Monday, December 11, 2006

The Road and Transcendence

As some of you know, I am currently writing my Master’s thesis on Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. My basic thesis is that although many have read or reacted to the book as a work of nihilism, the novel is actually hopeful and preoccupied with the existence and/or voice of God. Some critics, like Harold Bloom, have been arguing for some time now that Blood Meridian will be remembered as one of the greatest works of American fiction, perhaps the best for the 20th century. So as you can imagine, I have been scouring all of McCarthy’s works and influences for support for my thesis.

The Road is McCarthy’s latest novel and is in some ways even better than Blood Meridian. In the novel, McCarthy gives us essentially the same dark, brutal, inhuman world of Blood Meridian and some of his earlier works, but this time there are very clear and moving points of hope. This hope is centered around the interaction of a father and his son as they attempt to survive in a post-apocalyptic world by walking down the road. They encounter cannibals (a constant threat), harsh weather, utter desolation, ugliness, and starvation. Yet McCarthy crafts the relationship between these two characters such that neither they, nor the reader feels hopeless. In fact, there are many Biblical references and even a few discussions about God in the book. However, the last two pages seem to leave the hope the Man and Boy have open to interpretation. On the last page, a women tells the boy “that the breath of God was his [the father] breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time” (241). She says this in response to the boy as he prayers to his father rather than God, who he can’t seem to pray to. The question thus becomes, is McCarthy advocating a humanist/existentialist religion where “transcendence” (the materialist equivalent at least) lies exclusively in each person and eternity is merely our act of remembering all that has gone before us, or is there an actual God in this novel? Or a third possibility?

What I would like to suggest is that the end of The Road should not be interpreted as a claim for an existentialist pseudo-philosophy, but rather by examining the relationship between the Man and the Boy we can see that McCarthy is clearly making a claim for transcendence in the novel. Specifically, the theories of Peter Berger, Professor of Sociology at Rutgers, from his book A Rumor of Angels will be applied to The Road in an attempt to explain the irrational, unquenchable hope in the Man and the Boy.

As my lovely wife pointed out to me, probably the most repeated word in The Road is “okay,” and it is used in various meanings. On one level, “okay” merely means “alright,” “sure,” or “fine,” but it’s important to keep in mind that it can also mean “everything is in order; tomorrow or the next moment will be alright.” Although I could have found several passages in the novel which have this layered meaning of “okay”, I choose the following one and leave it up to the reader to find others:
“Are you still scared?
We’re okay.
Okay.” (172).
Peter Berger’s essential argument is that there are what he calls “signals of transcendence” in our lives, and in “prototypical human gestures” which point to a supernatural element to existence. By “signals of transcendence,” Berger means: “phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our “natural” reality but that appear to point beyond that reality. In other words, I am not using transcendence in a technical philosophical sense but literally, as the transcending of the nature, everyday world that I earlier identified with the “supernatural.” (53). He breaks down these “prototypical human gestures” into several foundational arguments; I will use two of these arguments to attempt to better understand McCarthy’s novel: the argument from hope, and the argument from ordering. Both of these arguments are related to the use of the word “Okay” in The Road.

Throughout The Road the Man and the Boy are struggling to survive, but what is remarkable is that they keep trying. On one level at least the father has hope for survival because of the boy, in fact we learn early in the novel that his wife claimed that the Man was only kept from death by the Boy, a claim that is not stated without a sense of condemnation or contempt. It is much harder, however, to justify the hope that the Boy has. The Boy was born after the catastrophe that demolished civilization, which means there was no culture to instill in him a desire to live and a hope for the future; no church, school, government, counselor, psychologist, doctor, teacher, TV, poem, novel, song, or philosophy. If anything, everything that the past culture stood for must seem senseless and wrong to the Boy who now sees only the ruins. One cannot believe that his parents taught him to have this hope since any claim for hope from his father would be countered by the glaring absence of a mother who believed that there were no reasons left to live. Neither religion, philosophy, citizenship, nor family could have instilled in the Boy a belief in the possibility for a better future that would be strong enough to withstand the all but unspeakable horrors he faced in the world. Nature, meanwhile, offers little help either. The world the Boy is born and raised in is completely hostile, ugly (at one point the Man laments the loss of beauty), and lacks even the basic pleasures and comforts. Which brings us to what I believe is the heart of the novel and Camus’s famous question for philosophy: why live?

While the Man has all of Western history and its influence and the preservation of his son to keep him going, the Boy has not been nurtured nor taught by nature to have a hope in tomorrow, yet he does. He constantly is convinced that things will be ultimately, “okay,” although he does have moments of fear. While certainly part of the boy’s motivation is the love of his father, there is more to his love, and it is here that Berger enables us to understand the importance of the Boy’s belief that everything will be “okay:”

“Human existence is always oriented toward the future. Man exists by constantly extending his being toward the future, both in his consciousness and in his activity….An essential dimension of this ‘futurity’ of man is hope. It is through hope that men overcome the difficulties of any given here and now. And it is through hope that men find meaning in the face of extreme suffering” (61).

The Boy’s hope defies rationality except as a signal of transcendence. Rationally, we must side with the Boy’s mother and ask the Man to kill his son, but hope persists. In addition to a hope in the future that keeps them both moving, they also enact one of Berger’s “prototypical human gestures” throughout the novel as the Man reassures his son that everything is okay. Consider all the moments in the novel were the father comforts the child in light of Berger’s argument from ordering:

“A child wakes up in the night, perhaps from a bad dream, and finds himself surrounded by darkness, alone, beset by nameless threats. At such a moment the contours of trusted reality are blurred or invisible, and in the terror of incipient chaos the child cries out for his mother. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, at this moment, the mother is being invoked as a high priestess of protective order. It is she…who has the power to banish the chaos and to restore the benign shape of the world….She will speak or sing to the child, and the content of this communication will invariably be the same—“Don’t be afraid—everything is in order, everything is all right.

All of this, of course, belongs to the most routine experiences of life and does not depend upon any religious preconceptions. Yet this common scene raises a far from ordinary question, which immediately introduced a religious dimension: Is the mother lying to the child? The answer, in the most profound sense, can be “no” only if there is some truth in the religious interpretation of human experience. Conversely, if the ‘natural’ is the only reality there is, the mother is lying to the child—lying out of love, to be sure, and obviously not lying to the extent that her reassurance is grounded in the fact of this love—but, in the final analysis, lying all the same. Why? Because the reassurance, transcending the immediately present two individuals and their situation, implies a statement about reality as such” (54-55).”

It is my claim that the Man and the Boy’s hope and belief in order is “a statement about reality as such,” a statement that ultimately there is hope and order, although perhaps not in this life. In addition, this hope and order is transcendent; it is not a hope contingent on human relationships, a mere hope in our ability to really love and remember someone; rather, McCarthy seems to be clearly claiming that through human relationships we can find innate in us a hope for the future and a belief in ultimate order that is a signal of a transcendence beyond this life. I’ll close with this scene from the novel which again shows the character’s unquenchable faith:

The boy suggests to his dad that there are people alive somewhere, and his father tells him “no.”:
“I don’t know what we’re doing, he (the boy) said.
The man started to answer. But he didn’t. After a while he said: There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. You’ll see” (206).

(It is important to note that the boy eventually does see. Not only does the Man have hope for tomorrow, that hope is not unfounded).

Perhaps if anyone is interested (not that that has stopped me before…) I’ll write a more theological explication of McCarthy’s idea of God in every man, an idea found in The Road and The Sunset Limited.