There is no God and we are his prophets

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“There is no God and we are his prophets”:

Deconstructing Redemption in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

(paper under review: not for quotation)
Stefan Skrimshire

The University of Manchester


Despite its overwhelmingly positive reception, the apparently redemptive conclusion to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road attracted criticism from some reviewers. They read in it an inconsistency with the nihilism that otherwise pervades the novel, as well as McCarthy’s other works. But what are they referring to when they interpret ‘redemption’, the ‘messianic’ and ‘God’ in McCarthy’s novel? Some introductory thoughts from apocalypse theory and deconstruction reveal a more nuanced approach that not only ‘saves’ McCarthy from the charge of such critics. It also opens up more interesting avenues for exploring the theme of redemption and the messianic in contemporary disaster fiction.

Justifiably effusive praise was heaped, by the literary community, upon McCarthy’s multiple award-winner The Road (2006). But perhaps the most interesting reaction came in the form of critique of the allegedly “redemptive” and “messianic” tone of its conclusion. Michael Chabon’s celebrated review of the book argued that McCarthy appeared to insert such a tone “almost…in spite of himself”,1 that is, out of character with his usual nihilism. Another reviewer went as far as to suggest the novel “failed” the “modernist challenge: to write about a holocaust, about the end of everything…What happens is a redemption, of sorts, arguably absurd in the face of such overwhelming nihilism.”2 One wonders how McCarthy himself would respond. Perhaps we should begin by recalling the cautionary and prophetic injunction that Nietzsche appended to one of his last works, Ecce Homo: “I have a terrible fear I shall one day be pronounced holy: one will guess why I bring out this book beforehand; it is intended to prevent people from making mischief of me... my truth is dreadful: for hitherto the lie has been called truth.”3 Nietzsche feared the untimely nature of the truth he came to announce to a modernity whose ‘end’ had only just begun. He predicted the unpreparedness of us “murderers of God” to stand up in the ruins of the transcendent “old God” of metaphysics, and an unwillingness to create our own tragic pursuit of life. God, he would later write, would simply refuse die; the task of modern man was therefore to kill him again and again.

In order not to make mischief with McCarthy, we should acknowledge similarly that the difficult and paradoxical redemption offered in The Road is very far from resurrecting the old God of metaphysics. Indeed, I would like to argue in the following that it interweaves themes both of resistance (the refusal to die) and mourning (the passing of irreversible loss). In doing so, the novel powerfully engages the reader with the very porous nature of redemption in the context of its post-apocalyptic environment.
Engaging McCarthy’s text in this way invites a Derridean, deconstructive reading of the narrative of redemption in contemporary disaster fiction in general. This is because the conversations and thought-experiments employed by McCarthy attempt in many different ways to destabilise and provoke questions of the binary oppositions involved in that very discussion of redemptive ends (indeed, of the possibility of conceiving ‘ends’ at all). There are oppositions such as the saved and the damned, the lost and the retrievable; the redeemed and irredeemable futures. McCarthy provokes the question, in particular, of what meaning we might possibly attach to human redemption and the “messianic” in an ostensibly irredeemable earth. What can be hoped for, sustained, and believed in? On the one hand, therefore, McCarthy’s pursuit of life and lives in the scorched wasteland bears all the hallmarks of Nietzschean tragedy - the “taming of horror through art”4 –as opposed to a comic rendering of the apocalypse (in which the righteous are spared the calamities of the end). On the other hand, the ambiguous sense of the messianic in The Road hints at more than lyrical or existentialist responses to tragedy. By tracing McCarthy’s exploration of redemption alongside developments in the continental philosophy of religion, first in the form of ‘death of God theology’, and second, that of ‘undeconstructability’ of the messianic, I hope to open up some exploratory questions about the ambiguity of redemption in this highly influential piece of contemporary fiction.
Ends of The Road

Michael Chabon states that for authors attempting a move into the futuristic post-apocalypse genre, “it is an established fact that a preponderance of religious imagery or an avowed religious intent can go a long way toward mitigating the science-fictional taint.”5 And so Chabon believes that, in McCarthy’s novel, the father “feeds his son a story”. By constructing the creed or injunction to “carry the fire”, the story is infused with a “religious sense of mission” that, incarnate in the hope given to the life of the boy, “verges on the explicitly messianic”.6 We would do well to pause in front of the implications of this word “messianic”. Who is saved: the boy? The promise of human community? And who or what comes to save? The boy’s saviours at the end present a hesitant, and uncertain departure: the guarantee only that others like him are alive. The messianic here would appear to take the form as much as a threat as a promise.

