You can read the novels of Cormac McCarthy and treat them like a bad dream. Or you can read them like a “Stephen King nightmare thriller with no cheap thrills” – as Kenneth Lincoln says in his study of McCarthy’s work. You can also treat his stories as you might treat those grotesque surrealistic narratives which sometimes invade our sleep and with which we then might entertain each other around the water-cooler. With some of them you would not even dare do that – lest your friends might call in the men in white coats.
Alternatively, you can take them seriously and come to the worrying conclusion that they are not just stories, but something akin to prophesies. As the five decades rolled by during which McCarthy worked on his fables – two of those decades in relative obscurity – they became more and more like a mirror revealing to us the horrors behind the facade of modernity. They tell us in the grimmest possible terms about the terrible things we have done to each other – and continue to do – and the terrible consequences of our failure to be what we really are and were meant to be.
Cormac McCarthy, although brought up a Catholic by his Irish-American family, does not avow any particular religion. But he is profoundly religious. The terrible contortions of humanity which we encounter in so many of his characters point to the same devastating source as do some of the lethally deranged characters we find in the oeuvre of that profoundly Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. They all have the same gaping hole in their heart – the ignorance or wilful rejection of objective truth and a transcendent Creator.
In this, the second decade of the third millennium of the Christian era, the centre no longer seems to be holding. An apocalyptic vision of mankind’s fate, and the place to which our folly has brought this world, runs through every one of McCarthy’s ten novels. But he does not preach. He portrays the victims of our folly and the interplay of the forces of evil with our foolishness – and then implicitly leaves us with the simple exhortation, “He that has ears to hear, let him hear.”
He is not the only prophet of our time. Other Tiresian witnesses “have foresuffered all enacted on this same divan or bed; … have sat by Thebes below the wall and walked among the lowest of the dead.” Surveying the excesses of modernity over the last century they have pointed to the same end: Alasdair McIntyre spelled out the philosophical roots and practical consequences of our flight from virtue and reason into the quagmire of emotionalism, where our private lives and public policies now wallow in disastrous self-indulgence; Charles Taylor and Brad Gregory take the story through its sociological and historical ramifications, while Rod Dreher now looks in desperation towards a neo-monastic solution for it all.
McCarthy depicts a world which has come apart at the seams. He does not spell out the reasons why this has happened. He does not tell us how to redeem ourselves. But neither does he tell us that we are irredeemable – despite his going within a hair’s breadth of this in some narratives, particularly in the earlier portrayals of characters plumbing the depths of depravity. In the last instalment of his ten-novel output, The Road, the hope which is the basis of mankind’s salvation is burning ever so fragilely on its final pages.
“SPE SALVI facti sumus”—in hope we were saved, says Saint Paul to the Romans, and likewise to us (Rom 8:24). According to the Christian faith, “redemption”—salvation—is not simply a given. Redemption is offered to us in the sense that we have been given hope, trustworthy hope, by virtue of which we can face our present: the present, even if it is arduous, can be lived and accepted if it leads towards a goal, if we can be sure of this goal, and if this goal is great enough to justify the effort of the journey. (Pope Benedict XVI, encyclical, Spe Salvi, 1)
I am not suggesting any mutual influence between the author of The Road and the author of Spe Salvi, but in both we find a signpost to the same truth. Hope is a sine qua non for our survival as it is for our salvation. The road travelled by the man and the boy in McCarthy’s novel is symbolic of our own journey. The devastated landscape through which they travel is akin to the moral desert brought about by the scourge of relativism of which Pope Benedict frequently spoke. The total breakdown of law and order which constantly threatens their lives is the consequence of the same scourge which has destroyed the foundation of all morality.
“The man” in The Road lives out the last years, months and days of his life on this earth because, he says, God has entrusted him with the life of “the boy”, his son. Hope is fragile in the world of The Road, a sunless world of grey ash which has been devastated by some cataclysmic disaster – man-made, we assume. But hope is still there in the boy’s heart. After the pair find a well-stocked larder in an underground shelter the boy says a prayer for those who left it behind: “Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff…and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.”
The man perseveres in the struggle to stay alive and protect the boy from the pursuing cannibals and other desperate human predators — the “bad guys” in the child’s language — for as long as he can. Dimly he sees he has to, for the boy is humanity’s last hope. As he dies, that hope is still alive and with his last breath he tells the boy that goodness will find him, “It always has. It will again.” As the boy cries beside the body of his father, other fugitives, families, parents and children, find him. They have been following and now adopt the boy as their own. A woman tells him that God’s breath is his, “yet though it pass from man to man through all time.”
All great novels probably constitute a kind of biography of their writers and tell us something of the story of their souls. The novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, taken in sequence, tell a sad story of a young man’s struggle with the temptations of a degenerate age and his tragic surrender to vanity, ambition, infatuation and self-indulgence. McCarthy’s novels seem to tell a better story, a story of a man’s struggle with the temptation to pessimism and despair about our flawed human condition and the state in which we have left the world. It might be too much to say that McCarthy has reached the point at which T.S. Eliot felt able to conclude The Waste Land with the three words “shantih, shantih, shantih”, the “peace which surpasseth human understanding”, but the evolution of his soul as evidenced by the sequence of his novels suggests something like it.
In all McCarthy’s novels the element of evil is palpably present. In some it is the only element, in the same way that it is the only element in the hell-centred books of Milton’s Paradise Lost, when we are in the company of Satan and his diabolical legions plotting their revenge on the Creator. In two of McCarthy’s novels Satan himself is incarnate: as “The Judge” in Blood Meridian and as Chigurh in No Country for Old Men.
But the apparently unredeemable grimness of the early novels now has the counter-balance of goodness in the wings – without any loss of the power of the warning about what lies in store for mankind when truth is denied. Placed before us is the horror of a world laid waste when men and women, in wilful blindness or malice, exercise their choices in favour of things evil. McCarthy’s questions, stated or implied, are begging to be answered. Where do the “bad guys” come from? Where do the “good guys” come from? What drives the one? What drives the other? What he shows us is the lethal conflict in the hearts of men and among men which follows from evil choices, bringing untold suffering for the innocent and the guilty alike.
McCarthy’s fiction is much more than fiction. It is fiction which has a frightening truth at its heart: by denying the essence of our humanity we are capable of destroying everything that mankind has achieved since the moment of his creation.
The words of Rod Dreher’s friend, a monk in the Benedictine Monastery of Norcia, imply the critical choice before mankind today when he says “Those who don’t do some form of what you’re talking about, they’re not going to make it through what’s coming.” That’s not fiction. It’s time to identify with the boy of McCarthy’s fiction, “the one”.
Kenneth Lincoln describes the boy’s final acceptance of his destiny like this:
The boy speaks guileless truth and still brushes his teeth in the morning. He knows there are not many good people left, if any, and the odds are against them, so he comes to the point for his father. “I don’t know what we’re doing, he said.” And still they do what they’re doing, leaving a thief naked in the road to die, the boy sobbing to help him. His father says that the boy is not the one who must worry about everything, and the boy mumbles something. “He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.”
Michael Kirke writes from Dublin. He blogs at Garvan Hill, where this article first appeared. Republished with permission.