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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Crédits photographiques : Takashi Noguchi (AFP/Getty Images).

About Cormac McCarthy.

«They are gone now. Fled, banished in death or exile, lost, undone. Over the land sand and wind still move to burn and sway the trees, the grasses. No avatar, no scion, no vestige of that people remains. On the lips of the strange race that now dwells there their names are myth, legend, dust.»
Cormac McCarthy, The Orchard Keeper (New York, Vintage International, 1993 [1965]), p. 246.

«What discordant vespers do the tinker’s goods chime through the long twilight and over the brindled forest road, him stooped and hounded through the windy recrements of day like those old exiles who divorced of corporeality and enjoined ingress of heaven or hell wander forever the middle warrens spoorless increate and anathema.»
Outer Dark (New York, Random House, 1968), p. 229.

«Were there darker provinces of night he would have found them.»
Child of God (New York, Vintage International, 1993 [1973]), p. 23.

To the memory of Vincent Murlin. May you find, along the white road, some warmth and solace

To be sure, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road brings to mind the bare-bones writing style of the early Hemingway and the late Beckett, crammed with silences which, at times, seem to take up more space than the text itself. Such writing reminds us of Shakespeare’s darkest tragedies (and of the fiery exuberance of his language, a point André Bleikasten, who doesn’t know English, disregards, to his own loss), the imagery of demonic symbolism that Conrad disseminates, like puzzling enigmas, the length of the river slowly navigated by Marlow, the aimless wandering of the characters in Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the thought expressed in Golding’s The Lord of the Flies to the effect that savagery cannot be superseded by progress, the flimsiness of the veil that separates us from that savagery barely hidden by the veneer of proper feelings and advanced technology, as can be seen in H. G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau (as well as in The Time Machine and in The War of the Worlds). But it is primarily from Cormac McCarthy’s earlier novels (1), especially No Country for Old Men, that The Road has taken nourishment for itself. The concluding lines of that novel describe the Sheriff’s dream (in which he sees himself as a boy who, in the middle of the night, follows on the steps of his father, who, while holding in front of him a makeshift lamp, disappears in the darkness) which lays the stage for the adventure plot that unfolds in The Road.
McCarthy adopts the high-strung writing style, admirably precise and superbly concise of his earlier novels, though he does not adopt their unrestrained rhythm. He doesn’t abstain – in a more far-reaching manner than in the previous novel – from evoking the somber beauty of a devastated world. Nor does he abandon, even for a brief moment, the aimless wandering of his two protagonists. McCarthy’s writing thus evokes the hypnotic atmosphere of Bernanos’ tormented Monsieur Ouine, and seems to turn away from a world destroyed by all-out nuclear war so as to go looking for the last trace of charity hidden away somewhere in the universe.
So where is such charity to be found ? In a few essential gestures of survival, in the words exchanged between a father and his son, in the painful dream of a long-lost, broken world, in a few encounters – as beautiful as they are rare – with those men who have not reverted to savagery. It is barely discernible in a society that, from now on, finds itself ravaged and devastated.
It is, then, a time of wolves, of ancient legends, an age in which a father and his son must withstand unremitting harshness: McCarthy at least does not hesitate to remind us that men can hold themselves up without any societal support. In short, in the eyes of these two human beings, the number of survivors who have turned into wolves is, when you get down to it, totally unimportant, because they have decided to support each other and hold on to each other to avoid sinking into the abyss.
Savagery must be willfully desired, embraced, like a mistress worthy of her name. It cannot take hold of the man if the latter has divested himself of the clear vision of Good and Evil.
Kurtz has become savagery incarnate (if erratically so) only because he has allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the dark torrent. To tell the truth, he was empty, as Conrad, and T. S. Eliot remarked afterwards, and Bernanos and Broch later confirmed.
McCarthy’s most sinister characters can never be explained away by recourse to such regrettable social causes as would make our responsibility entirely fade away in the throes of dismal sociological misery: an unhappy childhood, an abused mother, an alcoholic, slightly fraudulent father, an upbringing in a broken-down housing project, and so on.
Consider Suttree: a social outcast, a poor devil, a drifter who, despite it all, is a great man with his mind full of endless nonsense. There is no question as to why bad literary journalists, ever since the publication of No Country for Old Men, have criticized this novelist for being patronizing, conservative, and even reactionary. For crying out loud! Why do these nitwits not let us read in peace McCarthy’s novels, and why have they not been able to see that this novel, a vision of absolute devastation, inaugurates more than it destroys, in as much as it inaugurates on the basis of destruction itself. I will return to this shortly.
Whatever McCarthy’s apparent digressions might be, he stamps in the novel his masterly seal with an imprint which had never before been so admirably to the point as it is in The Road. In an atmosphere of imminent danger, his prose ventures through many unimaginable realms – beginning with his old recollections of the father, of the longing for an immemorial past – all the way to a dizzy fall into the abyss of space and the exploration of arcane regions of the Earth. And all of this, in the end, in order to once again whirl, like an appeasing breeze, around the father and the son… a breeze that leads them toward unassuming adventures. When all is said and done, is not the novelist’s proper role to lead, given the fact that he gives birth to characters who find sustenance in their own blood ? (2).
