God's Silence, Humanity's Deafness
On Cormac McCarthy’s two new novels
By Christopher C. King
Photographs by Will Warasila from his first monograph, Quicker than Coal Ash, published last year by Gnomic Book. © The artist
Then let me go, since all your words are bitter,
And the very light of the sun is cold to me.
Lead me to my vigil, where I must have
Neither love nor lamentation; no song, but silence.
If dirges and…lamentations could put off death,
Men would be singing forever.
—Sophocles, Antigone, Scene IV, Epode
Not for any injustice in mine hands: also my prayer is pure. O earth, cover not thou my blood, and let my cry have no place
—Job: 16: 17-18
Probably no American writer of literary fiction in the early twenty-first century has been as reticent about their craft as Cormac McCarthy. At the age of eighty-nine he has given only the paltriest number of interviews, at least until the last few months of 2022. McCarthy does not do book readings or workshops and has obstinately refused to comment on his own work. His deflection of details about his life and what goes into his writing is both laudable and virtuous. This author has not given us a new way of telling a story. Rather, McCarthy—through his silence on his own work—is helping us to relearn how we used to engage in the act of storytelling, how we used to read word by word, line by line. By avoiding discussions about himself—his past, his persona, how he does his thing—he makes us pay attention to what is on the page.
We are story-telling and story-consuming animals. Little has changed about our psyche (and the voices that speak to our psyche) since Gilgamesh was first uttered. Perhaps to alleviate the burden of information consumption in the twenty-first century, we are told to understand the teller before we understand the telling. But some of us can choose to luxuriate in the mysteries of the storyteller and the story. What made him say this, in this way? We can choose to not know or to know only so much about the life of the writer outside of the words in their books. The seriousness of McCarthy’s writing and his own umwelt compels us to judge his work on the work alone.
In October and December of 2022, Knopf published McCarthy’s conjoined narratives The Passenger and Stella Maris, his first novels since 2006. In those intervening sixteen years, McCarthy published three “hybrid” pieces of writing that laid much of the conceptual groundwork for those two most recent novels: Sunset Limited, a “novel in dramatic form” published in 2006; The Counselor, a screenplay published in 2013; and The Kekulé Problem, his playful and somewhat lyrical nonfiction essay published in 2017. Curiously, these three works do not appear in the list of publications by McCarthy on the verso opposing the title page of the first editions of The Passenger and Stella Maris. The reason for their omission, I think, is that McCarthy wants us to engage with his two most recent works without showing us how he got there. This is, perhaps, because he expects each one of us to arrive at profoundly different places.
McCarthy takes these two stories, especially The Passenger, into the realm of parables on suffering like the Judaic books of Job and Jonah and the Greek tragedies of Sophocles and Aeschylus. In my reading, The Passenger is a theological noir where the ultimate question is not whether God exists but rather how do we manage God’s silence on our collective and individual suffering. Likewise, Stella Maris is a philosophical confessional, like Descartes’ Meditations, where we must determine whether life can be lived without hope, without prayers. In both of these stories, McCarthy seemingly taunts us with the presence of God while withholding God’s direct involvement. In other words, in these two stories the central question arises as to whether there can be human justice without divine, or at least metaphysical, justice.
The narrative contours of these two novels are unlike anything that McCarthy has ever given us. The Passenger is set in 1980 with most of the story playing out in New Orleans and in rural Tennessee. The actions, or, better put, reactions, in this story stem from ambiguous notions of criminality that Bobby Western, the main character, is caught up in. Fated, as it were. Bobby does not do things but rather things are done to him. Parallel to Bobby contending with forces outside of his understanding and control is his unreconciled grieving for his sister, Alicia, who killed herself about eight years earlier. Interspersed throughout The Passenger (as if nightmarish commercial breaks) are Alicia’s solipsistic delusional episodes, interpolated as if she were the camera’s eye focused on her own despair, her own longing, her own madness. The point of view becomes blurred such that by the end we are left wondering whether her visions may indeed have a reality as tactile as the main narrative of Bobby’s.
