Cormac McCarthy: “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris”. Review. – Culture

Cormac McCarthy was once asked by the Santa Fe Institute, of which he has been a member for decades, to formulate a so-called mission statement. Statements of intent like this are one of those pieces of text that basically has to be written non-stop in a third-party funded research world, so having one of the planet’s greatest writers on-site comes in handy.

In any case, the Santa Fe Institute is looking for people, Cormac McCarthy wrote, who know more about a certain topic than anyone else – regardless of age, gender or academic rank. Such people can be offered working conditions that simply do not exist elsewhere, “period.” The last sentence reads: “Occasionally one of our guests turns out to be mentally ill. That usually causes great joy in all of us. We know we’re on the right track.”

Cormac McCarthy’s new novel has just been published in two books, 16 years after the worldwide success “The Road”, and the first news is that one of the two main characters is described very precisely: the young, beautiful, highly talented mathematician Alicia Western, who, although over has a highly functional brain, but has been plagued by hallucinations since the age of eleven. Lounging at the foot of their beds is always a group of characters straight out of a Roald Dahl fairy tale, led by a dwarf who has fins instead of hands.

Cormac McCarthy: The Passenger. Novel. Translated from the English by Nikolaus Stingl. Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 2022. 528 pages, 28 euros.

(Photo: Rowohlt)

Alicia Western has undergone numerous psychiatric treatments for this reason, but she can talk about her appearances in such a distanced and rational manner that not a few doctors accuse her of faking it. The second book is dedicated to Alicia Western, it consists exclusively of a conversation between her and a doctor in a mental institution, which has the same name as the novel: “Stella Maris”. It is possibly the more interesting of the two books because in it Cormac McCarthy has freed himself from narrative constraints and only pure existentialism remains.

The first book, “The Passenger”, however, is formally much more similar to McCarthy’s previous novels. The focus is on Robert Western, Alicia’s older brother, who works as a salvage diver. In the beginning, he dives down to a crashed plane and finds that both the flight recorder and a passenger are missing. There’s not a word in the newspapers about the crash, even though it’s a quiet area where every cat rescue is otherwise reported. He realizes he’s seen something he shouldn’t have seen and soon finds his apartment trashed, men in suits ambush him and subject him to friendly questioning, eventually his passport and bank account are blocked. You never find out who these people are or what the case is about. They’re just always there, breathing down Robert Western’s neck, and we watch him gradually come to terms with the inevitable.

Cormac McCarthy is not a musical storyteller, his novels thrive on the silence of infinity that roars around everything. In the center everything always seems terribly pointless. A typical stylistic device are the detailed descriptions of banal activities that, in the face of the endless blackness of space, seem as if someone is about to lose their minds. For example, at this point, where every sentence begins with “He”: “He unplugged the phone from the wall jack, took the duvet and pillows off the bed and walked around the apartment one last time. He picked up the cat box from the floor. He didn’t have much, but it already seemed like too much. He unplugged the table lamp, carried it to the door, and then carried it all out to the truck, stowed it in the cab or tucked it in front of the boom.”

Cormac McCarthy once said that he could not take literature seriously that was not about death

Robert and Alicia Western’s parents met at the Manhattan Project, where their father worked as a physicist and their mother enriched uranium as one of the so-called Calutron women. In a way, they emerged from that moment in human history when the species became dependent on its own mercy. Ever since the atomic bomb has existed, which in case of doubt can destroy everything, mankind has been dependent on allowing itself to live.

“Everyone said the same thing about the Manhattan Project,” Alicia reports. “They’ve never had so much fun in their lives. But anyone who doesn’t understand that the Manhattan Project is one of the most momentous events in human history has don’t pay attention. It’s on par with fire and speech. It’s at least number three and maybe even number one.”

When the father sees an atomic bomb explode for the first time, he puts his hands in front of his eyes and sees – through his own eyelids – the bones of his fingers. The Grim Reaper will appear in person. Cormac McCarthy is said to have once said that he cannot take literature seriously that is not about death, which is why he can only wonder about the books by Marcel Proust and Henry James.

