New McCarthy Piece in Nautilus Magazine

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  • 28 Nov 2017 at 5:16 pm #9891

    Rick Wallach

    Michael Segal, editor of Nautilus magazine, was kind enough to email me a few moments ago to let me know there’s going to be another article by Cormac McCarthy in this coming Thursday’s issue. It is a response to comments he has read or received about his earlier article in Nautilus, “The Kekule Problem,” back in March of this expiring year.

    Ah, a gift to look forward to which won’t require braving the Black Interregnum army of local housewives at the department stores with their Massala chariot hubcap elbow guards and Rosa Klebb dagger Guccis. Let us give thanks.

    29 Nov 2017 at 8:22 pm #9893


    Interesting and maybe a bit surprising. Looking forward to reading the article.

    30 Nov 2017 at 6:31 am #9894


    Here is the McCarthy article in Nautilus (scroll down and there it is):

    30 Nov 2017 at 10:03 am #9896


    My previous post got zapped when I tried to edit! But here it is (plus edits):

    Thanks, Glass. That link is optimized for a smartphone/tablet? Anyway, here’s an alternate link:

    It’s rather rambling, and I have just read its entirety once, and fast. This and his original Kekule article are mainly valuable (my opinion only!) for informing us what preoccupies his mind, what he believes and how he argues out these beliefs, and what his linguistic expressions (words, syntax, writing style, etc.) might reveal about his use of language in his fictional writings. I’m less interested in his philosophical ponderings.

    Initial reading, one paragraph for some reason pops out at me, and it seems out of place with its preceding and following paragraphs:
    I would have thought that everyone knows why we have diverse languages. It’s why we cant read Old English. It’s why Finns and Hungarians cant converse.
    I read the Kekule article some time ago, and it’s possible I forgot, but I don’t remember any discussions of etymology. Sentence #1 is a conjecture stated as fact perhaps with a confrontational tone and I’m not sure what his point is but maybe he is responding to a critic? Sentences #2 & #3 are somehow consequences? Also, sentence #3 jumps out of nowhere in this discussion, and what does he mean by this? That Finns and Hungarians are poor conversationalists, or that they couldn’t communicate with language? No. I think what he means is that, despite the fact that Hungary and Finland are in Europe surrounded by countries whose languages are related as part of the Indo-European language group, Hungarian and Finnish are not Indo-European languages. They are both Uralic languages, and in the 19th & 20th C. some linguists (and maybe even today by some linguists, in one form or another) believed that they might even be part of the greater language group of Ural-Altaic and might also include Turkic. That could imply that Hungarian is linguistically closer to Japanese than to German, spoken in neighboring Austria.

    This paragraph is in an odd placement, and would be a better fit several paragraphs down when McCarthy brings up Sergei Starostin, who among other things was an expert in Altaic languages. I did not know of McCarthy’s friendship with Starostin at SFI (and now we know in some detail!), but for years I have used Starostin’s “Tower of Babel” website as a reference for things McCarthyian and not: I’m not a linguist and I’m not up to date with the latest on the Altaic Uralic theory controversy, but according to Wikipedia (that totally reliable source, of course!):
    …Sergei Starostin characterized the Ural–Altaic hypothesis as “an idea now completely discarded”. In Starostin’s sketch of a “Borean” super-phylum, he puts Uralic and Altaic as daughters of an ancestral language of c. 9,000 years ago…
    So what does that mean? Starostin discarded that particular theory that ties Uralic and Altaic, then proposed another theory that ties Uralic and Altaic?

    Anyway, I’m straying away from topic. The only thing I’d add is that when I came across “parcheesi and marmalade”, my mind was giving editing advice to McCarthy: replace it with “Catbarf and Coca-Cola”.

    30 Nov 2017 at 4:47 pm #9897


    Super interesting stuff, Ken. The Hungarian/Finn bit also jumped out at me. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the article so any explanations or insights are certainly appreciated.

    01 Dec 2017 at 5:45 am #9898

    Richard L.