The second novel, Stella Maris, is a confessional containing a tightly knit dialogue between Alicia Western and her psychiatric counselor beginning in 1972, about eight years before the narrative of The Passenger, and, essentially, the year of her suicide. Through this story, Alicia recounts her obsessions with physics, philosophy, mathematics, and—centrally—her brother Bobby, who, at the time of the telling, lies in a coma, possibly brain dead. As she discloses to her therapist, she is in love with her brother (it is not simply “agape love”) and does not accept the possibility that there is another man in this world suitable for her. This and her litany of unreconciled losses shape her sense of profound “unbelonging” in this world. She simply no longer wants to exist in this place, a place without justice or fairness.
In my reading of these two novels I propose that the God that McCarthy withholds from us is a truly Southern one and that McCarthy, as a thinker and writer of the South, wants us to consider the outcomes, moral and otherwise, of living in a godless world. Who made it godless and by what means? By centering our attention on McCarthy’s words, we may find what many of his characters also discover: that our acceptance of a godless universe offers little moral footing for our actions yet it all but guarantees horrific consequences for us all. That the notion of justice requires something beyond human convention and law.
In the recounting of a dream toward the end of The Passenger, we are told that “a thing once seen cannot be unseen.” This is one of the constant themes in The Passenger and Stella Maris: that there is a persistence to vision and to memory that is both part of us and ultimately tied to our ruination. But I think for us to have a deeper understanding of Cormac McCarthy—his place as a writer of the South and as a theological thinker—we must shake off the presuppositions of what we’ve seen and read about McCarthy. We must understand the telling, not the teller. And it is a long and rich telling that he has given us about fairness and divinity—unnatural justice—starting from the very beginning of his writing.
From the publication of his first novel, McCarthy has offered us stories that take place principally in the American South and Southwest, in the Appalachian wilderness and in the desert scree on or near the Mexican border. Though he was not born in Tennessee, he spent the majority of his early life in Knoxville, was raised a Catholic, and eventually settled in New Mexico. There is a way of being that McCarthy shares with the cultures and the territories below the Mason-Dixon Line, a sort of understated matter-of-factness that is not in the least bit cynical. Therefore, I understand him as a Southern writer in the best sense of the term. This is especially true in The Orchard Keeper (1965), Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973), The Gardener’s Son (1976), and Suttree (1979).
These four novels and one screenplay carry protagonists who are misfits, social deviants, and criminals held in contempt by the rest of “acceptable” Southern society. The judgment and punishment of these miscreants—when they receive it—is typically at the hands of those around them who have a connection to conventional, civil justice. And the God who occasionally flits in the shadows of these stories is simultaneously omnipotent and withdrawn. In the words of the tinker in Outer Dark, “I’ve seen the meanness of humans till I don’t know why God ain’t put out the sun and gone away.”
But something happened in the early 1980s for McCarthy. Perhaps an epiphany, a revelation. I like to think that through his incessant crafting of stories he discovered, as stated in The Passenger, “that what drives the tale will not survive the tale.” What drives the tale but does not survive the tale is the author, the teller. With this realization of truth, the voice of the author becomes elevated, almost transcendent, because it can conjoin lyricism with the profound issues of life, death, and the suffering in between these two states. This is especially true when it comes to biblical writing such as the Ketuvim books like Job and the tragedies of Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus. In a very real way, an author sheds their ego once they discover their voice. And in the early 1980s Cormac McCarthy discovered his voice in Blood Meridian.
Although McCarthy’s diction was distinctive during the first fifteen years of his writing, it derived heavily from that of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. Phrases such as “getting something from the getting place” (from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury) and the final speech of The Misfit at the end of O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find about how Jesus threw “everything off balance” find their echoes in McCarthy’s work. But with the publication of Blood Meridian in 1985, his rhetoric took on the edge and breadth and width of what could only be called parabolic and epical: it was simultaneously visionary and economical. No space was wasted when narrating one of the darkest periods of American history and overlaying that history with that of humanity’s central impulse, the eternal dance of warfare. McCarthy’s prose in Blood Meridian is like a piece of flawless architecture or the darkest poem. Perhaps both.
Blood Meridian follows a gang of scalp hunters as they trek across the Southwest and Mexico, murdering practically everyone in their path and establishing a de facto rule of mercenary law. The god in this story is the god of war, a composite of Ares and Yahweh and Ninurta. As the central antagonist, the judge, puts it, “War is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.” The prime mover of the universe in Blood Meridian has little concern with his creation other than letting men play out their ultimate purpose, their self-destruction. The judge says, “If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now?” And, “Moral law is an invention of mankind for the disenfranchisement of the powerful in favor of the weak.”
