On Kekulé’s Dream

Kekulé’s Ouroboros and the Birth of the Unconscious Mind.

During my stay in Ghent, Belgium, I occupied pleasant bachelor quarters in the main street. My study, however, was in a narrow alleyway and had during the daytime no light. For a chemist who spends the hours of daylight in the laboratory, this was no disadvantage. I was sitting there engaged in writing my textbook; but it wasn’t going very well; my mind was on other things. I turned my chair toward the fireplace and sank into a doze. Again the atoms were flitting before my eyes. Smaller groups now kept modestly in the background. My mind’s eye, sharpened by repeated visions of a similar sort, now distinguished larger structures of varying forms. Long rows frequently close together, all in movement, winding and turning like serpents. And see! What was that? One of the serpents seized its own tail and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. I came awake like a flash of lightning. This time also I spent the remainder of the night working out the consequences of the hypothesis. If we learn to dream, gentlemen, then we shall perhaps find truth — (F.A. Kekulé, Berichte der deutschen chemischen Gesellschaft).

This is the account that (many years after the fact and, according to some malicious interpreter, invented from scratch) the German chemist Kekulé gave of the curious circumstances thanks to which he discovered the benzene molecule. The snake devouring its tail that appeared to him during an afternoon nap was the ouroboros dear to the Egyptians, the Gnostics, and the Hermetic tradition. The unexpected irruption of an ancient symbol into the dreams of a nineteenth-century scientist allowed the understanding that the form of the benzene molecule, over which so many had pondered in vain, was circular (or, more precisely, hexagonal).

Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, german chemist, circa 1890
Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz, german chemist, circa 1890, source

Starting from this episode (but there are many others of a similar nature, from the three dreams of Descartes to the periodic table of Dmitri Mendeleev, just to give a couple of examples), in 2017 Cormac McCarthy writes his only non-fiction essay (1). Quoting his own words, the problem he proposes to address is the following:

Since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesn’t it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: ‘Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring’? To which our scientist might respond: ‘Okay. Got it. Thanks.’ Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loath to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter?.

The same question nagged away at many other inquisitive souls in the past.

German chemist Justus von Liebig’s simple (or simplistic?) answer was that while “countless germs of mental life fill the realm of space […] only in a few rare minds do they find soil for their development; in them the idea, of which no one knows whence it came, lives as an active process.” For Freud, dream activity was the stage on which our repressed desires return as actors of a play that, depending on the case, turns into a farce or tragedy. Adler saw dreams as a passageway to better explain our own true thoughts and actions. For Lacan, the unconscious, in its role as the puppeteer behind dreams, was not different from a linguistic structure.

Long before psychoanalysis, in ancient Greece as well as in the Renaissance, when the notion of the unconscious often merged with that of memory and magic, systems were created in which the mind functioned as a stockhouse of conscious and unconscious images (for a description of the extraordinary mnemonic systems elaborated by characters like Simonides and Giordano Bruno and what relationship they have with dreams, see essays like Frances A. Yates’ The Art Of Memory or, more recently, Sue Llewellyn’s Such stuff as dreams are made on?).

On these topics, Cormac McCarthy has long dwelled in his last years of life, mostly spent collaborating with various scientists (physicists, mathematicians, and linguists) who, like him, frequented the Santa Fe Institute.

For the author of The Road and Blood Meridian, first of all, it is imperative to define what the unconscious consists of: To do this, he writes, we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. 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.

The unconscious, therefore, is for McCarthy the apparatus that allows the survival of all animal organisms. It is neither related to nor functions like a language. It is instead infinitely old, millions of years older than language. Its functioning is obscure, even inaccessible to an external observer. Moreover: much of what we usually call thought does not pass through language but pre-exists verbality and transcends it. Language is nothing but the tool, often blunted, with which we translate into words what struggles to emerge from the “pool of we-know-not-what” that boils in some unreachable place in our brain.

And again: the anecdote of Kekulé seems to imply that the unconscious knows things of which the conscious mind is not aware and that the only means the unconscious has at its disposal to communicate its information to us is through the use of (sometimes arcane) images – just as the reproduction through drawing of the animals that surrounded them perhaps allowed primitive men to communicate with each other when a complete language did not yet exist.

engraved stones found at Blombos
Ochre Stone from Blombos Cave (Approximately 70,000 years old), source

The engraved stones found at Blombos and dating back more than 70,000 years ago would be proof that visual art was, as for McCarthy’s reconstruction, the first language used by man: “The pictorial arts preceded language in our evolutionary history. How do we know that? Here’s how we know that: The pictorial is a first order representation. A picture of a deer can be understood to be a deer without further explication. But the word deer represents another category. It is a second order representation. It cannot be understood on its own. The naming of things is a wholly artificial construct” (2).

But why, then, in the face and almost in opposition to the obscure biological power of the unconscious, does language arise – and why only in man?

McCarthy answers by insisting on the eminently non-biological nature of linguistic communication: at some point in prehistory, from “the ur-language of linguistic origin out of which all languages have evolved”, the word appeared, bringing with it profound physiological and behavioral changes, changes that other mammals did not need. For the inhabitants of the caves, language, while not as immediate a necessity as food and shelter, was extremely useful and its expansion, immediate and unstoppable, had similarities with the spread of a virus – a virus that the human brain was somehow predisposed to welcome (on this point McCarthy inadvertently takes up an intuition of William Burroughs – and Laurie Anderson too (3)).

It is known that many animals are capable of producing even complex warning and calling signals but only in man language developed its definitive aspect – which, according to McCarthy, consists in the simple but extraordinary characteristic “that one thing can be another thing”: thanks to language, the words that indicate the stone and the tree are the stone and the tree.

If today written and spoken language and verbality in general seem to have taken possession of the entirety of the conscious sphere, still the unconscious continues to work behind the scenes, through the images generated as soon as the conscious mind descends into sleep. Hence the dreams, including that of Kekulé, with their mysterious and elusive forms.

English journalist Sam Kriss, in an interesting reflection on the subject (4), suggests two further possibilities. The first is “the implication […] is that animals—who (mostly) do not speak, and who (possibly) lack the interface of consciousness—are in some sense always dreaming”. And the second, even more fascinating, is that “McCarthy suggests that the dream is not really for us at all. It’s the unconscious working by itself, and for its own ends. When we sleep, we get to directly experience the prelinguistic animal-mind churning away beneath the surface of ourselves — but here we are intruders. This might explain why we forget so many of our dreams so soon after waking up. To dream is to step on sacred ground, where we were never meant to walk”.

In this perspective, dreams are neither mere brain resets, as suggested by some neuroscientists, nor a mechanism to manage stress and danger. Instead, they come from far away in time – they are confused messages that, as we move away from our original animality, we increasingly fail to remember and grasp. With the addition of a final, extreme ironic touch, that did not escape McCarthy: “before language men did not know that other men dreamt”.

  1. https://nautil.us/the-kekul-problem-236574/ ↩︎
  2. https://nautil.us/cormac-mccarthy-returns-to-the-kekul-problem-236896/ ↩︎
  3. Laurie Anderson – Language Is A Virus (Home of the Brave 1985), Youtube ↩︎
  4. https://samkriss.substack.com/p/strange-news-from-another-star-no-d92 ↩︎

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