Every age needs prophets—whether or not they heed their cautions—because prophets stand out of and often against the current.
Why Babies Cry
There is a hole at the center of the universe and of history. In the heart of man is a void, a “primal fear,” something that is “always there,” lurking, “awaiting your concession,” “awaiting your indulgence,” the idea of loss itself. We are always and everywhere separate from that which could fulfill us—the gap between “is” and “ought to be” is insurmountable, because to say that man is not as he ought to be implies that he can course-correct, when the reality is that reality itself “is loss and all loss is eternal.”
This is why babies cry. Their wails are not just of agony, but of rage. They know in their anger, clearer than any of us, that at the heart of what we have always never had is “a breach of some deep and innate covenant having to do with how the world should be and wasn’t. … [T]heir raw exposure to the world [is] the world.” If “the world is itself a horror,” as the clear sight of children apprehends and which we all regularly glimpse, then “there is nothing to fix and the only thing you could be protected from would be the contemplation of it.”
Such is the exhausting philosophical outlook laid out by Cormac McCarthy’s new novels, The Passenger and Stella Maris. As McCarthy’s biography is not under review here, I cannot speak to how often he has been exposed to babies. Given that his previous novels have consistently and almost exclusively depicted them hyperviolently—dead infants decorate trees in Blood Meridian, are spit-roasted in The Road, and are consumed by the mysterious trio following Culla in Outer Dark—I don’t think I would let him babysit any children of mine, but perhaps he has known many.
Clearly, however, Alicia Western has not. Alicia is the hauntingly beautiful and delusional polymath whose last days in a mental institution are presented in the form of an interview transcript-cum-Platonic dialogue in Stella Maris. Her suicide hangs heavily over the life of her brother and lover Bobby in The Passenger, just as Bobby’s rejection of her desire for them to get married hangs over her interviews. She talks about the anger and preternatural knowledge of infants in a way abstracted from reality, fitting for a genius-level mathematician whose intellectual pursuits are closely bound up with her madness. She argues that babies do not cry simply because they are “wet or they’re hungry,” because while animals “might whimper if they’re hungry or cold,” they “don’t start screaming.” An animal recognizes that “the more noise you make the more likely you are to be eaten. … [W]hen you’re defenseless, you keep your opinions to yourself.”
But babies cry precisely because they are defenseless. They cry when they are isolated or alone. They cry when they are wet or hungry because they cannot change or feed themselves, or when they think they are not receiving sufficient attention from their parents. They cry when they are tired because they think their parents can take away their fatigue and are angry because this is impossible. Babies cry because they cannot do anything for themselves. As the zoologist Adolf Portmann observed, compared to “higher mammals” like gorillas, horses, or whales, human babies are born a year too early in their development. While these other creatures “stand up, move about, and discover the world through their wide-open eyes and highly developed senses immediately after birth,” humans experience very similar infancies to nest-dwelling animals like mice or rabbits. Like them, we are “born blind, naked, and helpless … unable to move at birth” and “depend on closeness to [the] mother for warmth.” For a year, we live like lower mammals, creatures whose relationality to the world around them seems inferior to primates, and yet we have “by far the richest inner life of animals.”
Why this aberration? If we listen attentively, we can hear the answer in a baby’s cry. Alicia is quite right that babies make little sense from an evolutionary perspective, but she is unfathomably wrong about why they cry. The screams of infants are not an angry lament at the injustice of a broken covenant; indeed, they are the most vocal invitation to covenant! When a baby cries, she calls out for communion, for the help of another, and gives to the other nothing except the gift of her being. Babies are useless. They have no function. The posture of this very beginning of human life is pure receptivity to the love that others have to give.
When a newborn cries with her first breaths outside of the womb, she makes a demand upon her mother to hold, feed, and love her. This demand is not coercive—obviously, a newborn cannot force anyone to do anything, much less compel someone to love her—but it is the most fundamental demand according to the word’s root meaning, an entrusting. A human being cannot help but entrust herself to another. Indeed, her flourishing is contingent not simply on the fulfillment of her immediate environmental needs like warmth and nourishment but on the overflowing superabundance only possible in the total gratuity of a mother’s love. As Josef Pieper observed, without love, even the most well-fed infants receiving “well-equipped, hygienically impeccable” care suffer horrible health problems and incredibly high mortality rates. These biological results reflect an ontological reality: human flourishing is impossible alone. Rather, man “cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” to another, who freely receives and reciprocates this total self-gift. By “losing” himself and exceeding himself in a gift of love for another, man receives himself back and finds what fulfills him.
That one’s flourishing is utterly reliant on the love of another who is beyond one’s own sphere of control points to the inherent call for man to self-transcend that is at the root of what makes us human and rational. The exemplar of this foundational anthropological reality is the child. Anyone who misunderstands what a child is will necessarily have a malformed understanding of who the human person is, and of the kind of world he lives in. As the Thomistic philosopher Ferdinand Ulrich declared, “the ontological locus of the child is the beginning” and “the beginning is the unity of wealth and poverty that characterizes being as love”—poverty and wealth because a child possesses nothing and yet receives everything. The child is “the symbol of the unity of wealth and poverty in love [and] is therefore existential gratitude, the archetype of eucharistia (in the sense of ontological thanksgiving),” a gratefulness for the gratuity of being.
