This January, I’ve been invited to participate in one of the (UK) Intellectual History Group’s semi-annual seminars. As the event has been described to me, about 12-15 of us, mostly US intellectual historians, will gather in Cambridge to informally discuss one text over the course of two days. (Call my invitation one of the many perks of a Fulbright.) The text that has been tentatively selected for the January seminar is Cormac McCarthy’s critically acclaimed 1985 “anti-western,” Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West.
In preparation for the seminar, and because I’m unfamiliar with McCarthy, I’ve decided to read a number of McCarthy’s better known novels, saving Blood Meridian for last. I began this week with The Road, McCarthy’s 2006 bleak post-apocalyptic novel for which he won the Pulitzer Prize. I started with The Road because I thought the film adaptation was very good, and because I appreciate the post-apocalyptic genre (zombie movies have long one of my indulgences). But nothing prepared me for The Road. It shook me to my core unlike anything I’ve read in a very long time.
There are several ways to think about and categorize The Road, a story about a father and son who try to stay alive by traveling southeast to the ocean ten years or so after some unnamed cataclysmic event burned most of the planet, wiping out most life and leaving the skies ashen grey. As with the post-apocalyptic genre generally, The Road is part science fiction: it allows for satirical commentary on the present by imagining an alternative, often dystopian future. Along these lines, George Monbiot calls The Road “the most important environmental book ever written” because it “considers what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans.”
But McCarthy is hardly didactic. His writing is subtle, as barren as the world he paints. Despite such spare prose, or perhaps because of it, McCarthy is a master at building suspense. My heart pumped so hard while reading a few passages that I felt like I was swimming Lake Michigan. In this way, we might also think about The Road as Gothic horror. In an insightful review, Michael Chabon anoints McCarthy “the rightful heir to the American Gothic tradition of Poe and Lovecraft, dark god of Providence, Rhode Island, where McCarthy was born.” This seems right. The Road is truly frightening. Novelist Benjamin Percy makes the case that it carries the scariest passage in any novel he’s ever read. Ever.
The most terrifying moment in any horror story is when a noise is heard—a noise behind a closet door; a noise heard in an attic, or the basement; a noise heard in a thicket of bushes; a noise heard deep in a cave—and a person pursues the sound. We always want to yell out: Don’t go there. It’s that moment of suspense, the second before the bogeyman is revealed, that is the most gripping. After the door opens, after we shine a flashlight on whatever awaits, the audience might laugh or scream but ultimately they feel relief. Because whatever is provided by the author or filmmaker is never as bad as what we imagine ourselves.
In this particular passage, as soon as the father spots a house on the hill, we know something terrible waits inside. It takes a long time for him to approach the house, to explore its many rooms, and finally descend into the basement.
(From The Road): “He started down the rough wooden steps. He ducked his head and then flicked the lighter and swung the flame out over the darkness like an offering. Coldness and damp. An ungodly stench. He could see part of a stone wall. Clay floor. An old mattress darkly stained. He crouched and stepped down again and held out the light.”
The whole time we’re yelling: Don’t go in there. But he does, of course.
“Huddled against the back wall were naked people, male and female, all trying to hide, shielding their faces with their hands. On the mattress lay a man with his legs gone to the hip and the stumps of them blackened and burnt. The smell was hideous.
Jesus, he whispered.
Then one by one they turned and blinked in the pitiful light. Help us, they whispered. Please help us.”
And maybe this is the only time this has ever happened to me—but what is revealed is even more terrifying that what I could have imagined. Humans are harvesting each other in order to survive. These pale, chewed-up creatures emerge from the dark and rattle their chains and moan and reach for the father. We’re afraid of them, but we’re afraid more of what might await the father upstairs—the people responsible for this.
So The Road functions as smart if understated science fiction, and more sublimely, as horror. But the thing that stood out for me was its existentialism. Even in the bleakest of circumstances, a context beyond his control, the father chooses life. He chooses existence, transposed into the body of his son, born shortly after the apocalypse. The father chooses to have a project—to be one of the imagined “keepers of the fire,” one of the “good guys”—in the face of horror. If there is a God, if there is meaning, it was found in his son, or nowhere. The father committed his life, his post-apocalyptic existence, to keeping his son alive, at all costs, even and especially when death would have been the easier and preferable choice for them both.
Just as existentialist thought emerged from the horrific events of the twentieth century—think of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, or Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth—McCarthy’s protagonist is forced to reexamine all that he once knew to be true and good. Cataclysmic events compel epistemic crises.
He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He’d had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the full despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.
Is there a more poetically sharp way of describing how earth-shattering times leave old truths in ruins?