Harriet Tubman: Voice-Hearing Visionary

Origin of Harriet Tubman in the Persistence of the Bicameral Mind

The movie ‘Harriet’ came out this year, amidst pandemic and protest. The portrayal of Harriet Tubman’s life and her strange abilities reminds one of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, as written about in what is now a classic work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Some background will help and so let’s look at the biographical details of what is known. This famous Underground Railroad conductor was born Araminta Harriet Ross in the early 1820s and, when younger, she was known as ‘Minty’. Her parents were religious, as she would later become. She might also have been exposed to the various church affiliations of her master’s extended family.

These influences were diverse, writes James A. McGowan and William C. Kashatus in their book Harriet Tubman: A Biography (pp. 11-12): “As a child, Minty had been told Bible stories by her mother, and she was occasionally forced to attend the services held by Dr. Anthony Thompson, Jr., who was a licensed Methodist minister. But Minty and her parents might also have been influenced by Episcopal, Baptist, and Catholic teachings since the Pattisons, Thompsons, and Brodesses initially belonged to Anglican and Episcopal churches in Dorchester County before they became Methodists. In addition, some of the white Tubmans and Rosses were originally Catholic. Accordingly, Minty’s religious beliefs might have been a composite of several different Christian traditions that were adapted to the evangelical emphasis on spiritual freedom.”

Tubman’s mixed religious background was also noted by Kate C. Larson: “The “creolization” of this family more accurately reflects the blending of cultures from West Africa, Northern Europe, and local Indian peoples in the Chesapeake. As historian Mechal Sobel put it, this was a “world they made together.” By the time Tubman was born, first generation Africans were visible presences in Dorchester County […] Tubman and her family integrated a number of religious practices and beliefs into their daily lives, including Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic, and even Quaker teachings, all religious denominations supported by local white masters and their neighbors who were intimately involved with Tubman’s family. Many slaves were required to attend the churches of their owners and temporary masters. Tubman’s religiosity, however, was a deeply personal spiritual experience, rooted in evangelical Christian teachings and familial traditions” (Harriet Ross Tubman).

Other scholars likewise agree, such as Robert Gudmestad: “Like many enslaved people, her belief system fused Christian and African beliefs” (Faith made Harriet Tubman fearless as she rescued slaves). This syncretism was made simpler for the commonalities traditional African religion had with Christianity or particular sects of Christianity: worship of one God who was supreme, relating to God as a helpful friend who could be heard and talked with (a commonality with Quakerism), belief in an eternal soul and an afterlife, rites and initiations involving immersion in water, etc. Early generations of slaves were often kept out of the churches and so this allowed folk religion to take on a life of its own with a slow merging of traditions, such as how African rhythms of mourning were incorporated into Gospel music.

Furthermore, religious fervor was at a peak in the early 1800s and it was part of the world Tubman’s parents lived in and that Tubman was born into. “Both races attended the massive camp meetings so Rit and Ben experienced these sporadic evangelical upsurges”, wrote Margaret Washington (Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman). “She grew up during the Second Great Awakening,” Gudmestad explained, “which was a Protestant religious revival in the United States. Preachers took the gospel of evangelical Christianity from place to place, and church membership flourished. Christians at this time believed that they needed to reform America in order to usher in Christ’s second coming. Some during that restless period believed it was the End Times, as it was easier to imagine the world coming to an end than to imagine it to become something else.

This would have been personally felt by Tubman. “A number of black female preachers,” Gudmestad goes on to say, “preached the message of revival and sanctification on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Jarena Lee was the first authorized female preacher in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It is not clear if Tubman attended any of Lee’s camp meetings, but she was inspired by the evangelist. She came to understand that women could hold religious authority.” The religious fervor was part of a growing political fervor, as the country moved toward Civil War. For blacks, Moses leading his people to freedom inspired more than faith and hope toward the afterlife.

Around the time of Tubman’s birth, there was the failed 1822 revolt planned by Denmark Vesey in South Carolina. Later in 1831, Nat Turner led his rebellion in nearby Virginia and that would’ve been an exciting event for enslaved blacks, especially a lonely young slave girl who at the time was being kept separate from her family and mercilessly whipped. Then throughout her teens and into her early twenties, there were numerous other uprisings: 1835–1838 Black Seminole Slave Rebellion, 1839 Amistad seizure, 1841 Creole case, 1842 Slave Revolt in the Cherokee Nation. The Creole case was the most successful slave revolt in United States history. Such tremendous events, one might imagine, could shape a young impressionable mind.

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Harriet Tubman’s Ethno-Cultural Ancestry and Family Inheritance

Someone like Tubman didn’t come out of nowhere. “I am quite willing to acknowledge that she was almost an anomaly among her people,” wrote her early biographer Sarah Bradford, “and so far I can judge they all seem to be particularly intelligent, upright and religious people, and to have a strong feeling of family affection” (Harriet: The Moses of Her People). She earned her strong spirit honestly, from the black culture around here and as modeled by her parents. The spiritual inclinations, as with with knowledge of nature, came from her father: “As a clairvoyant, Minty believed that she inherited this second sense from her father, Ben. […] Listening to Ben’s stories, predictions and sharing his faith convinced Minty that an omniscient force protected her” (Margaret Washington, Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman). But it was her mother, in particular, who showed what it meant to be a fiercely protective woman when it came to family. When Tubman returned to free her family, including her elderly parents, she was acting on the values she was raised with:

“Rit struggled to keep her family together as slavery threatened to tear it apart. Edward Brodess sold three of her daughters (Linah, Mariah Ritty, and Soph), separating them from the family forever.[10] When a trader from Georgia approached Brodess about buying Rit’s youngest son, Moses, she hid him for a month, aided by other enslaved people and freedmen in the community.[11] At one point she confronted her owner about the sale.[12] Finally, Brodess and “the Georgia man” came toward the slave quarters to seize the child, where Rit told them, “You are after my son; but the first man that comes into my house, I will split his head open.”[12] Brodess backed away and abandoned the sale.[13] Tubman’s biographers agree that stories told about this event within the family influenced her belief in the possibilities of resistance.[13][14] (Harriet Tubman, Wikipedia)

Whatever the cause, a strong moral sense developed in Tubman. Around the age of twelve or fifteen, there was an incident where she refused to help an overseer catch and tie up a runaway slave. Instead, she stood in front of the door and blocked his way. He threw an iron weight after the escapee, but it came up short when it hit her in the head, knocking her unconscious. She later said that it “broke my skull” and, though her master wanted to send her back to work, it took her a long time to recover. “The teenager remained in a coma for weeks,” writes M.W. Taylor, “lying on a bed of rags in the corner of her family’s windowless wooden cabin. Not until the following spring was she able to get up and walk unaided” (Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist, p. 16). Kate C. Larson says that, “It took months for her mother to nurse her back to health” (Harriet Ross Tubman).

Ever after, she had seizures and trance-like states (“spells”, “sleeping fits”, or “a sort of stupor or lethargy at times”), premonitions and prophetic visions (“vivid dreams”), and out-of-body and other shamanic-like experiences — possibly caused by temporal lobe epilepsy, narcolepsy, cataplexy, or hypersomnia. She claimed to have heard the voice of God that guided and protected her, that He “spoke directly to my soul”. She “prayed all the time” and “was always talking to the Lord”“When I went to the horse trough to wash my face, and took up the water n my hands, I said, ‘Oh Lord, wash me, make me clean.’ When I took up the towel to wipe my face and hands, I cried, ‘Oh Lord, for Jesus’ sake, wipe away all my sins!’ ” (Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet, p. 11).

“During these hallucinatory states,” writes Gordon S. Johnson Jr., “she would also hear voices, screams, music, and rushing water, and feel as though her skin was on fire, while still aware of what was going on around her. The attacks could occur suddenly, without warning, even in the middle of a conversation. She would wake up and pick up the conversation where it left off a half hour later. In addition, Tubman would have terrible headaches, and would become more religious after the injury” (Harriet Tubman Suffered a TBI Early In Life).

While recuperating, she prayed for her master’s soul, that he might be saved and become a Christian. Her master’s behavior didn’t improve. In her stupor, no amount of whipping would arouse her. So he tried to sell her, but no one wanted to buy an injured and incapacitated slave, even though prior to the accident she had been hardworking and was able to do the work of a full-grown man. She didn’t want to be sold and separated from her family. One day she prayed that, if her master couldn’t be saved, the Lord should kill him and take him away. Shortly later, he did die and, with overwhelming guilt, she felt her prayer had been the cause.

Tubman’s experiences may have been shaped by African traditions, as there were many first generation slaves around. She would have been close to her immediate and extended family living in the area, as described by Professor Larson: “Harriet Tubman’s grandmother, Modesty, lived on Pattison’s property for an undetermined number of years after Rit left with Mary and moved to the Thompson plantation. Though the Thompson plantation sat about 6 miles to the west of the Pattison plantation and their neighbors along the Little Blackwater River near the bridge, their interactions were likely frequent and essential to maintaining social, political, and economic wellbeing” (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument: Historic Resource Study).

An important familial link, as discussed above, was their shared religious inheritance. “Methodism was one source of strength, blending smoothly with cultural and religious traditions that survived the middle passage from Africa,” wrote Professor Larson. “First generation Africans, like her grandmother Modesty, embodied a living African connection and memory for the Bradford, Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman. Tubman’s religious fervor and trust in God to protect and guide her evolved from a fusion of these traditions.” Tubman remained close to family living on nearby plantations, such as being hired out to do logging work with her father and quite likely hearing the same sermons, maybe sometimes clandestinely meeting in the “hidden church” of informal religious gatherings.

Her first biographer, Fanklin Sanborn, said that she was “one degree removed from the wolds of Africa, her grandfather being an imported African of a chieftan family” and that, as “the grand-daughter of a slave imported from Africa,” she “has not a drop of white blood in her veins” (“The Late Araminta Davis: Better Known as ‘Moses’ or ‘Harriet Tubman’.” Franklin B. Sanborn Papers. Box 1, Folder 5. Box 1, Folder 5, American Antiquarian Society). The latter claim of her being pure African ancestry has been disputed and was contradicted by other accounts, but at least part of her family was of recent African ancestry as was common in that era, making her a second generation American in at least one line. With a living memory of the Old World, Tubman’s maternal grandmother Modesty Green would have been treated as what is called a griot, an elder who is a teacher, healer, and counselor; a keeper of knowledge, wisdom, and customs. She would have remembered the old world and had learned much about how to live in the new one, helping to shape the creole culture into which Tubman was born.

Modesty might have come from the Ashanti tribe of West Africa, specifically Ghana. She was sold as a slave sometime before 1785, the year Tubman’s mother Rittia (Rit, Ritty) Green was born. The Ashanti ethnicity was common in the region, writes Ann Malaspina: “During the eighteenth century, more than one million slaves were bought by British, Danish, and Dutch slave traders and shipped to the Americas from the Ashanti Empire on West Africa’s Gold Coast, a rich trading region. Many Ashanti slaves were sold to buyers in Maryland” (Harriet Tubman, p. 10). The Ashanti had a proud reputation and the ethnic culture made its presence known, such as the “Asante proverbs that Harriet picked up as a young girl (“Don’t test the depth of a river with both feet”)” (Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman). Along with the Ashante, blacks of Igbo descent were numerous in the Tidewater region of Maryland and Virginia (Igbo Americans, Wikipedia). These cultures, along with the Kongo people, were known to be proud and loyal. Also, West Africa had a tradition of respect for women — as property owners and leaders, and sometimes as warriors.

It’s the reason the Tidewater plantation owners preferred them as slaves. The preference in the Deep South was different because down there plantations were large commercial operations with typically absentee owners, an aristocracy that spent most of its time in Charleston, England, or elsewhere. Tidewater slaveholders had smaller plantations and were less prosperous. This meant they and their families lived close to slaves and, in some cases, would have worked with them. These Tidewater aristocrats were more likely to use the paternalistic rhetoric that identified slaves as part of the extended family, as often was literally the case from generations of close relations with many of the plantation owner’s mulatto children, grandchildren, cousins, etc running around. Cultures like the Ashanti and Igbo, in being strongly devoted to their families and communities, could be manipulated to keep slaves from running away. The downside to this communal solidarity is that these ethnic groups were known to be disobedient and cause a lot of trouble, including some of the greatest slave rebellions

Tubman is an exemplar of this Tidewater black culture. According to her own statements recorded by Frank C. Drake: “the old mammies to whom she told [her] dreams were wont to nod knowingly and say, ‘I reckon youse one o’ dem ‘Shantees’, chile.’ For they knew the tradition of the unconquerable Ashantee blood, which in a slave made him a thorn in the side of the planter or cane grower whose property he became, so that few of that race were in bondage” (“The Moses of Her People. Amazing Life work of Harriet Tubman,” New York Herald, New York, Sept. 22, 1907). The claim about her grandmother was confirmed by a piece from the year before Tubman’s death, written by Ann Fitzhugh Miller (granddaughter of Tubman’s friend Gerrit Smith), in reporting that Tubman believed her maternal grandmother had been “brought in a slave ship from Africa” (“Harriet Tubman,” American Review, August 1912, p. 420).

