Emmanuel Genard

Quotes and Notes

Stella Maris by Cormac McCarthy


1972, BLACK RIVER FALLS, WISCONSIN: Alicia Western, twenty years old, with forty thousand dollars in a plastic bag, admits herself to the hospital. A doctoral candidate in mathematics at the University of Chicago, Alicia has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and she does not want to talk about her brother, Bobby. Instead, she contemplates the nature of madness, the human insistence on one common experience of the world; she recalls a childhood where, by the age of seven, her own grandmother feared for her; she surveys the intersection of physics and philosophy; and she introduces her cohorts, her chimeras, the hallucinations that only she can see. All the while, she grieves for Bobby, not quite dead, not quite hers.

The docs dont seem to consider the care with which the world of the mad is assembled. A world which they imagine themselves questioning when of course they are not. The alienist skirts the edges of lunacy as the priest does sin. Stalled at the door of his own mandate. Studying with twisted lip a reality that has no standing. Alien nation. Ask another question. Devise a theory. The enemy of your undertaking is despair. Death. Just like in the real world.

The doctors see the patients through a glass darkly. They cannot really see the patients. It’s dark matter to them. The patients are living inside the dark matter. The doctors can only see the effects. They see someone having a full conversation to empty space. The mad must be terribly lonely. Strangers in a normal world.

One of the things I realized was that the universe had been evolving for countless billions of years in total darkness and total silence and that the way that we imagine it is not the way that it was. In the beginning always was nothing. The novae exploding silently. In total darkness. The stars, the passing comets. Everything at best of alleged being. Black fires. Like the fires of hell. Silence. Nothingness. Night. Black suns herding the planets through a universe where the concept of space was meaningless for want of any end to it. For want of any concept to stand it against. And the question once again of the nature of that reality to which there was no witness. All of this until the first living creature possessed of vision agreed to imprint the universe upon its primitive and trembling sensorium and then to touch it with color and movement and memory. It made of me an overnight solipsist and to some extent I am yet.

Solipsism is defined as “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist”. Does that make her hallucinations real as anything else? We just “imprint the universe” unto our “primitive and trembling sensorium”, her sensorium just happens to have a few extra things imprinted.

So where does music come from?

No one knows. A platonic theory of music just muddies the water.

Music is made out of nothing but some fairly simple rules. Yet it’s true that no one made them up. The rules. The notes themselves amount to almost nothing. But why some particular arrangement of these notes should have such a profound effect on our emotions is a mystery beyond even the hope of comprehension. Music is not a language. It has no reference to anything other than itself. You can name the notes with the letters of the alphabet if you like but it doesn’t change anything. Oddly, they are not abstractions. Is music as we know it complete? In what sense? Are there classes such as major and minor we’ve yet to discover? It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? Still, lots of things are unlikely until they appear. And what do these categories signify? Where did they come from? What does it mean that they are two shades of blue? In my eyes. If music was here before we were, for whom was it here? Schopenhauer says somewhere that if the entire universe should vanish the only thing left would be music.

This is an argument against solipsism. Music seems to exist outside of our perception of it. That a particular arrangement of notes have an effect and others don’t, that the effect is felt by all kinds of different people, suggest there might be something outside of us, outside of our primitive and trembling sensorium that has an effect on us.

The following quote is a very long one. It’s a passage where Alicia describes in exacting detail what she thought would happen if she had tried to drown herself. I find it one of the most beautiful passages in the book.

Okay. My thought was to rent a boat. I was sitting in the pine woods above the lake and I thought about the incredible clarity of the water and I could see that was a plus. You really don’t want to drown yourself in muddy water. It’s something people ought to think about. I saw myself sitting in the boat with the oars shipped. At some point I would take a last look around. I would have a heavy leather belt and a good-sized padlock from the hardware store and I would have fastened myself to the chain of the anchor through the belt where it doubles after passing through the buckle. Click the padlock shut and drop the key over the side. Maybe row off a few strokes. You don’t want to be down there on the bottom scrambling around looking for a key. You take one last look and lift the anchor into your lap and swing your feet over the side and push off into eternity. The work of an instant. The work of a lifetime.

