Nautilus

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

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