Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

The Other End of the Road: Re-Reading McCarthy in Light of Thermodynamics and Information Theory1

Academic journal article The Cormac McCarthy Journal

The Other End of the Road: Re-Reading McCarthy in Light of Thermodynamics and Information Theory1

Article excerpt

In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity.

(Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings 58)

I think that truth has no temperature.

(The Counselor, 21)

For roughly two decades now, ever since his first interview with Richard B. Woodward, scholars have been aware of Cormac McCarthy's fascination with the natural sciences. Judging by his expressed admiration of his grandfather John Francis, after whom he named his own son, and who was both an entrepreneur and a machinist "interested in how things worked," this fascination may well have been a part of McCarthy's life since his early youth, and possibly of his decision to study physics and engineering in college (see Kushner 2007). His preference for the company of scientists over other artists is notorious, and since he assumed his position as writer-in-residence at the Santa Fe Institute, best known for its inter- and multidisciplinary study of complex-adaptive systems, McCarthy has certainly been able to follow this interest. Notably, he has engaged in discourse with some of the leading voices in science today, such as former SFI president and theoretical physicist and biologist Geoffrey West, paleobiologist and Extinction author Douglas Erwin, geochemist and climatologist Daniel Schräg, chaos and complexity theorist J. Doyne Farmer, and, perhaps most notably, particle physicist and string theorist Lisa Randall as well as his friend, Nobel-Prize- winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann, both of whom acknowledge McCarthy's input in their respective books Warped Passages (x, xi) and The Quark and the Jaguar (xv). Science, it is safe to say, plays an important role in McCarthy's intellectual life.2

Given his evident investment with science, it is remarkable that little if any of it has made the slightest impact on our assessment of the author's oeuvre up to this point. The study of what we might call "the scientific McCarthy," it seems, constitutes one of the most glaring blank spots on the map of McCarthy scholarship today. Part of this may be due to a shared conviction, that-despite his personal engagement-McCarthy's books "show no sign of being shaped by high-flown scientific thought" (Woodward 2005). Another reason, of course, might simply be that most of 1 us generally do not know enough about modern science. Given this state of affairs, this essay represents a first attempt to explore the scientific dimension of McCarthy's writing, taking for its object one particularly important and culturally influential concept in 19th- and 20th- century science.

Up to this point, McCarthy has primarily been viewed as the heir of Melville, Hemingway, and Faulkner, an author of myth and bloodshed, a writer of apocalypses. What he has not been seen as is a writer in quite another, scientific tradition of thought initiated by the formulation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the central implication of which is the continuous dissipation of energy, or, the increase of entropy. This oversight is particularly striking. First so because the universal implications of the Second Law, in particular the running down and eventual heat-death of the universe, seem like a natural match for the overwhelming impression of human insignificance and cosmic indifference that pervades McCarthy's novels. Secondly, the general theme articulated by this concept-the world's tendency towards disorder-has formed a hallmark in McCarthy's writing at the very least since Lester Ballard dreamed of making "things more orderly in the woods and in men's souls" (Child of God 136). Given McCarthy's scientific interest, as well as the fact that Gell-Mann's The Quark and the Jaguar includes a whole chapter on entropy (Ch. 15, "Time's Arrows"), it can safely be assumed that he is quite familiar with the Second Law. …

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