Back where they came from
Alex Haley’s Roots, the story of a black man’s search for his past, posed a major conundrum last season for political and cultural commentators. A million and a half hardcover copies of the book were in print. Record-breaking audiences stayed with the ABC serialization of the work for eight consecutive evenings. Book and dramatization alike offered up fiercely condemnatory (some said “reverse racist”) portraits of the American white majority, yet it was that same majority that enshrined both as the mass culture events of the decade. Only after considerable throwing-about of brains was rough consensus reached on an explanation: Roots succeeded because the author and his predominantly white audience were bound tight by a longing for the truth of their past that was infinitely more powerful than any pique stirred by harsh views of slavers, planters, foremen.
There may be better explanations in time, but about the increase in people’s interest in their past there can’t be any doubt, as I can testify firsthand. A letter used to arrive at our house every year or so from a correspondent bearing the same last name as mine, curious about family pasts. (Usually the letters were forwarded by a magazine to which I had contributed an article.) Three such letters turned up recently in a month.
Welcome letters, obviously: nobody could be ambivalent about this kind of mail. A window opens in a town you’ve never visited in Kansas or Virginia or wherever and suddenly—it’s like having pen pals abroad as a kid—you’re talking to somebody new, reciting the quasicomic tales that families whose pasts are completely knowable and completely bare of distinction settle upon, with mock rue, as a substitute for rehearsals of achievement. (My direct forebear on one side, you write your new friend, served in the Confederate army and was wounded in Pickett’s charge, in the behind, presumably because he was leaving at the time. My forebear on the other side was a Long Island Tory, who fed and armed draft dodgers fleeing General Washington at the time of the Battle of Brooklyn.) If a spark is struck thereby, you and your correspondent go on to other subjects, and something’s been added to life.
For me it’s a step, though, from here to enthusiasm for the present genealogy boom. (This is not a remark about Roots; genealogy was in fashion long before Chicken George and Kunta Kinte.) For a while last winter the nightly TV news was full of this boom. Reports about adopted children, now grown up, seeking access through the courts to agency records that would disclose to them the secrets of their past . . . interviews at immigration entry and other public records centers with citizens hunting down hard information about great-grandparents. And ad budgets expanded for businesses like Ancestral Research Guides (Fifth Avenue, New York), which publish “beginners guides” to genealogy, described as “the most exciting hobby in America.”Fads of this sort invariably promise more than they can deliver.
The problem is partly trails that go cold, partly poverty of context. Carefully selected and arranged, “primary sources"—letters, diaries, bills, excerpts from old newspapers—can shape a reader’s response, provide a “meaningful” (even though simple) view of the past. “An Irishwoman has done the washing for one of our grocers at his house, on Mondays for six years, only missing four Mondays during the time and generally walking a mile each way.”When a country newspaper reprints something like this from an issue put out a century or half-century ago, any competent reader knows what to “read in.”Life was harder then, we say. Or, How dutiful people used to be. Or, What unctuosity the merchant classes had then. But without a frame, whether A Hundred Years Ago in the Gazette or Up From Slavery, primary source data can be a deadly stopper. Occasionally in a personal record, as Alex Haley proved, heroic notes sound, but that is the exception. A name, a date, an address-the end of most genealogical lines-are fearfully bare, incapable of suggesting much beyond themselves.
Admittedly, the drabbest detail, radiated by longing, can become drama. “Why am I doing this?” says the man at the immigration card file, looking up in surprise at his TV interviewer. “I want to know where I came from, that’s why.” The desire demands respect, and it’s wrong to assume that an identity from yesteryear never has meaning unless the person claiming it knows how to speak sophisticated historical, structural, or typological languages. Still, most self-tracers could get far more elsewhere—from a decent current monograph about, say, Puritanism—than genealogy will ever provide. At the risk of offending the antiquarian vote, I’d lobby for a TV or other critique of the “mass genealogy” phenomenon. Lots of routes run backward toward identity and a significant past, but, personally, you can’t get there from here.
