The Kekulé Problem: What Lies Hidden in Cormac McCarthy's Dreams

We are caught in the appreciations of things by endowing them with names, but the nature of the world is nonverbal, has nothing to do with words at all. We cannot apprehend the true nature of reality beyond the veil of the nominal.
—A reflection on Jung from Cormac McCarthy’s personal papers

Gnostic workmen who would have down this shabby shapeshow that masks the higher world of form.

Despite handwringing about the “secularization” of American culture, the greatest living American fiction writers, Don DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy, are not only Catholic, but achieve their artistic authority through deep engagement with Christian themes. Cormac McCarthy’s entire corpus of work can be read as a fevered dream of Christian symbology. Novels such as Suttree, Blood Meridian, and those comprising The Border Trilogy, though motley in tone and style, offer the reader violent confrontations with nihilism, grace, Gnosticism, and redemption. It is a subject too rich to address in a single essay. We might, however, focus on a single aspect of McCarthy’s work and how it relates to Christian concepts of personhood: the dream.

McCarthy has always been interested in non-linear or non-rational forms of knowledge. An illustration from Suttree, the culminating work of McCarthy’s “Tennessee Period” and arguably his greatest novel (very much arguably), in which the titular character goes on a drug-fueled vision quest is helpful:

Suttree heard laughter and the sounds of carnival. He saw with a madman’s clarity the perishability of his flesh. Illbedowered harlots were calling from small porches in the night, in their gaudy rags like dolls panoplied out of a dirty dream. And long the little ways in the rain and lighting came a troupe of squalid merrymakers bearing a caged wyvern on shoulderpoles and other alchemical games, chimeras and cacodemons skewered up on boarspears and a pharmacopoeia of hellish condiments adorning a trestle and toted by trolls with an eldern gnome for guidon . . . A mesosaur followed above on a string like a fourlegged garfish heliumfilled.

The novel is full of such vinous raucousness, a heady combination of Allen Ginsberg, Herman Melville, and Peter Brueghel. Thanks in large part to the pioneering scholarship of Michael Lynn Crews, who scoured McCarthy’s collection of notes and personal papers housed at Texas State University, we can also confidently add Michel Foucault to McCarthy’s list of influences. As Crews writes in his book Books are Made out of Books: A Guide to Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Influences:

Foucault suggests that human beings can access a certain kind of knowledge in such visions, a knowledge silenced by the modern world’s institution of rational techniques of control over mental illness. Like Foucault, McCarthy explores the possibility that extreme states of consciousness are not to be despised, however stark the risks they pose, but rather should be seen as instructive.

Alongside the haunting rag and bone verbiage of McCarthy’s novels runs the strange counter-current of a distrust of language itself. In McCarthy’s idiosyncratic theology, the necessity of human language is evidence of our fallen nature. When taken as anything more than a heuristic tool, language cuts one off from “the true nature of reality,” as McCarthy puts it in his personal papers, merely gesturing towards an ultimately ineffable unity while behaving as if it were the unified truth itself, concretized. Or as the character Peter puts it in McCarthy’s screenplay Whales and Men puts it, “I began to see all symbolic enterprise as alienation. Every monument a false idol. Language had conditioned us to substitute our own creations for those of the world. To replace the genuine with the ersatz. The living with the dead.”

Leaving aside for the time being the unavoidable theological issues raised by McCarthy’s linguae negans theologia, we can at least settle on the fact McCarthy believes in an ultimate truth so rich that it can not be approached merely by rationality alone, or at least that rationality cannot act as a stand in for such a truth. There is an element of High Modernism to this literary approach. In the words of tragically under-remembered Modernist T.E. Hulme: nothing suggests itself. Our strategies for approaching anything resembling a unified and ultimate truth, so suggests McCarthy, must necessarily be oblique and piecemeal: dreams, drugs, sex, heightened states, etc. Of all these strategies, the most important to understanding McCarthy’s work (second only to violence) are dreams.

Dreams play a major role in McCarthy’s most popular novel, The Road. Some variation of the word occurs well over twenty times in the novel, where dreams provide a technicolor but mostly occluded counterweight to the bleak post-Apocalyptic world of waking life. The two protagonists, father and son, discuss their dreams and are in large part moved and motivated by them. Sometimes the meaning of the dreams are clear. Sometimes, as when the father dreams about a harmless snake that “came out of the trees to stand behind him,” “like a child yet not a child”, the meaning is more opaque. But it was around the writing and publication of The Road that McCarthy first begins to publicly mention what he came to call “The Kekulé Problem.”

Although McCarthy mentioned Kekulé during his appearance on Oprah (The Road was an Oprah Book Club selection), which is likely where most people first heard mention of it, he also published an essay on the topic in the magazine Nautilus in 2017. Basically, the problem refers to the German chemist August Kekulé, after numerous frustrations, finally solving the problem of how the Benzine molecule is shaped by dreaming of a serpent devouring itself—the classical Ouroboros myth—and realizing that the molecule is in the shape of a ring. As McCarthy writes in the essay, “The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why does it not simply answer Kekulé’s question with [language]? Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter?”

Understanding McCarthy’s complex relationship with language itself, it is understandable that this would be the question that he would highlight. Other questions arise as well. For instance, is it the dreamer unconsciously knowing the answer, or is the dreamer being given the answer? If the latter is the case, where is this information coming from? A collective repository? Platonic memory? God?

