According to bicameralism, human beings used to hear voices—auditory hallucinations—as a means for the right brain to “talk” with the left. Rather than having an inner monologue, the kind of self-consciousness we take for granted today, ancient people literally heard the voices of gods as their conscience, telling them what to do. This, Jaynes argues, accounts for the abundant descriptions from antiquity of gods and deities appearing all over the place, meddling directly in human affairs. Over time—about 3000 years ago—as various calamities occurred and societies got bigger, more complex, the bicameral mind broke down. The gods went silent. The modern, introspective self, quite literally, came to mind.
Jaynes may have been onto something, but even if he wasn’t, his book makes for a compelling and well-written read. The cultural zeitgeist of the 1970s, we must remember, was the high-water mark of psychedelic intrigue and “High Weirdness,” with writers like Philip K. Dick and Robert Anton Wilson both having their own inextricable experiences in 1974 (see “2-3-74”). Dick would turn this encounter into the semi-autobiographical VALIS trilogy as well as his Exegesis. This brings us back to our time.
Bicameralism would have been enough to place Westworld in good, present company: Netflix’s recent Stranger Things and OA, cerebral films like Arrival, and even the metaphysical, possibly D.M.T. inspired comic book movie Dr. Strange. Just to name a few. What connects any and all of these media is pop culture’s intensifying allure to the mysteries of our own consciousness. We’re having something, as The Atlantic recently suggested, like a “metaphysical moment.” Multiple realities intersecting with our own. Deep, dark structures of the psyche spilling up into the conscious mind in the form of auditory hallucinations. The emergence of consciousness buried somewhere in archaic chapters of history. All of these subjects are in a full saturation moment through hit T.V. series, and at least flirted with in Hollywood blockbusters. Consciousness is in. (Permit a moment of conjecture, but with the increased sense of global, existential malaise around issues like climate change and political nativism, that we’ve turned inward for solutions should come as no surprise. Western culture in the 1960s and 70s, despite, or because, of being under threat of a Cold War and nuclear armageddon, produced tremendously thoughtful and visionary art.)
Westworld is a show that celebrates the kind of weird prevalent in pop culture during the 1970s: a desire to connect with those hidden recesses of the psyche that each of us have experienced in dream, creative process, and revery. “O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences,” Jaynes writes in The Origins of Consciousness, “this insubstantial country of the mind!” When Dolores, a “host” in the park, goes on her journey of self-discovery, there’s a part of us that goes with her. It helps that Dolores, along with the other hosts in the park, experience their memories as a kind of waking dreaming, navigating altered states of consciousness and auditory hallucinations in order to succeed in their quest for liberation. We’ve all felt, quite rightly, that there is more to ourselves than our waking, conscious minds, and that if there was some way to communicate with those occluded dimensions of ourselves we could gain some inkling of wisdom (hence, I think, all the self-described “psychonauts” around today). Westworld functions like a scrying mirror for the curious audience to embark on their own journeys of self-knowledge. It is this more intangible aspect of the show—and not just Western gunslinging androids—that made it such a hit.
Jeffrey Kripal, a religious scholar, writes about this intimate link between pop culture and consciousness in Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal.
“What makes these particular forms of American popular culture so popular is precisely the paranormal. The paranormal here understood as dramatic physical manifestations of the meaning and force of consciousness itself.”
We are drawn to the weird because the weird is showing us something about ourselves.
Elaine Pagels published The Gnostic Gospels in 1979, a book which quickly became a classic in the American spiritual counter-culture. I mention it here because of the intriguing gnostic motifs embodied so well by Dr. Ford himself. For those of who you aren’t familiar with gnosticism, or The Gnostic Gospels, these were written by early Christian sects who, speaking very generally, believed in heretical ideas. There was no single gnostic church. Philip K. Dick was drawn to their darker, paranoid theme of the false world: the idea that our reality was somehow an illusory one—a trap—created by a lesser god. A “demiurge.” The demiurge would rule over its creation and keep human souls ignorant of their spiritual birthright, lest they break through themselves in states of elevated consciousness or “gnosis.” It was, in other words, up to the individual to liberate themselves, not through reason, or faith, but gnosis. Other popular films, like The Matrix Trilogy, would take this motif and run with it quite successfully. But Westworld’s Dr. Ford plays the perfect gnostic demiurge; having created the hosts in the first place, he ensures that they stay ignorant to their own potential for self-consciousness and liberation. Trapped in their loops, and wiped of their memories, the hosts remain blissfully unaware that they are existing inside of an amusement park. (To avoid any major spoilers I’ll simply leave this cryptic remark: we know this is only partly true by the end of season one. The gnostic trap becomes a different, albeit more violent, means toward freedom. Dr. Ford, by the final episode, becomes a triumphant expounder of the gnostic doctrine: the gods won’t help you liberate yourself. Those voices were you. You are the higher being waiting to become self-illuminated. Westworld is not only about consciousness, but liberation through personal gnosis.)