Read Cormac McCarthy’s First Work of Non-Fiction, “The Kekulé Problem,” a Provocative Essay on the Origins of Language

Few English writers of the early twentieth century had the rhetorical zest and zeal of novelist, journalist, and Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton, and few could have so ably taken on the formidable intellect of H.G. Wells. Chesterton wrote one of his most influential books, The Everlasting Man, partly as a refutation of Wells’ popularization of Darwinian evolution in The Outline of History. Wells had contemporary science on his side. Chesterton, the wittier and more philosophical of the two, had on his side a healthy skepticism of pat explanations, though he would endorse his own religiously orthodox theory of everything.

We need not draw Chesterton’s conclusions to find his arguments compelling. Take, for example, the first chapter of The Everlasting Man, in which he argues that prehistoric humans were totally, inexplicably distinct from animals. Consider, he writes, the experience of an early discoverer of cave paintings: “What would be for him the simplest lesson of that strange stone picture-book? … that he had dug very deep and found the place where a man had drawn the picture of a reindeer. But he would dig a good deal deeper before he found a place where a reindeer had drawn a picture of a man.” The explorer “might descend to depths unthinkable” and never find, nor expect to find, such a thing. “Art,” Chesterton wrote, “is the signature of man.”

Almost a hundred years later, scientists of all kinds agree with Chesterton’s aphorism: painting and sculpture distinctly made humans human. So too did something equally abstract and nowhere else in evidence in all the animal world: Language. In a new essay, another witty and perceptive novelist—though one with a much darker view—takes on evolutionary explanations of language and advances an unorthodox view, full of provocations and curious observations. Cormac McCarthy—who for much of the past two decades has written from an office at the scientific research center the Santa Fe Institute—begins his essay, “The Kekulé Problem,” with some very Chestertonian ripostes:

There are influential persons among us… who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. That it has somehow appeared in the brain in a primitive form and then grown to usefulness…. It may be that the influential persons imagine all mammals waiting for language to appear. I dont know. But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed.

No barrier of “mountains and oceans” slowed the spread of language, nowhere in any human community did it wither away for lack of use. But “did it meet some need?” McCarthy asks. “No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.” Against the linguistic consensus of “influential persons,” McCarthy claims “there is no selection at work in the evolution of language because language is not a biological system and because there is only one of them. The ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved.”

For some background on the idea of a primitive “ur-language,” see our previous post on the centuries-long quest for such a thing—as yet an elusive and wholly speculative entity that may be no more than a myth, like the story of the Tower of Babel. Does McCarthy mean to call this tale to mind? Does he, like Chesterton, pursue a line of argument that leads us back to some old-time religion? No. But “while his thoughts on the unconscious are framed as scientific reflections,” writes Nick Romeo at The New Yorker, “they also creep toward theology,” or at least a personification of impersonal forces, though McCarthy is no believer in supernatural agents.

Here, instead of a god implanting souls in humans, evolution has given us an unconscious mind, which Romeo characterizes in McCarthy’s essay as an “ancient, moral agent interested in our wellbeing and given to revealing its intentions through images.” Yet, while the soul may be the source of art in Chestertonian logic, McCarthy’s unconscious is most certainly not the source of language. “The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not… the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal,” not a speaking being. No, in fact, McCarthy argues, the unconscious is more-or-less at war with language, or at least in a very deep sulk about its existence.

The unconscious toys with us; it knows things we don’t, but gets very cryptic about it. (The title of the essay refers to German chemist August Kekulé's discovery of the structure the benzene molecule in a dream about a snake eating its tail.) Language is an intruder, like a virus, except "the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not."

….the fact that the unconscious prefers avoiding verbal instructions pretty much altogether—even where they would appear to be quite useful—suggests rather strongly that it doesnt much like language and even that it doesnt trust it. And why is that? How about for the good and sufficient reason that it has been getting along quite well without it for a couple of million years?

The hand of the artist moves behind McCarthy’s scientific arguments. His essay is in large part a kind of prehistory of intuition as well as language. “It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us,” he writes, and it has been doing so for much longer than humans have been marking up cave walls. Language came much later—“a hundred thousand [years] would be a pretty good guess. It dates the earliest known graphics—found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa.” There, in a eureka moment, “some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing….”

When I think of the image of a “chap waking up in a cave” in McCarthy’s fiction, I think of the disturbing serial killer Lester Ballard in Child of God, and suspect that in the novelist's imagination the sudden appearance of language may have been a very bloody event. But while McCarthy’s novels are filled with subtle allusions to his scientific interests, the existential bleakness of his fiction doesn’t make its way into his first published work of non-fiction. The essay is, however, Romeo writes, full of the writers “folksy locutions and no-nonsense sentence fragments,” not to mention his nonstandard punctuation and lack of apostrophes. Like Chesterton, McCarthy concludes that the origin of symbolic systems of reference is a mystery. But he offers no divine solution for it.

