Cormac McCarthy died today, June 13, at his home in Santa Fe, NM. Nautilus couldn’t have been more flattered when the great novelist published his first work of nonfiction, “The Kekule Problem,” with us in 2016. We’re reposting our 2022 article by a colleague and friend who knew him well.
The Cowan Campus of the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) is a renovated extension of the adobe home of Patrick J. Hurley, the United States Secretary of War from 1929 to ’33 and Ambassador to China in 1945. Hurley is one of the company of martial personalities who occupy the landscape of Northern New Mexico, coexisting with atomic physicists, visual artists, off-the-gridders, assorted new-age worshippers of the Egyptian sun-god Aten, and admirers of the resonant frequencies of minerals. The campus bevels down metamorphic crystalline rocks off the Western face of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. I have always assumed that the premise is that elevation engenders elevated thought.
In 1984 a group of illustrious scientists convened a meeting to determine what a radically new approach to mathematical science might look like when it takes the complexity of the world seriously. What kinds of personalities and talents would be required, and the culture necessary to support the effort. In one the founding documents of the Santa Fe Institute, Murray Gell-Mann who had won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1969 for work in elucidating symmetries required to classify subatomic particles, set out his recruitment criteria. In doing so he employed a classical, epic, taxonomy.
You could say that it’s a problem of personality types, that there are people who like cold logic, reason, analysis, and careful structuring of problems, especially in their work … There are other people who like syntheses, qualitative considerations, general remarks, natural history, and description. Finally, there are a few people who try to combine both. Some people call these Apollonian, Dionysian, and Odyssean types … If one can find just a few people who can combine these various characteristics, it would make an enormous difference.
—Murray Gell-Mann, “The Concept of the Institute,” Emerging Syntheses in Science
One of the places Murray would go hunting for Odysseans is at the annual meetings of the MacArthur Fellows. Murray was himself an avid reader and more than once expressed regret at the inordinate time he had spent reading books in place of making new discoveries. Murray’s favorite authors included Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, Jorge Louis Borges, and Cormac McCarthy. Murray was a founding director of the MacArthur Fellows program and so presumably played a part in Cormac, then a relatively unknown novelist, being awarded the prize in its first year of operation in 1981. It was Murray who brought Cormac to SFI and who should be credited as the talent spotter of an author who would come to develop a deep and working admiration for the arcane deliberations of complexity scientists.
A sure way to fail the Cormac McCarthy Turing test is to be so imprudent as to ask him about his books.
I can’t resist telling a personal story that illustrates the range of Murray’s interests, linguistic abilities, and that touches on his polymathic bookishness. I was sitting at SFI at lunch with Murray, the physicist Gino Segre (nephew of the Nobel Prize winner Emilio Segre who had worked as a group leader at Los Alamos on the Manhattan project) and the former director of Los Alamos National Labs, Harold Agnew. Gino asked Murray about his interactions with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in the late 1950s. Murray told us that Bohr was an obscurantist who had set physics back decades by insisting that there could be no intuitive causal understanding of quantum mechanics. He did have, however, very fond memories of Denmark. Before visiting to give a seminar he felt compelled to learn some Danish. I was expecting him to recommend a good phrase book. Instead, he told us how he had gone in search of the best Danish novelists in order to learn quality phrases and locutions. He settled on the extraordinary novelist Isak Dinesen (also known as Karen Blixen) and taught himself enough Danish to read her book Out of Africa in Danish. Gino, Harold, and I all gave each other knowing, skeptical looks. Murray proceeded to recite the first full page of the book in Danish from memory. And this was about 50 years after his visit. The three of us diffidently returned to our lunches—“pass the salt” as they say in Britain.
I arrived at SFI as a faculty member in the early 2000s coming from the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. The connection between the two institutes intrigued me through the historical connection established by Robert Oppenheimer who served as both director of the Manhattan project and of the Institute for Advanced Studies from 1947 to 1966. SFI’s early years were dominated by physicists who had worked at Los Alamos National Labs. SFI’s founding president, George Cowan, had worked with Enrico Fermi in Chicago before joining the Manhattan project and subsequently being appointed as director of chemistry at Los Alamos National Labs.
The entrance to SFI also serves as a mail room. When I first entered the building there was behind the front desk a permanent massif of book boxes. It was clear that the boxes were constantly cleared and just as quickly replenished. In this way the boxes achieved a dynamical equilibrium. In the study of complex systems this is called self-organized criticality and was made famous as an explanation for the constant gradient of sand piles and the faces of sand dunes.
