Cormac McCarthy: The End of the Road
Mark C. Taylor
At the age of ninety, Cormac McCarthy has published a remarkable two-volume novel that is, in my judgment, his best work. The Passenger and Stella Maris have received unusually favorable reviews by leading critics – Graeme Wood (The Atlantic), James Wood (The New Yorker), Dwight Garner (The New York Times), and Michael Gorra (The New York Review of Books). In the following remarks, I focus on The Passenger and leave Stella Maris for a later essay. While each of these reviewers traces a different strand in McCarthy’s opus and all are worthy of attention. None of these reviewers have read the novel that I have read. This is not surprising because, as I have told my students for many years, what you read and write depends on when and where you read and write. Because of the relativity of time-space, perspectives differ and timing really matters.Moby Dick is a different book when read at 27 in the Berkshire Mountains than when read at 77 in New York City. I will, of course, never know how I would have understood The Passenger had I read it as a young man.
Not one book but two—two books that are really one, or, more precisely, complementary works that are neither one nor two but something in between. Why? What divides and joins these works?
This will in all probability, and probability is at the heart of this tale, be McCarthy’s last work. If I were writing my book Last Works: Lessons in Leaving today, this two-part novel would conclude my study. What makes this work so uncanny is the way my interests and the interests of this exceptional writer from whom I have learned so much over the years seem to converge at this late moment in our lives. Like Hegel’s Owl of Minerva taking flight at twilight, McCarthy looks back at his oeuvre as well as his life and ponders both what has been and what might have been. So much accomplished but so much left unsaid and undone. These metaphysical musings invite patient readers to do likewise.
The Passenger is a novel about ending – not only ending but also about what, if anything, comes after the end. The sense of an ending brings an acute awareness of the inevitability of loss. In the end as in the beginning, there is loss. The revised edition of Last Works would have three epigrams from The Passenger.
It’s an odd place the world.
I suppose in the end what we have to offer is only what we’ve lost.
Still at heart I know there’s more wisdom in sorrow than in joy.
Loss and ending. Loss – so much loss. The loss of self, the loss of world, the loss of reason, the loss of certainty, the loss of love, the loss of life. And death – not just personal death, but the death of the human race, perhaps the death of life or even the cosmos.
The book begins with loss – the loss of a plane and its passengers. Like Orpheus, readers are drawn to the depths from the very first page and never really surface. In the beginning is loss – not just loss but loss within loss; one of the lost passengers is lost and this absence, which sets the plot and all the characters in motion, is never resolved. In the end is loss – the loss of earth, rocks, deserts, horses, bodies, and blood as they dissolve in information, images and virtual reality circulating in global networks and displayed on surfaces screening what once had seemed real.
In the end, she said, there will be nothing that cannot be simulated.
Even the writing of a master like McCarthy.
As these remarks suggest, I read The Passenger as an extension of The Road. Though the prose and the vision are decidedly different, both works are apocalyptic. Bobby and Alicia are the children of a colleague of Robert Oppenheimer. Working at the Santa Fe Institute, which became a refuge for scientists who had worked on the bomb at Los Alamos, McCarthy always writes in the shadow of atomic annihilation. I know of no more horrifying post-apocalyptic vision than the nameless father and son wandering like lost passengers amidst ruins in The Road. In The Passenger, the devastation is inward and in many ways even more traumatic. One of the questions McCarthy leaves for readers to answer is, Who is the passenger in The Passenger?
Reviewers have consistently argued that the passenger of the title is either the missing body in the submerged plane or Bobby. While these suggestions are not necessarily wrong, for a writer as sophisticated as McCarthy they are too obvious, too literal, and too simplistic. The passenger whose journey we follow is, I believe, none other than McCarthy himself. The author takes readers along the road he has traveled so that they might better understand their own journeys to selfhood. The characters McCarthy creates are the personae through which and through whom he speaks.
