The Breath of God
I have been reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road with high school seniors off and on since 2009. The first time I did it we focused on the darkness, the loss, the idea of how little seems to matter. As time went by I began to teach it as a love story, which I think it is mostly. The love between the father and son is extremely powerful. The father sees the future of humanity in the boy, and the good news about that is that the boy is goodness personified. The boy is better than his father. The boy gives selflessly throughout the book. The father sometimes feels the boy is not aware of the stakes - that giving food to someone in need is really taking food out of their own mouths.
The truth of it is the boy is even more aware of the ramifications than his father, in that if the new world is going to be any different the next time around, selflessness and understanding have to be foundations of a new society. This is reflected most clearly late in the book when a drifter steals the father and son's cart with all of their supplies. The father and son track him down. The father forces the man to strip and give up his clothes, leaving him to die in the cold. The boy pleads with his father the whole time that the man is scared. The father leaves the man cold and naked, but the boy doesn't give up. The father hisses that the son doesn't have to worry about everything, but the boy counters and says, "Yes I do. I am the one."
I am sad today thinking about the inauguration. Since I work with kids I tend to keep politics to myself much of the time. I couldn't help but think of The Road this morning. Obviously I think of it a lot since I read it at least four times a year. The morning after the election I wrote the following dream I had in what restless sleep I got on election night. It reads like Cormac McCarthy.
The dream was of my childhood home and the pond in front of the barn was full of dead and dying fish, many koi and other carp, the whole area fetid and full of rot. The barn a stark white in the coming darkness. All the cows were escaping and there was no working fence and I couldn't repair it, and I couldn't stop them. All that remained was the rot and the bull with the horns and when he came for me I couldn't escape him.
I am not afraid, although I am worried. I am worried that some of the worst fears that many have will happen, but I know that our collective conscience forgets, and that our collective conscience is prone to panic and dismay, especially with so much noise out there. However, I think I have a lot to worry about that the president of the United States is a very public liar and extremely thin-skinned egotist, whose actions and words remind me of some of the worst dictators in the 20th century. If that sounds too extreme, his language and actions mirror that of characters in that century's political literature. Check out Napoleon in Animal Farm.
The last two pages of The Road provide the window into what the entire novel is about. I have read it at least 30 times out loud with students and each time it chokes me up. This semester I could barely get through the last ten pages in one of the classes. The language and knowing what is happening just gets to me. The first theme is the connectivity of humanity. The last we see the boy in the book he is taking to heart what his father said just before he dies that the boy can talk to him and the father will hear him.
"He tried to talk to God but the best thing was to talk to his father and he did talk to him and he didn't 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."
The other theme is the fragility of existence itself. The world has been destroyed completely and all that is left are people, ash, and scarce food supplies. The novel doesn't leave us with answers for what will happen, but the last paragraph is beautiful while providing a warning of sorts.
"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 patters that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."
Hopefully the subtext is strong enough that you can understand my thoughts on the fragility of things, including life and democracy so that I don't have to blather more.
One of the last conversations that the boy has with his father is about another little boy the boy saw in an abandoned town earlier in the book. The boy asks what will happen to the little boy. The father says, "Goodness will find the little boy. It always has." It's a surprisingly optimistic way to end such a dark story, but there are hints littered throughout that the boy is special and that he is "carrying the fire," a reference to Prometheus giving humanity fire and beginning civilization as we know it.
I'm trying to feel optimistic, looking for the good. And maybe goodness will find us, but I won't hold my breath.