The agent of this critical state was Cormac, who busied himself digging—like Kobo Abe’s entomologist in Women in the Dunes—to ensure balance at SFI and the growth of his library.
I am also something of a book collector and completist so Cormac’s boxes with their hidden riches acted as an immediate force of attraction. Before getting to SFI I had read his novel Blood Meridian in a state of morbid ecstasy, so I was doubly curious what kind of scholarly corpses might lie piled up in those collections. Fortunately, I was soon to have my answer because we had offices in the same wing (Pod C) of the institute.
Cormac first occupied Pod C of SFI. This wing is farthest from the entrance and least likely to be disturbed by visitors. Cormac’s room was bare other than his own self-designed desk, Persian-styled rug, notebooks, Bic biros, pencils, and Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter. Cormac is a creature of habit and discipline. Rarely at SFI early in the morning but once in place (typically around 10 a.m.) he would stay and write throughout the day with breaks for lunch and tea. At SFI we do our best to draw these out for as long as possible thereby avoiding the disappointments of calculation. More than occasionally Cormac would leave SFI in the afternoons for emergency coffee ice cream in town.
It is over tea and lunch with our friends and colleagues that we discussed everything. A typical day might include new results in prebiotic chemistry, the nature of autocatalytic sets, pretopological spaces in RNA chemistry, Maxwell’s demon, Darwin’s sea sickness, the twin prime conjecture, logical depth as a model of evolutionary history, Godel’s dietary habits, the weirdness of Spengler’s Decline of the West, and allometric scaling of the whale brain. I believe Cormac’s recent novels The Passenger and Stella Maris have their origins partly in this foment of ideas that connect domains of unyielding precision to the frailty of life and the militancy of society. We never once discussed Cormac’s books. Nothing would strike him as less interesting than conversations about his own work.
Over the years I have heard yarns about Cormac’s reclusiveness and misanthropy. Cormac is as generous with his time as anyone I have ever met. But he is very selective. And a sure way to fail the Cormac McCarthy Turing test is to be so imprudent as to ask him about writing and his books. And even worse talk about one’s own writing (the mere hypothetical circumstance makes me shiver). Stick with rigorous ideas, preferably those that take effort to wrangle and several decades to master.
The first book Cormac lent me was an early edition of Charles Montagu Doughty’s Travels in Arabia Deserta. As far as Cormac was concerned—and I am strongly inclined to agree—there is no better writing on desert landscapes and culture.
Heavy is their long day of idleness, they slumber every hour and smoke tobacco, some of them I have seen toss pebbles in their hard fists, to drive the time away … The night advanced, we lie down in our places on the earth, to sleep; but then sinners of goats trooping in from the night air, walked over our faces every hour till the morning light
—Charles Montagu Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta
Sand is a material statistical physicists call a porous medium. The flow and transport of sand, and the diffusion of a fluid through a porous medium, is studied using percolation theory. The theory was developed in the 1930s and 1940s to better understand the true density, and hence energetic value, of coal. Percolation theory is a fixture of much of the science produced at SFI. It is almost a metaphor for the connected, collegial way we practice science.
Cormac is very much interested in friendship and the ideas that grow out of conversations. Including the relationship between James Agee and Walker Evans. In 1935 Walker Evans, a photographer who in many ways has a lens that “rhymes” with the portraits captured by Cormac’s pen, took the photograph, Coal Miner’s House, Scott’s Run, West Virginia. The photograph features a young boy who bears an uncanny resemblance to Cormac himself and an interior that fits a few of the haunted descriptions from his book The Orchard Keeper, in which he writes, “It was like being in a room full of invisible and malevolent spirits.”
James Agee, a writer with subterranean connections to Cormac, including a shared interest in the Knoxville Zeitgeist that Cormac writes about so forcefully in Suttree, teamed up with Walker Evans in 1936 on an assignment for Fortune chronicling the lives of southern sharecroppers. The result of their research was the 1941 book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. This is a book that we keep in our library and that Cormac retrieves from time to time to remind us of the intimate connections between language and image, indigence and character, and the multifarious beauty found far from so-called civilized spotlights.
The landlord objected that that was too much howling and too much religion on end and how about something with some life to it, they knew what he meant, and then they could go.
