My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here we are again so soon: the end of the world with Cormac McCarthy. In this case, the end of Alicia Western’s world. A mathematical prodigy, a polymath diagnosed with autism and schizophrenia, a young woman beset by hallucinations and desperately in love with her brother Bobby, she was found dead by a hunter in the Wisconsin woods near the Stella Maris psychiatric facility on the first page of McCarthy’s previous novel from this year, The Passenger, a suicide on Christmas day 1972. That novel, more epic in length and lush in description, follows the further adventures of Bobby Western almost a decade later, as he becomes the prey of shadowy state forces. Stella Maris, by contrast, belongs in genre to the drama: a slim set of dialogues between Alicia and her psychiatrist, Dr. Cohen, on the eve of her self-slaughter, while Bobby, former physics student turned professional racecar driver, languishes in Europe in a coma after a crash.
The Passenger is good and strange, not markedly inferior to McCarthy’s peak performances, but Stella Maris is, by any standard we might apply, a failure. McCarthy has already written a play where one character tries to talk another out of suicide, The Sunset Limited (2006), but in that Dostoevskean scenario, the would-be suicide was a nihilistic white intellectual, his would-be savior an uneducated black Christian, so that we witness a contest of both metaphysical convictions and social experiences, given moreover with immense vernacular energy. In Stella Maris, confined to the conventions of psychotherapy, mocked though they are throughout the novel, McCarthy offers only a foredoomed nihilist bouncing intermittently witty monologues off the flat surface of the psychiatrist’s professional demeanor. No real drama here.
Alicia Western, whose life hasn’t been long enough to read all the books she cites no matter what kind of prodigy she’s supposed to be, doesn’t sound 20-something; she sounds 80-something, near the baffled end of a very long and winding intellectual quest. She sounds, in fact, like Cormac McCarthy: some of her remarks echo McCarthy’s almost word-for-word from a recently released interview conducted at the Santa Fe Institute in 2017. Except for the scene in the novel where she recounts an orgasmic dream of receiving cunnilingus from her brother, though their desire had remained unconsummated in life, a dream where “his face in the candlelight was all shiny with girljuice.”
But I am being unkind. In gratitude for the mass of their accomplishment and for the seriousness of their lifelong aim, we make allowances for the old masters in their dotage. Valerie Stivers, writing in Compact, chastens us eloquently and properly:
Contemporary literature is by and large not concerned with God or metaphysics, and reviewers have neither the theology nor the history to engage with this work. And certainly no one has the math. One review characterized Hiroshima and Nagasaki as “an atrocity that might have stopped a bigger atrocity”—a grade-school version of events that is highly contested and that misses McCarthy’s moral framework.
I don’t have the math either—I got a C in 12th-grade calculus and never revisited the subject—so let’s dwell a little longer on the failings of the reviewers and see if they will carry us further into McCarthy’s philosophical inquiry.
The novel’s title is Catholic, but Stella Maris begins with a Jewish joke: expecting a different Dr. Cohen than the one who arrives to treat her, Alicia quips, “I guess there’s no shortage of Dr Cohens.” Later, she tells the doctor,
Jews represent two percent of the population and eighty percent of the mathematicians. If those numbers were even a little more skewed we’d be talking about a separate species.
So, per The Sunset Limited and also another preternaturally eloquent play, The Stonemason (1995), black people for McCarthy represent the life force and Christian redemption; Alicia even refers, rather hair-raisingly, to the Stanford-Binet test as racist because it necessarily discriminates against, in her example, “a black guy with a measured IQ of eighty-five who is by any metric you might care to choose a musical genius.” Jewish people, by contrast, for Alicia and for the novel, represent the intellect in extremis. No points for originality here. McCarthy does, however, do something terribly original with this no doubt offensive commonplace: he sets a trap for his ungenerous critics. I admit I got caught, but so, in my defense, did James Wood.