Professor Kate C. Larson concludes that, “It has been generally assumed at least one if not more of Tubman’s grandparents came directly from Africa” (Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument: Historic Resource Study). This is the reason for speculating about a more direct African influence or, at the very least, it shows how important an African identity was to Tubman’s sense of faith and spirituality. “Like many enslaved people, her belief system fused Christian and African beliefs,” Robert Gudmestad suggests. “Her belief that there was no separation between the physical and spiritual worlds was a direct result of African religious practices. Tubman literally believed that she moved between a physical existence and a spiritual experience where she sometimes flew over the land.”

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Harriet Tubman’s Special Relationship with God and Archaic Authorization

Whatever was the original source and true nature of Harriet Tubman’s abilities, they did serve her well in freeing slaves and saved her from her pursuers. She always trusted her voices and visions, and would change her course of action in an instant, such as the time God told her to not continue down a road and so, without hesitation, she led her fellow fugitives across the rushing waters of an icy stream, but the “several stout men” in her care “refused to follow til they saw her safe on the other side”. Sarah Bradford goes on to say that, “The strange part of the story we found to be, that the masters of these men had put up the previous day, at the railroad station near where she left, an advertisement for them, offering a large reward for their apprehension; but they made a safe exit” (p. 45). Commenting on this incident, McGowan and Kashatus notes, “Similar instances occurred on her rescue missions whenever Harriet was forced to make an important decision” (Harriet Tubman: A Biography, p. 62).

This divine guidance probably made her behavior erratic and unpredictable, always one step ahead (or one step to the side) of the slave-catchers — maybe not unlike the Trickster stories she likely heard growing up, as part of the folklore tradition in African-American communities or possibly picked up from Native Americans who still lived in the area. Maybe there is a reason both Trickster stories and voice-hearing are often found in oral cultures. The Trickster, as an archetype similar to salvific figures, exists between the divine and human — Jesus often played the role of Trickster. Looking more closely at this mentality might also tell us something about the bicameral mind.

Her visions and voice-hearing was also a comfort and assurance to her; and, as some suggested, this gave her “command over others’ minds” (Edna Cheney, “Moses”, The Freedmen’s Record, p. 35) — that is to say, when around her, people paid attention and did what they were told. She had the power of charisma and persuasion, and failing that she had a gun that she was not afraid to use too good effect. She heard God’s voice in conviction and so she spoke with conviction. One was wise to not doubt her and, when leading slaves to freedom, she did not tolerate anyone challenging her authority. But it was in moments of solitude that she most strongly felt the divine. Based on interviews with Tubman in 1865, Edna Cheney conveyed it in the following way:

“When going on these journeys she often lay alone in the forests all night. Her whole soul was filled with awe of the mysterious Unseen Presence, which thrilled her with such depths of emotion, that all other care and fear vanished. Then she seemed to speak with her Maker “as a man talketh with his friend;” her child-like petitions had direct answers, and beautiful visions lifted her up above all doubt and anxiety into serene trust and faith. No man can be a hero without this faith in some form; the sense that he walks not in his own strength, but leaning on an almighty arm. Call it fate, destiny, what you will, Moses of old, Moses of to-day, believed it to be Almight God” (p. 36).

Friends and co-conspirators described Tubman as having lacked the gnawing anxiety and doubt that, according to Julian Jaynes, has marked egoic consciousness since the collapse of Bronze Age civilization. “Great fears were entertained for her safety,” according to William Still, an African American abolitionist who personally knew her, “but she seemed wholly devoid of personal fear. The idea of being captured by slave-hunters or slave-holders, seemed never to enter her mind.” That kind of absolute courage and conviction, based on trust of voices and visions, is not common in the modern mind. Her example inspired and impressed many.

Thomas Garrett, a close confidante, said that, “I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul. She has frequently told me that she talked with God, and he talked with her every day of her life, and she has declared to me that she felt no more fear of being arrested by her former master, or any other person, when in his immediate neighborhood, than she did in the State of New York, or Canada, for she said she never ventured only where God sent her, and her faith in a Supreme Power truly was great” (letter, 1868). As an aside, there is an interesting detail about her relationship with God — it was told by Samuel Hopkins Adams, grandson of Tubman’s friend and benefactor Samuel Miles Hopkins (brother of Tubman’s biographer Sarah Bradford): “Her relations with the Deity were personal, even intimate, though respectful on her part. He always addressed her as Araminta, which was her christened name” (“Slave in the Family”, Grandfather Stories, pp. 277-278; quoted by Jean M. Humez on p. 355 of Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories).

In summarizing her faith, Milton C. Sernett concluded that, “Tubman did not distinguish between seer and saint. She seems to have believed that her trust in the Lord enabled her to meet all of life’s exigencies with a confident foreknowledge of how things would turn out, a habit others found impressive, or uncanny, as the case may be” (Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, p. 145). That is it. This supreme confidence did not come from herself. At one moment of uncertainty, she was faced with making a decision. “The Lord told me to do this. I said, ‘Oh Lord, I can’t—don’t ask me—take somebody else.” God then spoke to her: “It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman” (Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom).

Anyone familiar with Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind would perk up at this discussion of voice-hearing, specifically of commanding voices with the undeniable and infallible power of archaic authorization. Besides this, he spoke of three other necessary components to the general bicameral paradigm, as much relevant today as it was during the Bronze Age (The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 324):

  • “The collective cognitive imperative, or belief system, a culturally agreed-on expectancy or prescription which defines the particular form of a phenomenon and the roles to be acted out within that form”
  • “an induction or formally ritualized procedure whose function is the narrowing of consciousness by focusing attention on a small range of preoccupations”
  • “the trance itself, a response to both the preceding, characterized by a lessening of consciousness or its loss, the diminishing of the analog or its loss, resulting in a role that is accepted, tolerated, or encouraged by the group”

Collective cognitive imperative is central what we are exploring here. Tubman grew up in a culture where such spiritual, paranormal, and shamanic experiences were still part of a living tradition, including traces of traditional African religion. She lacked doubt about this greater reality because almost everyone around her shared this sense of faith. As social creatures, such shared culture has a powerful effect upon the human mind. But at that point in early modernity when Tubman grew up, most of American society had lost the practices of induction and hence the ability to enter trances.

The Evangelical church, however, has long promoted trance experiences and trained people how to talk to God and listen for his voice (still does, in some cases: Tanya Luhrmann, When God Talks Back). Because of her brain condition, Tubman didn’t necessarily require induction, although her ritual of constant prayer probably helped. She went into trance apparently without having to try, one might say against her will. There is also another important contributing factor. Voice-hearing has historically been most common among non-literate, especially preliterate, societies — that is because the written word alters the human mind, as argued by many besides Jaynes: Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, etc. Such illiteracy would describe the American slave population since it was against the law for them to read and write.

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Harriet Tubman’s Illiteracy and Storytelling Talent

This state of illiteracy included Tubman. During the Civil War, she spoke of a desire to become literate so as to “write her own life” (Cheney, p. 38), but there is no evidence she ever learned to write. “The blow to the head of Tubman received at about thirteen may have been the root cause of her illiteracy. According to Cheney’s sketch, “The trouble in her head prevents her from applying closely to a book” “ (Milton C. Sernett, Harriet Tubman: Myth, Memory, and History, p. 105). She remained her whole life fully immersed in an oral mindset. This was demonstrated by her heavy use of figurative language with concrete imagery, as when describing a Civil War battle — recorded by visiting historian Albert Bushnell Hart:

“And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get in the crops, it was dead men that we reaped” (Slavery and Abolition, p. 209). Also, consider how she spoke of her personal experiences: “She loves to describe her visions, which are very real to her; but she must tell them word for word as they lie in her untutored mind, with endless repetitions and details, she cannot condensed them, whatever be your haste. She has great dramatic power; the scene rises before you as she saw it, and her voice and language change with her different actors” (Cheney, pp. 36-37).

Elaborating on her storytelling talent, Jean M. Humez writes: “One of Earl Conrad’s informants who as a child had known Tubman in her old age reported: “there never was any variation in the stories she told, whether to me or to any other” (Tatlock, 1939a). It is characteristic of the folklore performer trained in an oral culture to tell a story in precisely the right way each time. This is because the story itself is often regarded as a form of knowledge that will educate the young and be passed down through the generations. The storyteller must not weaken the story’s integrity with a poor performance” (Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 135).

This was also heard in how Tubman drew upon the down-to-earth style of old school religion: “Instead of the classical Greek “tricks of oratory” to which the college-educated Higginson refers, Tubman drew upon homelier sources of eloquence, such as scriptures she would have heard preached in the South. She frequently employed a teaching technique made familiar in the New Testament Gospels—the “parable’ or narrative metaphor—to make her lessons persuasive and memorable” (Jean M. Humez, Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 135). She knew of Jesus’ message through oral tellings by preachers and that was fitting since Jesus too effectively taught in the spoken word.

She was masterful. Even before a crowd of respectable whites, such as at abolitionist meetings, she could captivate an audience and move them to great emotion. Having witnessed a performance of Tubman’s oft-repeated story of former slave Joe’s arrival in Canada along with a rendition of the song he sang in joyous praise, Charlotte Forten recorded the impact it had on those present: “How exciting it was to hear her tell the story. And to hear the very scraps of jubilant hymns that he sang. She said the ladies crowded around them, and some laughed and some cried. My own eyes were full I listened to her” (Charlotte Forten, journal entry, Saturday, January 31, 1862).

All of these ways of speaking are typical of those born in oral societies. As such, her illiteracy might have been key. “She is a rare instance,” as told in The Freedmen’s Record, “in the midst of high civilization and intellectual culture, of a being of great native powers, working powerfully, and to beneficient ends, entirely unaided by school or books” (Cheney, p. 34). Maybe the two factors are closely linked. Even in the ancient world, some of the most famous and respected oracles were given by the uneducated and illiterate, often women. Tubman did have the oracular about her, as she occasionally prophesied outcomes and coming events.

We mainly know of Tubman through the stories she told and retold of herself and her achievements, surely having been important in gaining support and raising funds in those early years when she needed provisions to make her trips to the South. She came from a storytelling tradition and, obviously, she knew how to entertain and persuade, to make real the plight of the still enslaved and the dangers it took to gain their freedom. She drew in her audience, as if they were there with bloodhounds tracking them, with their lives hanging in the balance of a single wrong decision or unfortunate turn of events.

One of her greatest talents was weaving song into her stories, but that was also part of oral culture. The slave’s life was filled with song, from morning to night. They sung in church and while at work, at births and burials. These songs were often stories, many of them taken from or inspired by the religion that was so much a part of their daily experience. Song itself was a form of language: “Tubman used spirituals to signal her arrival or as a secret code to tell of her plans. She also used spirituals to reassure those she was leading of their safety and to lift their spirits during the long journey to freedom” (M.W. Taylor, Harriet Tubman: Antislavery Activist, p. 18). She also used the song of birds and owls to communicate, something she may have learned from the African or Native American tradition.

Song defined Tubman, as much as did her spirituality. “Religious songs,” Jean M. Humez explains, “embellished Tubman’s oral storytelling performances and were frequently central plot elements in her most popular Underground Railroad stories. There was the story of teasing the thick-witted “master” the night before her escape by using a familiar Methodist song, “I’m Bound for the Promised Land,” to communicate to her family her intention to run away. Singing was also integral to her much-told story about coded communication with fugitives she had hidden in the woods. “Go Down, Moses” meant “stay hidden,” while a “Methodist air,” “Hail, oh hail, ye happy spirits,” meant “all clear” (Bradford, 1869)” (Harriet Tubman: The Life and the Life Stories, p. 136).

Humez goes on to say that, “Though she was able to capture and reproduce the lyrics for her readers, Bradford was evidently bewildered by Tubman’s musical performances in much the same way Cheney was by her spiritual testimony: “The air sung to these words was so wild, so full of plaintive minor strains, and unexpected quavers, that I would defy any white person to learn it, and often as I heard it, it was to me a constant surprise” (Bradford, 1886, 35-36).” Her performances used a full range expression, including through her movement. She would wave her arms and clap her hands, sway and stamp her feet, dance and gesture — according to the details of what she spoke and rhythm of what she sang (Humez, p. 137). Orality is an embodied way of communicating.