One impulse propelling personal genealogers hereabouts is, of course, the American hankering for individuality, means of separating oneself from others. An altogether different impulse, the right name for which is universalist, lies at the core of Julian Jaynes’s The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Houghton Mifflin, $12.95). Reading Professor Jaynes, a Princeton psychologist, burns off preoccupation with familiar boundaries, national, social, economic, and quickens intuitions of human solidarity. His book is about a dividing line-Before Thought Began/ After Thought Began-and nearly everyone living comes after.
On its face this isn’t an appetizing work. The title is inelegant. For much of its length topicality is negligible. And confidence about the kind of intellectual terrain being traversed wavers, in the reader, because earlier books that at first seem relevant lose relevance as the argument develops. Marshall McLuhan, in Understanding Media, writes as a historian of mentality in relation to styles of communication. Eric Havelok, in Preface to Plato, probes the common assumptions of the original audience for Greek epic poetry. Professor Jaynes does and doesn’t resemble both writers, and this makes orienting yourself to his enterprise harder.
Yet despite the difficulties, The Origins of Consciousness is a highly stimulating and, in the end, extremely moving book, a clarification not only of the mind and its past, but, more generally, of the catastrophe that old-style humanities courses referred to as “the human condition.” Two notions dominate its pages. One is that consciousness as we know it was brought into being by a series of physical cataclysms occurring during the second millennium B.C. (More of these in a moment.) The other is that before the advent of this consciousness people possessed “bicameral minds,” meaning they didn’t think, they simply experienced auditory hallucinations (the voices of the gods) in the right temporal cortex of the brain, with automatized motor controls on the left.
The author employs a variety of strategies in advancing this case. The first (and most abstruse) third of the book consists of ruminations personal and psychological on the nature of consciousness, aimed at clearing away accumulations of learned and other fallacies. (Consciousness takes place “in my head.”) Next and most absorbing comes a section providing proofs, in the form of historical and literary analyses, that consciousness emerged at a specific time and place, as a result of identifiable physical events. The balance of the volume surveys “vestiges of the bicameral mind in the modern world.”
From start to finish an embattled work, Origins wages linguistic, historical, and philosophical wars, but its chief attack is upon people who think of human mentality as an “immutable genetically determined characteristic evolved back somewhere in a mammalian evolution or before.” That position is dead wrong, says the author. “Consciousness [is] a learned cultural ability” imposed, in history, “over the vestigial substrate of an earlier more authoritarian type of behavioral control.” Our present sense of self, our capacity to ponder our action and motives, to identify our feelings, to place ourselves in story narratives presuming our independence-these are recent acquisitions, come by at huge cost (the cataclysms) and bringing in their train confusion, quandary, and inexpressible grief as the meaning of human aloneness gradually dawns in its fullness.
The hour of crisis for our not-sodistant predecessors was the discovery, simultaneously, of human choice and human uncertainty. Before the discovery occurred it was impossible for anyone not to know what to do; afterward, awful confusion. What precisely were the cataclysms? “Vast geological catastrophes [quakes and eruptions affecting all the Aegean peoples] . . . Civilizations perished. Half the world’s population became refugees. And wars, previously sporadic, came with hastening and ferocious frequency , . .” The result was interior stress without precedent. Hitherto owned, commanded by the gods (the hallucinated voices), supported by a cultural environment of linguistic inflexibility and by ancient political, social, and economic immobilities, the “bicamerals” were wrenched forth from their place in an impersonal, unindividuated mind, shattered into self, ego, identity. Professor Jaynes is concerned with the shattering, the manner in which the former mental world ended—the real terror, the untranquilized pain, of “adjustment” to a strangeness beyond fathoming.
Broad ranges of academic knowledge-psychophysiology, Mesopotamian historiography, studies of Umbanda trance, studies of romantic poetry, studies of nearly everything on earthare rifled for evidence about the processes involved in the “adjustment.” And the author states the implications of his thesis boldly for a number of knotty contemporary issues. Schizophrenia is described as a “relapse” to the bicameral mind of antiquity. Modern chemotherapeutic coolants for people who hear voices are seen as techniques of control rather than as healing. Hypnosis is regarded as an alteration of consciousness toward earlier bicameral paradigms within the brain-a redirection permitting control of behavior comparable to that exerted by the hallucinated gods. And a dozen currently modish kinds of search for “authorization’-scientology, astrology, fundamentalist gospelism, sensitivity training, UFO fetishes, such “scientisms” as psychoanalysis and behaviorism (genealogy isn’t mentioned)-are perceived as pale analogues of searches that took place long ago, “after the breakdown of the bicameral mind itself.”