But you didn’t.

I didn’t. First of all the water off the east shore is about sixteen hundred feet deep and agonizingly cold. A number of things are going to happen that you hadn’t taken into consideration. Of course if you had you wouldn’t be there in the first place. Or the last. As you descend, your lungs will start to shrivel. At a thousand feet they’ll be about the size of tennis balls. You try to clear your ears and that hurts. Your eardrums in all likelihood are going to burst and that is really going to hurt. There is a technique for bringing up air and forcing it through the eustachian tubes into your ears but you aren’t going to have the air to do it with. So you drift down in your thin chain of bubbles. The mountains draw away. The receding sun and the painted bottom of the boat. The world. Your heart slows to a tick. Dive deep enough and it will stop altogether. The blood is leaving your extremities to pool in your lungs. But the biggest problem is just coming. You’re going to run out of air before you reach the bottom of the lake. Even with a sixty pound anchor-about all I could manage - you’re not going to make very good time. At twelve miles an hour which is pretty fast— you’re doing a thousand feet a minute. Under the circumstances that you’ve chosen for yourself a breath may not last a minute. Even if you’ve done the fast respirations before you committed. The shock and the stress and the cold and the diminishing air supply are going to take their toll. Anyway, it’s going to be a good two minute trip to the bottom and probably more like four or five. Not sitting comfortably on the bottom of the lake.


Sure. At least you’d finally be able to put down that bloody anchor.

Did you enjoy working all this out?

Why not? Problems are always fun.

I don’t always know when you’re serious.

I know. Anyway, at this juncture you’ll have dropped the anchor and it is going to be towing you by your belt down through water that is freezing your brain. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to keep your wits about you but it really doesn’t matter. When you finally give up your rat’s struggle and breath in the water scaldingly cold —you are going to experience pain beyond the merely agonizing. Maybe it will distract you from the mental anguish at what you have done to yourself, I dont know. See if you can remember the pain in your lungs from being out of breath from running on a cold winter day. You’re breathing in quicker than your lungs can warm the air. It hurts. Now multiply that by God knows what. The heat content of water as compared to that of air. And it’s not going to go away. Because your lungs can never warm the water they’ve inhaled. I think we’re talking about an agony that is simply off the scale. No one’s ever said. And it’s forever. Your forever.

You’re sitting in the woods above the lake on a lovely spring day and these are your thoughts.

These are them.

What else.

There are still unknowns here, of course. The bottom of the lake will be pretty much gravel so there wont be any billowing silt when the anchor touches down. Total silence. No telling what’s down there. The corpses of those who have gone before. A family you didn’t know you had. It’s deep enough that the light is pretty dim for all the clarity of the water. A cold gray world. Not black yet. No life. The only color is the thin pink stain trailing away in the water from the blood leaking out of your ears. We don’t know about the gag reflex but we’re fixing to find out.


Fixing. Once your lungs are full will this abate? The gagging? Don’t know. No one’s ever said. The autonomous reflex will be to cough out the water but you cant because it’s too heavy. And of course there’s nothing to replace it with anyway except more water. In the meantime oxygen deprivation and nitrogen narcosis have begun to compete for your sanity. You’re sitting on the glacial floor of the lake with the weight of the water in your lungs like a cannonball and the pain of the cold in your chest is probably indistinguishable from fire and you are gagging in agony and even though your mind is beginning to go you are yet caught in the iron grip of a terror utterly atavistic and over which you have no control whatsoever and now out of nowhere there’s a new thought. The extraordinary cold is probably capable of keeping you alive for an unknown period of time. Hours perhaps, drowned or not. And you may well assume that you will be unconscious but do you know that? What if you’re not? As the reasons for not doing to yourself what you have just irrevocably done accumulate in your head you will be left weeping and gibbering and praying to be in hell. Anyway, sitting there among the trees in the soft wind I knew that I would not be going there. Maybe I had been a bad person in my life, but I hadn’t been that bad. I stood up and walked back up to my car and drove back to San Francisco.