Mathematical Tragedy: On Cormac McCarthy’s “Stella Maris”
By Thomas J. MillayJanuary 5, 2023
Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy
The real question is not so much what to make of Stella Maris as it is what to make of the person we meet through this book, Alicia Western. Similar to McCarthy’s 2006 play The Sunset Limited — though more convincingly realized — the entire story takes place via a series of dialogues (seven in total) between Alicia and a psychiatrist in the eponymous mental institution where she has housed herself. Stella Maris is thus not so much a book as it is a character transcription. But is this character compelling? Does she meet the impossibly high standard set for her in The Passenger? The answer to that question is yes and no — but I believe Stella Maris to be a greater achievement because the answer is not just a simple yes.
First, as to that yes: Alicia comes across as quite bright, as she is supposed to be. McCarthy’s poetic evocations of her mathematical cogitations consistently have the ring of truth. For example:
Things like the deeps of cohomology or Cantor’s discontinuum are tainted with the flavor of unguessed worlds. We can see the footprints of algebras whose entire domain is immune to commutation. Matrices whose hatchings cast a shadow upon the floor of their origins and leave there an imprint to which they no longer conform. Homological algebra has come to shape a good deal of modern mathematics. But in the end the world of computation will simply absorb it.
This brief manifesto seems a fair way to capture the promise and the horror of 20th-century mathematics. Alicia’s grasp of evolutionary biology is not as strong; she seems to reduce all observable developments to the imperative for survival, which ignores both the insights of systems biology and Darwin’s own research on the sexuality of birds. Here it is perhaps the case that McCarthy’s limitations have also limited Alicia — always a danger when writing of someone who is supposed to be brilliant. But Alicia does come off as a gifted mathematician; it seems McCarthy’s association with the Sante Fe Institute has reaped significant dividends. At the very least, it has enabled this convincing portrait of a young woman carrying on the work of Grothendieck and Gödel.
Now, as to the no: If Stella Maris were simply an extended portrait of a gifted intellectual, it would be an admirable book, along the lines of Karen Olsson’s The Weil Conjectures: On Math and the Pursuit of the Unknown (2019), which told the compelling story of Simone and André Weil. Yet Stella Maris is a much more complicated endeavor than a laudatory biography. The figure of Alicia both attracts and repels us in a way that simple description of her mathematical gifts could never accomplish.
What attracts us is the portrait of a genius that McCarthy convincingly constructs. What repels us is the pomposity that accompanies a true believer. Sometimes (though not always), Alicia seems to believe in the fundamental importance of mathematics — that math is not only an important field of inquiry but also the most significant human pursuit imaginable. “And again,” she says, “when you’re talking about intelligence you’re talking about number. A claim that the mathless are quick to frown upon. It’s about calculation and the nature of calculation. Verbal intelligence will only take you so far.” Such a groundless elevation of math would be bad enough, but at times Alicia emphasizes intelligent comprehension as the whole point of life, a goal that can only be accomplished, in her view, through mathematics. Put all this together and you have the repulsive side of Alicia’s character, one that you would never get from Bobby Western’s skewed perception of her.
When encountering this side of Alicia, we feel the tragedy of someone who has missed the mark of what it means to be human. She theorizes when the point is to do something. Her whole life is a delay, a dallying in the waiting room. Alicia’s misapprehension of human existence leads occasionally to readerly frustration, but most often it leads to tender regard: ultimately, one feels pity for her — though I am certain such a response would generate great anger in Alicia herself, as she is certainly not someone who desires to be pitied (“I resent people wanting to fix me”).
In this sense, the character Alicia most resembles is not some brilliant mathematician but, rather, Ivan Karamazov. One of the three brothers at the center of Dostoevsky’s famous novel, Ivan is an intellectual who spends his time collecting evidence for his case against the goodness of God. The evidence he collects centers upon the suffering of the young: babies speared through with swords, infants banished by parents, children left outside to know the pain of winter. Over the course of the novel, Ivan shares his case against God with his brother Alyosha, and then he descends into madness. Eventually imagining a conversation with the devil, Ivan is left in such a state that he is rendered incapable of offering a key piece of evidence at his brother Dmitri’s trial. Unlike Alyosha, who gathers admiring children around himself and gives them hope, Ivan never actually does anything to help children, and in the end, he cannot even provide basic assistance on behalf of his own brother. Ivan’s failure has to do with the fact that he theorizes instead of acting, collecting stories of children suffering rather than doing anything about that suffering. Ivan has mistaken the purpose of human existence: he has forgotten the primacy of the ethical.
Insofar as Alicia is obsessed with her own project of comprehending the universe, readers will likely find themselves filled with repulsion mixed with pity. Yet Alicia is still more complicated than this. Her drive to understand goes back to her childhood. She says that, as a child, “I understood I was in a place where I was going to be for a long time and that I had to figure it out. That everything depended on my finding out where I was.” On the other hand, she makes the following testimony on the very same page: “Later I suppose I came to see the world as pretty much proof against any comprehensive description of it.” Alicia at times seems to recognize that to pursue comprehension as the purpose of existence, to the exclusion of all else, is to doom oneself to a contradictory venture — because if one comprehends one’s true status as a human being, one grasps that full understanding of the world is impossible.
But what does Alicia do with such recognition? Does it lead her to stop thinking and act? Here lies the tragic arc Stella Maris traces. Advancing beyond Ivan Karamazov, Alicia now knows and believes that comprehending the world via mathematics is not the whole point of existence. And, knowing this, she wants to act. But she cannot: she is prevented. And what prevents her? The fact that the act she wishes to undertake is love, and the love is for her brother — her brother refuses this love, for the most part, and then he dies. (At least, Alicia believes so; think Romeo and Juliet.) So, the one thing Alicia wanted to do — to love her brother — she cannot do. Hence her residency at Stella Maris and her ultimate demise.
Now, you may be thinking: Couldn’t she have done something else? Acted in some other way? For example, Alicia inherited half a million dollars from her paternal grandmother, with which she purchased an Amati violin. Couldn’t she take that violin around to mental institutions like Stella Maris and play it for the residents? In such acts of kindness, there would be purpose and likely a sense of fulfillment. Alicia does not deny the truth of this claim, but she is too broken to enact it: “The man I wanted wouldnt have me. So that was that. I couldnt stop loving him. So my life was pretty much over”; “I told him I would rather be dead with him than alive without him”; “And yet what can the world’s troubles mean to someone unable to shoulder her own?”
How lovely and how sad are the many complications that comprise the character of Alicia Western. And this is what makes Stella Maris a true work of literature. McCarthy clearly is interested in physics, quantum mechanics, and mathematics, and it is plain that he holds them in high regard. In a 2005 interview in Vanity Fair, he says: “What physicists did in the 20th century was one of the extraordinary flowerings ever in the human enterprise.” Yet neither The Passenger nor Stella Maris offers simplistic paeans to these fields. Whatever wonders they may hold, these wonders take place in human beings, whose lives are always messy, and usually tragic. Mathematical knowledge and human existence: The gift McCarthy has given us is the juxtaposition of these two things, not in the comedic fashion of Leonard Michaels’s Nachman stories but in the plangent mode of Euripidean tragedy. If McCarthy’s goal was for these books to haunt readers long after they are set aside, then he has succeeded.
Thomas J. Millay is a Senior Research Fellow at the Hong Kierkegaard Library, St. Olaf College, and the author of You Must Change Your Life: Søren Kierkegaard’s Philosophy of Reading (Cascade Press, 2020), Kierkegaard and the New Nationalism (Lexington Press, 2021), and The Abased Christ (De Gruyter, 2022).
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