Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God. In The Road , the man audibly asks God if he exists, and then, like Job, shakes his fist at him in anger. We are all confronted with the brutal facts of our imperfect existence. We are all confronted with the fact that things fall apart.
We are all confronted with the fact that we have the power to kill others and to destroy the earth. We are also all confronted by the seeming silence of God in the face of it all. Why are things this way? Both Job and the man in The Road see themselves as cursed by God. But it is also true that the main thing they have in common is that neither one of them chooses to curse God in return, either by behaving like an animal or by taking his own life. The first, as I have already suggested, is that metaphysical questions regarding suffering, violence, and evil are engaged.
But it also means that the question of whether God will show up in the end is more than just a matter of flipping a coin. It is a question written into the structure of the narrative itself, a point I will develop later. Job is one of the most poetic books of the Bible, and most scholars would agree that its beauty serves a greater purpose than mere ornament.
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But beauty has a contested status: does beauty reside in the thing itself, or is it merely a matter of subjective taste? Is it universal, or is it a culturally constructed, fungible category? While I do not have the space to enter into those debates here, my argument depends on an understanding of beauty that contains both objective and subjective aspects.
My belief is that when a narrative contains beautiful language, the most likely but not necessary explanation is that at least part of what we recognize as beautiful reflects an intersection with what we recognize as goodness and truth, categories that necessarily have theological resonances. I believe that the beauty of The Road is of this type. In the first volume of The Glory of the Lord , von Balthasar argues that beauty should not be considered apart from the other two non-Platonic transcendentals truth and goodness.
When humanity no longer believes in truth and goodness, we sever beauty away from them and make it into a mere mask, a surface thing with no capabilities greater than giving a few sensual delights. Since beauty is an inherent part of the truth and goodness of the world God has created, disposing of it in this manner is a human effort to reject the mystery of being. In so doing, we reject the creator of that mystery. Beauty, when it is severed from goodness and truth, points only to itself and not to another being.
Von Balthasar calls this aestheticism. When we make beauty into a mask that we can manipulate to our own interests, we go against our best God-given instincts. Primary among these instincts is the desire to go outside of ourselves in order to connect with an other, including the ultimate other, God.
Art mirrors the choice to be in the world and act in the world as a choice made in freedom, a choice that has the additional effect of deepening self-understanding, deepening the self as a person in communication with others. At this point von Balthasar writes:. Through his body, man is in the world. As he expresses himself, he acts and intervenes responsibly in the general situation. He inscribes his deeds indelibly upon the book of history, which, whether he likes it or not, henceforth bears his imprint permanently. Here, at the very latest, man must realize that he is not lord over himself.
Neither does he rule his own being in freedom so as to confer form upon himself, nor is he free in his communication. As body, man is a being whose condition it is always to be communicated ; indeed, he regains himself only on account of having been communicated. For this reason, man as a whole is not an archetype of Being and of Spirit, rather their image; he is not the primal word, but a response; he is not a speaker, but an expression governed by the laws of beauty, laws which man cannot impose on himself.
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Instead, it is beautiful because it is Christ-haunted, afraid that man may have been made in the image of God after all. And McCarthy, of course, is the one who records all of these actions in a book. As a storyteller he is a witness, and as readers so are we. In it, a lapsed priest tells the protagonist the story of an embittered old man he once ministered to. The old man had been through a Job-like experience, catastrophically losing his entire family while he was away.
In deep grief, he went on a mad rant against God.
What the priest claims he learned from this man boils down to the fact that the story itself is the most important thing. When that story is told to another—and now retold to the protagonist of The Crossing and to us—it reveals its value. Storytelling, however unwittingly, provides and performs a witness to that value. God sees everything without needing to be seen himself. Nothing escapes his reach. Here the priest, referring to himself in the third person, concludes:. What the priest saw at last was that the lesson of a life can never be its own.
Only the witness has power to take its measure. It is lived for the other only. The priest therefore saw what the anchorite could not. That God needs no witness. Neither to Himself nor against. Bear closely with me now. There is another who will hear what you never spoke. Stones themselves are made of air. What they have power to crush never lived.
In the end we shall all of us be only what we have made of God. For nothing is real save his grace. We are seen by God, and have been so from the beginning. By writing the story of this man and this boy, McCarthy participates in this idea—indeed, witnesses to it—intentionally or not.
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In the first two pages of the book, we are introduced to the man, who awakens from a bad dream and reaches out for the boy to make sure he is there. From the very first, this novel is about human connection. He knew only that the child was his warrant. The man, who speaks very little throughout the novel, says these words aloud.
Thus, the man literally communicates the boy while also indicating that the boy is a communication of God.
The man is not drawing a parallel between the boy and Jesus as the word of God, but the boy is a word spoken by God into existence. Aesthetic vision is, in this case, like divine speech-act theory; it requires one person looking at another, speaking the other into existence or acknowledging the other by speech. The boy turns and opens his eyes, and we read the first dialogue:. Hi, Papa, he said. I know. We are instead made in the image of God. Following von Balthasar, Zimmerman argues that recognition of the beautiful in the mystery of being has the inherent power to draw viewers into contemplation of something deeper.
Humanity, made in the image of God, is beautiful and shows the beauty of all being. B and Seiling Instead, the entire novel reveals that when humankind walks away from God and turns the world into an ash heap, we make it harder, but not impossible, to recognize the beauty and goodness of creation. This partly explains why the novel is concerned so parabolically, archetypally, metaphysically, and theologically with darkness and light.
The man made up this expression to encourage the boy. He wasnt sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Of course, we see here that the man is thinking about beauty and goodness, though the passage emphasizes that the structures that make these thoughts possible are quickly dissipating. But the structures for these thoughts certainly exist for us as readers, and they are right here in this novel, which touches beauty and goodness in multiple ways and invites us to do the same. It appreciates and depends on our recognition of the difference between light and dark, between goodness and evil.
This loss, not death, is what the man is sobbing about, and it is a powerfully theological moment. Though they are able to live on their own for quite some time, the novel begins with them being forced out of their isolation and onto the road.
The man is rightly suspicious of most people they meet—people who have turned to evil ways to survive, who have abandoned loving cooperation for slavery and cannibalism. The boy instinctively knows this and is always trying to find others. Following the lead of Karl Barth, many theologians insist that loving dialogical relationships with others is the place where the image of God is primarily seen. Emmanuel Mounier makes a similar point, noting that the person as a created being exists only in relation to others, and this is especially revealed in communication This explains why the man and the boy are so desperate to continue speaking to one another, though their dialogue becomes quite clipped and dangerously self-imitative because of their isolation.
As they camped,.
He [the man] tried to think of something to say but he could not. The world shrinking down about a raw core of parsible entities. The names of things slowly following those things into oblivion.