And yet, taken from the Hebrew term for ‘anointed one’, the concept of messiah in Jewish and early Christian literature is indeed bound up closely with the apocalyptic genre: the coming of a chosen one is placed in relation to a period of political and social upheaval.7 Certain expressions of the messianic thus anticipate both destruction (of the old world) and rebirth (of the new). In Jewish rabbinic thought what is crucial for messianic belief is its relationship with history and historic experience. It is visionary hope in the present for the way things could be, whether these are simply restorative or utopian.8 The tradition that emerges is subsequently one of the announcement of such a promise of the future through the voice of the prophets. Anticipating Jacques Derrida, the concept of the messianic announcement is the voice of the fringe, the outside of sanctioned, homogeneous discourse: “a call, a promise of an independent future for what is to come, and which comes like every messiah in the shape of peace and justice, a promise independent of religion, that is to say universal.”9
Whilst The Road carries its own utopian and dystopian prophets, however, redemption is nowhere conceived or expressed as the restoration of peace. Nor is it infused with any hope in the renewal of the earth, or even of the narrative of new beginnings for the scorched landscape. McCarthy relentlessly refuses reassurance that any return to a golden age is possible. The novel is an exploration of the irreversible, of “things which could not be put back”.10 In what, then, consist its alleged religiosity, its messianic expectation, or “greater salvation”?11 The clues lie in the relationship formed between a salvation to come (framed in the metaphor of the road itself: “You need to keep going. You don’t know what might be down the road”12) and the ambiguous sense of endings running throughout the book. The father’s own life represents a refusal of the simplicity of endings. His son must not lay down and die. Or, more precisely, he may not die of his own choosing, before the Father has calculated death’s preferability on his behalf. The terror of the novel is thus generated within the narrative context of this slipping away of the control over the appropriate end. The son knows neither how to die alone, nor, symbolically, the function of the pistol in his hands: (“I dont know what to do, Papa. I dont know what to do. Where will you be?”)13 In relation to a search for the messianic, we must seek the sense of redemption only within this destabilising sense of time. The messianic takes on a perverse sort of tension between the desire for end as closure, and the refusal to end, as the resistance of death, and finality.
The boy’s terror at the task asked of him (to kill himself) is not complicated. But this struggle between ends and beginnings in The Road also expresses the paradoxical nature of the post-apocalyptic genre in general. If we accept James Berger’s account of post-apocalyptic narrative as concerned essentially with “aftermaths and remainders”, then we must also follow his conclusion that it is always oxymoronic: “the End is never the end”.14 The modernist assumption, in Frank Kermode’s celebrated study, has been that the “sense of an ending” is what gives our living “in the middest”15 narrative meaning. But post-apocalypse means the very unsettling of those temporal frames. It “impossibly straddles the boundary between before and after some event that has obliterated what went before yet defines what will come after.”16 Indeed, we can see the influence of this eschatological tension – a concern with the ‘end’ and ‘ends’ of life alongside the impossibility of ‘writing the end’ as a key to much modernist and postmodernist literary exploration of the nature and meaning of narrative closure. Paul Fiddes’ wide ranging study of such explorations suggests that if there is a malaise in the writing of closure into contemporary fiction, it simply reflects the more general environment of “constant crisis”, replacing the sense of completion and fulfilment of history, in which we live.17 Such a paradox also partly reflects The Road as a study of the refusal of endings, and eo ipso a refusal of the redemption normally associated with the narrative end. For our fascination is drawn not to those who are destroyed, but to those who refuse to die. If McCarthy’s style emulates, as some critics suggest, the biblical language of Revelation, they can’t have missed St. John’s vision, borrowed probably from Job, that during the eschatological calamities, “people will long for death and not find it anywhere; they will want to die and death will evade them.”18 A comedic articulation of this craving crops up in the Beckettian character of Ely, echoing precisely the post-apocalyptic dilemma:
Things will be better when everyone’s gone.

They will?

Sure they will.

Better for who?



Sure. We’ll all be better off. We’ll all breathe easier.

That’s good to know.

