“The Road” | Reflections on Meaning, Despair, and Moral Reasoning

“Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer.”

C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

“And this is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.”

Soren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death

This is an exciting post to bounce back with (sorry again for the extended break) because I get to talk about a book I just finished reading a week ago called The Road, written by Cormac McCarthy. This is the same person who wrote No Country For Old Men, which I haven’t read. Both stories have been made into films.

One may consider this a review but it’s more of a discussion, or a reflection, than anything else. If you want my simple review, this was an excellent read. A harrowing depiction of despair, survival, and sonship with insightful case studies in moral reasoning (often comparing the merits of utilitarianism versus Kantian categorical imperatives) and parenting. The writing is sublime. Every page contains gems of poetry of the kind that leaves the mind perpetually in a state of never wishing to enter McCarthy’s dark world yet riveted every second you’re there–it’s like you’re surviving alongside the protagonists without the burden of pathos. (While I promise not to give away the ending, there may be small spoilers ahead.)

The Road

1 The Road (1)
My personal copy

The Road tells the story of a man and his son (only identified as “the man” and “the boy” without names) traversing south along the ash-laden American west coast to flee winter and death years after some unknown catastrophic global event scorched the land. Resources are scant. Rivers have been dried. Populations gone. Men have turned to cannibalism, thieving, and murder for their survival in a decrepit landscape void of hope. Here we have two survivors–a father and his son, maybe thirteen or fourteen years old–trudging along in the aftermath of civilization’s ruin.

The man is a deeply cautious and pragmatic character with a rooted and arguably justified skepticism towards the intent of the human species. Everyone is guilty until proven otherwise as is seen in many encounters between the man, the boy, and the strangers they cross along their journey.

The boy is the carrier of the last goodness mankind has to offer, a spiritual resource so precious and perplexing in its simplicity and tenacity that it begs the question–what is this goodness made of?

As I read, I wondered if the author would begin or end at a nihilistic perspective. The man in the beginning despairs, and despairs all the way through, that the remaining good in the world has gone along with its vegetation (that his son is only remaining spark in a dwindling flame). The boy has unshorn innocence affording him the capacity for generosity, not blind and or even optimistic, but hopeful. The boy has preserved within his mind a conscience that directs his thoughts and actions towards a duty-oriented ethic. Sometimes the risk leads to a positive outcome. Sometimes not.

But the father’s struggle isn’t one-dimensional or cliche by any measure. Where McCarthy really shines I think is how he brings out the complexity of the situation, making it difficult for us to not sympathize with him even while he is bossy and dense at times. He never strikes me as cruel or cold. Always sincere. Always protective. And his struggle with the meaninglessness of his efforts and hopelessness of the world comes across as grounded. We are made to feel every bit of the burden he carries as a single father and a survivor.

So, what is the boy’s goodness made of?

Well, this is a critical question the story strives to answer. McCarthy’s route (pun intended) is pretty heavy-handed, dark, and oftentimes thought-provoking because he throws different situations for us to consider.

For example, when the man finds a much older man alone on the road, his immediate thought-process is to wait, watch, and hope he doesn’t pull something. The old man is clearly in desperate need of food and water and clothing yet the father doesn’t want to help and give up valuable resources–distrust has become almost intolerance veiled in scrutiny. But the boy wants to help the old man. He wants to at least give him a chance. So, after some back-and-forth, the father agrees to give the elderly man some of their portion and light a fire for warmth for one night.

At another point, the two heroes have all of their belongings stolen. They proceed to track down the thief, through a wooded area, caught with all their things. The man is tempted to strike back. Indeed, he threatens murder to have their cart, cans of non-perishables, blankets and leaves the thief naked and without a scrap. The boy is distressed. After all, they too had to scavenge for their belongings.

We get the two sides where the authority of the father overwhelms the voice of the younger, and vice versa, and at first it seems quite ambiguous whether or not there is true right and true wrong, though it’s certain there is true evil. McCarthy paints a depraved world where it is difficult to avoid the utilitarian mode of reasoning: the outcome justifies the means. Yet, the ethic of the boy is quite simply driven by duty and principle sometimes leading the father to question what the boy would believe in that would afford him to carry such a perspective as the world is so devoid of principle.

