Death and Love on The Road

At some point I knew my book The Slavery of Death would have to confront The Road, Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

I probably should have read The Road before writing The Slavery of Death. I knew, from what I learned about the book, that The Road would test the premise of The Slavery of Death. Maybe because I was fretful about this, I didn't read The Road beforehand. I didn't want The Road to overturn my theological apple cart.

So I wrote the The Slavery of Death knowing that there was a potential flaw, an issue at the heart of the book that The Road could possibly expose as a problem.

I wrote my book anyway and chose to read The Road afterwards as a sort of test. I'd make my argument and then let it face the toughest rebuttal it might find.

The Road.

Why, you might ask, is The Road the toughest challenge to The Slavery of Death?

If you've not read The Road or seen the 2009 movie based upon the book, what follows is a quick summary highlighting the aspects of the plot that are relevant to the argument in The Slavery of Death. Spoiler alerts ahead.

The Road follows "the man" and "the boy"--a father and son--who are traveling down a road in a post-apocalyptic American wasteland. We're not sure what has happened, but everything is covered with ash and food no longer grows. Most of the book follows the man and the boy searching for canned goods as they pass through empty towns pushing a shopping cart carrying all their belongings. A couple of times in the book, because they cannot find food, they come to the edge of starvation.

Beyond starvation, the other danger the man and the boy face are roving bands of cannibals. Because of the food shortages it appears that humanity has taken one of two moral paths. The man and the boy call themselves "the good guys" because they have chosen not to resort to cannibalism in the face of starvation. However, some others--whom the man and the boy call "the bad guys"--have resorted to finding and keeping people for food sources. They even, it seems, use pregnant women as food sources to eat their babies.

Consequently, much of the suspense in The Road is the man and the boy trying to stay clear of or having encounters with the bad guys, the people who have turned to violence in enslaving others to use them as food. The man carries a revolver with a single bullet. He is saving it to kill the boy should he ever be taken by the bad guys. And he also shows the boy how to shoot himself so that, should the man ever die, the boy can kill himself if he is ever about to be captured. In The Road it is better to shoot your child rather than have them eaten. Or to have your child preemptively commit suicide.

Depressed yet? Clearly, The Road isn't a happy book.

With this much of the plot in hand, let's pause to discuss why I consider The Road to be a sort of litmus test for The Slavery of Death.

In The Slavery of Death I make the following argument. We are biological creatures prone to anxiety in the face of death. As animals we have to be concerned about our survival. This makes us selfish and self-interested. As I argue it in the book, this biological need and vulnerability exerts upon us a constant moral tug causing us to put our needs above the needs of others. It's this inclination that sits at the heart of our "sin problem." It's this tendency--rooted in basic survival anxiety--that causes us to be incurvatus in se (curved/turned inward upon the self).

In short, we are not intrinsically wicked. We are anxious. And that anxiety--the biological imperative to survive--is what causes us to become sinful in how we come to reduce human life to an animalistic, Darwinian game of survival.

Now, the argument of The Slavery of Death is that this basic survival anxiety can be overcome by love. Love can, in the words of 1 John, "cast out fear." Love can replace our selfish survival concerns with concern for others. We can, in love, "lay down our lives for others." Love transforms fearful animals into human beings. Instead of fear causing us to be incurvatus in se we can become excurvatus ex se, curved outward in love toward others.

But there is a problem with this formulation and I wonder if you noticed it when you read The Slavery of Death. Specifically, love is being built upon a very shaky moral foundation: the survival needs of a biological animal.

Specifically, all this conversation about love is all well and good when we have enough food, clothing and shelter. After we have met our basic needs we can share our surpluses with others. But what happens in the limit case? What happens in the face of a Malthusian catastrophe when there is not enough food to go around? Will not all this high talk about love collapse in the face of massive biological need?

Stated starkly, is not love a sort of moral luxury? Something we can spare until life become truly desperate?

I hope you can see in these question how The Road is a sort of test case for the argument in The Slavery of Death. For while The Slavery of Death is largely about our neurotic anxiety in the face of death (our worries about self-esteem and significance), The Road sweeps past neurosis to focus with laser-like intensity upon the relationship between love and basic anxiety, a fear not about being "significant" but about literal survival. It seems relatively easy to show how love can overcome neurotic anxiety, how I can forgo self-esteem enhancement to wash feet and serve in unnoticed locations, not letting my right hand know what my left hand is doing. But is it possible for love to overcome basic, survival anxiety in the face of something like mass starvation?

That is the moral question at the heart of The Road. And, thus, The Road is a test case for The Slavery of Death.

Can love emerge in the world envisioned by The Road?

