Monday, April 16, 2012

Cormac McCarthy's Secular Apocalypse

Andy Tuck, who currently heads up the University of Michigan's Philosophy Club, recently wrote a review of Cormac McCarthy's The Road for one of his classes; I thought it worthy of being read by others who are interested in how literature of the apocalypse reveals something about our views of the world.

Morality and the Secular Apocalypse in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road

The apocalypse as described in various religious traditions tends to reassert the sovereignty of the gods over the realm of morality. In the Christian tradition, for example, the second coming of Christ, in a final disambiguation of who is good and who is evil, will bring perfect justice to a fallen humanity. In the Oresteia, a long string of violence and death results in Athena setting a divine standard for human justice.  

In non-religious apocalyptic literature such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though, an entirely separate strand of thought is observed: the apocalypse, rather than bringing justice into a world incapable of saving itself, undoes any preexisting order and morality and plunges the world into chaos.

In the post-apocalyptic world of The Road, any hints of human goodness are vestiges of the old world. Every item that alleviates human suffering, from a first-aid kit salvaged from a ship to a bottle of Coca Cola stripped from a dilapidated vending machine, is an artifact of the past. Since these things are the products of civilization, when the apocalypse ends civilization, human suffering resumes. The protagonists of The Road, a father and his son, spend most of their time rummaging through destroyed buildings and vehicles for anything from the old world. Virtually all food and tools they use are remnants civilization; they are completely dependent on the scraps of the pre-apocalyptic world for the necessities of survival.

This stands in contrast with the Judeo-Christian apocalyptic tradition, where the good are granted eternal paradise after the apocalypse, which undoes an unjust and fallen world. In The Road, the pre-apocalyptic world is not described as perfect (it was, after all, the same world that executed the nuclear war that turned the earth into the desolate wasteland portrayed in the novel), but as everything the father and son need to live comes from that time, civilization is inevitably and inherently characterized as being the solution to man’s suffering, rather than the cause of it.

Another item that especially reasserts the goodness of the pre-apocalyptic world is the pistol owned by the father and son. Even this symbol of death and destruction embodies the virtue of the old world: the only thing that gives the frail man and his young son a chance of surviving in a countryside dotted by bands of roving marauders is the pistol—as the adage goes, “God made man, but Colt made them equal.” The gun enables the weak to defend themselves in a world otherwise governed by strength, and in this sense, the gun becomes and emblem of justice.

Furthermore, in a phrase obviously picked up from his father, the boy repeatedly calls the ownership of the gun “carrying the fire” (83, 129, 278). This Promethean image reminds us that, like man’s discovery of fire, man makes life better for himself through his own devices, independent of (or even in spite of) the gods.

If the remnants of the pre-apocalyptic world repeatedly represent the relative righteousness of that time, then it follows that the post-apocalyptic world should be filled with wickedness. Indeed, this is the case; the depravity of humanity following the apocalypse is shown time and again. Early in the novel, the father is forced to shoot a man who is holding a knife to his boy’s throat (66), and has to wash a dead man’s brains out of his [son’s] hair” (74). This disturbing image is compounded when they soon after run into a caravan of raiders with a dozen or so female sex slaves and “a supplementary consort of catamites ill-clothed against the cold and fitted in dog collars and yoked each to each” (92).

In this terrible new world, such scenes are common: with the restraints of civilization undone, man’s evil is unleashed, and the strong rule over the weak with utter cruelty. In perhaps the most disturbing scene of the novel, the boy and his father, searching for food, break open a locked cellar in a forgotten house only to discover that it is filled with naked, mutilated, people who cry to him for help (110). We later find out they are being kept alive by marauders for food, like cattle (127). Of course, such circumstances are products of the apocalypse: in the civilized world of the pre-apocalypse, not only was there no allowance of cannibalism, there was also no need for it to begin with.

Civilization was the only thing that prevented such degeneracy, and the apocalypse put an end to it. This stands in stark opposition to religious views of the apocalypse, where violence and injustice are human inventions and only undone through divine intervention. God and divinity is mentioned in The Road, but rarely positively. Early in the novel, the father wakes up and curses God, saying “Are you there? Will I see you at least? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally, have you a soul?” (11-12). The man is portrayed as agnostic throughout the novel, so he is likely just being rhetorical, yet this outcry does portray God as being unsympathetic and aloof in the wake of the apocalypse.

Any sympathetic mention of God describes him as an invention of civilization; he is good not because he is holy, just, or sovereign, but because he is product of human goodness. At the end of the novel, the father dies and the young boy is rescued by a small group of refugees—the first sympathetic characters in the novel besides the father and son. Among the refugees is a kind and motherly woman who takes care of the boy and “talks to him sometimes about God” (286). The boy prefers to pray to his father, and the woman says it’s okay, and that “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.

The woman, the first the boy meets in the post-apocalyptic world, is incredibly tender with him, and becomes a symbol of religion. Furthermore, by asserting the existence of a higher power, and therefore an outside source of morality, she opposes the unruly disorder and chaos of the marauders, whose highest value is strength. God is good here because he represents the order, morality, and love embodied by the woman; the positive qualities she ascribes to God are less a positive affirmation of his character than they are a positive affirmation of her own.

The apocalypse in secular literature such as The Road is not merely different from the apocalypse in the religious tradition; it is the perfect inverse of it. In the Oresteia and in Christian theology, mankind is flawed and, left to his own devices, will only increase his own suffering; human civilization is evil, because humans are evil.

But in The Road, human civilization is our only hope for lifting us out of our primal state of nature. Rather than ending human immorality in a nuclear reenactment of Sodom and Gomorrah, the apocalypse undoes our only chance at managing it. In the secular apocalypse, humanity is both responsible for and capable of his own redemption. The religious and secular views of the apocalypse, then, do not just differ in the details: they present two fundamentally different theories of human nature.

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