Land of Unconscious Genius
Remembering Cormac McCarthy (1933-2023) and the fading of an American tradition.
The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died.
This is a sentence of no particular consequence, pulled from an essay on language by the late Cormac McCarthy. Little talk of dolphins precedes or follows it; it is dropped in the middle of a sprawling landscape, and McCarthy rolls on past.
It is a defining feature of McCarthy’s style: the small, strange visual, seemingly unimportant, barely glanced at amid pages upon pages of grand construction. Death is held as a mundane fact, and its treatment as merely a feature in the landscape at once spotlights the smallness and frailty of human life and integrates it into a drama of cosmic scale.
The sentence above is noteworthy, too, as an example of McCarthy’s craft. It has the simple music of the best American literature—somewhere between the clean rhythm of Hemingway and the drawling lyric of Faulkner. He wastes no words, but he spares none either.
In context, the mention of the dolphin is an observation on the nature of the unconscious. Marine mammals cannot rely on unthinking processes for breath; the act of surfacing and the mechanics that follow are intentional, and a dolphin cut off from active thought has no means to sustain the process.
The anecdote comes from “The Kekulé Problem,” a 2017 essay on the unconscious and the origins of language, McCarthy’s only published work of nonfiction.
“The Kekulé Problem” is the fruit of decades of reflection on the nature of man, of communication—on nature itself. McCarthy concludes that language cannot be understood as an evolutionary development: if it were a product of natural selection, it would look different in a hundred different ways.
McCarthy then considers language as purely a human creation, and ponders its relation to the depths of the unconscious. His reflections hinge on an anecdote from the life of August Kekulé, a physicist who
was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”
Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.
He concludes that language, being unnatural, is imperfectly suited to wrestle with the depths that the unconscious plumbs in dreams. It is a surprising tension for a man who spent decades wrapping words around nature, but once it is understood it can be seen in every page.
For what it’s worth, I think McCarthy is wrong on the substance in “The Kekulé Problem.” But it provides a window into his thinking about the craft that made his name. The written word for McCarthy is a great mystery, inexplicable by recourse to nature and yet perpetually recursive to nature’s most profound depths.
This is why McCarthy’s work is essentially anti-dialectical. It is not just resistant to interpretation but opposed to interpretation. It exists, as McCarthy’s sincerest thoughts did, in the dream world—or, more precisely, in that part of the world to which he believed dreams pointed.
When Mark Twain, the father of modern American literature, broke into the scene of American letters, he was slammed by entrenched authorities for abjuring the cut-and-dry preachiness of 19th-century literature. And some of the nation’s most celebrated intellectuals, from Benjamin Franklin to Theodore Roosevelt, have been men of action whose minds worked best in the backgrounds of their lives.
America is the land of unconscious genius, and McCarthy was a master of the American tradition. That tradition is quickly fading, though. It had long been trending downward even by the time McCarthy’s star peaked.
In 2011, James Franco began work on a film adaptation of McCarthy’s gruesome early masterpiece Child of God. The novel is an unsettlingly humane portrait of necrophiliac serial killer Lester Ballard.
Franco called McCarthy to pick his brain, turning the story inside out and reading analytical meaning into every little aspect. This kind of analysis, of course, is properly reserved to poetry. Even the best narrative fiction—especially the best—collapses underneath it.
He asked McCarthy, in far too many words, why he would write a story about such a reprehensible character.
“Oh, I don’t know James,” the writer replied, “probably some dumbass reason.”
Franco persisted, speculating pointlessly that Lester was
a metaphor for, or an extreme example of isolation and someone who is pushed outside of civilized society. Lester just wants to connect, he wants to love and be loved, but he is incapable of being intimate with another (living) person because he’s a creep. But with dead bodies he gets to control both sides of the relationship. The fact that there is an actual body aids his imagination in the creation of another outside of himself. It all helps him believe that it is not just a solitary enterprise. He gets the best of both worlds: he gets to be in control of both sides of the relationship and he gets to trick himself into thinking that he is interacting with someone else.
After all that nonsense, McCarthy only said, “Oh, I don’t know, James. I just know that there are people like him all around us.”
Franco was not the only one who wouldn’t take the hint.
In 1992, as he prepared for the release of his fifth novel, Cormac McCarthy gave his first ever interview to the press. Richard B. Woodward then profiled “the best unknown writer” in America for the New York Times, just weeks before All the Pretty Horses would catapult him to stardom.
(Woodward himself, as it happens, died two months ago.)
The Woodward profile is a valuable read, not least of all because McCarthy’s private nature makes it one of few reliable sources for simple facts about his life.
Yet Woodward, like later students at McCarthy’s feet, is bothered by the master’s resistance to interpretation. He slips up at one point, writing that McCarthy “has made dozens of similar scouting forays to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and across the Rio Grande into Chihuahua, Sonora and Coahuila. The vast blankness of the Southwest desert served as a metaphor for the nihilistic violence in his last novel, ‘Blood Meridian,’ published in 1985.”
This is one way of putting it, but it is not a very good one. Blood Meridian is set against the deserts of Mexico and the American West because it happened there; it cannot have happened anywhere else. If there is symbolism in the landscape, it is God’s, not Cormac McCarthy’s.
Graeme Wood, eulogizing McCarthy in the Atlantic, makes a related mistake. He writes that “the McCarthy voice was timeless—not in the pedestrian sense of ‘will be read for generations,’ but in the unsettling, cosmological sense that one could not tell whether the voice was ancient or from the distant future.”
The interpretation is understandable, but the more one reads McCarthy the more firmly located his work feels. It is rock-solid in time and place and bound by historical force, even as it indulges the same fantasy and mystery of other Southern gothic greats. It is a failure either of imagination or of piety to assume that myth and Americana cannot coexist.
McCarthy’s work is intensely American literature, imbued with a profound American character, treating at once its distant future and its ancient past.
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A long paragraph from All the Pretty Horses might illustrate the point:
In the evening he saddled his horse and rode out west from the house. The wind was much abated and it was very cold and the sun sat blood red and elliptic under the reefs of bloodred cloud before him. He rode where he would always choose to ride, out where the western fork of the old Comanche road coming down out of the Kiowa country to the north passed through the westernmost section of the ranch and you could see the faint trace of it bearing south over the low prairie that lay between the north and middle forks of the Concho River. At the hour he’d always choose when the shadows were long and the ancient road was shaped before him in the rose and canted light like a dream of the past where the painted ponies and the riders of that lost nation came down out of the north with their faces chalked and their long hair plaited and each armed for war which was their life and the women and children and women with children at their breasts all of them pledged in blood and redeemable in blood only. When the wind was in the north you could hear them, the horses and the breath of the horses and the horses’ hooves that were shod in rawhide and the rattle of lances and the constant drag of the travois poles in the sand like the passing of some enormous serpent and the young boys naked on wild horses jaunty as circus riders and hazing wild horses before them and the dogs trotting with their tongues aloll and foot-slaves following half naked and sorely burdened and above all the low chant of their traveling song which the riders sang as they rode, nation and ghost of nation passing in a soft chorale across that mineral waste to darkness bearing lost to all history and all remembrance like a grail the sum of their secular and transitory and violent lives.
McCarthy when he wrote this was John Grady Cole: a fantasy in a fantasy, caught between action and reflection, enchanted by a past only partly his. That he became a rider of a lost nation down out of the north is a mystery he would not be pleased to have inspected. That he went the way of the dolphin, even less so.