Stella Maris
Stella Maris
Stella Maris
Cormac McCarthy
  • Category:Fiction (General)
  • Date Read:9 January 2023
  • Year Published:2022
  • PAGES:190
  • 5 stars

Doctoral theses will be written about Stella Maris in years to come. It is thoughtful, philosophical and expansive. But before you get excited about this book, I would recommend you read Cormac McCarthy’s other book, The Passenger, first. That’s because Stella Maris is a companion volume to it. The Passenger was published in November 2022 and Stella Maris was published a month later. They are McCarthy’s first novels since The Road (2006). The Passenger weaves its narrative between Bobby Western in a 1980 present, and an indeterminate past that gives us access to the mind of Alicia, Bobby’s sister and – some think – former lover. Bobby Western becomes embroiled in what feels like a government conspiracy centred upon the wreck of a plane he has inspected as a salvage diver. A passenger has mysteriously disappeared from the wreck. Alongside this narrative is the sometimes-surreal account of his sister, Alicia, a mathematical genius, visited by the Thalidomide Kid and his entourage, who appear to be constructs of Alicia’s psychosis. Alicia is dead by her own hand, but her connection to Bobby is unquestionable. Bobby still holds her in his heart, as a sister, as a brilliant intelligence and, possibly, a lover. You can read my full review of The Passenger here.

Reading Stella Maris is going to evoke different emotional and intellectual responses from different readers. It is one of those books for which it will be possible for two people to disagree, each wondering whether the other even read the damn thing. Some will approach the novel with a psychological or Freudian reading, others will read it as a feminist text. Still, others will see it as a dialectic between rational and spiritual discourses, while it is entirely possible to read it as a clinical drama, too. It is possible to take the characters at face value or finish your reading and wonder which parts of Alicia’s story to believe. I even anticipate that some readers will be puzzled or alienated by the text, turned off by its unaccommodating intellectual strains, the details of which could easily distract from the wider narrative picture for readers unfamiliar with the concepts Alicia discusses with her therapist, Dr Michael Cohen.

I’m going to discuss some of the ideas and my reading of this novel in this review. But first, some points about the story, itself . . .

The Story

Stella Maris focuses entirely on Alicia’s psychological evaluation by Dr Michael Cohen at Stella Maris, a psychiatric centre where Alicia has voluntarily committed herself. The entire novel is written as direct speech between the two, discussing Alicia’s conditions – her synaesthesia and purported hallucinations – her temptation to suicide, her family history, mathematics, music, physics, the Manhattan Project, the nature of reality and the true nature of the universe. It sounds heavy and it can be, especially when the discussion turns to the minutiae of mathematical theory, the relationships between great mathematicians and their work, and mathematics as an expression of reality. But this is mainly due to details and concepts that will be unfamiliar to many readers, as they are to me. Yet the novel, strangely enough, is highly readable, even if, occasionally, there is the temptation to pull up Google and discover a little bit more about some of the details. And there are lots of little allusions to The Passenger that are easy to miss, too, or you may wish to just glide past them as you get into the details of Stella Maris.

But then, later, you may find yourself wondering about seeming inconsistencies between the narratives and, like me, find yourself returning to the first book to check. One of the most obvious of these to consider is Bobby’s death, or at least his being brain-dead, as reported by Alicia, after a motor racing accident. Yet in The Passenger, Bobby is clearly alive. Shedden tells Bianca that Bobby survived the crash with a metal plate in his head and a slight limp. And at first it’s hard to reconcile the chronology between the books since we are given an unambiguous date in The Passenger – November 29 1980 – as well as in Stella Maris – October 28 1972 – six days after Alicia commits herself. In The Passenger, we are told Alicia, instead, is dead. It seems that in ‘reality’ – it’s a loaded word in Stella Maris – Alicia did, in fact, die, before the events of The Passenger. After all, the novel begins with the haunting scene of the discovery of her body in the woods by a hunter. As readers, we make evaluations of these kinds of inconsistencies, and it seems more reasonable to acknowledge that Alicia is an unreliable narrator of her own story as told to Dr Cohen – other inconsistencies also appear in Stella Maris unrelated to The Passenger – and that her insistence on Bobby’s death to Dr Cohen is an aspect of her coping with her feelings for her brother. Or more probably, that she genuinely thinks Bobby is dead. Believing herself alone in the world, she therefore decides to kill herself. This fits the timelines of the two books. Either way, Alicia’s desire for her brother is of paramount importance to her psychological and intellectual development. More of that later.