In the first novel, The Passenger, we dimly apprehend (I don’t even quite remember how) that Bobby and Alicia are Jewish. Their father, we are further told, was a nuclear physicist not native to the South and their mother a working-class girl from rural Tennessee. And so, like artificial un-intelligence, we critics draw inferences from a bank of stereotypes. In my essay on The Passenger, I originally described the Western patriarch as a “Jewish physicist”—a description since amended, for reasons I’ll soon explain. James Wood, with less excuse, makes the same assumption in his New Yorker review of both novels, a review that patronizingly lauds McCarthy for abandoning the “hieratic shrieking and waving” of his earlier fictions to arrive, finally, at reasoned discourse. (Some of us enjoy “hieratic shrieking and waving.”) More wisely and more modestly, Justin Taylor, writing in Bookforum, confesses an inability to disentangle who is Jewish and who isn’t in the Western lineage.
But Stella Maris spells out clearly what The Passenger cunningly leaves obscure: Jewishness travels in the maternal line, from Bobby and Alicia’s great-grandmother, who left Romania for Ellis Island in 1848. By contrast, the father hails, like McCarthy’s parents, from Rhode Island—and McCarthy’s, for what it’s worth, were Catholic. In tempting us to hallucinate a Jewish physicist and to ignore rural Jews in Appalachia, McCarthy pulls off a counter-stereotypical coup to rival the Toni Morrison of “Recitatif.” Mea culpa to the maestro.
What does it all mean, though? Why does Alicia, at the unwritten epilogue to this novel that is actually the written prologue to the prior novel, walk into the Wisconsin woods and hang herself on Christmas Day? The hallucinations that beset her—a company of grotesques led by the Thalidomide Kid, who gets many (too many) lines in The Passenger but none here—cannot be blamed. She confesses sympathy and affection for the Kid and even a belief that he came to save her. She needs to be saved from worse visions, like the one she had in childhood, just before she fell in love with her brother and began hallucinating the Kid:
What was the dream? Or vision or whatever it was?
I saw through something like a judas hole into this world where there were sentinels standing at a gate and I knew that beyond the gate was something terrible and that it had power over me.
Yes. A Being. A presence. And that the search for shelter and for a covenant among us was simply to elude this baleful thing of which we were in endless fear and yet of which we had no knowledge.
You were how old?
Ten. I think ten.
Did you have this vision again?
No. There was nothing else to see. The keepers at the gate saw me and they gestured among themselves and then all of that went dark and I never saw it again. I called it the Archatron.
She also relays to the doctor a more recent dream that sounds like something out of Blood Meridian:
The women look up from their washing and they understand at once that everything they have loved and nurtured has been put at naught. They have in an instant no past and no future. Everything they’ve taught their children has been stricken from the world without a trace and they are now to be widows and slaves. What they’ve seen is a mounted army gathered out of nowhere that stands aligned upon the hills above the village. The riders are clothed in skins and their horses wear shields of rawhide painted with circular geometries pale with dust. The men of the village have come from the huts with axe and spear but they will soon lie in pools of their communal blood and the women will be raped and the village torched and burned and they will then march weeping and bleeding and yoked like livestock to a country they’ve never seen, never imagined.
Prompted by Dr. Cohen to “say something definitive about the world in a single sentence,” she replies, “The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy.” In other words, the much-commented gnostic strain in McCarthy has her in its claws: demons, only demons, fashioned this world. Any alien god of goodness with whom we may make a covenant is so distant as pragmatically not to exist for us. She speculates that human infants cry, as no other animals do, because they have already perceived the world’s endemic injustice: “The rage of children seemed inexplicable other than as a breach of some deep and innate covenant having to do with how the world should be and wasn’t.”
As for intelligence, vaunted intelligence, she claims that it is a key component of evil, a deviser of new evils, an amplifier of existing ones. An early encounter with the idealist philosophy of George Berkeley left her a convinced solipsist. Alicia’s mathematical dilations escaped my comprehension, as they likewise evade Dr. Cohen’s, but I take it she accepts the Platonic idea that mathematical objects are real entities rather than intellectual fabrications. Nonetheless, given her understanding of reality, when she praises mathematical intelligence as the only true intelligence, she must mean to pay it the most back-handed of compliments. What could it be but limning the devil’s work?
And intelligence is numbers. It’s not words. Words are things we’ve made up. Mathematics is not. […] You look at these names [of mathematicians] and the work they represent and you realize that the annals of latterday literature and philosophy by comparison are barren beyond description.
