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

Reviewed by Brent Walter Cline.

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

At the end of Cormac McCarthy’s last novel, the main character Alicia provides a psychiatrist one last suicide fantasy. In a cave in Romania she would simply wither unto death: “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…when the last fire was ashes [the animals] would come and carry me away and I would be their eucharist. And that would be my life. And I would be happy.” To many, it may be the platonic ideal of a McCarthy ending: the bleakness of the world, the resignation of the hero, and the echo of something sacramental that can neither redeem nor be retained. We know the Alicia of Stella Maris does indeed commit suicide. The Passenger opens with a hunter coming upon her hanged, frozen body in a pose that demands “the deep foundation of the world be considered where it has its being in the sorrow of her creatures.” If we read in the order McCarthy intended, Alicia is a memory by Stella Maris. The book opens with her case file; what we read is only the recorded dialogues between Alicia and the psychiatrist. We know the forest awaits her.

Yet Alicia’s tragedy does not make her a stranger to beauty and goodness. A brilliant mathematician who has hallucinated a grotesque, vaudevillian troupe since the age of twelve, her active wrestling with the nature of reality through the language of mathematical theories seems to only sharpen her awareness of an unexplainable and perfect beauty in the world; to her, music is the purest example. In one of Stella Maris’ most moving passages, Alicia explains the violin. It is without precursor. It is not evolved from a lesser thing. It arrives fully formed: “A small man who went with his son into the stunted forests of the little iceage of fifteenth century Italy and sawed and split the maple trees and put the flitches to dry for seven years and then stood in the slant light of his shop one morning and said a brief prayer of thanks to his creator and then—knowing this perfect thing—took up his tools and turned to its construction.” Like McCarthy’s “Kekulé problem,” where the unconscious mind predates language and cannot be accessed by it, the violin’s appearance cannot be explained. As Alicia states, its beauty is unassailable; its music not like a symbolic language, but a reality that no symbol can contain.

But we know the forest awaits Alicia. 

And so we have the charge against McCarthy that lasted for decades. There are singular moments of grace and beauty, but they do not persist like destruction and death do. Vereen Bell, in his monograph that initiated serious criticism of McCarthy’s work, describes a telling scene in Blood Meridian of a farrier refusing to cut the barrels off a shotgun for Dave Brown, a member of the murderous Glanton gang. The gun is a work of art not to be degraded. Its artistry is a testament. The farrier runs for the garrisoned soldiers to help save the shotgun. But as Bell points out, appeals to aesthetics and human law alike cannot stop a force like Glanton’s gang. And so the farrier sees beauty in the shotgun, but Brown hacks it down to size himself. Elsewhere, the Kid may offer clemency to the heathen, but the judge eradicates him in an outhouse, and inside the hall he “dances in light and in shadow and he is a great favorite. He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”

While McCarthy cannot abide optimistic visions of the world, even his most pessimistic moments are checked by beauty and goodness. The judge says he will never die, but in the epilogue he is absent, and the anonymous man digging post holes finds in the ground the spark of God that cannot be put out. The father of The Road cannot grant his son memories of a world before annihilation, but the fire endures in him, and the boy is taken in by a family that will encourage devotion to his father’s love in the form of prayer. McCarthy always foresees the end of the individual and the world at large, but he can no more abide a nihilism that denies beauty and goodness than he can romantic visions of enduring meaning.

From The Orchard Keeper to Stella Maris, these moments of beauty strike the characters and readers of McCarthy alike. Beauty of the natural world is matched only by the artistry of the craftsman: they are no less present than the violence that seeks to destroy them. No matter how many Judge Holdens, Anton Chigurhs, and bloodcults McCarthy conceives to oversee the setting of the sun, beauty finds a way to rise again and again.

This delicate balance is nicely represented in McCarthy’s early novel Child of God, the story of a shiftless failure named Lester Ballard whose family land is auctioned from beneath him. He turns to violence and sexual depravity to re-orient himself and the world. In the midst of his descent into irredeemable horror, Ballard comes to a shop to have his axe sharpened. The smith has no name. He is not defined by his intelligence or charm. But to McCarthy he is nothing short of heroic. The narration details the axe sharpening more than any narrative description of Ballard’s mind or body throughout the entire novel; in McCarthy’s world, the sharpened axe is not only more useful but more real than any diagnosis could be. A reader may be tempted to skim, but this is nothing less than Hemingway’s Nick Adams narrating the details of his fishing. Aesthetic minimalism cedes to the craftsman’s mastery: “Not too fast, said the smith. Slow. That’s how ye heat. Watch ye colors. If she chance to get white she’s ruint. There she comes now.” The low and primitive axe is art. There is no language of permanence or even redemption, but something good has been made. The smith even tries to teach the skill, but Ballard is unreceptive. In fact, we might consider Ballard’s debauchery and sexual perversity less the chaos of a maddened mind and more the infected version of an ordered beauty that someone like the smith places into the world through his craft. Ballard lays his victims in a cave “on ledges or pallets of stone where dead people lay like saints.” He dresses in his victims clothes and scalps, making himself into “false acolyte or antiseptic felon, a practitioner of ghastliness, a part-time ghoul.” Ballard’s order is a perversion of decency, but more precisely of the beauty and goodness of the craftsman of the sharp axe.

