Summary of The Origin of Consciousness

How did human beings who lived five thousand years ago view themselves? How did they make decisions and how did they reflect on their past? Julian Jaynes (1920 – 1997) proposes a radical answer to these questions: until a few thousand years ago human beings did not ‘view themselves’. They did not have the ability: they had no introspection and no concept of ‘self’ that they could reflect upon. In other words: they had no subjective consciousness.

Jaynes calls the mental space of these pre-conscious people the bicameral mind. It is a mind with two chambers, the mind that is divided in a god part and a human part. The human part heard voices and experienced these as coming from gods. These gods were no judging, moral or transcendent gods, but were more like each person’s problem solvers. They were hallucinated voices that provided the answers when a person entered a stressful situation which couldn’t be solved by routine.

This is not to say that people with a bicameral mind were barbarians waving their bludgeons and uttering monosyllabic sounds. They were social creatures with a fully developed language. But language alone is not enough for consciousness, according to Jaynes. The pivotal question is which concepts are available in a language. Consciousness, in Jaynes’s definition, is a box of conceptual tools that is not ‘included with the hardware’. It is ‘software’ that had to be invented, like tools such as the wheel. The most important transitional phase towards this new mentality occurred between 1000 and 500 B.C., an era from which textual sources are available: the most telling ones are the Iliad, the Odyssey and of course the Bible.

Jaynes’s definition of consciousness
It is important to notice how Jaynes defines consciousness. It has nothing to do with perception or sensation. This means that many common connotations of the word are excluded. For example, the ‘conscious experience’ of a bright color red, or a sharp pain. These examples of subjective experience, that fascinating aspect of our mental life, is not what Jaynes wants to explain. However fascinated he may be by the question ‘where the color red is’ when we watch the setting sun – nothing but gray matter in our heads, after all – he is searching for another holy grail: how is it possible that we can pose these kinds of questions at all? Our puzzlement about our experience of the setting sun presupposes an advanced way of looking at ourselves, an advanced, reflective theory of mind. How did that ability evolve?

So then what is consciousness in Jaynes’s definition? As a first approximation: it is a process, not an immediate sensation. It is a narrative way of thinking which makes us capable of making judgments and decisions. It is a sort of self management. With consciousness, we do not need voices of gods or other superior beings. We have the capability of picturing ourselves as individuals with memories, a past, a future and a (more or less) free will. A conscious individual can view himself ‘from above’ and give orders to himself. He has tools, as it were, to isolate scenes from his life and to project these on an imaginary screen. To edit those at his own wish, and combine them into different scenarios.

Where does this ability originate from? Jaynes:

Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world.

What does this mean: ‘metaphors or analogs of behavior in the real world’? It means that the language in which we reason is built from metaphor. Take the concept of memory. We imagine memory somewhat like a container which can hold mental stuff, which can become full, in which one sometimes pokes in vain. Such a container does not really exist, but it is a useful way to visualize an aspect of our mental behavior.

In a sense, our entire mental vocabulary is figurative or metaphorical. Even the way in which we imagine time is metaphorical: a spatial extendedness. We place events on a timeline, on which left and right are analogue to before and after. Thus, a coherent story about the ‘self’ can be told, that wonderful fiction. No easy accomplishment! It must have been a long road for humandkind to invent it.

The bicameral mind of the Iliad
What did the world look like before consciousness came into being? Jaynes searches for answers in the Greek epic the Iliad (eighth century BC). According to Jaynes, this work of literature was created in a time in which the bicameral mind was already breaking down, but was still operational to an important degree.

The remarkable thing about the heroes of the Iliad is that they don’t show initiative and do not reason about their behavior. Everything is given to them by their gods. These tell or instruct their fellow humans something, and man acts accordingly. The gods are in charge and man can only be his puppet. Jaynes:

The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think out what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we say we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grasps Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon (1:197ff.). It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath on the beach by his black ships, […] a god who leads the armies into battle, who speaks to each soldier at the turning points, who debates and teaches Hector what he must do, […]

The ever present involvement of gods is regarded by many historians as only a poetic device, a playful way of the writer(s) of the Iliad to enliven the deeds of the protagonists. Jaynes, however, argues that the gods should not be taken as a literary trick. Instead, their presence in literature is a faithful reflection of their omnipresence in everyday experience.