Because if love cannot be found in The Road then biological need and vulnerability would be revealed to be the moral singularity of human existence. Love and humanity would be the moral luxuries of "civilization," useless surplus goods like a diamond ring. At root, we'd be revealed to be animals. Nothing more.

And so, with that as backdrop, let's return to The Road looking for love in a world of starvation and cannibalism. Looking for love in the limit case.

In this search I think we can find love in The Road in four places.

First, and most obviously, we find love in how the man loves the boy. If The Road is anything it is a prolonged meditation on the love the man has for the boy. This love also undergirds the spiritual themes of the book. In a widely quoted passage from early in the book:
He knew that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.
So the love the man has for the boy is the primary story of love in the book. And throughout the book this love is described as the inbreaking of the divine. The boy is the "word of God" speaking to the man. And late in the book the boy is described as the tabernacle, the container of God's presence:
He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood. Slumping along. 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. 
If I were being bold I'd argue that The Road is a prolonged meditation on the notion that "God is love." There is discussion of God in The Road. Prayers are offered to a grey, ashen sky. But God is absent and silent. God is, rather, found in the love the man and the boy have for each other. God is found in that love. God is that love.

A second place you find love expressed in The Road is the distinction made frequently in the book between the bad guys and the good guys, those who have turned to cannibalism and those who have not. And to be clear, the cannibalism isn't the eating of those who have died of natural causes but the enslaving or killing of others in order to use them as food.

This is a very bleak scenario, and The Road posits this vision as the inevitable moral outcome in a world of mass scarcity. In The Road the Darwinian survival of the fittest reaches this, its logical conclusion.

Morality here boils down to its final, ultimate question. The moral question behind all moral questions. The question you reach in the end if you push hard and far enough on a biological creature: In the limit case, would you kill and consume others?

Like in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy The Road posits two paths, one path is the path of virtue and holiness, the path of "the good guys." The other path is the path of depravity and wickedness, the path of the "the bad guys." Like Moses did with Israel, The Road presents a stark choice: Choose which way you shall go. Will you shed blood to live or will you refuse to kill even though you may starve? According to The Road this is the question that sits behind all ethics. This is ethics in the most extreme situation imaginable, the limit case.

And as we see in The Road there are "good guys." True, while many have been reduced to bestiality under the Darwinian pressures, there are those in The Road--the "good guys"--who refuse to kill others. The "good guys" retain their humanity. The good guys are not animals, they are human beings who see others as human beings. I count that as a form of love.

Let us now return to the love the man has for the boy.

At this point, a cynical, Darwinian reader might be saying, "I understand how the father loves the son. But this is familial, even mammalian, love. The love of a parent for his or her genetic offspring. Emotionally, yes, this is love. But is it true altruism? For is it not the case that all biological creatures selfishly benefit by ensuring the survival of their genetic offspring?"

This question brings us to a third location of love in The Road: the love of the boy for others.

True, in The Road the love of the man is almost fanatical in its focus on the boy. For the man, only the boy matters. All others will be sacrificed, must be sacrificed, in order to protect and ensure the survival of the boy. This mainly manifests in the book as the man's refusal to share food with anyone else other than the boy.

But throughout the book the boy--the "word of God"--begs and begs the father to share. And the boy is often successful in this. The father is constantly pulled out of his moral tunnel vision that only the boys matters. Where the father is blind the boy sees the needs of others. And so the boy and the man, in the face of scarcity and starvation, do share with others. This is altruism.

Finally, we come to our fourth example of love in The Road, the example that comes at the very end of the book. Remember, spoiler alerts.

Again, The Road is a prolonged meditation on the heroic sacrifices the man makes for the boy. If The Road is anything it is a portrayal of the endurance and fierceness of a father's love.

But is this the limit of morality, the best that love can do? In the limit case, is this--parental love--the zenith or morality? Or is there something that transcends this love?

The Darwinian critique noted above returns: Is the love of a biological parent for their child truly the highest form of love we can aspire to?

Is familial love the limit of love?

The Road answers no. There is more love in the world than a parent's love.

At the end of The Road the man dies. The boy is left alone and must now fend for himself in a world of bad guys.

The boy is soon approached by a man. Is this man a good guy or a bad guy? We find out that he's a good guy. He is also father, he has a wife and two boys. They are a family, something the boy has been longing for. And concerned about the fate of the boy now that the man has died this family welcomes the boy.

And the woman who adopts the boys speaks of God. The final scene in the book with the boy:
The woman when she saw him put her arms around him and held him. Oh, she said, I am so glad to see you. 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 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.
Again, the divine love on display in The Road is very much the immanent love between persons. The boy can't talk to God, but he can talk to his father, the one who loved him so passionately. And the woman who speaks of God compares the Spirit of God to the breath of humans--"the breath of God was his breath"--passed "from man to man through all of time." Again, I could argue that the theological theme of The Road is the notion that "God is love."

