The Road // Seeking a New God to Supplant Consumerism and Technological Dependency
From the great rains of Noah’s flood to the ceaseless fields of cultivated humans depicted in The Matrix, stories of the apocalypse are often used as a means of spreading caution. Such narratives seek to incur a change in behavior through contemplation induced by disturbing images of an imagined, catastrophic future. In contrast to the infernos of apocalyptic legends, post-apocalyptic texts veil the cause of humanity’s demise, focusing instead on the subtle or stark contrasts between contemporary society and the dismal world depicted by the author. In addition to significant changes in the planetary biome, investigating the minute changes in characters’ actions and motivations can reveal a more refined view into the lessons and behavioral changes suggested by a text.
Post-apocalyptic fables are sternly rooted in social discourses, nuancedly reflecting broader trepidations. Just as Wells’ The Time Machine elucidates a fear of entropy, moral decay, and techno-centrism, contemporary post-apocalyptic fictions, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, revolve around present uncertainties toward environmental sustainability, consumerism, globalism, technology, even atheism. While other post-apocalyptic works, such as George Miller’s acclaimed film, Mad Max: Fury Road, or Naughty Dog’s 2013 game of the year, The Last of Us, comment on similar uncertainties, The Road provides much greater depth, presenting a touchstone of contemporary post-apocalyptic narratives. Equating consumerism to cannibalism, highlighting the unnatural, temporary sustenance of technology, and re-framing God as a living and earthbound energy, McCarthy calls for a renewed sanctity in the mystery of living ecosystems, stressing the importance of crafting a society in which humans are no longer isolated from natural processes.
McCarthy’s text presents a world in which nearly every tangible material is a form of waste. The world is blanketed in ash. Cities and towns scatter the landscape as discarded refuse. Humans wander aimlessly like so many plastic bags adrift in the wind. As an intangible, metaphorical force, McCarthy utilizes ‘the fire’, and those who carry it, as a symbol for non-waste, a symbol for humanity and civilization which, through its contrast and rarity, outlines the similarity between uninformed consumerism and the depravity of cannibalism.
In their dialogues, the father and son present ‘carrying the fire’ as a moral divider between themselves and the scattered people, violent and cannibalistic, whom they encounter along the aimless, endless road. In a moment of innocent emotion, the boy, crying, questions to his father: “We wouldnt ever eat anybody, would we?”, the father, responding surely: “No. Of course not. … No matter what. Because we’re the good guys… And we’re carrying the fire” (McCarthy, 136). While the purpose of their journey remains insubstantial, the father and son hold steadfast to their moral superiority. Insisting that to eat another human, equating a living body to the abandoned industrial foodstuffs which they regularly consume, would be to lose their identifier as ‘good guys’, to, through the seemingly evil ritual of consumption, become evil themselves.
The importance of sustaining such morality is further underlined by presenting ‘carrying the fire’ as a form of karma inducing, protective good. In another conversation, the son questions: “We’re going to be okay, arent we Papa? ... And nothing bad is going to happen to us.” the father responds, “That’s right. Because we’re carrying the fire” (McCarthy, 87). For father and son, to ‘carry the fire’ is a religious doctrine, an act to preserve a semblance of ordered good in a world lost to the chaos of entropy. By using cannibalism as the titular opposite of the sacrosanct act of ‘carrying the fire’, McCarthy underscores the utmost importance of consumption and sustenance as the act which determines the moral value of humanity; to consume in a way which reduces a human to the resource of carrion, to the resource of waste, is to lose the mythological ‘fire’, the biblical ‘holy spirit’, which defines and creates humanity.
As an unabashed critic of consumerism, McCarthy further emphasizes the lack of morality associated with uninformed consumption. After finding a treasure-trove of forgotten canned goods, father and son sit down to eat, beginning the meal with a prayer of thanks:
“The man was about to speak when he said: Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff. We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldnt eat it no matter how hungry we were and we’re sorry that you didnt get to eat it and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.” (McCarthy, 154)
Accentuating the extreme cognizance and thoughtful understanding of the son, McCarthy further corroborates the importance of acknowledging the people and systems of production which support even the simplest and most necessary acts of consumption. Equating blind consumerism to cannibalism, McCarthy underscores the potential evil of complex, human-and-process-shrouding global supply chains, calling for greater scrutiny of industrial production and a re-contextualization of moral hierarchies.
McCarthy’s concerns for global industrial production and consumerism become further nuanced when considering how the father and son interact with the benevolent handful of industrially produced foodstuffs scattered throughout the ashen landscape. In a laboriously cliché, ad-worthy scene, the father discovers and shares a can of Coca-Cola with his son. As the son took the can, “It’s bubbly, he said. Go ahead, responds the father, “He looked at his father and then tilted the can and drank. He sat there thinking about it. It’s really good, he said” (McCarthy, 22). Coca-Cola returns later in the novel, as father and son rest in the well-stocked bunker, “they drank Coca Cola out of plastic mugs” (McCarthy, 157). As the most globally-ubiquitous, industrially-produced symbol of consumption, McCarthy uses Coca-Cola as a broader placeholder for technological innovation producing an unnatural, temporary sustenance. While Coca-Cola presents no mystery to the father, the boy is surprised by its unnatural bubbles, a falseness further constructed by the deliberate inclusion of “plastic mugs” when the lab-made, “aaaaahhhh” inducing, can of happiness returns. Isolated from the chaos of the world in their man-made bunker, the industrially produced Coca-Cola provides father and son a temporary yet fabricated reprieve. While father and son continue to survive as ever-moving scavengers along the road, they do so only thanks to the remaining waste of industrial produced foodstuffs. As the complex methods of producing such everlasting goods have been forever lost, once such goods have all been consumed, the remnants of humanity will inevitably perish. McCarthy’s Coca-Cola moment, a synecdoche for the father and son’s relationship to the industrial waste of everlasting foodstuffs, casts technology as a false savior, a tool which merely isolates humanity from natural processes, sustaining existence while prolonging an inevitable death.
