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.

Related Content:

How Cormac McCarthy Became a Copy-Editor for Scientific Books and One of the Most Influential Articles in Economics

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

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