    Before you step into the public ring, you prepare yourself to hear some boos along with the cheers. You also know that there are professionals out there just waiting to take a swing at you. And the audience is not limited to professionals. This ring is also a circus ring, and you best be prepared to duck all the clowns throwing pies.

    Such a pie was the suggestion that McCarthy ought to take some basic courses in linguistics. I guess he felt compelled to clarify his stance and to point out how long he has studied and with whom. But until he gets an academic degree, his credentials will always be subject to such dismissive pie-in-the-face cat-calls.

    Language was certainly a human invention. But the capacity for language is something we evolved and we don’t yet know how. Scientists have identified a gene that is essential for language (though the entire language/narrative concepts are too complicated to depend on one gene). While this essential language gene is missing from the other apes, it does appear in Neanderthal DNA, which suggests that they had the capacity for language, whether they had it or not.

    The studies with two-year-olds show that it functions like an algorithm, that when the vocabulary reaches a certain tipping point, syntax develops naturally but will not develop if that essential language gene is impaired.

    Anyway, the article and its addendum will be a source of McCarthy quotes in the years to come. I was looking for that quote I read by McCarthy on wolves and apes and how man was related to both. I was thinking I read it in BOOKS ARE MADE OF BOOKS but I can’t find it now. It was something like this Farley Mowat quote:

    “All kinds of dumb grass-eating animals fight to the death. Wolves never do. The reports on chimpanzees and gorillas are just now coming in. Organized raids and battles, murder, cannibalism. We come by it honestly. . .I think human society made a genuine effort to model itself on wolf society and it failed.”

    The McCarthy quote I’m thinking of, perhaps from WHALES AND MEN, says as much, that we couldn’t just eat plants like the other apes, but were like the wolves, hunted in packs and shared food, but as Mowat says,

    …the third thing we needed we could never learn and that was to stop killing each other.”

    Amen, brother.

    • This reply was modified 2 months, 2 weeks ago by  Richard L..
    01 Dec 2017 at 1:51 pm #9900

    The original article as well as the follow up are extremely informative. One thing that bothers me are some of the original comments on the Nautilus site that he wasn’t qualified to write about this subject.

    I’ve always felt that McCarthy’s lifelong journey has been about the pursuit of knowledge. We know he has claimed from a very young age to have almost every hobby. The depth and breadth of his work further illustrates his deep level of intellectual curiosity. It’s a shame that he actually had to defend his qualifications. This is a man who actively sought to avoid working a traditional job ostensibly in order to pursue his intellectual interests. We know of his book collecting. We know anecdotes of such things as reading Wittgenstein in the heat of a non air-conditioned house or becoming proficient in Spanish in order to write the Border Trilogy. He even “set himself up” at SFI to be around smart people who are leaders in their discipline. All the evidence points to someone who seeks out the truth and pours his heart into writing something that is truthful. Finally given the resources of the SFI and the company he keeps, there’s no reason to believe these essays are amateurish or in some way unqualified.

    Some interesting observations (for me at least) :

    1. “My brother Dennis has brought me a fat stack of comments on “The Kekulé Problem” as published in Nautilus.” One question I’ve always wondered is if McCarthy uses the internet. I kind of had the impression that his brother printed them off from the website and brought them to him. I get that he still writes with a typewriter, but does he use Wikipedia?, make an airline or hotel reservation?, pay the electric bill? etc… I’m supposing his personal library is “his internet” when it comes to research but am curious.

    2. I love the idea that all languages are essentially the same and maybe even derive from the same proto-language. This kind of makes sense, as I’m unaware of any human language that could not be translated into another human language. Sure – there were always misunderstandings but for the most part communication could take place. I also agree with him that language is a human thing. Interesting that he seems to be writing that we don’t see evidence of language in other species but we do see repeated evidence for the basic components of an eye. Definitely makes me ponder what is special about language.

    3. McCarthy writes “The universe in its billions of years remains a creation of total silence and total blackness. The incendiary explosions of the novae can be no more than optical constructions and no matter what your view of the nature of reality they can have no existence in the absence of an eye or something very like it. And the likelihood of such an instrument coming into being anywhere other than in the natural history of the earth seems more than vanishingly slim.” This one kind of puzzles me – I take this to be that McCarthy doesn’t believe in life outside of Earth….but am not really sure.

