Language Is a Parasite, and Other News


On the Shelf

Peter Lund, a Danish naturalist, copying rock paintings at Lagoa Santa, Brazil.


  • Every writer needs a hobby. When he isn’t writing bleak, bloody fiction or exploring the primal violence at the heart of the American experience, Cormac McCarthy likes to unwind with a little theoretical scientific research. Who doesn’t? His work at the Santa Fe Institute has led him to write a new treatise on the nature of the unconscious and the emergence of human language: “The sort of isolation that gave us tall and short and light and dark and other variations in our species was no protection against the advance of language. It crossed mountains and oceans as if they weren’t there. Did it meet some need? No. The other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it. But useful? Oh yes. We might further point out that when it arrived it had no place to go. The brain was not expecting it and had made no plans for its arrival. It simply invaded those areas of the brain that were the least dedicated. I suggested once in conversation at the Santa Fe Institute that language had acted very much like a parasitic invasion … The difference between the history of a virus and that of language is that the virus has arrived by way of Darwinian selection and language has not. The virus comes nicely machined. Offer it up. Turn it slightly. Push it in. Click. Nice fit.”
  • Now that O’Reilly’s out at Fox, perhaps he can really settle into his career as a thriller writer—fiction, with its unfettered escapism, could offer him just the outlet he needs, at a remove from the troubles of the real world. After all, his 1998 novel, Those Who Trespass, was invented from whole cloth—except, of course, for all those parts about sexual harassment and vindictive revenge. Actually, the novel is uncomfortably prescient, as Jia Tolentino writes: “The main character is a violently bitter journalist named Shannon Michaels, who, after being pushed out of two high-profile positions, takes revenge on four of his former colleagues by murdering them one by one … The second sentence of Those Who Trespass describes Ron Costello, a correspondent for Global News Network, on assignment in Martha’s Vineyard and struggling with a ‘basic human need, the need for some kind of physical release.’ Costello spots a pretty camerawoman at a party, happily notes that she’s had too much vodka, and approaches her with ‘intense sexual hunger … tonight he wanted this freelance GNN camerawoman named Suzanne. He wanted her in a big way.’ When Suzanne rejects Costello, he’s furious. (‘Goddamn bitch. She’ll be sorry,’ he thinks.) Then the vengeful Michaels kills Costello by shoving a silver spoon through the roof of his mouth and into his brain.”

  • Kriston Capps on the painter Barkley L. Hendricks, who died this week at seventy-two, leaving us with his forward-thinking vision of black lives: “Large in scale, his paintings combined the tonality of Rembrandt with the sensibility of Andy Warhol. His stylized portraits—realist African American figures set against abstract backgrounds—starred friends and neighbors from his life, posed for timelessness. His broader project was to document the black image as a phenomenon, as it manifested in fashion, billboards, magazines, and movies … He never painted black people in protest or in crisis. Ideas about black nationalisms surfaced in his work as they were reflected in the world of images. He borrowed endlessly from the commercialization of black culture—a Pop Art way of turning the white gaze back in on itself. The artists who have followed in his footsteps are sometimes described as ‘post-black.’ Hendricks may have beaten them to that.”