Blood Meridian and The Nature of the Universe

Yesterday’s post, in which I excerpted a couple of passages from Samuel Delany channeling Foucault, is followed today by two excerpts from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West (Vintage International, New York, 1992). I’m going to call these ‘theological’ in nature. (The entire novel, I realize, may be termed a kind of theology.)

First, the judge speaks to us about the ways and manners of God’s speaking and how traces may be found, read and heard in the world around us:

[T]he judge took one of the packanimals and emptied out the panniers and went off to explore the works. In the afternoon he sat in the compound breaking ore samples with a hammer, the feldspar rich in red oxide of copper and native nuggets in whose organic lobations he purported to read news of the earth’s origins, holding an extemporary lecture in geology to a small gathering who nodded and spat. A few would quote him scripture to confound his ordering up of eons out of the ancient chaos and other apostate supposings. The judge smiled.

Books lie, he said.

God don’t lie.

No, said the judge. He does not. And these are his words.

He held up a chunk of rock.

He speaks in stones and trees, the bones of things.

As the judge’s investigations–careful and systematic and thoughtful–suggest, this reading and hearing is a form of diligent study; God’s ‘words’ are not written in the most straightforward fashion and may require some decipherment.

Second, a passage–again featuring the judge–that suggests the universe is a little less comprehensible than the first claim might have indicated:

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a muddled field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

These lines suggest a universe our understanding of which is necessarily limited; our best theories of it rest on assumptions about its comprehensibility and uniformity that are unjustified. We are especially hamstrung in our efforts to comprehend the universe because the very tools we use for its study–our mind included–are themselves part of it, and thus always subject to the mysteries and vagaries that self-reference creates.

‘The Road’ and the Centrality of Love for Existence

How can a difficult read be an easy one? It can be easy because the difficulty is compelling and seductive, because ‘difficult’ does not mean ‘obscure’, because difficult can be worthy of admiration.

A few days ago, when I saw John Hillcoat‘s The Roadbased on Cormac McCarthy‘s novel of the same name, I had not yet read it. Today I did so. It was an unputdownable book that pulled me into its grasp and didn’t let go till I was done, its pages all turned and marked ‘read.’ It was an easy read for the reasons mentioned above; McCarthy is a virtuosic writer, a master of the  spare and savage prose he deploys to bring alive a chilling, gray, slowly sickening and dying world; you read because are compelled to. And The Road is a difficult book because of its central subject: the possibility and desirability of hope in a world without one.

Why live if there is nothing to live for? This is not an easy question to answer. Is continued existence a worthy enough objective to warrant endless self-privation and misery, the killing of others, and acts of deliberate cruelty? In ‘normal life’ we may excuse seeming exceptions to the moral order we dimly glimpse because we are convinced by some calculus of consequences that a ‘better world’ will be realized because of our actions. But what if the only outcomes to our actions are ignoble and base, narrowly conceived and realized?  In a world where existence never rises above the level of mere non-death, and is destined to never get better, why persist? The inhabitants of a world like the one through which the Man and the Boy journey resemble nothing quite as much as terminally ill patients. The contours of the ethical debate surrounding their demise will be similar to those engaged in by those who, like the Man and the Boy, persist and persevere in order to stay alive.  For their death is foretold; discomfort and despair is their only lot.

The Man’s wife sensed that there would be no survival if stronger reasons than wanting to preserve one’s own life are not found:

The one thing I can tell you is that you won’t survive for yourself. I know because I would never have come this far. A person who had no one would be well advised to cobble together some passable ghost. Breathe it into being and coax it along with some words of love. Offer it each phantom crumb and shield it from harm with your body.

And for The Man, the existence of the boy will be all the reason he needs to go living before, eventually, his body and mind give way and he lays himself down to sleep. In the end, all the cruelty and privation of the world he left behind cannot disguise the fact that though ‘love’ is not a word that is uttered too often in it, it was always present when the Man and the Boy were together.

The Post-Apocalyptic Zone of Moral Instruction

During a Facebook discussion in response to my post yesterday on The Road, my friend Maureen Eckert wrote:

I am never sure what to make of “post-apocalyptic porn.” On the one hand they seem to be thought experiments about the “State of Nature.” On the other, they seem to tend to express exaggerated exasperation with “civilization,” as if reinforcing the feeling that “nothing can be done.”

