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Ash and Breath: Christ on 'The Road'
In Review | Books & Film The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Knopf, 256 pages, $24; Vintage, 304 pages, $7.99.
The Road, directed by John Hillcoat. 111 minutes.
"With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless."
The story of The Road is as skeletal as the landscape through which it moves: a father and a son, alone in a cold world burnt dry by a nameless calamity, trudge south along a road in the vain hope that the gulf waters will be warmer, that they will find food with which to delay death one more day; along this road they dodge other survivors who, in a world stripped of all flora and fauna, are hungry enough after 10 years of desperation to eat one another; the father is slowly dying—but faster than the son and everyone else—and fears for the boy who will be, eventually, alone on this road.
That is the story of The Road. But beyond this skeletal story, The Road offers endless descriptions of the wasted landscape and meditations on this father and son's place in a dying world.
Through this story, this landscape, and these meditations, the absence of God is stitched like a colorless thread. The father, especially, becomes a sort of post-Christian theologian of the end. He says to himself of the boy, "If he is not the word of God God never spoke." The apodosis of this conditional haunts him during long nights when his paroxysmal coughing keeps him awake: is there a God and has he ever spoken?
Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God.
The absent God does not speak back to the father in his rage and despair, this father who struggles to stand firm in his faith that an absent God has spoken his boy into existence, that he is the word of God.
In Greek, that language in which a Son of God is confessed as word in the Gospel of John, logos means both order and speech. In John, the logos of God is he who creates and orders that creation into a world or cosmos into which he then shines: "all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made" (1:3). But this cannot be the way in which the boy in The Road is the word or logos of God—can it?—for the cosmos is now forever broken. The "banished sun" cannot reach our world: it "circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp." The plants and trees have all died, as have all those who feed on them, and those who feed on them in turn. What remains to eat is whatever was preserved before the catastrophe: canned foods, mostly, and, for some, their staggering, starving neighbors, who are becoming fewer and fewer. All of it is headed to a gray entropic extinction, first things and then words:
The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things lowly following those things into oblivion. Colors. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever.
The nameless calamity that befalls the earth is an apocalypse or revelation: "the frailty of everything revealed at last." But amid the oblivion of things and words, referents and names, somehow another sense of logos survives—speech, at least the speech of God, the boy himself.
Early in the story we are alerted that the boy is—at least for his father—none other than Christ. They have just nearly escaped from a band of road marauders and the father has been forced to use one of his only two remaining bullets to save the boy from the arms of an assailant. Far from the road, the father washes the bloody filth of the assailant's brains from the boy's hair: "All of this like some ancient anointing. So be it. Evoke the forms. Where you've nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them." The father plays Samuel to his boy's David, and thereby anoints him christos just as he earlier acclaimed him logos.
Every Christ must have a prophet, an Elijah who will herald his return. So too does the boy, even in this broken world. Late in the day the father and son overtake a lone traveler, whom they have been tailing in order to ensure that he is not a decoy for another marauding band. He is "small and bent" and "even by their new world standards he smelled terrible." The boy knows that the old man is scared and persuades his father to give him something to eat and then to let him spend the night with them on the side of the road. He tells them that his name is "Ely"—playing Elijah to the boy's Christ—and in front of the fire he is "sitting like a starved and threadbare buddha, staring into the coals." The father asks him how long he has been on the road, to which Ely replies, "I was always on the road. You can't stay in one place." "How do you live?" the father asks. Ely: "I just keep going. I knew this was coming. . . . This or something like it. I always believed in it." But as is only fitting for a prophet of the inevitable end of ends, Ely didn't tell anyone about it or presume to prepare for it. In fact the knowledge of what was coming broke him of the vain presumption to ready himself: "People were always getting ready for tomorrow. I didnt believe in that. Tomorrow wasnt getting ready for them. It didnt even know they were there."
Taking a page from him whom he is heralding, here Ely echoes the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus asks his audience to "look at the birds of the air" and to "consider the lilies of the field" and to learn from them: "do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself" (Matthew 6:26, 28, 34). But what does it mean for Ely to echo Jesus' teaching on anxiety when the birds of the air and the lilies of the field are in fact no more? Is it only at the end of the world that one can heed Jesus' call to freedom? Jesus says that "if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith?"(Matthew 6:30). But everything has already been thrown into the fire, and will remain ash tomorrow and all the days thereafter. What room is there for freedom and faith under such a burn? Ely's freedom has come at the cost of his faith: "There is no God," he insists, "There is no God and we are his prophets."
Later Ely confesses that when he first saw the boy he thought he had died, because he didn't think he'd ever see a child again: "I didn't know that would happen." The father asks, "What if I said that he's a god?" Notice here that the acclamation of the boy's divinity is tempered not by a terrifying conditional, as earlier, but by a hypothetical interrogative.
Ely is not impressed: "I'm past all that now. Have been for years. Where men cant live gods fare no better. You'll see. It's better to be alone. So I hope that's not true what you said because to be on the road with the last god would be a terrible thing so I hope it's not true." Ely's no more impressed when the boy insists that they give him some of their food before they part ways. He admits that he wouldn't have done the same for the boy, and asks the father why he did it. This exchange follows:
. . . You wouldnt understand, he said.
