Stella Maris

Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 2022. 190 pages. $26.00.

Stella Maris book cover

By David Madden

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Alicia Western, a twenty-year-old Jewish-Causation patient, working on her doctoral thesis in mathematics at the University of Chicago, “arrives by bus without luggage but with 40,000 dollars in her purse,” is re-admitted for the third time to Stella Maris, an historic hospice for the care of psychiatric medical patients.

Under the care of affable forty-three-year-old Dr. Cohen, she is diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, subject to visual and auditory hallucinations, and is possibly anorexic.  Having refused programmatic therapy, she sees no value in these sessions either, while admitting that it “is possible to launch these sorties on a vector not wrenched totally impossible by cant.”

Declaring that she was crazy at four, she says, she “was trying to qualify as a possible homicidal lunatic.” Her life “has always been pretty austere.” She is myriad minded, a pacifist, strange, slippery, incestuous, arrogant, sarcastic, witty, “the very incubation of lunacy.” She is often flippant. “Do you want to talk about that?” — methods of suicide? “Sure. What the hell.” She contemplated drowning in Lake Tahoe, and other ways to do it, to join other suicide corpses, “A family you didn’t know you had.”

She still loves the older man who rejected her when she was a “horny” twelve-year-old. She thinks love itself is a disorder. “There is love in my heart. It just shows up as pity.”

In Alicia, McCarthy has created one of the most erudite and superbly articulate teenaged intellectuals in fiction. She engages in the pure joy of thinking. With Dr. Cohen, she discusses revisionary theories about the workings of the unconscious as it affects one’s dreams. He asks her such delving questions as, “Do we have a working relationship with the unconscious? Is it a reciprocal arrangement?” She replies, the unconscious “prefers drama, metaphor, pictures… is simply a machine for operating an animal… is not interested in people . . . never sleeps . . . is more faithful than God.”

Cohen probably speaks for most readers when he confesses that he knows neither the great names nor the concepts she reels off, nor understands what she means as when she says such things as, “The mind has to be capable of its own existence.” Readers need not understand what she says either; their questions constitute a sort of marginalia.

It is part of his aesthetic concept that McCarthy offers a purely literal transcript of seven sessions, 190 pages, beginning October 27, 1972.

Alicia’s doctoral thesis is on “topos theory,” explained in Kurt Godel’s lecture on “The foundation of mathematics.” She says, “When you get to topos theory, you are at the edge of another universe . . . a place to stand when you can look back at the world from nowhere.” She is fundamentally a skeptic about mathematics, which is led, she is convinced, by a group of “evil” mathematicians. “I like numbers . . . their shapes and their colors and their smells and the way they taste.” “I was doing math eighteen hours a day.” She is unashamedly egotistical. “I was the best mathematician I knew.”

Alicia enjoys describing and commenting on mathematical and other theories. Berkeley’s New Theory of Vision changed her life. “If mathematical objects exist independently of human thought what else are they independent of? The universe, I suppose.” She discourses upon the concept of “The Meaning of Numbers” chapter in Spengler’s Decline of the West. Bertrand Russell gave up mathematics when Wittgenstein convinced him “that all of mathematics was a tautology.” She is convinced that “the world” never has anyone in mind. “If the world has a mind, then it’s all worse than we thought.” She also talks about the ideas of many philosophers, for instance, Husserl, Plato, Kant, Heidegger.

Alicia left the Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy and Society. The focus of the deists was on those three subjects. McCarthy’s novel lends insight as to why he has long had a relationship with the Santa Fe Institute, which is dedicated to the multidisciplinary study of the fundamental principles of complex adaptive systems, including physical, computational, biological, and social systems.

“I only have my grandmother, who is nuttier than I am,” says Alicia. She raised Alicia in Wartburg, Tennessee after her mother died. Alicia longs to live in Romania, the native country of her mother’s family. Her father, a physicist on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge, Tennessee engaged in developing the atomic bomb, died four years after her mother, both of cancer. At eleven, she had lived with her father at Los Alamos, where she knew Oppenheimer, a genius, all the other geniuses agreed. Her father reading his lecture on math to her, showed her diagrams: “They mapped the world of the subatomic particles he was attempting to explain.”

McCarthy conveys his two character’s daily love of ideas and language. “Is the universe intelligent? . . . I know the allure. Some shimmering palimpsest of eternal abidement (sic).”  McCarthy has woven a web of voices in which each thread exquisitely counts. Alicia herself almost off-handedly deconstructs language. Even as she makes lucid sense of complex ideas, she indulges now and then in the passing pleasures of conversational nonsense, such as slang.

Cliches made fresh by context are juxtaposed to imaginative expressions more in this novel than in most fiction. Her use of cliches is spontaneously conscious, mocking. “Don’t sweat it, Doctor.” Cliches connote more, as in her oft repeated, “Yes and know.” Repetition of the phrases “time to begin, sessions,” “time to stop” and “I know. I don’t know. I know,’’ seem symbolic of the elements of time and knowing in the novel. She is very lively, fondly dealing out puns and paradoxes. She is one of the wittiest characters in fiction. Cohen asks, “Do you believe in an afterlife?” She replies. “I don’t believe in this one.” The element of humor fits aptly into the progression of the conversation. Lyrical passages emerge as she intellectually delineates scientific concepts. “When things fall into place after days of labor it’s like a lost animal coming in out of the rain.”

Alicia tells Cohen, “What I really wanted was a child.” The Kid, a creation of her multi-chambered imagination, is a bald “small person,” who resembles a Thalidomide child. She feels he is “actually” in the room with her, a palpable creation some folks might call hideous, but who is for her “perfect.” They talk mostly “rhyming” nonsense. The Kid came to her as a form, like mathematics, “turning in a nameless void. Salvaged out of a bleak sea of the incomputable.”

Her big brother is all too real, flourishing for her in a complex context of incestuous longing. She always wanted to marry her brother Bobby. She has orgasmic dreams of incest with Bobby. “I wanted to be entered like a cathedral.” She has just left Bobby, a deep-sea-diver and race car driver, in Italy where he is in a coma from a car wreck accident.

Bobby is the focus of The Passenger, the very long companion novel. By declaring that Stella Maris contributes very little to The Passenger, reviewers suggest that each of them stands alone.

“I was musical first . . . I had perfect pitch.” She played the violin obsessively. “At one point I was interested in the mathematics of the violin,” which she played obsessively. With conviction, she quotes Schopenhauer twice. “If the universe vanished music alone would remain.”

Many readers and critics today are fixated upon discussion of characters and narrative, upon theme and subject matter, not upon artistic experience. More an artifice than his other works, this novel is McCarthy’s most artistic. His focus on science is a positive that modifies the negative world view of his previous novels. As creative works, all dark novels are positive.

Readers may simply enjoy the sound — if not the sense of the ideas. Alicia obviously does. That she talks in the ways that she talks is the essence of the novel. One does well to ask not where the novel is going as a narrative thrust, but what, purely, is the experience, moment by moment.

Eleven celebrated novels, two plays, and one screenplay constitute McCarthy’s works. If Cormac McCarthy is what many readers and critics call him, a genius, I would choose this masterpiece as the principal proof. “I don’t write novels,” declared novelist William Gass, “I write words.” I am eager to say that it is the words that move me to praise Stella Maris.

David Madden is the author of seventeen works of fiction and many works of nonfiction, the latest of which is a Momma’s Lost Piano: A Fictive Memoir.