Of Two Minds

Judith Weissman’s OF TWO MINDS draws on Julian Jaynes’s widely publicized and controversial theory of the “bicameral mind.” Jaynes has argued that primitive man used both sides of his brain; balancing the more analytical left brain, a speech area on the right side was used to hear voices from the gods that enforced social codes. Modern man, however, has become self-conscious and thereby lost the use of that area on the right side of the brain. After discussing Jaynes’s theory, Weissman applies it to the work of poets ranging from Homer to Yeats. In these poems, she discovers the presence—and sometimes the absence—of these voices. She also notices that the social codes which were being enforced by primitive man and later poets were conservative and sexist.

Weissman’s most interesting interpretations are those that show not the presence of the gods’ voices but some distortion of them. The voices of the AENEID, for example, madden characters in the epic, so they are destructive rather than socially useful. Weissman notes that in KING LEAR the voices of the gods are absent and will not respond to the pleas of Lear. MACBETH has voices, but they are from witches who pervert the voices of the gods. Coleridge hears voices, but they are “demonic,” and his only response is silence.

Weissman manages to show us an aspect of these familiar poems that we have not seen before. Earlier readers had ascribed the voices of the gods in poetry to literary convention, but Weissman shows that we need to see them in a different and more revealing way.