I believe I came across this “novel” (Stella Maris reads more like a play to me) when I was browsing books by Cormac McCarthy recently after his death.
It’s almost a play – just a series of conversations – but beautiful – touching on deep mathematics, quantum physics, the Manhattan Project, loneliness, death, suicide, sorrow, beauty – all the usual Cormac McCarthy goodness.
I immediately re-read this book as soon as I finished it, and I’m eagerly awaiting the library hold on the companion novel, The Passenger – NB: The Passenger is the first volume in this pair. I accidentally read them out of order.
Notes and quotes…
1415 Probably older than memory. I was musical first. I had perfect pitch. Have. Later I suppose I came to see the world as pretty much proof against any comprehensive description of it. But music seemed to always stand as an exception to everything. It seemed sacrosanct. Autonomous. Completely self-referential and coherent in every part. If you wanted to describe it as transcendent we could talk about transcendence but we probably wouldnt get very far. I was deeply synesthetic and I thought that if music had an inherent reality—color and taste—that only a few people could identify, then perhaps it had other attributes yet to be discerned. The fact that these things were subjective in no way marked them as imaginary. I’m not doing this very well, am I?
1655 I know. There are a number of things you can talk about. Feynman says that all of quantum weirdness is already there in the two-slit experiment. He’s probably right. He usually is. The experiment, repeated ad whatever, shows that a single particle can go through two separate apertures at the same time.
Do you believe that?
And this is a part of quantum mechanics.
A well-thought-of physical theory.
Yes. It’s the most successful physical theory ever devised. It’s the theory of small particles. Atoms and smaller. Or so it is commonly thought. But that may just be bad math. Some physicists suspect that the theory must eventually arrive at the understanding that the universe itself is a quantum phenomenon. That what quantum mechanics ultimately describes is the universe.
Do you suspect that?
Yes. I’m among the suspicious.
3307 You dont know what antipsychotics are and you dont know how they work. Or why. All we have finally is the spectacle of tardive dyskinetics feeling their way along the wall. Jerking and drooling and muttering. Of course for those trekking toward the void there are waystations where the news will very suddenly become altogether bleaker. Maybe a sudden chill. There’s data in the world available only to those who have reached a certain level of wretchedness. You dont know what’s down there if you havent been down there. Joy on the other hand hardly even teaches gratitude. A thoughtful silence.
3427 It was a dream about children crying. When I woke up they were still crying. It just got farther away. I dont think that it had stopped. I just couldnt hear it anymore. I hadnt been around babies much. But I got to wondering why they cried all the time.
I think they cry for different reasons. Dont they? They’re wet, or they’re hungry.
I thought there had to be more to it. Animals might whimper if they’re hungry or cold. But they dont start screaming. It’s a bad idea. The more noise you make the more likely you are to be eaten. If you’ve no way to escape you keep silent. If birds couldnt fly they wouldnt sing. When you’re defenseless you keep your opinions to yourself.
That sounds metaphorical.
It’s just biology.
What was startling was the anguish in those cries. I began paying attention. There were always babies at the bus station and they were always crying. And these were not mild complaints. I couldnt understand how the least discomfort could take the form of agony. No other creature was so sensitive. The more I thought about it the clearer it became to me that what I was hearing was rage. And the most extraordinary thing was that no one seemed to find this extraordinary. Except for Miss Vivian. Of course you could point out that however gracious or kind or concerned she might be she was still an old looney. Of problematic reality. So I took that home with me. I dont think we ever really discussed it. She would just start weeping and shaking her head. I thought if she had brought me all this baggage she must be expecting me to do something about it but it began to get more complicated. I thought about it. The rage of children seemed inexplicable other than as a breach of some deep and innate covenant having to do with how the world should be and wasnt. I understood that their raw exposure to the world was the world.
You dont think this is all a bit fanciful?
I do think.
How would a child know how the world should be?
A child would have to be born so. A sense of justice is common to the world. All mammals certainly. A dog knows perfectly well what is fair and what is not. He didnt learn it. He came with it. Would you like to get more fanciful?
In for a penny.
More fanciful would be the understanding that the idea of justice and the idea of the human soul are two forms of the same consideration.
You didnt just come up with that.
What about the animals?
They’re not screaming. Of course fanciful may itself be code for deranged. Anyway, this led pretty directly to the next question.
At what age in a child’s life does rage become sorrow?
I dont know. I dont think Piaget addresses the question. Or why.
I think I know why. The injustice over which they are so distraught is irremediable. And rage is only for what you believe can be fixed. All the rest is grief. At some point they get this.
I think that an innate sense of justice might be a difficult concept to sell. That children could have this sense at birth.
They have little else. A fear of falling. Loud noises. A love of the breast. Everything else is potential. The schema is there but nothing has arrived. Things which are innate and well formed are rare. And primitive. And necessary. When you hear a sobbing child say it’s not fair you are always hearing the truth.