The relentless cruelty witnessed on nearly every page of Blood Meridian is matched only by the dispassionate conclusion of the story: that justice is a false concept because it sets off-kilter the rule of the strong warrior—a Darwinian mandate conjoined with a territorial imperative. From this point on in Blood Meridian until The Passenger and Stella Maris, McCarthy has persistently explored these notions of “natural” justices and human justice. It is not just the problem of evil that those writers who deal with life and death have inherited from Dostoevsky. For McCarthy, it is also the problem of fairness and profound non-physical, emotional pain. If we are just a biological entity intent upon survival, then how can we make sense of the notions of justice, of anguish, of longing, of discrete and mysterious emotional states? How do we make sense of “difficult things that have no survival value” as Bobby states in The Passenger?
Between 1992 and 1998 McCarthy published his “Border Trilogy” with All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, and Cities of the Plain along with a play, The Stonemasons. These three novels and one play explored narratives looking back on a world that will disappear: ways of life and ways of being that can no longer be summoned forth, ways of being that are unimaginable. The manner in which people spun lathes to fashion their furniture; how ranchers tamed hundreds of wild horses and traded across the border; how generations of African Americans in Tennessee passed down the unwritten, ancient craft of hewing rock for the foundations and walls of their homes: the life and death of these traditions is portrayed vividly by McCarthy during this period. These stories especially focus on how past loves and past lives are inaccessible to us, how nostalgia carries with it its own sense of innate injustice. And The Crossing in particular attempts to navigate the differences between natural justice and human justice when a young cowboy and hunter-trapper, Billy Parham, captures and then attempts to return a female wolf back to Mexico, a journey doomed to failure because the motivation of human justice clashes violently with the course of natural justice.
No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006) are perhaps McCarthy’s most famous novels. Not only were they made into well-produced films but they also fascinate contemporary readership because of our perpetual fixation on the apocalypse found in The Road and the nearly nihilistic sense of violence found in No Country for Old Men. During the writing of No Country for Old Men, McCarthy was no doubt responding to the seemingly senseless violence resulting from the war on drugs taking place along the U.S.–Mexican border. With The Road, McCarthy must have been witnessing and responding to the accelerated degradation of our planet through overpopulation, man-made climate change, and warfare. These are ways in which McCarthy engages in our real-world problems of the twentieth century. But behind these messages are timeless, urgent, and subtle themes consistent with McCarthy’s exploration of justice, ethics, and something akin to divinity.
In the narrative of No Country for Old Men, a hunter named Llewelyn Moss comes across a drug deal that has gone very bad in the desert. Retrieving the money—but setting into motion a series of events that releases a killer, Anton Chigurh, to pursue him and a sheriff, Ed Tom Bell, to save him—Moss creates a situation where multiple “blameless” characters (including Moss’s wife) are executed. Parallel with this notion of unjust murders are Sheriff Bell’s meditations throughout the story stating that men have apparently lost—or given up on—their souls. He ponders that as an old man, he is encountering a new breed of men: men who openly admit that they are going to hell without a bit of trepidation because there is no redemption, no soul, and no clear notion of right or wrong.
Indeed, every character, except for Moss, Chigurh, and Bell, is strictly caught up in a sense of randomness. Moss must die, not because of some overwhelming ethical failing (although he has his failings), but rather, because he’s just not fast enough for the game in which he is ensnared. Chigurh must execute anyone who is in the way of his pursuit of Moss or, alternatively, fails a coin toss. For example, toward the end of No Country for Old Men, Moss’s wife, Carla Jean, is confronted by Chigurh, who is prepared to murder her. Carla Jean expresses the lack of fairness in her imminent execution. Chigurh offers her one last chance: a coin toss to determine her fate. In McCarthy’s telling, Chigurh shows her the coin so she can “see the justice in it.” She replies that “God would not want” her to call the coin toss. Chigurh insists and she loses the toss. Her reply, “The coin didn’t have no say. It was just you.” In Carla Jean’s universe, God distributes justice whereas her murder is randomly dispensed by Chigurh.
Sheriff Bell in turn witnesses a world that is devoid of justice, lacking an ethical center. And Bell remembers a world that was more fair, more ethical, less random. Did such a world actually exist, and, if it did, what became of it? If the world has become less just and more cruel, who is responsible?