Yes it is. When we’re all gone at last then there’ll be nobody here but death and his days are numbered too. He’ll be out in the road there with nothing to do and nobody to do it. He’ll say: Where did everybody go? And that’s how it will be. What’s wrong with that?19
McCarthy is arguably concerned, like Beckett, to explore the experience of the death of God as instant paradox. That is, as a source of the death of hope for some, but also of an absurd affirmation of life by others, condemning them to a life of eschatological suspension – of waiting, but for what?
Our encounter with the ‘post’ of post-apocalypse is, then, immediately one with the challenge of making narrative and ethical sense of the life that remains, rather than the purely nihilist gratuitousness of a death that won’t come. It is more akin to Albert Camus’ Rebel, 20 charged with the task of making an ethics of action in the absurd condition, without resorting to a leap of faith that removed the lucid reality of the absurd itself. It is the life of Sisyphus, who has made his rock his entire “universe” of meaning.21 All talk of redemption and the messianic must take seriously this simultaneous presence of both the ‘end’ and the refusal, or undecideability, of endings. The question that emanates from The Road is perhaps this one: what does one do, given the knowledge of a certainty of the collapse of life, which might make walking possible along the remainder of the Road? How can this search operate within the traumatic experiment of post-apocalypse, of the never-ending?
One approach to this question can be found in the perspective of crisis developed in Derrida’s interest in the concept of ‘apocalyptic time’. For Derrida can be argued to echo the refusal of the security of endings that I have suggested lies at the heart of The Road. Derrida refuses the eschatological language of triumphal historicists (particularly in reference to Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis), invoking Hamlet’s fearful dictum, “the time is out of joint”22 To express this refusal. Similarly, McCarthy frames the experience of this time of the ‘remainder’ not as the aftermath of the singular catastrophic event. Rather, it is the perpetuity of catastrophe itself: the uncertainty of relationships, ecology, and the possibility for human community. The thought experiment becomes one of a tortuously open future, the absence of referents for forging new values, new rules, and new duties. The novel thus plays on the post-apocalypse genre by creating a dissonance of temporal perspectives. Time has already run out and is yet, for the boy, opening out inexorably: nothing has really finished.
For the father, the character of the time that remains is defined by the anxiety not only of the limited time allotted to him (who is really dying) but of the dubious gift of extending the time allotted the son into the future – and who’s death he will not be able to oversee. Through the tender and contradictory relationship of the father and son, then, the genre of post-apocalypse is turned on its head. We grapple not so much with the post-modern fragmentation of endless traumatic symptoms,23 but the juxtaposition of these two impossible positions in the dialogue of father and child. On the one hand there is a protection of and desire for the end: the father’s desire to secure the least tortuous conclusion to his son’s life. And on the other there is the need for a beginning: the son’s overwhelming concern for who and what must lie beyond: who exists? What are they like? Who looks after them? Who will guarantee their safety in the future?
Apocalyptic Time

Death, or limit, is thus explored in The Road as a painful loss of control over time. This resistance to the consolation of narrative ends represents the most unique and creative aspect of McCarthy’s apocalyptic style. But what can we say about ‘apocalyptic’ literature in general that may shed light on the ambiguity of McCarthy’s redemptive turn? Literary apocalypses24, in Jewish and Christian intertestamental literature, intentionally sought to trace the limits of communicable discourse. It did this, crucially, against the political traumas of history, in which an old world was thought to be dying and a new one arising, which would completely overturn reality. Through visionary events bestowed upon favoured emissaries or recipients, heavenly truth revealed, through apocalypses, the “place beyond the limits of language”25 to humanity. What is the function of this type of limit-discourse? Implicit to all apocalypses there is an ethically loaded injunction that the truth of the world is not all that is visible or conceivable by human means.26 At its root, then, apocalypse claims that a deeper destiny and purpose lies underneath, and is here, through text and vision, disclosed.

