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The legacy of Julian Jaynes

Bastard Hat
    By David Auerbach

headshotJulian Jaynes is dead, but I'm going to leave him aside for now to look at the buried legacy of Charles Fort (1874-1932). While the Fortean Times continues to publish arch examinations of Wilhelm Reich, Immanuel Velikovsky, and other crackpots, Fort's own work is reprinted in series with the most drug-addled or Marxism-saddled ramblings of Foucault and Kathy Acker, and the ethos of Fort's work has diffused its way through the world. Fort's most infamous idea--"I think we're property" (of higher beings)--was ripped off in countless pulps and was partly responsible for the establishment of one or two religious organizations.

Fort was roundly dismissed by scholars of his day as a cross between Robert Ripley and P.T. Barnum, with all the exhibitionistic trappings of both. However, Fort's sincerity surpassed a lust for fame: of his anecdotes and conclusions, he wrote, "I no more believe them than I believe that twice two are four."

He had probably read Notes from Underground, but was too flighty to be nihilistic--he preferred rubber cement to Ockham's Razor. He is the patron saint of all the urban legends and conspiracy theories of this century, but also of relativism.

Fort loved exceptions and corner cases, and so the story of Kaspar Hauser caught his attention. Hauser turned up in Nuremberg one day in 1828, barely able to walk or speak, and later claimed that he had been kept in a cell since birth. Fort launches from the story into a bizarre sequence of suppositions about teleportation, alien transport, and the indeterminacy of history, and leaves them hanging firmly in the air.

Which brings me to Julian Jaynes, the only writer who maintained a shred of credibility in most people's eyes while effectively pursuing the same course as Fort. Jaynes passed away last Nov. 21, which I only recently discovered, due to the generally low profile he kept after the publication of one brilliant book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind.

Jaynes wrote it as an all-encapsulating treatise on the very recent evolution of the human brain, postulating that we had only 3,000 years ago shaken off a left/right-brain split that had until then made the right brain act as "god" to the left, producing visual and auditory hallucinations. Schizophrenia in Jaynes's framework is a regression to this "bicameral" state, so that people such as Bruno S. would exist in a pre-modern state of awareness.

Jaynes was far removed from the mainstream, and was as criticized by the conservatives as he was embraced by the extremists. Many disagreed, and it's not difficult to do so, but reading Jaynes to be convinced is for the narrow-minded. Jaynes stood in the nexus of ancient history, Vico, modern academia, and a good deal of Forteanism, and if any scholar could be said to have been in Bruno S.'s state of "other-awareness," it would be him. His main achievement for me was in re-mythologizing humanity.

In 1988, Life asked Jaynes to contribute a comment on the meaning of life. Sandwiched between the homilies of Armand Hammer and Norman Vincent Peale ("Approach Life the Joy Way!") is Jaynes's Fortean answer: "This question has no answer except in the history of how it came to be asked. There is no answer because words have meaning, not life or persons or the universe itself. Our search for certainty rests in our attempts at understanding the history of all individual selves and all civilizations. Beyond that, there is only awe."

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