Stella Maris - by Cormac McCarthy

The factual and the suspect are both subject to the same dimming with time. There is a fusion in the memory of events which is at loose ends where reality is concerned. You wake from a nightmare with a certain relief. But that doesnt erase it. It’s always there. Even after it’s forgotten. The haunting sense that there is something you have not understood will remain long after.

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 doesnt 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, doesnt 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.

You dont see what we do as science.
No. The docs seem to pretty much avoid neuroscience. Down there with lantern and clipboard roaming the sulci. Sulcuses? Easy to see why. If a psychosis was just some synapses misfiring why wouldnt you simply get static? But you dont. You get a carefully crafted and fairly articulate world never seen before. Who’s doing this? Who is it who is running around hooking up the dangling wires in new and unusual ways. Why is he doing it? What is the algorithm he follows? Why do we suspect there is one?

We didnt grow up Jewish.
But you knew you were Jewish.
No. I knew something. Anyway, my forebears counting coppers out of a clackdish are what have brought me to this station in life. Jews represent two percent of the population and eighty percent of the mathematicians. If those numbers were even a little more skewed we’d be talking about a separate species.
Isnt that a bit farfetched?
No. It’s not fetched far enough. You can have separate histories in the same house. Darwin’s question remains unanswered. How do we come by mental abilities that have no history? How is it that the brain seems to prepare for what’s coming? No idea. How much of the brain’s circuitry is undedicated, simply awaiting the arrival of new opportunities? Any? How does making change in the market prepare one’s grandchildren for quantum mechanics? For topology?

When you’re talking about intelligence you’re talking about number. A claim that the mathless are quick to frown upon. It’s about calculation and the nature of calculation. Verbal intelligence will only take you so far. There is a wall there, and if you dont understand numbers you wont even see the wall. People from the other side will seem odd to you. And you will never understand the latitude which they extend to you. They will be cordial—or not—depending on their nature. Of course one might also add that intelligence is a basic component of evil. The more stupid you are the less capable you are of doing harm. Except perhaps in a clumsy and inadvertent manner. The word cretin comes from the French chrétien. Supposedly if you could think of nothing good to say about a dullard you would say that he was a good Christian. Diabolical on the other hand is all but synonymous with ingenious. What Satan had for sale in the garden was knowledge.

Do you have recurring dreams?
Yes. I suppose that sometimes the unconscious will keep working on certain dreams, revising them, hoping you’ll get it. That’s not the interesting part though.
What’s the interesting part?
The interesting part is that it knows that you havent gotten it. It doesnt really have anything to go on. It’s a mind reader? Sometimes it will just keep trying the same story over and over. It’s stuck. It has no place to go.

I think the sense of being an alien—as distinct from merely feeling alienated—is fairly common among mental patients.
Or among aliens.

The core question is not how you do math but how does the unconscious do it. How is it that it’s demonstrably better at it than you are? You work on a problem and then you put it away for a while. But it doesnt go away. It reappears at lunch. Or while you’re taking a shower. It says: Take a look at this. What do you think? Then you wonder why the shower is cold. Or the soup. Is this doing math? I’m afraid it is. How is it doing it? We dont know. I’ve posed the question to some pretty good mathematicians. How does the unconscious do math? Some who’d thought about it and some who hadnt. For the most part they seemed to think it unlikely that the unconscious went about it the same way we did. What was surprising to me was the insouciance with which they greeted this news. As if the very nature of mathematics had not just been hauled into the dock. A few thought that if it had a better way of doing mathematics it ought to tell us about it. Well, maybe. Or maybe it thinks we’re not smart enough to understand it. I’m not sure I see how that would work. Neither does anybody else. Sometimes you get a clear sense that doing math is largely just feeding data into the substation and waiting to see what comes out. I’m not even sure that it’s all that wise to commit things to memory. What you log in becomes fixed. In a way that the machinations of the unconscious would appear not to. I dont really like to write things down. Is that good? I dont know. Grothendieck writes everything down. Witten nothing. But I think for most people to leave things unrecorded is to leave them free to look around for fresh analogies. They go about their business and come back from time to time and report to you. A written statement—or an equation—is a sort of signpost. A waystation. It tells you where you are and gives you a new place to start from.

A disappointed longing has a legacy of which its fulfillment can only dream.

You said at some point that the unconscious was reluctant to communicate with us linguistically. For historical reasons? Do I have that right?
Would you like to elaborate on that?
I dont think so. Psychiatrists have trouble dealing with the unconscious in a straightforward way. But the unconscious is a purely biological system, not a magical one. It’s a biological system because that’s all there is for it to be. People arent happy talking about the unconscious unless there’s a certain amount of hokum involved. But there isnt. The unconscious is simply a machine for operating an animal. What else could it be? Most of what we do is unconscious. Turning chores over to the conscious mind is a risky business. Whales and dolphins have to time their breathing to their surfacing. So of course when they were first anesthetized for surgery they simply died. Which should have been predictable. The unconscious evolves along with the species to meet its needs and if there’s anything spooky about it it’s that it sometimes seems to anticipate those needs. It cant afford surprises. It’s one of the things that troubled Darwin. But the souldoctors dont get any of this. They’re Cartesian to the bone.

People prefer fate to chance. Soldiers really do believe that there is a bullet out there with their name on it. I think most people believe not only in a book of life but in a book of their life. Fate can be appeased, gods prayed to. But chance is just what it says.

The fact that you own nothing.
Might divesting yourself of everything be a way of preparing for death?
I dont think there is some way to prepare for death. You have to make one up. There’s no evolutionary advantage to being good at dying. Who would you leave it to? The thing you are dealing with—time—is immalleable. Except that the more you harbor it the less of it you have. The liquor of being is leaking out onto the ground. You need to hurry. But the haste itself is consuming what you wish to preserve. You cant deal with what it is you’ve been sent to deal with. It’s too hard.

And there are times when I miss the world of calculation itself. Solving problems. When things suddenly fall into place after days of labor it’s like a lost animal coming in out of the rain. Your thought is to say there you are. To say I was so worried. You hardly even bother to review your work. You just know. That what you are looking at is true. It’s a joyful thing.

I think you’ve suggested that the advent of language, aside from the enormous value of it, was disruptive.
Very disruptive. Of a piece with its value. Creative destruction. All sorts of talents and skills must have been lost. Mostly communicative. But also things like navigation and probably even the richness of dreams. In the end this strange new code must have replaced at least part of the world with what can be said about it. Reality with opinion. Narrative with commentary.

What helps you to remember? Synesthesia. It’s easier to remember two things than one. It’s why it’s easier to remember the words of a song than the words of a poem. For instance. The music is an armature upon which you assemble the words.