Nautilus

Cormac McCarthy Returns to the Kekulé Problem

Robert Musil, in his Man Without Qualities, wrote that a Soul is “That which crawls away and hides whenever someone mentions algebra.” According to his friend, Elias Canetti, Musil “felt at home and seemed natural among scientists,” as distinct from most “people against whom his only defense was silence.” These sentiments might be attached to Cormac McCarthy, hence the astonishment of many to his recent article in this magazine, “The Kekulé Problem,” where his scientific imagination set out for a wide-ranging constitutional in the territories of linguistic provenance before returning to the sanctuary of our mountain community.

The region Cormac sought to explore was the intersection of organic and cultural evolution as revealed by that remarkable human instrument—combinatorial grammar. It is the enigma of the material brain—in almost all particulars indistinguishable from those of our nearest primate cousins—acquiring through the unknown mechanics of culture an ability that enables the gifts of poetry, prose, mathematics, and material and temporal transcendence.

Readers wrote to Cormac with appreciation, suggestions, criticisms, prior claims, essays, unpublished and unpublishable monographs, and genuine interest in an author condensing into a scholarly mind from the mists of narrative invention.

Here is his reply. It is an honest work of discussion

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