Therefore, the utilitarian mode seems to be one that fits the despairing person quite comfortably. Which makes me think that despair could take surprisingly familiar forms in first-world living. We are in a world of despair. Perhaps most obviously because many of us depend entirely on making it to tomorrow and the entertainment we find therein. And despair truly marks the life clinging to things as though they were the last scraps of meaning we have before we vanish into nothing at the heat death of the universe.

Conversing On Suicide

“I was in misery, and misery is the state of every soul overcome by friendship with mortal things and lacerated when they are lost. Then the soul becomes aware of the misery which is its actual condition even before it loses them.”

Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

Suicide, fittingly, becomes a focal point of discussion between the father and the son, between McCarthy and us. The father shows his son where to point the gun, how to hold it, and when to use it on himself “when the time is right”. The conversion is one that progresses in stages. In the end, the boy never shakes his hatred of that revolver.

He (McCarthy) doesn’t answer the question straight-up–is it right?–but instead ventures to question which good will outlast the other: the despairing pragmatism of the father mourning the joy of the past, or the innocent if not naive and simply principled boy of hope and purpose.

There were many moments throughout the book that floored me. Possibly my favorite is when the duo stumble upon an abandoned house and a bunker loaded with preserved food and supplies. Enjoying a rare meal together as father and son, the boy gives clumsily gives thanks to the people who stored the goods they never got to enjoy, in a kind of prayer or vocalized thought:

The boy sat staring at his plate. He seemed lost. The man was about to speak when he said: Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldnt eat it no matter how hungry we were and we’re sorry that you didnt get to eat it and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.

He looked up. Is that okay? he said.

Yes. I think that’s okay.

Alternatively, one of the great paragraphs of the novel, simple:

They trekked out along the crescent sweep of beach, keeping to the firmer sand below the tidewrack. They stood, their clothes flapping softly. Glass floats covered with a gray crust. The bones of seabirds. At the tide line a woven mat of weeds and the ribs of fishes in their millions stretching along the shore as far as eye could see like an isocline of death. One vast salt sepulchre. Senseless. Senseless.

A darker sample:

They picked their way among the mummied figures. The black skin stretched upon the bones and their faces split and shrunken on their skulls. Like victims of some ghastly envaccuuming. Passing them in silence down that silent corridor through the drifting ash where they struggled forever in the road’s cold coagulate.

Another moment I really enjoyed is the conversation between the reserved father and the aforementioned struggling elderly man they harbored along the path:

In the morning they stood in the road and he and the boy argued about what to give the old man. In the end he didnt get much. Some cans of vegetables and of fruit. Finally the boy just went over to the edge of the road and sat in the ashes. The old man fitted the tins into his knapsack and fastened the straps. You should thank him you know, the man said. I wouldnt have given you anything.

Maybe I should and maybe I shouldnt.

Why wouldn’t you?

I wouldnt have given him mine.

You dont care if it hurts his feelings?

Will it hurt his feelings?

No. That’s not why he did it.

Why did he do it?

He looked over at the boy and he looked at the old man. You wouldnt understand, he said. I’m not sure I do.

Maybe he believes in God.

I don’t know what he believes in.

He’ll get over it.

No he wont.

Meaning, goodness, despair, and suicide are all related to each other, as it turns out and made plain in the arching narrative of The Road. Providing his own take on a similar subject, Albert Camus wrote in the first section of his Myth of Sisyphus, 

But if it is hard to fix the precise instant, the subtle step when the mind opted for death, it is easier to deduce from the act itself the consequences it implies. In a sense, and as in melodrama, killing yourself amounts to confessing. It is confessing that life is too much for you or that you do not understand it. Let’s not go too far in such analogies, however, but rather return to everyday words. It is merely confessing that that “is not worth the trouble.” Living, naturally, is never easy. You continue making the gestures commanded by existence, for many reasons, the first of which is habit. Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively, the ridiculous character of that habit, the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of that daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering.

