This past week, the novelist Cormac McCarthy published the first nonfiction piece of his career, a three-thousand-word essay titled "The Kekulé Problem," in the popular science magazine Nautilus. It is studded with suggestive details about the anatomy of the human larynx, what happens to dolphins under anesthesia, and the origins of the click sounds in Khoisan languages, all marshalled to illuminate aspects of a profound pair of questions: Why did human language originate, and how is it related to the unconscious mind?
In February of 1880, the whaling ship Hope sailed north from Peterhead, Scotland, and headed for the Arctic. Her crew included a highly regarded captain, an illiterate but gifted first mate, and the usual roster of harpooners, sailors, and able-bodied seamen--but not the intended ship's surgeon. That gentleman having been unexpectedly called away on family matters, a last-minute substitute was found, in the form of a middling third-year medical student making his maiden voyage: a young man by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle.
When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. "The townspeople didn't like her, so they strung her up," Atwood said recently. "But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn't die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive." Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary. The maiden name of Atwood's grandmother was Webster, and the family tree can be traced back to John Webster, the fifth governor of Connecticut. "On Monday, my grandmother would say Mary was her ancestor, and on Wednesday she would say she wasn't," Atwood said.
When you move to another country as an adult, the language flows around you like a river. Perhaps a child can immediately abandon himself to the current, but most older people will begin by picking out the words and phrases that seem to matter most, which is what I did after my family moved to Cairo, in October of 2011. It was the first fall after the Arab Spring; Hosni Mubarak, the former President, had been forced to resign the previous February. Every weekday, my wife, Leslie, and I met with a tutor for two hours at a language school called Kalimat, where we studied Egyptian Arabic. At the end of each session, we made a vocabulary list. In early December, following the first round of the nation's parliamentary elections, which had been dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, my language notebook read:
Thirty-five years ago, while Martin Amis was writing "Money," one of the novels that defined the nineteen-eighties, he admitted to a distracting dalliance with another contemporary icon. "I have spent weeks in a PacMan-fed stupor, unwilling and unable to think about anything else," he wrote in "Invasion of the Space Invaders," his "addict's guide" to the nascent arcade. Amis was not alone in his obsession. The Japanese-made game, in which players guide an auto-munching yellow head through a Daedalian maze, consuming a trail of pellets while fleeing four candy-tone ghosts, earned more than a billion dollars in quarters in its first year, surpassing the highest-grossing "Star Wars" film at the time. Pac-Man towered, Amis wrote, over "a vast garbage dump of rocky romances and wrecked careers." He claimed to know a young actress with a case of Pac-Man hand so severe that her index finger resembled a piece of liver.
On a velvety March evening in Mandeville Canyon, high above the rest of Los Angeles, Norman Lear's living room was jammed with powerful people eager to learn the secrets of longevity. When the symposium's first speaker asked how many people there wanted to live to two hundred, if they could remain healthy, almost every hand went up. Understandably, then, the Moroccan phyllo chicken puffs weren't going fast. The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality, the scientists were keeping slim because they'd read--and in some cases done--the research on caloric restriction, and the Hollywood stars were keeping slim because of course.
What constitutes horror is simply a matter of directorial choice. If the director of a televised football game had cameras and mikes on the field and pushed them up close to injured athletes, an ordinary sporting event would be transformed into a horror film. Surgery is heroic, but the Surgery Channel would be, for many people, unbearable.
Five actors gathered in a room on Lafayette Street, in downtown Manhattan, to start rehearsing a new work for the Public Theatre, "Joan of Arc: Into the Fire." Written by David Byrne, formerly of the Talking Heads, the show recast the enduring, improbable story of Joan--a teen-age girl in medieval France who experienced divine visions, led an army to defeat an occupying power, and was burned at the stake for heresy--as a rock musical that spoke to the current political moment. It was early January, and, that morning, U.S. intelligence officials had arrived at Trump Tower to brief the President-elect, Donald Trump, on the findings of an investigation into the recent election, in which they had concluded that President Vladimir Putin, of Russia, had acted to insure the defeat of Hillary Clinton. Inauguration Day was looming, and the rehearsal room had a troubled mood that reflected more than the ordinary anxieties of creating a show.
Of all the prejudices of pundits, presentism is the strongest. It is the assumption that what is happening now is going to keep on happening, without anything happening to stop it. If the West has broken down the Berlin Wall and McDonald's opens in St. Petersburg, then history is over and Thomas Friedman is content. If, by a margin so small that in a voice vote you would have no idea who won, Brexit happens; or if, by a trick of an antique electoral system designed to give country people more power than city people, a Donald Trump is elected, then pluralist constitutional democracy is finished. The liberal millennium was upon us as the year 2000 dawned; fifteen years later, the autocratic apocalypse is at hand.