The very fact of a world that has ceased to exist outside of individual memory is the subject of The Road. There are only two main characters, a father and a son, and the most elemental of plots: the world has been blighted like a rotten apple by some unnamed calamity (or series of disasters) and father and son are slowly and desperately traveling south across America to where there may be a better chance of survival. The landscape is a combination of burnt wilderness, filthy gray snow-covered fields, and gutted cities. The man and the boy are starving, freezing, and evading packs of cannibals. It is impossible to imagine a god in this world. It is difficult to imagine anything of the miraculous. In an encounter with an old man in the road, the following dialogue emerges between the old survivor and the father:
When I saw that boy I thought that I had died.
You thought he was an angel? I didn’t know what he was. I never thought to see a child again. I didn’t know that would happen.
What if I said that he’s a god?
The old man shook his head. I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men can’t live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true.
It is implied throughout The Road that the apocalypse that has shrouded the bleakest of all landscapes was brought about by us, by humanity. That we authored this environmental catastrophe through our thoughtless pillaging of resources laid before us. We upset the balance of our ecosystem. And that by extension, we have removed God from this world. As we shall read, this is a cautionary tale that echoes resoundingly in The Passenger and Stella Maris.
The father and son in The Road form the most basic ethical principles: they are “the good guys” and they “don’t eat people.” The father’s only charge in this most dire form of existence is preserving the life of his son. Fundamentally, the story appears to lay bare how human (or divine) justice could intersect with natural justice. How to preserve life while being “fair.” But to be sure, there is no redemption and no salvation in this story other than the father sacrificing himself to ensure the survival of his son. After his death, the boy “tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget.”
McCarthy closes The Road, as he closes Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, with a dreamlike (or perhaps, a dream) meditation that ties together his larger work. At the end of The Road, we are left pondering an image of what can only be called “miraculous.” It is the vision of a wild trout in a stream, visceral, and of a thing lost forever because of the destruction of the world. It is an image of a miracle. “In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.” For what could be more miraculous than that which precedes humanity and courses with mystery?
In the same year as the publication of The Road, McCarthy also released his “novel in dramatic form,” The Sunset Limited. It was his most serious—and direct—meditation on faith, justice, suffering, and a belief in God until The Passenger and Stella Maris. Like The Road, it is elemental in that it has only two (unnamed) characters, Black and White. Black is from the South, Louisiana, and is a “born again” ex-convict living in New York City. He has just saved the life of White, a professor in the city who was preparing to throw himself into the path of a train, the Sunset Limited. White wants to end it all because those things that had validated his miserable existence—literature, art, and music—have degraded and nearly disappeared for him.
A simple dialectic emerges while Black tries to dissuade White from suicide in Black’s kitchen. Black’s universe is one where faith is knowledge; where God will “speak to anybody that’ll listen”; and that in order to hear God, one just needs to be quiet. White’s world is one where “suffering and human destiny are the same thing”; where a belief in God is a belief in an illusion; and where “evolution cannot avoid bringing intelligent life ultimately to an awareness of one thing above all else and that one thing is futility.” Black infers from White’s diatribe that “everybody that ain’t just eat up with the dumb-ass ought to be suicidal.” In other words, for White, to be intelligent is to embrace the emptiness of life and consequently to end one’s own.
Before White leaves Black’s kitchen, presumably to renew his fatal meeting with the Sunset Limited, Black tells White, “The light is all around you, cept you dont see nothin but shadow. And the shadow is you. You the one makin it.” So acute is White’s obsession with human suffering that he confesses that, despite being an avid reader, he has only read the book of Job from the Bible. The rest of the book is of no interest to him. White cannot see the miraculous that is around him. He can only see his own pain, his own suffering.
McCarthy departed from focused theological musings with The Counselor, published seven years later in 2013. He offered instead a deep study on the deterministic nature of moral decisions and consequences, along with human greed and the current war on narcotics. Like in several of his earlier stories, the plot plays out along the Texas–Mexican border. A lawyer (the counselor) decides to engage in money laundering connected to a drug deal for only one instance (he asserts) so he can buy an engagement diamond for his young fiancée. In a deftly crafted lesson in tragic foreshadowing—the ancient Greek notion of proekonomia—a Jewish Sephardic jeweler discusses the cut of a diamond for the counselor to consider:
Once the first facet is cut there can be no going back. What was meant to be a union remains forever untrue and we see a troubling truth in that the forms of our undertakings are complete at their beginnings. For good or for ill.
