Wednesday, July 30, 2008

THE ETERNAL SILENCE OF THESE INFINITE SPACES

* * *

"They followed a stone wall past the remains of an orchard. The trees in their ordered rows gnarled and black and the fallen limbs thick on the ground." Cormac McCarthy, The Road (First Vintage International Edition 2006)

* * *

In Albert Camus's The Stranger (orig. L’√Čtranger, 1942), the book's intrepid protagonist, Meursault, faces the guillotine in the book's final pages. He is to be executed for murder.

Moments before his execution, Meursault looks to the heavens and finds an existentialist refuge in the ultimate inconsequence of human existence. In my tattered paperback version of the book (Eng. trans., Gilbert 1946), he confides:

[G]azing up at the dark sky . . . with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe.

I grew up in a rural patch of the continent from which the "signs and stars" were still visible in the night sky. As a child, I spent hours in the meadows outside my parents' home at the top of Dogwood Hill, staring up at the enigmatic sky beneath the wheeling stars and wandering planets that rose like fireflies from the timeless gray shoulders of Mount Jefferson.

On a dark night, you could see that the sky had depth; it was no mere canopy. To the mind of a child, it went on forever with no end.

A view of Mount Jefferson from the south as shown on a postcard printed by Ray Drug Company, West Jefferson, circa 1937. At the time, Mount Jefferson was known as Negro Mountain.

This epiphany of the infinite has come to me again and again from childhood into adulthood; it is my sense of the ineffable. It is my context for understanding the universe, and as I have learned more, I have concluded that a proper consideration of our place in the universe should be simultaneously comforting and terrifying.

It is comforting to conclude, as Meursault does in The Stranger, that there is no significance to human existence in the broad context of the indifferent universe, its spatial and temporal dimensions exceeding our ability to comprehend, its apathy to the value of life apparent in the the cold empty spaces between the impossibly distant stars. The systems of the universe reflect no purpose or desired end; the fixed laws and mechanics of space and time, of gravity, are supreme and inexorable. You can take no action that is of consequence against this infinite landscape.

It is nevertheless starkly disconcerting to consider our frail, tenuous existence at the unmerciful hands of nature. It is remarkable, indeed, that life has existed continuously on Earth for millions of years without interruption as she has spanned the crushing black vacuum of space, a solitary ship, the Sun and Moon her lanterns, traversing the vast, empty seas of the universe without map or compass.

In The Road, Cormac McCarthy depicts life in this latter, gravely tenuous sense. He tells of the struggle for life after global holocaust, a man and his child searching for moral understanding in a world destroyed in the fires of nuclear war.

Yet The Road could easily have described a world rent asunder by an unmerciful act of god, such as a planetary collision with a wayward asteroid, or an earth-shaking eruption of a volcano whose ash takes to the sky and separates the Earth and the Sun, leaving our world dark, cold, and dying. This has happened before; it will doubtless happen again.

* * *
A Day in Pompeii
* * *

Eight hundred miles east-southeast of Djakarta on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, a somnolent giant rises 14,000 feet above the ocean waters below. It is Mount Tambora, an immense volcano that in April 1815 filled the sky with ash and vanquished the eternal Sun. The year following this eruption became known as "the year without a summer," as volcanic dust cast a curtain about the world and precipitated a subsistence crisis of global magnitude.

While tens of thousands are believed to have died in the eruption, thousands more perished in the ensuing volcanic winter that brought famine to a Europe already enervated by the Napoleonic Wars.

It was during this bleak period below the darkened skies of Geneva that Lord Byron (poet &c., 1788-1824) envisioned a world for which:


The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air.


Byron memorialized his vision in a macabre poem titled Darkness (reprinted here). In Byron's unending darkness, "all hearts were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light," and "the meagre by the meagre were devoured."

The dead became the fuel of funeral pyres, and the dying "looked up with mad disquietude on the dull sky, the pall of a past world; and then again with curses cast them down upon the dust, and gnash’d their teeth and howl’d . . ."

