The Greek Individual, the Bicameral Mind, and the Hero(ine)

Because the past while has been more or less the usual (editing, prepping Infinite Zero, etc.; the tedium that has to get done), I thought I’d share what I’m reading, plus some thoughts that have come from it.

First a bit of background: for a long time I’ve had pretty eclectic reading habits, but for the past year or so, I’ve been really enamored with psychology and its various schools of thought.  Partly I think it’s because it lends itself to so many aspects of life, which then bleed rather naturally into writing.  Put another way, having something like a semi-stable landscape of the human mind in general is really helpful in character development.  All of this has somewhat organically led me to studying theories of consciousness, which led me in turn to two books, both from the mid-twentieth century.

The Classicist

The first is Bruno Snell’s The Discovery of the Mind: The Greek Origins of European Thought (originally published in German in 1946, translated into English in 1956).  Snell was a classicist and philologist, which means he was concerned not only with the classical literature of Greece, but in the language that composed the corpus.  He also had something of a theory of consciousness.  According to Snell, the European (and presumably North American) concept of self and mind descends from a seemingly primitive though markedly different vision, beginning with Homer.  In the Homeric vision, the human being is not a unified whole but an aggregate of various components.  Snell points to the geometric art of ancient Greek pottery, of figures with thin joints and thick body parts, as an illustration; an amalgam of limbs, rather than a whole body as such.

Further, in the Iliad and Odyssey, according to Snell, descriptions of characters’ actions are rather surface-level, not in a shallow sense, but in that they are descriptions of what we might consider the external correlates of inner, mental states.  In other words, Odysseus is never said to be sad or longing or enraged (thus describing his interiority), but is described as exhibiting the outward signs of these states.  It’s a subtle variation, but Snell finds it significant.  In comparing this literary phenomenon with the development of ideas concerning mind which developed among the Greeks, Snell concludes that Homer’s lack of any descriptions of interiority marks not a literary concession but a lack—Homer has no language or concepts through which to describe the inner world of the mind, and thus Homeric man, as both a literary figure and as an image of oneself, has none.  In his introduction, Snell says that ideas about the mind not only elucidate the psychological, but even shape how one experiences it; the psychological is as affected by our ideas about it as our ideas are affected by the presence of the psychological.  But Homeric man has no life of Socratic consideration or reflection.

Hence a rather novel description of the gods in Homer’s poetry—which brings me to the second book I’ve been reading.

The Psychologist

The second book is Julian JaynesThe Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), one which I actually started earlier this year (and which was also referenced in the recent HBO-adaptation of Westworld).  Jaynes was an American psychologist, one with a somewhat novel hypothesis of the evolution of human consciousness—subsequently dubbed Bicameralism.

The basic premise is that the human mind used to be something divided into two cooperative sub-units.  One was in charge of the general, repetitive functions; the other was to take charge when environmental anomalies mandated a different behavioral pattern.  As an analogy, consider driving to work in the morning: most people do this rather unconsciously, especially those who’ve been at the same routine for some time.  In a manner of speaking, in performing this same task again and again, they enter “auto-pilot.”  All the micro-behaviors and calculations are already saved and automatically executed while the driver’s mind wanders into other territory.  It’s (hopefully) not that you’re absentminded while driving, but that a significant portion of the task is executed with little effort—the information has been processed a thousand times before, and the old conclusions still work.  That’s what the former portion of the bicameral mind would have accomplished; the latter portion would have been activated should you, say, encounter a large wreck on the highway.  Though the highway is usually clear and you hardly take notice of it, suddenly you’re more attentive when you realize you need to deviate to another lane, so as to avoid the pileup that’s occupied a few other lanes.

This is a pretty mundane example, but it fits well with Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind.  The critical difference is that we experience the above example as we do because the bicameral mind of our ancestors “collapsed,” so to speak, into a singular unit.  Today, whether you experience your drive to work on “automatic” or “manual,” you nonetheless consider yourself to be present and in charge.  The bicameral mind had something of a different experience—as I said, and as the term suggests, rather than the (relatively) singular self we now experience, the bicameral mind experienced itself as something like two separate entities.  At least according to Jaynes.

Hence his turn to Homer’s work, specifically to the gods.  Jaynes draws on a similar train of thought as Snell here.

According to Snell, the Iliad and Odyssey depict nothing irreducibly supernatural; in other words, he views the intervention of deities in the affairs of human beings as something like a pre-psychological literary description of a mental phenomenon.  Jaynes really runs with this, drawing on the apparent fact that no characters in Homer’s work seem to make their own decisions, but only at the behest of a god.  In Jaynes’ model, Homer’s human characters represent the automatic side of the bicameral mind, while gods represent the adaptive side.  Jaynes describes the ancient human’s experience of the bicameral mind as analogous to Homer’s characters’ relationship with the gods (Jaynes even suggests the bicameral mind may have begun to “collapse” into what it now is around the time of Homer, but that’s another topic).