Even so – even with this common sense reading of the narratives - it is possible (and here is what I mean when I suggest this book could spawn an industry of doctoral theses) to perceive the relationship entirely differently. There are certainly many rabbit holes to dive into. For instance, consider something as simple as the title: Stella Maris is the name of the institution Alicia turns to. But it is also a Latin phrase which alludes to the Virgin Mary as ‘Star of the Sea’: that is, as a protector of people who work at sea. It does not take much to make a connection with the fact that Bobby is a deep sea diver who fears drowning. And that while Alicia appears to have hanged herself at the beginning of The Passenger, it is death by drowning that she most focuses upon in her discussion with Dr Cohen: of the horrors, not just of drowning in Lake Tahoe, but of the physical destruction of the body that would result from deliberately weighting herself to sink into its crushing depths. It’s at this point that our putative doctoral student is going to make a connection between Bobby and Alicia, as two halves of one entity, and hey presto, they will be on their way to a Freudian reading of the book which, let’s be honest, it invites.

Either way, to repeat a point, Alicia’s desire for her brother is of paramount importance to her psychological and intellectual development.

That ‘Holy Shit’ moment

McCarthy would have known as he wrote this novel that it was unlikely to find its ‘ideal’ or ‘intended’ reader. By this I mean a reader whose intellectual background corresponds with the many disparate intellectual preoccupations of McCarthy’s protagonist. Dr Cohen, himself, who is Alicia’s first audience as her therapist, does not possess the same range of knowledge that she discusses (after all, she needs to explain her thinking to someone), but as her interlocutor his breadth of knowledge of subjects outside his expertise is still impressive: enough that Alicia doesn’t despise him – she clearly has had no patience for some of her former therapists – which allows her to develop a level of trust and confidence in him. But as readers we are not likely to be doing as well as Cohen, even. Unless a reader is a specialist in mathematics and/or physics, they will find themselves trying to follow discussions about mathematical theories, their historical development, and the personalities behind this intellectual progress without entirely understanding exactly what is being said about the subjects, themselves. But I think Alicia – and by extension, McCarthy – offers us some help to understand the point. For instance, Alicia, while discussing language as a human phenomenon with Cohen, offers him an insight which is applicable, also, I think, to how we can read this novel:

The actual issue is that someone a hundred thousand years ago sat up in his robes and said Holy Shit. Sort of. He didn’t have a language yet. But what he had just understood is that one thing can be another thing. Not look like it or act upon it. Be it. Stand for it. Pebbles can be goats. Sounds can be things. The name for water is water. What seems inconsequential to us by reason of usage is in fact the founding notion of civilization. Language, art, mathematics, everything. Ultimately the world itself and all in it.

I love that what would be so common place an idea for us in our everyday lives is a ‘Holy Shit’ moment. It is. Alicia is discussing the abstract quality of language which is the foundation of advanced thinking and human progress. And typical of the complex potential of human utterance, the passage can be read in different ways. First, Alicia is further elucidating her core thinking, expressed through various subjects in the novel. I’ll address that in a minute. But as ‘typical’ readers (no person exists – I use the word to delineate between someone like me who did not understand the minutiae of Alicia’s mathematical theories, for instance, and that ‘ideal’ reader (another fictional construct) who does) we are also reminded that the various intellectual and theoretical discussions in the novel can also tell us something else about Alicia – about her character – because McCarthy has not shied away from the tropes of the traditional novel in Stella Maris. He is still giving us backstory, dialogue and character development, and his characters are just as complex and flawed as any character we could wish to read about. In short, when we read Stella Maris and find ourselves bogged down by discussions which are outside the scope of our experience to fully comprehend, we should be saying to ourselves, “Holy Shit!” instead of feeling confused, because we realise that Alicia is telling us other things when she talks about the development of Mathematics, physics and the nature of the universe. What that something is will be contingent upon what each reader brings, themselves, to the novel.

That ‘Holy Shit’ moment is a form of mental jujitsu; flipping the big old world – so much bigger than us – so it can be contained and manipulated within our heads. So that by abstracting it, we can take this thing that is not that other thing and see how those two things might be the same. That, after all, is a foundational practice of science: like the classification of the natural world, for instance. Who would have thought a whale could be anything like us? It was this thought that reminded me of something else I read many years ago – again, one abstract thing could be likened to another – and I thought then, as I finished Stella Maris and started to think about this review, that I’d go off on a little tangent to discuss that thought.

