The strange dreams of Cormac McCarthy

Jon Day, writing in the Financial Times this month, says of Cormac McCarthy’s new work:

Such relentless behaviourism is more than a stylistic choice. Like Hemingway and Beckett before him, McCarthy is more interested in narrating outer than inner life because he thinks that the interiors of characters — like those of other people — are essentially unknowable, or, at least, unknowable through words. In “The Kekulé Problem”, a 2017 essay on the origins of language published by the Santa Fe institute, where McCarthy is a trustee, he described the unconscious as essentially mute, which is why it seeks to communicate in symbols and dreams.
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Jon Day

Naturally, I was led to follow up on The Kekulé Problem.

Below, extracts from McCarthy’s paper on the unconscious:

“Why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us?”

“But the actual process of thinking – in any discipline – is largely an unconscious affair. Language can be used to sum up some point at which one has arrived – a sort of milepost – so as to gain a fresh starting point.”

“The truth is that there is a process here to which we have no access. It is a mystery opaque to total blackness.”

“But what is missing here is the central idea of language – that one thing can be another thing.”

“…language had acted very much like a parasitic invasion…”

“How the unconscious goes about its work is not so much poorly understood as not understood at all.”

“Of the known characteristics of the unconscious its persistence is among the most notable.”

“Those disturbing dreams which wake us from sleep are purely graphic No one speaks. [ ] The unconscious intends that they be difficult to unravel because it wants us to think about them.”


McCarthy’s paper is recommended reading. His concepts chime with those put forward by French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan from the 1930s until his death in 1981. In particular, that the signifier represents the subject for another signifier, and his work around metaphor and metonomy. The persistent, parasitic characteristic of language is interrogated throughout Lacan’s seminars, and it was Freud before him who audaciously announced the following in his turn-of-the-century publication of 1900, The Interpretation of Dreams:

the most complicated achievements of thought are possible without the assistance of consciousness
Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

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