In this context it is perhaps not so surprising that the non-narrative part reads lighter, freer and funnier. If McCarthy can simply discuss theories directly without having to translate them into a dramaturgy novel, it seems as if he has been let off the leash. Among other things, “Stella Maris” deals with Chesterton’s concept of Satan, Wittgenstein’s conviction that all mathematics is a tautology, the irritating absence of Darwinism in Sigmund Freud’s theory of dreams, Bernhard Riemann’s ambition to dethrone Euclid.

Double novel by Cormac McCarthy: Cormac McCarthy: Stella Maris.  Novel.  Translated from the English by Dirk van Gunsteren.  Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 2022. 240 pages, 24 euros.

Cormac McCarthy: Stella Maris. Novel. Translated from the English by Dirk van Gunsteren. Rowohlt Verlag, Hamburg 2022. 240 pages, 24 euros.

(Photo: Rowohlt)

McCarthy and Alicia Western devote a large part of the conversation to the question of whether mathematics would exist without humans and, if not, what questions mathematicians actually answer. In any case, there are no numbers in nature. Maybe that’s why mathematics starts to get interesting at the point where it leaves numbers behind.

Enter Alexander Grothendieck: The mathematician Alexander Grothendieck is still largely unknown to the general public, but many of his colleagues consider him to be the most important of the 20th century. It is only slowly finding its way into contemporary literature. In 2020, the Chilean writer Benjamín Labatut dedicated an entire chapter to him in his brilliant collection of stories “The Blind Light”. At McCarthy, he’s now something of a guardian angel for Alicia Western, a genius who had lost his heart. She speaks of their time together with exceptional warmth, almost tenderly.

The French millionaire Léon Motchane founded the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques (IHES) near Paris in 1958 and handed it over to Grothendieck practically at his free disposal. At the age of just thirty, he announced a program there that would reorganize geometry and unite all branches of mathematics: “A whole generation of professors and students submitted to his dream,” says Labatut, “Between 1958 and 1973 it prevailed Alexander Grothendieck in the field of mathematics like a prince of enlightenment and drew the best minds of his generation into his orbit.”

Compared to the works of the great mathematicians, the annals of literature are indescribably barren

Now, with Cormac McCarthy, one of those heads is Alicia Western. When she was seventeen and had already graduated from the University of Chicago, she received a scholarship from the IHES and worked there on her dissertation on topos theory. In the first part of this dissertation she proves a few conjectures, in the second she then shows “that not only were these particular proofs wrong, but that all such proofs missed their own problem statement”.

She loses faith in mathematics as a system of depicting reality around the same time that Grothendieck gave up mathematics and founded a radical ecological commune in southern France, which didn’t last long either. Then he disappears from the scene. He was once again heard of when he attacked two police officers at a demonstration by environmental activists in Avignon. For the last years of his life he roams unrecognized, bearded and barefoot through the rural area at the foot of the Pyrenees, occasionally tracked down by admirers from all over the world, all of whom he ignores. It is precisely at this point, where intellectual brilliance, madness and otherworldliness meet, that Cormac McCarthy is narratively himself.

Stella Maris, even more so than The Passenger, is an event because it pushes the limits of what can be known closer than any other novel this year. Most of her heroes are mathematicians, Alicia says at one point: Gödel, Riemann, Poincaré, Noether. “When you look at these names and the work they represent, you realize that the annals of modern literature and philosophy are indescribably barren by comparison.”

There are moments throughout this book when you feel like you’re hearing Cormac McCarthy’s voice through Alicia Western’s, and this sentence is one of them. There seems to be a very specific melancholy that only emerges when you’ve looked at the edges of what can be understood. Perhaps it was reserved for scientists in the 20th century, and perhaps that is why they are such interesting fictional characters. She assumes, says Alicia once, that she will leave Earth without really understanding exactly where she has been.

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