Skip to content

Reenchanted Science

How did Cormac McCarthy become a shill for libertarian utopianism?

I met Cormac McCarthy in the spring of 2017 in the mailroom of the Santa Fe Institute, the New Mexico scientific think tank where he has served for over two decades as a trustee. It was my second semester of graduate school. I had just arrived for a week of research in the SFI archives, and I was terrified. I was working on a project about the role of private philanthropy in shaping the development of the social sciences. SFI struck me as an ideal case study: institute researchers received plenty of grants from government agencies and the usual suspects among the big private foundations, but a significant portion of the SFI budget derived from donations from corporate partners, individual philanthropists, and smaller foundations. It seemed likely that there was something interesting to be said about the relationship between this relatively unusual funding base and SFI’s much-touted intellectual heterodoxy—its methodological insistence on recognizing and appreciating what SFI researchers call “complexity,” in contrast to the linear, mechanical mindset of mainstream Western science since Newton.   

But I didn’t know what I would find, and I was increasingly worried that when it came time to write the paper, what I would have to say wouldn’t be very flattering to SFI. There was no question that a lot of extremely impressive scientific research had come out of the Institute, in domains ranging from particle physics to ecology and immunology. But despite an enormous amount of intellectual and financial effort, it didn’t appear to me that SFI had made much progress on its ostensible raison d’être: elucidating the fundamental principles of complexity in nature and society. And I was troubled by the number of SFI donors and trustees who were not merely wealthy—as donors and trustees often are—but vocally libertarian in their outlook. Two years before I arrived, SFI received a multimillion-dollar grant from the John Templeton Foundation, an important bankroller of free-market and religious-conservative causes, for research in pursuit of a “general theory of complexity.” That set off some alarm bells. 

So I was trying to keep a low profile. I didn’t want to become a character in my historical narrative, and I didn’t want to incur any social debts that would inhibit my ability to report on my findings honestly. Running into the Institute’s best-known affiliate hours after arriving was not exactly what I had in mind. Running into McCarthy at all was a surprise; I knew about his involvement with SFI, but famous artists are “involved” with all sorts of institutes. And yet there he was, puttering around the SFI campus on a Monday afternoon, extending his hand to me and introducing himself. 

I was certainly curious. Like many readers, I knew McCarthy primarily as a novelist of darkness and violence. His trademark prose style––alternating between plainspoken, literally unpunctuated bluntness and Melvillian flights of prophetic lyricism––seemed about as far removed from the world of contemporary science as it was possible for language to get. In a 1992 interview McCarthy famously remarked that he didn’t consider the work of Marcel Proust or Henry James to be “literature” because it failed to “deal with issues of life and death.” And yet McCarthy apparently felt that crystal lattices or genetic algorithms, in the hands of SFI researchers, came closer to the existential mark. In the recent profiles of McCarthy I’d read before arriving, he consistently described SFI as a refuge for offbeat thinkers preoccupied with profound questions not given a hearing in more quotidian intellectual settings. When I read that McCarthy liked to call his SFI colleagues “outlaws,” I began to understand the Institute’s appeal for the contemporary master of the Western genre. He felt that something important was being preserved at SFI, kept safe from the Leviathan of modernity. In 2007 McCarthy declared that “you have to go back to Elizabethan England or Periclean Athens to find this kind of extraordinary work being done.”

Past the limits of scientific hubris, McCarthy suggests, there is a realm where a different sort of science flourishes—poetic, private, and uncertain.

We talked for maybe fifteen minutes, standing there in the mailroom of McCarthy’s new Athens. McCarthy inquired about my work with genuine interest and discomforting intensity—not, I’m sure, because he saw anything remarkable in me, but simply because I was there. I was a guest of the Santa Fe Institute. “We are beyond relentless in seeking out the best people in every discipline,” McCarthy declares in a typewritten collection of SFI operating principles. “We will get you here. No matter what. And we will give you the space and the resources that you need.” Talking to him, it was obvious that McCarthy truly believed in this vision of the Institute. Because I was there, I was one of the best people, and because I was one of the best people, it was worth his time to pick my brain, even though I was a first-year graduate student and he was the author of Blood Meridian. (“We don’t care how young you are,” McCarthy adds.)

