The Road1, with its impersonal depictions of cannibalism and murder in the aftermath of an unknown apocalypse, is one of the most spiritual novels written in recent years.
The contrast may appear stark: how can the brutally physical reveal that which we tend to conceive of as transcendent? There is a long-standing assumption, at least in the West, that the material world of food and things is in contrast to the mental realms of ideas, values, and God. But it is precisely because he violates this dualism, paying equal attention to both thoughts and things, that Cormac McCarthy is able to measure our own conscious lives with such precision. This novel, with all of its haunting, is not the “spirituality” found in the vapid self-aggrandizement of those who promote secrets for “life improvement,” nor in the vague bourgeois mysticism of Oprahtic neo-liberal optimism, nor in the stark declarations of fundamentalist religion. It is, instead, an examination of culture at its most reduced, a vision of the commitment required to keep the spirit alive.
The narrative situation is simple; the plot, such as it is, minimal. A father and son are making their way south in an effort to flee the oncoming winter cold. The environmental threat is made worse by the fact that at some point in the recent past the sky was turned black, covered in gray clouds, presumably as the result of human action. The destruction is nearly absolute. The trees have all died. Animal life is only evidenced by the remnants of bones. Ash blows everywhere, swirling around the feet of the few remaining humans, clogging their lungs. Food is only to be found as the post-industrial fossils of an earlier time, in cans and boxes scrounged from abandoned houses and stores, a clearly finite and extremely scarce supply. Such scarcity leads some, traveling in groups or waiting in ambush, to cannibalism. Thus, the father and son must be on constant alert, suspicious of whomever they happen upon. While the father is armed, he is saving the last bullets to take his son’s life, to save him from dying an even more horrible death.
There are no chapters in this novel, as if chapters would create some sense of development and denoument, that is, an overarching order or purpose. Instead,the novel is comprised of fragments, brief passages connected by nothing more than the passage of time and the movement of the road. Indeed, the fragment can be considered both the form and content of the novel, as we soon realize that as the characters scrabble for mere biological life, they are also participating in a more fragile and tenuous struggle for language and thought, the remaining pieces of the culture that has been lost. As the father and son keep reminding each other, they, against the barbarism which surrounds them, are “carrying the fire,” seeking to hold on to whatever small acts of language and value they can uncover. These are often far apart, and fraught with moral ambiguity. In one scene, the father must use one of their precious bullets to shoot a man who is holding a knife to the son’s throat. Later, washing the gore from the boy’s hair, he realizes that “all of this [is] like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”2
The practice of form for its own sake, of pure culture without tradition, cut off from any referent, is the definition of carrying the fire. The blackness is not merely a physical phenomenon, it is a mystical one, penetrated only by language and the creation of symbolic value. Without such forms, the darkness becomes absolute. And yet the fact that this particular pure ritual emerges after an act of violence points to the essential ambiguity surrounding the process. The son becomes suspicious of their fire, of the constant reaffirmation that they are “the good guys” resisting the cannibals around them, of the stories they tell in which the father and son are “always helping people,” since “we don’t help people”.3 If the spiritual exists, it only does so under the threat of exploitation, and of becoming another form of the darkness it is trying to resist.
But in this world there is no alternative. One must continue to evoke the forms, to hold back the encroaching threat of absolute silence. Those who have given up are reduced to mere shadows of meaning, resigned skeptics to whom language is a horrible threat, a reminder of what has been forever lost. Ely, the only character in the book with a name (who later tells the father that this is not, in fact, his name), encountered nearly blind and starving on the road, is one of these skeptics. When the father suggests to the old man that the son may in fact be a god, Ely denies the possibility: “Where men can’t live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone”.4
According to Ely, the human and the divine are both waiting for the end when death will be defeated simply because it will have no more victims—an abandonment to nothingness. Attempting to hold back that moment is simply slowing the inevitable and causing more pain. Instead, as Ely tells us, we are to speed up the final silence, for “There is no God and we are his prophets”.5
The relationship between the human and the divine is perpetually reaffirmed throughout the book, not as an actual theological vision of transcendence but as an acknowledgment of the role played by the mind in the making of meaning. Without thought, without culture, without the forms and signs made by human beings, there is brute matter, indifferent space, the earth “trundling past the sun . . . as trackless and unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond.”6 The Earth, as another book tells us, was without form and void. Only by the perpetual rekindling of the flame can one ever say: “let there be light.”
Of course, this is only half of the story. A too rigid idealism and elevation of human consciousness as the pure origin of all meaning inevitably leads to the very disaster upon which the book is premised: a destruction of the physical world upon which life rests, separation from the material sun that makes spiritual light possible. While language may be necessary to give the world meaning, the presence of the world is required for that language to have any real value. The dwindling of thought is caused by the disappearance of things, the “names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. . . . The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.”7 The forms are holy, but their holiness depends on the existence of the physical world.
Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated then when the father discovers an old brass sextant in the remains of a ship, and he is “struck by its beauty.”8 The tool is a particularly poignant discovery, since the sextant is used to measure the Earth, to affix lines and points to the ocean upon which one sails. In this respect, it is a tool of the mind, of the spirit. And yet, the sextant works because of the shape and substance of the world and, most significantly, because of the visibility of the sun. Without the sun, without the visible horizon, it is a useless artifact, a sign without a signifier. Mind without the world is a meaningless tool. The destruction of the world can only result in the elimination of the language which gives that world light.
As distant and terrifying as the world of The Road may appear, it is clear that the threads McCarthy weaves into his novel are pulled from our own history and fears—the mystery of consciousness, the threat of violence, the conflicting and fragile definitions of barbarism and culture,9 the place of human existence in the world, and the risk that we may destroy the world by overreaching our own bounds. In this respect, the novel practices what it depicts. It is a form of a history that may yet come, an affirmation of T.S. Eliot’s haunting and yet hopeful call to shore fragments against our ruins.10
As the often violent dialectical process of defining and practicing culture continues, the final call may be to recognize that we are bearers of the fire, no matter how it may flicker.
1. Cormac McCarthy, The Road. (New York: Vintage, 2006), 287 pp.
2. Ibid., 74.
3. Ibid., 268.
4. Ibid., 172.
5. Ibid., 170.
6. Ibid., 181.
7. Ibid., 89.
8. Ibid., 228.
9. One is reminded of philosopher Walter Benjamin’s famous claim that all monuments of civilization are simultaneously products of barbarism.
10. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land, (1922): line 430.