Tragedy and Triumph

The undying conundrum for the utopian is to explain why it is that happiness can thrive in the face of oblivion. He can’t do it, not without conceding his idealism, his belief that without the perfect society we are both caged and lost; and Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is a fantastic rebuttal to such brainless thinking.

The BBC recently ran the film adaptation. It wasn’t, on the face of it, a good choice for viewing in the early hours. The world is grey, going greyer; and even the image of the man and boy huddled before a burning forest mercilessly scoffs at the prospect of comfort in a world of destruction.

Film Adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's

This was my second viewing. The grey was to be expected; and before long it was normalised, a glimpse into the minds of our two central characters tip-toeing across the American shadow. Every now again, I looked outside. At those moments nothing seemed more depressing than the thought of my lovely college burning, or the streets of Oxford abandoned to timeless silence (apart from the buskers – they can shut up).

The RoadBut within the setting McCarthy builds for us, there are much subtler fires. He’s too clever to make that glib dismissal of colour that so many modernists do – everything being uncertain and miserable and desolate like T. S. Eliot and his “handful of dust”. Instead the man remembers the quest he has set himself, “carrying the fire” from the old world to the new. Promethean fire is stolen from the gods; it burns so that men never forget the dangers present in that which lies beyond their understanding. And yet when the man crosses that boundary of civilisation, from a world of Greeks and Darwins to that of cannibals and stoics, the old myths shed their meaning, their mythical gods. Just as his name is forgone, so the “fire” is humanised.

That’s the key; because it’s more than a gentle abstraction. If they guard the ideas of a civilisation now burning in the books of skeletons then it’s entirely accidental. The fire that makes the man and the boy the “good guys” could not exist without the glow of their own relationship, the stubborn persistence of the nuclear family in an otherwise barren winter. When they meet an elderly man later in their story, his accent is rough, his emotions evidently dormant if not dead. Alluding to his lost son, he says, “Whoever made humanity will find no humanity here.” But all the while the man nurtures the boy like hands clasped around sticks, shielding the spark from the wind; even as life drifts out of him he hopes to protect the playful innocence of the boy who insists they do not harm the very thief who left them naked.

“If he is not the Word of God, then God never spoke.” The boy is a test and the world is his laboratory; if humanity exists, it is inside us, and it is much more than survival. Humanity is not just to exist; if that were so then even cannibalism, that perversion of the natural violent course of Darwinian evolution, would be legitimised. The man and the boy carry two bullets and a pistol with them to prevent that from ever happening to them. If humanity means anything, it is warmth and glowing with a flame. It exists within us. This is not some obscure, faint idealism; it’s biological certainty. The boy was born when the mysterious fires that licked civilisation still raged, and yet he is still sad to see the elderly man pass by without a single can of food to eat. We all share something good and common within us no matter the world around us. With the right nurturing, it can burn bright; and it’s in the last few moments of the film that this becomes so wonderfully clear. We all carry the fire, provided we do not let it go out.

And this brings me back to the starting point of this post – McCarthy is not swallowed by the view that we can change society to achieve the happiness we crave. Meaning is not lethargy in paradise, boredom on the beach – it’s continuous, dialectical. It doesn’t seek an end but a situation. The Road does not need to be read – or seen – as depressing; triumph amid tragedy proves that happiness, if it can ever exist, arises from within us. It is not granted from external powers in this world or the next; there’s something innate, something conflicting with the survival of the fittest, that makes us seek company and goodwill naturally.

And that’s a bloody encouraging thought.


35 Comments on “Tragedy and Triumph”

  1. Paul N. says:

    Ideology is like sugar icing. While utopians tend to apply an other layer, realists nibble it away.

  2. loquacionist says:

    If you haven’t read any more McCarthy, you absolutely should. His is such a massive talent. Great post.

    • Mark says:

      Thanks! Yeah a few years ago I read No Country for Old Men and All The Pretty Horses – never finished Blood Meridian though. It’s amazing how many angles he can you look at death without wanting to throw himself off a tall building!

  3. dreamusar says:

    Its a wonderfully written blog!

  4. jumeirajames says:

    America enshrined that pursuit of happiness into it’s constitution, I don’t think any other country has even attempted to do that. But is that pursuit now a distant memory? Has America finally laid that pursuit aside like so many other countries before it? I feel somehow that it has and that, for me, is a source of sadness.

    • Mark says:

      It’s an interesting point you make there. Jefferson and co were real believers in the value of democracy – but the constitution only makes sense if it is seen as a way of realising individual dreams. The “pursuit of happiness” can’t be achieved without personal input, evidently! I do wonder whether the modern world hasn’t made that much harder. It’s movements like that in Egypt, though, which I think gives some optimism abroad.