And slightly further in, one of the counselor’s co-conspirators, Reiner, tells him, “You pursue this road that you’ve embarked upon and you will eventually come to moral decisions that will take you completely by surprise.” And the road does. The drug deal goes bad and everyone around the counselor is annihilated, brutally, including his innocent fiancée. This story, like No Country for Old Men, is cautionary.
Five years before the publication of The Passenger and Stella Maris, McCarthy wrote a nonfiction essay, The Kekulé Problem, which ostensibly explores the unconscious as an operating system for the human animal and suggests how language may have emerged in our species. I say ostensibly because there is much more going on in this relatively relaxed and poetic piece of writing. On the surface, McCarthy asserts that language (as representational, symbolic) is not necessary for humans since the “other five thousand plus mammals among us do fine without it.” But on the deepest level, what he concludes is that “the facts of the world do not for the most part come in narrative form. We do that.” What this means is that language is a tool for representing the world in a way that is coherent to our brain and also that the unconscious operates without language to guide us through a world that lacks this coherence. “The unconscious is a biological operative and language is not.” The question continues to linger: For what reason do we feel compelled to narrativize the world? Surely we could be like all other animals and accept the world at face value.
Parts of the answer could come from more scientifically grounded works such as Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species: The Co-Evolution of Language and the Brain. In some ways, this could be an urtext for Stella Maris, and this book certainly resonates throughout the essay The Kekulé Problem. Deacon argues convincingly that relatively late in our evolutionary development, some aspects of our brain developed to accommodate reflective consciousness and the proclivity to construct signs and symbols to reference things outside of our selves. Our mind tells us that one thing means another. What Deacon doesn’t discuss is how the evolved rational mind co-exists (or, at least, manages) alongside the more ancient subconscious mind. McCarthy—through the voice of Alicia Western in Stella Maris—explores this uneasy and, ultimately, doomed co-existence. Our representational modes of navigating the world (mathematics, physics, philosophy) are often at odds with our subconscious operating system whose primary mandate is to keep us on the track of survival, to live.
The answer clearly lies on the pages of The Kekulé Problem along with The Sunset Limited (and earlier works) and is then resumed with The Passenger and Stella Maris. It’s this notion that the soul or the psyche is constantly with us and is tasked with “taking care of us.” For instance, in The Kekulé Problem, “the unconscious is laboring under a moral compulsion to educate us” and “the unconscious wants to give guidance to your life in general…And while the path which it suggests for you may be broad it doesn’t include going over a cliff.” In other words, whatever the unconscious is, it is responsible for keeping you alive and helping you make choices that are good for you, the human animal.
Likewise, in The Sunset Limited, in describing his moral compass, Black tells White:
The soul might be silent but the servant of the soul has always got a voice and it has got one for a reason. The life of the master depends on the servant and this is one master that has got to be sustained. Got to be sustained.
Whatever it is called—the unconscious, the psyche, the moral compass—it is tasked with taking care of us, helping guide us and our actions as we move through the world. Of sustaining us.
The question still lingers: why are we story-telling and story-consuming animals? Why do we narrativize the world and use language when all the other species of mammals get along fine without such a behavior? The answer lies—partially—in how McCarthy describes justice, suffering, and divinity in The Passenger and Stella Maris.
Cormac McCarthy is difficult in the same way Flannery O’Connor is difficult: Readers are presented with messages that may clash sonorously with their own spirituality, their own reconciliation with deity, their own grounding for ethical choice. Both authors ask, If we are not a moral being with a soul, then what are we? O’Connor was quite vocal about her Catholicism. McCarthy is silent about his own beliefs because what matters to his work are the words on the page.
I find a “Christ-haunted South” in O’Connor and a “Prophet-haunted South” in McCarthy. Even though revelation is offered by both writers in overwhelming abundance—often with a good measure of violence with the unveiling—salvation (or redemption) is only present with O’Connor. Instead, McCarthy’s stories are ominous and prescient since the prophets of their telling are doomed, their eyes open long enough to witness the horrific consequences of their actions.
