Cormac McCarthy’s De Profundis
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Hardback: Knopf (October 25, 2022) and (December 6, 2022)
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Reviewed by Joshua Hren
‘Things are not as simple as you think.’”
—Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
Alicia, in Stella Maris
Virginia Woolf defended the ghost stories of Henry James because they “have nothing in common with the violent old ghosts—the bloodstained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons. They have their origin within us.” Tempted at first to believe that the supposed spirit in The Turn of the Screw is real, we sober up, but the startled state is still unnerving, for “We are afraid of something, perhaps, in ourselves. In short, we turn on the light.” James, that polite old soul, “can still make us afraid of the dark.”
The psychic ghosts aboard Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger—a sick crew of ghouls headed by a relentless Accuser called “the Kid”—come closer to the headless captains of a gothic sublime. Co-protagonist Alicia Western closes her eyes only to find “A blackness without name or measure” populated by “a pale horde of ancient familiars” who are “clad in graveclothes and naught but bone beneath the moldering rags.” But there is no comfort in the conclusion that this cast of demonic ticks “have their origin within us” and not in some Hell from which they have escaped; the prospect that our own mental chemicals could be the cause of such chaos is chilling, and McCarthy’s unflinching prose engages in a kind of staring contest with the reader, soliciting pity but denying catharsis.
The Passenger and its companion Stella Maris comprise McCarthy’s first novels since the 2006 Pulitzer-Prize winning The Road. The novels, which track the siblings Bobby and Alicia Western, reframe the final frontier of the “Western” genre as manifest interiority rather than Manifest Destiny: as Alicia’s interactions with the Kid make plain, we are nowhere near conquering human consciousness. But the Westerns are also affiliated with the birthplace of the West. Bobby, a deep-sea diver who is afraid of being underwater, is bound to Alicia in a tragic sense. One character openly interprets him as “a man broken on the wheel of devotion. You’re a missing Greek tragedy”—something like a modern male Antigone in love with his dead sister.
So much of what McCarthy has given us reads like a dramatic dialogue between the tragedy of Athens and the cross of Jerusalem, but the “desolate emptiness” of formlessness asserts itself over any “Spirit of God . . . hovering over the surface of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). “If the world itself a horror,” Alicia concludes, “then there is nothing to fix and the only thing you could be protected from would be the contemplation of it.” That if hovers over these novels, in which the nightmare underbellies of reality pretend to be more real than any traces of goodness or ghosts of God’s image.
Alicia Western suffers from something akin to paranoid schizophrenia, and her tormented vision—dizzying mental heights mixed with unforgiving intellectual velocity—propels her to suicide. Is the Kid some kind of clairvoyant demon who really can read Alicia’s mind, or is he a bastard child of her broken brain?
Whereas in the opening scenes of these ghosts’ appearance they seem like pure spirits who speak with the poetic diction and the Luciferian persuasion of Goethe’s Mephistopheles (at one point The Kid calls Alicia “Gretchen,” directly invoking the pious maiden of Goethe’s Faust), after Alicia checks herself into a mental institution and receives electroshock therapy the Kid and his “cauterized horts” turn up “in their charred and blackened rags,” still smoking from the burn. McCarthy lends them an otherworldly sheen, these strange beings who are “dusted with ash and faintly luminous for that.” Singed, the Kid lays into Alicia for consenting to treatment. His merciless abuses extract a sheepish, scared apology. “I’m sorry, she said, I really am.” The devilish demagogue solicits her sympathy at the very moment the book suggests that “he,” as it were, could be her—or at least an undeniable part of her makeup. Darkness seems bound to the matter of human consciousness and therefore mendable by chemicals or more electric jolts.
If the Kid’s visitations cease when she enters Stella Maris Mental Hospital, ambivalence over their origins remains. Her psychiatrist grants that Alicia defies a diagnosis of “schizophrenia,” and admits that “hallucinations on the scale at which you describe yours are vanishingly rare.” “It’s true that the first duty of any hallucination is to appear real,” she jests, but assures him she is not at all making up the Kid and his grotesque goon squad. Whereas in The Passenger his “visitations” are sinister, in Stella Maris she regards her tormenter from a sort of romantic distance. Her psychiatrist asks if “the visitations” stopped when she took antipsychotics. In a typical dodge, she latches onto his phrasing and says “It sounds like a religious experience.” When he asks if the Kid has stimulated her suicidal ideation, she defends “him” outright. One of the most devastating reversals of the novel is her conclusion that this mocking entity is “benign.”
