A Linguist Responds to Cormac McCarthy

In his recent Nautilus essay, “The Kekulé Problem,” Cormac McCarthy suggests that our unconscious mental processes are a modern echo of the prelinguistic minds of our prehistoric ancestors. He sees a stark contrast between language as a fairly recent cultural invention and the unconscious as an ancient biological system; the two are made from entirely different cloth, which is why, according to McCarthy, the unconscious is “loathe to speak to us.” It is “just not used to giving verbal instructions and is not happy doing so,” preferring to communicate with our consciousness in images and metaphors.

As a linguist, I don’t think I quite agree with the renowned novelist’s characterization of the unconscious mind as fundamentally non-verbal—which I guess is Canadian polite-speak for: Wow, I really don’t agree with that at all. The unconscious mind of the modern human—after language—is inexorably altered by it. It has swallowed language up in itself (along with everything else it encounters). In fact, the vast majority of language learning and processing operates below the threshold of consciousness and not in the domain of deliberate thought. So language is truly not banished from the unconscious.

Symbols can’t be the

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus8 min readSociety
How Inequality Imperils Cooperation: A game theorist breaks down the effects of inequality.
Last year news came that Indian billionaire Gautam Adani was set to exploit Australian coal reserves. The deal, The New York Times reported, was the result of a successful campaign by the Adani Group, a vast conglomerate with diverse interests, to ca
Nautilus4 min readScience
The 5 Most Popular Nautilus Feature Articles in 2019: Readers’ favorite articles explore tree smarts and the end of the gene as we know it.
What Impossible Meant to Feynman When you are a young physics professor at Caltech, giving a lecture about a new type of matter you have discovered, and your idol, Richard Feynman, sitting in the front row, belts out, after your talk, “Impossible!” y
Nautilus10 min read
The Joy of Cosmic Mediocrity: It’s lonely to be an exceptional planet.
One of the greatest debates in the long history of astronomy has been that of exceptionalism versus mediocrity—and one of the great satisfactions of modern times has been watching the arguments for mediocrity emerge triumphant. Far more than just a h