The Passenger and Stella Maris
By Cormac McCarthy. 
Knopf, 2022.
Hardcover, 608 pages, $56.

Reviewed by Philip D. Bunn.

This essay is part of a symposium on the work of Cormac McCarthy.

“And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” Ecclesiastes 12:12, KJV

Thou hast beset me behind and before, and laid thine hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain unto it.

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”

Psalm 139:5-8, KJV

The publication of The Passenger and Stella Maris seems almost like an undeserved gift. The recently deceased Cormac McCarthy’s career has spanned fifty-five years, and certainly, in writing as an octogenarian, the literary giant had nothing more to prove. His genius as a writer needed no further evidence, and an additional voice in the chorus of his praises seems likewise unnecessary. A mixed lament, perhaps, might be more fitting. 

In Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis, the head of Salomon’s House tells the visitors to the utopian island of Bensalem that “The End of our Foundation is the knowledge of Causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” Bacon concludes the work with an appended list of Magnalia Naturae, Praecipue Quoad Usus Humanos, or, The wonders of nature, particularly those that are useful for human beings. These “wonders,” which seem to be the aim of scientific advancement, include such lofty goals as “prolongation of life … the curing of diseases counted as incurable … [and] the increasing of strength and activity.” It includes, too, however, such controversial goals as “The increasing and exalting of the intellectual parts … Making of new species … [and] Instruments of destruction, such as war and poison.” As one of my students recently remarked, “Who gave Bacon a time machine?” 

It would not be misplaced to say that Bacon has identified here both the wonders and the horrors of “nature,” or at least nature captured and controlled by human artifice. These twin facets of scientific advancement are together a central theme of Cormac McCarthy’s twin novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, about siblings, Bobby and Alicia, whose lives are lived in the shadow of twin horrors, “Auschwitz and Hiroshima,” to which they owe their existence. McCarthy has concluded his career with the haunted ruminations of two children plagued by the atomic sins of their father. Alicia is beset by grotesque hallucinations and a disordered love for her brother. Bobby is plagued with a fundamental restlessness that finds expression in activities like risky race car driving. Bobby wakes from a coma to the knowledge of his sister’s suicide after a lifetime of mental issues and immediately following the recorded therapy sessions of Stella Maris. Together these interwoven novels make for a disorienting whole, including lengthy dialogues on topics ranging from minutiae of outdated theoretical physics to the assassination of JFK.

Man’s pursuit of knowledge and his use of that knowledge to modify and mar the earth and to harm other men is a fairly constant theme in McCarthy’s oeuvre. In this sense, the themes of the recent two books are nothing new, and in fact the books themselves should not be viewed as new either; McCarthy’s first completed draft of The Passenger is over 30 years old. Prior to beginning that draft, however, McCarthy came into his own as a writer and in public renown through the violent drama of a kind of renaissance degenerate in the form of Blood Meridian’s Judge Holden. 

If McCarthy’s fascination with science and scientists is most clearly seen in his newest novels, it nevertheless has its precedent in Blood Meridian. The Judge has an avid and hungry scientific imagination that would be well suited for the Island of Bensalem and the House of Salomon, were it not for his matching penchant for rape and murder. And it is the Judge who tells us that “the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there.”

McCarthy could as easily be quoting Werner Heisenberg, who tells us in Physics and Philosophy that the act of observation is the act of bringing the object of our study “in contact with the other part of the world, namely, the experimental arrangement, the measuring rod, etc., before or at least at the moment of observation.” Our method of investigation “starts from the division of the world into the ‘object’ and the rest of the world”; thus, “we have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” So, say the Judge and Heisenberg together, we alter the world by our contact with it, as surely in experiment as in war. 

The creation indeed is being ordered by our present scientists, by the Judge in his scientific scribblings, and in the epilogue of Blood Meridian. There we see the digging of post holes through the desert, “a validation of sequence and causality as if each round and perfect hole owed its existence to the one before it,” setting the stage for the enframing of the vast plains with barbed wire. It is this imposed order through fencing that then sets the stage for the restless wandering at the heart of All the Pretty Horses, McCarthy’s next novel after Blood Meridian that would cement his widespread popularity. That is to say, what we do to the world and to ourselves in our imposition of order where we find none has been a running train of thought for McCarthy for some time. 

But it is in the mathematics and physics that Bobby and Alicia find so captivating that the illusion of order is unmasked and seen for what it is. In the apparent indeterminacy of quantum behavior, we find clearest apparent evidence that this order is imposed rather than inherent, and we find glimmers in that chaotic world of the Judge’s own indifferent malevolence. The consequences of this view are deeply felt in reality and in the novels by thoughtful physicists themselves: as Bobby explains in The Passenger, “It wasn’t just the quantum dice that disturbed Einstein. It was the whole underlying notion. The indeterminacy of reality itself. He’d read Schopenhauer when he was young, but he felt that he’d outgrown him. Now here he was back—or so some would say—in the form of an inarguable physical theory.” Similarly, Alicia grapples with the existential consequences of what she knows as a scientist on every page of Stella Maris. 

