"My Antonia" by Willa Cather was published in 1918 and acclaimed as a great novel. Today, nearly a century after, it looks as distant and remote as Egyptian or Sumerian literature
The ancient world is, by definition, past and gone and the voices of those who inhabited the past are forever lost, except in the written form that we call literature. True, some have tried to hear the voices of the ancient in the objects that arrived to us from pre-literate ages; one was Marija Gimbutas who thought she could say that the people of those remote ages practiced a gentle form of matriarchy. Maybe, but that's debatable to say the least.
So, we can explore the minds of our ancestors only from what they left to us in writing. That limits our horizon to some 5000 years in the past; with the 3rd millennium BC being the earliest age from which we written texts of some length that we can decipher. It is literature, in a sense, but also something that's hard for us to recognize as such. The solemn hymns to Inanna that were left to us by the first named author in history, the Sumerian Enheduanna, look baffling to us, even though, occasionally, Enheduanna's voice emerges strong and clear, as if she were here, in front of us.
Just as baffling for the modern reader are the epic songs of the West. Poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey are still read today, but mainly because they are inflicted to generations of high-school students who couldn't care less. But, if you go in depth into them, you discover their true alienness. Julian Jaynes did just that with his "The Origin of Consciousness" where he maintains that the minds of the ancient were just different from our minds. They were not really conscious the way we are or, at least, we think to be.
I tried my own experience by reading two one-century old books: one was "My Antonia" by Willa Cather (published in 1918), the other "Remembrance of Things Past", by Marcel Proust (published in 1909). It was not an easy task. I succeeded, but it was not only hard but also not especially pleasant. I kept going, page after page, expecting something to happen, but finding only lengthy descriptions of details and more details about the environment in which the characters clumsily move.
Maybe this experience of mine would have pleased Julian Jaynes. My mind is by now focused on the Web experience; to that rapid clicking and changing that makes you wary of any text exceeding the 500 words (and, for some of us, 140 words are enough). The mind of the people writing, and reading, a hundred years ago was different. They had better concentration power, or maybe they simply had less distractions available, so that they would enjoy following the pointless adventures of Charles Swann in Proust, as well as those of Jim Burden in Cather.
A hundred years, apparently, is sufficient to make a piece of literature as remote as a Sumerian hymn. And, as for the case of a Sumerian hymn, perhaps the main virtue of those old novels is their archaeological interest. By reading them, you can have a vicarious experience of what life could be in a world without phones, without radio, without TV, to say nothing of the Internet. A completely different world, a completely different life. People would get their news only from the press and their entertainment mainly from visiting other people's homes.
And yet, it was the kind of life that our ancestors have been living for tens of thousands of years. What kind of life are we living today? Hard to say. What kind of mind is that of people who keep texting all over the day and do little more than sending each other pictures of cute cats? Perhaps, we have reached a new state of un-consciousness that, one day, a future Julian Jaynes will study and wonder about.