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Cormac McCarthy’s surprising turn to spirituality

Two unexpected McCarthy novels prove to be his most religious yet.

Author Cormac McCarthy with the covers of his books "The Passenger" and "Stella Maris." Photo © Beowulf Sheehan

(RNS) — Over his long career, Cormac McCarthy has inspired and delighted readers with his exquisite writing, insightful commentary and novels full of surprises — though the world he depicts is one largely devoid of hope, meaning or often even ethics.

Thus it was surprising indeed when McCarthy, thought by many to be retired from fiction writing, published two novels late last year that not only deal with the great philosophical questions of existence, but decidedly hold open the door for transcendence, purpose and even faith to animate the lives of men and women.

Judging by his earlier oeuvre, McCarthy may seem an unlikely source for reflection on the things of God. His best-known works, “Blood Meridian,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road,” depict explicit violence and dwell on nihilistic and apocalyptic themes.

Even though critics have not generally regarded the new novels as McCarthy’s best, they are worthy of his stature as one of our greatest living writers. They most certainly represent his most sustained grappling with religious themes.

“The Passenger” and its slimmer companion volume, “Stella Maris,” tell the story of siblings Bobby and Alicia Western, ethnic Jews and native Tennesseans haunted by three inscrutable dilemmas: guilt over their late father, who was a physicist on the Manhattan Project; their intense, though unconsummated, longing for each other; and the weight of existence as spiritually empty (Bobby) and mentally ill (Alicia) agnostics in modern America.

“The Passenger” is vintage McCarthy and instantly a classic of Southern literature. Set mostly in New Orleans around 1980, the story begins with Bobby’s work as a salvage diver. He comes upon a submerged plane with a missing passenger, and this mystery compounds his other existential problems. Bobby’s dive partner dies mysteriously, he is surveilled by unnamed agents, and he eventually has to flee the country.

Along the way, Bobby dines and drinks with friends in New Orleans, discussing physics, philosophy and much else as he lives in perpetual mourning for Alicia, a math prodigy who died by suicide years earlier.

Bobby’s continual bachelorhood is a mystery to friends, though murmurs circulate about his relationship with his sister. One friend remarked to him, “I’ve always grudgingly admired the way in which you carried bereavement to such a high station: the elevation of grief to a status transcending that which it sorrows.”

Fearing his memory of Alicia is fading, Bobby visits a friend of his late sister who lives in a mental hospital. And though Bobby and Alicia’s grandmother is a Christian, it is striking that the most robust Christian expression in the book comes from a psychiatric inpatient: “Kant had it right about the stars above and the truth within. 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.”

“The Passenger” is replete with stunning and evocative phrases that remind us why McCarthy compares favorably to William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.

In the dramatic conclusion, McCarthy writes, “Mercy is the province of the person alone. There is mass hatred and there is mass grief. Mass vengeance and even mass suicide. But there is no mass forgiveness. There is only you.”

He continues, evoking baptismal imagery, “We pour water upon the child and name it, not to fix it in our hearts but in our clutches.”

A companion novel, “Stella Maris” is a more experimental work set nearly a decade before the events of “The Passenger.” The 190-page book, named after the Wisconsin psychiatric hospital Alicia checks herself into, consists entirely of dialogue between 20-year-old Alicia and her psychotherapist.

Alicia, who has suffered from years of auditory and visual hallucinations presumably caused by a schizoid disorder, offers Dr. Cohen brilliant speculations on math, language, philosophy, mental illness and, in her own way, religion: “Mathematics is ultimately a faith-based initiative, and faith is an uncertain business,” she says.

Later when Dr. Cohen asks what she thinks is the one indispensable gift, Alicia responds without hesitation: “Faith.”

We know from “The Passenger” that Alicia kills herself after leaving Stella Maris. She discusses suicide with her analyst twice. First, she recalls her reasoning for not following through with an intention to drown herself in Lake Tahoe. But at the end of “Stella Maris,” she discusses a more benign and even poetic death by exposure in her family’s ancestral Romania, where she imagines being consumed by animals: “When the last fire was ashes they would come and carry me away and I would be their eucharist. And that would be my life. And I would be happy.”

Alicia dies in Wisconsin, but Bobby lives out his years, though in difficulty and without much consolation.

A few images and references notwithstanding, nowhere does McCarthy advocate strongly for Christianity or even theism. But through the intellectually gifted and mentally tormented Bobby and Alicia, the novelist pushes against the atheistic naturalism of his age, which he ably shows to be unsupported by modern science anyway.

As with McCarthy himself, neither Bobby nor Alicia fully moves from skepticism to faith.

But considering the dim view of 20th-century literature — including McCarthy’s earlier novels — it is a surprise that these works present spirituality as a viable option.

Soul and spirit, or at least their possibility, withstand Bobby and Alicia’s stringent intellectual scrutiny. But with their torment over the books’ central dilemmas, their taboo love and the atom bomb, McCarthy points to the need for not just transcendence, but revealed religion.

By Jacob Lupfer, Religion News Service

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service or Presbyterian Outlook.)