Monday, 18 February 2013

Cormac McCarthy Buries a World

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, published in 2006, is a bleak tale about a father and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. Only a few humans are left, and most of them would eat you alive if they got the slightest chance. No animals, no living plants, at least none that one could live on, all dust and ashes, empty and hopeless, a bit like the world that the traveller in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine encounters when he travels on to the far future when humanity has disappeared from the planet. We don’t get any explanation for why the world has become that way; it just has. And McCarthy makes it pretty clear that there really is no hope left, nothing to live for. The world is a literally god-forsaken place and is quickly grinding to a halt. “The frailty of everything revealed at last.” The few people left are not survivors, because there is no world left for them to live in. Instead, they are the walking dead. But despite this utter hopelessness, and without knowing why, the man carries on, trying to protect his son, to keep him alive and to keep him human. Still, in the end he dies, because die he must, and his son lives on, for a while, having found new protectors in a man and a woman who take him under their wing. But of course the world is still the same empty place, so it seems only a matter of time before they too must succumb to the hostile world that can no longer be a home to them.

The strange thing about this story is that although the world is ending and there really is nothing left to hope for, the main protagonist, the unnamed man, stubbornly, almost defiantly, keeps on protecting his son, pushing him forward to a non-existing future. His actions betray a hope that persists against all hope, a hope that cannot be extinguished, not even by the greatest despair. And desperate he certainly is, cursing the God that has let this happen. “He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.” But God doesn’t answer. He, too, has left, has abandoned his creation. Or perhaps he has never been there in the first place. Perhaps it has always been an illusion, the crazy idea that the universe has eyes and ears to see and listen to our pain and sorrows and, somewhere, somehow, a compassionate heart to feel for us and with us. Perhaps the world has revealed its true nature at last.
“He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”

The revealed emptiness is almost unbearable. “There were few nights lying in the dark that he did not envy the dead.” So why carry on? Why not die with the rest of the world? Maybe because there is still some beauty left, which appears even more precious, far more precious, when it is in danger of vanishing forever, when it has become the rarest thing imaginable. Beauty in the human heart that loves, and beauty in the human form that is being loved.

“No list of things to be done. The day providential itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes. So, he whispered to the sleeping boy. I have you.”
“There were times when he sat watching the boy sleep that he would begin to sob uncontrollably but it wasn’t about death. He wasn’t sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things that he’d no longer any way to think about at all.”

The man tells the boy that they are the good guys and that they “carry the fire”. It seems important to the boy. What fire? The fire of humanity. The fire of what is, or ever was, good and true and beautiful in the world. This fire is also the breath of God. There is even a suggestion, on the very last page of the book, that the fire will always be there. Before his father dies he tells the boy that even when he will be dead the boy could still talk to him. But the woman who then finds him tells him about God, so he tries to “talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn’t forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all time.”
However, the very last paragraph once again emphasises the impossibility to turn things around, to repair what cannot be repaired. That once things are lost, things that ought to be precious to us, they cannot be retrieved. Once they are lost, they are lost forever. And we are reminded of the beauty of this world and how important it is to take good care of it, so that it does not go away and leaves us behind in an empty world. We, not God, are this beauty’s guardians.

“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

1 comment:

  1. It is good to have authors like Cormac McCarthy because even though they aren't right about the world they shake things up.