At no moment does McCarthy distance himself from his characters: he observes them, prepares small surprises for them (a shelter, food, clothes), lays out before them a road charged with rich symbolic meaning. The via rupta is the path he opens up by tearing through the wall of adversity. In this post-apocalyptic world, described by the novelist as merciless and deserted, immobility is death itself (a description based in all likelihood on the conclusions made popular by Carl Sagan and his team of scientists in The Cold and the Dark (3). The road is the typical image of Bernanos’ narrative, which deeply moved Julien Gracq, as the latter has acknowledged in one of his literary essays. For its part, the aimlessly shifting road is one of McCarthy’s favorite narrative settings, which he never tires of portraying time and again in each one of his novels.
Cormac McCarthy literally approaches his characters as if he were a Good Samaritan overwhelmed by the pity he feels for the dwellers of the earth. At the same time, it is the young one who seems to give the father the strength necessary to keep on walking, whatever the cost (see the child’s own words, p. 222) toward the less savage and bleak seaboard.
Our novelist (and for similar reasons, one of his most touching creations : the child) deserves to be called Christophoros (4), a name used by Bloy to describe the secret role of the Revealer of the Globe, as he himself called Christopher Columbus. The road and the act of discovery are two sides of one and the same reality. As symbols, they have given rise to the most renowned literary and metaphysical Odysseys our culture has produced.
What does this savage and blasting novel reveal to us ? The inauguration of a new Christianity which cares very little whether Rome has been destroyed or not. And yet we don’t hear anything about the Church. We have been provided only with a few scant details which, it would seem, barely caught McCarthy’s attention : it is said (p. 16) that America has been run over by «bloodcults». As opposed to Maurice Dantec, Cormac McCarthy ridicules the accounts of the epic and bloody struggles described by the enemies of the Church to the last representatives of the Order (5). He doesn’t even seem concerned, as it progresses through Iron Ages, about the skull, hidden away in some basement, laughing derisively at Leibowitz, whose wisdom will restore life back to civilization (which itself shall reappear, a few centuries following the Renaissance, destroyed, for all purposes, by the great conflagrations).
This new Christianity, therefore, will be totally identical with the first communities that originally heard the Good News – they will also have to go into hiding and live constantly exposed to the threat of extermination. And yet, it will survive. The question of the existence of God will not even be paramount. Quite possibly, God Himself has been swept away by the dust and ashes that enveloped the entire world, the seas and the oceans, darkening the atmosphere and veiling the sun.
What’s the sense, then, of summoning back the voice of Job ? Must he be cursed (p. 16), must he give in to despair (p. 34), must he wildly think that true life – in this almost completely dead world – has perhaps taken refuge in death itself (p. 24) ? Must he say to the unbelieving that He – that God – has gone insane and is being worshiped by men who have turned into beasts – and is hiding in the son who protects the father to his last measure of strength, calling him simply Dad ? Without a home in the world, the child has not become dispirited upon witnessing madness, despair (his mother’s, who has committed suicide), pestilence, and Evil. The young one has managed to preserve the power of speech, for it is God Himself who goes on speaking, since «If he is not the word of God God never spoke.» (p. 4).
That heart-wrenching fragility of beauty – which, at any rate, has been for ever lost – is in and of itself sufficient for Cormac McCarthy. And this extreme nakedness, this emaciation of language itself (cf. pp. 80, 156) – which can be reduced to a few amorphous sounds (p. 53) – this unceasing danger, these puny foundational gestures, allow him to assert that light cannot be devoured by the dark. «He lay watching the boy at the fire. He wanted to be able to see. Look around you, he said. There is no prophet in the earth's long chronicle who's not honored here today. Whatever form you spoke of you were right.» (p. 233).
The impression is that what has survived the catastrophe are but the remains of ancient Hebrew prophecies, of desert, cold, dark, lifeless lands, and of a few aimless drifters looking for whatever remains of peace and light. These few things are ever before the eyes of Cormac McCarthy, and, as a result, as for Meister Eckhart, his true home is Nothingness, the new and indestructible Ark of the Covenant. It is out of Nothingness that these essential things are found all over again, since this Nothingness is now the be-all and end-all. «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.» (p. 63).

(1) Novels to which McCarthy seems to be alluding when he evokes those «old tales of courage and justice» (p. 41).
(2) The French translation of George Steiner’s novel gets the title wrong : it is not The Transporting [transport] of A. H., but the bearing or carrying [portage], as I pointed out in an article published in the Cahier de l’Herne dedicated to that author. The consequences of such a misreading become clear when the reader realizes that Steiner’s intention – fairly obvious in itself – consisted in drawing a parallel between the fate of Hitler and that of Christ.
(3) It was Carl Sagan’s idea to create and attach the famous gold-plated copper disk – an interstellar message in a bottle of sorts, as journalists fancifully described it – to the Pioneer 10 and 11 probes, which were sent to the edge of the solar system and beyond in the 1980’s.

(4) The approximate etymology of the Greek name for Christopher (Christophoros) would be «he who bears Christ in himself» or «the bearer of Christ.»
(5) A point in common, if not two, between McCarthy’s and Dantec’s texts, is the corruption of language, as evidenced in many particular details of Dantec’s novel. In my view, Dantec goes about it in such a biomechanical way that in the end it does not seem quite convincing. Later on, he uses the same darkening of the atmosphere by a dust cloud into which everything disappears.