I am an end of the roader, Bobby. I always was. Maybe I just didn’t know it. What do you think is out there? Borman shook his head. Well? Have you looked around lately, Son? What do you think is coming? Christmas. You cant even hire mourners anymore. After a while they’ll figure out a way to dissolve you. Your brain shuts down and the next thing you know there’s only a pair of shoes and some laundry piled up on the sidewalk. You surprise me. This is your last port of call? Probably. Maybe not. Too soon old and too late smart. You don’t know anything until it gets here. You told me once that maybe the end of the road has nothing to do with the road. Maybe it doesn’t ever know there’s been a road. You ready?
“An end of the roader.” Bobby also goes by the name Western. If the outward devastation in The Road is internalized in The Passenger, then end of Western is the end of the West. Not just McCarthy’s beloved West or Southwest, which is vaporized in simulations and clouds of information, but the end of the West that has been aborning since ancient Greek philosophy and tragedy. At the end of the road there are echoes of Hegel, Kojeve, Fukuyama, and Blanchot’s “Last Man” and, yes, Bruce Springsteen’s “The Last Man Standing.” Melancholy rather than despair haunts McCarthy’s words. Chances missed and roads not taken.
In another life I’d have done things differently. Another life.
Here multiple worlds seem to be held together and apart by strings too thin to be seen.
Reviewers have made much of the stylistic differences between The Passenger and McCarthy’s other novels, and these differences are, indeed, noteworthy. The wild and the violence it harbors are gone, there is less action, more conversation, and incessant speculation, which sometimes sounds like a graduate seminar. Simple sentences punctuate meditations that often border on cosmic koans. But what most puzzles the critics are the long sections on mathematics, quantum physics and relativity and information theory. Here the fiction bleeds into nonfiction – actual scientists as well as McCarthy’s colleagues at the SFI tell the story of how strange the world below the surface of everyday life now appears. Alicia, the daughter of a nuclear physicist, is a mathematical prodigy who hears voices, hallucinates, and has dreams and nightmares she cannot distinguish from “reality.” Reason harbors madness and her life ends in suicide. Her brother and illicit lover, Bobby Western, is a failed physicist who escapes to Europe to drive race cars and eventually becomes a deep-sea diver paid to recover what has been lost in the depths. Though he does not end his life, at least not yet, he spends most of his time above water trying to decipher paranoid plots and running from strangers who might or might not be members of the Mormon church or federal agents seeking to repossess the papers from his father’s work on the bomb.
What does all of this have to do with physics and metaphysics? It is no exaggeration to say that the fundamental question in the history of the West is “What lies between?” What lies between surface and depth, light and dark, reason and madness, identity and difference, one and many, man and woman, consciousness and unconsciousness, Bobby and Alicia, The Passenger and Stella Maris, classical physics’ Either/Or and quantum physics’ Both/And. If theology and metaphysics have no answer, then perhaps physics can fill the void. From the time of Newton’s Principia, Galileo’s experiments, and Descartes’ clear and distinct ideas, things had seemed to be intelligible. In the light of reason, the world appeared to consist of discrete entities assembled through externally imposed rules and laws. This is the Either/Or world of classical physics whose implicit metaphysics becomes explicit in the mechanisms of eighteenth-century deists’ clockwork universe. In the memorable words of Alexander Pope:
Nature, and Nature’s laws lay hid in night, God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.
This vision of the universe broke down in 1913. With the world standing on the brink of the first truly global war, Niels Bohr turned Kierkegaard’s Either/Or upside down and inside out by revealing a strange, paradoxical, self-contradictory world reminiscent of Hegel’s Both/And. As if to rub salt in the wound of his fellow Dane, Bohr borrowed the metaphor for his revolutionary theory from Kierkegaard: the leap of faith became the quantum leap, which is inexplicable in terms of the classical logic of non-contradiction.
Rather than dispelling mystery through the light of reason, quantum mechanics raises more questions than it answers. After the purported end of history, science deepens the mystery shrouding existence. For those with eyes to see what cannot be seen, everything and everyone becomes ghostly. Richard Feynman famously said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Beneath every mystery there is another mystery, and the mystery of mysteries is what lies between. What lies between the Either/Or of classical physics and the Both/And of quantum physics? The question that remains at the end of philosophy is: What “is” neither Either/Or nor Both/And? However, even this question is misleading because this irreducible Neither/Nor neither is nor is not, but is the condition of the possibility and impossibility of every thing that is or is not.