Challenging as an interpreter of contemporary culture, Julian Jaynes is subtler as a reinterpreter of our great books. His scrutiny of the movement of mind-the “growth toward subjective consciousness”—from the I Had to the Odyssey is continuously illuminating. Reread under his guidance, the Old Testament—I Samuel in particular (David, Saul, the Witch of Endor), a work presented as containing an “entire spectrum of transition mentalities”—recovers extraordinary tragic intensity. The readings of ancient texts re-enact the extended, complex agony of the birth of “modern” consciousness as it. might have felt to individual emergent selves of the period. And they awaken a sense of the cruelty, one might almost say, of taking ratiocinative power tor granted, of allowing habituality to obscure the nature and worth of thought, of going dead to the delicacy of mind.
As an expositor, Mr. Jaynes is by turns brilliant and vexing, overfond of examples that ask the reader to pertorm exercises embarrassing in the family room. (Think of an object or motive, then sing extempore on the same theme.) As a stylist he has power, pace, and, at need, eloquence, yet he can be irritatingly exclamatory, italicsprone, and self-regarding. And as an etiologist he’s sometimes overcome by lust for specificity. It’s inevitable that fellow professionals in his own and adjacent fields wall catch him in errors, and I can hear litterateurs reminding him that, in imaginative letters, the absence of a language of thought often signifies passionate inwardness, not vacancy.
But carping at work on this scale, where the ambition could qualify as noble, is self-reductive. If the gods are gone for good, the power of sanctifying the human past isn’t-that is the lesson, seemingly, of The Origins of Consciousness. It’s an admirable venture in the deciphering of our becoming; not just “important,” as they say, but at its best beautiful and deep.
Refined by memory, the big winters of one’s past return now as, at most, a single image. A first child, babe in arms, roaring displeasure at snow. A frail but generous passerby, a stranger, helping an indigent graduate student push a stuck Ford out of a drift on a Cambridge street (the passerby helping me turned out to be Benny DeVoto) . . . From the winter just ended several bits-deeds of accommodation, mainly— seem likely to stay vivid for a stretch. Awaking in a Tampa guest room off a front hall on the morning of the First Tampa Blizzard, I hear a polite voice inquiring of my host whether the snowcollecting school kids on the walk with a wagon can borrow the white stuff covering a car parked in our drive. Passing, well after midnight, in Northfield, Minnesota, a brilliantly lighted outdoor rink, I take in that a full-scale hockey game is in progress, and then, a few hours later, through a frosty pane, temperature -18, see a string of college girls on cross-country skis-first sight of the morning—all smoky-breath cheer, laughing their way to a dining hall.
Surest to survive, though, is an image of the provisioning self scoring sensationally against iced pipes. Anxious, fearing bursts and bills, I address a maze of hot and cold water pipes (something frozen somewhere). My condition is one of unbelief, and I am brandishing a hair dryer. Faucets are open in the nearby sink. On the counter by the nearby sink is a work titled, starkly, Plumbing. I await voices but nothing comes. No signal, no advice, no voucher for faith in the power of the white plastic whooshing object to restore water to the land.
Here, I say, just here-and plunge, tunneling the heat. I cosset warmth from the mouth of the dryer onto my glove onto the pipe, smoothing the current backward, forward . . . ever so patiently, prepared now for the long haul, ready to prove my endurance, my aptitude for gratification delay . . . But all at once, a matter of seconds only-seconds—the sink gurgles, water gushes, I’m free. At magical speed I’ve done it, I’ve plumbed.
Who knows what happened? Who comprehends luck’s swiftness? The look of the gushing wmter in the sink passed a secret message (despite everything this could be your year), and from that season, as of this minute, it’s all I care to preserve.
—Winter 1976-1977, a l’envoi.