The Roman philosopher Seneca once proposed an interesting test of literary merit. “When things stand out and attract attention in a work you can be sure there is an uneven quality about it,” he wrote. “One tree by itself never calls for admiration when the whole forest rises to the same height.” The novels of Cormac McCarthy, who died on June 13 at the age of 89, illustrate this idea that the best writers are consistently excellent. In the many tributes to his lyrical and philosophical gifts that have been published over the past week, what’s most remarkable about the quotes from McCarthy’s novels they have included is just how many other passages could have been chosen. However perfect the lines one picks, strong rivals abound on every page. Nearly all the trees are tall.
Where did these astonishing powers come from? A partial answer is that McCarthy spent much of his last three decades at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, the research center devoted to the study of complex systems and big questions. There, he conversed with and befriended an eclectic group of physicists, mathematicians, biologists, archaeologists and other scientists who, whatever their special training, all shared a disregard for the rigid borders of conventional academia. McCarthy, who wrote several novels on-site, flourished in this atmosphere. He even wrote the institute’s operating principles, a sort of polymath’s manifesto. “We are absolutely relentless at hammering down the boundaries created by academic disciplines and by institutional structures,” one sentence reads.
I met and interviewed McCarthy at the Santa Fe Institute just more than a decade ago while writing a story about its rare intellectual ecosystem. McCarthy, who typically avoided publicity, was willing to chat one morning in the institute’s library. He wasn’t keen on discussing his own life or work, and it quickly became clear that the best way to engage him in conversation was to talk about ideas. He was happy to speculate on how the unconscious mind powers sudden insights, to parse details from the biography of George Washington he had just finished and to discuss the merits of various ancient Greek philosophers.
There are two basic ways to see McCarthy’s deep interest in subjects beyond literature. One is as a charming eccentricity mostly unrelated to his novelistic prowess. Leo Tolstoy played chess; James Joyce played the piano; McCarthy read and talked science. Perhaps these are just fun bits of trivia—writers are an eclectic bunch with all sorts of hobbies and enthusiasms.
The other, more plausible view is that his nonliterary interests are a profound clue to unraveling his work. Perhaps they are both the source and substance of much of his fiction. Without McCarthy’s omnivorous scientific curiosity, the distinctive sensibility of his novels would not exist. This is unmistakable in his final two books, The Passenger and Stella Maris, in which a major character is a mathematical prodigy, and the nature of consciousness is a central theme. But it’s equally true of many of his other novels. No Country for Old Men is inconceivable without the mathematics of chance in its coin toss motif; sundry scientific knowledge gives the character of the judge his demonic omniscience in Blood Meridian; the biology of wolves enriches The Crossing; and a lyrical inventory of the flora and fauna of the Southwest makes the landscape a dominant character in The Border Trilogy.
In The Passenger, McCarthy describes a high school science fair project on pond ecology undertaken by his despondent hero, Bobby Western. “He’d drawn life size every visible creature in that habitat from gnats and hellgrammites through the arachnids and crustaceans and arthropods and nine species of fish to the mammals, muskrat and mink and raccoon, and the birds, kingfisher and wood duck and grebes and herons and songbirds and hawks….Two hundred and seventy-three creatures with their Latin names on three forty foot rolls of construction paper.” What Bobby did for a pond, McCarthy did for whole regions and landscapes: he learned the names of everything in Latin, Spanish and English. This knowledge gives his prose a poetry born of precision. Undergirding all the rhetorical exuberance is a diamantine core of accuracy.
Science is also a source of both the bleak fatalism and the Platonic idealism that run through his fiction. The study of deep history and geologic time informs the quintessential McCarthy conviction that, as the brilliant heroine of Stella Maris says, “The world has created no living thing that it does not intend to destroy.” Yet almost as certain as the triumph of death is the presence of a partially discernible reality that transcends matter. Describing an early mathematical epiphany, the same character says of equations: “They were in the paper, the ink, in me. The universe. Their invisibility could never speak against them or their being.” Though mortal and limited, humans have some access to abiding truths. We can perceive some of reality’s deep, invisible structure. McCarthy spent roughly six decades crafting fiction that hovers on the verge of transcendent insight. He always strove to disclose a more perfect approximation of something true.
When we spoke in Santa Fe in 2012, McCarthy made clear that he admired Aristotle, whose encyclopedic treatises ranged from physics to logic to ethics to biology. But he saw in Plato’s combination of literary and philosophical depth a rarer achievement. Aristotle was interesting and systematic, but he never created anything with the extraordinary richness and depth of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This, he said, was worth any number of scientific treatises.
It’s easy to see McCarthy as a sort of Plato among the Aristotles of the Santa Fe Institute. For all the virtues of systematic research, the poetic and metaphysical beauty of his myth-making prose can compress the wonder of dozens of scientific texts into a single luminous vision. The high trees in his fiction grow from the soil of science.