That disclosure, however, is frequently cryptic and, in some cases, exclusively revealed. It is this aspect of the coding of Revelation that so attracts Derrida’s attention in his celebrated essay, On a Newly Arisen Tone in Philosophy. Derrida’s fascination is with the figure of John and the complex symbolism of the fragmented, myriad messages of the future contained in his vision. There is, believes Derrida, something primal to Western thought in John’s act as the messenger, this role of being the favoured dispatcher of revelation and denouncing the ‘false’ ones, the “impostor apostles”.27 Is there an echo of this cryptic prophecy in McCarthy – for instance, the language of God who is both announced and yet uncontainable, even within the friendly woman’s talk of the “breath of God” that “passes from man to man through all of time”?28 If so, the crucial lesson for an apocalyptic reading of McCarthy would be that apocalypse guarantees no certainties about future realities. On the contrary, it would be to resist the “temptation” of one apocalyptic tone, and to hear instead apocalypse as an “unmasterable polytonality”.29 There is, in a deconstructive reading, only a deeper fragmentation and destabilising of meaning and truth. And this is precisely the concern of Derrida’s critique of an ontological and ‘contemporaneous’ reading of history. As Fiddes puts it, narrative can be deconstructionist in the sense that, like the book of Revelation, “[the] ending deconstructs itself, and so disperses meaning rather than [completes] it.”30
This same instability and impermanence of discourse is prevalent within the dialogue between father and son in The Road. The meaning of words and the possibility of language itself becomes shorn of its social or ethical grounds. McCarthy even poses the problem as one of the absurdity of text in the post-apocalyptic future. From the referent-less discussion of metaphor “as the crow flies”31 (to the boy, who has never known the existence of birds) to the man’s memory of pausing in the “charred ruins of some library” and experiencing absolute dislocation between the value of words and the burnt remains of “the world to come”. 32
An attempt to speak in a world where words and meanings are disappearing mirrors powerfully the attempt to invoke faith in a world in which God is increasingly absent. The God of The Road is the impossible presence, the one whose name is invoked (by the father, and by the woman at the end) but whose very existence would pose only problems, not solutions. To Ely, the possibility of the persistence of god or gods is a fearful prospect and impedance to the task at hand (of surviving? Or dying?): “Where men cant live gods fare no better. You’ll see. It’s better to be alone.”33 But the existential struggle facing both the father and Ely is precisely the realisation that, in the very act of their survival, something unshakeable of the trace of God (in the book it moves from “word”, to “breath”, to “dream” in that order) is incarnate. This appears, admittedly, as a curse to Ely, whose survival the father finds incredible. The fate bestowed on any unlucky enough to carry on down the road is to carry the remainder, the aftermath of this ineffability and this absence: “There is no God and we are his prophets.”34 It is, finally, in reference to the knowledge and memory of dying that any talk of the possible meaning of redemption must orient itself: hence the centrality in McCarthy’s narrative of the existentialist conundrum of survival. For what must the remaining humans carry on being humans? The man questions Ely on this point: “how would you know if you were the last man on earth?” to which Ely replies “It wouldn’t make any difference. When you die it’s the same as if everybody else did too.35 The framing of post-apocalypse narrative in this context reiterates the centrality of the question of remainders, of those who might remain to remember and to hold the consciousness of humanity and the possibility of discourse (and therefore of God?) in their very surviving.
God is Dead (again)

The reference to God, and God’s potential for solving the conundrum of the remainder (perhaps, wonders the man, “God would know” that you were the last on earth36) is typically McCarthy. He is concerned mostly to problematise belief rather than to reject it or affirm it entirely through his characters. The fragmented quasi-theological discussions echo the brilliant, extended account of the preacher who does theological battle with a dying faith in The Crossing.37 But, once again, a deeper examination of what sort of theistic faith such references might imply goes some way to answering those readers unhappy with McCarthy’s redemptive conclusions. Ely’s last remark bears similarities to attempts made in the 1960s to articulate a faithful religious response to the existentialist current, through a “Death of God Theology”. Alongside Thomas J. J. Altizer, The protestant theologian Paul Tillich famously argued for the language of modern theology to acknowledge not only the ontological inadequacy of speaking of God’s existence (since the essence of God is a Being “beyond Being”). Theology must also acknowledge the failure of human experience to allow this access in the first place. For many of these thinkers the ‘God of the theologians’ had died on the battlefields of Europe during World War I. To thus define God in negative terms was not only a semantic step. It was to couch Theo-logos as the discourse of absence par excellence. And certainly through the eyes of the other religious existentialists (Kierkegaard, Berdyaev, Dostoevsky, Buber) the search for God was the reaffirmation of the absurd, its crucifixion in the mystery of human suffering, not its resolution. Another exemplar, the Catholic convert Simone Weil, had expressed it through the figure of Mary Magdalene on Easter Saturday: one moves towards the tomb motivated by death, an expectation of the corpse, not an optimistic hope in life. It is human suffering that motivates our movement “towards reality”, and the mystery in which God (through his absence) is to be found. Likewise, influenced heavily by Nietzsche, Tillich described the true act of faith of the believer as one who does not attempt to square the existentialist crisis of despair but who has “the courage to look into the abyss of nonbeing in the complete loneliness of him who accepts the message that “God is dead”.38 A difficult God to find, to be sure, since for Weil, Tillich and others, the problem of nihilism was not to be squared by the gift of faith. It was to be lived in the paradox of human suffering – in the seeking, not the finding, of an answer to suffering.

Perhaps The Road shares some features of these attempts to grapple with the death of God. But it is only really with Derrida’s exploration of the messianic and time that we can understand McCarthy’s ambiguous sense of redemption. This is because deconstruction, to repeat, attempts to go beyond philosophy and society’s obsessions with talking of the ‘end’ of thinking, metaphysics, God, politics, Marxism, etc. Deconstruction tries to counterbalance this fascination with definitive ends by announcing the end of a “logocentric” crisis rhetoric itself. Derrida thus highlights the very possibility of crisis discourse as the last form of meaning that one clings to, and whose loss signals a truly existential death. The true crisis is that there may no longer be a “philosophy of crisis” : “there is perhaps not even a ‘crisis of the present world’. In its turn in crisis, the concept of crisis would be the signature of a last symptom, the convulsive effort to save a ‘world’ that we no longer in habit: no more oikos, economy, ecology, liveable site in which we are ‘at home’”.39 One recalls, in the light of this, the discussion in The Road of the possibility of both knowing, and not knowing, preparing, and not preparing, for the “event”, the brief glimpse of which holds an elusive taint of horror over the narrative. Ely confides in the man:
I knew this was coming.