Camus goes on doing much to clarify and further explain his thoughts on the matter. In general, our idea of the good precedes our actions, even wrong ones. Meaning interlocks with our concept, underpinning its substance. Despair fractures our view of human meaning and purpose and fragments that concept we once had of goodness. And suicide necessarily results from despair–the only meaning that we believe is credible is the one that requires our own termination, the will to draw cold.

But can suicide be an appropriate means to a good end? Or is it a good end itself?

No. But let us consider the question and think seriously on it. As Camus put it, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest— whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards.” (Camus, Myth of Sisyphus) Well, the question assumes the reality of an objective good and evil. Otherwise, there is quite literally no point to even entertaining the issue, which is perhaps where I diverge from Camus’ thought process. So, where do we find anchorage for this objectivity?

Bypassing a larger debate on this topic, theism seems to be the only coherent solution to the problem available to us. Atheism, here, is not only on the fringe of discussion but is surviving on the tip of a melting iceberg, trying with all sorts of fanciful arguments and rhetoric to avoid slippage into its natural conclusion, sunk in the deprivation of true meaning, true rationality, and true goodness. For without god (or God), there is no referent, no standard, no constant, no transcendent law-giver. The good must then necessarily be derived from within ourselves or some arbitrary alternative, some artificial fabrication of a hypothesized stand-in for God. And that might epistemologically lead the atheist to converge on the moral semantics of his or her Christian or Muslim neighbor, but those values will nevertheless be predicated on something like sand–And, in all seriousness, can you honestly tell me my ethic will serve me less than yours when we will both be permanent residents of a grave? I’ve always found it strange that the postmodernists and later existentialist philosophers were so adamantly socialist, anti-war, and pro-LGBTQ rights and all to the point of dogmatism. I’m not here suggesting they (the Sartres and the Derridas and the Foucaults) were wrong in their conclusions, but if their moral anchor be not but their own internal human machinations, then don’t they necessarily shut down on their own dogmas, creeds, and assertions?

If I might step away from the philosophy for a second and speak openly and honestly from what I truly believe, every human attempt to conceptualize and capture meaning and morality has failed. What I know instinctively is that life, messy and all, carries with it tremendous value and uniqueness such that it cannot be merely transacted on the premise of its perceived uselessness. Your life and my life are not currency to be dealt with, dumped or even celebrated in such a fashion as to only recognize its value when the moment is “right”. The moment is fleeting. The prosperity we enjoy dies too quickly. And the suffering too passes, changes form, escapes, comes back, goes away for a time, returns uninvited, but eventually it will go for good. Your life has meaning. Your suffering is not meaningless. I know because good exists. Meaning exists. It is therefore inherently good to live, trudge along, fight, and not to die.

The Road is encouraging because it doesn’t encourage despair or nihilism or suicide unlike so much of today’s so-called art. The Road seeks to honestly consider the problem of meaning, good, evil, and even suicide in a way that’s generous but doesn’t presuppose or conclude that there’s no verifiable and dependable answer. It isn’t exclusively theistic but an inference of hope into the narrative as a statement of our own worldview necessarily demands theism.

Final Thoughts

“I’m still discovering, right up to this moment, that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing, we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God…”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (quote from Eric Metaxas’ biography, “Bonhoeffer”)

Perhaps, the man walking the long, smitten road had a blind faith in the goodness of mankind or a trust in the survival of the species. Frankly, I have a hard time finding anyone that believes in either as a cornerstone for their code. Ultimately, I believe one trudges along, fights dawn after dawn, whether they admit it or not, because they believe in something transcendent. The good is found in walking. Continuously, unreservedly, awaiting, committed to seeing the journey through. What’s at the end? one wonders.

What do you think? Agree? Disagree? Feel free to like or comment below and share your mind! As well, if you like the content of this blog, you are welcome to hit the “Follow” button below.

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