McCarthy's vision of ashen skies made permanently gray by nuclear winter and the "cold relentless circling of the intestate earth" in the "darkness implacable" are reminiscent of Byron's Darkness in ways that are not likely to be coincidental.

* * *

Wilmington, NC circa 1863

A few weeks ago on a weekend trip to Wilmington, I found a used copy of The Road high on the shelf behind the small, one-person desk that serves as a make-shift sales counter just inside the door at Old Books on Front St. As the name indicates, the store is located at 22 N. Front St., one street up from the inscrutable waters of the Cape Fear, and it is evident from the vantage point of the street that it is a real bookstore.

Inside, books are stacked from floor to ceiling in every part of the store, such that one is always in danger of stumbling over a stack of books on the floor or being crushed to death by forgotten tomes and treatises falling from precipitous heights. Most of it is not wheelchair accessible; it is undoubtedly a fire hazard. It has thin, rusty-looking carpet and it smells a bit like old laundry.

Cell-phone picture taken in the "L" section of Old Books on Front St.'s fiction section. This picture is almost to scale. Most aisles are not wide enough to pitch a cat through sideways.

On weekends at least, a girl named Gwenyfar (not making it up) sits at the desk just inside the door and greets visitors to the store. It was while I was engaging Gwenyfar in vague persiflage that I happened to notice a fairly new copy of The Road on a shelf behind her head. A friend had recommended that I read the book, and my younger sister had lent me her copy with a similar recommendation, but I needed my own copy so that I could mark it up as is my custom.

Pointing to The Road, I asked Gwenyfar if she had read it.

"He was on Oprah," she said with a dramatic raising of her eyebrows, as if that would make the matter clear to me. I gathered that Gwenyfar was likely suspicious of all writers of recent popular appeal. It's the mark of a purist, I suppose.

"Oprah? Really? I didn't know that."

"Yes," she said. "I haven't read anything by him. I don't read Oprah books," she said with friendly sarcasm. "Since he was on TV, everyone in the world has been asking for them. We can't keep 'em in the store."

"Well, you managed to keep one." I laughed uncomfortably. She didn't.

"Yeah, a guy just brought that by this afternoon. Traded it for something, I can't remember what." She looked around briefly as if the answer might come to her, then just as quickly abandoned the effort to recollect. Meanwhile, the book remained on the shelf behind her.

"Is it for sale?" I said, unsure if it was ready for sale or if it needed to be properly inventoried or something. I suspected the bookstore had no such inventory procedure. Plugging in a computer in this store would probably start an electrical fire.

Eventually she handed me the book and I bought it along with a hardback Thomas Wolfe compendium that I had never seen before and did not know to exist. I finished The Road before leaving Wilmington that weekend.


* * *


The Road is a well-told, painfully grim post-holocaust story about a man and his young, terrified son who trudge across miles of scorched highway (thus, the title) in snow and endless rain in search of the coast where they hope without reason to find food and sympathetic life.

The father and son have almost no food; they must scavenge like wild animals, and they are in a state of constant starvation. The son's "candlecolored skin" is "all but translucent" due to malnourishment, and they must wear facemasks to filter the ubiquitous ash from the air.

The cold is ungodly because sunlight cannot penetrate the ashen sky. They can rarely build fires for warmth, for this would alert other scavengers who might come and try to rotisserie the boy.

The father has a gun with two bullets, a shopping cart with "a tire that has gone wonky," and the damn kid has intimacy issues - which is stressful. The only people left alive on Earth have been reduced to absolute savagery. Life has become a ghastly competition for dwindling, non-regenerating resources.

The boy is forced to develop his sense of morality in this world of death and terror, and the most compelling aspects of the book concern the boy trying to square his naive (and apparently innate) sense of right and wrong to a world in which it no longer finds application and altruism has died with the disappearing Sun:


The boy lay with his head in the man's lap. After a while he said: They're going to kill those people, aren't they?
Yes.
Why do they have to do that?
I dont know.
Are they going to eat them?
I dont know.
They're going to eat them, arent they?
Yes.
And we couldnt help them because then they'd eat us too.
Yes.
And that's why we couldnt help them.
Yes.
Okay.