For all his scientific perspicacity, McCarthy thinks like a writer, which gives him unique insight into some novel complications, though he may overgeneralize from the particular case of Kekulé. ("The vast majority of dreams and reveries don’t solve major problems in the history of science," cautions Steven Pinker.) McCarthy concludes that the biological system of the unconscious may be all we need to guide us through the world. But it takes language to create culture, and make humans of us: “Once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. From using colored pebbles for the trading of goats to art and language and on to using symbolic marks to represent pieces of the world too small to see.”

Read McCarthy’s full essay---with a short, laudatory introduction by the Santa Fe Institute’s president David Krakauer---at Nautilus.

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Werner Herzog and Cormac McCarthy Talk Science and Culture

Was There a First Human Language?: Theories from the Enlightenment Through Noam Chomsky

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

George Saunders Tries to Order One Mousetrap Over The Phone

This adventure in modern shopping is brought to you by Clickhole.

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The News Is Broken, and Wikipedia Founder Jimmy Wales Plans to Fix It With His New Site, Wikitribune

"The news is broken and we can fix it." That's the idea driving the creation of Wikitribune, a news platform being built by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales.

Borrowing tools and concepts from the influential online encyclopedia, Wikitribune will be free and supported by readers, not ads. It will feature professional journalists and community members, working side by side, to produce fact-checked journalism that's readily supported by evidence and sources. And anyone can flag mistakes or submit revisions for review.

Watch Wales outline the vision for Wikitribune in the Kirby Ferguson-made video above. Then, consider making a financial contribution to the new news platform here. They're now raising money to get operations started and hire 10 journalists.

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How Jonathan Demme Put Humanity Into His Films: From The Silence of the Lambs to Stop Making Sense

"My friend, the director Jonathan Demme, passed last night," wrote Talking Heads' David Byrne on his blog yesterday. "I met Jonathan in the ‘80s when Talking Heads were touring a show that he would eventually film and turn into Stop Making Sense," the famous — and in the minds of many, still the very best — concert movie. "I loved his films Melvin and Howard and Citizens Band (AKA Handle With Care). From those movies alone, one could sense his love of ordinary people. That love surfaces and is manifest over and over throughout his career." Read just a few of the many other tributes to Demme made so far, and you'll encounter the same words over and over again: love, empathy, compassion.

Few filmmakers manage to get those qualities onscreen as consistently as Demme did, and even fewer do it at his level of technical mastery. The two video essays here examine his cinematic technique, especially as seen in one of his best-known films: 1991's Silence of the Lambs, the second in the ongoing series featuring refined career cannibal Hannibal Lecter. The brief episode of Tony Zhou's Every Frame a Painting at the top of the post breaks down how Demme handles the question of who "wins" the interaction in the first conversation between Anthony Hopkins' Lecter and Jodie Foster's young FBI trainee Clarice Starling — two characters who enter into this and all their subsequent interactions with their own shifting motivations, goals, and sensitivities.

In this and other scenes throughout his career, Demme made strong and influential use of close-up shots, to the point where Jacob T. Swinney could dedicate a supercut to "The Jonathan Demme Close-Up." While "most filmmakers choose to employ the close-up shot during scenes of crucial dialogue," Swinney writes, "Demme prefers to line up his characters in the center of the frame and have them look directly into the lens of the camera." And so "when Dr. Hannibal Lecter hisses at Agent Clarice Starling, we feel equally victimized," or in Philadelphia "as Andrew Beckett succumbs to AIDS, we feel an overwhelming sensation of sympathy. These characters seem to be looking at us, and we therefore connect on a deeper level."

While Demme used his signature close-ups and other emotionally charged shots in all his features, from his early days working for legendary B-movie producer Roger Corman on, he brought his humanistic style to his various documentary and concert film projects as well. "Stop Making Sense was character driven too," writes Byrne. "Jonathan’s skill was to see the show almost as a theatrical ensemble piece, in which the characters and their quirks would be introduced to the audience, and you’d get to know the band as people, each with their distinct personalities. They became your friends, in a sense. I was too focused on the music, the staging and the lighting to see how important his focus on character was — it made the movies something different and special."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Jonathan Demme Narrates I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!!,” a Short Film About the Counterculture Cartoon Reid Fleming

Earlier today, we sadly learned about the passing of Jonathan Demme, director of The Silence of the Lambs and Stop Making Sense. We'll have more to say about his contributions to cinema in the morning. But, for now, I want to share a short film, narrated by Demme himself in 2015, called I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!!.  Featuring stop motion animation and interviews, the short revisits David Boswell's 1970s counterculture cartoon, Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman. Perhaps the cartoon never ended up on your radar. But it certainly influenced a number of important creators you're familiar with. And, happily, you can still pick up copies of Reid Fleming: World's Toughest Milkman on Amazon or over at the official Reid Fleming web site.