For O’Connor, the Jesus of the South has something akin to divine dignity. Although tempted by Satan, Jesus shirks such temptations because it is beneath Him. This Jesus is redeemed and cool-headed because he can offer salvation through his grace. Yet with O’Connor, the grace bestowed upon her characters often coincides with their own violent annihilation, crippling, or stillborn realization—a kind of existential paralysis.
McCarthy’s God of the South is different: This deity is both Judean and one with the ancient Greeks. He’s not a personal god. The omnipotent force directing the actions in McCarthy’s work is one who is rather standoffish and taciturn. A “prime-mover”? Yes. A God who offers salvation, hope? No. This God acts kind of like a sheriff’s deputy from some small Tennessee town peering down at you through mirrored sunglasses after pulling you over for blowing through a stoplight.
This God of the South allows suffering without redemption to take place. He’s more than a little petty, like the Greek god Zeus. Jealous and petulant. In a way, very much unlike Christ. There’s not a lot of divine dignity at play in this Judean-Greek god. Look what he allowed to befall Job. Or another “passenger,” Jonah.
In other words, in most of McCarthy’s novels—especially The Passenger and Stella Maris—there is ceaseless personal revelation but no savior at the end of the story. And in McCarthy’s telling, God is absolved. We can’t really fault Him. Why? Because we were given a paradise along with all the other flora and fauna and—in our hubris-filled impulses—we’ve created the mechanisms of our own doom.
For instance, it is revealed in both of these most recent novels that Bobby and Alicia’s father was one of the group of men responsible for creating the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. McCarthy, describing the actions and consequences surrounding this invention and drawing himself closer to the real problems of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, writes, “In that mycoidal phantom blooming in the dawn like an evil lotus and in the melting of solids not heretofore known to do so stood a truth that would silence poetry a thousand years.” Both Bobby and Alicia must hold within themselves the truth that their father is among those who have sealed the fate of humanity, the authors of our species’ destruction.
When Alfred A. Knopf announced publication of the two new novels in 2022, the executive editor described The Passenger and Stella Maris as “like two sides of the same coin…the story of a pair of siblings, Bobby and Alicia Western.” This very literal summary begs the question of what the coin actually is. From my reading, that coin is not the siblings. The central theme of these two stories is the suffering caused by injustice and the fact that there is no redemption from that suffering. The coin is the human soul, the psyche. The two novels act not as different sides of a coin but rather like the magnification powers found on an old-school microscope. Each story brings into resolution disparate aspects of emotional loss and unabated longing—non-physical pain emanating from the soul. The Passenger often reads like the ordeals witnessed in the book of Job, whereas Stella Maris follows the contours of Cassandra’s prophetic madness in Agamemnon by Aeschylus.
For The Passenger, Bobby is the locus of individual suffering but at the same time a rather passive subject. Like Job in the Old Testament, all persons and things of value are taken away from Bobby: best friends, his sister and lover, his objects of wealth and livelihood. And slightly over two-thirds of the way through the book, Bobby—like Jonah in the Old Testament—begins to wander in the wilderness. But unlike Job and Jonah, there is no evidence that this is a test of faith for Bobby. If anything, Bobby appears to be a bottomless reservoir holding all despair presented to him. The coin he returns is remorse. The one thing that Bobby has not lost is his capacity to suffer, to feel anguish and loss. Toward the end of the story, Bobby is learning how to pray but to whom or to what, he does not know.
Whether one believes in God or not is a question posed on numerous occasions throughout The Passenger. It is asked of Bobby and asked by Bobby. A kindly answer resolves itself when Bobby visits the sanitorium of Stella Maris where his sister spent the remainder of her life until her suicide. When Bobby asks one of the patients who’d befriended Alicia if he believes in God, he replies:
I don’t believe anything about God. I just believe in God….The last light the nonbeliever will see will not be the dimming of the sun. It will be the dimming of God. Everyone is born with the faculty to see the miraculous. You have to choose not to.
This passage resonates with Black’s aforementioned observation to White in The Sunset Limited: how we are surrounded by light yet some of us only see darkness because we are the ones casting the shadow.
This question of the existence of God—and what it means—comes near the end of The Passenger when Bobby has removed himself from the world so that he can properly mourn the loss of his sister. In a conversation after he has entered his complete spiritual exile he is told that “a Godless life would not prepare one for a Godless death.”