The gods are, as mentioned before, no judging, moral gods, but were perceived more like authorative personal problem solvers of each man. In disturbing or very novel situations man hears – hallucinates even – what he has to do. According to Jaynes, in a similar fashion as schizophrenes in our time, who still hear voices that tell them what to do.

So this is the bicameral or two-chambered mind. A mind that is not yet undivided (individual) and does not make conscious decisions. In a sense, this mind does not make decisions at all, since all action is either a matter of routine or directly based on what is spoken to man by his god-side.

The origin of the bicameral mind
Jaynes speculates about the origin of the divided nature of the bicameral mind. Imagine, he proposes, a stage in the evolution of mankind where there was a primitive language, but nothing remotely like consciousness, like self-management. We imagine a social context of a small group of hominid hunter/gatherers. Language was to these creatures a great tool for exchanging information and enforcing power. Initially, language was exclusively audible, always something external. Only when complex solitary behavior was required, was there an evolutionary advantage for some form of internal speech. It is plausible that the first inner speech acts were copies of the most elementary external communicative act: a spoken command from one person to another.

This internalization of a communicative act – which by definition always involves two parties – is a possible explanation for the origin of the divided nature of the bicameral mind. The inner voice speaks, man acts upon it. In an early stage these voices might have been echoic repetitions of an order made by a leader. In more advanced stages they could have incorporated more and more knowlegde and intelligence and might have been ascribed to higher beings which transcended the direct social circle: the god-king for example.

This mental structure constituted the cohesive force of the social hierarchy in early civilizations. The voice was the authorative force which controlled human action. Remember we are talking about a time without a written law. This explains why real-life authorative figures like kings were identified as gods. They were in a very real sense gods. Namely in the sense that they were, ultimately, the voice that had to be obeyed. The origin of the belief in after-life becomes understandable from this perspective. After the king died, his imagined voice did not vanish immediately (Jaynes re-interprets the puzzling Old-Egyptian word ka, which scholars have translated as soul or ‘cosmic double’, as meaning bicameral voice).

The breakdown of the bicameral mind
The bicameral mind grew organically from a straightforward social structure. And the knife cuts both ways: the bicameral mind depended on such a structure in which it could thrive (schizophrenia can be viewed as a relapse that is utterly disfunctional in modern society). As societies grew larger and increasingly more complex, all kinds of intermediates/priests, ‘intermediate gods’ and idols were necessary to manage affairs (idols, according to Jaynes, are a way to invoke the speech of the god).

It is conceivable that a society that is organized in such a bicameral-bureaucratic way becomes vulnerable at a certain level of complexity. Indeed, there are many historical examples of dynasties that collapsed, apparently without external cause such as disasters. Another factor that would undermine the bicameral mind was the invention of writing. As a result, the voices could no longer remain the highest authority. They would be replaced by the Law, carved in stone or written on paper.

The rigid bicameral mind might not be flexible enough to deal with complex social dynamics. Whatever the direct cause was – a big earthquake of flood? – from all sources it appears that in the second millennium B.C. it was a chaos of mass migration and war in the area we now call the Middle-East. From that era stems the first evidence that the bicameral mind was eroding.

The pictures display something that had never been seen before: a king who kneels before an empty throne. The texts from this era speak of gods having left humankind:

My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance,
The good angel who walked beside me has disappeared


A king who kneels before an empty throne… Cuneiform from the reign of King Marduk of Babylon, around 1230 B.C.

A lament that in a certain sense can still be heard today. The difference, however, is that the longing for God in our age is a romantic longing. The people who lived three millennia ago felt abandoned in the most literal, practical sense. They had nothing to guide them.

