Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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May 03, 2005
from the bedside table

Couldn't find much online about Judith Weissman's Of Two Minds: Poets Who Hear Voices (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1993).

Here is an exerpt from her introduction:

The fact that poets hear commanding voices and that poems inspired by such voices retain their power over readers can be understood best through evolutionary biology. "Inspired" and "visionary" describe a genuine mental phenomenon, an auditory hallucination that can be explained by human evolutionary history. . . .

To understand why voice should give clear, specific, and practical ethical messages instead of, say, abstract thoughts or descriptions detached from stories, we have to go beyond history to biology and to the theory of Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

On the basis of neurological evidence about the function of the apparently useless speech areas on the right side of the brain and from archeological evidence from many ancient cultures, Jaynes has suggested that hallucinated commanding voices were a part of our evolutionary development and that our own brains retain the ability to create such voices even though, as conscious and civilized beings, we no longer need them as our tribal ancestors did. Jaynes begins, as neither philosophers nor literary critics do, with the brain.

His theory is that our brains evolved with the capacity to produce admonitory hallucinations -- divine voices -- because we once needed them to enforce social cohesiveness.

from Weissman's analysis of Wordsworth's Prelude:
[Wordworth] is making a persuasive argument about what happens to people when they try to form political entities larger than the knowable community.

In large numbers, people become passive, prey to despots with Big Plans, the rulers of the world. Wordsworth has found this out by watching the French succumb to Napolean.

The fact that whole nations might instinctively obey the wrong leader is a negative corroboration of the theory that we are biological, social beings who need bonds -- we will form bonds, even to the wrong leaders.

The limitations of our rationality and the depths of our receptivity make us easy prey for evil leaders with commanding voices; after all, we are born with the ability to hear auditory commands, as Wordworth remembers from his childhood.