In that moment, I wanted desperately to believe as well. But it was not to be. That week of archival research—and years of additional reading and interviewing—convinced me that my initial misgivings about SFI were justified. It became clear to me that despite its researchers’ undeniable contributions to a wide range of scientific disciplines, SFI’s self-portrait as the Island of Misfit Geniuses served primarily to mask its long-running and profound connections to the power centers of American and global capitalism. 

I eventually published a journal article tracing the history of SFI since its founding in 1984 and documenting the rise of what a Reason editor once called “Santa Fe Institute libertarians.” The SFI libertarian was a new type of guy, in internet parlance. Coming from the worlds of business, academia, and think tanks, SFI libertarians drew on the Institute’s ideas—and sometimes its institutional resources—to paint a picture of economic and social “self-organization” in which capitalism was natural, and entrepreneurs solved problems creatively and spontaneously. Plenty of SFI researchers didn’t fit this profile themselves, but SFI libertarians were well represented in the ranks of the Institute’s funders and business partners. In the 1990s, they were predominantly tech industry boosters and advocates of telecom deregulation, like SFI board members Esther Dyson and Stewart Brand. In recent decades, SFI libertarians have tended more to be champions of Davos-style “social entrepreneurship.” Jeffrey Epstein donated $275,000 to SFI over the course of his life (Ghislaine Maxwell’s sister Christine is a former SFI trustee, and their father Robert was an important early donor).   

But dreams die hard. In McCarthy’s pair of new novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris, they don’t die at all—neither the dreams of his characters, whose ectoplasmic residue is constantly dripping across the boundary between reality and hallucination, nor McCarthy’s dream of the Santa Fe Institute, which resides almost in hiding at the moral center of the diptych. These are deliberately frustrating novels. They hint at plot development that never quite materializes; they contain hundreds of pages of obscure Socratic dialogue between personages real and imagined; in the final analysis, they resist any straightforward reconstruction of “what really happened.” McCarthy appears to intend these features of the novels to serve something of the function of the Zen koan: to illustrate the limits of certainty, language, and rational knowledge. But McCarthy refuses to allow the void of non-knowing to remain empty for long. Past the limits of scientific hubris, McCarthy suggests, there is a realm where a different sort of science flourishes—poetic, private, and uncertain; transacted by a secret priesthood of genius scientific seekers who are in, but not of, the world whose mysteries they plumb. Readers already predisposed to embrace this scientific romanticism will find their patience rewarded. But for those of us who doubt the transcendent potential of even the most mystical-minded scientific endeavor, these books ultimately amount to something new for McCarthy: a slog. 

Together The Passenger and Stella Maris purport to tell the story of Bobby and Alicia Western, a pair of star-crossed siblings. Bobby is a strong, silent type to make Tony Soprano proud. He drives race cars in Italy; he explores shipwrecks off the Louisiana coast; he allows an expansive cast of eccentrics to tell him their thoughts on life, the universe, and everything in French Quarter restaurants and saloons; and he thinks many deep thoughts about theoretical physics (his consolation prize, having convinced himself that he lacks the aptitude for pure mathematics). Alicia is “attractive, possibly anorexic,” and totally out of her mind. She’s a mathematical prodigy on indefinite hiatus from her graduate studies at the University of Chicago because her thesis will upend the epistemological presuppositions of the entire discipline; she’s visited by hallucinations presenting themselves as a terrifying vaudeville troupe whose impresario, the Thalidomide Kid, is a foul-mouthed dwarf with flippers for hands. She tries to check herself into the asylum where the Kennedy family institutionalized Rosemary post-lobotomy, but she winds up instead in the eponymous hospital Stella Maris, somewhere in Wisconsin. There she has a lengthy series of intense and repetitive conversations with a psychiatrist who hopes to write about her case. Alicia desperately wants a sexual relationship with Bobby; Bobby is hopelessly in love with Alicia but insists on the sanctity of the incest taboo. 