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Harriet Tubman’s Voice-Hearing and the Power of Oral Culture

Tubman may have been more talented and charismatic than most, but one suspects that such a commanding presence of speech and rhetorical persuasion would have been far more common among the enslaved who were raised in an oral culture where language was one of the few sources of power in defense against those who wielded physical violence and political force — such as the necessary ability for survival to use language that was coded and veiled, symbolic and metaphorical, whether in conversation or song, in order to communicate without stating something directly for fear of being overheard.

Her display of orality would have impressed many whites simply because literacy and the literary mind by that point had become the norm among the well-off white abolitionists who came to hear her. Generations had passed since orality had been prevalent in mainstream American society, especially among the emerging liberal class. The traditional culture of the ancien regime had been eroding since the colonial era. There is a power in oral cultures that the modern mind has forgotten, but there were those like Tubman who carried the last traces of oral culture into the 20th century before she finally died in her early 90s in 1913.

The bewilderment of whites, slave-catchers and abolitionists alike, by Tubman’s prowess makes one think of another example of the power of oral culture. The Mongol hordes, as they were perceived, acted in a way that was incomprehensible to the literate ruling elite of European feudalism. Genghis Khan established a mnemonic system used among his illiterate cavalry that allowed messages to be spread quickly and accurately. As all Mongols rode horses and carried all food with them, they were able to act collectively like a swarm and so could easily shift strategy in the middle of a battle. Oral culture had less rigid hierarchy. It was also highly religious and based in a shamanic tradition not unlike that of Africa. Genghis Khan regularly prayed to God, fasting for days until getting a clear message before he would leave on a military campaign. In similar fashion, Thomas Garrett said of Tubman: “She is a firm believer in spiritual manifestations […] she never goes on her missions of mercy without his (God’s) consent” (letter to Eliza Wigham, Dec. 27, 1856).

One imagines that, as with that Mongol leader, Tubman was so successful for the reason she wielded archaic authorization. That was the underlying force of personality and persuasion that made her way of speaking and acting so compelling, for the voice of God spoke through her. It was a much greater way of being in the world, a porous self that extended much further and that could reach into the heart and minds of others, apparently not limited to humans. Her “contemporaries noted that Tubman had a strange power over all animals—another indication of psychic ability—and insisted that she never feared the bloodhounds who dogged her trail when she became and Underground Railroad agent” (James A. McGowan & William C. Kashatus, Harriet Tubman: A Biography, pp. 10-11). Psychic ability or simply a rare example of a well-functioning bicameral mind in the modern era.

Some people did perceive her as being psychic or otherwise having an uncanny perception, an ability to know things it seems she shouldn’t be able to know. It depends on one’s psychological interpretation and theological persuasion. Her compatriot Thomas Garrett was also strongly religious in his commitment to abolitionism. “In fact,” states McGowan and Kashatus, “Garrett compared Harriet’s psychic ability to hear “the voice of God as spoken direct to her soul” to the Quakers’ concept of an Inner Light, or a divine presence in each human being that allows them to do God’s will on earth. Because of their common emphasis on a mystical experience and a shared religious perspective, Tubman and the Quakers developed a mutual trust” (Harriet Tubman: A Biography, p. 62). A particular incident helps explain Garret’s appraisal, from the same book (pp. 59-60):

“One late afternoon in mid-October 1856, Harriet arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, in need of funding for a rescue mission to the Eastern Shore. She went immediately to the office of Thomas Garrett, a white Quaker station master who also operated a hardware business in the town. “God sent me to you, Thomas,” said Harriet, dismissing the formality of a simple greeting. “He tells me you have money for me.” Amused by the request, Garrett jokingly asked: “Has God ever deceived thee?” “No,” she snapped. “I have always been liberal with thee, Harriet, and wish to be of assistance,” said the Quaker station master, stringing her along. “But I am not rich and cannot afford to give thee much.” Undeterred by the response, Harriet shot back: “God told me you’ve got money for me, and God never fools me!” Realizing that she was getting upset, Garrett cut to the chase: “Well, then, how much does thee need?” After reflecting a moment, Tubman said, “About 23 dollars.”

“The elderly Quaker shook his head in disbelief. Harriet’s request was almost exactly the amount he had received from an antislavery society in Scotland for her specific use. He went to his cash box, retrieved the donation, and handed it to his visitor. Smiling at her benefactor, Tubman took the cash, turned abruptly and marched out of the office. Astonished by the incident, Garrett later confided to another abolitionist that “there was something remarkable” about Harriet. “Whether it [was] clairvoyance or the divine impression on her mind, I cannot tell,” he admitted. “But I am certain she has a guide within herself other than the written word, for she never had any education.”1 By most accounts, Tubman’s behavior can be described as selfrighteous, if not extremely presumptuous. But she viewed herself as being chosen by God for the special duty of a liberator. In fact, she admitted that she “felt like Moses,” the Old Testament prophet, because “the Lord told me to go down South and bring up my brothers and sisters.” When she expressed doubt about her abilities and suggested that the Lord “take somebody else,” He replied: “It’s you I want, Harriet Tubman.”2 With such a divine commission, Tubman was confident that her visions and actions—no matter how rude by 19th–century society’s standards—were condoned by the Almighty. Thomas Garrett understood that.”

There is no doubt she had an instinctive understanding that was built on an impressive awareness, a keen presence of mind — call it psychic or bicameral. With our rigid egoic boundaries and schizoid mentality, we inhabitants of this modern hyper-individualistic world have much to learn about the deeper realms of the bundled mind, of the multiplicity of self. We have made ourselves alien to our own human and animal nature, and we are the lesser for it. The post-bicameral loss of not only God’s voice but of a more expansive way of being is still felt in a nostalgic longing that continues to rule over us, ever leading to backlashes of the reactionary mind. Even with possible brain damage, Tubman was no where near as mentally crippled as we are with our prized ego-consciousness that shuts out all other voices and presences.

In the Western world, it would be hard to find such a fine specimen of visionary voice-hearing. Harriet Tubman had a genius about her, both genius in the modern sense of brilliance and genius in the ancient sense of a guiding spirit. If she were around today, she would likely be medicated and institutionalized or maybe imprisoned, as a threat to sane and civil society (Bruce Levine, “Sublime Madness”: Anarchists, Psychiatric Survivors, Emma Goldman & Harriet Tubman). Yet there are still other societies, including developed countries, in the world where this is not the case.

Tanya Luhrmann, as inspired by Julian Jaynes, went into anthropology where she researches voice-hearing (her work on evangelicalism is briefly noted above). One study she did compared the experience of voice-hearers in the Ghana and the United States (Differences in voice-hearing experiences of people with psychosis in the U.S.A., India and Ghana: interview-based study). Unlike here in this country, those voice-hearer’s in certain non-Western culture are not treated as mentally ill and, unsurprisingly, neither do they experience cruel and persecutory voices — quite the opposite in being kind, affirming, and helpful as was the case with Tubman.

“In the case of voice hearing, culture may also play a role in helping people cope.  One study conducted by Luhrmann, the anthropologist, found that compared to their American counterparts, voice-hearing people diagnosed with schizophrenia in more collectivist cultures were more likely to perceive their voices as helpful and friendly, sometimes even resembling members of their friends and family. She adds that people who meet criteria for schizophrenia in India have better outcomes than their U.S. counterparts. She suspects this is because of “the negative salience” a diagnosis of schizophrenia holds in the U.S., as well as the greater rates of homelessness among people with schizophrenia in America” (Joseph Frankel, Psychics Who Hear Voices Could Be On to Something).

One suspects that the Ashanti and related African cultures that helped shape black traditions in Tubman’s Maryland are basically the same as the culture still existing in Ghana to this day. After all, the Ashanti Empire that began in the early colonial era, 1701, continued its rule well into the twentieth century, 1957. If it’s true that her grandmother Modesty was Ashanti, that would go a long way in explaining the cultural background to Tubman’s voice-hearing. It’s been speculated her father was the child of two Africans and it was directly from him that she claimed to have inherited her peculiar talents. It’s possible that elements of the bicameral mind survived later in those West African societies and from there was carried across the Middle Passage.

* * *

The Friendship and Freedom of the Living God

It’s important to think about the bicameral mind by looking at real world examples of voice-hearing. It might teach us something about what it means to be in relationship with a living God — a living world, a living experience of the greater mind, the bundled self (no matter one’s beliefs). Many Christians talk about such things, but few take it seriously, much less experience it or seek it out. That was what drew the Quakers to Tubman and others like her influenced by the African tradition of a living God. It wasn’t only a commonality of politics, in fighting for abolitionism and such. Rather, the politics was an expression of that particular kind of spiritual and epistemological experience.

To personally know God — or, if you prefer, to directly know concrete, lived reality — without the intervention of either priest or text or the equivalent can create immense power through authorization. It is an ability to act with confidence, rather than bowing down to external authority of hierarchical institutions, be it church clergy or plantation aristocracy. But it also avoids the other extreme, that of getting lost in the abstractions of the egoic consciousness that drain psychic reserves and make human will impotent. As Harriet Tubman proved, this other way of being can be a source of empowerment and liberation.

What made this possible is not only that she was illiterate but unchurched as well. In their own way, Quakers traditionally maintained a practice of being unchurched, in avoiding certain formal church institutions such as eschewing the ministerial profession. Slaves, on the other hand, were often forced to be unchurched in not being allowed to participate in formal religion. This would have helped maintain traditional African spiritual practice and experience. Interestingly, as J.E. Kennedy reports, one set of data found that “belief in the paranormal was positively related to religious faith but negatively related to religious participation” (The Polarization of Psi Beliefs; as discussed in NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity). It’s ironic that formal religion (organized, institutionalized) and literacy, specifically in a text-based religion, have the powerful effect of disconnecting people from experience of God. Yet experience of God can break the spell of that mind virus.

The other thing is that, like African religion, the Quaker emphasis was on the communal. This might not seem obvious, in how Quakers believed in the individual’s relationship to God. That is where Tubman’s example is helpful. She too had an individual relationship to God, but her identity was also tied closely to kinship, community, and ancestry. We need to think more carefully about what is meant when we speak of individuality. One can gain one’s own private liberty by freeing oneself from shackled enslavement, that is to say changing one’s status from owned by another to owned by oneself (i.e., owned by the ego-self, in some ways an even more harsh taskmaster). Freedom, however, is something else entirely. The etymology of ‘freedom’ is the same as ‘friend’. To be free is to be among friends, to be a member of a free society — one is reminded that, to Quakers and West Africans alike, there was an inclination to relate to God as a friend. Considering this simple but profound understanding, it wasn’t enough for Tubman to escape her oppressive bondage, if she left behind everyone she loved.

Often she repeated her moral claim for either liberty or death, as if they were of equivalent value; whereas freedom is about life and the essence of life is shared, as freedom is always about connection and relationship, about solidarity and belonging. She couldn’t be free alone and, under the will of something greater than her, she returned South to free her kith and kin. The year Harriet Tubman first sought freedom, 1849, was the same year of the birth of Emma Lazarus, a poet who would write some of the most well known words on slavery and oppression, including the simple statement that, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” About a century later, this was rephrased by Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement when he said, “No one is free until we are all free.” One could trace this insight back to the ancient world, as when Jesus spoke that, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” That is freedom.

A living God lives among a living generation of people, a living community. “For where two or three gather in my name,” as Jesus also taught, “there am I with them.” Quakers had a tradition of living constitutionalism, something now associated with liberalism but originally having its origins in a profound sense of the divine (Where Liberty and Freedom Converge). To the Quaker worldview, a constitution is a living agreement and expression of the Divine, a covenant between God a specific people; related to why Quakers denied natural law that would usurp the authorization of this divine presence. A constitution is not a piece of paper nor the words upon it. Nor can a constitution be imposed upon other people outside of that community of souls. So, neither slaves nor following generations are beholden to a constitution enacted by someone else. This was why Thomas Jefferson assumed later Americans would forever seek out new constitutions to express their democratic voice as a people. But those who understood this the best were Quakers; or those, like Thomas Paine, who were early on influenced by the Quaker faith.

