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.
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).
But 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.
Yes, of course we were pretentious — what else is youth for?
My subtitle is taken from Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. There’s too much in this little book to bring out in this simple-minded reflection but virtually all of its most prominent themes depend on a rather simple trick. It’s historical. In a few short paragraphs towards the middle of the novel, Barnes leaps from the 1960s to the 21st century; Tony has been married, divorced and had children whose love has always evaded him. There is never the sense that these were somehow irrelevant happenings in the drawn out adventure of his life, only that there’s an undercurrent to his character that they never really touched. The irony is that the aged Tony is united with his younger self by a broken relationship: he remains troubled by the suicide of his best friend.
As to avoid spoiling the story – which is well worth the read – I’ll say this: throughout the novel, you’re fully aware that you can’t trust the narrative. But it’s all you’ve got; and it makes the ending, if you consider its implications for the protagonist’s role in it all, incredibly poignant. Throughout, we’re led to suspect that there’s something more to his friend’s death; that his long, intellectual and philosophical reasoning, left behind in a rational but emotionally distant suicide note, was never sufficient.
And unsurprisingly that is the case. But when Tony is younger, he accepts the idealistic version of events a little too keenly, something which the disdains his more experienced, and I dare say wiser, self. We learn that time and reality detach idealism from people far too easily, but forming this framework is Barnes’ wider, more depressing allusion to history:
History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation (page 17)
This is Tony, the protagonist, in a nutshell. He has brought together the few sources he has on his younger life and formed them into something with which he can live, if not wholly comprehend; and so when later on he reunites with his old girlfriend, Veronica, who gradually unveils the more intimate details, Tony’s adolescence collapses. It makes me think how I’ll remember myself in a few decades from how. Barnes might not have intended this, but I think we can draw a word of action from him: students should take advantage of our petty, slightly ridiculous tendencies to idealism before it grows grey and tired.
History in the making? Or perhaps I’ll just make it when I’m older.