—James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men
In 2012, I moved for just over three years to Madison, Wisconsin to direct a new institute, The Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. At the time Sam Shepard was in residence at SFI and warned me that the cold would likely kill me and that I might be found at some indeterminate future like a perfectly preserved can of soup from Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. Cormac went one step better and gave me a copy of Michael Lesy’s book of photographs from Black River Falls, Wisconsin Death Trip. It is a book of photographs of infant mortality, embalmed pensioners, and the executed. I found it rather comforting. In the Midwest I discovered that my disposition is decidedly non-Nordic, topographical preferences steep, and temperament more wayward than that favored by the continental interior. When offered the presidency of SFI I was delighted to come back to my natural habitat, the institute that I had grown to love, and to many belligerent friends.
Cormac was trained and practiced for several years as an architect in Tennessee. As he described this line of work to me, “largely building over-sized homes for rich clients without taste.” Just over 30 miles West of Madison, Wisconsin, Cormac’s favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, built his home Taliesin in Spring Green. It is like all of Wright’s buildings, a Euclidean beaver’s lodge as painted by Hokusai. Geometric, claustrophobic, and animate. As if evolution started with axioms rather than finishing with them. Wright’s life and work occupy an intricate nexus in Cormac’s imagination. Wright is a self-constructed formalist and his buildings models of perfection despoiled by quality of materials. Falling Water is in Cormac’s Pantheon an edifice of uncompromising perfection whose interior is imperceptibly rotting. In a filmed conversation with Cormac in the SFI library, where he wrote The Road, he told me, “Falling Water is a beautiful house, but if you go inside the first thing you see is a bunch of cheap plywood furniture. Because when he was designing the house plywood had just been discovered. He didn’t know that 10 years later you would find it in cheap motels all over the world.”
There are very few people who receive more careful attention from Cormac than Ludwig Wittgenstein. In addition to Wittgenstein’s insights into language and meaning and his compressive style, Cormac told me how “everything that [Wittgenstein] thought about had to do with whether it was right or wrong and he worried about it constantly,” and “if philosophy is not concerned with the way one should live what the hell is it concerned with?”
In 1925, deeply dissatisfied by the material world he was forced to inhabit, Wittgenstein designed his own building in Vienna—Haus Wittgenstein. This is nothing like the wooden “Wittgenstein Hut” on Skjolden lake in Norway where in modest seclusion he jotted down pastoral notes in The Brown Book, a precursor to The Philosophical Investigations. Haus Wittgenstein is more like a projection of the philosophy of Tractatus into three-dimensional space. Hermine Wittgenstein, the sister for whom the house was designed wrote, “Even though I admired the house very much, I always knew that I neither wanted to, nor could, live in it myself. It seemed indeed to be much more a dwelling for the gods than for a small mortal like me, and at first, I even had to overcome a faint inner opposition to this ‘house embodied logic’ as I called it, to this perfection and monumentality.”
More than once Cormac and I have discussed his drawings for a future home. He has even discussed publishing a book of his sketches at some point. The drawings begin with chairs and shelves and end with monumental rooms. He has designed a shelving system that easily dismantles and can be carried as effortlessly as a valise. Some of the rooms in his drawings are like the interiors of modernist museums. Space is not calculated to be scarce. From time-to-time Cormac designs rooms and houses for our community.
Cormac and I often speak of Montaigne, who achieves an integration of moral gravity and intellectual lightness.
Wittgenstein and Wright had autochthonous imaginations—deeply connected to a soil that perhaps only they could detect. And they grew from it uncompromising bodies of work. Speaking with Cormac over the years I have had a sense of someone compelled to understand how the most refined ideas can coexist with the simplest decisions and least experience. How naivety is not a lack of knowledge but an active repulsion of an incumbent culture.
From this psychic combination derive the revolutionaries of quantum mechanics, whose work Cormac deeply admires and reads on repeat. Most had barely graduated before declaring all ideas that came before them moribund. Bohr was 29 when he presented his orbital model of the atom, Arthur Compton 30 when he discovered scattering, Louis de Broglie 31 with wave-particle duality, and Werner Heisenberg 24 when he invented matrix mechanics. For Cormac inexperience is often a prerequisite for novelty. And this is as true for cultures as it is for individuals. On several occasions Cormac has discussed the cultural paradox of ancient Greece, the idea of Arete or excellence, and near disregard bordering on xenophobia that might have been necessary to produce a new art and culture. I think it is for this reason that Cormac has always been so supportive of young scientists at SFI, or those without hallowed provenance, since these will be the most likely to replace the reigning ideas that they do not yet know exist.
