In his first published piece of nonfiction, Cormac McCarthy offers
an unusual take on language and the unconscious mind.
an unusual take on language and the unconscious mind.
The New Yorker
This past week, the novelist Cormac McCarthy published the first nonfiction piece of his career, a three-thousand-word essay titled “The Kekulé Problem,” in the popular science magazine Nautilus. It is studded with suggestive details about the anatomy of the human larynx, what happens to dolphins under anesthesia, and the origins of the click sounds in Khoisan languages, all marshalled to illuminate aspects of a profound pair of questions: Why did human language originate, and how is it related to the unconscious mind?
Five years ago, I interviewed McCarthy for Newsweek at the Santa Fe Institute, a theoretical-research center where he is a trustee and has spent a considerable portion of the last two decades. The institute is devoted to understanding the fundamental principles of complex systems at a variety of scales, from cell biology to human societies. McCarthy’s essay emerged from conversations with its current president, David Krakauer, a computational biologist, and from exchanges with many others colleagues and scientists there over the years. Our conversation took place in its library, where we were surrounded by nearly eight thousand books with titles like “Applied Chaos Theory” and “A History of Algorithms.” These sorts of subjects, and the scientists who study them, have long interested McCarthy more than anything happening in contemporary fiction. When I asked him why he never reads new novels, he looked as if I wanted to know why someone would not drink from a pool of muddy water.
“They’re not readable,” he said.
McCarthy’s nonfiction, to judge from our only example, is recognizably his, with folksy locutions and no-nonsense sentence fragments and even, at points, the vaguely biblical grandiloquence of his earlier novels: “The simple understanding that one thing can be another is at the root of all things of our doing,” he writes. Language, he says, “crossed mountains and oceans as if they weren’t there.”
His title references a famous eureka moment in the history of science: after years of thought and research, the nineteenth-century German chemist August Kekulé claimed that he hit upon the ring-like structure of the benzene molecule after he dreamed of a snake eating its own tail. McCarthy calls this “the Kekulé Problem” because it’s unclear why the unconscious supplied a non-linguistic solution to the puzzle of the molecule’s configuration. Since the unconscious would have to understand language to grasp the problem in the first place, why wouldn’t it furnish a solution in the same medium? McCarthy generalizes the quandary, asking, “Why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.”
His answer—which, he says, appeared in a sort of Kekulé moment of its own, as a sudden epiphany while he was emptying the trash one morning—is that the unconscious is “just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so. Habits of two million years duration are hard to break.” The description of the unconscious as “not happy” with language—as, in fact, “loathe to speak to us”—is not an isolated lapse into intentional language: throughout the essay, McCarthy personifies the unconscious as an ancient and inscrutable agent with its own desires and talents. It solves math problems, it tells you when and where you have an itch, it gives moral instruction in the picture-narratives of dreams.
The Kekulé Problem
Where Did Language Come From?
McCarthy knows that some of this might sound eccentric. After declaring that the unconscious labors “under a moral compulsion to educate us,” he inserts a parenthetical anticipating a dubious reader. “(Moral compulsion? Is he serious?).” McCarthy doesn’t think the unconscious is interested in micromanaging our affairs, but he does seem to seriously believe that it has a broad interest in our wellbeing. The unconscious, he writes, “wants to give guidance to your life in general, but it doesn’t care what toothpaste you use.”
This vision of the unconscious also describes a certain type of novelist—one who deploys elision and enigma in his storytelling to provoke and challenge readers. McCarthy’s explanation for why the unconscious issues guidance in the riddling imagery of dreams could double as a defense of difficulty in fiction. Of such imagery, he writes, “The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them.”
There’s a kind of cranky iconoclasm in the essay, with its scorn for those McCarthy calls “influential persons,” the unnamed experts in psychology and linguistics that dominate the discussion of these topics. But while some of his positions are unfashionable—that language is a purely cultural acquisition and not a biological system, for instance—others are quite mainstream. His sharp distinction between language and thought is one made by many cognitive scientists. When I asked Steven Pinker, the psychologist and author of “The Language Instinct,” among other books, for his thoughts on the essay, he replied, “One theme of the article is that thought is not the same thing as language, and I certainly agree with that.”
But Pinker also cautioned against overgeneralizing from Kekulé’s purported reminiscence. “The vast majority of dreams and reveries don’t solve major problems in the history of science,” he said. Pinker mentioned an old joke about a philosophy graduate student who dreams every night that she has decisively refuted major arguments by Plato, Descartes, Kant, and other philosophers. Her boyfriend gives her a pen and notepad to record her rebuttals before she forgets them. The next morning, she wakes up and reads the devastating riposte she has scribbled down in the dead of night: “That’s what you say.”
McCarthy’s fiction is often accused of offering a bleak, blood-drenched, nihilistic vision of human life. While his thoughts on the unconscious are framed as scientific reflections, they also creep toward theology: he’s describing, after all, an ancient, moral agent interested in our wellbeing and given to revealing its intentions through images. That this agent has developed within our minds, through millions years of evolution, by natural selection, might make the unconscious somewhat less inscrutable than traditional deities, though not by much. We’re still alone in the universe, but there’s something within us offering cryptic guidance worth heeding.
When I met McCarthy, he implied that the unconscious played a role in his own writing. I asked him for his views on the source and power of his own novels, and, seated on a leather couch in the Santa Fe Institute library, he responded with a kind of parable: “There was a guy who was a great wingshot on a quail hunt in Georgia. He killed everything he saw, he dropped ’em all morning. One of the other guys said, ‘You’re the best wingshot I’ve ever seen.’ At lunch the guy asked him, ‘Do you shoot with one eye open or both?’ He paused and thought about it. Finally, he said, ‘I don’t know.’ ”