Directed by Charlie Tyrell, I Thought I Told You To Shut Up!! will be added to our collection, 1,150 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.. You can also download it over at Tyrell's vimeo page.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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If You Could Spend Eternity with Your Ashes Pressed Into a Vinyl Record, What Album Would It Be?

In February, Ted Mills wrote about a new company--And Vinyly--which will press your ashes into a playable vinyl record when your time eventually runs out. The basic service runs $4,000, and it gets you 30 copies of a record containing your ashes. The rub is that you can't "use copyright-protected music to fill up the 12 minutes per side, so no 'Free Bird' or 'We Are the Champions,' unfortunately."

But it does raise the question, as I put on Twitter yesterday... If you could head into eternity pressed into a cherished album, which would you choose? This isn't necessarily a what-record-would-you-take-to-a-deserted island scenario, taken to the nth degree. Meaning, it's not necessarily a question of what record would you listen to endlessly, for eternity (although you could choose to make it that). Rather, the question might be: What album do you have a deep, abiding personal connection with? Which record captures your spirit? And, when thrown on the turntable, can keep you sonically in this world?

My pick, Abbey Road. "Come Together" has a bit of anti-establishment bite. "Here Comes the Sun" and "Something" tap into something emotional and nostalgia-inducing for me. And, oh, that medley on Side 2! Just click play any time.

Your picks? Please add them to the comments below.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Says This Short Film on Science in America Contains Perhaps the Most Important Words He’s Ever Spoken

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has won a reputation as a genial, yet pedantic nerd, a scientific gadfly whose point of view may nearly always be technically correct, but whose mode of delivery sometimes misses the point, like someone who explains a joke. His earnestness is endearing; it’s what makes him so relatable as a science educator. He’s wholeheartedly devoted to his subject, like his boyhood hero Carl Sagan, whose shoes Tyson did his best to fill in a remake of the classic Cosmos series. Tyson's countrymen and women, however, have made his job a lot harder than they did in Sagan's day, when ordinary Americans were hungry for scientific information.

The change has been decades in the making. Like Sagan, Tyson’s voice fills with awe as he contemplates the mysteries of nature and wonders of science, and with alarm as he comments on widespread American ignorance and hostility to critical inquiry and the scientific method. These attitudes have led us to a crisis point. Elected and appointed officials at the highest levels of government deny the facts of climate change and are actively gutting all efforts to combat it. The House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space, and Technology mocks climate science on social media even as NASA announces that the evidence is “unequivocal.”

How did this happen? Are we rapidly returning, as Sagan warned before his death, to an age of “superstition and darkness”? Tyson has recently addressed these questions with earnestness and urgency in a short video called “Science in America,” which you can watch above, “containing,” he wrote on Facebook, “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.” He opens with a statement that echoes Sagan’s dire predictions: “It seems to me that people have lost the ability to judge what is true and what is not.” The problem is not simply an academic one, but a pressingly political one: “When you have people,” says Tyson, “who don’t know much about science, standing in denial of it, and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.”

One must ask if the issue solely comes down to education. We are frequently reminded of how much denial is motivated and willful when, for example, a government official begins a completely unsupported claim with, “I’m not a scientist, but….” We know that fossil fuel companies like Exxon have known the facts about climate change for forty years, and have hidden or misrepresented them. But the problem is even more widespread. Evolutionary biology, vaccines, GMOs… the amount of misinformation and “alternative fact” in the public sphere has drowned out the voices of scientists. “That’s not the country I remember growing up in,” Tyson laments.

There are plenty of good philosophical reasons for skepticism, such as those raised by David Hume or by critical theorists and historians who point out the ways in which scientific research has been distorted and misused for some very dark, inhumane purposes. Yet critiques of methodology, philosophy, and ethics only strengthen the scientific enterprise, which---as Tyson passionately explains---thrives on vigorous and informed debate. We cannot afford to confuse thoughtful deliberation and honest reflection with specious reasoning and willful ignorance.

I imagine we’ll have a good laugh at creative redeployments of some classic Tyson harangues. (“This is science! It’s not something to toy with!”) And a good laugh sometimes feels like all we can do to relieve the tension. The real danger is that many people will dismiss his message as “politicizing” science rather than defending the very basis of its existence. We must agree on the basis of scientific truth, as discoverable through reason and evidence, Tyson warns, before we can even get to the political questions over climate change, vaccines, etc. Whether Americans can still do that has become an unsettlingly open question.

via Big Think

Related Content:

Carl Sagan Predicts the Decline of America: Unable to Know “What’s True,” We Will Slide, “Without Noticing, Back into Superstition & Darkness” (1995)

An Animated Neil deGrasse Tyson Gives an Eloquent Defense of Science in 272 Words, the Same Length as The Gettysburg Address

Neil deGrasse Tyson Remembers His First Meeting with Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan Issues a Chilling Warning to America in His Final Interview (1996)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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