I'm not sure I do.
Maybe he believes in God.
I dont know what he believes in.
He'll get over it.
No he wont.
Curiously, Ely comes not only to herald, but to challenge the anointed boy. He doubts that one can have both freedom and faith. He clutches at freedom and prophesizes a no-God on the conviction that it is better to be alone. The father, for his part, has faith—at least in his boy as logos and christos—but not freedom: he cannot let go of tomorrow even to give food to a starving old man. He is, in a word, anxious about tomorrow. But the father sees that his boy might have both freedom and faith, and so might be a god.
The 2009 film adaptation of The Road features Robert Duvall as Ely and mishandles this encounter. Gone is the dark prophet, replaced by an avuncular hobo. Here, the boy reminds Ely of his own dead son, whose memory causes him to choke up. "Good little boy," he mutters to himself, to the boy in front of him, and to his lost son all at once. Touching, perhaps, this weepy old man, but domesticated sentimentality compared to the Ely of the book.
The meeting with Ely is one of only a few real dialogues in the story; another is a memory of the boy's mother, the father's wife. Earlier we learn that the calamity struck when she was pregnant with the boy. She gave birth to him in a world she knew was dying, and they in it. By the time the story starts, she is long gone, a memory that haunts the boy, but even more so the father. He recalls their last conversation, somewhere on the road when the hopelessness of their state has settled in, a conversation in which she has already resolved to end her life by her own hand. She offers a pure, unadorned view of their bleak state: "They are going to rape us and kill us and eat us and you wont face it. You'd rather wait for it to happen. But I cant." Her resolve is strengthened by the fact that she has "taken a new lover": death. She's tired of the charade, of pretending that they might somehow survive: ". . . I am done with my own whorish heart and I have been for a long time. . . . My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so dont ask for sorrow now. There is none." The father cannot answer the perfect purity of her position, and so she walks away from their campsite to die alone in the woods, without even saying goodbye to the boy. In the morning, as the father and son also depart, the boy asks, "She's gone isn't she?" "Yes, she is."
In the film, Charlize Theron plays opposite Viggo Mortensen in this exchange, and their performances are quite good. But the film breaks the exchange into two, and adds lines that ultimately strip the mother of the truth of her position. In the first exchange, they argue in hushed voices about self-destruction while the boy plays in the next room (they are at home). She fails to convince the father of the necessity of death, and consoles herself by embracing the boy and then bathing him. But in the book she is already somewhere else, well beyond love of her husband and child, ready to embrace death, and these gestures in the film rob her of the clarity and the fidelity of her new life as a lover of death.
Later in the film the father remembers the rest of the exchange. Now the boy is asleep and the mother is stripping off her warm clothing, preparing to walk out into the cold night and die. Her husband struggles in vain, with tears, to change her mind, to wait until the morning, to spend one more night with him. When it is clear that her eyes are on her new lover, he asks only, "What am I going to tell him?" Here is where the film buckles under the pressure of pathos and has her say: "Go south. You keep him warm and go south. You won't survive another winter here." This is a failure of nerve: it is, after all, she who tells the father that there is no such thing as survival anymore. And so for her to suggest a course of action that might help them survive suggests that she has not given up on life. Furthermore, in the film, her injunction to go south credits her with their later taking to the road. In the book, the entire family is already on the road, three soon to be two. She leaves them, then, not to the road, but on the road.
"On the road" is no accidental phrase for this father and son, for this father who believes that his son is both logos and christos, the anointed word of God. In John 14, Jesus promises the apostles that he is going away to prepare a place for them. The apostle Thomas asks, "Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?" (14:5). To which Jesus famously responds, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me" (14:6). The word translated "way" is hodos, or "road." And throughout the canonical gospels, it is said that Jesus meets people "along the way," en tô hodô, "on the road." So it is with the disciples who fall in with Jesus after the resurrection on the road to Emmaus, or Paul who suffers a blinding vision of the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. So too Jesus' gospel injunction—"follow me"—imagines an itinerant ministry quite literally on the road. Not surprisingly, the Acts of the Apostles designates this new movement of followers of Jesus in Jerusalem as simply ho hodos, "the Way." Only later, and in Antioch, do these followers come to be called "Christians."
The New Testament serves as an unexpected but crucial backdrop, then, to The Road. Without this backdrop in place, we fail to see that the book in fact advances a Christology of sorts, that is, an account of who Christ is. It is not a Christ familiar to us from the councils of the early church. Councils are a product of Christendom, and the Christ of The Road has no truck with Christendom or any other vanity of civilization. The very language of The Road is a rebuke to such vanity: the prose is peppered with short, punchy Anglo-Saxon words, as if to suggest that our long Latinate words are a vain holdover from the shadow of a crumbled civilization. The father watches a "rain of drifting soot" sifting through the air; he catches a "single gray flake" only to watch it "expire" "like the last host of Christendom."
