Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”

Can we fathom non-existence not as a mere philosophical conjecture but as an experience derived from our observation of human potential, human nature, and technology? That is the sort of question presented by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — if we do not grow impatient with art and fiction and attempt to rush the question, as in T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question …

Developmental biology suggests the question: Does consciousness separate or alienate us so much from the world that it sets off the cascade of aggression, destruction, and technology on an irreversible countdown?

In The Road there is no philosophical or scientific apparatus, no presentations on geopolitics or morality, no justifications or regrets — only pure experience, the existential reality of the story’s protagonists.

Many critics have unduly dwelt on the protagonist father and son bond of love and saving grace in what is, after all, a paternal-filial love that is almost biological in its necessity, even for a novel. To seek out prematurely this redeeming factor is too facile.

As it is unwise to subordinate the world context — the annihilation that is the arrogant prerogative of science and technology in creating the possibility of nuclear winter — to redeeming human traits. We too conveniently miss the overarching stage and play up our script on it. Logical annihilation is the inevitability of human nature run its gamut, run its course with the consumptive power of technology.

The characters of the novel are suggested by some as father and son on a last universal level, like Father and Son begetting their love which is Spirit, and will be everlasting. But our sentiments may be brought back from false hope by a strange character calling himself Ely. Ely is supposed to be Elijah or Elias the prophet. Critics miss that Ely is more like Nietzsche’s madman, after all. “There is no God and we are his prophets,” he announces.

We might conjecture — though the author does not pursue this thought — that the whole world presented here, stinking of ash and death, is the odor of God’s corpse slain so thoroughly by man. Ely admits when he first saw the boy he thought the boy, the son of the man, was an angel. “What if I said that he’s a god?” asks the boy’s father. Ely replies, shaking his head.

I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone. So I hope that’s not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it’s not true. Things will be better when everybody’s gone. …

When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days will be numbered too. He’ll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it to. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?

And we are left with that imponderable element of will. But the will to survive or to love is all the same, confronted by the physicality and temporality of our existence as individuals. This sameness of feelings and actions is but further highlighted by the absolute vulnerability of humanity to technology and its consequences: inevitable consequences foreseen by every major thinker in the last hundred or more years. Consequences always ready to converge on the tiny window of life and breath that we glimpse in trying to fathom reality. McCarthy’s parsed language, nearly poetic, tries to capture this evanescence of meaning.

Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular. The silence.

It was the holiness of self that we were to strive for. It was silence that was intended to show us the mystery of the world. That was supposed to be our “road,” our path and way. But in the end, destruction is coldly secular. The silence will mock us then as the counterpart to creation and being, the echo of annihilation, of nothingness. We will have failed to understand ourselves and how fragile and beautiful was our existence.