It is reported that by his early 20s Arthur Schopenhauer could read or speak fluently, German, Italian, French, English, Spanish, Latin, and Greek. Besides Tractatus, Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation should be included in Cormac’s library of cherished works. Schopenhauer is a source of near infinite anecdotal remarks. His many quotable sentences are illustrative and seem to me to provide some of the parsimonious instruments by which Cormac structures his opinions of others.
With people of limited ability modesty is merely honesty. But with those who possess great talent, it is hypocrisy.
The greatest achievements of the human mind are generally received with distrust.
Schopenhauer’s relationship to his parents exemplifies the somewhat alien status of creative excellence in families. Cormac often laughs out loud when remembering a letter Schopenhauer’s mother Johanna wrote to her son in 1807: “All of your good qualities become obscured by your super-cleverness and are made useless to the world merely because of your rage at wanting to know everything better than others; of wanting to improve and master what you cannot command … If you were less like you, you would only be ridiculous, but thus as you are, you are highly annoying.”
There is something cathartic in being made aware of the universality of lineal discord and Johanna Schopenhauer takes it to another level.
Wittgenstein was inspired by Schopenhauer’s early work on the world as idea, an idealism that he summarized through, “The world is my representation,” which is precedent to the opening page of Tractatus, “The world is everything that is the case,” and “The facts in logical space are the world.” This kind of analytical compression carrying a wealth of meaning, veridical and moral, provides a clue to the network of connections that spans many of Cormac’s favorite thinkers: Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Ludwig Gottlob Frege, Michael Dummett, and Hilary Putnam.
Cormac and I often speak of Montaigne. Montaigne achieves an almost impossible integration of moral gravity and intellectual lightness. Montaigne’s friendship with La Boétie is a model of comradeship for Cormac who found no need to justify his wide-ranging attachments from criminals to savants beyond Montaigne’s adage that Cormac frequently quotes, “Because it was he; because it was me.” And Montaigne’s genuine love of works of art and philosophy—to the extent of surrounding himself with engraved quotations from these in his writing loft—in contrast to his suspicion of critics strikes a note with Cormac as I suspect is true for many authors.
But whence it should come to pass, that a mind enriched with the knowledge of so many things should not become more quick and sprightly, and that a gross and vulgar understanding should lodge within it, without correcting and improving itself, all the discourses and judgments of the greatest minds the world ever had, I am yet to seek.
—Michel Montaigne, On Pedantry
For Cormac Montaigne is to some extent bound up with the life and work of Eric Hoffer, whose book True Believer Cormac once gave me as a gift. Hoffer achieves in his life and writing a Montaigne-like balance of high thought and earthy appreciation. While working as a stevedore on the San Francisco docks, Hoffer wrote philosophy and read from Montaigne out loud and in public, once recollecting, “I quoted it all the time. I’ll bet there are still a dozen hoboes in the San Joaquin Valley who can quote Montaigne.” Cormac loved the idea of dockworkers coming to Hoffer for oracular advice from a 16th-century essayist, and would recreate the situation, “Stevie and I have a problem with the boss, what would Montaigne do?”
To approach a reasonable approximation of Cormac’s “book club” there would need to be several pages dedicated to the work and life of Charles Sanders Peirce. Cormac has the only complete collection of Peirce’s writings, which runs to eight volumes, of any one I know. Peirce has the intellectual voracity of Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. But in Peirce’s case he might well have accomplished his desire for total mastery without the bloodshed.
The reasonings and conclusions of the mathematician do not in the least depend upon there being in the real world any such objects as those which he supposes.
—Charles Sanders Peirce
I will finish on the one book that in 20 years of conversation with Cormac has never diminished, never become tarnished through revisiting and rearticulation. The one boundless in surprise and insight, Moby-Dick. Cormac often has it on his mind. And his admiration extends to its greatest illustrator Rockwell Kent whose books Wilderness and Voyaging Southwards, he has also lent to me. With our mutual friend Tim Taylor we have opened Moby-Dick together, and read random passages such as, “Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored.” Cormac will look up and remark, “Where did that come from? How did he think to say, ‘it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote?’” I cannot recollect another writer who elicits this kind of amazed response.
David Krakauer is the president and William H Miller Professor of Complex Systems at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico.
To see a video of a conversation between David Krakauer and Cormac McCarthy, click here.
Lead image courtesy of Santa Fe Institute.