Why the Snake?
April 20, 2017 1:41 PM   Subscribe

The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species was no protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they werent there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. ... What we do know—pretty much without question—is that once you have language everything else follows pretty quickly. The simple understanding that one thing can be another thing is at the root of all things of our doing. --Cormac McCarthy, "The Kekulé Problem"
posted by chavenet (21 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, you’ve got me at Cormac McCarthy.
posted by Going To Maine at 1:54 PM on April 20 [2 favorites]


Breathing, for instance, is not controlled by the unconscious but by the pons and the medulla oblongata, two systems located in the brainstem.

What distinction is he making between "the unconscious" and this particular mechanism - which is surely an unconscious function of the brain, part of "a machine for operating an animal?"
posted by atoxyl at 2:29 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]


It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us.

I love this bit in the essay. I wonder what he'd say if I could request further elaboration.
posted by Strange_Robinson at 2:34 PM on April 20


I have nothing particularly intelligent to say on the main topic, but I want to know whether the fact that all contractions in this article ending in "n't" are written without the apostrophe.

Is it a Cormac McCarthy thing? Or is it just a hiccup in the page's HTML? Or does it mean something?

So that's what my unconscious will be munching on for the next little while.
posted by tivalasvegas at 2:36 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]


The unconscious, here, is the source of ideas and dreams. He's trying to point out one as determined, and the other as a black box of which we know so little.
posted by Strange_Robinson at 2:38 PM on April 20


It's kind of a Schopenhauer-y way of looking at things
posted by thelonius at 2:46 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]


tivalasvegas: McCarthy is a notorious punctuation, umm, unenthusiast.
posted by Chitownfats at 3:02 PM on April 20 [5 favorites]


Is it a Cormac McCarthy thing?

Yes, it's a Cormac McCarthy thing. My theory is that he was bitten by a semicolon as a small child.
posted by zamboni at 3:06 PM on April 20 [18 favorites]


But he leaves the apostrophe in other contractions (I've, he's). It's inconsistent.

Sigh.
posted by tivalasvegas at 3:12 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]


I don't know why this piece was delivered with a scientific veneer. This piece strikes me as overwhelmingly unscientific, maybe the opposite of scientific.

I mean that a scientist would be doing her damnedest to state ideas clearly, in terms and concepts that would mean roughly the same thing to everyone who read them. McCarthy seems to be hinting at Deep Thoughts whose meaning may not be entirely clear even to him, but which will evoke Deep Thoughts in the reader that may have nothing to do with McCarthy's thoughts. The reader gets to feel like they "get" the piece without necessarily learning anything.

As a piece to inspire Deep Thoughts, this was fun, and so it had value for me. I don't think I learned much about what anyone thinks about language, though, including McCarthy.
posted by gurple at 3:33 PM on April 20 [8 favorites]


I suspect that the relationship between the conscious/verbal part of the mind and the rest of it is one of those things where you bump up against hard limits of what humans can conceptually grasp pretty quickly. Or maybe one or more of the subconscious sections/processes knows perfectly well what it's trying to accomplish but can't or doesn't communicate that to the verbal part in any way that we can easily understand.
posted by bracems at 4:57 PM on April 20


I think the first word is quiet, second word is hide.

I have heard raccoons carry on long conversation with much variation, inflection, seeming agreement, and quiet enthusiasm. This over a discreet pile of catfood left outside my camper. The "conversation" was over a period of five minutes with few repeating phrases.

I would rather Ernest Hemingway had written the article. But, he wouldn't have.
posted by Oyéah at 6:45 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]


The first dolphin anesthetized on an operating table simply died

Jesus Christ, McCarthy, can you write anything that doesn't at some point make me cry?
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 7:15 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]


Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.

As people above have pointed out, a wide variety of animals, from raccoons to dolphins to meerkats to parrots, have language. We know some animals name their children. We know some animals can describe threats in detail, and we know multiple animals have lots of different words for humans. Language is useful. It's not just a human thing.

Parrots aren't a mammal, admittedly, but if Cormac McCarthy isn't going to let the facts get in the way of his stupid-ass point then I don't see why I have to.
posted by Merus at 8:18 PM on April 20 [4 favorites]


Deep Thoughts indeed, but without references to quantum mechanics it doesn't quite make it to Deepak Chopra depth.
posted by fredludd at 8:32 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]


I have heard raccoons carry on long conversation with much variation, inflection, seeming agreement, and quiet enthusiasm. This over a discreet pile of catfood left outside my camper. The "conversation" was over a period of five minutes with few repeating phrases.

I have two huskies that haven't shut up in years. I know what they are saying most of the time now and they, adorably, talk very slowly and loudly when trying to communicate with me instead of each other.

Don't listen worth a shit though.
posted by fshgrl at 9:11 PM on April 20 [3 favorites]


Animals certainly have forms of vocal communication. Whether the difference between that and human language is one of degree or one of kind - or whether we'd even know - is an old, old debate.
posted by atoxyl at 11:00 PM on April 20 [1 favorite]


@gurple: "Thoughts whose meaning may not be entirely clear even to him, but which will evoke Deep Thoughts in the reader that may have nothing to do with McCarthy's thoughts."

Could you provide a specific example?
posted by xtian at 3:02 AM on April 21


Very synchronicitous(?) seeing this come out the same day as Wait But Why's explainer/Elon Musk telepathy company announcement.
posted by designbot at 6:24 AM on April 21


Humans anthropomorphize everything so 'language' is whatever we say it is. Same with intelligence. Perhaps animals did speak at one time and found it useless. Their chirps, moans and growls are mostly directed at those hairless walkers that feed them. Humoring us so to say..

I did love this article though...
posted by judson at 7:07 AM on April 21


Could you provide a specific example [of McCarthy being vague]?

Heh, I guess my comment was awfully meta, wasn't it? Some examples:

When I’ve suggested to my friends that it may well do it without using numbers, most of them thought—after a while—that this was a possibility. --what does it mean to use numbers, or to not?

Nor can some part of my mind be assembling these sentences and then saying them to me so that I can repeat them. --why not, and why does this invoke an endless regress?

The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. --he's dismissing entire fields, here. Why?

But all indications are that language has appeared only once and in one species only. Among whom it then spread with considerable speed. --this is where a scientist would cite a bunch of sources, so we know exactly what he has in mind. And what is "considerable speed"? Compared to what?

The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. --what does this mean, and what is it based on?

There are influential persons among us—of whom a bit more a bit later—who claim to believe that language is a totally evolutionary process. --and frankly all the "influential persons" stuff. Are we supposed to know exactly who he's talking about and, therefore, what specifically he's refuting so knowingly? I certainly don't. I have guesses, but, well... that's what you get when you say something vague. Guesses.

I could go on, and I have other beefs with the article, but I think that gives you an idea of what I meant by McCarthy being unscientifically vague.
posted by gurple at 8:42 AM on April 21


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