Another analogue might be like being a character in a story, with your lines already written out ahead of time, your stage directions set—only, on occasion, a voice narrates to you variations in that routine.  Say you were about to go to work, as you always do, but you stop at the doorway because you hear the narrator say, “But she only then remembered she had left the stove on, so she turned around to turn it off before leaving.”  In this analogy, you experience the narrator as an entity separate from yourself, yet not an intruder.  This is similar to the experience of the bicameral mind, according to Jaynes, and remnants of this pre-conscious experience remain in psychopathologies such as schizophrenia or phenomenological moments such as religious experience.

But what interests me about both Jaynes’ and Snell’s views, complementary as I feel they are, is a line from Snell’s own first chapter, which stuck out to me.

“The heroes of the Iliad … no longer see themselves as the playthings of irrational forces; they acknowledge their Olympian gods who constitute a well-ordered and meaningful world. The more the Greeks begin to understand themselves, the more they adopt of this Olympian world and, so to speak, infuse its laws into the human mind. It is true that they continued throughout to preserve a belief in magic, but all those who helped to advance the new era had as little regard for it as Homer, for they pursued the path which Homer had trod. However primitive man’s understanding of himself as presented in Homer’s speech may appear to us, it also points far into the future: it is the first stage of European thinking.”

- Snell, The Discovery of the Mind (Oxford, 1956), 22

If the gods, in Jaynes’ and Snell’s view (leaving room for varying details) personify something like the (occasionally conflicting) components of the unconscious mind, then it becomes doubly interesting to read Snell’s insistence that the heroes of Homer’s poetry are those who “no longer see themselves as the playthings of irrational forces.”  Regardless of whether Snell is correct about Homer or Jaynes about consciousness, I think they both articulate an interesting path of not only character development, but personal development as well.

The Writer

Since Freud (or thereabouts), the psychotherapeutic community has seen the human mind as something like an amalgam of semi-distinct components, come together to create a cohesive whole.  The conscious agent (Carl Jung and analytical psychotherapy call it the “ego,” the sense of being “I” or “me,” the part of you that feels “in control,” so to speak) is responsible for mediating the at-times chaotic relations between these components of personality, which usually operate autonomously and automatically of the conscious agent.  And a neurosis arises when these varying sub-components of one’s personality contend with one another, and even with the conscious agent, who may not even be aware they are separate from her—she may be under the illusion that it’s all her, the conscious agent, behaving badly, and thus all on her to bring herself “back into line.”

As another analogy, you might consider the mind in the body as the parliament of a nation.  Each member represents a particular department or organ of the nation: there’s a representative of self-preservation, a secretary of sexuality, a minister of what your mother yelled at you when you were a toddler, a deputy of self-image and relations between other nations—I think you get the picture.  Everyone’s got a task, and because they’re a nation, not freelancers, they ideally have to work together in some functional way for the good of the whole.  Sometimes they argue, or one shouts over the other, or one doesn’t speak at all—but together their cooperation, or lack thereof, spells out the health of the nation.

This is rather in line with what Snell sees as the Homeric view of man—an amalgam of “limbs,” rather than a singular being.  But Jaynes’ view adds a member to the table.

To extend the analogy, the parliament runs things in a business-as-usual manner, acquiring resources and making the necessary trade relations in order to preserve some modicum of well-being for the nation, as well as securing its future—just like its ancestor nations have done since time immemorial.  And the only reason they can do this—the only reason there’s a “business as usual” at all—is because their world is mostly consistent.  It presents the same or similar circumstances enough that the parliament can fall into routine.  Yet one of those environmental constants is, in fact, change; nothing ever really stays the same, not forever anyway.  And so this mandates a new chair in the parliament—a director of adaptation.

For Jaynes, the bicameral mind was the first primitive step in that direction.  And the presence of modern consciousness is its subsequent developmental stage.  In this analogy, consciousness functions as something like a director of the parliament, attempting to corral the members in productive directions, mediate disputes between members, and ultimately to ensure the well-being of the “nation.”

This may (or may not) sound terribly straightforward.  But experience says otherwise.  The fact is that while no one is born a blank slate, we’re not exactly born with an articulate understanding of our own minds.  As Snell describes, the vision of the individual mind we now have (very much a product of the European intellectual tradition) is not only an attempt at describing ourselves inwardly, but also shapes how we experience ourselves.  A person finds some sort of functional grasp of themselves because models like those mentioned above help to make sense of a system that is somewhat nonsensical.

To begin, and I think any teen or adolescent can attest to this, if there is a parliament, it meets in the dark.  And if you are the conscious agent, in charge of at least trying to direct the other members, it’s all too easy to hear their voices in the dark and to assume they’re your own—and to assume, therefore, that they are in your control.  Furthermore, because of that darkness, there’s no way to be entirely sure how many members are at the table, or at least how many voices are speaking, especially when one shouts over the other.  With time, adolescents become adults, and, with some luck and help, they manage the parliament well enough—they maintain stability.  At least until something tips the scale.

This may all sound terribly abstract, but it’s really quite concrete.  It shows up in popular stories, such as Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings—there’s a stable situation, intruded upon by some anomalous happening (the entrance, say, of two fugitive droids and a light saber; or the reemergence of a ring that corrupts men’s hearts), and suddenly those who once enjoyed the previous stable situation must find new ways to persist.  There’s a bit of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” here, and far from being purely literary, this is a fairly good description of life in general—it’s the state of the human mind.