Maureen is right that a standard moral associated with post-apocalyptic cinema or literature–one proclaimed with varying degrees of explicitness–is, ‘This is what humans would be like if the pre-political, pre-social “state of nature” were to be restored, if laws, the restraints of conventional morality, and all forms of social and political organization were removed.’ This is the fiction of the ‘real’ or ‘true’ ‘human nature’ alluded to in yesterday’s post; it is will be revealed once the civilizing layers of our civilization are removed and we revert back to the original ‘state of nature’. The apocalypse thus acts as a pretense shredder, showing our supposed social, cultural and moral sophistication to be shallow and superficial, a fair-weather orientation that is only maintained by the force and rule of the law and the comfort of the good times. So long as no desperation is called for none will be shown. But the seven deadly sins will be on ample display once those conditions no longer hold true. (This lesson may be imparted with varying degrees of sanctimony depending on the artist.)

There is an alternative moral to be drawn of course: that the human nature revealed to us in these depictions of an apocalypse’s aftermath is not the ‘true’, ‘real’ or ‘natural’ one at all. Instead what is shown in post-apocalyptic art are traumatized human beings whose responses–to their environment, to each other–are pathological precisely because of the nature of the changes undergone. The death, disease and pestilence of the apocalypse, for one. Post-apocalyptic visions are thus indeed revelatory, not because they show us how we were ‘before’ we ‘became civilized’ but because they show what our response would be to the dramatic, traumatic loss of our political and social orders.

Maureen’s second point illustrates the ways in which post-apocalyptic depictions may be read as making the claim that civilization’s  promises were always illusory; the changes and improvements it supposedly brought about were transient, contingent and ultimately fragile; the apocalypse destroys our civilization’s claims to have improved us; we remain just as uncivilized as we ever were. Because its hold on us is shown to be so tenuous, we feel serious doubt awaken within us about whether it’s a civilization worth saving in the first place. If its moral lessons weren’t permanent, if the order it created was only a temporary imposition. then what good is it anyway? How much commitment can it demand if its legacy is only a thin veneer of restrained behavior, a temporary cessation of an otherwise incessant hostility?

The post-apocalyptic genre is both forgiving and condemnatory in its views of humans and the world they make for themselves.

John Hillcoat’s ‘The Road’: Bleak and Unsparing

John Hillcoat’s The Road is a faithful cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy‘s bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic world. It is almost unrelentingly grim because it is unsparing about the bitter truths of a world in which food and morality are both in short supply: existence is a mere step up from the eventual slow death that awaits most; its contours are brutal and painful at the best of times.

Cinematic and literary post-apocalyptic visions have been the rage for a while; indeed, one might even see them as a testing and training ground of sorts for a very particular breed of auteur. Perhaps one’s imaginative vision and conception of the world we live in can best be captured by trying to imagine its end, its destruction, its breakdown in the face of disaster. Our normal weekday world and its human relationships are covered and disguised by layers of artifice; perhaps its ‘true nature’ will be discovered only when all excuses for pretense are absent; that stage is most likely in a post-apocalypse world. (There are interesting fictions at play here about ‘real’ or ‘true’ ‘human nature’ of course, but they’ll do for the time being.)

The Road captures several aspects of the post-apocalyptic world far better than that contemporary icon of popular culture, The Walking Dead. It is more skeptical about the chances of obtaining food and more cognizant of the possibilities of malnutrition and starvation; the danger from other survivors is greater (the Governor looks like a pretty friendly gentleman compared to the cannibalistic marauding predators in The Road); the question of why continued existence is meaningful is more present (and as the suicides show, it is often answered in the negative). To be entirely fair to The Walking Dead, it is set much earlier in the aftermath of the ‘end of the world as we know it’; its treatment might have been darker too, were it as late in the post-apocalypse period as The Road is.

The Road is grimmer than The Walking Dead in its palette too, which is gray, somber, and cold, one only intermittently illuminated by a sun that struggles fitfully to break through the all-enveloping haze; trees are broken, burnt and devastated as are cars, homes, bodies and minds. Its world is deathly quiet; the interruptions to this silence are almost always unwelcome because they speak not of company and solace, but of greater danger. There is detritus strewn around; the humans are just as twisted and disfigured as their surroundings. Once the world is done doing its worst to people, the humans will continue to do its dirty work.

It would seem bizarre to suggest that a movie like The Road could have a ‘happy ending’ in the conventional sense of the word. Yet so cruel has the movie’s vision been till its closing stages that its final resolution is perhaps its most hopeful moment, one that offers some relief, a minor respite, after we have been allowed to imagine a loneliness that might be more painful than any death. Small mercies indeed.