Consider John Dickinson who was raised as a Quaker and, after inheriting slaves, freed them. He is the author of the first draft of America’s first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, which was inspired by Quaker constitutionalism. The Articles of Confederation was a living document, in that it’s only power was the authority of every state agreeing to it with total consensus and no change being allowed to be made to it without further consensus. The second constitution, simply known as the United States Constitution and unconstitutionally established according to the first constitution (The Vague and Ambiguous US Constitution), was designed to be a dead letter and it has become famous for enshrining the institution of slavery. Rather than expressing a message of freedom, it was a new system of centralized power and authority. The deity invoked under this oppression is a dead god, a god of death. No one hears the voice of this false god, this demiurge.

Such a false idol can make no moral claim over a free people. As such, a free people assert their freedom by the simplest act of walking away, as did Harriet Tubman by following the water gourd pointing to the North Star, and as she repeated many times in guiding her people to what to them was the Promised Land. What guided her was the living voice of the living God. They had their own divine covenant that took precedence over any paper scribbled upon by a human hand.

* * *

Harriet Tubman, an Unsung Naturalist, Used Owl Calls as a Signal on the Underground Railroad
by Allison Keys, Audubon Magazine

“It was in those timber fields where she learned the skills necessary to be a successful conductor on the Underground Railroad,” Crenshaw explains, “including how to read the landscape, how to be comfortable in the woods, how to navigate and use the sounds that were natural in Dorchester County at the time.”

Underground Railroad Secret Codes
from Harriet Tubman Historical Society

Supporters of the Underground Railroad used words railroad conductors employed everyday to create their own code as secret language in order to help slaves escape. Railroad language was chosen because the railroad was an emerging form of transportation and its communication language was not widespread. Code words would be used in letters to “agents” so that if they were intercepted they could not be caught. Underground Railroad code was also used in songs sung by slaves to communicate among each other without their masters being aware.

Myths & Facts About Harriet Tubman
from National Park Service

Tubman sang two songs while operating her rescue missions. Both are listed in Sarah Bradford’s biography Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman: “Go Down Moses,” and, “Bound For the Promised Land.” Tubman said she changed the tempo of the songs to indicate whether it was safe to come out or not.

Songs of the Underground Railroad
from Harriet Tubman Historical Society

Songs were used in everyday life by African slaves. Singing was tradition brought from Africa by the first slaves; sometimes their songs are called spirituals. Singing served many purposes such as providing repetitive rhythm for repetitive manual work, inspiration and motivation. Singing was also use to express their values and solidarity with each other and during celebrations. Songs were used as tools to remember and communicate since the majority of slaves could not read.

Harriet Tubman and other slaves used songs as a strategy to communicate with slaves in their struggle for freedom. Coded songs contained words giving directions on how to escape also known as signal songs or where to meet known as map songs.

Songs used Biblical references and analogies of Biblical people, places and stories, comparing them to their own history of slavery. For example, “being bound for the land of Canaan” for a white person could mean ready to die and go to heaven; but to a slave it meant ready to go to Canada.

Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman
by Sarah Hopkins Bradford
pp. 25-27

After nightfall, the sound of a hymn sung at a distance comes upon the ears of the concealed and famished fugitives in the woods, and they know that their deliverer is at hand. They listen eagerly for the words she sings, for by them they are to be warned of danger, or informed of safety. Nearer and nearer comes the unseen singer, and the words are wafted to their ears:

Hail, oh hail ye happy spirits,
Death no more shall make you fear,
No grief nor sorrow, pain nor anger (anguish)
Shall no more distress you there.

Around him are ten thousan’ angels,
Always ready to ‘bey comman’.
Dey are always hobring round you,
Till you reach the hebbenly lan’.

Jesus, Jesus will go wid you;
He will lead you to his throne;
He who died has gone before you,
Trod de wine-press all alone.

He whose thunders shake creation;
He who bids the planets roll;
He who rides upon the temple, (tempest)
An’ his scepter sways de whole.

Dark and thorny is de desert,
Through de pilgrim makes his ways,
Yet beyon’ dis vale of sorrow,
Lies de fiel’s of endless days.

I give these words exactly as Harriet sang them to me to a sweet and simple Methodist air. “De first time I go by singing dis hymn, dey don’t come out to me,” she said, “till I listen if de coast is clar; den when I go back and sing it again, dey come out. But if I sing:

Moses go down in Egypt,
Till ole Pharo’ let me go;
Hadn’t been for Adam’s fall,
Shouldn’t hab to died at all,

den dey don’t come out, for dere’s danger in de way.”

Let The Circle Be Unbroken: The World Of Araminta (“Minty”) Ross Or The Making Of Harriet Tubman
by Margaret Washington

I. Building Communities
C. It Takes a Village to Raise a Child.

Enslaved African Americans came from a heritage that embraced concepts of solidarity in a descending order from the larger ethnic group, to the communal village, to the extended family to the nuclear family. Individualism (as opposed to individuality) was considered selfish and antithetical to the broader interests of a unit. Whether societies were matrilineal or patrilineal, nearly all were patriarchal (power rested with men). Nonetheless, the glue that bound the communal circle was the woman, considered the life giving force, the bearer of culture, essence of aesthetic beauty and key to a community’s longevity. Mothers, grandmothers, aunts, sisters etc. had oversight of children until puberty, when male and female rites of passage prepared them separately for their gendered communal roles. West African women were spiritually strong, morally respected, valued for their economic propensity, important in governance and in some cultures (Ashanti, Kongo, Ibo) powerful warriors. However devalued and exploited in America, Modesty, Rit and Minty exemplified how enslaved women resisted a sense of futility or fatalism and refashioned African attributes of beauty, dignity, self-worth and ethics. Enslaved women combed the waterways, forests and woods to obtain roots, herbs, leaves, sap, barks and other medicinal products for healing, amulets and even conjuration. Rit certainly used such remedies to nurse Minty back to health after extreme exhaustion, illnesses, beatings and her near fatal blow on the head. Rit learned these remedies and poultices from her mother Modesty and Harriet Tubman used them on the Underground Railroad. Their example reveals the significance of women to the community and that despite the assaults on the black family; it remained an institution, which even separation could not sever. […]

II ANCHORING THE SPIRIT
A. The Hidden Church: An African-Christian Synthesis.

If community was the base of African and African American life and culture, spirituality was the superstructure. Certainly enslaved people ultimately embraced Christianity. But for generations Southern whites feared exposing blacks to Christianity. The Bible’s Old Testament militant nationalism and New Testament’s spiritual  egalitarianism were not lost on African Americans, a few of whom were literate and the majority of whom felt that baptism was one kind of freedom.

Like most enslaved children, young Minty grew up outside of a church. However, since Ben Ross’s owner Anthony Thompson Sr., was a practicing Methodist, Minty’s family heard Christian sermons. But Edward Brodess was not devout and when he separated the Ross family, little Minty was hired out and did not receive white religious benevolence. But a tradition of black religion and spirituality existed independent of whites. In African culture, sacred worship embedded every aspect of life (rites of passage, marriage, funerals, child birth, etc.). Divine reverence was not confined to a building, a single ceremony or a specific day of the week. Spirituality was pervasive, expressive, emotional and evocative. Although the religious culture developed in America had African roots, the ravages of bondage created more social-spiritual convergences. In Minty’s world, spirituality was wrapped in temporal concerns affecting the individual, the family and the community. Worship was praising, praying, lamenting, hoping and drawing strength from each other. Long before Minty’s birth, Africans in America had created a “hidden church” where enslaved people gathered clandestinely (the woods, in cabins, in boats, in white people’s kitchens and even in the fields). In the hidden church they recounted religious and secular experiences; gave testimonies and created a space were women such as Rit could express the pain of having children sold or of trying to bring Minty back to life after her head was bashed in. In the hidden church, enslaved people created subversive songs, prayed for spiritual salvation, heavenly retribution and freedom.

Africans traveling the Maafa brought an ethos that merged the sacred and secular worlds. Enslaved African Americans embraced Christianity but also selectively adapted it to previous traditions and to their historical circumstances. Above all, they rejected incongruous white teachings meant to relegate blacks to perpetual slavery. Rather than being converted to Christianity as taught by whites, enslaved people converted Christianity to their own needs. Moreover, some significant African and Christian traditions had noteworthy commonalities.

Africans, like Christians believed in one God (Nzambi among the Bantu, Onyame among the Akan-Ashanti for example) who was the apex of all existence just as humanity was the center of earthly life. While gendered concepts of the African Supreme Being varied, like Jehovah, Africans’ God was revered, all-powerful and approachable. However, unlike Jehovah, the African Supreme Being was not feared, jealous nor wrathful. Other spirits exist in the African pantheon, like saints in Catholicism. But there was only one God. Hence, when whites spoke of a Supreme God, Africans understood. Harriet Tubman’s God was an all-powerful friend. According to Thomas Garrett, her close friend and a beloved Quaker Underground Railroad Conductor, Harriet spoke to God every day of her life. “I never knew anyone so confident of her faith,” said Garrett. (Letter in Bradford)

Africans, like Christians, believed in a soul, sometimes called the “heart” or “voice.” The soul was responsible for human behavior in life and was one’s spiritual existence after death. Some ethnicities had complicated concepts of the soul; others simply recognized the soul as the “little me in the big me” which lived on. Africans believed in honoring this life after death, especially as part of the kinship spiritual connection (ancestor reverence), which brought protection to the living. The curse of the dead was much dreaded in Africa and in America. Hence the importance of burial and funeral rites throughout the Diaspora, even today. A woman such as Harriet Tubman who embraced Christianity, also blended a spiritual syncretism that constructed a concept of the soul around moral ethics and faith imparted through the word of God, “as spoken to her soul” according to her friend Garrett. “She is a firm believer in spiritual manifestations . . . she never goes on her missions of mercy without his (God’s) consent.” (Garrett to Eliza Wigham, in McGowan, 135)

Water was a life giving force in African culture and the spirit world was under water. Throughout the African Diaspora, water represented divine transformations—birth, death, baptism and rebirth. For many enslaved people, accepting Christianity carried implications reminiscent of older traditions that surpassed what whites intended. In African cultures, an initiate received a “sacred bath” following a special protracted rite of passage symbolizing acceptance and integration into the community. Similarly, with Christianity enslaved people sought salvation through isolation, prayer, meditation, and communication with God through visions and signs from the natural environment. Baptism by total immersion represented final acceptance into the “ark of safety.” Although Methodists baptized by sprinkling, enslaved people insisted on going “down under” the water. They also equated spiritual transformation with secular change. Such thinking was Christian because the New Testament upheld spiritual egalitarianism. It was also African: One traveled briefly into the watery world of the ancestors as an uncivil “little spirit of the bush” full of individualistic anti-communal tendencies. One emerged from the water as a citizen of the community able to partake of all rights and privileges. The change was both divine and temporal; it was fervent, overwhelming and thoroughgoing. Canals, marshes, swamps and rivers surrounded African descended people on the Eastern Shore. Here they labored as slaves. Here they were baptized and hence constantly reminded of water’s spiritual and liberating significance.

Minty’s Christian conversion experience probably happened while working for the Stewarts in Caroline County. Whether because of that experience or her blow on the head, Minty insisted she spoke to God, had trances and saw visions that foretold future events. As a clairvoyant, Minty believed that she inherited this second sense from her father, Ben. Africans and African Americans believed that a clairvoyant person was born with a “caul” or “veil,” a portion of the birth membrane that remained on the head. They were seers and visionaries who communicated with the supernatural world and were under a special spiritual dispensation. Visions sometimes came while Minty worked, were accompanied by music and articulated in a different language. Minty also claimed exceptional power. When Edward Brodess sent slave traders to Ben’s cabin to inspect Minty, she prayed for God to cleanse Brodess’s heart and make him a good man or kill him. Brodess’ death convinced Minty that she had “prayed him to death.”1 Since his death put her in eminent danger of sale, Minty knew it was a sign from God to flee.

Northerners called Ben “a full-blooded Negro.” His parents were probably African born and told him the old Maafa adage that he passed on to Minty: some Africans could fly. Indeed, captured Ibo people committed suicide believing that their spirits flew back to Africa.2 Similarly, as Minty envisioned her escape, “She used to dream of flying over fiefs and towns, and rivers and mountings, looking down upon them ‘like a bird.'” When it appeared as if her strength would give out and she could not cross the river, “there would be ladies all dressed in white over there, and they would put our their arms and pull me across.” Listening to Ben’s stories, predictions and sharing his faith convinced Minty that an omniscient force protected her. In visions, she became a disembodied spirit observing earthly and heavenly scenes. Harriet Tubman told friends that God “called” her to activism against her wishes. She begged God to “get someone else” but to no avail. Since God called her, she depended on God to guide her away from danger.

