God in the Darkness
Today, 20 July, is the seventy-ninth birthday of American novelist Cormac McCarthy. His 2006 novel The Road was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and while I have wanted to engage with this work for some time, I am not yet in a position to do so. Nonetheless, an excellent adaptation to film exists and I wonder if I might introduce this adaptation for your own consideration.
An early image in The Road is that of a man and a woman waking together from their sleep to find a world transformed: “There was a long shear of bright light, and a series of low concussions.” Years pass. No animals have survived. There are no crops, and the dead trees that haven’t yet fallen, soon will. “Each day,” the Man narrates, “is more grey than the one before. It is cold and growing colder as the world slowly dies.”
It is into this new world that a son is born. Man, woman and son possess a pistol with two bullets. Fearing cannibals, the Man teaches his son how to use the gun on himself if the need arises.
Encountering an elderly wanderer named Eli, the Man is asked:
Eli: Supposing you were the last man alive?
Man: How would you know that? That you were the last man alive?
Eli: Well I don’t guess you’d know it. You’d just be it.
Man: Maybe God would know?
Eli: If there is a god up there, he would have turned his back on us by now. And whoever made humanity will find no humanity here. No sir. No sir.
In terms of the spirituality of this work, God could be understood as absent. However, there is something remarkable in what the Man is able to see in his Son despite everything that has happened around them. Consider his statement: “The child is my warrant and if he is not the word of God then God never spoke.” I remember hearing articulated that the way the Man “indulges in quasi-idolatrous exultation of the boy” would be completely unacceptable in a less extreme context. Maybe, but I am not so sure. As I understand the Franciscan tradition (articulated in someone like the 13th century Duns Scotus), every created thing is a “little word” of God. Jesus, in such a tradition, is the Word, but nothing in creation is seen as worthless or trivial because each thing images God in its own unique being. Our Man in The Road is no closet-Franciscan, but I do find it interesting that in spite of the feeling of having been abandoned, in looking at his son, he sees something of God’s potential communication.
Another reviewer speaks of the man and boy taking refuge in an abandoned church, and how “huddled beside a fire that looks like a sacrificial altar, beneath a large bright cross [Director John] Hillcoat frames a beautiful, indelible long shot in this scene, capturing within the frame a prominent cross and a father who would sacrifice everything for his son.” Worship has been absent for years, and “yet the cross still speaks,” as a light shines through which has been largely absent from their various contexts.
Eli has noted that whoever “made humanity will find no humanity here.” The viewer has heard the man’s wife plead with her husband saying “I don’t want to just survive.” There is more to being human than existing, and at a certain point the Man loses sight of this. He has the boy, though, who acts as a sort of conscience for the two. The boy is the one who shows love to the old man Eli, holding his hand, telling his father to help Eli to his feet, pleading that Eli be given food. The boy urges his father to have pity on a desperate man who has wronged them. The father loves the boy—that is certain—but in his quest for the boy’s survival, the Man seems to have sacrificed the good the boy expects of him.
Will he who made humanity find humanity? Author Cormac McCarthy reminds that to love has risk, but to “just survive” and be without it is to lose one’s humanity. To “just survive” leaves no one to be found.