A few weeks ago The New Yorker published an interview with Cormac McCarthy discussing his first published piece of nonfiction about language and the unconscious, an essay titled, “The Kekulé Problem” (published in the magazine Nautilus). McCarthy’s essay in Nautilus and his interview about it in The New Yorker are opportunities for us to consider the task of the novelist, namely, simultaneously attending to both spectacle and audience.
This means, not only describing the persons, places, things, and actions that occur within the story (“the spectacle”), but also writing the story in such a way that reader feels personal reverberations within himself (“the audience”). This second task is our focus for now, and it is challenging to writers; especially new writers. How do accomplished writers deal with it? I think McCarthy gives us a clue to the the answer, and it may surprise us, for it is not exactly what one would expect.
McCarthy’s essay, “The Kekulé Problem,” is focused upon the Eureka! moment of Friedrich August Kekulé, a prominent German organic chemist in the 1850’s who formulated the classical chemical structural theory. He is the focus in this essay, not because McCarthy is primarily interested in chemical science in general (though he is), but because McCarthy is interested in the profoundly mysterious nature of scientific discovery and insight. Kekulé exemplifies such mystery. For it was while sleeping that Kekulé achieved the breakthrough insight that allowed him to move beyond the known empirical formula and clearly articulate a theoretical structure of the benzene molecule. McCarthy describes it as follows:
I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer, Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He 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.”
My immediate interest is not in McCarthy’s question about communication between the unconscious and the conscious, but rather in McCarthy as questioner; that is, McCarthy the literary author who has written eleven novels, three short fiction pieces, two screenplays, and two plays, and then, after fifty-two years in the public eye as a fiction writer, decides to publish his first piece of nonfiction about the pivotal relationship between language and the unconscious in human experience. Why is he interested in this now? Is something wrong with our shared language?
In addition to all of this, consider McCarthy’s comment five years earlier in another interview with The New Yorker journalist, Nick Romeo. Romeo writes this:
When I asked him why he never reads new novels, he looked as if I wanted to know why someone would not drink from a pool of muddy water. “They’re not readable,” he said.
Why is McCarthy, as writer of new novels, not interested in reading new novels? A seemingly simple question; but let us resist the impulse to reduce it down to merely a cantankerous old writer caught up in his penchant for post-apocalyptic visions and gothic southwestern landscapes, and consider what deeper insights might be masked by such a pithy and deceivingly simple statement like, “They’re not readable.” What does he even mean by “readable”? How should we understand McCarthy’s recent choice to attend to the problems of language and the mind? Why does McCarthy (instead of lounging around surrounded by new novels from the big presses like HarperCollins and Penguin Random House) choose to spend his time as a research fellow with a computational biologist, David Krakauer (President and William H. Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute), immersed in:
...subjects ranging from the history of mathematics, philosophical arguments relating to the status of quantum mechanics as a causal theory, comparative evidence bearing on non-human intelligence, and the nature of the conscious and unconscious mind.
I think that in order to find an answer, we must first notice the echoes of Walker Percy that resound throughout this odd little phenomenon.
Walker Percy changed the task of the serious modern novelist: the novelist as philosopher of science. That is not to imply that the novelist is supposed to be wholly a philosopher of science (or in Percy’s terms—the physician-novelist). It doesn’t mean to trade one out for the other. Rather, it is to be a novelist in this day and age, a novelist that seeks to uncover the dynamic shifts in human activities constituting our culture. With short essays like “The State of the Novel: Dying Art or New Science” and “Physician as Novelist,” Percy was questioning and reformulating the role of the novelist in the modern environment; an environment of the self as a scientific subject. Percy wasn’t advocating for a genre (as though writers should privilege science-fiction), but was advocating for an existential literacy of theoretical science, its technical applications and research practices, and its popularized commercial effects--since these activities were reshaping language by reshaping human life and its environmental habits. For Percy, words have become overburdened. Meaning itself can no longer be carried weightlessly by a shared language, and so great stories and great art are made difficult, indeed, if not impossible:
In great ages, when people understood each other and held a belief in common, great stories like the Iliad or War and Peace were also great art because they affirmed the unspoken values which a people held in common and made it possible for a people to recognize themselves and to know who they are. But there are other times when people don't know who they are or where they are going. At such times story-telling can become a form of diversion, perhaps even a waste of time, like the prisoners facing execution Pascal talks about who spend their time crapshooting instead of trying to figure out how they got in such a fix and what is going to happen to them […] But now it seems that whatever has gone wrong strikes to the heart and core of meaning itself, the very ways people see and understand themselves. What is called into question in novels now is the very enterprise of human life itself.
Percy, as a medical graduate from Columbia University (who specialized in pathology), was already well aware of the self as a scientific subject when he realized he didn’t know whether he was coming or going, and found himself facing a quasi-execution at the hands of tuberculosis. He spent two years in a sanatorium in Saranac Lake, New York. It was in the sanatorium that Percy turned from the highly technical field of medicine—and its biologically and anatomically formalized object, the human body—to the life of the novelist and its living subject, the human spirit intent on trying to figure out how we got in such a fix. After leaving the medical practice of pathology Percy continued to study medical sciences in addition to newly acquired interests in philosophy of language, the semiotic studies of Charles Peirce, and contemporary works in behavioral psychology and sociology that informed the developmental practice of psychiatry. In one of his nonfiction articles written for research psychiatrists, “The Symbolic Structure of Interpersonal Process,” Percy explores and defends his interest in language and its vital importance in individual and community existence.
These psychological research interests (some of which originally appeared formally as articles in The Southern Review, The Journal of Philosophy, Psychiatry, Partisan Review, and Philosophy and Phenomenological Research) and all that is involved with working them out seems oddly uncharacteristic of a novelist, at least as a novelist is conventionally imagined. And perhaps this will be construed by some as bearing little or no benefit to the actual quality of good literature--but the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Each attentive reader of Walker Percy experiences deeply personal reverberations in his novels, and this is the fruit of such “extracurricular” considerations.
In light of McCarthy’s hiatus into nonfiction, we might wonder, “What non-literary fields should a serious novelist labor in, in order to write novels that are ‘readable’ for a contemporary audience?”
This short blog post is just a preliminary articulation of a theme I will be continuing to unfold in subsequent posts.