Comparatively . . .

This is the point where readers may already have a good enough idea whether they think they might like to read Stella Maris or not – making that decision is why people sometimes read reviews after all – and they may wish to stop reading here. There could be a couple of spoilers ahead. But reviews can serve purposes other than just to make recommendations. Sometimes, it’s good to read them to make comparisons between your own experience of a book and another’s once you have read it, especially when your feelings are ambivalent or you wonder whether there was something you missed. We all miss stuff. I did, too, since I am not McCarthy’s ideal reader. But what follows outlines what I was thinking about as I was finishing this book, and an interpretation.

Alicia’s argument about language as abstraction reminded me of some ideas in John Fowles’s writing. In The Magus, Conchis, who enacts a series of theatrical charades for his guest, Nicholas Urfe, reveals a question asked of him by his benefactor, de Deukans: “What are you drinking, the water or the wave?” It’s one of those enigmatic conundrums that acquire significance through repetition, and is bound to elicit a variety of interpretations. Fowles rewrote The Magus and reissued it in 1977, eleven years after its first publication. He made the meaning of the question less explicit in the rewrite, choosing to demonstrate rather than explain it. In the original, Conchis reflects, as a former doctor, upon his earlier need for facts and desire for empiricism:

When I looked back I saw that there had always been a discord in me between mystery and meaning. I had pursued the latter, worshipped the latter, as a doctor, and as a socialist and rationalist. But then I saw that the attempt to scientize reality, to name it and classify it and vivisect it out of existence, was like trying to remove all the air from atmosphere. In the creating of the vacuum it was the experimenter who died, because he was inside the vacuum. All this change in me came just when I unexpectedly found myself presented with the money and the leisure to do what I wanted in life. At that time I interpreted that last question of de Deukans as a warning. I was to look for the water, not the wave.

The connection I made was between Alicia’s comments about language and Conchis’s attitude to science and ‘reality’: like language, science is also another abstraction of the world. This is an idea that finds further clarification in Fowles’s semi-autobiographical book, The Tree, in which he uses the scientific taxonomies of Carl Linnaeus’s categorisation as a metaphor for humanity’s relationship with nature:

It is not of course the fault of modern scientists that most of their formal discourse is now of so abstruse a nature that only their fellow specialists can hope to understand it, that the discourse itself is increasingly mechanical, with words reduced to cogs and treated as poor substitutes for more purely scientific formulation; nor is it directly their fault that their vision of empirical knowledge, the all-important value they put upon proven or demonstrable fact, has seeped down to dominate the popular view of nature – and our education about it. Our fallacy lies in supposing that the limiting nature of scientific method corresponds to the nature of ordinary experience.

Conchis’s pithy question to Nicholas is somewhat similar. Nicholas intends to expose a set of facts and a truth that he thinks Conchis hides from him, without realising that it is his own education and intellectual precepts which make it nearly impossible for him to understand his own nature. ‘Water’ is a thing in nature which can only be experienced, but ‘wave’ is a concept about the physics of water that is imposed upon nature itself.

In Alicia’s discussions with Dr Cohen about science and Mathematics, she is making almost exactly the same point. Humanity’s perception of the universe is only possible through the limited senses, and therefore our understanding of it has nothing to do with its separate reality.

A Dark Universe

At the core of Alicia’s problem is her professed overwhelming desire for her brother, Bobby. The strictures on incest are fairly universal throughout human culture. Alicia’s response is to eschew established and accepted constructs. Her desire exists beyond the bounds of what is permissible. So, with or without a conscious agenda to do so, she intellectually positions herself outside and in opposition to the tenets of accepted epistemological models; models which constitute a series of binaries in her mind that are analogous to a core oppositional pairing: her desire against accepted morality. Each intellectual opposition replicates this core binary pair. By questioning Cohen’s psychiatric science she questions his right to make a clinical assessment of her. By questioning the tenets of human knowledge, she challenges the norms that have estranged her romantically from her brother. Therefore, ‘Opinion’ (scientific or any other human construct of the world) and ‘Reality’ (a universe that has nothing to do with epistemological models) can be equated with “sanity and madness”, thereby deconstructing the accepted values attributed to those words. Where Cohen might diagnose mental illness, Alicia claims the possibility of perception beyond the means of clinical treatment to understand. Mental patients have a “worldview at odds” with those who assess them, she tells him. And drugs suppress the senses rather than necessarily treat mental delusion. In arguing this, she positions her love outside the boundaries placed by humanity’s moral codes, themselves a construct of religious and social values.