Thus, in getting children wrong, Alicia’s philosophy gets everything wrong. It is quite literally little wonder (per Ulrich, wonder, the root of philosophy, “belongs to essence of childhood”) that her way of thinking leads both to her self-annihilation and the void in her brother’s heart. Though Alicia’s interviews in Stella Maris are clearly meant to be read after seeing how her suicide affects Bobby and existence itself in The Passenger, Alicia’s ideas form the philosophical backbone for the empty life Bobby slogs through for decades following her death.
Alicia’s way of thinking is based on her assumption that existence is not a gratuitous gift but a violent imposition of life. He is the only thing alive that can plumb it to its roots and ask what and why it is, undergoing life and loss, which are completely convertible, with an acute awareness of the abyss stretching out beneath the skin of the world. “That reality into which we must inquire,” which we cannot help but want to see and know even if it sends us sinking into the depths of the void, “must first contain ourselves.” The more one contemplates, the more one would return to that childlike state, would know that there is “an ill-contained horror beneath the surface of the world and there always has been. That at the core of reality lies a deep and eternal demonium. All religions understand this. And it [is not] going away.”
Alicia’s views are quite similar to the vision of the world proposed by the possessed Weston in C. S. Lewis’s Perelandra: a “thin little rind of what we call life, put on for show, and then—the real universe for ever and ever … all the dead have sunk down into the inner darkness: under the rind,” where “you can’t even look back on what life was like in the rind, because you know it never did mean anything even from the beginning.” Answering her therapist’s question about whether or not she is an atheist, Alicia replies “God no. Those were the good old days. … [F]or a long time I’ve suspected we might be simply incapable of imagining the epochal evils of which we stand rightly accused and I thought it at least a possibility that the structure of reality itself harbors something like the forms of which our sordid history is only a pale reflection.” Despite this perspective, she affirms strongly that she “no longer [has] an opinion about reality.”
What Alicia desires is not death but total non-existence, whatever would be “as close as you could get to never having been here in the first place.” In her final interview, she reveals one of her plans to make this happen, in which she would flee to Romania, where she originally wanted to settle down with Bobby before he rebuffed her requests for marriage. There, she would retreat into the mountains as far as she could until thirst and starvation took their toll. Then, as she “would pray [to] see the truth of the world” before death, wild animals would, in her words, “come and carry me away and I would be their eucharist. And that would be my life. And I would be happy.”
In these closing words of her life, Alicia reveals an incongruity in her own thought. For all of her claims that “every benevolence is suspect,” that “the world does not have you in mind” and “never did,” and that “your life is set upon you like a dog,” what she affirms throughout her interviews is that she desires marriage to Bobby and, even more than that, a child. “If I had a child,” she says, “I would just go in at night and sit there. Quietly. I would listen to my child breathing. If I had a child I wouldn’t care about reality.”
This is a woman who declares it “lunacy” to think of “the peculiarly material interests of God,” and especially the Incarnation, given that Christ’s ascension to heaven “as presumably a corporeal being” is an “encumbering [of] the godhead with a thing it had not previously to endure.” Despite her apparent rejection of these things which are inseparably bound up in Christ’s eucharistic self-gift, Alicia still desires most of all a being, what she desires most is a being that pours forth from the gratuitous gift of her own life, a person whom she wants simply because it is good to hear that person breathe and draw life, a human who is purely eucharistic, a baby who is her own.
However, the eucharistic character of a child is incomprehensible if material reality would be a Gnostic burden on the divine, if the goal of eucharist is to pass into death or non-existence, if who she is, is less fundamental than abstract mathematics, her own hallucinations, or the “forms” that are “turning in a nameless void” which have been “salvaged out of a bleak sea of the incomputable” beneath all these rinds upon rinds.
McCarthy’s characters are caught in a binary tension. Are “the ages of man,” as Bobby reflects while waiting to die in the final chapter of The Passenger, a “stretching [of] grave to grave,” a mere “accounting on a slate,” “blood, darkness,” “the washing of dead children on a board,” lived out until we inevitably pass beneath the rind into deep, dark, unfathomable reality? Or are the breaths of the child—screamed, laughed, wept, or slept—an unmerited gift and a call to communion?
This tension is divine. “God can’t add two and two,” Alicia claims, “zero and one are all he’s got to work with. The rest is us.” But if God is eternal, a premise Alicia takes as a given in her critiques of the Incarnation, his word was only spoken and is only being spoken, once. The ultimate question Bobby and Alicia and McCarthy seek to answer is: does God speak a zero or a one, a void or a covenant? Is his word an abyss, or a child?