In the Middle Ages, there was a popular group of texts that made up the so-called contemptus mundi genre (which, loosely translated, could mean “how to develop a visceral disdain for the world”). One of the genre’s most famous works is Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ. These rather “Platonic” works, in the sense of being in the vein of the philosopher Plato, were intended to coach Christians toward holiness, teaching them how to pry their fingers loose from the throat of life and begin longing for heavenly, immaterial realities.
This was done through contemplating things that now seem off-putting to us: how treacherous people in the world are, how you were born in woe and will die in suffering, and all of the icky things about the human body. The goal was to drag those things we try to forget (mainly the “Four Last Things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell) out from the hiding places of our consciousness, lest we forget how fleeting, disappointing, and volatile this world ultimately is.
Just a couple of years ago, I would have considered the contempus mundi genre dead, with the possible exception of a brief revival in T. S. Eliot’s late religious poetry. But the late novelist Cormac McCarthy resurrected the genre in his final books, The Passenger and Stella Maris, which were released as a pair late last year.
Although the two books are less violent than The Road or Blood Meridian, they partly compensate for that with their raw language, crude jokes, suicidal longings, and graphic descriptions of incestuous sexual desire. McCarthy was no plaster angel, even in his later years. But even though McCarthy’s novels do deal frankly with these strong and off-putting realities, they do so in a way that is not prurient. The effect, on my read, is purgative and cathartic.
A legacy of death and power
If you thought McCarthy couldn’t get bleaker after his previous novel, The Road (2006), you’d be wrong. Each of his final books is devoted to one of the (tellingly named) Western siblings: Bobby and Alice, later named Alicia. (Western is their literal surname, though their narrative arcs do invite reflection on the civilization that the surname evokes.)
The siblings are incestuously in love with one another, something which Alice confesses to her therapist in disturbingly graphic detail in Stella Maris. But they never consummate their desire. It is too unthinkable, too illicit, almost too troubling to mention even to your psychologist. In a world in which almost any love is permitted and celebrated, McCarthy manages to find one that is still forbidden. In this way, he creates a moral dilemma of tragic tension, worthy of Greek mythology or Athenian theater.
Unlike The Passenger, which is a kind of psychological spy thriller about a salvage diver (Bobby Western), Stella Maris is a brainy, punctuation-less dialogue between mathematician and child prodigy Alice Western and her psychiatrist, tasked with keeping his ward from committing suicide. “Stella Maris” is the name of a mental asylum in Wisconsin, or what frankly-speaking Alice (who is allergic to euphemisms) prefers to call a “crazy house.” It is also, ominously, the place where Alice will hang herself, leaving her frozen body to be found by a hunter in the surrounding winter woods. The cinematically-described discovery of her body in these woods makes up the opening scene of The Passenger. The books, thus, come full circle.
There’s a lot of overlapping plot detail between them, especially because in The Passenger, the narration jumps back and forth, relating scenes from Alice’s teenage, schizoid hallucinations at her ancestral home in Tennessee and then skipping back over to describe Bobby’s post-injury career as a salvage diver. But in essence, the bones of the plot are centered around Bobby and Alice’s parents, who were both involved in the development of the atomic bomb.
The inheritance of the siblings, then, is a joint legacy of death and power. Their father, now dead from the cancer he contracted from radiation exposure, was a colleague of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the subject of Christopher Nolan’s recent film. Their father worked at Los Alamos (where Alice was born and spent her earliest years), as well as at a top-secret uranium enrichment facility in rural Tennessee, where Alice’s maternal family came from.
As a schizophrenic, Alice is haunted by a bizarre menagerie led by “The Kid,” a four-foot tall, dirty-mouthed, abusive small person who has flippers instead of hands. The Kid shows up in Alice’s room while she is trying to study, and has his companions perform unwelcome, old vaudeville acts to entertain her.
In her therapy sessions, Alice will speculate that they were trying to distract her from her studies and some deeper truth. Although brilliant and well-funded through fellowships, Alice loses faith in academia and begins to long for death, especially after Bobby, also a grad school dropout, is injured in a devastating racecar accident that seemingly leaves him brain-dead in a coma in Europe. Stella Maris is the “log” of the therapeutic counseling sessions that take place not long after this injury.
The events concerning Bobby in The Passenger take place after he unexpectedly wakes up from this coma, as well as after Alice’s Juliet-like death by suicide upon discovering that her Romeo lies forever in a swoon. Haunted by loss and regret, and a deep sense of meaninglessness, Bobby becomes a salvage diver, who wanders the face of the earth and the depths of the various bays and river channels of the southern United States, thus becoming one of the great American literary antiheros, worthy of Salinger or Hemingway.