Alicia’s thinking is anticipated in a dream she had as a ten year old, which she relates to Dr Cohen, of the Archatron:

I saw through something like a judas hole into this world where there were sentinels standing at a gate and I knew that beyond the gate was something terrible that had power over me . . . And that the search for shelter and for a covenant among us was simply to elude this baleful thing of which we were in endless fear and yet of which we had no knowledge.

At ten years old, Alicia gained a perception of death and the natural world, the presence beyond the gate: that which requires “a covenant . . .to elude this baleful thing”. That is, religious paradigms that seek to negate death, which cannot be known, with a system that can.

Alicia’s intellectual tenets reject what is often referred to in the novel as a ‘platonist’ ideation of reality, whether that be in Mathematics under models proposed by Gödel, or other human systems of knowledge. McCarthy is drawing upon Plato’s Forms here, as a system of reality beyond human experience, but also from neo-Platonist doctrines which are the basis of the separate physical and spiritual aspects of humanity – the body and soul – as understood in Christianity. Maths, religion, science and language impose an abstract system that separates the subject from an experienced reality of the world and offer, instead, an experience that is shaped by ideology, belief and theory. If these constructs are accepted platonically, they are universal truths that exist in nature and are therefore discovered rather than constructed paradigms. Alicia rejects this. The mistake, Alicia argues, is to believe that these abstractions have a reality beyond the human experience of them: “to claim that numbers exist in the Universe with no intelligence to enable them does not require a different sort of mathematic. It requires a different sort of universe”, she tells Dr Cohen.

As intelligent animals, human beings have separated themselves from the reality of the natural world through the mental jujitsu of language, science, and even, to an extent, mathematics. To punctuate the point, Alicia offers an impression of a universe without human perception or the power to abstract it:

One of the things I realized was that the universe had been evolving for countless billions of years in total darkness and total silence and that the way we imagine it is not the way that it was. In the beginning was always nothing. The novae exploded silently. In total darkness. The stars, the passing comets. Everything at best of alleged being. Black fires. Like the fires of hell. Silence, Nothingness. Night. Black suns herding the planets through a universe where the concept of space was meaningless for want of any end to it. For want of any concept to stand against it.

Alicia’s language parodies the language of the Bible – “In the beginning . . .” – to imagine a universe without purpose or design. It is a mantra that underpins her thinking throughout the novel: “the world does not have you in mind” she tells Cohen, and acknowledges that, “The notion that everything is just stuff doesn’t seem to do it for us.”

Stella Maris is a tour de force of intellectual novel which happens to be an impressive artistic achievement, too. It can be read on its own, but I think that would be to deprive oneself of the layered enjoyment that The Passenger brings to this work. With that said, Stella Maris is also a sad and tragic book: revealing the story of a character estranged from her life and isolated from the world through the loss of the only love she has ever desired, her brother’s. Read together, McCarthy’s two new novels are two of the most thought provoking, entertaining and philosophical fictions I have read for many years.

Cormac McCarthy
Cormac McCarthy
The Passenger is Cormac McCarthy's eleventh novel since 1965 and the first since he published The Road in 2006. The novel shares some elements of his 2005 novel No Country for Old Men, yet also achieves an apocalyptic sense of existence which is less literal than The Road.
Stella Maris
The Passenger
The Passenger is the companion volume to Stella Maris. The advertising copy says this about the book:

The Passenger is the story of a salvage diver, haunted by loss, afraid of the watery deep, pursued for a conspiracy beyond his understanding, and longing for a death he cannot reconcile with God.

1980, PASS CHRISTIAN, MISSISSIPPI: It is three in the morning when Bobby Western zips the jacket of his wet suit and plunges from the Coast Guard tender into darkness. His dive light illuminates the sunken jet, nine bodies still buckled in their seats, hair floating, eyes devoid of speculation. Missing from the crash site are the pilot’s flight bag, the plane’s black box, and the tenth passenger. But how? A collateral witness to machinations that can only bring him harm, Western is shadowed in body and spirit—by men with badges; by the ghost of his father, inventor of the bomb that melted glass and flesh in Hiroshima; and by his sister, the love and ruin of his soul.

Traversing the American South, from the garrulous barrooms of New Orleans to an abandoned oil rig off the Florida coast, The Passenger is a breathtaking novel of morality and science, the legacy of sin, and the madness that is human consciousness.

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