To be clear, in McCarthy’s telling, neither Bobby nor Alicia have done anything of great magnitude to deserve their individual suffering. They are not people who “will go to strange lengths to avoid the suffering that they have coming” as Alicia says. It’s not that they are innocent, it is just that their moral failings are not egregious. Their failings are human.
For McCarthy, Alicia’s descent into schizophrenia and suicide is particularily due to her inability to accept her humanness, her myopia and hyperopia when it comes to discerning the true nature of reality. Her soul appears nearly divorced from her body, the various modes of how one understands the world pushing her away from the world. In Stella Maris, Alicia says, “The spiritual nature of reality has been the principal preoccupation of mankind since forever and it’s not going away anytime soon. The notion that everything is just stuff doesn’t seem to do it for us.” The Cartesian dilemma that Alicia ultimately confronts is that once you’ve thrown Descartes overboard, it’s hard to get him back into the boat.
She desires more than anything else to see some logic or fairness in the world around her. But there is none. Without the love of her life, Bobby, there is no coherence.
In The Passenger, Alicia is rendered as a messenger—as a prophet so to speak—and one of her messages to Bobby is “God was not interested in our theology but only in our silence.”
Throughout both novels, people pray, but they don’t know what they are praying for or to whom. For instance, on the very first page of The Passenger, an unnamed hunter comes upon the dead body of Alicia Western and “thought that he should pray but he’d no prayer for such a thing.” People wish to speak to God yet God’s silence is ponderous throughout both stories. What becomes crystalline in the telling of both tales is a piece of knowledge that is as old as Gilgamesh or the arcane pictographs etched in stone across the surface of the planet: that our emotional landscape and especially our suffering—our non-physical emotional pain—points to the existence of that intangible whatsit, our soul.
McCarthy writes in the essay The Kekulé Problem that “the picture-story lends itself to parable. To the tale whose meaning gives one pause.” And his stories are cautionary parables. The Kekulé Problem figures significantly in Stella Maris, since Alicia’s confessions to her psychiatrist quote almost verbatim from this singular nonfiction writing by McCarthy.
In the essay, he discusses how language is a virus. That representational or symbolic language spread across the world as if there were no mountains or seas. In the same essay he writes that the world is not structured in a narrative way. We create the narrative. Why?
Maybe language is not the virus per se. Perhaps we should think about language as a tool (or maybe as a toolbox) that narrativizes the world. In this way, the virus that swept through our species not out of necessity but out of usefulness was “storytelling,” expressing things in language that could not be expressed otherwise. The compulsion to add narrative order onto the world where there was none may have had practical benefits. It then became “hardwired” and language served a useful purpose. But still, why did we do this? Who did this?
A vessel formed in our species that held something miraculous. The soul. Perhaps the sudden, unannounced emergence of the psyche brought with it not only self-awareness but possibly, especially, an awareness of non-physical pain: suffering, sadness, longing, regret. Not-feeling-at-home. We as a species needed to be able to communicate something that was invisible: our non-physical pain and anguish. With so much suffering contained within our souls, it became necessary for us to express and release it, lest it cause the vessel to shatter, to break. Language then becomes a very useful tool for communicating our emotional landscape through narrative.
One can read The Passenger and Stella Maris as clever arguments for the existence of the soul. But what of the soul’s origin?
Iremember sitting in a cold wooden chair during Sunday school in southwest Virginia. Nine or ten years old. Our teacher, the wife of a deacon, half-implores, half-asks, “Can you be silent during the lesson?”
Both hard-shell and soft-shell Protestant churches of the South have a dilemma on their hands when it comes to explaining that prayer is not a mechanism for cause and effect. We’ve never had agency when it comes to the book of life, to those things that are fated or stitched into the pattern of our lives that are in turn stitched into all other things. Rather, we’ve had to come to some place where we understand that prayers are never for an outcome. Prayers—or hope—are for a reconciliation, for accepting pain.
The lesson that day in Sunday school was “God’s silence is not His absence.” In hindsight, I guess it is like a Zen koan or something scribbled on top of a stone pillar where some wasted mendicant has chosen to live out the rest of his wretched life. I took this statement to mean that God always listens but rarely speaks. And that unanswered prayers are a form of tragedy as old as our vocal cords.
The soul is always listening. And the keeper of the soul, whatever or whoever that may be, is also always listening. Can we be silent?