      • jumeirajames says:

        Living, as I do, in the Middle East and being an avid reader of history gives me no hope for Egypt. Like all revolutions it will end in the crushing of democracy and bloodshed. Arab countries are not wired for Democracy and the intrusion of religion makes it more so.
        Watch this space for the 4th part of the revolution where it eats its own children.

      • Mark says:

        It is a real worry; though there are some parallels, in terms of the military, with Turkey – the army promoting the interests specifically of the citizenry rather than the state. But that’s all the in air – you may very well be right.

      • jumeirajames says:

        Although Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria are churning through the revolutionary life-cycle,there is something else at play, an unprecedented event in the history of mankind – and that is the dissemination of uncensored information coupled with the ability of people to see how others live. Imagine being a young woman in Pakistan and watching Friends while you surf the blogosphere – you realise that things don’t have to be the way they are, you become aware of the possibility of change. And that can topple mountains.
        Islam and the Catholic Church should prepare for their end. It may take centuries (although I doubt that) but when freedom of information is abroad no edifice is safe. Look at Ireland – a priest ridden society up to a few years ago, now so transformed that priests cannot go out alone at night for fear of attack.
        The change has already happened, it’s just the effects we’re waiting on.

  5. lalarukh1 says:

    Great post ! It was nice reading a good post with a great vocabulary !! Keep posting !

  6. Servant says:

    Good post. “the stubborn persistence of the nuclear family in an otherwise barren winter”. Likely my favorite part. I have more to say – a link to post. Don’t entirely agree.

  7. Servant says:


    “Francis Schaeffer has explained this point well. Modern man, says Schaeffer, resides in a two-story universe. In the lower story is the finite world without God; here life is absurd, as we have seen. In the upper story are meaning, value, and purpose. Now modern man lives in the lower story because he believes there is no God. But he cannot live happily in such an absurd world; therefore, he continually makes leaps of faith into the upper story to affirm meaning, value, and purpose, even though he has no right to, since he does not believe in God. Modern man is totally inconsistent when he makes this leap, because these values cannot exist without God, and man in his lower story does not have God. Let’s look again, then, at each of the three areas in which we saw life was absurd without God, to show how man cannot live consistently and happily with his atheism.”

    Password “open”.

    • Mark says:

      Thank you for sharing this – if it’s okay with you, I’ll give my response in a full blog post? It touches on a few things I’ve been thinking about a fair bit recently – I shall let you know when I write it!

  8. Servant says:

    …I never dated. Would have liked to – didn’t seem good enough or something. Eventually 11 years ago, a beautiful lady drove into the back of my sports-car. Costly. I didn’t react badly, it must have impressed her. We ended up going to the police to report it together, weirdly enough – and I figured she’s being friendly enough to now-or-never ask her on a date. We have three kids now. …and I never dated. I had crushes – they were painful. Pray about it. This encounter changed my life in more ways than you’d imagine. …and I could never arrange it myself.

  9. Mark! You’re freshly pressed! Clicked on this and completely did not realise it was you for a moment. Anyway, this is wonderfully written – I’ll have to look for the Road.

    • Mark says:

      Haha thank you very much Miriam! I was really confused myself – had no idea why I was getting all these updates! Definitely read The Road – I hope you’re enjoying the summer! 🙂

  10. reksa1979 says:

    Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    uji coba membuat blog,…..asal jadi

  11. bluevmax92 says:

    Reblogged this on bluevmax92 and commented:
    I’m glad that I came across such a wonderful blog post to introduce me to the world of blogging… You have journalistic talents

  12. We are looking for something, an utopy and we all know that doesn’t exist. It’s simply human. The society makes us and we make the society.

  13. This is a fantastic post. I don’t know what I was expecting but I got more than I bargained for. I have been ‘accused’ of being idealistic and utopian and the term ‘realist’ certainly doesn’t fit me, but I’m growing to be something in between. I’ve read The Road and appreciated it’s power, but never would have seen it as containing any ‘hope’ – but you’ve made me see it with new eyes. Your summing up is brilliant, and the on going reference to fire and an internal flame really rang true for me. Thanks for sharing your insight and clarity. Very thought provoking.

    • Mark says:

      I really appreciate the kind comment, thanks – I’m glad you enjoyed it. I definitely don’t think idealism and realism have to be exclusive – one can hope for a better society but to rely on it too much is almost a guarantee for pessimism. Again, thank you! 🙂

  14. A thoroughly enjoyable read and synopsis. Great book and the movie is a fine adaption. It’s a great story of courage, persevering despite there being seemingly no hope. Makes you appreciate everything that we take for granted that much more.

  15. I don’t get how it is the undying conundrum for the utopian.

    A scratch on the record doesn’t negate the music. But a record without a scratch would be worth having.

  16. limseemin says:

    Wow a good post! Do check up ny blog too and follow. Haha

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