Speaking of literature: Alicia takes language, inferior as it may be to numbers, to be a social contagion, a mind-virus, “a parasitic invasion” out for itself that has assaulted reality on every level, replacing experience with abstraction and leading us to war over abstractions. The world is a prison, concludes Alicia, and every intellectual escape route only a path deeper in, where the Archatron glowers and waits. “Archatron” is a word of McCarthy’s own coinage, which previously appeared in his Cities of the Plain (2000), as several critics have noted. A glance at the Greek radicals yields the meaning “instrument of rule”: perhaps the metaphysical correlate of the planet-annihilating weapon Alicia’s father helped to invent.
Because Dr. Cohen is only a psychiatrist and not, like Black in The Sunset Limited, a Bible-reader, he can’t tell her that she’ll never think her way out of despair. Which, however anti-intellectual we may find it, is true, by the way. It’s the moral, is it not, of a greater play than The Sunset Limited: I mean Hamlet. And to take a more recent and real-life example, at least one philosophical genius, I mean Mitchell Heisman, sacrificed his own life for this principle. But Alicia is smart enough to know this too. She allows to the doctor,
I think what most people think. That it’s caring that heals, not theory. Good the world over. And it may even be that in the end all problems are spiritual problems. As moonminded as Carl Jung was he was probably right about that.
And she even arrives at a philosophical insight that, if pursued, might have stayed her hand if only the doctor grasped it well enough to elaborate:
If you said that the world itself contains the antidote to all that is troubling about it I would say that wasn’t entirely wrong. But funding this is the notion that there is an order to the world not predicated upon the endless problematic of addressing its most recent iteration.
I’m not sure I understand that. It sounds somewhat platonic.
I know. But the suggestion is not that there is a reality of which perception is just a shadow but that there is a reality that is durable enough to support its own endless experimentation.
Which is, as it happens, the intellectual road out of metaphysical despair: built into the world, in the form of human consciousness if nothing else, is the world’s mechanism of self-repair and self-augmentation. All art is not the A-bomb, not an Archatron; instead, as Shakespeare had it, the art itself is nature, nature making and remaking itself toward a covenant not innate but implicate and in need of our fabrication. This Romantic philosophy, admittedly raising literature over mathematics, gives us a mission, a good reason to get out of bed each morning: to recommence our work on the art.
So why does Alicia kill herself if she knows this? In McCarthy’s prior incest novel, his second, Outer Dark (1968), our brother-sister couple, Culla and Rinthy Holme, is a pair of marginal Appalachians so distant from organized life that they might as well belong to the landscape. (I find it among McCarthy’s weaker productions, often approaching a freak show for a freak show’s sake.) Their coupling does produce offspring, but Culla, losing his nerve, sells the baby to a peddler and tries to convince Rinthy that the child has died. Not fooled by his lie, she sets out in resolute quest for her child. Culla, too, flees, and is eventually punished for his transgression when a trio of murderous wanderers, echoing O’Connor’s killers in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and led by a chief who anticipate McCarthy’s grand villains Holden and Chigurh, force him to watch their cruel destruction of the infant. Rinthy, however, unfailing in her search for the child, escapes the novel’s censure. The oracular narrator fondly hails her as “little sister” and leaves her asleep beside the baby’s burned bones in a glade, “cradled in a grail of jade and windy light.”
From this narrative we may conclude that incest is not the crime, either in early McCarthy or in late. Its violation of natural law signifies little if nature is ours to augment, hence its no doubt controversial pairing in Bobby Western’s repertoire of desire with his love of a transgender woman, as evoked in The Passenger. The sin, rather, is a failure to commit to one’s own quest, whether for love or art, for lover or child; and this sin, as in Dante, contain its own punishment, which happens when one acquiesces to the end of one’s own world. Why Stella Maris then? Why name this novel about a suicidal virgin after the virgin who (most unnaturally) birthed Christ, after the figure “moonminded” Jung saw as the female face of the godhead? Because sometimes language is not a mind virus, not a parasite, not number’s junior and inferior partner in giving names to the world. Sometimes, rather, language is a sign pointing the way out of the abyss and toward “the love that moves the sun and other stars.”