4014 I dont think they said anything. They were simply stunned. A friend of my father’s, a physicist named Bainbridge who was head of the program, said we’re all sons of bitches now. And supposedly Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita but I think the Sanskrit word for Time came out Death or maybe the other way around. Or maybe they’re the same.
I’d have thought that the signature image of our age might better be the NASA photograph of the earth taken from space. That beautiful blue sphere turning in the void.
Interesting juxtaposition, isnt it?
You dont find that photograph moving?
I find it frightening. The void has no stake in the world’s continuing existence. It’s home as well to countless millions of meteorites. Some of them enormous. Trundling across the blackness at forty miles a second. I think if there were anything to care it would have cared by now. A friend of mine once said: When all trace of our existence is gone, for whom then will this be a tragedy? Do you play those things back or do you just save them?
4287 Carleen kept good records. The oldest known violin is an Amati believed to be from 1564 that’s in the Ashmolean at Oxford. The oldest instrument we studied was from 1580 and the latest was probably a German violin from the 1960s. Aside from the angle of the neck they were the same. Nothing had changed. Nothing.
That seems rather remarkable.
Yes. What’s even more remarkable is that there is no prototype to the violin. It simply appears out of nowhere in all its perfection.
And what do you make of that? You’ve told me this for a reason.
It’s just another mystery to add to the roster. Leonardo cant be explained. Or Newton, or Shakespeare. Or endless others. Well. Probably not endless. But at least we know their names. But unless you’re willing to concede that God invented the violin there is a figure who will never be known. A small man who went with his son into the stunted forests of the little iceage of fifteenth century Italy and sawed and split the maple trees and put the flitches to dry for seven years and then stood in the slant light of his shop one morning and said a brief prayer of thanks to his creator and then—knowing this perfect thing—took up his tools and turned to its construction. Saying now we begin.
I’m sorry. This gentleman is very close to your heart.
Sorry. Yes. Very close. Time’s up.
4517 Nothing much. He’d wind up spouting some sort of gibberish. It would be nice to think that there was actual data encoded in these spiels but I’ve been listening to them for years and Turing couldnt untangle them. We did actually have a minstrel show early on. When I was twelve. They announced it as the menstrual show. In honor of. All of it wretched beyond telling. Most of the time I’d just curl up in bed and work on math problems. Sometimes I’d look up and everybody would be gone except him. Still pacing. He’d go over the books on my shelf and suggest further reading. All of it nonsense of course. Some of it funny. Probably not to him. I certainly never saw him laugh. Just this bogus yukking he would do. I told him once that he was wasting his time. That I wanted to be a warrior. Not a being of the spirit but of the flesh. I was a born classicist and my heroes were never saints but killers. He would look quite serious and then hold forth with a diatribe concerning the longheld strongholds of rugmold.
5395 But surely you dont think that mathematics is magic?
I think that it’s magic if you dont understand it. As you learn more about it it becomes less magical. Then as you realize that there is a clear sense in which you will never understand it it becomes magical again. Most people come to terms with their demons. Not all. Jung tells of a case that suggests that aberrant mental states may not be in themselves an illness but rather a protection against a greater one. We know that consciousness never goes to zero except in death. He had a comatose patient at the Burghölzli who came down with a serious illness while still in the coma. Until he finally sat up in bed and began to order the nurses about. This went on until he recovered. Whereupon he went back to sleep. Never to wake again. I dont even know if the story is true. Probably it is. If for no other reason than the story is smarter than Jung. Who after all had to hire someone to take the math exam for medical school. Anyway the answer is yes. I do think that he was sent. Nothing else really computes.
6247 Is there a single insight that supports most of modern mathematics?
Oh this is good.
No. It’s not a lame question. It’s just that we dont know the answer. 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.
Gödel’s work I take it will never suffer the fate of Freud’s. The bones of it bleaching on the ground or whatever.
My railings against the platonists are a thing of the past. Assuming at last that one could, what would be the advantage of ignoring the transcendent nature of mathematical truths. There is nothing else that all men are compelled to agree upon, and when the last light in the last eye fades to black and takes all speculation with it forever I think it could even be that these truths will glow for just a moment in the final light. Before the dark and the cold claim everything.
6669 I was not. I thought that I would go to Romania and that when I got there I would go to some small town and buy secondhand clothes in the market. Shoes. A blanket. I’d burn everything I owned. My passport. Maybe I’d just put my clothes in the trash. Change money in the street. Then I’d hike into the mountains. Stay off the road. Take no chances. Crossing the ancestral lands by foot. Maybe by night. There are bears and wolves up there. I looked it up. You could have a small fire at night. Maybe find a cave. A mountain stream. I’d have a canteen for water for when the time came that I was too weak to move about. After a while the water would taste extraordinary. It would taste like music. I’d wrap myself in the blanket at night against the cold and watch the bones take shape beneath my skin and I would pray that I might see the truth of the world before I died. Sometimes at night the animals would come to the edge of the fire and move about and their shadows would move among the trees and I would understand that 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.
- Read Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy