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Cormac McCarthy Tries To Make Sense of the Unconscious Mind

He offers shafts of light that make the “hard problem of (un)consciousness” feel less forbidding

In a classic piece at Nautilus, novelist Cormac McCarthy (b. 1933) — author of, among other novels, All the Pretty Horses (1992) and The Road (2007) — muses on the origin and nature of the unconscious mind. As we might expect from a novelist, it’s not his grand theory that is of much use at all. His grand theory is that “the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal,” which makes no sense. He adds, “All animals have an unconscious. If they didnt they would be plants.”

How does he know that pond hydras, for example, have an “unconsciousness” but maple trees don’t? Well, he doesn’t.

And yet, he also offers shafts of light that make the “Hard Problem of (Un)consciousness” feel less forbidding. Here are a few:

On language:

There are a number of examples of signaling in the animal world that might be taken for a proto-language. Chipmunks—among other species—have one alarm-call for aerial predators and another for those on the ground. Hawks as distinct from foxes or cats. Very useful. But what is missing here is the central idea of language — that one thing can be another thing. It is the idea that Helen Keller suddenly understood at the well. That the sign for water was not simply what you did to get a glass of water. It was the glass of water. It was in fact the water in the glass. This in the play The Miracle Worker. Not a dry eye in the house.

Cormac McCarthy, “The Kekulé Problem: Where did language come from?” at Nautilus (April 17, 2017)

All very quickly. There are no languages whose form is in a state of development. And their forms are all basically the same.

Cormac McCarthy, “The Kekulé Problem: Where did language come from?” at Nautilus (April 17, 2017)

On the unconscious:

Apart from its great antiquity the picture-story mode of presentation favored by the unconscious has the appeal of its simple utility. A picture can be recalled in its entirety whereas an essay cannot. Unless one is an Asperger’s case. In which event memories, while correct, suffer from their own literalness. The log of knowledge or information contained in the brain of the average citizen is enormous. But the form in which it resides is largely unknown. You may have read a thousand books and be able to discuss any one of them without remembering a word of the text.

Cormac McCarthy, “The Kekulé Problem: Where did language come from?” at Nautilus (April 17, 2017)

The picture-story lends itself to parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause. The unconscious is concerned with rules but these rules will require your cooperation. The unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general but it doesnt care what toothpaste you use. And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad it doesnt include going over a cliff. We can see this in dreams. Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic. No one speaks. These are very old dreams and often troubling. Sometimes a friend can see their meaning where we cannot. The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them. To remember them. It doesnt say that you cant ask for help. Parables of course often want to resolve themselves into the pictorial. When you first heard of Plato’s cave you set about reconstructing it.

Cormac McCarthy, “The Kekulé Problem: Where did language come from?” at Nautilus (April 17, 2017)

You may also wish to read: Researchers: Comatose people can have “covert consciousness.” Claassen and Edlow found that the brain patterns of a woman who could not respond physically to commands showed that she recognized them.’ With other researchers, they want to identify and work with the 15–20% of comatose patients who can recover if identified and treated early enough.


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Cormac McCarthy Tries To Make Sense of the Unconscious Mind