You knew it was coming?

Yeah. This or something like it. I always believed in it.

Did you try to get ready for it?

No. What would you do?

I don’t know.

People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didn’t believe in that. Tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them. It didn’t even know they were there.40
This intervention into crisis thinking problematises the very status of event – its undecidability, its uncertain definitiveness. It mirrors Derrida’s critique of an Aristotelian, favoured presence of the “event” itself. Ultimately, such a critique leads to Derrida’s ability to pose a distinctively Jewish opposition to this privileging of the event: namely, the reassertion of a certain messianicity, a therefore mystical, mysterious return to a revelatory messianicity. It is, however, a messianicity “without messianism”; “stripped of everything”,41 or in other words unbounded by the specificity of this or that dogmatism, religion, and metaphysics of salvation.
In deconstruction, then, we can no longer speak of the privilege of the ‘contemporary’.42 What does that concept imply in the context of McCarthy’s narrative? It opens out the analysis to the concept of redemption without the guarantee of the ‘event’ that would guarantee salvation in the manner of the promises of institutional religion. Such a sentiment recalls the “iconoclastic” reformulation of hope that was prevalent in post-war Jewish critical theory (particularly in Ernst Bloch). This meant a redemption without reference to the face of God; only the notion of promise itself.43 Derrida expresses a notion of the future as being not a ‘future-present’ but as something perpetually out of reach. It produces, like death, the effect of interminable non-occurrence, perhaps in the manner by which the “event” of The Road is announced: “The clocks stopped at 1:17”.44 Time itself, like discourse, and like belief, is suspended; shorn of its referent. The messianic impulse that survives even a book like The Road, is not in the security of an arrival of the messiah, but in a sort of binding to the commitment of expectation: more akin, once again, to the suffering of the waiting Vladimir and Estragon.
The apocalyptic element of The Road, then, might not be the announcement of some catastrophic event in time either in the past (since this is never dwelled upon) or the future. It is rather the revelation of traces, of remainders and reminders, of the God who might also be dying since he “fares no better” than men when men can’t live.45 The apocalyptic always appears with a hidden face, in the impossible or inconceivable encounter with the end of all things, of death itself. The consolation offered to the boy by his father is that he has always been “lucky”.46 Beyond irony, the word “luck” seems shorn of its associations with providence, destiny, and blessedness, and more like an unhappy covenant: an unspoken agreement that the boy is bound to continue, to keep going. The continuation of life is a brute fact for the boy as much as for Ely (neither apparently aware what keeps them going). And yet the boy is very unlike Ely, not because of his innocence, but because of his temporal language. What will happen, he asks of his father, to the other boy? To the man they abandoned? To the people imprisoned in the house? The conundrum for Ely is otherwise, and framed in the time that was. What has happened; did we see it coming? What were we thinking? Even if we did, how could we have been expected to choose? If there is redemption in The Road, perhaps all we can say of it is the ability to ask questions of the future, as opposed to only those of the past, of mourning that which cannot be put right.
Redemption without redemption

The ‘event’ is indeed problematic for post-apocalypse. But it is problematic not simply because finality is put off indefinitely (as Berger claims). It is problematic for its revealing, or disclosing, our lack of control over its arrival. Apocalypse is temporal catastrophe: a disruption of our chronos desires, time we possess, can control. The future is certainly terrible, but it is agonising particularly for our thrownness into its uncertainty. Redemption, then, if it is relevant at all, must be seen as the ability to imagine that what one sees now is not all that there is. In the book of Revelation calamities are predicted that meticulously symbolise the passing of apportioned periods of time according to divine order, not those of powers and principalities.47 In The Road, however, the father is possessed by his responsibility to judge the ‘right time’ of his son’s end, and so spare unbearable life. The crisis recalls Abraham’s struggle with God’s command to act out the unthinkable, here repeated in the Father’s own self-doubt: “Can you do it? When the time comes? When the time comes there will be no time. Now is the time. Curse God and die.”48

