Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Speaking to the gods & feelings in your belly.

I'm engaged in a project to dramatically reduce the number of books and magazines in the attic. I had been dragging stuff to Half Price Books in fits and starts before the Time of the 'Rona, and since then I've just been dropping off boxes at the Goodwill store on Keystone Avenue.

Gun magazines are mostly goners except for ones I'm in, or older ones I use for reference. In fact, most magazines are going away except a few old collectibles and my fairly complete library of Car and Driver. Nonfiction books are getting culled pretty heavily, keeping only ones I'll use for reference purposes or found entertaining enough that I'll likely reread them at some point.

The fiction paperback shelves are getting culled in much the same fashion: Outside of certain classics or favorite authors, the general test is "Am I going to reread this?" As an example, the Harry Turtledove shelves got cleared pretty heavily. I liked most of his stuff just fine when I read it, and I definiely recommend him as an author, but most of it just doesn't have a lot of re-reading potential for me, personally.

There are a couple exceptions and one is Between the Rivers, which is both in a historical setting I find interesting (the dawn of the city-state era in Mesopotamia) and has at its core a very interesting conceit. In this novel, most of the early Bronze Age Mesopotamian city states are still under the sway of their gods, with their people practically no more than automatons. The novel's protagonist comes from a particular city,  Gibil, which has propitiated its city deity to the point that he slumbers constantly, giving the citizens of that city state a unique amount of free will. Madcap hijinks ensue.

This is a riff on the theory put forth by Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which is pretty controversial and leaves some serious unanswered questions.

The review of the book at Slate Star Codex has, I think, a useful take on the idea...

"Here Jaynes is at his most brilliant, going through ancient texts one by one, noting the total lack of mental imagery, and highlighting the many everyday examples of conversations with gods. Every ancient culture has near-identical concepts of a god who sits inside of you and tells you what to do. The Greeks have their daemons, the Romans their genii, the Egyptians their ka and ba, and the Mesopotamians their iri. The later you go, the more metaphorically people treat these. The earlier you go, the more literal they become. Go early enough, and you find things like the Egyptian Dispute Between A Man And His Ba which is just a papyrus scroll about a guy arguing loudly with the hallucinatory voice of his guardian spirit, and the guardian spirit’s hallucinatory voice arguing back, and nobody thinking any of this is weird (people who aren’t Jaynes would wimp out and say this is “metaphorical”). Every ancient text is in complete agreement that everyone in society heard the gods’ voices very often and usually based decisions off of them. Jaynes is just the only guy who takes this seriously.

Turn on what Terry Pratchett called “first sight and second thoughts” and try to look at the Bronze Age with fresh eyes. It was really weird. People would center their city around a giant ziggurat, the “House of God”, with a giant idol within. They would treat this idol exactly like a living human – feeding it daily, washing it daily, sometimes even marching it through the streets on sedan chairs carried by teams of slaves so it could go on a “connubial visit” to the temple of an idol of the opposite sex! When the king died, hundreds of thousands of men would labor to build him a giant tomb, and then they would kill a bunch of people to serve him in the afterlife. Then every so often it would all fall apart and everyone would slink away into the hills, trying to pretend they didn’t spend the last twenty years buliding a jeweled obelisk so some guy named Ningal-Iddida could boast about how many slaves he had.

If the Bronze Age seems kind of hive-mind-y, Julian Jaynes argues this is because its inhabitants weren’t quite individuals, at least not the way we think of individuality. They were in the same kind of trance as a schizophrenic listening to voices commanding him to burn down the hospital. All of it – the ziggurats, the obelisks, the pyramids – were an attempt to capture not individual humans, but those humans’ daemons – to get people to identify the voice in their head with the local deity, and replace their free will with a hallucinatory god who represented their mental model of society’s demands on them."

Go and RTWT.