I say “purport” because it’s not clear how firmly we’re supposed to believe in the “reality” of any of this. The Passenger is ostensibly Bobby’s story, set in the early 1980s. But it opens with a gnomic vignette of Alicia’s suicide roughly a decade before, and McCarthy prefaces nearly every chapter with one of a series of excruciatingly interminable dialogues between Alicia and the Thalidomide Kid. In between, we switch back to Bobby, whose reality is scarcely less hallucinatory. Working as a salvage diver, he is assigned to scavenge the wreck of a mysterious plane crash; before long a pair of agents lifted straight from Kafka’s The Trial (or perhaps Men in Black) make clear to him that the U.S. federal government would very much prefer if he desisted in his investigation. Bobby, inevitably, meddles a bit more, realizes his persecutors mean business, and then makes a rather desultory attempt to go on the lam. Despite his half-hearted fugitivity, he continues to consume an astonishing quantity of dorm-room philosophy dispensed by, inter alia, a flamboyantly nihilistic alcoholic lowlife, a trans woman with a vaguely distasteful Blanche DuBois persona, and a lawyer who has lots of opinions about the JFK assassination. 

Then one book ends and another begins. (There is a pretense that these are “companion novels” that nonetheless stand alone, which is simply preposterous.) Stella Maris takes the form of a transcript of Alicia’s conversations with her psychiatrist around 1972—presumably, if the opening of The Passenger is taken at face value, near the end of her life. But Stella Maris places the entirety of The Passenger into question (or is it the other way around?). Alicia explains to the doctor that she has just arrived in Wisconsin from Italy, where Bobby suffered a catastrophic race car accident and has been declared brain-dead. Bobby’s racing past is mentioned in The Passenger, though his coma is not. Did he recover miraculously? Is The Passenger his dying fantasy, or perhaps Alicia’s hallucination of Bobby’s now-foreclosed future? Or is Alicia lying, or deluding herself, to cope with Bobby’s sexual rejection? For that matter, is Bobby himself imagining the conversations that comprise Stella Maris, and postulating that his sister would have processed his rejection as a sort of death? 

Who knows? I doubt McCarthy does. These novels are vehicles for his thematic preoccupations, and for this purpose who the Westerns are is more important than what they do, or when they die. Perhaps most fundamentally, they are the tortured children of the atomic age. This is one thing they have in common with the Santa Fe Institute (one referent, I believe, of their audaciously polyvalent surname). SFI was founded by alumni of nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory in the twilight of the Cold War; the Westerns were sired by a Manhattan Project physicist. As his children remember it, Western père was unrepentant and even uncomprehending in the face of the magnitude of his sin. In the schema of the antimodernist German philosopher Oswald Spengler, a touchstone in Stella Maris, he symbolizes the scientist as Faust—so entranced by the unlimited demonic power at his disposal that he forfeits his soul.  

McCarthy is at his best as both a stylist and a moralist here in his treatment of the Bomb. The single most powerful passage in either novel, for my money, is Alicia’s account of her father’s recollection of the Trinity test, where not coincidentally her speech shifts suddenly into McCarthy’s familiar descriptive voice:

The ungodly detonation followed by the slow rumble, the afterclap that rolled away over the burning countryside into a world that had never existed before this side of the sun. The desert creatures evaporating without a cry and the scientists watching with this thing standing twinned in the black lenses of their goggles. And my father watching it through his fingers like See-No-Evil.

A foretaste of the apocalypse erupts into history as the hubristic government scientist shrinks away from the fruits of his labor: this is the nightmare that haunts the Westerns, and in opposition to which they strive to define themselves.