For our purposes, I'd like to draw our attention to how the adoptive love of the family for the boy transcends the biological matrix. The love of the man for the boy in the book is heroic and divine. But it's not the final or even highest act of love in the book. The final and highest act of love in The Road is when the family welcomes the boy--who is not one of their own--into their family. The family, in love, is willing to carry this extra survival burden. This is a love--a love associated with God--that transcends the Darwinian, biological struggle.

To conclude, let me say that this analysis of love in The Road does not exhaust the spiritual themes in the book. And many of these other spiritual themes are not as rosy and the themes I've pointed out here.

But I do think it clear that love is found in The Road and that love functions in the face of death very much as I describe in The Slavery of Death. I was gratified to find, in my estimation, that the vision I articulated in The Slavery of Death holds up under the test of The Road. In The Road when life is pushed to its absolute limit and placed under the severest Darwinian pressure love can be seen triumphing over death. Love can be seen making us human in the face of death. In the love of the man for the boy. In the refusal of the "good guys" to kill others in order to survive. In the love of the boy getting his father to share with others. And in the final adoption of the boy into a family speaking of God.

The Road depicts the Fall at its absolute, apocalyptic worst. William Stringfellow says that the goal of the Christian life is to walk humanly in the Fall. And in The Road, despite all odds, we see this happen. We see in The Road love conquering death. Love making us human. In the end, we don't have to become animals. We have a choice in the face of death.

We can be human.

We can love.

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19 thoughts on “Death and Love on The Road

  1. "In the end, we don't have to become animals. We have a choice in the face of death./We can be human./We can love."

    I like how this depicts a rising above survival mechanism machinations. Metaphorically, a resurrection yes? This leads to so many interesting possibilities, but here's the one that stands out: if a softening of the human heart to reveal love as the core human motive is the goal of faith (I think a very strong case can be made for that), can rejecting descent into survival mechanism machinations be functionally equivalent to intellectual ascent to the defeat of death through faith in the resurrection? Psychologically? Biblically? Morally and ethically? Even epistemologically?

  2. "The Road" made me face myself, which I can do a bit better than I used to. And that is not a boast, because I still sometimes shiver when I have to look into one of life's mirrors. It is just that for so long I was one of those who would proudly announce, "I would never.....!"

    What I sensed in the story was a tension between the extremes in which both said, "We have to survive". But one used this truth to devour, while the other used it to protect, something I see on the political and social landscape today.

    The fear of "disappearing" during a time of change and anxiety can create a rational that can easily limit the worth and the usefulness of others who seem to be nudging us out of the way, especially if we have always viewed self and those like self as the legitimate builders of society. It is then that devouring the person-hood and power of "the others" seems like the correct choice. Whereas, on the other hand, if we pay attention, we can witness a love from individuals who are able observe the rise of those who have never known a "societal resurrection", yet, never feel threatened or denied themselves, while taking on themselves the protection of humanities children.

    An example of what I am speaking of is the view of many futurist who predict that in time, in a relatively short time, the majority of Americans, due to marriage among the numerous races within the country, will be people of color. Over the years I have at times brought this up in group conversations, The different reactions were quite telling. Some had the look on their faces, "We can't let this happen". Others, the panicked look of disappearing on the spot. Then there were those who calmly replied, "That's interesting; really interesting". These were those I sensed who could, as Abraham J. Heschel described, have humanity and God in the same thought at the same time. There is something about being able to do that that elevates the meaning of "survival".

  3. Could "love" making us human be considered a type of "the Great Filter"?

  4. It regularly disturbs me to think that, to survive, even among the comforts of our present time, I have to take life. Vegetarianism and Veganism fascinate me and present a bit of moral dilemma for me (I am neither Vegetarian or Vegan), but even Vegans must kill to eat. They have to absorb the life-energy of another organism to stay alive themselves. It really highlights the fact that we're stuck in these physical bodies and trapped in a cycle of evolution and violent struggle for survival. A book like The Road just acknowledges that truth and magnifies it.

    And yet, have we evolved past that point? I sometimes feel like our safe, privileged lives disallow us from understanding the full significance of the cross we claim to bear. As quality of life is gradually and constantly improved around the world via science, technology, psychology, and humanism, do you think we'll see Christ more or less clearly?

    Thanks for your insights into this story through the lens of The Slavery of Death. Fascinating as always.

  5. In reading this about "The Road" I'm reminded of Corrie Ten Boom. She and her sister were in a concentration camp during WWII for housing and protecting Jews. She speaks in her books about the "good guys" and the "bad guys". How the lack of food and atrocities in the camp made animals of people. But, even in the midst of the worst of mankind, love and light was still greater. Love does make a difference.