The origin of consciousness
By leaps and bounds, with intermediate phases we will probably never know of, and undoubtedly with relapses into old mentality, a new mind came into existence. A few crucial ingredients were needed. An important and very basic ingredient is the trick of spatializing concepts. Certain concepts are only imaginable if they are cast in spatial metaphor. The concept of time is a crucial example. The brilliant idea to imagine time as a spatial thing, for example a line, opens a world of possibilities. It makes history possible, both for a person and for a people. We daily rewrite our ‘autobiographies’. Keeping track of that is an essential element of consciousness. It makes a stable concept of ‘self’ possible.

Another crucial component of consciousness is the insight that human behavior is not caused by a god, but by the person himself. The initial cause of action had to be internalized. Some chapters of the Origin are about the complex evolution of this invention. A brief account of this extremely interesting phase follows here.

When the bicameral mind began breaking down, man had to start making decisions. In the bicameral age, the decision making process had been a non-conscious one: some inaccessible mental process (after all, most intelligent behavior stems from processes that are inaccessible to us) which resulted in an inner voice instructing what to do next. Man’s first attempts at making his own decisions are called divination. Examples are the studying of omens, watching the stars, throwing and studying sticks and bones (sortilege), ‘reading’ animals’ intestines, etcetera. These are all methods that project the will of the gods, who were still thought to exist, into the external world. So decision making was in this phase a process that took place in the world, not in the mind. Jaynes:

What is important here is to understand provoked divination such as sortilege as involving the same kind of generative processes that develop consciousness, but in an exopsychic, nonsubjective manner.

Iliad and Odyssey as transitional period
The next big steps took place when these ‘exopsychic’ methods were internalized. And so the gods were not needed anymore, at least not as instigators of human action. Man learned to picture himself as cause of his own action. And what would be better candidates for the instigators of action than sensations of the intestines? In the Iliad these are kradie, which is the heart, and phrenes, the lungs, and thumos, roughly the feeling of an adrenaline rush, or being in a state of fight-or-flight. It is thumos which can give strength, thumos which can be spoken to a and which can even speak itself to a man. Phrenes can be filled with anger. Noos is perception, derived from noein, to see. In the Iliad this objective meaning gets for the first time, however hesitatingly, the metaphorical, subjective meaning that is so important for consciousness (to ‘see something’ with your mind’s eye). ‘Speak, conceal not in noos, so that we both may know’.

The next important step is that these concepts get even more metaphorical attributes. The lungs can not only fill with anger, something can also be ‘put inside them’, a representation for example. Jaynes:

All these metaphors are extremely important. Saying that the internal sensations of large circulatory and muscular changes are a thing into which strength can be put is to generate an imagined ‘space’, here located always in the chest, which is the forerunner of the mind-space of contemporary consciousness. And to compare the function of that sensation to that of another person or even to the less-frequent gods is to begin those metaphor processes that will later become the analog ‘I’.

In the Odyssey these words get richer and more consciousness-like meanings. The thumos can give a command, the phrenes can even contain the description of a future event, or a secret. The kradie (heart) gives Odysseus a warning for imminent danger. These are all functions which were in previous eras accomplished by the gods. The process will finally result in an ‘I’ which unites them all.

Once the invention of this mindspace is completed, it leads to an explosion of Old-Greek philosophy. An entire new domain of knowledge emerges. From what stuff is this newly discovered Mind made? Is it immortal? The first great figure of this new order is Solon of Athens, with his revolutionary slogan: ‘know thyself’ – an advice that would have been unthinkable in the bicameral age.

The Bible
Jaynes also uses the Old Testament as a source of evidence. He reads it as a history of mentality. He invites us to compare the books of Amos and Ecclesiastes. Amos is an example of the bicameral mind (‘And God said unto me..’). Ecclesiastes, written six centuries later, is an example of subjective consciousness (‘I said to myself:…’).

The era of the prophets is a transitional phase. Only they can still experience the visions or auditory hallucinations of the gods. But also these figures lose their power. Around 400 B.C. the prophets have left the stage.

After the transition to a new mentality, the time is ripe for a religious reformation. The teachings of the New Testament can be seen as a religion for ‘people with consciousness’. Sin and contrition are now internalized.