Evoking the masters
On a stylistic level, all of Cormac McCarthy’s trademark features are here. You could read the prose in The Passenger as McCarthy’s homage to (and recycling of) the great American stylists before him. In fact, McCarthy, a former auto mechanic, has moments in which he out-Hemingways Hemingway.
For instance, when Bobby fetches his car from its storage shed, McCarthy writes:
The car had a cloth cover over it and he made his way along the wall to the front and undid the tie-straps and folded the cloth back ... and carried it outside and shook it out. Then he folded it up and carried it back in and put it on the shelf at the front of the locker alongside the trickle-charger. He lifted the scuttle and disconnected the clips from the charger and the timer and pulled the wire out through the wheel-well and he checked the oil and the water. Then he dropped the scuttle and came around and wedged himself through the door and put the key in the ignition and pushed the starter button.
The prose—stripped even of punctuation—is broken down into something quite literally made up of the nuts and bolts of composition.
At other points, McCarthy gives us the iconic macho American male (it’s still 1980 in the novel, you see), who obliterates his own self-consciousness through the exercise of the pure power of physics. Take, for instance, when Bobby drives 600 miles from New Orleans to Wartburg, Tennessee, in a single evening:
It was dark by the time he reached Hattiesburg. He had turned on the lights at dusk and he drove to the Alabama State line just east of Meridian in one hour flat. One hundred and ten miles. It was seventy miles to Tuscaloosa and the highway was straight and empty except for an occasion semi and he opened the Maserati up and drove the forty miles to Clinton Alabama in eighteen minutes redlining the engine twice at what the speedometer logged as a hundred and sixty-five miles an hour. By then he thought he’d probably used up most of his luck with the state police and the small town speedtraps he’d blown through and he motored leisurely through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham and crossed the Tennessee State line just outside of Chattanooga five hours and forty minutes after leaving New Orleans.
And yet, when memories are recalled of, say, Bobby’s boyhood home, or the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the eviction of the poor by the Tennessee Valley Authority to make the dam, his prose becomes dreamlike and “floats,” feeling like something written by T. S. Eliot. Old things, like New Orleans, are slow and liquid, and in McCarthy’s attempts to capture them in language, the verbs melt away:
He walked up the street. The old paving stones wet with damp. New Orleans. November 29th 1980. He stood waiting to cross. The headlights of the car coming down the street double on the wet black stones. A ship’s horn in the river. The measured trip of the piledriver. He was cold standing there in fine rain. ... When he got to the cathedral he went up the stairs and went in. Old women lighting candles. The dead remembered here who had no other being and who would soon have none at all.
In still other passages from The Passenger, like when Bobby drives out West to Idaho, fleeing the agents who are chasing him to live alone in an abandoned house, McCarthy evokes Thoreau:
There was a bed in one of the downstairs rooms and he pulled the mattress off and dragged it into the kitchen and he set an old Eagle oil lamp on the linoleum floor and filled it with kerosene from a can of it he’d found in the mudroom and he lit the lamp and set the glass chimney back and turned down the wick and sat. ... He found an axe in the woodshed but he’d no way to sharpen it and when he came from town again he had a chainsaw and two boxes of paperback books. Victorian novels that he hadn’t read and wouldn’t but also a good collection of poetry and a Shakespeare and a Homer and a Bible.
These hallmark stylistic features—this flipping back and forth from quick to slow—might be better suited to The Passenger than any of McCarthy’s other works.
At one point, Alice tells her counselor that her brother was never afraid of speed, but he was afraid of depth. In this way, the mechanically-inclined, racecar-driving Bobby is the inheritor of his father’s intellectual mindset. His father, a clever physicist, was also one of the few who worked on the Manhattan Project and proudly had no regrets for what he had done. Alice tells her counselor that he was having too much fun to ask whether it should be done.
The father had stripped reality down to its nuts and bolts, to its atoms and fundamental forces. And his pragmatic ethics followed suit: If we hadn’t developed it, someone else would have. No sentimentalism here, but also no conscience, no sense of guilt, no ability to recognize anything real other than the forces of physics. There’s nothing between the atoms for him.
In contrast, Alice is the brilliant child prodigy who, had she not quit mathematics, would have graduated from the University of Chicago with her PhD while yet a teenager. Alice is not afraid of depth. In fact, she’s the Wittgenstein-quoting, Gödel-reading mathematician who chose the field because physics was too easy, too limited by the limitation of actual matter.
As a side note, while I was reading the brilliant dialogue between Alice and her counselor, it became completely evident to me why we had to wait 15 years after The Road for McCarthy’s next novels to appear: McCarthy’s reading is dazzling. In essence, Alice gives her counselor a vernacular history of 20th-century mathematics, physics, and philosophy: Kantor, Poincaré, Riemann, Russell, Frege, Whitehead, Dirac, Wittgenstein, Gödel, and Oppenheimer are all here. And it’s really exciting. You can feel the metaphysical ambition of McCarthy throughout, as he attempts to evoke and create sympathy for the last great age of mathematical Platonism.