One passes over it easily, but by the end of the novel, the father’s command to his son to leave him occurs by way of an admission of weakness; an apology for entrusting life with him: “I cant hold my dead son in my arms. I thought I could but I cant”49. Is this the conclusion thought to give some sort of redemptive lift to the narrative – a “fig leaf” to the unacceptable narrative of total disaster?50 I would argue that this is not the case. Perhaps, instead, McCarthy has thought to redeem Ely’s cynical perspective, rather than the consolingly messianic one. In this view the father’s committal of the son to the future is not performed out of faith in the persistence of goodness. His commitment is, more simply, in the inability to cease suffering, to cease walking along the road. The father’s sense of an open future is not hard to grasp in itself: it is the only thing left to offer his son. Yet what is the most significant imaginative turn in what follows? I would argue that it is not that the boy subsequently finds fellow travellers we are to believe are also the good guys who are “carrying the fire”. Nor even is it that they, like the woman, are also those that recognise the persistence of the divine in the world. Rather, it is an admission by all characters of a destabilising uncertainty about that road that lies ahead. It is there in the implied pause of the man’s response to the boy at the end of the novel: “He looked at the sky. As if there were anything to be seen. Yeah, he said. I’m one of the good guys.” 51
There is no evidence in what precedes this moment that any place the new community will reach can support life. Nor, I think, are we meant to intuit such a turn towards the future. One cannot ignore, in any case, the terrifying allusions that lie underneath McCarthy’s choice of the word “fire”. Chabon is quick to point this out: the new hope for human community are people “carrying fire in a world destroyed by fire”.52 But we can go further than this, since the irony recalls the central theme of another classic of the post-apocalypse genre. In William Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, the scattered survivors of global nuclear war attempt to construct the new civilisation by destroying all forms of scientific knowledge. They do this on the premise that such knowledge will lead inexorably to the same situation of nuclear terror. A secluded community of monks become the last guardians of ancient knowledge, preserving it for such a time that knowledge will once again be responsibly applied. But the fear is vindicated by the recapitulation of humanity to a second wave of nuclear apocalypse at the novel’s horrifying conclusion. Is McCarthy also speaking about the terrible inevitability of human nature? Such could be interpreted in the inexorable movement towards the bearers of fire at the end. It is a cyclical move towards redemption and destruction in equal measure, as if one is bound to bring with it the other. Matthew Ryan also observes a parallel tension in the “ambiguity of the familial bond”: the fact that the father’s aggressive defence of the son represents both “the germ of the human community that might sprout again” and also “the legitimation of violence”.53
The trauma / catastrophe that occurs throughout the novel would therefore seem to be the “luck” that the father recognises in the boy, accompanied by his fear of what continuing to exist might really mean: an extension of the agony of existence. Perhaps our sympathy really lies with Ely, who has renounced time entirely. Lamenting on his not dying, he says: “when you're alive you’ve always got that ahead of you”.54

McCarthy’s mastery of tragic pathos and the teetering on the edges of nihilism is far from compromised at the end of The Road. For the conclusion lies not in the messiah’s entrance, with the “real fire”, into Jerusalem, but rather, in the extension of ashen road further into what looks more like the seventh circle of hell. The final word is not the triumph of life over death, good over evil. The final word concerns the new agonal meanings of hope within the landscape of irretrievable loss. The meaning of redemption can be couched only in terms of a radical undecideability, akin to Derrida’s refusal of finality in the expression of crisis. Derrida’s concept of crisis borrows heavily from Maurice Blanchot’s Writing of the Disaster. For Blanchot, death is understood as the very thing that can never be experienced or overcome. It is never cheated (through murder, or suicide) or understood.55 But disaster also represents the unease caused by the unpredictability of the event, its appearance as untimely and uninvited. Through this reinterpretation of the untimely time of ends, therefore, deconstruction invites a sort of aversion to the desire for completeness and ‘ends’ in history.

