Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem,” a meditation on language and consciousness

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The science magazine Nautilus has published Cormac McCarthy’s essay “The Kekulé Problem.” This is the first piece of nonfiction that McCarthy has published. It’s a fascinating essay that takes its name from a dream of Friedrich August Kekulé, “father of organic chemistry.” Kekulé dreamed of an ouroboros, an unconscious insight that led him to “discover” the ring-structure of the benzene molecule. (Thomas Pynchon writes about Kekulé’s dream in Gravity’s Rainbow, by the way).  Anyway, it’s a nice piece on a complex subject, and it’s fun to watch McCarthy move from lucid, transparent, and direct prose into wry fragments that are, well, more McCarthyesque. From the essay–

The evolution of language would begin with the names of things. After that would come descriptions of these things and descriptions of what they do. The growth of languages into their present shape and form—their syntax and grammar—has a universality that suggests a common rule. The rule is that languages have followed their own requirements. The rule is that they are charged with describing the world. There is nothing else to describe.

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

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.

“Mr. Brain” — Russell Edson

“Mr. Brain,” something by Russell Edson

 Mr Brain was a hermit dwarf who liked to eat shellfish off the moon. He liked to go into a tree then because there is a little height to see a little further, which may reveal now the stone, a pebble–it is a twig, it is nothing under the moon that you can make sure of.

So Mr Brain opened his mouth to let a moonbeam into his head.

Why to be alone, and you invite the stars to tea. A cup of tea drinks a luminous guest.

In the winter could you sit quietly by the window, in the evening when you could have vinegar and pretend it to be wine, because you would do well to eat doughnuts and pretend you drink wine as you sit quietly by the window. You may kick your leg back and forth. You may have a tendency to not want to look there too long and turn to find darkness in the room because it had become nighttime.

Why to be alone. You are pretty are you not/you are as pretty as you are not, or does that make sense.

You are not pretty, that is how you can be alone. And then you are pretty like fungus and alga, you are no one without some one, in theory alone.

Be good enough to go to bed so you can not think too much longer.