Alienation and Soul Blindness

There is the view that consciousness* is a superficial overlay, that the animistic-bicameral mind is our fundamental nature and continues to operate within consciousness. In not recognizing this, we’ve become alienated from ourselves and from the world we are inseparable from. We don’t recognize that the egoic voice is but one of many voices and so we’ve lost appreciation for what it means to hear voices, including the internalized egoic voice that we’ve become identified with in submission to its demurgic authorization. This could be referred to as soul blindness, maybe related to soul loss — basically, a lack of psychological integration and coherency. Is this an inevitability within consciousness? Maybe not. What if a deeper appreciation of voice-hearing was developed within consciousness? What would emerge from consciousness coming to terms with its animistic-bicameral foundation? Would it still be consciousness or something else entirely?

* This is in reference to Julian Jaynes use of ‘consciousness’ that refers to the ego mind with its introspective and internal space built upon metaphor and narratization. Such consciousness as a social construction of a particular kind of culture is not mere perceptual awareness or biological reactivity.

* * *

Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon? (Part Two)
by Peter Harrison

Marx identified the concept of alienation as being a separation, or estrangement, from one’s labour. And for Marx the consistent ability to labour, to work purposefully and consciously, as opposed to instinctively, towards a pre-imagined goal, was the trait that distinguished humans from other animals. This means also that humans are able to be persuaded to work creatively, with vigour and passion, for the goals of others, or for some higher goal than the maintenance of daily survival. As long as they are able see some tiny benefit for themselves, which might be service to a higher cause, or even just simple survival, since working for the goal of others may be the only means of obtaining food. So, Marx’s definition of alienation was more specific than an ‘existential’ definition because it specified labour as the defining human characteristic. But he was also aware that the general conditions of capitalism made this alienation more acute and that this escalated estrangement of humans from immediately meaningful daily activity led to a sense of being a stranger in one’s own world, and not only for the working class. This estrangement (I want to write étranger-ment, to reference Camus, but this is not a word) afflicted all classes, even those classes that seemed to benefit from class society, since capitalism had, even by his own time, gained an autonomy of its own. Life is as meaningless [or better: as anti-human] for a cleaner as it is for the head of a large corporation. This is why Marx stated that all people under capitalism were proletarian.

When I discovered the idea of soul blindness in Eduardo Kohn’s book, How Forests Think, I was struck by it as another useful way of understanding the idea of alienation. The concept of soul blindness, as used by the Runa people described by Kohn, seems to me to be related to the widespread Indigenous view of the recently deceased as aimless and dangerous beings who must be treated with great care and respect after their passing to prevent them wreaking havoc on the living. In Kohn’s interpretation, to be soul blind is to have reached the ‘terminus of selfhood,’ and this terminus can be reached while still alive, when one loses one’s sense of self through illness or despair, or even when one just drifts off into an unfocussed daze, or, more profoundly, sinks into an indifference similar to — to reference Camus again — that described by the character Meursault, in L’Etranger.

There are some accounts of Indigenous people first encountering white people in which the white people are initially seen as ghosts, one is recorded by Lévi-Strauss for Vanuatu. Another is embedded in the popular Aboriginal history of the area I live in. On first contact the white people are immediately considered to be some kind of ghost because of their white skin. This may have something to do with practice of preserving the bodies of the dead. This involves scraping off the top layer of skin which, apparently, makes the body white. This practice is described by the anthropologist, Atholl Chase, in his reminisces of Cape York. But for me there is more to the defining of the white intruders as ghosts because of their white skin. These foreigners also act as if they are soul blind. They are like machines, working for a cause that is external to them. For the Indigenous people these strangers do not seem to have soul: they are unpredictable; dangerous; they don’t know who they are.

But it is the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro who, I think, connects most clearly to the work of James Hillman on the notion of the soul. James Hillman uses the term soul but he does not mean a Christian soul and he is not ultimately meaning the mind. For him the soul is a form of mediation between events and the subject and, in this sense, it might be similar to Bourdieu’s conception of ‘disposition.’ For Viveiros de Castro, ‘A perspective is not a representation because representations are a property of the mind or spirit, whereas the point of view is located in the body.’ Thus, Amerindian philosophy, which Viveiros de Castro is here describing, perhaps prefigures Hillman’s notion that ‘soul’ is ‘a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself.’

Islamic Voice-Hearing

Islam, what kind of religion is it? Islam is the worship of a missing god, that is how we earlier described it. Some might consider that as unfair and dismissive to one of the world’s largest religions, but this is true to some extent for all post-bicameral religions. The difference is that Islam is among the most post-bicameral of the world religions. This is true simply in temporal terms.

The bicameral societies, according to Julian Jaynes, ended with the widespread collapse of the late Bronze Age empires and their trade networks. That happened around 1177 BCE, as the result of natural disasters and attacks by the mysterious Sea People, the latter maybe having formed out the refugees from the former. The Bronze Age continued for many centuries in various places: 700 BCE in Great Britain, Central Europe and China; 600 BCE in Northern Europe; 500 BCE in Korea and Ireland; and centuries beyond that in places like Japan.

But the Bronze Age Empires never returned. In that late lingering Bronze Age, a dark age took hold and put all of civilization onto a new footing. This was the era when, across numerous cultures, there were the endless laments about the gods, spirits, and ancestors having gone silent, having abandoned humanity. Entire cultural worldviews and psychological ways of being were utterly demolished or else irreparably diminished. This created an intense sense of loss, longing, and nostalgia that has never left humanity since.

Out of the ashes, while the Bronze Age was still holding on, the Axial Age arose around 900 BCE and continued until 200 BCE. New cultures were formed and new empires built. The result is what Jaynes described as ‘consciousness’ or what one can think of as introspective mental space, an inner world of egoic identity where the individual is separate from community and world. Consciousness and the formalized religions that accompanied it were a replacement for the loss of a world alive with voices.

By the time Rabbinic Judaism, Gnosticism, and Christianity came around, the Axial Age was already being looked back upon as a Golden Age and, other than through a few surviving myths, the Bronze Age before that was barely remembered at all. It would be nearly another 600 years after that first century monotheistic revival when Muhammad would have his visions of the angel Gabriel visiting him to speak on behalf of God. Islam is both post-bicameral and post-axial, to a far greater degree.

Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet and even he didn’t get to hear God directly for it had to come through an angel. The voice of God had long ago grown so faint that people had come to rely on oracles, channelings, and such. These rather late revelations by way of Gabriel were but a barely audible echo of the archaic bicameral voices. It is may be understandable that, as with some oracles before him, Muhammad would declare God would never speak again. So, Islam, unlike the other monothesitic religions, fully embraces God’s absence from the world.

Actually, that is not quite right. Based on the Koran, God will never speak again until the Final Judgment. Then all will hear God again when he weighs your sins and decides the fate of your immortal soul. Here is the interesting part. The witnesses God shall call upon in each person’s case will be all the bicameral voices brought back out of silence. The animals and plants will witness for or against you, as will the earth and rocks and wind. Even your own resurrected body parts will come alive again with voices to speak of what you did. Body parts speaking is something familiar to those who read Jaynesian scholarship.

Until then, God and all the voices of the world will remain mute witnesses, watching your every move and taking notes. They see all, hear all, notice all — every time you masturbate or pick your nose, every time you have a cruel or impure thought, every time you don’t follow one of the large number of divine commandments, laws, and rules spelled out in the Koran. The entire world is spying upon you and will report back to God, at the end of time. The silent world only appears to be dumb and unconscious. God is biding his time, gathering a file on you like a cosmic FBI.

This could feel paralyzing, but in another way it offers total freedom from self, total freedom through complete submission. Jaynesian consciousness is a heavy load and that was becoming increasingly apparent over time, especially in the centuries following the Axial Age. The zealous idealism of the Axial Age prophets was growing dull and tiresome. By the time that Muhammad showed up, almost two millennia had passed since the bicameral mind descended into darkness. The new consciousness was sold as something amazing, but it hadn’t fully lived up to its promises. Instead, ever more brutal regimes came into power and a sense of anxiety was overtaking society.

Muhammad had an answer and the people of that region were obviously hungry for someone to provide an answer. After forming his large army, his military campaign barely experienced any resistance. And in a short period of time while he was still alive, most of the Arabian peninsula was converted to Islam. The silence of the gods had weakened society, but Muhammad offered an explanation for why the divine could no longer be experienced. He helped normalize what had once felt like a tragedy. He told them that they didn’t need to hear God because God had already revealed all knowledge to the prophets, including himself of course. No one had to worry, just follow orders and comply with commands.

All the tiresome complications of thought were unnecessary. God had already thought out everything for humans. The Koran as the final and complete holy text would entirely and permanently replace the bicameral voices, ever receding into the shadows of the psyche. But don’t worry, all those voices are still there, waiting to speak. But the only voice that the individual needed to listen to was that of the person directly above them in the religious hierarchy, be it one’s father or an imam or whoever else with greater official authority with a line of command that goes back to the prophets and through the angels to God Himself. Everything is in the Koran and the learned priestly class would explain it all and translate it into proper theocratic governance.

Muhammad came with a different message than anyone before. The Jewish prophets and Jesus, as with many Pagans, would speak of God as Father and humanity as His children. Early Christians took this as a challenge to a slave-based society, in borrowing from the Stoics that even a slave was free in his soul. Muhammad, instead, was offering another variety of freedom. We humans, rather than children of God, are slaves of God. The entire Islamic religion is predicated upon divine slavery, absolute submission. This is freedom from the harsh taskmaster of egoic individuality, a wannabe demiurge. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad formulated a totalitarian theocracy, a totalizing system. Nothing is left to question or interpretation, that is in theory or rather in belief.

This goes back to how, with the loss of the bicameral mind and social order, something took its place. It was a different kind of authoritarianism — rigid and hierarchical, centralized and concentrated, despotic and violent. Authoritarianism of this variety didn’t emerge until the late Bronze Age when the bicameral societies were becoming too large and complex, overstrained and unstable. Suddenly, as if to presage the coming collapse, there was the appearance of written laws, harsh punishment, and cruel torture — none of which ever existed before, according to historical records and archaeological finds. As the world shifted into post-bicameralism, this authoritarianism became ever more extreme (e.g., Roman Empire).

This was always the other side of the rise of individuality, of Jaynesian consciousness. The greater potential freedom the individual possesses the more that oppressive social control is required, as the communal bonds and social norms of the bicameral mind increasingly lost their hold to organically maintain order. Muhammad must have showed up at the precise moment of crisis in this change. After the Roman Empire’s system of slavery, Europe came up with feudalism to re-create some of what had disappeared. But apparently a different kind of solution was required in the Arab world.

Maybe this offsets the draining of psychic energy that comes with consciousness. Jaynes speculated that, like the schizophrenic, bicameral humans had immense energy and stamina which allowed them to accomplish near-miraculous feats such as building the pyramids with small populations and very little technology or infrastructure. Suppression of the extremes of individualism through emphasizing absolute subordination is maybe a way of keeping in check the energy loss of maintaining egoic consciousness. In the West, we eventually overcame this weakness by using massive doses of stimulants to overpower the otherwise debilitating anxiety and to help shore up the egoic boundaries, but this has come at the cost of destroying our physical health and mental health.

Time will tell which strategy is the most effective for long-term survival of specific societies. But I’m not sure I’d bet on the Western system, considering how unsustainable it appears to be and how easily it has become crippled by a minor disease epidemic like covid-19. Muhammad might simply have been trying to cobble together some semblance of a bicameral mind, in the face of divine silence. There is a good reason for trying to do that. Those bicameral societies lasted many millennia longer than has our post-bicameral civilization. It’s not clear that modern civilization or at least Western civilization will last beyond the end of this century. We underestimate the bicameral mind and the importance it played during the single longest period of advancement of civilization.

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Let us leave a small note of a more personal nature. In the previous post (linked above), we mentioned that our line of inquiry began with a conversation we had with a friend of ours who is a Muslim. He also happens to be schizophrenic, i.e., a voice-hearer. The last post was about how voice=hearing is understood within Islam. Since supposedly God no longer speaks to humans nor do his angelic intermediaries, any voice a Muslim hears is automatically interpreted as not being of divine origins. It doesn’t necessarily make the voice evil, as it could be a jinn which is a neutral entity in Islamic theology, although jinn can be dangerous. Then again, voice-hearing might also be caused by an evil magician, what I think is called a sihir.