In The Road also, what is saved, redeemed, and hoped for does not echo a narrative completion or end. It is, rather, in the persistence and memory of that which refuses to be forgotten. In the end, McCarthy speaks not of the promise of new worlds, nor the redemption of human community, but of the memory of fish. On the beauty of brook trout, “a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again.”56 Redemption might therefore mean nothing more than the persistence of beings who can remember, invoking a primal goodness through the “religious or sacral forms”57 underlying McCarthy’s horror:
This is my child, he said. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job. Then he wrapped him in the blanket and carried him to the fire… All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. When you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.58
If the task of memory is to be seen as ‘redemptive’, through the summoning of these tortuous, sacramental acts, it is not for that a welcome one. Even memory persists as a curse as much as a blessing, reflects the father: we forget the things we want to remember and remember the things we want to forget. The son is already irreparable, damaged goods, and yet for the father the very reason for carrying on.
If an underlying religiosity is to represent more than Chabon’s “fig leaf”, what other function might we ascribe to it? Some writers have opted to interpret the novel as “critical dystopia”. 59 In other words, it presents the horror of a possible future in order to galvanise a resistance to its fulfilment. This surely was the intent behind George Monbiot’s appraisal of The Road as “the most important environmental book ever written”.60 But this simplistic approach doesn’t seem to do justice to the novel’s careful and complex oscillation between that which is to come and that which is already upon us. McCarthy’s tragic references to the ‘too late’ are written not as simple and bleak conclusions. They embody the heavy weight of responsibility experienced by humans whose task is to interpret and judge when and how the ‘too late’ comes into our lives. When does one give up? By whose authority and by which standards? Is it ever permitted to give up? These are at once moral, religious, and social questions, and McCarthy displays no triumphalism in allowing his protagonist to refuse giving up. The difference between his choice and his wife’s, is one equally weighted, equally uncertain. For the boy’s mother, only death offered redemption, and the father’s crime was to deny it to their son. Who may judge such a choice?
For many people, the implication of McCarthy’s conclusion will be to hold out for a revival of humanity or human community at all costs. Yet it is the question mark over what can possibly be considered human, or communal, or to ‘have a future’ in such a fragile and damaged landscape, that should interest us when we consider the ‘redemption’ of The Road. The sentiment of simultaneous resistance and mourning is one that carries weight not simply for its ability to shock people into action in the present, in order to avoid the destruction of the future. It also hints at the challenge of affirming what sort of life one can affirm at all. For ultimately, in The Road, the desire for closure, or an end, is not met; all that is met is a deepening of its mystery: like the living, recited and continuing memory of a past that will never return, and yet refuses to disappear.


Berger, James, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (London: University of Minnesota, 1999).
Blanchot, Maurice The Writing of the Disaster, new ed., trans. Ann Smock, (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).
Bloch, Ernst Atheism and Christianity (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972).
Bull, Malcolm Seeing Things Hidden: Apocalypse, Vision and Totality (London: Verso, 2000).
Camus, Albert Le Mythe de Sisyphe (Paris : Editions Flammarion, 1999).
Chabon, Michael ‘After the Apocalypse’, New York Review of Books vol. 54, Number 2 (February 15 2007).
Collins, John J Seers, Sybils and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman Judaism (Leiden: Brill,

____________ (ed), ‘Apocalypse: The morphology Of A Genre’, Semeia 14,

September 2003.
Derrida, Jacques Specters of Marx (London: Routledge, 1995).
_____________ Negotiations: interventions and interviews, 1971-2001 ed. and trans.

Elizabeth Rottenberg (London: Stanford University Press, 200).

______________ Acts of Religion ed. Gil Anidjar (London: Routledge, 2002),
______________ in Lieven de Cauter, ‘For a Justice to Come: Interview with Jacques Derrida’ trans. by Ortwin de Graef, Ris Orangis, 19 February 2004 [] [accessed 26/06/09].
______________ ‘On a Newly Arisen Apocalyptic Tone in Philosophy’ in

Peter Fenves (ed) Raising the Tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by Immanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by Jacques Derrida (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Fiddes, Paul The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).
Gilbertson, M., God and History in the Book of Revelation: New Testament

Studies in Dialogue with Pannenberg and Moltmann (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press).
Jacoby, Russell Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
Kermode, Frank The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).
McCarthy, McCormac The Road (London: Picador, 2006).
__________________ The Crossing (London: Vintage Internation Ed., 2007).

Miklowitz, Paul S. Metaphysics to Metafictions: Hegel, Nietzsche and the End of Philosophy (New York: State University of New York Press).

Monbiot, George ‘Civilisation ends with a shutdown of human concern. Are we there already?’ The Guardian 30 October, 2007 [] [accessed 25/06/09].
Nietzsche, Friedrich Ecce Homo trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1979).
________________The Birth of Tragedy ed. Michael Tanner, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin, 1993).
O’Regan, Cyril The Heterodox Hegel (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).
Rossiter, MJA ‘The Road by Cormac McCarthy’ [] [accessed 09/09/09].
Ryan, Matthew ‘The Dystopian Rendering of Ideology and Utopia in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’. Delivered at “Demanding the Impossible: Utopia, Dystopia and Science Fiction”, 2007, Monash University. [] [accessed 21/04/09].
Scholem, Gershom, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971).
Skrimshire, Stefan, ‘A Political Theology of the Absurd? Albert Camus and Simone Weil on Social Transformation’, Literature and Theology 20.3, September 2006.
Tillich, Paul The Courage to Be, second edition, (London: Yale Nota Bene).