Not that Christ, on this road, is without a Eucharist. The body and blood that is shared on the road is not a consecrated host, but simply whatever food there is. A can of peaches or a desiccated apple serves for communion just as well as a wafer. The Eucharist consists precisely in the sharing of food, recalling the agapê meals of early Christians before a time when the liturgy of the Eucharist was established. This also explains the son's impatience with his father when he refuses to share more of their food with Ely. For the boy, food is to be found and then shared with those who also find themselves on the road.
But of course the father and the boy are not alone on the road. Drawing on the Jewish and thereafter Christian tradition of the "two ways," the book trains the reader always to be on guard, as the father is, against those who also walk this road, lying in wait. The early Christian manual, The Didachê, says that "there are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between them." The father and son scarcely escape some of these sons of darkness as they trudge south. There are said to be bloodcults, groups who eat whomever they find on the road. Unseen, the father witnesses such a procession: cult members dressed in blood red scarves carrying crude weapons; followed by slaves pulling wagons "piled with the goods of war"; then the women, some of whom are pregnant; and finally a ragged band of "catamites," or young boy sex-slaves, yoked together at the neck. This horizontal hierarchy on the move, a cult centered on the eating of flesh and blood, serves as an obvious foil to the fellowship that the father and son embody on the same road.
The ambivalence of the road—its "two ways"—also threads its way through the story. The father holds out little hope: "On this road there are no godspoke men," he remarks to himself early in the book. Later he says to the boy, "I dont think we're likely to meet any good guys on the road." But the boy's hope is not so easily crushed: "We're on the road," he replies, suggesting that there might be others like them, that they might not be as alone as the father fears. Ely suggests much the same: "There's other people on the road. You're not the only ones." Of course the father hears this as a warning, even a threat, of nearby marauders, but the boy hears it as a promise. He knows that his father's bloody coughs mean that he will soon be without him on the road, and Ely unwittingly gives him hope that he might find a new family. At one point, the boy sees another young boy across an abandoned street, hiding in the shell of a building. He's never seen another boy before, and begins to run to him, but the other boy disappears into the building and his father pulls him back, scared, as he was with Ely, that this might be bait for a trap.
As the father's illness chokes the life from him, he becomes more desperate to protect the boy and ruthless with those whom they meet on the road. When they reach the gulf waters, what the father had long suspected is confirmed: this south does not hold the key to their survival. A thief plunders their beachside camp and the father tracks him down. He recovers what was stolen, but as punishment forces the thief at gunpoint to strip naked—essentially a death sentence in this cold world. The boy cries: he does not want to live if it means losing his freedom and faith, the fellowship of agapê and radical hospitality, the chance to meet someone else on the road, to be the Christ that others meet en tô hodô, on the road.
But as death constricts his lungs and throat, the father witnesses moments of expansive ecstasy:
Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He'd stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing in that waste like a tabernacle.
For the father, whatever dim light remains in a world shorn of its sun collects around the anointed boy. He has become "the light of the world." The father staggers off the road and knows that he can go no further. He collapses and struggles with his last breaths to console and exhort the boy whom he is leaving.
. . . If I'm not here you can still talk to me. You can talk to me and I'll talk to you. You'll see.
Will I hear you?
Yes. You will. You have to make it like talk that you imagine. And you'll hear me. You have to practice. Just dont give up. Okay?
When the father finally gives up his last breath the boy promises to abide by his father's last wish:
I'll talk to you every day, he whispered. And I wont forget. No matter what. Then he rose and turned and walked back out to the road.
He is met there by a man, rugged and scarred, who tells him that he and his family have been following them for some time on the road, and invites him to join them. He has a wife, a daughter, and a boy about his age—the same boy, we may infer, whom he saw across the street. The woman embraces the boy—the first time he has been touched by a woman since his mother walked out into the cold night to die. We are told:
. . . She would talk to him sometimes about God. He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didnt forget. The woman said that was all right. She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.
Here, then, is the Christology of The Road. Yes, the boy is the anointed word. But he is the Christ because on his mouth is the breath of God, a word shared between a father and a son, a fellowship that cannot be ruined by the ruin of the world nor severed by death. The word of God is not a person—not this boy, not some other—but something that passes between two persons. This is, according to The Road, the only incarnation, the only word made flesh.
Were The Road to end here, we would have a Christology in which the logos of God was speech and breath but no longer and never again order: "the ashes of the late world carried on the bleak and temporal winds to and fro in the void." But The Road at its end pans back with a final, startling meditation:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. 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.
With these lines The Road holds the order of the world over the void but does not let it fall, keeping it in a tense poise between loss and renewal, maze and map. If the logos of the world cannot be put back nor made right again, then "the world in its becoming" will never again know an order that it finds sketched on the backs of its brook trout. But if from these deep glens came "things older than man," will such things and their patterned backs come again, long after the boy and the breath of God he shares with others on the road have expired? Will the maze again be a map? So the Christology of The Road ends with a question, as all Christology should, a question humming with mystery.
Charles M. Stang is Assistant Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School.