improves on silence
except a singing bird,
though other song is present
that may be sometimes heard:
the measure of beginnings,
the grind of celestial gears,
the thought as yet unspoken,
unmeant for human ears
enfolded in the golden light
that every morning brings.
Without an explanation
it sings…it sings…it sings.
Barbara Loots

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