What indeed is humanity? Thoughts on ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy
I read McCarthy’s 2006 book The Road with a feeling of horrified fascination. That is expected from any post apocalyptic story of human survival, in this case a tale of a father and son duo walking towards the coast through a brutally cold and violent America that has been completely burnt down.
To illustrate a bit, the duo need to protect themselves from highway gangs who steal and kill and even eat other humans. The need to keep moving so no one would find them. A few scenes in the book took me right back to Leon Uris’ books about The Holocaust! Frightened humans who had been stripped of dignity and reduced to chattel. Macho men and women surviving by exploiting and dominating the weak. Another constant activity and challenge was the hunt for food from abandoned homes, shops and orchards. Calories to survive, to keep walking. One particular incidence illustrates the apparent conflicts in these two objectives of safety and nutrition: when the duo luck out and find a fully stocked bunker, only to abandon it a few days later so as to continue moving in order to stay safe!
But beyond the nitty gritty of surviving the violence and fighting hunger, this story is about the overarching question: What is humanity? What makes a human being human? How does a good human differ from a bad one? And when all else is lost, what does a human need to be able to survive?
Turns out it’s all about love and being needed. It’s all about keeping the “fire within” alive even when you face death. The father, who understands deeply that his love and sense of duty towards his child is the sole reason for his own survival. The child, who the author imbues with an unusual sensitivity and sense of justice. Who will not leave an old man dying on the road and make his father go back and give away some of their precious resources to a stranger. A bit of a ‘child is the father of man’ situation.
In the end (I won’t go into specifics) the enduring values of humanity appear to be bonding, love, nurturing and respect. The rest abnormal and unpleasant. Unsavory.
How do we reconcile that lesson with the brutal realities of the world around us today? For those of us who believe that the goodness in the world truly endures, McCarthy’s book is lyrical and beautiful but also unsurprising and comfort-giving. For the little cynical being inside me, it’s also a little unreal.
Read it if you can face the truth within you.