As the “post-American century” lurches into its third decade, novelist Cormac McCarthy sits as the American author who most clearly clutches the smoky torch of the dark and brooding tradition of American literary – and philosophical and religious – pessimism.
Sunk deep in the earliest Puritan writings of figures like Jonathan Edwards, author of one of the most notorious – and deeply moving -sermons in American history, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741), this pessimistic tradition has sustained with its black blood many of the greatest American works, from novels like Faulkner’s Southern Gothic masterpiece As I Lay Dying, to films like the gritty 1970s neo-noir Dirty Harry.
The central intellectual plank of this American pessimism is that the world is a very bad place, and the worst of all things in the world is the human being, that “paragon of animals” who, as Aristotle bleakly noted 2,500 years ago, is the both of the best and worst of animals.
Within the theological broodings of American pessimism, God, of course, exists, but, in a typically American amalgamation of the colder branch of Deism and the dryer and more brutal strain of Puritanism, God is always, like so many ghosts in classical literature, beyond the grasp of humans. In this bleak and blasphemous vein of thought, the Divine Majesty not only tolerates, but seems to revel in the violence towards which humans, especially those who have been forced to fend for their existence in the New World, are inescapably drawn.
Mired in sin and wet with blood, the Anglo-Saxon Protestants who conquered the North American continent from sea to shining sea were forced to eke out a “nasty, brutish, and short” life, surrounded by the indigenous pagan peoples whose violence and savagery were but an outwardly expressed manifestation of the same evil that floated under the baptized hearts and minds of the English Christian settlers of the New World.
The fictional characters and authentic “real life” voices of the pessimism in the country that invented the movie studio, the television, and the internet, all of which helped to form the shift in Western consciousness into hyper-reality in which the fiction becomes more real than the “desert of the real, in these works nonetheless remain, in Walker Percy’s apt phrase, “Christ-haunted,” unable to escape from the nagging pull that there is Someone there, watching and judging human action. John Wayne’s “put an Amen to it” in The Searchers and Kanye West’s “Follow God” ring both with irony and hypocrisy as well as an honest and humble sincerity (unlike the British Beatles’ derisive and sacrilegious “Lady Madonna” and “Let it be”).
The landscape of American pessimism is, of course, the wilderness. It is the wilderness of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s New England “woods,” as much as it is the wilderness of Axl Rose’s late 1980s West Coast-decadent urban “jungle.” It is a place where animals, artefacts, and other men are more often deadly threats than fellow creatures and creations.
However, during the later twentieth century in America and (throughout much of the West) the urban jungle itself, like the acres of natural wilderness that it replaced, became both physically and spiritually gentrified. No longer was it necessary to pack a .44 magnum while screeching through the gritty “mean streets” of America in a roaring muscle car. Rather all that was (and is) needed to make one’s way through the new, postmodern metropolises of Atlanta, Charlotte, and Seattle adorned with remodeled and “flipped” residences and stores was a Prius and a good line of credit.
Thus, it has become necessarily to at least imaginatively destroy this pristine America and return to the wilderness. As a result, one of the principal settings for the tradition of American pessimism is the post-apocalyptic landscape in which all of the technocratic, liberal optimism that occupies the other side of the American character evaporates upon its crescendo of success, creating a new and more brutal wasteland in which the tough and rudely pious American hero can flourish once again.
Throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Cormac McCarthy, the quintessential postmodern and now post-millennial American pessimist, made much of his career perfecting two of the genres in which the tradition of American pessimism feels most at home – the Southern Gothic and the Western.
However, in his last major published work, The Road, McCarthy tackles the literary genre, like American horror, that gives expression to the violence and brutality hiding underneath well-manicured American lawns and persistent American politeness – the post-apocalyptic.
Readers often are surprised to discover Cormac McCarthy’s most recent major novel was published in 2006, two years before the 2008 economic crisis shattered the Indian Summer of 1990s post-Cold War prosperity and optimism.
The film, starring Vigo Mortenson, Kodi Smit-McPhee and featuring appearances from Charlize Theron and a briefly brilliant Guy Pearce was, of course, released in 2009 during the madcap frenzy of “survivalism,” prepping, and the continued mainstreaming of conspiracy culture that had been inaugurated by the “coming of age” of Internet 2.0 after the 2008 economic collapse.
In as much as Americans and the tenuously tied together Americanized global system views all books through the lens the of their cinematic successors, both the book and movie presentation of The Road are viewed as products of the tumult, anxiety, and sense of societal collapse that marked the post 2008 era.
