He dreamt of walking in a flowering wood where birds flew before them he and the child and the sky was aching blue but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Lying there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth. He thought if he lived long enough the world at last would all be lost. Like the dying world the newly blind inhabit, all of it slowly fading from memory.
The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. 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.Without the webs of meaning that link objects and people together within a culture, the possibility of feeling what Martha Nussbaum has called the ‘upheaval of thought’, the disruption of identity consequent on loss of attachment and grief, is undermined.14 The symbolic dimension of the past is as prey to entropy as is the natural complexity produced by billions of years of evolution. For this reason, the stories that the father tells his son as a way of weaving a last thread of cultural continuity are, as he recognizes, hazardous at the same time as being necessary: becoming involved with the past, either through invoked memories or simply through imagination risks awakening dynamics of mourning or melancholy (in Freud’s sense) or mere fantasy.
When your dreams are of some world that never was or of some world that never will be and you are happy again then you will have given up. Do you understand?Nonetheless, emotional attachment, love, and the meaning it contributes to human life remains at the core of The Road. This meaning is evoked through a sensitivity to futurity that McCarthy discovers on the far side of the event that appears to have destroyed history.
This sensitivity extends to evocations of the futurity of things, the sense in which everyday objects serve as anchors around which the thickness of quotidian futures is woven. Objects which offer themselves for use, contemplation, and so on reinforce the sense of being able to trust the world which, according to attachment psychologists, develops out of the ‘safe space’ created by ‘good enough’ caregivers during childhood.15 They reinforce our expectations that the future into which we are moving is one in which we shall remain at home.
Although the decay of even the remnants of civilisation is destroying this possibility, the father in The Road remains sensitive to the connection between meaning and futurity. At one point, he recalls an occasion years after the cataclysm when
he'd stood in the charred ruins of a library where blackened books lay in pools of water. Shelves tipped over. Some rage at the lies arranged in their thousands row on row. He picked up one of the books and thumbed through the heavy bloated pages. He'd not have thought the value of the smallest thing predicated on a world to come. It surprised him. That the space which these things occupied was itself an expectation.Here, the expectation of future continuity is felt as encoded in the material being of the books, the shelves on which they stood and the rooms that contain them. Embodied in the products of purposive human action is care for the future, for continuation. Surrounded by such objects, and the forms of life they sustain – my computer on which I’m writing this, a coffee mug, the prints on the walls of my office and my own shelves of books – this sense of continuity inevitably holds a tinge of conservatism. Embodied in things as they are is an expectation that things should continue as they are.
But in the world McCarthy’s novel describes, care for the future is shorn of any conservatism, and, perhaps paradoxically, the consequences is that its significance for human life stands forth more sharply as a result. Without the future nothing means anything – we cannot escape the fact that ‘the value of the smallest thing’ is indeed ‘predicated on a world to come’ – and without acts and objects that embody a future there is no future. Just as the salitter drying from the world represents the loss of the ‘hesitation’ between past and future that characterises, in Jonas’ philosophy, all living beings, the threat to the human present is a threat to care for the vulnerable, singular futures of what we care about and to the specific things and activities on which they depend.
Attachments, and the webs of activities and objects which sustain them, hold open the future. The singular future of things and people we care about requires from us active caring, and impels us to extend our agency towards them and their needs, rather than to curtail it upon encountering the boundaries between people which liberal political philosophy has always suggested define our individuality.15 From the mechanic’s and woodcraft skills displayed by the father to the tender bathing and caretaking of his son when he falls ill, care in the novel is a force which both wedges open a gap between present and future and grants shape, as a sculptor or woodcarver does, to the future which arrives through it. In its diverse forms it bears ritual significance that extends beyond the immediate benefit it brings:
The boy sat tottering. The man watched him that he not topple into the flames. He kicked holes in the sand for the boy's hips and shoulders where he would sleep and he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it. All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.Continually we are reminded of how the day-to-day survival of the pair reaches beyond survival, through the inescapable symbolic dimension of care, its creation of new meaning and potential even as it concerns itself with simply sustaining what exists. Although even ‘the names of things one believed to be true’ risk dissolution, the care of the father for his son, and of the son for his father, holds open a gap through which novelty can creep or explode. The creation of absurd card games, swimming in an icy pool, firing a flare pistol – all bear witness to this excess of the present which is futurity. Without uncertainty, there is only death; but uncertainty untamed also threatens death. Creativity transforms uncertainty into security, love and even delight. This capacity for bringing unlooked-for novelty into the world was described by Hannah Arendt as characteristic of the human condition, a capacity she called ‘natality’, embodied by the birth of children, works of art and political action.17
The father’s care for his son does not therefore promise a grand story of redemption, only the everyday care of a father for his child who, his father eventually realises, he cannot kill as he promised he would should he himself die, in order to spare him from a worse fate in the post-cataclysm world. Everyday care is, however, arguably more important for sustaining a concrete sense of integrity, futurity and tangible hope than affirmations of lofty moral ideals, as Tzvetan Todorov has argued in relation to the stories of inmates of Nazi and Soviet concentration and labour camps.18 The narratives the pair create between them – of their journey to the warmer South where there might even be, suggests the boy, other children – are sustained by this tangible yet precarious tissue of care – as fragile yet tenacious as the morels they discover – which is itself threatened by the father’s own fear-driven, violent responses to possible or real external threats as much as it is by these threats themselves.
