Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Road, or Dad You Suck

Did God create man, or did man create God? This question has been pondered by great thinkers (Nietzsche) and not-so-great thinkers (the Kids in the Hall, stoned philosophy majors) since the mid-morning of human history, when things with the sabertoothed hyenas had cooled off enough for the pondering to commence. And it's been the subject for no small amount of literature since then, from po-mo shindigs like The Dead Father to the grotesque stylins of Flannery O'Connor.

Although The Road by Cormac McCarthy is, like most masterpieces, about a lot of things -- nuclear winter, cannibalism, suicide, and canned pears also top the list -- I would argue that it is also in large part about this question, and that its answer is a strange one. To me, The Road emphatically takes the position that our universe is Godless and seriously fucked up, but that paradoxically, it is for that very reason that our idea of God is so precious and important.

In The Road, a man and his son -- both unnamed -- travel across an America transformed by nuclear winter into a wasteland of swirling ash. Each is "the other's world entire." The father is no hero. Over the course of the novel, he kills (or effectively kills) two men; he cannot dissuade his wife from committing suicide; he does not help the sick and starving they pass along the way. His only goal is survival for himself and his boy.

But -- and here is the interesting part -- the father, who could tell his son anything and be believed, who could easily paint himself as utterly justified in all his actions, has instead chosen to teach the boy to believe in ideals that he himself doesn't live up to, ideals that have no real place in a world of cannibal gangs and scorched human skeletons: ideals like generosity and heroism and morality, and yes, even God.

Like any parent trying to do the right thing, of course, he finds this comes back to haunt him. As the son gets older, rather than becoming more realistic and pragmatic, he becomes more intensely idealistic, beginning to see how they fall short of the "good guys" featured in his father's lessons: "The boy looked at him and looked away. Those stories are not true... in the stories we're always helping people and we dont help people." The son is so utterly convinced of the truth of the father's philosophy that it in fact distances him from the very man who taught the philosophy to him. Yet, in the world of the novel, we never see any evidence (until the very end) that the type of goodness the father describes still even exists. The "fire" the father refers to is not one placed in him by God; it is one kindled in his son through the power of his words.

Raised on his father's stories, the boy is "an alien," "a creature from a planet that no longer existed." Despite the fact he has never known anything else, he is still shocked to see cooked human flesh; he is concerned with the morality of looting, even though it is their livelihood and is unsuspicious of strangers. At times, the boy's naivete and dogmatism is almost annoying to the reader. But the father is never annoyed by it. He reinforces it, encourages it. And, at the end of the story, in a final, unheroic act, the father cannot bring himself to sacrifice it: even though he promised he would never leave the boy, and even though the boy has no obvious way of surviving on his own, when the father is dying he cannot bring himself to kill his child. "I cant hold my dead son in my arms. I thought I could but I cant," he says, describing even this final act of love in terms of his own frailty, his own shortcomings. He is like a Biblical Abraham in reverse: when tested to prove his faith, he chooses the life of his son over his ideals. Yet those ideals live on, in the boy.

There is a moment in the novel when the father is going through the wreckage on board a beached ship and he finds a beautiful brass sextant still in its case. "It was the first thing he'd seen in a long time that stirred him," McCarthy writes. A sextant, a nautical navigation device, allows human beings to chart their course in the path of the stars. The father himself is like that sextant. He is like a tool who allows the boy to chart his course by something far loftier and more eternal than himself.

I think what I love so much about The Road is what it suggests about parenthood: that a truly good parent is humble enough to teach his kid to look beyond his own example, toward something greater; that a truly good parent trains his children to be disappointed in him. Maybe he's not a hero, but he's a damn sight better than some white guy in the sky.

No comments: