He’s in love with his sister and she’s dead.
—The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
The theme of brother-sister incest haunts the early American novel on its lower levels of literacy as well as on the higher—a nightmare from which our writers do not choose to awake too soon, since it is one their readers are willing to pay to share.
—Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler
When he woke she was leaning against his shoulder. He thought she was asleep but she was looking out the plane window. We can do whatever we want, she said.
No, he said. We cant.
—The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
She turned to the Kid. What does it say on the trunk?
What does what say?
There’s a sticker on the trunk.
Yeah. It says progeny of Western Union.
—The Passenger, Cormac McCarthy
The last in the series of quotes above is an exchange between Alicia Western and her hort/figment/projection the Thalidomide Kid. The Kid has caused to be brought to Alicia a wiseassed—cruel, even—ventriloquist dummy. The dummy is another fitting prop in the Alicia-Kid episodes that punctuate The Passenger. It again underlines the vaudevillian aspect of these interstitial pieces, while also highlighting the novel’s themes of ventriloquism—of how memory of the dead might speak through the living, as the living grapple with death.
The quips above feature another of the Kid’s malapropisms — in this case his substitution of “progeny of Western Union” for property of Western Union. The Freudian slip (never really a slip on our imp’s tongue) points to The Passenger’s incest motif. It turns out that the dummy’s name is Crandall (perhaps named for the typewriter?). It’s likely Alicia herself named Crandall, and her grandmother tailored his clothes. I think the strong implication is that handy Bobby Western built (fathered) Crandall. In this sense, Crandall is the dreamchild born of a Western union. “I was only six,” Alicia cries as he disappears back into his case.
The incest motif perforates the literary tradition. We find it in Oedipus, in Lot seduced by his daughters, in David’s children Tamar and Amnon–a tale recapitulated in Faulkner’s southern Gothic Absalom! Absalom! We find it coded in Poe’s tale “The Fall of the House of Usher” or made strange but more clear in Melville’s baffling Pierre. We find it in the tawdry attic of V.C. Andrew’s lurid Dollanganger novels (likely read by many more Americans than the other novels I’ve named).
The incest thing in literature is, of course, an exploration of taboo, and is such the rightful property (or progeny) of literature. In his seminal (and often bombastic) study Love and Death in the American Novel, Leslie Fiedler suggests that “brother-sister incest in particular comes to stand in Romantic symbology for the rebellion against paternal authority, for the spirit of revolution itself.” He continues, declaring that the “Oedipal significance” of this revolutionary spirit “projects not only the desire to revolt, but also to die; that is to say, beneath the yearning for rebellion lies hidden the wish to be punished for it.”
Le’ts follow Fiedler’s reading (ahem, rehashing of Freud) and stick it on to the Western children: What is the paternal authority they rebel against—that is, beyond the actual literal father (a marginal memory)? Père Western was one of the lead authors of the atomic bomb. He changed the American relationship to death, permanently.
I have a little under a hundred pages left to go in The Passenger, but if either Bobby or Alicia has expressed overt familiar guilt over their father’s work in engineering mass death, I’ve missed it. What does linger is a deep-seated, unspoken anxiety about their father’s deeds.
At the end of his own surreal and improbable conversation with the Thalidomide Kid, Bobby expresses the only loss of his life, the only ashes in his world:
There is no other loss. Do you understand? The world is ashes. Ashes. For her to be in pain? The least insult? The least humiliation? Do you understand? For her to die alone? Her? There is no other loss. Do you understand? No other loss. None.
The emotional outburst, with its plaintive tone and cycle of repetitions, is rare for Bobby Western: for the most part, when The Passenger juts its free indirect speech into Bobby’s skull, we get simple, direct (if increasingly paranoid) language.
It’s when he thinks of his sister Alicia that Bobby’s voice gives over to passion, to a kind of Gothic romantic language that recalls Poe more than Hemingway. Consider how Gothic frills in the following passage soon give way to an archaic and obscure (yet still ornate) style that recalls the Cormac McCarthy of Blood Meridian:
In his dreams of her she wore at times a smile he tried to remember and she would say to him almost in a chant words he could scarcely follow. He knew that her lovely face would soon exist nowhere save in his memories and in his dreams and soon after that nowhere at all. She came in half nude trailing sarsenet or perhaps just her Grecian sheeting crossing a stone stage in the smoking footlamps or she would push back the cowl of her robe and her blonde hair would fall about her face as she bent to him where he lay in the damp and clammy sheets and whisper to him I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe. And all the while a clangor like the labor of a foundry and dark figures in silhouette about the alchemic fires, the ash and the smoke. The floor lay littered with the stillborn forms of their efforts and still they labored on, the raw half-sentient mud quivering red on the autoclave. In that dusky penetralium they press about the crucible shoving and gibbering while the deep heresiarch dark in his folded cloak urges them on in their efforts. And then what thing unspeakable is this raised dripping up through crust and calyx from what hellish marinade. He woke sweating and switched on the bedlamp and swung his feet to the floor and sat with his face in his hands. Dont be afraid for me, she had written. When has death ever harmed anyone?
(I had not intended to type out the entire passage above, but once I got going I couldn’t stop.)
Bobby’s dream begins as an erotic manifestation of his sister, a Gothic evocation in silk ribbon or Grecian garb. She takes to a “stone stage,” again underscoring the shift into high drama. “I’d have been your shadowlane, the keeper of that house alone wherein your soul is safe,” she declares. The word shadowlane here seems like a symbolic substitution for the near homphone chatelaine, an archaic word for a woman who keeps a castle or great house (readers of Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series will be familiar with the word).
A chatelaine also refers to a chain belt used for holding keys, an image that carries over into the second half of Bobby’s dream, which shifts from eroticism to terror. Shadowy figures inhabit a “dusky penetralium,” an innermost chamber, a locked place. Here, the figures labor with red “half-sentient mud” (Adamic atoms) in an “autoclave” (self-key). Amidst a litter of stillbirths, the figures toil to bring a new creature into being.
Bobby’s dream moves from brother-sister incest to the Gothic terror of a laboratory creation coming to life—an evocation of the father’s sins. Bobby’s subconscious mind transmutes the Manhattan Project into a satanic ritual presided over by a clandestine “heresiarch” — the damning father figure whose strange experiment impede Bobby’s incestuous consummation. Instead, we get another Western union. And the promise of death.
(More thoughts to come.)
5 thoughts on “The incest thing | More scattered thoughts on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Passenger”
Thanks for sharing these clues and definitions. I fear this kind of erudite writing is beyond me…
Glad to see someone else had picked up on the progeny of Western Union bit. You are also onto something with Bobby building the toy. The Kid even says Bob’s your f…ing Uncle before he puts him back in the box.
Other random thoughts:
Chapter 6 talks about “dead children in a dream”. Bobby on pages 315/316 at the old farmhouse in Idaho dreams of a dead baby.
“A nurse waiting to take the thing away….
Has she seen it?….
Won’t she have to see it…..
Does it have a brain?
Does it have a soul?”
Suggestive of a real child born of incest? A dream of the stillborn legacy of their Father. The reason for guilt and suicide. Not sure…?
I hadn’t gotten to the other dreamchild bit when I wrote this thing, but when I did get to it I of course underlined it. Nice pick up on “Bob’s your uncle” thing. I still have the final numbered chapter to go.
Autoclave: sterilization oven, medical tools.
Very insightful comments. So helpful. Thanks!