The Road is, like all post-apocalyptic works, not so much a book about the future as a book about the here and now. Just as George Miller’s (and Mel Gibson’s) early iterations of the Mad Max series were fundamentally about the eminent terror of Cold War nuclear Armageddon as well as the lingering fear of oil and other resource scarcity in the wake of the 1973 oil crisis much more than they were about what happens after an economic collapse and nuclear holocaust, so too is The Road about the viciousness and savagery of post-millennial American life.
The work tells the story of a young boy and his father walking from what appears to be Tennessee to the Gulf Coast against the backdrop of a world in which some sort of cataclysmic event has filled the atmosphere with debris and blotted out the sun.
The Road begins in a very Dantesque mode as the father reflects on a world that is both physically and spiritually dead.
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 looked toward the east for any light but there was none.
Per usual within “post-Christian” works of art that attempt but nonetheless cannot shake the persistence of Biblical language and imagery, the absence or obscuration of light is always a (now very tired) metaphor for the (presumed) absence of the “Father of lights” and “Light of the World.” However, unlike McCarthy’s other novels in which God’s presence is largely muted by seemingly irredeemable bleakness and hopeless reflections on the futility of hope and love, The Road contains an odd heretical faith that is unmistakably American nearly but not quite truly Christian.
Abandoned by his wife who left him and their son to embrace the hope of “eternal nothingness” and surrounded by cannibals and slavers, the father rails against God in Jobean fashion.
“He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? He whispered. Will I see you at the last? … Have you a heart?”
Cursing and blaspheming his Maker, the father’s deprecation collapses into a prayer (an irreverent literary phenomenon practiced by both the Catholic artists Walker Percy and Mel Gibson): “Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.”
In post-Puritan fashion, God’s seemingly ghostly presence is felt throughout the novel in the form of personal prayer. However, humans themselves in The Road – with a few notable exceptions – bear more of the mark of Cain than the image and likeness of their Divine Maker. As the father reflects: “On this road there are no godspoke men. They are gone and I am left and they have taken with the world.”
This notion that God cannot – or at least should not – exist due to cruelty and wickedness of the human beings is further highlighted in the extended camp fire discussion the father has with a transient in the novel, which provides one of the most extended discussions of God in The Road. The transient is a prophet of postmodern negative theology or a sort of a post-Derridean “God without Being,” whose presence is paradoxically confirmed by His absence. When discussing with the old man, the father offers, “I guess God would know it. Is that it?” The old man abruptly responds, “There is no God.” However, when the father prods the old man further, the drifter responds with “There is no God and we are his prophets.” This deliberately ambiguous statement, although seemingly facile in the work of McCarthy, who is always judicious in his careful choice of words, speaks to the very heart of the novel. Humans mired in a fallen world find it very hard to see or at least accept the presence of God. At the same time, God’s presence saturates the world and tugs at the hearts and minds of the humans who all too often labor to hide from Him or even who truly hate their Creator.
The further response of the transient, played by a quietly on key Robert Duvall in the movie, to the father’s statement that his son may be an angel or god, indicates that, like the father, the transient has seemingly lost faith in God because of the wickedness of all the humans he has encounter in his own journey along “the road.” In response to the father’s statement that his son might be an angel or god, the transient bitterly responds, “I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. Its better to be alone.”
This bleak message of, to use an overused term, “rugged individualism” is, however, overturned in The Road by persistent and sincere love of the father and son for one another.
The most iconic presence of God in The Road is found in the honesty, piety, and sincere of the son, who serves as an at times explicit icon of Christ and Christ’s teaching of love of God and neighbor. The scenes between the father and the son are replete with Christological and Trinitarian symbolism as well as references to Old Testament stories such as that of Abraham and Isaac. In the scene with the transient, the boy’s faith plays a critical role. The transient suggests that the boy might believe in God and then informs the father that, “He’ll get over it,” to which the father promptly responds, “No he won’t.”
Moreover, in one of the most relieving and touching scenes in post-millennial American literature, the boy and his dad encounter a bunker full of food and supplies. In response, the boy offers an honest and humble thanksgiving to the people who left the food:
“Dear people, thank you for this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldn’t eat it no matter how hungry we were and we’re sorry that you didn’t get to eat it and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.”