Repudiating their father’s Faustian science does not require Bobby and Alicia to repudiate science per se, but rather to seek, like the Santa Fe Institute, to develop an alternative, countercultural way of doing science. This alternative begins with a shift of ethos: uncertain where their father is overconfident; self-scrutinizing where he is oblivious; and private, even antisocial, where he is an organization man in the employ of the state. “I actually believe that my person belongs to me,” Bobby tells his shadowy pursuers, when they ask him if he’s a “fanatic.” “I doubt that sits well with chaps such as yourself.” Alicia is perhaps less sure that her person belongs to herself, but neither does it belong to anyone else—not to the objectifying gaze of the hopelessly outmatched psychiatrist tasked with analyzing, nor to the mathematical establishment that resists her attempts to insist, like Kurt Gödel before her, on the inevitable incompleteness of their enterprise. “The hope is that the truth of the world somehow lies in the common experience of it,” Alicia tells her shrink. “Of course the history of science and mathematics and even philosophy is a good bit at odds with this notion. Innovation and discovery by definition war against the common understanding. One should be wary.”      

And wary the Westerns are. Hence their obsessive, melancholic interrogation of their own beliefs—and their attunement to apparently irrational sources of insight that mainstream scientists would dismiss out of hand. Alicia spends long stretches of Stella Maris recapitulating the main ideas of McCarthy’s first major nonfiction work, the 2017 essay “The Kekulé Problem.” (Alicia’s penchant to talk in McCarthy’s voice would be less annoying if McCarthy’s PR apparatus had not made such a big deal before publication about McCarthy’s decision to write a female protagonist for the first time since Outer Dark in 1968.) McCarthy and Alicia argue that scientific problem-solving occurs to an underappreciated extent in the pre-linguistic realm of the unconscious—just as the German chemist August Kekulé believed that his unconscious presented the structure of benzene to him in a dream about a snake eating its tail. Like McCarthy, Alicia believes that language is a “parasitic invasion” that postdated the evolution of the unconscious by millions of years. There is nothing truly magical about unconscious problem-solving, McCarthy insists, which is a perfectly natural Darwinian adaptation—it’s how dolphins and whales time their breathing. But because humans have language, access to the mechanism of the unconscious requires a leap of faith, a willingness to abandon the rationalistic pseudo-certainties of what’s describable in language. Most scientists are very bad at making this maneuver, but the Westerns, especially Alicia, are not—whence their unique insight. 

There are the seeds here of a radically democratic epistemology. McCarthy’s affection for outcasts and fuckups is on full display in these novels. As always in his fiction, there is a quiet redeeming grace in separation from normal society—the consequence of sexual deviance (especially incest, as in Outer Dark), drug abuse, poverty, insanity. The Westerns explore their own inner depths, but no less than McCarthy himself, humoring me in the SFI mailroom, they express genuine interest in the potential insights of their fellow freaks. 

But this generous spirit ultimately feels more superficial in The Passenger and Stella Maris than in any of McCarthy’s other novels to date. These new books display an occasionally overwhelming obsession with genius—“the best people,” in McCarthy’s list of SFI operating principles. Alicia talks almost incessantly about her scientific and mathematical “heroes” in Stella Maris. She recounts her pilgrimage to the eccentric algebraic geometer Alexander Grothendieck; she speculates about the relative intelligence of Einstein, Dirac, von Neumann, and Oppenheimer; she asserts that Leonardo, Newton, and Shakespeare exhibited intellectual ability that quite literally defies rational explanation. All this hero-worship finally makes one question whether McCarthy’s empathy has a place for those misfits who don’t turn out to be diamonds in the rough, who are separate from the crowd but nonetheless basically ordinary. “What if the purpose of human charity wasnt to protect the weak—which seems pretty anti-Darwinian anyway—but to preserve the mad?” asks a fellow Stella Maris patient whom Bobby visits in The Passenger. When insanity is not oracular but mere vulnerability, it loses its interest for McCarthy.

This fetishism of misunderstood brilliance is a sort of Nietzscheanism, then, not the egalitarianism it first appears to be. At moments, it even has the flavor of Santa Fe Institute libertarianism. “The unbalanced enjoy a certain largesse of personal freedom increasingly abridged in the workaday world,” one of Bobby’s interlocutors muses. “The truth is that everyone is under arrest. Or soon will be,” asserts another. This one—the lawyer who explains to Bobby the truth about who killed JFK—is especially concerned about the imminent replacement of “actual money” by a system of government-monitored electronic transactions. But there is hope: “What the government hasnt figured on yet is that this scheme will be followed by the advent of private currencies. And shutting these down will mean the rescinding of certain parts of the Constitution.” The attraction of McCarthy’s vision of a hidden college of dissident geniuses wanes rather significantly when one considers the possibility that until recently he may have counted crypto-huckster du jour Sam Bankman-Fried among its number. 