Vestiges of the bicameral mind
An entire part is dedicated to the vestiges of this old mentality in our own minds. This interesting part, which I will not summarize here, contains all kinds of indirect evidence for the development of our present psychological state. I already mentioned schizophrenia, but also historical phenomenons like oracles and prophecy are taken into account. Until the present age we are reminded that there are phenomena like mediums, possession, hypnosis… these are all mental states that resemble the ancient bicameral mind in the sense that they depend on a lower level of consciousness and an externalization of control.

Theo van Gogh’s polemic prose

Like any fine caricaturist, Theo Van Gogh the columnist was a penetrating observer. He didn’t bluntly insult people. He captured the fleeting but telling ‘facial expression’ and then magnified it many times. Not everybody enjoyed being under his scrutiny… He was assassinated by a Muslim terrorist in November 2004. To put in perspective what Van Gogh had written about Islam in Holland, I have collected and translated a few essential quotes.

Van Gogh (born in 1957 as great-grandson of the famous painter’s brother Theo) was a well-mannered interviewer and a good listener. He was of the opinion that ‘good tv interviewers pull a vacuum of loneliness into which the interviewed shed a glimpse of their unhappiness’. As a movie director, he cared about his actors and was stimulating and cooperative. But as a columnist, he ruthlessly attacked the slightest bit of hypocrisy that he sensed in a person.

This article contains a translated sample of Theo van Gogh’s quotes, taken from his columns. Vicious, vitriolic character attacks on Dutch politicians and media personalities.  A bad boy, indeed. And a pretty darn good columnist too. I hope that, reading these quotes, the adolescent joy will come across of crossing that line of good taste.

First, a rather tame example:

The most annoying example of a moral theologian at work among our interviewers is Wilfried de Jong, a bellowing indignated, who pretends to turn television into Art, with himself as the ‘correct’ protagonist. De Jong knows everything in advance and has until now never been caught displaying even a single bit of interest in his guests. […]

Wilfried de Jong is the type of person that climbs from servant to master and prospers in dictatorships. His programs are of some interest to people who take an interest in exercises in totalitarian thinking.

I should mention that Van Gogh is writing about a respected TV-interviewer of quality programs. He was a far from obvious target and while reading these lines, many must have shaken their heads in disagreement. But the core of truth in Van Gogh’s caricature gradually dawned on me, until it finally hit home years later. This was on the occasion that De Jong publicly humiliated, on a live TV-show, soccer player Patrick Kluivert, who had long been the scapegoat of the nation. Indeed, quite a display of totalitarian thinking.

Theo van Gogh, foto door André Bakker

Theo van Gogh. Foto: André Bakker

Stylistically, Van Gogh often used the trick of feigning reverence or pity, only to strike back twice as hard in the next sentence.

On the front page ‘the plagiarism’ of Margriet de Moor was mentioned. The author claimed that she had acted ‘in good faith’, and although of course she lied, I didn’t experience the malicious delight I usually feel when our Literators have once again been unable to resist a colleague’s candy jar. That is, the books of Mrs. De Moor are written so helplessly that one wishes her readers a permanent plagiarism.

He had his favorite targets, whom he kept attacking whenever he thought it appropriate – or when he was bored. He was quite happy to quote from his own pieces. Perhaps because he had to excel himself each time, the caricatures could evolve into the bizarre:

Mrs. Barend, recently described by me as ‘a plastified mummy who had still lived on Anne Frank’s attic’ came stumbling in behind little Frits: an old man walked his corpse. I found them two pathetic persons, with their: ‘I don’t want to see him on Boudewijns funeral’, and I had to remind myself that compassion is our highest virtue, even for an Auschwitz-pimp who wants to ban me from funerals.

Van Gogh mostly attacked well-respected public figures and spared people who were already under attack by the intelligentsia. He especially despised the ‘champagne socialists’, whose pity with the poor and immigrants he felt was gratuitous.