McCarthy’s writing seeps spirituality. While crafting a story around a father, son, and the fire they carry recognizably nods to the holy trinity, McCarthy subtly criticizes religious doctrine as far too separated from the processes of the natural world. Throughout the novel, the father constantly casts his son as a form of god. From insisting that “If he is not the word of God God never spoke”, or casting the boy as “God’s own firedrake”, a promethean spirit bringing the gift of light and heat, the father sees his son as a “Golden chalice, good to house a god” (McCarthy, 3, 31, 78). While such praise of youth, light, and purity, hardly contrasts from Christian doctrine, the father’s views are best understood in contrast to the opinions of an old man encountered later in the novel.
First meeting the blind and disheveled elder, the son insists on providing the aged soul with sustenance, food, heat, rest, and conversation. During their encounter, the old man queries, “How would you know if you were the last man on earth?”, perhaps mockingly proposing that “I guess God would know it. Is that it?”, to which the father responds, “There is no God and we are his prophets” (McCarthy, 180). Later on, in reference to his son, the father suggests, “what if I said that he’s a god?”, cynically the old man replies, “I’m past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better” (McCarthy, 183). By juxtaposing contrasting suggestions: “there is no God”, “we are his prophets”, “he’s a god”, the father subverts McCarthy’s framing of the father and son as supportive of non-earthly deities, transforming the all-powerful, heaven-residing, majuscule God into an earthly “god”. The old man’s skepticism, through his insisting that “where men cant live gods fare no better”, adds to the father’s view of god as a living force, a fire which is carried and passed from generation to generation by the creatures of the earth. Additionally, in his final creed to his son, the father substantiates an earthbound God, insisting to his son that “you have to carry the fire… it’s inside you. It was always there. I can see it” (McCarthy, 298). Scorning a view of God as heavenly or omnipotent, McCarthy re-frames God as ‘the fire’, an energy carried by living organisms seeking to shepherd and protect life.
Such a newfound view of God further accentuates the portrayal of the son as a form of divinity. If the earthly God is embodied in all living things, the young are a symbol of the continued existence of such spiritual energy. McCarthy again underscores the characters’ new view of God and the sanctity of continued life through the sons encounter with the fire-carrying family at the close of the novel. Speaking to the son, the woman said, “that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time” (McCarthy, 306). While “where men cant live gods fare no better”, McCarthy contrasts a stark criticism of consumerism and technology with a glowing portrayal of resilient humans, the living substance in which god resides, shepherds of life carrying ‘the fire’ if only for its sacred preservation.
Disparaging the false security of the complex, technology-enabled, industrially produced, global world most humans continue to create, McCarthy calls contemporary society to rebuild its spirituality, placing God as an earthly energy which exists in all life. At the center of McCarthy’s concern is the pure isolation of human society from natural processes. While McCarthy recognizes technology as a method of sustenance, through his depiction of industrial foodstuffs, he warns that such systems are vulnerable, that without an ecosystem, human preservation through such systems is finite. McCarthy challenges humanity to see Coca-Cola not as bottled happiness, but as the destruction of God once imbued in sugarcane. As the divine energy in sugarcane is shared also with humanity, to McCarthy, consuming Coca-Cola as it exists today is a form of cannibalism.
McCarthy chooses to close his fable with an out of place yet deeply moving passage describing brook trout:
“On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery” (McCarthy, 306)
In a Holocene world experiencing its sixth mass extinction, McCarthy’s final tear reflects a deep reverence, like the father for his godly son, for the great beauty of life evolving over the millennia. Through abundantly subtle criticism, McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic fable expertly crafts a vision of humanity which illuminates the many dangers of contemporary societal values. While offering no clarified solution, McCarthy uses the voice of the father to share a first step in supplanting such fear-inducing blind consumerism. As a surreal flashback, the father recalls:
“waking once on such a night to the clatter of crabs in the pan where he’d left steakbones from the night before. Faint deep coals of the driftwood fire pulsing in the onshore wind. Lying under such a myriad of stars. The sea’s black horizon. He rose and walked out and stood barefoot in the sand and watched the pale surf appear all down the shore and roll and crash and darken again. When he went back to the fire he knelt and smoothed her hair as she slept and he said if he were God he would have made the world just so and no different” (McCarthy, 234)
In McCarthy’s “just so” world the fires are made of driftwood, the crabs harvested by the individual who will eat them, humanity, “barefoot in the sand”, remains embedded in the “myriad of stars” and “black horizon”. McCarthy suggests that by de-mystifying industrial production, bringing natural processes back into the forefront of human sustenance, humanity may be able to avoid the catastrophe of a planet in which ecosystems can no longer regenerate and support the continued passing on of ‘the fire’. Presently, even the best of us are cannibals.