Possessed of a gallows humor ripped right out Dante’s Inferno, the Kid certainly resembles his demoniac forebears. Like Dante’s devils, he is capable of genuine humor, but he doesn’t know when to stop, and when his abusive jests surpass the bounds of sanity and sanctity the interrogation reads like a religious passion. Comic bawdiness butts up against blasphemy and brutality and becomes unfunny.
If Alicia’s sections dare us into the nadirs of the human psyche, the parts of The Passenger that star her brother Bobby Western take us into the actual physiological depths—the below-the-surface waters where Leviathans live. We begin with a salvage dive (what of our making, of ourselves can be salvaged?) into a sunken plane (the heights of human ingenuity brought low). When Western enters the downed vehicle he finds their faces “devoid of speculation,” a striking phrasing that sets serious rumination as the definitive capacity of being human. If the plane and its passengers are a kind of allegory for the human condition, that the pilot is found “hovering overhead against the ceiling with his arms and legs hanging down like an enormous marionette” suggests that we’re more fated than free, pulled as if by puppet strings. And then, absence looms larger than anything Bobby finds: a missing passenger whose location remains a mystery and whose disappearance defies explanation.
“What do you think is down there?” asks Bobby’s co-diver Oiler? “That’s not the problem,” Bobby clarifies. “I know it’s what’s up here,” Oiler answers. “He touched his temple,” tethering the sibling’s narrative strands. Oiler, a character who counters Oedipus’ reckless search for knowledge with the good sense that “my desire to remain totally f – – -ing ignorant about sh-t that will only get me in trouble is both deep and abiding”—that same Oiler also ends up a suicide. Linking her queries concerning the Kid with her brother’s submarine searches, Alicia claims that “He’s no more mysterious than the deeper questions about any other reality . . . Forms turning in a nameless void. Salvaged out of a bleak sea of the incomputable.” Mysterious cries come out of the depths.
During one dive, Western asks a man named Red if “you ever bump into anything down there that you didn’t know what it was?” Red, trying to divert and domesticate their worries, names the alligator snapping turtle he saw once in a California zoo. But Western calls his bluff, “Bullsharks,” he says, upping the ante. When Red assures them that such creatures “wouldn’t get this far up the river,” Bobby is quick to correct: the things have been “caught as far north as Decatur Illinois.” We keep trying to tame the satanic horrors of human interiority, and do the same with our mortal enemies in the Great Chain of Being, but however successfully we keep these cracks in existence at bay, the silencing potencies of God’s creatures speak to us from out of Job’s whirlwind :
“Who is this that obscures my plans
with words without knowledge?
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions?” (Job 38:1-5)
The Passenger is stuffed with the luggage of learned conversations on physics (the counterpart of Alicia’s deep dives into psyche). Impressive minds discourse on the earth’s foundations and dimensions. But always their answers are rendered incomplete, if not “without knowledge” then also not without a humbling dose of unknowing, for what happens when science sermonizes on “the indeterminacy of reality itself”?
The real philosopher of this double volume is the Alicia of Stella Maris, a novel stripped down to nothing but dialogues between her and the psychiatrist of Stella Maria Mental Hospital—Dr. Cohen. In Stella Maris, McCarthy enters his own argument into what Plato calls “the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy” by giving us a book that, while assuming all the drama of a novelistic narrative, is preoccupied with philosophical investigations, beginning with an utterly Socratic embodiment of wisdom: “I know what’s wise,” Alicia argues. “I’m not a wise person.”
In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates discourses on the immortality of the soul as he awaits his punishment of death by hemlock. Waiting not for hemlock but for her impending self-destruction, Alicia goes on to interrogate everything from quantum physics and mathematics (“ultimately a faith-based initiative”) to the mind-body problem—all in an invigorating manner that brings you to the brink of being. Alicia’s limitless curiosity is infectious, and her immoderate searching is admirable—if awful. Another tragic inflection: these conversations with a scintillating intellect suggests that impassioned speculation brings sadness—and madness—as much as liberating truth. “The word prodigy,” Alicia teaches us, “comes from the Latin word for monster.”
From what is reality truly composed, and who are we to insist that empirical verifications pack more weight than purported hallucinations? Take visitors like the Kid: “I don’t know where [such entities] are,” she admits, “But they are not nowhere. Nowhere like nothing requires for its affirmation a witness which it cannot supply by its own definition.” Not only are such “hallucinations” not nothing, “but the truth is that their reality is if anything more striking.” Alicia’s inquiries never settle for less than all that’s been thought and said. More: they ever look beyond our mere words into the not-yet-known, the not-yet-spoken. But this boundless searching, heroic as it is, may be either pathological or demoniac, and it ends in death by self.