The Second World War was an ever-present system of reference in these debates. As a moral touchstone, and also by providing a handy jargon for polemic prose. Because of their connotations, words like collaboration, transportation, etc. were hard to resist. Van Gogh saw no problem in using these analogies. However, he mocked others for unjustly using the war in debates:

In lack of arguments, madam Grewel often talked about her experiences during the Occupation, on which she based her moral superiority in matters such as traffic poles, euthanasia and bad weather. […] I have to admit that I found her too stupid to respond to when she railed at me in De Groene [magazine], but also that I greeted her friendly once the final decline had begun and she publicly displayed, in true progressive spirit and like a shaven numbskull, the disadvantages of cancer. With her death, the shadiest efforts of social democracy have gone.

The assassination of Fortuyn
During the rise of the charismatic populist politician Pim Fortuyn (1948 – 2002), the aspect of bored playfulness in his writing made way for something more fundamental. Something urgent was at stake and polemic became a more grim matter – more than just a means of stirring things up, more than a matter of taking stabs at local politicians and B-celebrities.

Van Gogh chose sides with Fortuyn, as the only one of the opinion leaders. Two months before the assassination of Fortuyn, Van Gogh had written:

The funny thing is: Fortuyn and his sympathisers are constantly accused of ‘inciting hatred’, but it is rather the other way round. That Prince Pim still hasn’t been shot on behalf of the politically correct crowd, by some saviour, may be called a true miracle.

The day after the assassination of Fortuyn, Van Gogh wrote a column in which he congratulated the ones he thought were to blame:

What to do with such fine democrats? They aren’t worth spitting on and remind us of antisemites, real ones I mean.

A few months later he wrote a long article, an analysis of the political circumstances that had led to the murder – entitled: Good riddance.

There was a lot of hot air in Fortuyn’s revolution, but it was undeniable that he brilliantly defied all laws in dealing with the electorate. A future prime minister who declared he would continue to visit dark rooms… never before had the political been more personal and the personal more political. […]

The rage of Van Dam, Kok, Van Kemenade, Melkert and all those other champagne socialists was probably also related to the sense that the Left was losing its natural dominance in the public debate in the weeks preceding the sixth of May. It was as if Fortuyn would break the power of the paralyzing Sixties all at once. The gentlemen panicked, as for the first time in Dutch history the outcasts of the nation threatened to actually come into power. That wasn’t the plan. Fortuyn was the hated face of this impending revolt.

The Left was swept away and had only its trite lingo left. A lot of babbling about ‘extreme right’, ‘racism’, ‘the revival of fascism’, thus creating a climate in which murder becomes an act of heroism. There is something perverse about the eagerness with which Volkert van der G. [Fortuyn’s murderer] was denounced a ‘madman’, by politicians as well as the media. A madman frees our guilty conscience from the thought that we might have overreacted a tad. […]

The question comes to mind if in other so-called democratic countries the free press would line up so servilely behind the establishment. […] the lackeys of the government hobbled on, indignant beyond belief. But the people wouldn’t listen anymore. Couldn’t the people be dethroned? […]

In Marcel van Dam’s paradise, there is no place for ‘inferior people’. It’s a place where, as the Germans say, ‘klammheimliche Freude’ reigns when a certain baldy is disposed of. Dirty faggot, he had it coming. […]

Many called Fortuyn’s funeral a case of ‘mass hysteria’. Maybe this is true, but personally I was reminded of  the last journey of Falcone, the Italian Mafia fighter for whom thousands of scared citizens clapped their hands raw. There was one difference: in Fortuyn’s case, the Mafia sat in the Church, with in the front row a  yawning prime minister, who left through the side exit. While he left with his head down, the crowd outside were chanting You’ll never walk alone. Due partly to Kok’s cowardness –  whose policy, soaked in humanitarian small talk, caused seven thousand muslims to be murdered as  ‘our boys’ stood there and watched [Srebrenica], – Holland has become very special. Kok has specialized in condolences, with impressive displays of conscience. An expert in condolences, that came in handy now.’

In the article, Van Gogh mentioned his telephone conversations with ‘the divine bald one’ (Van Gogh liked to address Fortuyn with the words ‘Oh beloved Leader’) and sighed how he would have loved to see the republican, as Prime Minister, shake hands with the Queen, who reputedly hated him.

How I would have granted him the sour smile of that creature.