We learn throughout the novel that the boy has spent the entirety of his life growing up in the post-apocalyptic setting, and he learned what he knows from his father, and one of the most pronounced lessons his father gives him is that of what appears to be an authentic Christian hope. Indeed, that is one of the marks of what the father and son call “the good guys” in the novel. As the father reminds the boy: “This is what the good guys do. They keep trying. They don’t give up.”
The boy further serves as a sacrament in a deeply Catholic sense for the old man. Thinking on his love for his son, the father reflects, “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” The father further reflects on his son using frequent Eucharistic language. The boy is a “Golden chalice, good to house a god.” Using the image of fire, the father sees the boy as, “God’s own firedrake,” who is “glowing” in the “waste” of the world, “like a tabernacle.”
The image of fire as a source of divinity in the book is a critical image. What the boy and the dad call “the fire” is in a certain sense God.
It has often been remarked that although notoriously anti-intellectual and especially anti-German and Teutonophobic Americans have always had the closet affinity to Hegel and the tradition of idealism that both predates and follows Hegel up until the 21st century. Drawing from this American Heglianism, McCarthy depicts God as the fire that lives in and through good people.
Near the end of the novel, when the father begins to die, and the boy begins to despair, the father instructs him: “You have to carry the fire.” The boy responds, “I don’t know how to,” while his father tells him, “Yes you do.” The fire is further the father’s profession of faith. The boy asks, “Is it real? The fire?” And the father responds, “Yes it is.” When the boy informs his father that he doesn’t know where the fire is, the father answers, “Yes you do. It’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it.” The fire is a sort of Heideggerean presence that is simultaneously present and absent at the time. Its presence is felt and intuited, but it is never framed or categorized rationally.
McCarthy does not leave us with a post-modern, post-Heideggerean Christianity but rather returns to a form of tribalism and paganism that again marks the intellectual wanderings of the tribe of Anglo-Saxons that waged bloody and terrible wars against French, Spanish, and multitudes of diverse Indians. The god to whom the boy will pray will be his father. Contrary to the father’s dismissive and cynical renunciation of his ancestors and their ledger book, the father tells his son that he and the son will communicate via a sort of desperate, revanched pagan prayer:
“If I’m not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I’ll talk to you. You’ll see.
Will I hear you?
Yes. You will. You have to make it like talk that you imagine. And you’ll hear me. You have to practice. Just don’t give up.”
Again, resounding with the language of the period of poetry reviled by Americans but which is, like the detested German idealism, the period of Anglo-American literature most typically American, Romanticism. The boy’s imagination both will, to quote Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” “half perceive and half create,” his father in a rough pagan prayer.
The Road’s ending veers into the most seemingly Christian dénouements of McCarthy’s novels. After his father dies, the boy is rescued by a Southern American Christian family who attempts to finish the rough, pessimistic, and largely pagan religious education the boy’s father gives him.
In a (for Cormac McCarthy) atypically touching scene, the mother of the family embraces the boy:
The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best things 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 that the breath of God was his breath yet tough it pass from man to man through all of time.
The Road ends on an apparently pagan and, to use a now very tired word, “agnostic” note that nonetheless contains elements of a rough and undoctrinal and thus typically American form of Christianity. God lives and breathes through the good men and women who, “carry the fire” through a hostile world from generation to generation.
Finally, in ruminative Hemingway-esque postscript that ranks among the most beautiful among post-millennial America novels, McCarthy upends the Neo-Darwinist narrative that because the earth is (possibly) billions of years old, then the Biblical chronology and the Bible itself is false. McCarthy writes the allegedly old age of the earth, rather than disproving the existence of God, bears witness to His Majesty precisely through mystery:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the 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.
Cormac McCarthy has spent much of later years living in New Mexico and working collaboratively with the Sante Fe Institute – indeed, his most watched and most famous interview on Oprah was, in fact, filmed at the Sante Fe Institute. The institute is noted for his work in research into various evolutionary theories and other complex narratives that – whether wittingly or not – seek to replace the grand historical narrative of Christianity. However, despite his immersion in the glass bead games of what rudely has been called post-Christian theology, McCarthy cannot escape from his nagging feeling that amidst the bleak and pessimistic world of the books he has read and written, there is Someone there who made, loves, and has redeemed the world.
Jesse Russell is Assistant Professor of English at Georgia Southwestern State University. He has published in Touchstone, Front Porch Republic, and the St. Austin Review as well as academic journals such as Religion and the Arts, Politics and Literature, and Maritain Studies.