Every now and then I encounter a book that is particularly challenging. Yesterday, for instance, I finished reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes. I probably first heard reference to this book through the science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer. But its title has popped up a number of times over the years and I finally decided to give it a go.
The main premise of Jaynes’s argument is that (1) consciousness, as we know it today, did not emerge until about 1000 B.C., and (2) that consciousness emerged as a result of language. I found both the premise and the book one of the more challenging reads I’ve encountered in recent memory. Even so, I found the book fascinating. (Decades ago, I had the same reaction to David Berlinski’s A Tour of the Calculus.)
Jaynes uses, as much of his evidence, references to the language in literature as it evolved over time, with particular focus on The Iliad and The Odyssey as well as the early books of the Bible. He interweaves this evidence with modern brain and psychological experiments. Where I was particularly challenged was in his discussion of things like metafiers, paraphors, and parafiers, and how they relate to the way we think. Try as I might, I couldn’t get these concepts clear in my head.
It got me thinking about the limits of my own understanding. In college, for instance, I found that I had a weakness for economics. At least, I took a required course on macro-economics, and although I attended the lectures, read the text book, and did the assigned homework, I found the subject impenetrable. I came away with a poor grade that reflected my lack of understanding, as to opposed to my lack of effort. I encountered similar blocks with higher math, like integral calculus.
Still, I’ve often turned to books when I can’t understand something, and with few exceptions, it usually helps. Jaynes’s book, while fascinating, is one of those exceptions where I am left feeling more confused (although more intrigued) than before I read it. I have started to re-read Carl Sagan’s The Dragons of Eden as a kind of palliative to this effect. I remember finding that to be an excellent book on the evolution of human intelligence when I first read it in the mid-1990s. But human intelligence is different from human consciousness. I can’t tell if the failure is on my, for a simple inability to follow Jaynes’s arguments, or on Janyes for being unclear.
I suppose it shouldn’t bother me. I read so much that there are bound to be things about which I read that I simply can’t understand. But reading is my primary method of continuing education, and when I can’t understand something, I feel as I did when back in the macro-economics class, working away at the homework, reading the text, and taking in the lectures–and getting nowhere.