    01 Dec 2017 at 3:51 pm #9904


    Good posts.

    The bit about the eye that Colorado quoted in his last graf above is the classic thought experiment “if a tree falls in a forest.” That caught my eye on my first read of the Nautilus article.

    01 Dec 2017 at 4:28 pm #9905

    Richard L.

    Re: “The universe in its billions of years remains a creation of total silence and total blackness. The incendiary explosions of the novae can be no more than optical constructions and no matter what your view of the nature of reality they can have no existence in the absence of an eye or something very like it. And the likelihood of such an instrument coming into being anywhere other than in the natural history of the earth seems more than vanishingly slim.”

    Yeah, I found his “eye” references interesting too. In BOOKS ARE MADE OUT OF BOOKS, Crews noted a quote in the margin of SUTTREE about the convergence of forms, and McCarthy references Eric B Ericson and Goesta Wollin, the authors of THE EVER-CHANGING SEA and THE DEEP AND THE PAST. McCarthy typed a quotation from them:

    “The extraordinary similarity between the human eye and the squid’s eye is a brilliant example of evolutionary convergence; they are alike in almost every detail. Both have a transparent cornea, an iris diaphragm, a clear lens, a chamber filled with liquid, and muscles to control the focus of the lens and movement of the eyeball.”

    Crews rightly connects this to the SUTTREE passage when the idiot “looks out upon the alley with eyes that fed the most rudimentary brain and yet seemed possessed of news in the universe denied right forms, like perhaps the eyes of squid whose simian depths seem to harbor some horrible intelligence.”

    Crews also connects the passage to Michel Foucault’s MADNESS AND CIVILIZATION, but my point is that “the convergence of forms” would appeal to the Plato in McCarthy–then, but maybe not so much now. I don’t know if McCarthy has followed the recent discoveries that scientists have made regarding the consciousness of the squid, the octopus. the cuttlefish, and the other cephalopods but it is fascinating stuff.

    See, for instance, OTHER MINDS: THE OCTOPUS, THE SEA, AND THE DEEP ORIGINS OF CONSCIOUSNESS by Peter Godfrey-Smith. I’d send it to him if I thought he’d read it.

    I was not one of the posters at NAUTILUS, by the way, and I have never attempted to reach Cormac McCarthy by mail. So unless Dennis McCarthy also printed out the thread here, McCarthy read none of the arguments from us.

    01 Dec 2017 at 5:43 pm #9906


    It’s been a while, but at one point, in some discussion here, I argued that McCarthy’s worldview (if you could call it that) boils down to “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, then there’s *no tree*.” That all identity, all ontological/existential categories, is/are in the eye of the beholder. Of the witness. That the entire world is a construction/projection of your mind, and so when you die, “when you cease to exist, this world that you have created will also cease to exist.” And all that entails (though “entails” is certainly the wrong word). Nietzsche is excellent on this: On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense. Wittgenstein is also excellent, though very difficult and easy to misinterpret. Even better imo is a bunch of mystical stuff. I like Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy for a nice condensed version.

    I will say a) McCarthy’s books have convinced me beyond argument that this is indeed the case (insofar as it is even meaningful to talk about “the case”). And in so doing, reading McCarthy violently ripped me out of a strict logical positivist worldview and is the single most important formative experience of my life that I am conscious of, despite how ridiculous that may sound to some. And b) I’m more than a bit concerned that the clearest exponents of this point of view in his corpus are the “bad guys”. Not sure what to make of it. Perhaps I’m totally wrong.

    Anyway, reading this article, it’s hard for me to not read that “no matter what your view of the nature of reality they can have no existence in the absence of an eye or something very like it” line as a validation of what I’ve taken from his books. Similarly with “the reality of the world becomes incorporated into our being” and “human inventions are magical in that they give life to what heretofore had no existence.”

    I also wonder what he thinks of the movie Arrival, if he’s seen it.

    • This reply was modified 2 months, 2 weeks ago by  efscerbo.
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