In Twin Peaks: The Return, the viewer learns that certain evils encountered in the original series were loosed on the world at the site of nuclear tests in the desert. The splitting of the atom split open reality itself and introduced horrific beings from a different plane of existence that haunt us still. The Passenger and Stella Maris offer a consonant tale. The mutant menagerie that haunts Alicia, the collected mental anguish she and Bobby experience, seem plausibly attributable not just to their own brilliance but also to the infectious influence of the nuclear material their parents experimented with. As Alicia describes it, her father watched a nuclear test “through his fingers like a See-No-Evil. But if [the scientists] knew nothing else they all knew it was too late for that.” The pollution was unleashed, its presence here to stay, its consequences unpredictable, as likely to end the world as to save it. Like miasma in a Greek tragedy, the participation of Bobby and Alicia’s parents in bringing about great evil has a sticky and persistent influence on all around them, leading in typical tragic fashion to Alicia’s suicide. 

It is helpful to contrast the bleak world of these two works with The Road’s conclusion. A novel with as much latent criticism of scientific mutilation of man and nature as any other, The Road is no lighthearted fare. However, it is arguably McCarthy’s most hopeful work. In the end, The Boy has carried the fire. He has found the good guys. He is joined to a family, and this family that he joins has children, a little boy and a little girl. Here in this family he finds a real future. More than that, the mother of his newfound family “would talk to him sometimes about God,” and assure him that “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man to all of time.” The Fire and the breath of God will be carried on, and there is in the end a promise of life from the ashes. 

Unlike the hopeful ending of The Road, there is no hopeful upturn, no promise of renewal in McCarthy’s latest. We begin Stella Maris already knowing Alicia’s fate; we are reading the last recorded words of a suicide. In Alicia’s absence, there is no one to comfort Bobby, no one to speak of a hidden God at the heart of a causeless, incomprehensible nothingness. There is comfort even in apocalypse for The Boy, but no comfort for those who, like Bobby and Alicia, have plumbed the depths of reality and found them bottomless and cold. 

With novels so soaked in references to major mathematicians and physicists, it is no surprise that commentary has focused on symbolic interpretations of quantum phenomena. “The characters and ideas exist in a quantum state,” writes Will Cathcart. “Bobby and Alicia are both dead and alive. Science will save human civilization and destroy it.” That Bobby and Alicia are both dead and alive is both a reference to Schrödinger’s famed thought experiment and also simply true in the text: Alicia is dead at the beginning of The Passenger, Bobby is comatose and not expected to recover at the beginning of Stella Maris. Some have suggested further that Bobby is the eponymous “passenger” missing from a sunken plane wreck, both alive and dead in the course of his own novel, or perhaps experiencing the events of The Passenger in his coma.

To this pile of unsatisfying, non-specialist speculations, I add my own. Heisenberg, building on the work of Niels Bohr, developed what is popularly known as the “uncertainty principle.” Bohr, Heisenberg says, was fond of the language of “complementarity.” In this sense, “The knowledge of the position of a particle is complementary to the knowledge of its velocity or momentum. If we know one with high accuracy we cannot know the other with high accuracy; still we must know both for determining the behavior of the system.”

McCarthy’s controversial choice to release these books as “sister” novels rather than a unified whole seems, to me, expressive of this complementarity, both in form and substance. We can only fully explore the character of Bobby Western in the aftermath of Alicia’s suicide. We can only fully explore the character of Alicia without the pestering interference of her haunting menagerie, when Bobby is fixed in position and comatose. Bobby, the race car driving drifter, always moving, always running, has his velocity measured as the subject of The Passenger. Alicia, the tortured genius, has her position measured in the cold, sterile interview room of Stella Maris. “By playing with both pictures,” Heisenberg tells us, “by going from one picture to the other and back again, we finally get the right impression of the strange kind of reality behind our atomic experiments.”

It seems, at the end of his life, that McCarthy might not have been happier for having contemplated the scientific secrets of the universe in the lofty company of the scientists of the Santa Fe Institute. Perhaps, however, it is only by going back and forth between these novels repeatedly that we can get the right impression of the strange kind of reality behind McCarthy’s late-life musings: a complementary obsession with science and a kind of delighted horror at its teachings and its consequences. 

Philip D. Bunn is a Postdoctoral Fellow for the Department of Political Science and the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism at Clemson University.

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