The beautiful provides a glimpse into another world, a more primitive and truthful place that cannot by other means be accessed. Ranchers like John Grady Cole and Billy Parham of the Border Trilogy turn wild horses into companions with whom one might share a secret of the world. Having avenged his friend Jimmy Blevins by recovering his horse, John Grady in All the Pretty Horses looks upon his personal remuda and sees the horses “mov[ing] with great circumspection carrying in their blood as they did the recollection of this and other places where horses once had been and would be again. Finally what he saw in his dream was that the order in the horse’s heart was more durable for it was written in a place where no rain could erase it.” The revelation of something true is better described not as the creation of John Grady, but his uncovering it through his mastery of horsemanship. Billy Parham in The Crossing finds the same in the wolf. It is nothing the boy creates, but something that is accessed through his suffering and attention. The wolf is more than the teeth and fur. And the hunters of the wolf “drink the blood of God yet they do not understand the seriousness of what they do.” Some may despair that the wolf has disappeared, but Billy Parham knows otherwise, and he will literally taste the blood of the wolf and know it for all it shows him. It is an idea certainly more esoteric than human anatomy, but it is in essence no different than the good doctor of The Crossing who saves Boyd’s life. The right attention of the craftsman, the duty for the master to create, brings beauty and goodness to the world.

In his most recent books McCarthy explored the crafts of mathematics and, unexpectedly, salvage diving. And while we could look at the mastery and metaphorical value of Bobby Western in The Passenger reclaiming lost artifacts beneath the Gulf of Mexico (and the subsequent fear and doom that accompanies attempts at said reclamation), the world of mathematical theory that surrounds Bobby, his sister Alicia, and their Manhattan-project father is perhaps more productive. The shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki looms over both The Passenger and Stella Maris; McCarthy has never been more overt in writing his fear of nuclear apocalypse. The mathematicians that Bobby Western and his sister Alicia grow up around are less hideous than Judge Holden, but the result of their scribbling in notebooks is no less disastrous. 

Yet mathematics are also the access to a reality reminiscent of the wolf, of the horse, of music, and of the carefully sharpened axe. At the end of The Passenger, Bobby Western is living a near-hermetic life on a Spanish island. He is losing the memory of Alicia and longs to see her hallucinations in order to have some connection to her. But he has also returned to mathematics, sitting in his abandoned lighthouse poring over the papers of one of his father’s colleagues: “After a while they began to make sense, but that was not the issue. Nor the French. The issue was the deep core of the world as number. He tried to trace his way back.” McCarthy compares Bobby Western to medieval scholars, and his purpose is more personal but no less profound: “He knew that on the day of his death he would see her face and he could hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him.” He is not one of the great mathematicians, but he has turned his attention to their theories, their craft, their artistry, and it will reveal his sister to him.

Let us not make the mistake of those who read nihilism throughout McCarthy and neglect his words. The wolf of the world’s secret beauty and goodness exists, but the hacendados of the world chain it to a pole for pure-bred dogs to destroy for sport. The mathematicians help burn Hiroshima. The smith tries to teach Lester Ballard how to make a rightly sharpened axe, but Ballard ignores the lesson. His menace is only stopped by his own foolishness. There is no suggestion that McCarthy believes in the overwhelming and teleological power of the good. Instead, he cannot deny its persistent resilience, like some cosmic whack-a-mole that no Judge Holden can eliminate. The last wolf might be extinguished, but its metaphorical kin will rise again. We find the craftsman like the writer himself: resistant to the darkness, uncovering and creating beauty. Death awaits, and no single act, word, or artifact remains, yet each individual instance is part of an unbroken chain of goodness that McCarthy’s catalogue itself performs.

In Stella Maris, the forest awaits Alicia. She seems to know. She tells the psychiatrist, “I’d always had the idea that I didn’t want to be found. That if you died and nobody knew about it that would be as close as you could get to never having been here in the first place.” But in the first chapter of The Passenger when the hunter finds her hanged body, “She had tied her dress with a red sash so that she’d be found. Some bit of color in the scrupulous desolation.” Alicia dies, but she notes her existence, a flash of color marked perhaps by the unspeakable reality her mathematics granted her, or the beauty of the original violinist, or the goodness witnessed in her brother or even the last of her long line of psychiatrists. Something ultimately changed her. Death wins, but the color remains as witness until its next, inevitable appearance.

Brent Walter Cline is Associate Professor of English at Hillsdale College.

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