Cyclically, one finds stability, their environment presents a novel circumstance, and one must adapt to that circumstance, reestablishing stability until the environment presents yet another novelty.  And in the cyclical process, the person becomes more capable, more adept, more adaptable.  But in order to see themselves through the cycle, they must turn inward; in order to become a literary or existential “hero,” they have to turn on the lights and befriend the members of their personal parliament.

The Hero

The Greeks practically invented tragedy—the meta-narrative that life is traumatic and uncontrollable, and that it will eat you alive in the end—but they also answered it with their heroes.  And in Homer’s work, at least so far as Snell (and perhaps Jaynes) is concerned, the hero is the one who learns to govern his “limbs” properly so as to deal with the latest anomaly.

There are a number of things more to be said, but I’ll focus on only two aspects of this journey inward: 1) because the lights are out on the parliament, so to speak, the would-be hero has little idea of what’s waiting for them inside; and 2) to govern is not to compel or control, but to befriend as an expert negotiator.

As an example: in my first book, Though the Heavens Should Fall, Danny Eick is inadvertently bound to a super-suit which weaves itself not only through his body, but through his mind.  In order to properly use this weapons suite, he must hone both his body and mind, then.  While the physical toll of training is not overly difficult, the mental aspect presents a challenge in the form of a repressed phobia which ends up shutting down the super-suit altogether.  In order to overcome this obstacle, Danny is forced to look inward, to excavate what it is inside him that has caused the suit to shut down and lock him out—what he finds is a traumatic memory, one he’s certainly not forgotten but which he believed he had sorted through long before.  In other words, in order to proceed into his role as one of the “heroes” of my Espatier trilogy, he has to first and foremost discover a new corner within his own mind—he has to acquaint himself with a few members of parliament he’s either known little of or never met before.

Point (1) is one of self-discovery, while point (2) is more about self-realization.  To continue this example, Danny's traumatic memory is in fact the suicide of his father, a veteran bedeviled with PTSD from certain experiences while deployed.  The connections between attempting to use a super-weapon and a father driven to take his own life by the realities of armed conflict may seem obvious; what’s not is how Danny must resolve that tension.

One school of thought might be called a computational theory of consciousness.  It sees the conscious agent’s relation to their parliament as comparable to that of the relationship between a person and a personal computer.  The person makes a command of the computer—find and open a document, open and run a program, make a particular search—and the computer is expected to obey.  If it does not, it must be debugged, reprogrammed, or replaced.  In this theory, Danny’s only real need is to become the self-bootstrapping god of his own mind, including its depths, and call it into compliance.  But that doesn’t seem terribly helpful, as traumatic memory rarely yields to mere insistence, no more than a traumatic event itself; no matter how strongly one wishes it otherwise, the past is the past.  Danny’s father is dead, having taken his life because of realities he can no longer reinterpret, as the damage has already been done.

The other school of thought might be called something like a Munchausen theory of consciousness.  Perhaps recoiling from the failure of the computational theory, this theory suggests that the neurotic tension between Danny’s traumatic memory and his desire to utilize this super-suit is insurmountable—it’s a matter of fact, for which there can be no mediation.  As if experiencing Munchausen syndrome, Danny may insist so much upon the insolubility of this conflict that he may unconsciously (or even consciously) guard it, ensuring that it is not resolved.  As Snell said, the vision we have of our own mind in turn affects how we experience our own mind, and this theory could theoretically drive Danny to himself vouchsafe the persistence of this neurosis under the (fantastical) belief that it must persist.  In other words, he makes it a part of his very identity—and who can stand to destroy a part of themselves?  So game over, the end.  Sorry, universe, but your fate’s pretty bleak because your hero’s been vanquished.

But that’s not at all how things work out for Danny.  Neither the computational nor the Munchausen theory will do, and so he’s forced to find another means forward—and that’s what makes him a hero figure, at least in this instance.  At the risk of being tongue-in-cheek, we might call this the parliamentary theory of consciousness, which mandates that when the hero meets a situation he cannot automatically overcome, he must look inward and sort himself out until he is then capable of surmounting this latest obstacle.  A hero is not powerful—they are courageous.  Power requires no introspection and never needs to yield, let alone stop—courage acknowledges the risks of the world, while nonetheless meeting it like a playmate rather than an abuser.

For Jaynes, the bicameral man was led by the nose by his own nascent consciousness—his narrator, as it were.  For Snell, Homeric man was tugged by the ear by the gods.  The resolution for Jaynes is to become conscious and take responsibility for your own adaptation; the resolution for Snell is to meet the Olympian gods without becoming their slaves.

In literature as in life, as far as this parliamentary theory is concerned, a hero or heroine is not the one who always has the answer to the problem—they are the one who looks bravely inward, humbly mediates the components of their being, patiently formulates a new move, and courageously presses forward.



Image credit: Mary and Jon Hirschfeld Workshop. Funerary Krater with a prothesis scene (upper tier) and a procession of chariots and foot soldiers (lower tier)