Anyway, we had the opportunity to speak to this friend once again, as we are both in jobs that require us to continue working downtown amidst everything otherwise being locked down because of the covid-19 epidemic. In being isolated from family and other friends, we’ve been meeting with this Islamic guy on a daily basis. Just this morning, we went for a long walk together and chatted about life and religion. He had previously talked about his schizophrenia in passing, apparently unworried by the stigma of it. He is an easy person to talk to, quite direct and open about his thoughts and experiences. I asked him about voice-hearing and he explained that, prior to being medicated, he would continue to hear people speak to him after they no longer were present. And unsurprisingly, the voices were often negative.

Both his imam and his therapist told him to ignore the voices. Maybe that is a standard approach in traditionally monotheistic cultures. As we mentioned in the other post, he is from North Africa where Arabs are common. But another friend of ours lives in Ghana, in West Africa. Voice-hearing experience among people in Ghana was compared to those in the United States, in the research of Tanya M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist inspired by Julian Jaynes. She found that Ghanans, with a tradition of voice-hearing (closer to bicameralism?), had a much more positive experience of the voices they heard. Americans, like our Islamic friend, did not tend to hear voices that were kind and helpful. This is probably the expectancy effect.

If you are raised to believe that voices are demonic or their Islamic equivalent of jinn or are from witches and evil magicians, or if you simply have been told voice-hearing means your insane, well, it’s not likely to lead to happy results when you do hear voices. I doubt it decreases the rate of voice-hearing, though. In spite of Islamic theology denying God and angels speak to humans any longer, that isn’t likely to have any affect on voice-hearing itself. So, the repressed bicameral mind keeps throwing out these odd experiences, but in our post-bicameral age we have fewer resources in dealing constructively with those voices. Simply denying and ignoring them probably is less helpful.

That is the ultimate snag. The same voices that once were identified as godly or something similar are now taken as false, unreal, or dangerous. In a sense, God never stopped speaking. One could argue that we all are voice-hearers, but some of us now call the voice of God as ‘conscience’ or whatever. Others, like Muslims, put great emphasis on this voice-hearing but have tried to gag God who goes on talking. Imagine how many potential new prophets have been locked away in psychiatric wards or, much worse, killed or imprisoned as heretics. If God can’t be silenced, the prophets who hear him can. The Old Testament even describes how the authorities forbid voice-hearing and demanded that voice-hearers be killed, even by their own parents.

The bicameral mind didn’t disappear naturally because it was inferior but because, in its potency, it was deemed dangerous to those who wanted to use brute power to enforce their own voices of authorization. The bicameral mind, once central to the social order, had become enemy number one. If people could talk to God directly, religion and its claims of authority would become irrelevant. That is how our Islamic friend, a devout religious practitioner, ended up being drugged up to get the voices to stop speaking.

Islam as Worship of a Missing God

A friend of ours is a Muslim and grew up in an Islamic country. As he talked about his religion, we realized how different it is from Christianity. There is no shared practice among Christians similar to the praying five times a day. From early on, Christianity was filled with diverse groups and disagreements, and that has only increased over time (there are over 4,600 denominations of Christianity in the United States alone). My friend had a hard time appreciating that there is no agreed upon authority, interpretation, or beliefs among all Christians.

Unlike Muhammad, Jesus never wrote anything nor was anything written down about him until much later. Nor did he intend to start a new religion. He offered no rules, social norms, instructions, etc for how to organize a church, a religious society, or a government. He didn’t even preach family values, if anything the opposite — from a command to let the dead bury themselves to the proclamation of having come to turn family members against each other. The Gospels offer no practical advice about anything. Much of Jesus’ teachings, beyond a general message of love and compassion, are vague and enigmatic, often parables that have many possible meanings.

Now compare Jesus to the Islamic prophet. Muhammad is considered the last prophet, although he never claimed to have heard the voice of God and instead supposedly having received the message secondhand through an angel. Still, according to Muslims, the Koran is the only complete holy text in existence — the final Word of God. That is also something that differs from Christianity. Jesus never asserted that God would become silent to all of humanity for eternity and that his worshippers would be condemned to a world without the God they longed for, in the way Allah never enters His own Creation.

Many Protestants and Anabaptists and those in similar groups believe that God continues to be revealed to people today, that the divine is known through direct experience, that the Bible as a holy text must be read as a personal relationship to God, not merely taken on the authority of blind faith. Some churches go so far as to teach people how to speak to and hear God (T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back). Even within Catholicism, there have been further revelations of God since Jesus, from various mystics and saints that are acknowledged by the Vatican but also from ordinary Catholics claiming God spoke to them without any great fear of hereticism and excommunication.

It made me think about Julian Jaynes’ theory modern consciousness. With the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations, there was this sense of the gods having gone silent. Yet this was never an absolute experience, as some people continued to hear the gods. Even into the modern world, occasionally people still claim to hear various gods and sometimes even found new religions based on revelations. The Bahai, for example, consider Muhammad to be just one more prophet with others having followed him. Hindus also have a living tradition of divine revelation that is equivalent to that of prophets. Only Islam, as far as I know, claims all prophecy and revelation to be ended for all time.

I was thinking about the sense of loss and loneliness people felt when bicameral societies came to an end. They were thrown onto an increasingly isolated individualism. Religion as we know it was designed to accommodate this, in order to give a sense of order, meaning and authority that had gone missing. But Islam takes this to an extreme. After Muhammad, no human supposedly would ever again personally hear, see, or experience the divine in any way (excluding mystical traditions like Sufism). For all intents and purposes, Allah has entirely receded from the world. The only sign of his existence that he left behind was a book of instructions. We must submit and comply or be punished in the afterlife, a world separate from this one

That seems so utterly depressing and dreary to me. I was raised Christian and on the far other extreme of Protestantism. My family attended the Unity Church that emphasizes direct experience of God to such a degree that the Bible itself was mostly ignored and almost irrelevant — why turn to mere words on paper when you can go straight to the source? Rather than being denied and condemned, to claim to have heard God speak would have been taken seriously. I’m no longer religious, but the nearly deist idea of a god that is distant and silent seems so alien and unappealing to me. Yet maybe that makes Islam well designed for the modern world, as it offers a strong response to atheism.

If you don’t have any experience of God, this is considered normal and expected in Islam, not something to be worried about, not something to challenge one’s faith as is common in Christianity (NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity); and it avoids the riskiness and confusion of voice-hearing (Libby Anne, Voices in Your Head: Evangelicals and the Voice of God). One’s ignorance of the divine demonstrates one’s individual inadequacy and, as argued by religious authority, is all the more reason to submit to religious authority. Islamic relation between God and humanity is one-way, except to some extent by way of inspiration and dreams, but Allah himself never directly enters his Creation and so never directly interacts with humans, not even with prophets. Is that why constant prayer is necessary for Muslims, to offset God’s silence and vacancy? Worship of a missing God seems perfectly suited for the modern world.

Muslims are left with looking for traces of God in the Koran like ants crawling around in a footprint while trying to comprehend what made it and what it wants them to do. So, some of the ants claim to be part of a direct lineage of ants that goes back to an original ant that, according to tradition, was stepped upon by what passed by. These well-respected ants then explain to all the other ants what is meant by all the bumps and grooves in the dried mud. In worship, the ants pray toward the footprint and regularly gather to circle around it. This gives their life some sense of meaning and purpose and, besides, it maintains the social order.

That is what is needed in a world where the bicameral voices of archaic authorization no longer speak, no longer are heard. Something has to fill the silence as the loneliness it creates is unbearable. Islam has a nifty trick, embracing the emptiness and further irritating the overwhelming anxiety as it offers the salve for the soul. Muslims take the silence of God as proof of God, as a promise of something more. This otherworldly being, Allah, tells humans who don’t feel at home in this world that their real home is elsewhere, to which they will return if they do what they are told. Other religions do something similar, but Islam takes this to another level — arguably, the highest or most extreme form of monotheism, so far. The loss of the bicameral mind could not be pushed much further, one suspects, without being pushed into an abyss.

Islam is a truly modern religion. Right up there with capitalism and scientism.

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Further discussion about this can be found on the Facebook page “Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”.

 

To Empathize is to Understand

What is empathy as a cognitive ability? And what is empathy as an expansion of identity, as part of awareness of self and other?

There is a basic level of empathy that appears to be common across numerous species. Tortoises, when seeing another on its back, will help flip it over. There are examples of animals helping or cooperating with those from an entirely different species. Such behavior has been repeatedly demonstrated in laboratories as well. These involve fairly advanced expressions of empathy. In some cases, one might interpret it as indicating at least rudimentary theory of mind, the understanding that others have their own experience, perspective, and motivations. But obviously human theory of mind can be much more complex.

One explanation about greater empathy has to do with identity. Empathy in a way is simply a matter of what is included within one’s personal experience (Do To Yourself As You Would Do For Others). To extend identity is to extend empathy to another individual or a group (or anything else that can be brought within sphere of the self). For humans, this can mean learning to include one’s future self, to empathize with experience one has not yet had, the person one has not yet become. The future self is fundamentally no different than another person.

Without cognitive empathy, affective empathy is limited to immediate experience. It’s the ability to feel what another feels. But lacking cognitive empathy as happens in the most severe autism, theory of mind cannot be developed and so there is no way to identity, locate and understand that feeling. One can only emotionally react, not being able to differentiate one’s own emotion from that of another. In that case, there would be pure emotion, and yet no recognition of the other. Cognitive empathy is necessary to get beyond affective reactivity, not all that different than the biological reactivity of a slug.

It’s interesting that some species (primates, rats, dolphins, etc) might be able to have more cognitive empathy and theory of mind than some people at the extreme ends of severe autism, not necessarily being an issue of intelligence. On the other hand, the high functioning on the autistic spectrum, if intervention happens early enough, can be taught theory of mind, although it is challenging for the. This kind of empathy is considered a hallmark of humanity, a defining feature. This is what leads to problems of social behavior for those with autism spectrum disorder.

Someone entirely lacking in theory of mind would be extremely difficult to communicate and interact with beyond the most basic level, as is seen in the severest cases of autism and other extreme developmental conditions. Helen Keller asserts she had no conscious identity, no theory of her own mind or that of others, until she learned language.* Prior to her awakening, she was aggressive and violent in reacting to a world she couldn’t understand, articulate, or think about. That fits in with the speculations of Julian Jaynes. What he calls ‘consciousness’ is the addition of abstract thought by way of metaphorical language, as built upon concrete experience and raw affect. Keller discusses how her experience went from from the concreteness of touch to the abstraction of language. In becoming aware of the world, she became aware of herself.

Without normal development of language, the human mind is crippled: “The “black silence” of the deaf, blind and mute is similar in many respects to the situation of acutely autistic children where there are associated difficulties with language and the children seem to lack what has been called “a theory of mind” ” (Robin Allott, Helen Keller: Language and Consciousenss). Even so, there is more to empathy than language, and that might be true as well for some aspects or kinds of cognitve empathy. Language is not the only form of communication.

Rats are a great example in comparing to humans. We think of them as pests, as psychologically inferior. But anyone who has kept rats knows how intelligent and social they are. They are friendlier and more interactive than the typical cat. And research has shown how cognitively advanced they are in learning. Rats do have the typical empathy of concern for others. For example, they won’t hurt another rat in exchange for a reward and, given a choice, they would rather go hungry. But it goes beyond that.

It’s also shown that “rats are more likely and quicker to help a drowning rat when they themselves have experienced being drenched, suggesting that they understand how the drowning rat feels” (Kristin Andrews, Rats are us). And “rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.” They can also learn to play hide-and-seek which necessitates taking on the perspective others. As Ed Yong asks in The Game That Made Rats Jump for Joy, “In switching roles, for example, are they taking on the perspective of their human partners, showing what researchers call “theory of mind”?”

That is much more than mere affective empathy. This seems to involve active sympathy and genuine emotional understanding, that is to say cognitive empathy and theory of mind. If they are capable of both affective and cognitive empathy, however limited, and if Jaynesian consciousness partly consists of empathy imaginatively extended in space and time, then a case could be made that rats have more going on than simple perceptual awareness and biological reactivity. They are empathically and imaginatively engaging with others in the world around them. Does this mean they are creating and maintaining a mental model of others? Kristin Andrews details the extensive abilities of rats:

“We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret. Despite having brains that are much simpler than humans’, there are some learning tasks in which they’ll likely outperform you. Rats can be taught cognitively demanding skills, such as driving a vehicle to reach a desired goal, playing hide-and-seek with a human, and using the appropriate tool to access out-of-reach food.”