Hirsi Ali and the Islam
Van Gogh befriended Ayaan Hirsi Ali and supported her cause of denouncing Islam as backward:

It is the paradox of our society that our (just) tolerance gives free play to fanatics who more than anything want to dominate the Free West. Member of parliament Hirsi Ali was completely entitled to speak as she did. The attacks on her are echoes of the retarded Middle Ages. How shady can a muslim be?

Although he had scoffed religious individuals and communities before, notably Christians and Jews, he was especially hard on the Islam in the later years of his life. The phones must have rung off the hook at the so-called ‘anti-discrimination hotline’:

It’s not my fault that some fellow-citizens cling to the fundamentally intolerant religion of a little-girl-fucker who roamed the desert around 666. We may thank Allah that there are hundreds of thousands of reasonable Muslims in this country who don’t defile His name. But they too are intimidated by the at first sight pittoresque rural constables of Mecca’s thought police, who try to sell the blood that steams from their sewers by whining about ‘respect’.

He ridiculed the policy of appeasement of the mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen.

It’s kind of cute, a politician with aspirations of becoming prime minister who shits his pants so much for Allah’s callous hand that he keeps passing around the hat for the multicultural society. Maybe Cohen could enhance the harmony in Amsterdam by playing doormat to the Mosque goers, on which the true believers could wipe their feet. A wave of compassion will go through his party and once again we humble autochthones will experience the delight of our multicultural society.

In the summer of 2004, he directed Hirsi Ali’s anti-Islam film Submission. It was aired about two months before his assassination. At this point it was probably hard for Van Gogh to keep insisting he was just a ‘village idiot’ who wouldn’t be harmed.

In a collection of his columns, published in 2003, he had written in the preface:

This book is called Allah knows best because it is my dark suspicion that the new Middle Ages of Mecca are on the verge of outbreak; and because I, being a professional atheist, feel very unsafe in a climate that is dominated by ambitious mayors who are merrily ‘appeasing the masses’ and drinking tea with dubious mosque boards, while on the 4th of May Moroccan youngsters play soccer with funeral wreaths. Ever since 9/11, remember, the knives are out and the fifth column of goat fuckers marches on relatively unhindered. What else can I say? We live in a nightmare of good intentions and misunderstood idealism.

Three years before his death, in a non-polemic, melancholic column, Van Gogh had written about the ideal woman. In a puzzling, seemingly isolated sentence, he announced:

I will die on the street, even though such is uncomfortable.

march 2007

The quotes in this article are my own translations, taken from columns that Van Gogh published in various media, among which his own website (Dutch) and the free newspaper Metro. They were later republished in two collections of columns, called De gezonde roker (The healthy smoker) and Allah weet het beter (Allah knows best).

Tim Krabbé’s random word

I once gave myself the assignment of inventing a completely random word. Completely random, is that possible? And all of a sudden, there it was: Battoowoo Greekgreek (Tim Krabbé, The Rider). 

The word Battoowoo Greekgreek (in Dutch: Batüwü Griekgriek) has, since the day Tim Krabbé entrusted it to paper, acquired a modest fame. Hundreds of thousands of readers of The Rider cherish the word. Maarten Ducrot confessed, when he was still a professional rider: ‘Whenever I hit absolute rock bottom I always think of those immortal words from The Rider by Tim Krabbé – Battoowoo Greekgreek – and everything seems just fine again’. So the word has prospered pretty well for a modest random word. About time to examine if it is random at all! But first I want to stress that the result of this examination could, of course, never harm the magical, almost divine quality of the word. That goes almost without saying.

Even so, there is something at stake here. The random word is, within Krabbé’s oeuvre, a miniature of an important theme. Many of his characters want to escape the monotony of their existence by doing something random or unpredictable. Not just as a revolt against ‘society’ but as a revolt against being under submission of their own instincts and drives – or even more fundamental forces of the universe. The main character of The Vanishing jumps from a third-story balcony when still an adolescent, thereby proving he is no slave of his own fear of heights. He wants to be able to do anything, according to the ‘arbitrariness of his will’. Compared to this, the creation of a random word is a pretty modest deed of anarchy. Has the writer Krabbé accomplished what his characters so often can?