This is in part achieved through Alice relating her many strange dreams. In the middle of her therapeutic sessions, in addition to the deviant details regarding her incestuous desires, she tells the psychiatrist something she had never told anyone else.
Once, when a girl, she had a fabulous dream, or rather, a waking vision (she is Alice, after all), in which she saw through a portal into the deep structure of the world. There, she saw “sentinels standing at a gate and I knew beyond the gate was something terrible ... and that it had power over me. ... 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.” Alice called this thing the Archatron, “the presence beyond the gate.”
In Alice’s mind, it follows that if such a thing of depth exists—and she does not think she is crazy; she thinks she is preternaturally in tune with the deep parts of reality—then most of what really matters about the world is beyond representation. Our subconscious can fabricate screens to interpret these depths, just like scientists building models to help us imagine the natural world. But in the end, for Alice, language itself is a kind of disease; or using Alice’s metaphor, a parasite that takes over the brain. Language makes us think we know what is at the bottom of all this.
And it is for this reason that Alice—now baptized and born again as Alicia—pursues mathematics for its power to destroy the pretentions of the human mind. For Alice, mathematics ends in Wittgenstein’s silence: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
The psychological drama of The Passenger, then, comes from seeing that Bobby, whose brain is made up of his paternal inheritance as a “Westerner”—with a “reductivist” and “mechanized” mindset—is yet haunted by immortal longings for the depths, even in a world of physics where they seem out of place. His own heart and mind are the stage upon which the great drama of the modern world is re-enacted.
Bobby is tempted to bury his immortal longings through the exercise of pure speed and the operation of the raw forces of physics. If he cannot kill the secret whisperings of the soul, then perhaps at 165 mph he could outrun them.
It’s no accident that his best friend is a Shakespeare-quoting, bombastic, hyper-rhetorical drug runner from Knoxville, Tennessee, named John Sheddan. The long, ornate speeches of the dilettantish Sheddan ramble over history, literature, and the world of ancient myth and dreams and the afterlife: the world of quality. But it’s also not accidental that in this world of physics, the man of language and quality is also an outlaw. Such people have no place in this world of speed and force and momentum and acceleration.
Although I don’t think The Passenger and Stella Maris are perfect in every possible way, I admire them as McCarthy at his metaphysical best, his most epistemologically ambitious. These books are at once a threnody for the victims of Hiroshima, a recapitulation of modern psychology, a history of modern mathematics and physics, and a bizarre Greek tragedy—but also the most Platonic thing since Plato, a great circling back to the beginning of the West. Exhausted by our addiction to the covetous desire to manipulate physical reality to make ourselves into gods, the spiritually battered Western children recover a sense of the impossibility of ignoring spiritual longing.
In a way, with these novels, we inheritors of the Western philosophical and religious tradition have come full circle. McCarthy gives us a portrait of Western civilization, once proud of its language, logic, and science, now exhausted, willfully indifferent to precipitating self-destruction, and collapsing into personal despair. And yet McCarthy’s vision, though bracing, is weirdly hopeful. Although he scatters few crumbs of this-worldly consolation, he does provide a kind of existential hope that there is something beyond this world.
Listening to Alicia’s final dream-like, poetic speech at the end of Stella Maris, we feel we are with Socrates, about to drink the cup, talking about what Hamlet calls that “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.” Speaking to her therapist, she dreamily meditates on a life that could have been:
I thought that I would go to Romania and when I got there I would go to some small town and buy secondhand clothes in the market. Shoes. A blanket. I’d burn everything I owned. My passport. ... Then I’d hike up into the mountains. Stay off the road. Take no chances. ... I’d wrap myself in the blanket at night against the cold and watch the bones take shape beneath my skin and I would pray that I might see the truth of the world before I died. Sometimes at night the animals would come to the edge of the fire and move about ... and I would understand that when at last the fire was ashes they would come and carry me away and I would be their eucharist. And that would be my life. And I would be happy.
Thus does McCarthy end his 200-page Socratic dialogue with a Platonic myth, one that treats death as the most desirable thing for those who live in a world whose DNA is made up of injustice and suffering. In such a myth, the circle from Plato to McCarthy is complete. And yet, there are hints that the Western twins, despite their suffering, find peace in the end. McCarthy is not one to leave his readers with tidy Christian endings, but at the beginning of The Passenger, when the hunter finds Alice, he writes: “That the deep foundation of the world be considered where it has its being in the sorrow of her creatures. The hunter knelt. ... He thought he should pray. ... He bowed his head. Tower of Ivory, he said. House of Gold.”
Jason M. Baxter is a visiting associate researcher at the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of five books, including The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind. His website is JasonMBaxter.com.