At the NYE party I attended this year, I found myself in a group discussion about Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian. At the New Year’s Day party I attended less than 24 hours later, Cormac McCarthy came up again, but this time in the context of listening to Werner Herzog read a passage out of All The Pretty Horses. Weirdly enough, this happened on an NPR Science Friday episode from 2011. The other guest on this episode was Lawrence Krauss, a famous American physicist and science popularizer.
There’s a moment near the end, after Herzog reads from McCarthy’s book, where discussion about the Higgs Boson comes up. This is 2011, so it’s a year or two just before the announcement of its discovery is made. What’s striking about the convo is that it wasn’t the physicist, Krauss, leading the discussion. It was McCarthy. And he spoke about it with an incredible confidence. There was no hint of him being nervous about talking about it in front of nor any tones of deference to the physicist present. And this was incredible to me.
Mr. McCARTHY: Well, what they’re looking for, principally, at the Large Hadron Collider, I think, is the Higgs boson. And if they don’t find that, there’s going to have to be a lot of revision done because that so-called Higgs mechanism is what’s responsible for supplying the masses to the particles in the standard model. And if they don’t find some way to get these masses into the particles, they’re going to have to do a lot of re-writing with physics for the last 40 years.
Prof. KRAUSS: Absolutely. And, unfortunately, you know, it’s sad for me because let’s say they don’t – we don’t find that Large Hadron Collider, that in some sense would be the most interesting finding…
Mr. McCARTHY: It would be interesting indeed.
That McCarthy should be so scientifically literate was quite amazing to me, primarily because he never writes about science in his stories. And you would never get the impression that he was so scientifically literate just from reading Blood Meridian, No Country For Old Men, or The Road (the three books of his that I’ve read).
Which got me to thinking…
The 20th Century was, without a doubt, the “American Century.” And at the heart of this American Century, it cannot be debated, was science: advancement (splitting of the atom), achievement (going to the moon), and popularization/democratization (inexpensive technology permeating American homes and culture).
Which leads to the title of this post: post-WWII, to be a “Great American Writer,” you must be literate in science, you must account for it and live it and rely on it. This doesn’t mean it has to appear in your writing, but you must be a believer in this one true American religion (the religion that provides everyone the luxury of believing in other, more “traditional” religions like Christianity, &c.).
DFW was definitely a believer, and it’s all over Infinite Jest. But another, less heralded but no less important, Great American Writer who was a true believer was Philip K. Dick. After listening to the NPR Science Friday episode, I started to think about PKD and how transcendent his writing has proven to be long after his death. He seems to be a 22nd Century American writer born in the 20th Century, and, even though his work has been turned into pop culture entertainment ever since the early 80s, it’s only now that we’re starting to realize how important he was/is in terms of wholly American ideas–ideas about technology, science, and what humanity is physically- and spiritually-capable of in the presence of transcendent technology and communication.
That’s the extent of my thinking on this right now.