The rider

The Rider

A first fundamental problem emerges: the randomness of an isolated, short sequence of numbers or letters is hard to assess. Only with longer sequences can anything be concluded in a statistically significant way. Look at the following extreme case. From the two-digit binary sequence 01, we cannot tell if it was generated by randomness of an underlying system. Fortunately, Batüwü Griekgriek is not such an extreme case, and it can be assessed to a certain degree.

According to the mathematical definition, randomness means absence of pattern. A series of numbers is random if it has no regularities. This implies that the series can not be abbreviated or rewritten as a shorter series. The technical term for this is informational incompressibility. A series that systematically contains repetitions (111111), alternations (010101) or symmetries (001100) – to name but a few elementary examples of pattern – is not random. So Krabbé’s word seems to disqualify in this respect: it contains a repetition of the letter sequence: griek (greek), which is even an existing word in its own right.

But hold on. In a random sequence of binary characters, surely a repetition of two zeroes or two ones would be no problem. So why disqualify the double occurrence of the syllable ‘greek’?

To answer this, we must first know from which ‘word container the word is drawn’. Which properties has the set of possible words? In case of number series we assume that all digits from 0 till 9 are allowed, in every possible order. In the case of words this is more complicated. The smallest parts might not be separate letters, but syllables. Related to this matter, is a more or less stringent criterion of pronounceability. A letter sequence like jklaafgyy lkolj does not qualify as a word candidate. Let’s assume that Krabbé’s word container was restricted to what is pronounceable. Note that the set of pronounceable words is bigger that the set of representative words, which by the way would be far more difficult to define. Regardless of exact definition, common sense of native Dutch speakers tells that Batüwü Griekgriek is not a representative Dutch word.

So we have seen that in the container of random words no total letter anarchy prevails. Considering this, the repetition ‘griek’ is already less unlikely: it could be a single repetition and not a – very unlikely – fivefold repetition on letter level. So is the repetition just as likely as the repetition of, for example, the number 6 in a decimal series? No, not even close, because there are many more syllables than decimal numbers. But the exact probability depends, again, on the content of the ‘word container’. Is the repetition frequency of syllables therein a faithful reflection of the repetition frequency of syllables in dutch words? (I guess those are predominantly onomatopoeias and ‘primal words’ like mama). Or is the likelihood of repetition a blind ‘one devided by the number of syllables’ in the container? In the latter case, the chances of a repetition of ‘griek’ would be very small, since there are thousands of syllables.

So because of the repetition, Batüwü Griekgriek is not a very representative random word. I think Krabbé knows this and I suspect that he has chosen the repetition for a different reason. Research shows the following: if people are asked to invent a random sequence of binary numbers, they shun repetition more than they should. The chance that they write a 0 after a 1, is 0.6 instead of 0.5. This is a manifestation of what is called the gambler’s fallacy: the false notion that the roulette wheel has a bias towards variation/alternation. I think that Krabbé has deliberately not wanted to fall in this trap. And he has even added a little extra on top of his flagrant repetition. He seems to say provocatively: ‘I know, this word contains a repetition. If you guys think it couldn’t be random, go lose your money in the casino’.

But maybe I am on the wrong track. Maybe the writer has truly written the first word that came to mind on one of his bicycle rides. That’s what he suggests in the quote. This spontaneous creation explains the repetition in a different manner. Whenever people invent a fantasy rime or a nonsensical little song, repetition and alternation occur very often (tatee tom tom tatee tom). In the context of this article: these words are in a container that has a lot of repetition and alternation in it. So in this context of spontaneous language production, the word Batüwü Griekgriek ís a pretty representative random word.

Was Krabbé sincere when he wrote: ‘And all of a sudden, there it was.’? Wouldn’t it be to cheat his readers if he had considered many word candidates, altered a letter here and there, until he had finally found a word that met his standards? On the other hand, the ultimate deed of Krabbé-esque randomness is not one that comes easy. It often takes his characters careful planning. And isn’t it also essential to the process of writing? To ponder and rewrite endlessly, until finally something apparently spontaneous is on paper?

The Rider, by Tim Krabbé on Goodreads