To say that McCarthy celebrates genius in The Passenger and Stella Maris is not to say that his portrait is uncomplicatedly sunny. McCarthy clearly believes he has something hard-hitting to say here; on occasion, he positively strains to underscore that it is a tragic tale he is seeking to tell. “Intelligence is a basic component of evil,” Alicia asserts, with her father and his Manhattan Project colleagues in mind. “The more stupid you are the less capable you are of doing harm. Except perhaps in a clumsy and inadvertent manner.” The problem is that intelligence creates the illusion of mastery—a perfectly comprehensible and thus controllable universe. In contrast to mere intelligence, then, the authentic genius that McCarthy views as redemptive requires an open-eyed confrontation with the horrible truth that the universe is neither of these things. Even Bobby is reluctant to make this leap, at least until the events of The Passenger. “I knew what my brother did not,” Alicia explains: “That there was an ill-contained horror beneath the surface of the world and there always had been. That at the core of reality lies a deep and eternal demonium.” Bobby, for his part, views his sister’s genius in similar terms: “She knew that in the end you really cant know. You cant get hold of the world.”

Most of the history of science has taken place somewhere in the vast terrain between the demiurges and the mystics, between Faustian and gnostic science.

Redemption lies in the knowledge that the world is irredeemable: all those scholars who’ve spent their careers explicating McCarthy’s gnosticism—Leo Daugherty influentially described Blood Meridian as a “gnostic tragedy” in 1992—will take a victory lap after reading these new novels. Whether McCarthy’s message is as transgressive or profound as he hopes is another question. It seems to me to depart little from the form of gnosticism that Harold Bloom, one of McCarthy’s most important early champions, described as the “American Religion.” Surely most Americans do not need McCarthy to tell them that the eggheads don’t know as much as they think they do; that this corrupt world is not our true home; that wisdom is the recognition that there are things that cannot be explained and should not be meddled with. In the form of the libertarian intellectual Friedrich Hayek’s protest against “scientism”—as he saw it, the socialist delusion that it was possible through rational planning to improve on the spontaneous outcomes of capitalist markets—a very similar conception of knowledge and its limits has exerted an enormous influence on the development of neoliberal politics on both sides of the Atlantic since the 1970s. “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design,” Hayek wrote near the end of his life.

McCarthy evidently views the task of his novels in similar terms. While reading The Passenger and Stella Maris, I found myself thinking again and again of what is perhaps the best-known line in McCarthy’s corpus, the speech in which Blood Meridian’s monstrous Judge Holden declares: “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.” Earlier a minor character rebukes the Judge in language uncannily evocative of the Westerns’ epistemological musings in these new novels: “No man can put all the world in a book. No more than everything drawed in a book is so.” For all the ways in which The Passenger and Stella Maris feel like a departure from the McCarthy we thought we knew, they also retrospectively illumine this throughline: the eternal war between official power hellbent on extinguishing the unknowable and the outlaws who see into the abyss but find the strength to sit comfortably with its opacity.

It’s compelling cosmology but bad social theory. Most of the history of science has taken place somewhere in the vast terrain between the demiurges and the mystics, between Faustian and gnostic science. Here innumerable anonymous chemists have gone to work in large corporate labs, tinkering with the formula for this or that industrial product; here survey researchers and community epidemiologists have painstakingly assembled evidence of the toxicity of many of those products; here patient-activists and bureaucrats have met together to review clinical trial protocols for experimental pharmaceuticals; here graduate student research workers have organized labor unions and challenged ingrained patterns of harassment and discrimination in their workplace. There is heroism and villainy to be found, but there are no heroes and villains, nor geniuses. Only people.