McCarthy, master of tragic helplessness, begins The Passenger with a suicide. On the very first page a hunter finds Alicia frosted dead in the wintry Wisconsin woods. Seeing as how she has just escaped from her own self-commitment to Stella Maris (one of the traditional names for Mary, Mother of God), we might at first read her stilled body as a Marian statue, for when the hunter beholds her “frozen hair” which is “gold and crystalline,” and her “cold enameled eyes” on Christmas day, he “thought that he should pray but he’d no prayer for such a thing.” However, the Mental Hospital is obviously secularized: the old Faith replaced by therapists. And Alica’s hands, which are “turned slightly outward” move from uncomplicatedly Marian to the pagan side of our Western inheritance, for there is something more vaguely idolatrous about the hunter’s near worship of the woman whose hands extend “like those of certain ecumenical statues whose attitude asks that their history”—of the West, of the self?— “be considered.”
When Alicia invokes Mary’s fiat while checking into Stella Maris—“Can’t I just write: Do with me what you will. And sign it?”—the tragic abyss is bridged by no cross but seems to swallow all good will in triumph, a suspicion that increases when Western, toward the book’s end, believes he’ll die carrying his sister’s “beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing softly upon his pallet in an unknown tongue.”
As Stella Maris escalates toward the suicide fated since page one of The Passenger, Alicia assumes a pagan dream that parallels her brother’s, although the difference suggests that whereas he was driven primarily by earthly love she is obsessed by the lure of transcendence. If he wishes to pass from this life with an image of her beauty pulsating before him, she envisions a ritual sacrifice wherein “I would pray that I might see the truth of the world before I died.” Hidden in a cave next to a mountain stream, awaiting her end beside a friendly flame, she would “understand that when the last fire was ashes [the wild animals] would come and carry me away and I would be their eucharist . . . and I would be happy.”
In asserting a literal Dionysian celebration of her consumed body—Alicia assumes as her ideal Nietzsche’s famous notebook jotting: “Dionysius against the Crucified.” Dionysius, that tragic but joyful spirit of festive rawness, eclipses “The Crucified’s” sick consciousness of “sin”—a negating totem of naysaying taboos. But in refusing the fantasies of some soothing Hereafter or the demands of Christian revelation, the Dionysian Alicia hardly convinces us that her surrogate eucharist will achieve her anticipated happiness. Her attempt to swap Jesus’ Eucharistic sacrifice for a Dionysian decomposition reads more like a romantic mythology masking indignity than a convincingly blissful kenosis.
McCarthy seems to suggest that the ancient myths which psychology tried to demystify maintain their sway over the vulnerable human psyche. The old gods and their illusions reemerge violently from where they’ve been contained or repressed.
In Abandonment to Divine Providence, Jean-Pierre de Caussade offers an apologia for such lamentations: “Souls who walk in light sing the hymns of light,” but “those who walk in the shadows chant the hymns of darkness. Each must be allowed to sing through to the end the words and melody which God has given him . . . Every drop of distress, bitter as gall though it may be, must be allowed to flow, no matter its effect on us.” So long as the heart is full of faith, Caussade counsels, “the very darkness acts as our guide and our doubts serve to reassure us.” Alicia goes so far as to say that “the greatest spiritual insights seem to derive from the testimonies of those who stand teetering in the dark.” Great saints of the soul’s dark night testify to the truth of this. But it is hard to find faith in the bitter gall of McCarthy’s beautiful, horrifying, “last pagan” hymn. At 89, this may well be the last time we’ll hear him play publicly, except perhaps posthumously. May the song he sings “softly upon his pallet in an unknown tongue” when he passes from “bondage under the elementary principles of the world” take “the fullness of time” as its musical—and metaphysical—signature (Galatians 4:3-4).
Joshua Hren is founder of Wiseblood Books and co-founder of the MFA at the University of St. Thomas. He regularly publishes essays and poems in such journals as First Things and America, National Review and Commonweal, among others. Joshua’s books include: the novel Infinite Regress; the short story collections This Our Exile and In the Wine Press; the book of poems Last Things, First Things, & Other Lost Causes. You can visit his vanity of vanities here: www.joshuahren.com
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