At many points, the son asks his father for reassurance that they are the ‘good guys’, wanting to be told that they are different from those who, they know, steal from and even kill others for food. We are not cannibals, he is told. In the most horrific sentences of the book, it is apparent that others, who have resorted to cannibalism, treat women as incubators for babies who will be used for meat once they are born. The ‘bad guys’, then, are marked out as people for whom, in Graulund’s words, there is nothing beyond ‘the immediate present’, for whom there is nothing which cannot be instrumentalized, degraded into mere matter to be used for survival. Even their own children, the embodiment of Arendt’s ‘natality’, the power of new potential, of unforeseen beginnings, of an open future, are sucked into the maw of the desire to survive at all costs. These ‘others’ embody and extend the entropy that has engulfed the world.
This degree-zero degradation they embody, and which so disgusts the father and terrifies his son, is a denial of the responsibility that, according to Jonas, is the moral demand which accompanies the human experience of futurity – the need to care, not only for objects of attachment and those objects and activities which sustain them, but for care itself, for the potential of building, creating purpose even in the face of entropy. Jonas writes, with reference to the technological societies we inhabit today, that it behoves us to ensure that ‘never must the existence or the essence of man as a whole be made a stake in the hazards of action’.19 It is this essence, as well as the existence, of humanity that is threatened in The Road, as is revealed by the prospect of accepting the need to eat one’s own children in order simply to continue to exist.
It is in this sense that the boy is the ‘word of god’, as the father says, and is himself a promise, a ‘tabernacle’ (a container for the divine presence), is ‘carrying the fire’. The continuity build by the deeds and words of the father is both paternal and maternal, intended to teach his son both independence and the need to look after the vulnerability of the cared-for. The boy incarnates a promise that what Jonas calls the ‘essence’ of humanity, its natality, its capacity for creative responses to uncertainty upon which trust, love and flourishing depend, will be sustained. McCarthy has, in the past, been described as a nihilist, for whom the difference between good and evil ceases to have stable meaning. In The Road, however, it is evident that nihilism characterises only the ‘bad guys’, for whom the possibility of care, of creation, of resistance to the cold clasp of entropy has ceased to have significance. Those who preserve the ‘breath of God’, the fragile remnants of Boehme’s salitter, are those who hold open the future and charge it with potential, with possibility, incarnated in those for whom they care and the practices with which they care for them.
As Mark Fisher notes, there seems to be no possibility of society left in The Road, and perhaps as he states, a suspicion of collectivity (or even a blindness towards it – why do the father and the boy’s mother not seek out and cooperate with their neighbours in the face of the cataclysm?20) is evident. Yet the basis of society remains, in the resources of care that appear to be embodied by the boy and by the family group who find him after his father’s death. The role of ideas and images of redemption in the book has been much discussed by commentators. Yet there is no great promise of redemption evident in the finale of the book, no obvious prospect that human society can necessarily arise anew from the ashes or that the results of such a future would be good. Everything remains uncertain. At the same time, the boy stands for an ‘unimaginable future’, one which exceeds the limits of the present entirely, and one in which there is no grief, no mourning and no melancholy for the past world which has been lost. The one secure anchor for the finale is a moral one. The thought experiment at the heart of McCarthy’s novel distils from it a moral distinction whose truth withstands even the almost total entropification of nature and meaning begun by the invisible cataclysm.
We cannot finish on this note, however. The power of the ending of the book, beyond the events of the final few pages, resides in the ambivalence of its plangent final paragraph.
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.The loss of an object of attachment is the loss of something irreplaceable, something sui generis. Here, McCarthy evokes, in its full concreteness and uniqueness, the singularity of the vanished world as something whose intrinsic value lies in its value as a limit. Some environmental ethicists insist that the meaning of nature is its independence, its resistance to our attempts to fully understand it and manipulate it. The maps of the becoming of the world are also mazes, unimaginable concatenations of ramifying contingencies that exceed all human comprehension. Within the limit staked out by nature, the narratives of human identity and agency find their proper matrix and armature. If a human world should become possible again far beyond the limits of the present described in the book – a world without grief, without mourning and without melancholy – would the lack of need to grieve for the loss of the old world in its specificity, and the mysterious stories woven therein, be something worthy of regret? Here, even the moral bedrock reached by McCarthy’s Jonasian exploration of the experience of futurity is haunted by loss, by a constitutive trauma through which its starkness is revealed.21
14 Martha Nussbaum, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
15 Inge Bretherton, “The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth,” Developmental Psychology 28, no. 5 (1992): 759–775.
16 C. Gilligan, In a Different Voice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 38.
17 Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998).
18 Tzvetan Todorov, Facing The Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps (Holt, 1997).
19 Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility : in Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age (Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 128.
20 Fisher, op. cit.
21 Cf. Rambo, op. cit.