Santa Fe Institute

One reporter's account of SFI's 'Genius and Madness' event in August

Nov. 9, 2015 12:07 p.m.

Months before the release of Cormac McCarthy's forthcoming novel, an auditorium-filling crowd – including reporter Ulrike Duhm from Sueddeutsche Zeitung, the largest-circulation daily newspaper in Germany – was treated to a reading of some of its passages, along with generous helpings of art and science.

Here is Duhm's "Genius and Madness" from Sueddeutsche Zeitung, reprinted in English with permission from the author:


That asking about his books does not go down well with Cormac McCarthy is widely known. The author of novels such as No Country for Old Men (2005) and The Road (2006) has only given a handful of interviews in the last fifty years. The Pulitzer Prize winner strictly disapproves of self-promotion at book fairs and readings. “Everything I have to say, I've said in my books."

His friends are aware of this too. No wonder, then, that David Krakauer, president of the Santa Fe Institute, felt a little queasy about picking up the phone to invite McCarthy to a podium discussion. Together with artist James Drake, he wanted to discuss the mutual influence of art and science. The subjects they had in mind were mathematics and physics, beauty, madness, and death. "You know, that sounds exactly like my new book," McCarthy replied. "There is just death and madness." The scientist paused. “Well yes. But mathematics and science?" Brief silence at the other end of the line. "You know what," the author said, "I’ll send you a manuscript of volume 2 of my new book The Passenger by the post tomorrow."

The next day a Fedex parcel arrived, containing several hundred pages of manuscript, typed on an old Olivetti typewriter and bearing hand-written corrections. Title of the book: The Passenger. Cormac McCarthy has been working on The Passenger since the eighties. Not unusual for the author, who often has several projects in the works in parallel. 2016 will be the year of his eleventh novel – fifty years after his literary debut.

After McCarthy went through an "Appalachian phase" and a "Southwestern phase," the new book is going to be "full-blown Cormac 3.0, a mathematical-analytical novel," said Krakauer. Subatomic particles, Feynman diagrams, strings – the book is peppered with scientific themes. There are also striking topical similarities between The Passenger and the art of James Drake, who has been friends with McCarthy for thirty years. Drake's drawings are strewn with numbers, formulae, equations, and anatomical studies.

Authors such as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon have also written books centering on math and physics. The difference, however, is that Cormac McCarthy almost lives with scientists. The Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico is only a few miles away from his home in Tesuque.

The privately funded interdisciplinary research facility was founded in 1984 by physicist Murray Gell-Mann and researchers from the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Since the nineties McCarthy has been a fixture at the Santa Fe Institute. He discusses the theory of relativity and Higgs bosons with scientists over tea. "I'm here because I like science, and this is a fun place to spend time," he says. Cormac McCarthy is described as an acutely curious and supremely competent amateur scientist, whose knowledge of math and physics, and in particular the histories of those fields, exceeds that of many professional physicists and mathematicians.

Cormac McCarthy has written several books at the Santa Fe Institute, and has been a trustee there for years. An evidence of his deep bond with the institute is also found in its interior, which he was instrumental in designing – he replaced the worn-down steps in one of the staircases with massive planks from his ranch. The ceiling lamps in the small conference room were selected by the author as well.

And then the moment comes: packed audience in the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe to see the multimedia event "Drawing, Reading and Counting (Beauty and Madness in Art and Science)." Moderator of the evening is David Krakauer. On the left side of the stage, Krakauer recites dialogues from The Passenger with Caitlin Lorraine McShea. On the right side, Krakauer debates with the artist James Drake. A large screen shows pieces from the artist’s project "Anatomy of Drawing and Space (Brain Trash)," an installation made up of 1,242 drawings and sketches. John Francis McCarthy, the author’s 17 year-old son, establishes musical ties with his compositions "Ancient Memories" and "Event Horizon."

The surprise of the evening: Cormac McCarthy appears in person. Suddenly, unannounced, he appears in the foyer. Blue shirt, faded jeans, cowboy boots. He looks younger than in the photographs. The great dark recluse of contemporary American literature smiles. Greets friends and acquaintances. He does not seek the limelight but takes his place in the audience. Loud-speakers play back texts he has recorded earlier. The writer of blood-drenched, grim novels has a soft, deep voice.

The first excerpt read from The Passenger sets the scene: The long book is largely about a young woman. Twenty-year-old Alicia is a brilliant mathematician and violinist. And a schizophrenic. She intermittently spends time in a psychiatric institution. Alicia tells her attendant psychiatrist that she grew up in Los Alamos and that her father was a physician there. The protagonist committed suicide about seven years before the book’s plot begins, and it’s about how her brother deals with it.

The Passenger is McCarthy’s first novel in which the main character is female, which has taken him half a century and three marriages to get around to. "I will never be competent enough to write about a woman," says McCarthy. "But at some point you have to try."

"Mathematics is the world," [the character] Alicia says in the book. "A million years before the first word was ever said," Man had mastered counting. "Intelligence is numbers. It’s not words." She speaks of the "beauty in mathematics" and ponders "the transcendent nature of mathematical truths."

The Passenger references renowned mathematicians and physicians such as Werner Heisenberg, Robert Oppenheimer, Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, James Clerk Maxwell, Pierre-Simon Laplace, Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss, Leonhard Euler, and John von Neumann.

McCarthy gathered his extensive knowledge of physics also from moonlighting as a copy editor. He has reworked countless scientific texts: for instance the manuscript of Murray Gell-Mann’s The Quark and the Jaguar. The paperback edition of Feynman’s biography Quantum Man, by Lawrence M. Krauss, also passed through his hands.

The thin line between genius and madness is central to the The Passenger's plot. As a metaphor for the link between high intelligence and mental instability, the book contains numerous references to Kurt Gödel. Towards the end of his life, the Austro-American mathematician, logician, and philosopher was committed to a psychiatric institution – as was the protagonist in McCarthy’s book.

"A novel," Cormac McCarthy said a few years ago, "can encompass all the various disciplines and interests of humanity." Accordingly, the book’s protagonist is not only a mathematical genius but also a virtuoso violinist. She tells of how she plays the Chaconne by Johann Sebastian Bach on a four hundred year old violin. This "haunting piece," as Alicia describes it, is built upon complex numeric symbols. Bach composed the piece a short time after his wife’s death. The sum of the tone numbers in the two first bars is 95. That is also the numeric value of the name "Maria Barbara Bach."

Another theme McCarthy includes is the Manhattan Project: the novel’s female lead states that her father took part in the Trinity Test – the first explosion of an atomic bomb – in New Mexico. Alicia tells that her father had said he "could see the bones in his fingers with his eyes closed" and that he had described the desert birds falling earthward in slow arcs " burning party crackers."

One of the links between science and art is their aesthetic dimension, McCarthy believes. "There’s a beauty to science." Some scientific theories are "properly elegant," though beautiful theories are not necessarily true and true theories not necessarily aesthetically pleasing.

Great science and great writing share the same tenor: "Both involve curiosity, taking risks, thinking in an adventurous manner," McCarthy once told the British Guardian, ”and being willing to say something 9/10ths of people will say is wrong."

Read the article (in German) in Sueddeutsche Zeitung (September 15, 2015)

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