Love and Death on the Road

In my Psychology and Christianity class here at ACU, we've been having some conversations about death anxiety and love. Those conversations reminded me about a post I wrote a few years ago (to follow and lightly edited), about about how my argument in The Slavery of Death intersects with The Road, Cormac McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize winning novel.

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 turn to to discuss why I consider The Road to be a sort of laboratory for the thesis of 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.

These were the issues we were discussing in my class.

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 an examination of the psychological issues as work 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. Is love possible 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 that the vision I articulated in The Slavery of Death was found on 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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