The tension between classical and quantum physics has never been resolved. Indeed, Einstein never accepted quantum theory because it violated his fundamental principle that it is impossible to exceed the speed of light. The unanswered question of contemporary physics is what lies between classical physics and quantum physics. To think this margin, edge, border, margin, membrane, limen that remains unthought would require a logic that is neither classical nor dialectical. In his own way, McCarthy knows all of this and that is why the end of The Road is not the end of the story. If, as Heidegger insists, modern philosophy begins with Descartes’s reduction of truth to certainty, it ends with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, or, more precisely, uncertain non-principle.
Far from the shallows lies the strange world of quantum mechanics where determinism gives way to probability and certainty dissolves in uncertainty. There is no discernable bottom line because something or, perhaps, nothing, is always hiding. Contrary to what scientists from Newton to Einstein have been telling us, it turns out God does play dice with the universe.
It wasn’t just the quantum dice that disturbed Einstein. It was the whole underlying notion. The indeterminacy of reality itself. He’d read Schopenhauer when he was young but he felt that he’d outgrown him. Now here he was back – or so some would say – in the form of an inarguable physical theory.
Religion all too often offers bedtime stories intended to reassure anxious believers that the world makes sense, but the metaphysics of contemporary physics tells a different story – the way of the quantum world is not the way of the classical world.
This mystery, indeterminacy and uncertainty are inseparable from quantum mechanic’s most disturbing insight: not only can there be no consciousness without world, but there is no world without consciousness. McCarthy gets his physics right when he explains the basic insight of Bohr’s interpretation of quantum mechanics.
Some of the difficulty with quantum mechanics has to reside in the problem of coming to terms with the simple fact that there is no such thing as information in and of itself independent of the apparatus necessary to its perception. There were no starry skies prior to the first sentient and ocular being to behold them. Before that all was blackness and silence.
At the quantum level, and perhaps beyond, things are not separate, isolated entities but are relational events. Being isbecoming and, thus, nothing is fixed; the here-and-now is never here-and-now but is always passing. Hegel described this inescapable spatio-temporal process as “the arising and passing away that does not arise or pass away.” To get a sense of just how difficult it is to comprehend this idea, try to imagine a language with no nouns but only verbs. Neither simply particle nor wave, quanta are in constant flux inexplicably leaping from position to position. Rather than empty, abstract, and filled with discrete pre-existing entities that are externally related, space-time is a relative spacing that is timing and timing that is spacing form, that deform, and reform the cosmic web in which everything as well as everyone is inextricably entangled. Nothing is itself because everything becomes what it is in and through relations with others, which, therefore, are not merely other. For one to be one, there must be three. In McCarthy’s words,
One as a number or one as a being? Either. You can’t have anything till another thing shows up. That’s the problem. If there’s just one thing you can’t say where it is or what it is. You can’t say how big it is or how small or what color it is or how much it ways. You can’t say if it is. Nothing is anything unless there’s another thing.
Far from an extraneous sidebar, this insight from quantum mechanics, lies at the heart of the questions McCarthy asks himself and his fellow passengers at the end of the road. The End, whose other name is death, does not await us sometime in the distant future, but is folded into life as its necessary condition. The unexpected gift of death is the gift of life. The present moment has always already passed or is always yet to come. Subject and object, knower and known, self and world are inseparable; they are entangled in diachronic and synchronic webs of co-emergence and codependence. At the end of the road with twilight, that liminal space-time between light and dark, day and night, one realizes that what arises together also passes away together.
Present artifacts. A clutch of letters. A sachet in a dressing table drawer. That’s not what’s at the heart of the tale. The problem is that what drives the tale will not survive the tale. As the room dims and the sound of voices fades you understand that the world and all in it will soon cease to be. You believe that it will begin again. You point to other lives. But their world was never yours.