  6. I read The Road the year it came out--2006, I believe. In terms of artistry, I didn't find it on par with his best work-Blood Meridian, in my estimation--but it resonated with me emotionally in a way his other novels hadn't. Your thoughts here have illuminated that emotional and spiritual depth in a way I couldn't fully articulate.

    I learned later that McCarthy's then young son was the impetus for the novel. I'd like to revisit the book now that I have children of my own.

  7. I have yet to read Slavery of Death, however, I read, then re-read The Road. Later watching the movie helped me to visualize the terrible beauty of this story. The first time I read The Road, my youngest son was (in my estimation) the same age as the boy. I was pulled into the depth of the story as wondered what would I go through for the sake of my son, so that the light that is in him would go on. The Road became a deep and prolonged meditation on love in the face of fear as well as reminder of the pervasive brokenness of the world. To finish the book in the face of such depressing devastation was a reminder that my love for my son, as well as anyone else, must be a love that perseveres.

    Very grateful for your interpretation of The Road. It kind of serves as a vindication. I had a number of people who thought I was bit off for seeing a stubborn beauty in the story of the man and the boy, and the family at the end.

  8. "Brilliant" (like "awesome"!) is a quite overused blog-post descriptive. Not here.

  9. Very, very good blog post. Thought provoking. Here are some I had:

    1) I was reminded of 1 Corinthians 13, specifically about him giving his body to be burned without love and that being worth nothing. It seemed to me that Paul was saying that great self-sacrificial actions can be taken for reasons *other* than love. Like deep emotional attachment for those important to us, possibly. What I wondered was: how does one distinguish deep emotional attachment to another from genuine, authentic love (Ie that defined/lived by Christ) in a situation like "The Road"? Simple caring, self-sacrifical behavior doesnt seem to equate to Christlike love. At least not according to 1 Cor. 13. For example, there is no way to tell that altruistic love motivated the family to take the boy in. It could have just as well been about moral compunction rather than love. Just noting.

    2) True love, as taught by Jesus, loves one's enemies. It loves the "bad guys." Any emotional attachment that cannot in any way have any love for the "bad guys" disqualifies itself as love, as Jesus taught about it. So, what did love for the "bad guys" look like In the book? (I havent read it, but it sounds cool!)

    3) Honestly, I would side more with a Darwinian cynic here: the "nice" acts seem like varying forms of emotional/moral attachments and meaning-making In a limit situation...more than Christ-like love (ie unconditional love of all people). Which would make sense. If human beings could love like Christ *without* his aid, then what would be the point of his indwelling us to empower us to love beyond our rational animality? Really.

  10. The transcript here details the difference between love and attachment I have in mind. See what you think...


  11. Thank you for this link, Dwayne. I've been interested in gleaning more from Eastern Orthodoxy, and this website looks like a great place to get started.

  12. I'm surprised you were concerned about how your ideas held up against a work of fiction rather than actual events. I would think first person accounts of Nazi death camps or other stories from similar events would be a better crucible. Hell, we could use the urban ghettos in the US even, where the poor are consumed on a daily basis, particularly poor people of color. I knew of a gang member older brother of a childhood friend in California who desperately tried to keep his younger brother clear of the life. He told him he would kill him himself if he joined a gang, and gave his own gang members strict orders to leave his brother alone. He tried to give him opportunities, even from jail, where he would eventually die. His brother didn't end up a banger, a cannibal, instead he got sucked into the drug life ending up among the many consumed. There was no kind family to take him in and protect and guide him once his brother was incarcerated, consumed by the state - just predators and prey. I'm not saying your ideas would not hold up to real world scenarios, just that it's easy to write endings in fiction, it's much harder in real life.

  13. Brilliant post, sir.

    I really am amused when I hear the Darwinian, apocalyptic, survival of the fittest arguments, which seemingly give no consideration to cooperation as far as it being exceedingly crucial to evolutionary the Descent of Man, Darwins himself says that “there is no cause to fear that the social instincts will grow weaker, and we may expect that virtuous habits will grow stronger, becoming perhaps fixed by inheritance. In this case the struggle between our higher and lower impulses will be less severe, and virtue will be triumphant.”

  14. The Road is the only book I've ever read that literally had me breathless. A brutal beauty bleeds across the entire story. Just another reminder that christian themes can be found in many unexpected places.

  15. "Love transforms fearful animals into human beings ... Love making us human"

    You don't think other animals love?

  16. Agreed, Dwayne. It looks to me like the Father in 'The Road' is just a desperate version of what Zizioulas calls the 'biological hypostasis'. I don't see it as altruism at all (certainly not necessarily).

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