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"HAPPINESS IS NEITHER WITHOUT US NOR WITHIN US. IT IS IN GOD, BOTH WITHOUT US AND WITHIN US."
Blaise Pascal, Morality and Doctrine
Cormac McCarthy's new book, The Road, is classic American literature.
Actually, the above sentence is the most accurate review I've ever written and if wisdom prevailed I'd let the matter drop there. But, there is much to say about the dichotomous nature of this book that is both simple and complex, a book that succeeds magnificently as a classic morality tale, implemented with a mastery of language seldom visited upon the reading public. It is a book that reveals the truth of man.
McCarthy is the contemporary Hesiod, the conjurer of a mythopoesis that examines the structures of reality and ambles along the tension of the cosmos. It is sufficient to say that the story follows the distortion of an apocalyptic event and we are at once alerted to the possibilities of failure for which such deviations are so well noted. But the author is not inclined to follow what surely must have been a Gnostic temptation. Rather, we might argue that this "postapocalyptic" event is merely the result of postmodern man's abandonment of the Aristotelian concept of summum bonum. What may surprise those inclined to look upon modernity with a certain optimism is how easily the pretensions of technos are extirpated when survival becomes the focus of life. At one moment man believes himself a god; the next he is a beast, reduced to a bipedal scavenger picking through ancient middens!
The story then, is brilliantly rendered. The conversation is both sparse and in-depth, between the two main characters, "Papa" and the boy. But the conversation is the stuff of philosophers and the literature reflects the artist's overwhelming curiosity about the fundamental questions of "existence, experience, consciousness, and reality," the absolute necessity of myth, and the constant search for the divine ground.
McCarthy is a master at describing the immanent reality within the conflated contextualization of the intellectual, physical, and moral attributes of man. At the opening he writes,
"When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none."
Few works have ever achieved what McCarthy accomplishes in the above opening for he has set the tone of the book, establishing that "man's existence is participation in reality," and seducing the reader into the mythopoeic adventure. One simply is unable to put this book down!
The reader is forewarned that the author eschews the quotation mark, a punctuation that I'd grown fond of over the years, and while initially I'd found it rather annoying in his earlier work, something rather mystical happens in The Road. The scarcity of punctuation seems most proper in a story whose denouement may be the extinguishment of mankind. As man has been reduced in circumstance, the author has reduced the exigencies of language in an overt effort to comfort the reader in his journey through a story that depicts the imbalance and breakdown of noetic and pneumatic consciousness. Man may find himself on the abyss as he explores "the structures of reality" within the remnant of the postmodern world, yet there is still remaining the insight gleaned from the tension revealed in "the divine Beginning and the divine Beyond of its structures." In fact that is the point!
It is "PaPa" who willingly sacrifices everything knowing the "boy" must survive or at least not fall victim to cannibals and debauchers. He is then the heroic figure, the boy's father, protector, teacher and in the following exchange McCarthy not only defines him but also reveals to the reader that the "boy" is becoming pneumatically cognizant:
And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?
Yes. Of course you can.
What would you do if I died?
If you died I would want to die too.
So you could be with me?
Yes. So I could be with you.
It is an exchange between father and son, so fundamental and necessary to both entities, particularly when civilization is stripped away exposing primordial man. Together, they share the "dialectics in the metaxy," the in between of the immanent reality and the transcendent, declaring each to the other, I am with you. So it is that the reader is made aware of how fortunate the boy is to have this man as his father and how fortunate "Papa" is to have been blessed with this boy. These two-father and son-seek to survive the horrors of an environment where the demon has reduced man to the beast, but to survive recognizing an order of reality, though greatly distorted, is still capable of being experienced. This is then, "Papa's" struggle and one that he must win if the "boy" is to survive.
And, the author makes it perfectly clear that this "boy" must survive. In an episode where "Papa" leaves a beggar-thief to die the following conversation takes place:
He's so scared, Papa.
The man squatted and looked at him. I'm scared, he said. Do you understand? I'm scared.
The boy didn't answer. He just sat there with his head bowed, sobbing.
You're not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldn't understand him. What? He said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.
Cormac McCarthy's The Road will have the same impact on society that T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland did nearly ninety years ago for the same reason, that is that both authors spoke the truth of reality.
McCarthy, I think, is more the epic poet than novelist; a poet who wishes to project a myth that illuminates a "divine reality beyond the Metaxy" though that has never pleased the philosopher. But, McCarthy, who has experienced modernity's illusion of the individual, and rejected the proposition, might argue that it is the poet's duty to differentiate and symbolize the truth, even at the risk of falsifying an older truth. When this symbolization is done properly as McCarthy has accomplished in The Road, millions of people are presented a truth capable of producing the epiphany-the rejection of postmodernity's philosophy of "groundlessness!"
The Road then is a severe rebuke of the ambiguity and deformations found in postmodern thinking and a critique of the pernicious Gnostic ideologies of the past century that continue to threaten the extinction of man. McCarthy is not writing of abstractions he is pleading with us to look back to "the concrete language of the tension, of wondering and turning around, of searching and finding, of love, hope, and faith…"
© 2008 Robert C. Cheeks
Robert Cheeks is a freelance writer living in Ohio. His recent work has appeared in Philosophy Now, The University Bookman, Crisis, Touchstone, and The South Carolina Review.