Cormac McCarthy is one of our greatest living writers, but he is also a mystery and a bit of a ham. He disdains the press—popping up once, legendarily, for an Oprah interview, because she is the queen—and issues novels that rush headlong into weighty questions about life and death and violence and God and dogs and horses. They’re intense works, the last of which was 2006’s harrowing Pulitzer winner The Road. Since then, he has issued two screenplays and been hard at work on apparently several follow-ups, all of which are, presumably, about deranged drifters committing acts of appalling inhumanity.
When McCarthy does pal around with anyone, it is the physicists, biologists, and philosophers of the Santa Fe Institute, where he ponders human matters within the context of a more celestial scale. This larger intellectual backdrop helps, in part, to explain why his writing seems to slip so naturally from descriptions of hard, rugged work to pages-long, deeply abstract philosophical metaphors. His love of science and anthropology is sort of like David Lynch’s adherence to transcendental meditation, not necessarily an explanation for the mysterious works he creates but a lens into how they’re created.
All of which is to say that McCarthy’s new essay for Nautilus on the genesis of language comes as an essential piece of writing not just for fans of the author but also for people interested in knowledge itself. He is thought of, as the Santa Fe Institute’s president David Krakauer says in the essay’s introduction, “in complementary terms” by the institute’s gang of geniuses.
Still, in the essay itself, McCarthy goes out of his way to minimize his own credentials. Surprisingly, it is all very funny, particularly in a series of self-deprecating recurring gags about how smart the people at the institute are and the puckish gumption of little ol’ McCarthy to be speaking on the nature of language and the vast mysteries of the unconscious mind. Here’s a representative example:
So what are we saying here? That some unknown thinker sat up one night in his cave and said: Wow. One thing can be another thing. Yes. Of course that’s what we are saying. Except that he didnt say it because there was no language for him to say it in. For the time being he had to settle for just thinking it. And when did this take place? Our influential persons claim to have no idea. Of course they dont think that it took place at all. But aside from that. One hundred thousand years ago? Half a million? Longer? Actually a hundred thousand would be a pretty good guess.
His terse, comma-free style remains, with sentence fragments lumping together ideas into his inimitable alien rhythm. It’d be unfair—and difficult—to synopsize the whole essay, but its concerns are where language originates, both from an evolutionary standpoint and from within our very heads. Why do we dream? Why do dreams contain both interesting truths and total inanities? Why do sudden revelations come to us when we set our mind to other things?
McCarthy uses a lot of such rhetorical questions, too, and doesn’t even pretend that he’s going to offer all the answers. It’s more of a meditation on the nature of these uncertainties from a person deeply qualified to do so. In an almost off-handed aside, he flips from these astral observations to the very particulars of his own calling:
We dont know what the unconscious is or where it is or how it got there—wherever there might be. Recent animal brain studies showing outsized cerebellums in some pretty smart species are suggestive. That facts about the world are in themselves capable of shaping the brain is slowly becoming accepted. Does the unconscious only get these facts from us, or does it have the same access to our sensorium that we have? You can do whatever you like with the us and the our and the we. I did. At some point the mind must grammaticize facts and convert them to narratives. The facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We have to do that.
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