Here’s an audio version
Is it realistic to think that we can imagine what it was like to live, say, 500 years ago, or 5000 years ago? I don’t mean can we extrapolate life without ice-cream, electricity or the written word. What I mean is can we have any sense of how people framed their world, their place in it, their relationship to others? Snug in my cozy apartment in one of the safest, most prosperous and most tolerant societies in the world, perhaps even in the history of the world, I probably can’t even project myself into the mind of half the people living today, much less people so far removed in time. Still, as someone who is drawn to write historical fiction, I’ve committed to try.
In my recent novel, I tried to imagine women’s lives before feminism, reliable birth-control and sexual freedom. That leap is starting to look downright conservative. I’ve just been introduced to the ideas of Julian Jaynes. He asserts (I haven’t read the book yet) that, until about 3000 years ago, humans weren’t conscious in the way we think of consciousness. Their brain hemispheres were less integrated, and they acted in a more-or-less automatic way. When faced with something new, their right hemisphere spoke to them with a voice they couldn’t integrate, and so they called it the voice of God. They didn’t think about thinking, didn’t have beliefs about belief, didn’t make observations about observing.
As a fiction writer, what am I to do with this? How can I write about a zombie? Who wants to read about a character who can’t achieve personal growth through reflection? Can there be a novel without inner dialogue that doesn’t evoke the schizophrenic?
I’ve read other fiction involving ancient peoples in which the author didn’t seem troubled by these questions. The book in which Jaynes describes this concept came out in 1978, and is still in print, which gives us some idea of how highly regarded, if controversial, it still is. I’m working with fiction, so I’m free to do anything I want I suppose, but my reasonably well-developed characters have been deflated and disarmed by my exposure to these ideas. Maybe when I read Jaynes’s book everything will click back into place. For the moment however, I feel creatively inhibited. Maybe once I understand the theory better, I’ll feel inspired by the challenge of working with consciousness in a way I’ve never thought of before, or maybe I’ll just set it all aside and return to irresponsibly indulging my imagination.