To imagine the future for purposes of thinking in advance and planning actions, that is quite advanced cognitive behavior. Julian Jaynes argued that was the purpose of humans developing a new kind of consciousness, as the imagined metaphorical space that is narratized allows for the consideration of alternatives, something he speculates was lacking in humans prior to the Axial Age when behavior supposedly was more formulaic and predetermined according to norms, idioms, etc. Yet rats can navigate a path they’ve never taken before with novel beginning and ending locations, which would require taking into account multiple options. What theoretically makes Jaynesian consciousness unique?

Jaynes argues that it’s the metaphorical inner space that is the special quality that created the conditions for the Axial Age and all that followed from it, the flourishing of complex innovations and inventions, the ever greater extremes of abstraction seen in philosophy, math and science. We have so strongly developed this post-bicameral mind that we barely can imagine anything else. But we know that other societies have very different kinds of mentalities, such as the extended and fluid minds of animistic cultures. What exactly is the difference?

Australian Aborigines give hint to something between the two kinds of mind. In some ways, the mnemonic systems represent more complex cognitive ability than we are capable with our Jaynesian consciousness. Instead of an imagined inner space, the Songlines are vast systems of experience and knowledge, culture and identity overlaid upon immense landscapes. These mappings of externalized cognitive space can be used to guide the individual across distant territories the individual has never seen before and help them to identify and use the materials (plants, stones, etc) at a location no one in their tribe has visited for generations. Does this externalized mind have less potential for advanced abilities? Upon Western contact, Aborigines had farming and ranching, kept crop surpluses in granaries, used water and land management.

It’s not hard to imagine civilization having developed along entirely different lines based on divergent mentalities and worldviews. Our modern egoic consciousness was not an inevitability and it likely is far from offering the most optimal functioning. We might already be hitting a dead end with our present interiorized mind-space. Maybe it’s our lack of empathy in understanding the minds of other humans and other species that is an in-built limitation to the post-bicameral world of Jaynesian consciousness. And so maybe we have much to learn from entirely other perspectives and experiences, even from rats.

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* Helen Keller, from Light in My Darkness:

I had no concepts whatever of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. Without a single exception my memories of that time are tactile. . . . But there is not one spark of emotion or rational thought in these distinct yet corporeal memories. I was like an unconscious clod of earth. There was nothing in me except the instinct to eat and drink and sleep. My days were a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without interest or joy. Then suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge, to love, to the usual concepts of nature, good, and evil. I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life.

And from The Story of My Life:

As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

And from The World I Live In:

Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith. […]

Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on in my brain when my teacher began to instruct me. I merely felt keen delight in obtaining more easily what I wanted by means of the finger motions she taught me. I thought only of objects, and only objects I wanted. It was the turning of the freezer on a larger scale. When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me. Thus it was not the sense of touch that brought me knowledge. It was the awakening of my soul that first rendered my senses their value, their cognizance of objects, names, qualities, and properties. Thought made me conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.”

I cannot represent more clearly than any one else the gradual and subtle changes from first impressions to abstract ideas. But I know that my physical ideas, that is, ideas derived from material objects, appear to me first an idea similar to those of touch. Instantly they pass into intellectual meanings. Afterward the meaning finds expression in what is called “inner speech.”  […]

As my experiences broadened and deepened, the indeterminate, poetic feelings of childhood began to fix themselves in definite thoughts. Nature—the world I could touch—was folded and filled with myself. I am inclined to believe those philosophers who declare that we know nothing but our own feelings and ideas. With a little ingenious reasoning one may see in the material world simply a mirror, an image of permanent mental sensations. In either sphere self-knowledge is the condition and the limit of our consciousness. That is why, perhaps, many people know so little about what is beyond their short range of experience. They look within themselves—and find nothing! Therefore they conclude that there is nothing outside themselves, either.

However that may be, I came later to look for an image of my emotions and sensations in others. I had to learn the outward signs of inward feelings. The start of fear, the suppressed, controlled tensity of pain, the beat of happy muscles in others, had to be perceived and compared with my own experiences before I could trace them back to the intangible soul of another. Groping, uncertain, I at last found my identity, and after seeing my thoughts and feelings repeated in others, I gradually constructed my world of men and of God. As I read and study, I find that this is what the rest of the race has done. Man looks within himself and in time finds the measure and the meaning of the universe.

* * *

As an example of how language relates to emotions:

The ‘untranslatable’ emotions you never knew you had
by David Robson

But studying these terms will not just be of scientific interest; Lomas suspects that familiarising ourselves with the words might actually change the way we feel ourselves, by drawing our attention to fleeting sensations we had long ignored.

“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of. And so I think if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we’ve only dimly noticed.”

As evidence, Lomas points to the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University, who has shown that our abilities to identify and label our emotions can have far-reaching effects.

Her research was inspired by the observation that certain people use different emotion words interchangeably, while others are highly precise in their descriptions. “Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad,” she explains. “For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them.”

This is called “emotion granularity” and she usually measures this by asking the participants to rate their feelings on each day over the period of a few weeks, before she calculates the variation and nuances within their reports: whether the same old terms always coincide, for instance.

Importantly, she has found that this then determines how well we cope with life. If you are better able to pin down whether you are feeling despair or anxiety, for instance, you might be better able to decide how to remedy those feelings: whether to talk to a friend, or watch a funny film. Or being able to identify your hope in the face of disappointment might help you to look for new solutions to your problem.

In this way, emotion vocabulary is a bit like a directory, allowing you to call up a greater number of strategies to cope with life. Sure enough, people who score highly on emotion granularity are better able to recover more quickly from stress and are less likely to drink alcohol as a way of recovering from bad news. It can even improve your academic success. Marc Brackett at Yale University has found that teaching 10 and 11-year-old children a richer emotional vocabulary improved their end-of-year grades, and promoted better behaviour in the classroom. “The more granular our experience of emotion is, the more capable we are to make sense of our inner lives,” he says.

Both Brackett and Barrett agree that Lomas’s “positive lexicography” could be a good prompt to start identifying the subtler contours of our emotional landscape. “I think it is useful – you can think of the words and the concepts they are associated with as tools for living,” says Barrett. They might even inspire us to try new experiences, or appreciate old ones in a new light.

* * *

And related to all of this is hypocognition, overlapping with linguistic relativity — in how language and concepts determine our experience, identity, and sense of reality — constraining and framing and predetermining what we are even capable of perceiving, thinking about, and expressing:

Hypocognition is a censorship tool that mutes what we can feel
by Kaidi Wu

It is a strange feeling, stumbling upon an experience that we wish we had the apt words to describe, a precise language to capture. When we don’t, we are in a state of hypocognition, which means we lack the linguistic or cognitive representation of a concept to describe ideas or interpret experiences. The term was introduced to behavioural science by the American anthropologist Robert Levy, who in 1973 documented a peculiar observation: Tahitians expressed no grief when they suffered the loss of a loved one. They fell sick. They sensed strangeness. Yet, they could not articulate grief, because they had no concept of grief in the first place. Tahitians, in their reckoning of love and loss, and their wrestling with death and darkness, suffered not from grief but a hypocognition of grief. […]

But the darkest form of hypocognition is one born out of motivated, purposeful intentions. A frequently overlooked part of Levy’s treatise on Tahitians is why they suffered from a hypocognition of grief. As it turns out, Tahitians did have a private inkling of grief. However, the community deliberately kept the public knowledge of the emotion hypocognitive to suppress its expression. Hypocognition was used as a form of social control, a wily tactic to expressly dispel unwanted concepts by never elaborating on them. After all, how can you feel something that doesn’t exist in the first place?

Intentional hypocognition can serve as a powerful means of information control. In 2010, the Chinese rebel writer Han Han told CNN that any of his writings containing the words ‘government’ or ‘communist’ would be censored by the Chinese internet police. Ironically, these censorship efforts also muffled an abundance of praise from pro-leadership blogs. An effusive commendation such as ‘Long live the government!’ would be censored too, for the mere mention of ‘government’.

A closer look reveals the furtive workings of hypocognition. Rather than rebuking negative remarks and rewarding praises, the government blocks access to any related discussion altogether, rendering any conceptual understanding of politically sensitive information impoverished in the public consciousness. ‘They don’t want people discussing events. They simply pretend nothing happened… That’s their goal,’ Han Han said. Regulating what is said is more difficult than ensuring nothing is said. The peril of silence is not a suffocation of ideas. It is to engender a state of blithe apathy in which no idea is formed.

Battle of Voices of Authorization in the World and in Ourselves

New Feelings: Podcast Passivity
by Suzannah Showler

My concern is that on some level, I’m prone to mistake any voice that pours so convincingly into my brain for my own. And maybe it’s not even a mistake, per se, so much as a calculated strategy on the part of my ego to maintain its primacy, targeting and claiming any foreign object that would stray so far into the inner-sanctum of my consciousness. Whether the medium is insidious, my mind a greedy assimilation machine, or both, it seems that at least some of the time, podcasts don’t just drown out my inner-monologue — they actually overwrite it. When I listen to a podcast, I think some part of me believes I’m only hearing myself think.

Twentieth-century critics worried about this, too. Writing sometime around the late 1930s, Theodore Adorno theorized that a solitary listener under the influence of radio is vulnerable to persuasion by an anonymous authority. He writes: “The deeper this [radio] voice is involved within his own privacy, the more it appears to pour out of the cells of his more intimate life; the more he gets the impression that his own cupboard, his own photography, his own bedroom speaks to him in a personal way, devoid of the intermediary stage of the printed words; the more perfectly he is ready to accept wholesale whatever he hears. It is just this privacy which fosters the authority of the radio voice and helps to hide it by making it no longer appear to come from outside.”

I’ll admit that I have occasionally been gripped by false memories as a result of podcasts — been briefly sure that I’d seen a TV show I’d never watched, or convinced that it was a friend, not a professional producer, who told me some great anecdote. But on the whole, my concern is less that I am being brainwashed and more that I’m indulging in something deeply avoidant: filling my head with ideas without actually having to do the messy, repetitive, boring, or anxious work of making meaning for myself. It’s like downloading a prefabbed stream of consciousness and then insisting it’s DIY. The effect is twofold: a podcast distracts me from the tedium of being alone with myself, while also convincingly building a rich, highly-produced version of my inner life. Of course that’s addictive — it’s one of the most effective answers to loneliness and self-importance I can imagine.

Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter
by Aaron Z. Lewis

Digital masks are making the static and immortal soul of the Renaissance seem increasingly out of touch. In an environment of info overload, it’s easy to lose track of where “my” ideas come from. My brain is filled with free-floating thoughts that are totally untethered from the humans who came up with them. I speak and think in memes — a language that’s more like the anonymous manuscript culture of medieval times than the individualist Renaissance era. Everything is a remix, including our identities. We wear our brains outside of our skulls and our nerves outside our skin. We walk around with other people’s voices in our heads. The self is in the network rather than a node.

The ability to play multiple characters online means that the project of crafting your identity now extends far beyond your physical body. In his later years, McLuhan predicted that this newfound ability would lead to a society-wide identity crisis:

The instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence — violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.

As I survey the cultural landscape of 2020, it seems that McLuhan’s predictions have unfortunately come true. More than ever before, people are exposed to a daily onslaught of world views and belief systems that threaten their identities. Social media has become the battlefield for a modern-day Hobbesian war of all-against-all. And this conflict has leaked into the allegedly “offline” world.

Who are we hearing and talking to?

“We are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent ‘me’ from moment to moment.”
~ Charles Fernyhough

“Bicamerality hidden in plain sight.”
~ Andrew Bonci

“What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.”
~ Matthew 10:27

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”
Bundle Theory: Embodied Mind, Social Nature
The Mind in the Body
Making Gods, Making Individuals
The Spell of Inner Speech
Reading Voices Into Our Minds
Verbal Behavior
Keep Your Experience to Yourself

Bicameralism and Bilingualism

A paper on multilingualism was posted by Eva Dunkel in the Facebook group for The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: Consequences of multilingualism for neural architecture by Sayuri Hayakawa and Viorica Marian. It is a great find. The authors look at how multiple languages are processed within the brain and how they can alter brain structure.

This probably also relates to learning of music, art, and math — one might add that learning music later improves the ability to learn math. These are basically other kinds of languages, especially the former in terms of  musical languages (along with whistle and hum languages) that might indicate language having originated in music, not to mention the close relationship music has to dance, movement, and behavior and close relationship of music to group identity. The archaic authorization of command voices in the bicameral mind quite likely came in the form of music and one could imagine the kinds of synchronized collective activities that could have dominated life and work in bicameral societies. There is something powerful about language that we tend to overlook and take for granted. Also, since language is so embedded in culture, monolinguals never see outside of the cultural reality tunnel they exist within. This could bring us to wonder about the role played post-bicameral society by syncretic languages like English. We can’t forget the influence psychedelics might have had on language development and learning at different periods of human existence. And with psychedelics, there is the connection to shamanism with caves as aural spaces and locations of art, possibly the earliest origin of proto-writing.