Stefan Skrimshire is Postdoctoral Research Associate in Religion and Politics at The University of Manchester, where he teaches and researches apocalyptic and messianic belief in philosophy and contemporary political culture. His research also focuses on the meaning of apocalyptic in the context of climate change, tipping points and political action. He is author of Politics of Fear, Practice of Hope (London: Continuum, 2008) and editor of Future Ethics: Climate Change and Apocalyptic (London: Continuum, 2010).

1 Michael Chabon, ‘After the Apocalypse’, New York Review of Books vol. 54, Number 2 (February 15 2007).

2 MJA Rossiter, ‘The Road by Cormac McCarthy’ [] [accessed 09/09/09].

3 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 1979) p.126.

4 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy ed. Michael Tanner, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Penguin, 1993), p. 40.

5 Chabon, ‘After the Apocalypse’.

6 Chabon, ‘After the Apocalypse’.

7 This is especially true of the book of Daniel, and the apocalyptic literature of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

8 Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971) p.3.

9 Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion ed. Gil Anidjar (London: Routledge, 2002), p.57.

10 Cormac McCarthy, The Road (London: Picador, 2007), p.307.

11 Chabon, ‘After the Apocalypse’.

12McCarthy, The Road, p. 297.

13 Ibid, p.119.

14 James Berger, After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse (London: University of Minnesota, 1999) p.xii.

15 Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).

16 After the End p.19.

17 Paul Fiddes, The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000) p.11.

18 Revelation 9:6

19 McCarthy, The Road pp.183-184.

20 I have written elsewhere about tragedy and redemption in Camus: ‘A Political

Theology of the Absurd? Albert Camus and Simone Weil on Social Transformation’, Literature and Theology 20.3, September 2006.

21 Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe (Paris: Editions Flammarion, 1999).

22 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (London: Routledge, 1995).

23 Berger, After the End, p.20. See also Malcolm Bull, Seeing Things Hidden (London: Verso, 2000).

24 For the seminal discussion on whether or not an apocalyptic genre can be identified at all, see John J. Collins (ed), ‘Apocalypse: The morphology Of A Genre’, Semeia 14, September 2003.

25 Berger, After the End, p.16.

26 See, for example, John J. Collins, Seers, Sybils and Sages in Hellenistic-Roman

Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 1997) p.92.

27 Derrida, ‘On a Newly Arisen Apocalyptic Tone in Philosophy’ in Peter Fenves (ed) Raising the Tone of Philosophy: Late Essays by Immanuel Kant, Transformative Critique by Jacques Derrida (London: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), p.149.

28 McCarthy, The Road, p.306.

29 Derrida, ‘On a Newly Arisen Apocalyptic Tone’, p. 150.

30 Fiddes, The Promised End, p.35.

31 McCarthy, The Road, p.166.

32 Ibid., p.199.

33 McCarthy, The Road, p.183.

34 Ibid., p.181.

35 McCarthy, The Road, p.180.

36 Ibid., p.180.

37 Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing (London: Vintage Internation Ed., 2007).

38 Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, second edition, (London: Yale Nota Bene) p.30.

39 Jacques Derrida, Negotiations: interventions and interviews, 1971-2001 ed. and trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (London: Stanford University Press, 200), p.70.

40 McCarthy, The Road, p.179.

41 Derrida, Acts of Religion, p.56.

42 Derrida, Specters of Marx (London: Routledge, 1995).

43 Russell Jacoby, Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

44 McCarthy, The Road, p.54.

45 Ibid., p.183.

46 Ibid., p. 298.

47 See Gilbertson, M. God and History in the Book of Revelation: New Testament

Studies in Dialogue with Pannenberg and Moltmann (Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press).

48 McCarthy, The Road p.120.

49 Ibid., p.298.

50 Chabon, ‘After the Apocalypse’.

51 McCarthy, The Road, p.302.

52 Chabon, ‘After the Apocalypse’.

53 Matthew Ryan, ‘The Dystopian Rendering of Ideology and Utopia in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road’. Delivered at “Demanding the Impossible: Utopia, Dystopia and Science Fiction”, 2007, Monash University. [] [accessed 21/04/09].

54 McCarthy, The Road, p.179.

55 Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster new ed., trans. Ann Smock, (London: University of Nebraska Press, 1995).

56 McCarthy, The Road, p. 307.

57 Ryan, ‘The Dystopian Rendering’.

58 McCarthy, The Road pp.77-78.

59 Ryan, ‘The Dystopian Rendering’.

60 George Monbiot, ‘Civilisation ends with a shutdown of human concern. Are we there already?’ The Guardian 30 October, 2007 [] [accessed 25/06/09], p.1.

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