When the consciousness ends the world ends, and vice versa – always vice versa. This is the country for old men.
Ending is unending until The End. The End is undeniably coming though we know not when. The last man who is truly the Last Man, and his day is surely come, knows that at The End, ending ends without anything or anyone continuing.
Here is a story. The last of all men who stands alone in the universe while it darkens about him. Who sorrows all things with a single sorrow. Out of the pitiable and exhausted remnants of what was once his soul he’ll find nothing from which to craft the least thing godlike to guide him in these last of days.
It’s always a matter of time – a matter of time and self because they are one and the same. From the beginning, time has always been running out; we never have time because time has us.
We don’t move through the days, Squire. They move through us. Until the last cruel crank of the ratchet. I’m not sure I see the distinction. It’s just that the passing of time is irrevocably the passing of you. And then nothing. I suppose it should be a comfort to understand that one cannot be dead forever where there’s no forever to be dead in. Well. I see your look. I know that you see me enfettered in some cognitive morass and I’m sure that you would contend it to be the ultimate solipsism to believe that the world ceases when you do. But I’ve no other way to look at it. It’s just that I’m not sure how it would change anything. I know. But I can hear the dice clattering as well as the next chap. Ultimately there is nothing to know and no one to know it. Ultimate. Yes.
At the end of the road, we can’t help asking where time went and why we have so little left.
Passengers who live after the death of God sometimes console themselves by believing that their words and deeds will live on in those who come after them. But deep down, in watery depths no diver can fathom, we all know that that this too will end. The sun that shines so brightly is burning out and eventually will set in a midnight that is not midday.
The world’s truth constitutes a vision so terrifying as to beggar the prophecies of the bleakest seer who ever walked it. Once you accept that the idea that all of this will one day be ground to powder and blown into the void becomes not a prophecy but a promise. So allow me in turn to ask you this question: When all our works are gone together with every memory of them and every machine in which such memory could be encoded and stored and earth is not even a cinder, for whom then will this be a tragedy? Where would such a being be found? And by whom?
And yet, this is not McCarthy’s last word. At the end of the road, the last word is “beauty.” Beauty! What word could be more unexpected from this master of darkness? The Last Man mentions beauty only twice in his final tale. The first is the beauty of a woman whose reason drove her mad.
Your sister was something of a beauty. Yes. How would you know that. Because beauty has power to call forth a grief that is beyond the reach of tragedies. The loss of a great beauty can bring an entire nation to its knees. Nothing else can do that.
“Still at heart I know there’s more wisdom in sorrow than in joy.” For McCarthy, as for Kierkegaard, melancholy is “his most faithful mistress.” But his melancholy is not despair – at least not yet – because in the midst of this mysterious world, there is a beauty that surpasses all understanding. Here lies wisdom, the wisdom of ninety years of contemplating and writing about death and life. The final missive from the last man standing ends not with blood and violence but with beauty, a fragile beauty that might even survive after the last candle has been blown out.
Finally he leaned and cupped his hand to the glass chimney and blew out the lamp and lay back in the dark. He knew that on the day of his death he would see her face and he could only hope to carry that beauty into the darkness with him, the last pagan on earth, singing, softly upon his pallet to an unknown tongue.
This pagan wisdom is the “bacchanalian revel in which no member remains sober,” which is not the gift of death but the gift of life.
Last Works: Lessons in Leaving. Exegesis – Eisegesis? Either/Or, Both/And, Neither/Nor. In this uncertain world, readers can never be sure about whom one is reading and writing. To a certain extent, reading is always a mirror effect, though it need not be only that. At this late hour, something is stirring in an ether that is not Newton’s and something is floating in clouds that belong to neither Google nor Amazon. Even if everything is a “matter” of information, there are some things that will never be simulated. As I approach the end of the road, my abiding hope is not that the mystery will be solved but that it will never be solved.
Mark C. Taylor is Professor of Religion at Columbia University and is completing a book Neither/Nor: Radical Relationality.