McCarthy gestures towards some of these ancillary (to him, at least) questions by writing that a good place to begin wondering about language is to wonder about the nature of the subconscious. McCarthy writes that the unconscious is “a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possible—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.” But something disappoints about this definition. It does not strike to the sinews of the mystery. It’s a bit like saying that a car goes where it goes because of power steering and a GPS system. The mystery—subconscious access to hidden knowledge—also seems to be taken by a matter of course by McCarthy’s colleagues at the Santa Fe Institute, an nonprofit theoretical research group where McCarthy acts as trustee. As McCarthy writes,

I’ve pointed out to some of my mathematical friends that the unconscious appears to be better at math than they are. My friend George Zweig calls this the Night Shift. Bear in mind that the unconscious has no pencil or notepad and certainly no eraser. That it does solve problems in mathematics is indisputable. How does it go about it?

McCarthy then goes on to answer his question by attacking the “naturalness” of language in such a way that, at this point, should not come as a shock to the reader. He basically says that language is new and cultural, while the unconscious is ancient, distrustful of both language and the capacity of humans to understand anything at all. But I have my own questions about the Kekulé Problem. If indeed information is accessed and problems are solved through the dreaming mind, what role does The Night Shift play in traditional notions of Christian personhood?

The notion of the unconscious does not begin with Freud. And it is not modern. Nancy Missler writes that, since the 1600s, the Western world has been in the process of rediscovering the idea of the unconscious, something long “taken for granted in Greek and Christian writings.” Augustine believed that memory itself acts as an irrational apprehension of the truth, working beyond the purviews of the conscious mind. And the ancients, Missler tells us, “speak of the memory as a storehouse of images” through which things even beyond conscious impression can be collected.

Why images though? Perhaps the answer is that images and language are not nearly as different as McCarthy pretends. Both are analogical manifestations. Both are oblique ways by which we might approach, or begin thinking about, things of which we have no direct experience. Dorothy Sayers writes in her classic The Mind of the Maker that “To forbid the making of pictures about God would be to forbid thinking about God at all, for man is so made that he has no way to think except in pictures.” We might see the connection between word and image more clearly in a language such as Chinese, which has a pictographic history easily traceable back to concrete image-making. The Phoenician alphabet from which Western alphabets are derived stands at a further remove from the image, but the analogical dynamic remains. “The fact is,” writes Sayers, “that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.”

This might be all well and good, but we quickly run into some obvious moral issues when we accept that a large part of our thinking and our experiences of the world are both outside of rational control and stand at a remove from an unapproachable central “reality.c1cq” Are we responsible for our moral choices if so much of our thought and expression evade rationality? Or as Klaus Baumann writes in “Freedom and the Unconscious in Thomas Aquinas,” “How could philosophical and theological ethics integrate the basic insight from depth-psychology [S.B. – the unconscious] with their action theory without denying the freedom and the responsibility of the human person, that is, without taking these unconscious dynamics as psychopathological.”

We understand from Catechism that: “Freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility. By free will, one shapes one’s own life.” As Baumann helpfully explains in his interpretation of Aquinas, in trying to understand the description of the human act in Summa Theologiae (I-11, 6-17):

Authors have usually focused on the interplay of reason and will in bringing forth a human act, that is, a voluntary act, be this an inner act of the will or an act commanded by the will . . . They call this interplay of reason and will the “structure” or even the “psychology of the human act”. They do not pay sufficient attention to the role of the emotions or of sensitive appetite in the process of human acting, even though this is repeatedly mentioned and discussed by Aquinas himself.

Baumann argues that in Thomistic psychology, the vis cogitative by which the will and reason are “presented” or act upon an object of desire contains the coloration of the human person by appetitive desires and emotions prior to the act of will. Baumann explains that this process of coloration “presents to the will and reason an apprehended object which beforehand has already been cognitively organized and emotionally charged by the sensitive parts of the soul.” In other words, the irrational does not preclude rationality or choice, it just creates the “vibe,” to use Zoomer slang, in which freewill operates.

This dynamic is obvious when we look back at the Kekulé Problem. The irrational part was the seemingly random image of a snake devouring itself. The emotional coloration was the obsessive desire the scientist had for solving a specific problem of molecular structure. And his rational mind interpreted the symbol “correctly.” The rational analysis of the symbol would not be possible without the symbol and the emotional heft of the dreamer. Likewise, the irrational symbol would not even be worth discussing if it did not in some way translate to a rational and communicable truth, reaching some escape velocity from the fevered mind of the dreamer.

McCarthy’s nascent Gnosticism forever tips the scale in favor of the irrational. He wonders at it, breathes life into it, and rubs it raw like a worrystone. But is rationality itself not just as much a mystery as the existence of the irrational mind? Is it not even more so? The images which God gives us in our dreams are a corrupt currency without an equally divinely-sourced rationality to give them value. McCarthy’s novels are powerful not because they barrage us with a senseless stream of inchoate images, but because those images often create the illusion of the irrational while leaving our conscious minds to do the work of recognize the meaning of the words. The irrational and rational only exist together as a packaged deal.

Imagine for a moment the dream without the rational mind. An impossible thought experiment perhaps, but one worth attempting. A snake eats its own tail. The words themselves describing the image deteriorate into ambiguous emotion. Fear. Disgust. Perhaps curiosity. And that’s it. There is nothing else. Or consider Genesis 41. The banks of the Nile. Seven fat cows. Seven sleek cows. Seven healthy heads of grain. Seven desiccated heads. And all the Pharaoh is able to drag back into waking life is a troubled mind. Vague feelings of anxiety. The will of God manifests through Joseph’s analysis, as it perhaps manifested in the act of Kekulé’s interpretation as well.

Featured Image: Ouroboros on a cemetery door, taken by Swiertz; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.


Scott Beauchamp

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, American Affairs, and Bookforum, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.

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