There is no reason to give mathematics a mere secondary place in our considerations. Numeracy might be important as well in thinking about the bicameral mind specifically and certainly about the human mind in general (Caleb Everett, Numbers and the Making of Us), as numeracy was an advancement or complexification beyond the innumerate tribal societies (e.g., Piraha). Some of the earliest uses of writing was for calculations: accounting, taxation, astrology, etc. Bicameral societies, specifically the early city-states, can seem simplistic in many ways with their lack of complex hierarchies, large centralized governments, standing armies, police forces, or even basic infrastructure such as maintained roads and bridges. Yet they were capable of immense projects that required impressively high levels of planning, organizing, and coordination — as seen with the massive archaic pyramids and other structures built around the world. It’s strange how later empires in the Axial Age and beyond that, though so much larger and extensive with greater wealth and resources, rarely even attempted the seemingly impossible architectural feats of bicameral humans. Complex mathematical systems probably played a major role in the bicameral mind, as seen in how astrological calculations sometimes extended over millennia.

Hayakawa and Marian’s paper could add to the explanation of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. A central focus of their analysis is the increased executive function and neural integration in managing two linguistic inputs — I could see how that would relate to the development of egoic consciousness. It has been proposed that the first to develop Jaynesian consciousness may have been traders who were required to cross cultural boundaries and, of course, who would have been forced to learn multiple languages. As bicameral societies came into regular contact with more diverse linguistic cultures, their bicameral cognitive and social structures would have been increasingly stressed.

Multilingualism goes hand in hand with literacy. Rates of both have increased over the millennia. That would have been a major force in the post-bicameral Axial Age. The immense multiculturalism of societies like the Roman Empire is almost impossible for us to imagine. Hundreds of ethnicities, each with their own language, would co-exist in the same city and sometimes the same neighborhood. On a single street, there could be hundreds of shrines to diverse gods with people praying, people invoking and incantating in their separate languages. These individuals were suddenly forced to deal with complete strangers and learn some basic level of understanding foreign languages and hence foreign understandings.

This was simultaneous with the rise of literacy and its importance to society, only becoming more important over time as the rate of book reading continues to climb (more books are printed in a year these days than were produced in the first several millennia of writing). Still, it was only quite recently that the majority of the population became literate, following from that is the ability of silent reading and its correlate of inner speech. Multilingualism is close behind and catching up. The consciousness revolution is still under way. I’m willing to bet American society will be transformed as we return to multilingualism as the norm, considering that in the first centuries of American history there was immense multilingualism (e.g., German was once one of the most widely spoken languages in North America).

All of this reminds me of linguistic relativity. I’ve pointed out that, though not explicitly stated, Jaynes obviously was referring to linguistic relativity in his own theorizing about language. He talked quite directly about the power language —- and metaphors within language —- had over thought, perception, behavior, and identity (Anke Snoek has some good insights about this in exploring the thought of Giorgio Agamben). This was an idea maybe first expressed by Wilhelm von Humboldt (On Language) in 1836: “Via the latter, qua character of a speech-sound, a pervasive analogy necessarily prevails in the same language; and since a like subjectivity also affects language in the same notion, there resides in every language a characteristic world-view.” And Humboldt even considered the power of learning another language in stating that, “To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint in the world-view hitherto possessed, and in fact to a certain extent is so, since every language contains the whole conceptual fabric and mode of presentation of a portion of mankind.”

Multilingualism is multiperspectivism, a core element of the modern mind and modern way of being in the world. Language has the power to transform us. To study language, to learn a new language is to become something different. Each language is not only a separate worldview but locks into place a different sense of self, a persona. This would be true not only for learning different cultural languages but also different professional languages with their respective sets of terminology, as the modern world has diverse areas with their own ways of talking and we modern humans have to deal with this complexity on a regular basis, whether we are talking about tax codes or dietary lingo.

It’s hard to know what that means for humanity’s trajectory across the millennia. But the more we are caught within linguistic worlds and are forced to navigate our way within them the greater the need for a strong egoic individuality to self-initiate action, that is to say the self-authorization of Jaynesian consciousness. We step further back into our own internal space of meta-cognitive metaphor. To know more than one language strengthens an identity separate from any given language. The egoic self retreats behind its walls and looks out from its parapets. Language, rather than being the world we are immersed in, becomes the world we are trapped in (a world that is no longer home and from which we seek to escape, Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison and William S. Burroughs Control). It closes in on us and forces us to become more adaptive to evade the constraints.

Other People’s Craziness

In a Facebook group dedicated to Julian Jaynes, I was talking to a lady who is an academic and a poet. She happened to mention that she is also a ‘Manbo’, something like a vodou practitioner. She made the admission that she sees and hears spirits, but she qualified it by saying that her rational mind knew it wasn’t real. I found that qualification odd, as if she were worried about maintaining her respectability. She made clear that these experiences weren’t make-believe, as they felt real to her, as real as anything else, and yet one side of her personality couldn’t quite take them as real. So, two different realities existed inside her and she seemed split between them.

None of this is particularly strange in a group like that. Many voice-hearers, for obvious reasons, are attracted to Jaynes’ view on voice-hearing. Jaynes took such experiences seriously and, to a large degree, took the experiences on their own terms. Jaynes offered a rational or rationalizing narrative for why it is ‘normal’ to hear voices. The desire to be normal is powerful social force. Having a theory helps someone like this lady to compartmentalize the two aspects of her being and not feel overwhelmed. If she didn’t qualify her experience, she would be considered crazy by many others and maybe in her own mind. Her academic career might even be threatened. So, the demand of conformity is serious with real consequences.

That isn’t what interested me, though. Our conversation happened in a post about the experience of falling under a trance while driving, such that one ends up where one was going without remember how one got there. It’s a common experience and a key example Jaynes uses about how the human mind functions. I mentioned that many people have experiences of alien contact and UFO abduction while driving, often alone at night on some dark stretch of road. And I added that, according to Jacques Vallee and John Keel, many of these experiences match the descriptions of fairy abductions in folklore and the accounts of shamanic initiations. Her response surprised me, in her being critical.

Vallee also had two sides, on the one hand an analytical type who worked as an astronomer and a computer scientist and on the other a disreputable UFO researcher. He came at the UFO field from a scientific approach, but like Jaynes he felt compelled to take people at their word in accepting that their experience was real to them. He even came to believe there was something to these experiences. It started with a time he was working in an observatory and, after recording anomalous data of something in the sky that wasn’t supposed to be there, the director of the observatory erased the tapes out of fear that if it got out to the press it would draw negative attention to the institution. That is what originally piqued his curiosity and started him down the road of UFO research. But he also came across many cases where entire groups of people, including military, saw the same UFOs in the sky and their movements accorded with no known technology or physics.

That forced him to consider the possibility that people were seeing something that was on some level real, whatever it was. He went so far as to speculate about consciousness being much stranger than science could presently explain, that there really is more to the universe or at an angle to our universe. In this line of thought, he spoke of the phenomena as, “partly associated with a form of non-human consciousness that manipulates space and time.” Sure, to most people, that is crazy talk, though no more crazy than interacting with the spirit world. But the lady I was speaking with immediately dismissed this as going too far. Her anomalous experiences were fine, as long as she pretended that they were pretend or something, thus proving she wasn’t bat-shit loony. Someone else’s anomalous experience, however, was not to be taken seriously. It’s the common perception that only other people’s religion is mythology.

That amused me to no end. And I said that it amused me. She then blocked me. That amused me as well. I’m feeling amused. I was more willing to take her experiences as being valid in a way she was unwilling to do for others. It’s not that I had any skin in the game, as I’ve never talked to spirits nor been abducted by aliens. But I give people the benefit of the doubt that there experiences are real to them. I’m a radical skeptic and extreme agnostic. I take the world as it comes and sometimes the world is strange. No need to rationalize it. And if that strangeness is proof of insanity and disrepute, there are worse fates.

* * *

As for my own variety of crazy, I’ve always felt a kinship with Philip K. Dick. Below is what he what he wrote in justifying himself. Some people feel compelled to speak truth, no matter what. If that truth sounds crazy, maybe that is because we live in a society gone mad. Under such unhappy circumstances, there can be great comfort in feeling validated by someone speaking truth. So, maybe be kind toward the craziness and truths of other people. Here is what PKD has to say:

“What I have done may be good, it may be bad. But the reality that I discern is the true reality; thus I am basically analytical, not creative; my writing is simply a creative way of handling analysis. I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel and story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art, but truth. Thus what I tell is the truth, yet I can do nothing to alleviate it, either by deed or exploration. Yet this seems somehow to help a certain kind of sensitive and troubled person, for whom I speak. I think I understand the common ingredient in those whom my writing helps; they cannot or will not blunt their own intimations about the irrational, mysterious nature of reality, & for them my corpus of writing is one long ratiocination regarding this inexplicable reality, an investigation & presentation, analysis & response & personal history. My audience will always be limited to these people.”
(In Pursuit of Valis, p.161)

Birth of Snark

The next time you’re irritated by an internet troll, remember that one of the greatest inventions of civilization was snark. For millennia of recorded history, there was no evidence of it. Then suddenly, in the measure of historical time, there it was in all its glory.

Before there was social media and online comments sections, there were letters written in cuneiform. There is something about text-based communication that brings snark out in some people, no matter the medium. But first there had to be a transformation in consciousness.

* * *

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
p. 249-250

Going from Hammurabi’s letters to the state letters of Assyria of the seventh century B.C. is like leaving a thoughtless tedium of undisobeyable directives and entering a rich sensitive frightened grasping recalcitrant aware world not all that different from our own. The letters are addressed to people, not tablets, and probably were not heard, but had to be read aloud. The subjects discussed have changed in a thousand years to a far more extensive list of human activities. But they are also imbedded in a texture of deceit and divination, speaking of police investigations, complaints of lapsing ritual, paranoid fears, bribery, and pathetic appeals of imprisoned officers, all things unknown, unmentioned, and impossible in the world of Hammurabi. Even sarcasm, as in a letter from an Assyrian king to his restive acculturated deputies in conquered Babylon about 670 B.C.:

Word of the king to the pseudo-Babylonians. I am well . .  . So you, so help you heaven, have turned yourselves into Babylonians! And you keep bringing up against my servants charges— false charges,— which you and your master have concocted . .  . The document (nothing but windy words and importunities!) which you have sent me, I am returning to you, after replacing it into its seals. Of course you will say, “What is he sending back to us?” From the Babylonians, my servants and my friends are writing me: When I open and read, behold, the goodness of the shrines, birds of sin . .  . 28

And then the tablet is broken off.

A further interesting difference is their depiction of an Assyrian king. The Babylonian kings of the early second millennium were confident and fearless, and probably did not have to be too militaristic. The cruel Assyrian kings, whose palaces are virile with muscular depictions of lion hunts and grappling with clawing beasts, are in their letters indecisive frightened creatures appealing to their astrologers and diviners to contact the gods and tell them what to do and when to do it. These kings are told by their diviners that they are beggars or that their sins are making a god angry; they are told what to wear, or what to eat, or not to eat until further notice: 29 “Something is happening in the skies; have you noticed? As far as I am concerned, my eyes are fixed. I say, ‘What phenomenon have I failed to see, or failed to report to the king? Have I failed to observe something that does not pertain to his lot?’.  .  . As to that eclipse of the sun of which the king spoke, the eclipse did not take place. On the 27th I shall look again and send in a report. From whom does the lord my king fear misfortune? I have no information whatsoever.” 30

Does a comparison of these letters, a thousand years apart, demonstrate the alteration of mentality with which we are here concerned? Of course, a great deal of discussion could follow such a question. And research: content analyses, comparisons of syntax, uses of pronouns, questions, and future tenses, as well as specific words which appear to indicate subjectivity in the Assyrian letters and which are absent in the Old Babylonian. But such is our knowledge of cuneiform at present that a thorough analysis is not possible at this time. Even the translations I have used are hedged in favor of smooth English and familiar syntax and so are not to be completely trusted. Only an impressionist comparison is possible, and the result, I think, is clear: that the letters of the seventh century B.C. are far more similar to our own consciousness than those of Hammurabi a thousand years earlier.