The story is one continuous, mostly linear narrative. With few exceptions, the language used is simple, stark, and at times profound.

As an example, on pages 146-47 McCarthy describes a scene in which the father, after happening upon what is apparently an unused underground bomb shelter, makes a warm bath for his son who is "shivering like a dog."


They took the little stove with them and a couple of pans and he heated water and poured it into the tub and poured in water from the plastic jugs. It took a long time but he wanted it to be good and warm. When the tub was almost full the boy got undressed and stepped shivering into the water and sat. Scrawny and filthy and naked. Holding his shoulders. The only light was from the ring of blue teeth in the burner of the stove. What do you think? the man said.
Warm at last.
Warm at last?
Yes.
Where did you get that?
I dont know.
Okay. Warm at last.


The story by itself would be effective if McCarthy told the story of the wandering father and son without any injection of philosophical content. However, what makes The Road exemplary is McCarthy's ability to be reflective and express simple, profound ideas within the context of the work. In this passage, the father contemplates their hopeless condition in the changed world:
No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.


Another effective passage appears on page 58, when McCarthy reveals that the boy's mother ended her own life in the hopelessness of the destroyed world:


She was gone and the coldness of it was her final gift. She would do it with a flake of obsidian. He'd taught her himself. . . . And she was right. There was no argument. The hundred nights they'd sat up debating the pros and cons of self destruction with the earnestness of philosophers chained to a madhouse wall.
In the morning the boy said nothing at all and when they were packed and ready to set out upon the road he turned and looked back at their campsite and he said: She's gone isn't she? And he said: Yes, she is.
* * *


The observant reader should have already noted that while the content may be quite good, McCarthy employs several unusual conventions in his writing that are akin to the orthographically challenged E. E. Cummings whose typewriter apparently did not have a SHIFT key.

The portable typewriter used by Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962)

McCarthy never uses quotation marks, and, frustratingly, he intermittently omits apostrophes in conjunctions. Thus he writes don't as dont (which I have a tendency to pronounce as daunt), but then inexplicably employs the apostrophe in I'm and they'd. I had hoped that this was something that was specific to The Road, but my limited research has revealed that this is apparently his "style," such that all or most of his books are written in this fashion.

He also seems to enjoy making compound words out of words that are not truly compounds, some of which produce Faulkner-esque compound adjectives that are fairly effective, such as sweatblackened (p. 51) and ruststained (p. 108). Other examples are more mysterious, for their use seems to add little to the story: oilbottles (p. 7), pumporgan (p. 22), foldingtable (p. 26), woodsmoke (p. 31), and gaslamp (p. 151), to name but a few.

Along the same lines, McCarthy sometimes seems to just invent words entirely, which is just bizarre. I came across the word parsible on page 88, and naturally I went to look it up because I did not recognize the word or know the meaning.

Now, if I have nothing else, I have dictionaries. Large ones, small ones; old, dusty ones; new, shiny ones. Dictionaries of old, archaic words; dictionaries of rare words. On the dictionary front, I've got it covered. Parsible does not appear on the pages of any dictionary that I own. I am therefore bewildered by its use in this story; it does not and cannot lend meaning to the text. (I am aware that parsible has some meaning in the programming context, but obviously that is not a meaning relevant to The Road.)


Similarly, McCarthy sporadically and inconsistently employs a vocabulary of recondite terms that: (1) detract from the otherwise very simple, elegant story; and (2) are not always in the dictionary.

A few of the words I circled in the text with an accompanying question mark include: discalced (p. 24), rachitic (p. 63), siwash (p. 68), catamite (p. 92), chert (p. 129), and patterans (p. 180).


[Incidentally, I got into some trouble for my opinion on McCarthy's use of parsible with the friendly folks at The Official Website of the Cormac McCarthy Society in regard to this article and related comments I made in the forum section of the aforementioned C. M. Web site that some overzealous disciples of Mr. McCarthy were quick to perceive as unforgivably critical of their infallible literary hero. A gentleman with the handle peterfranz who had an obvious blind spot in regard to McCarthy's minimal shortcomings wrote this in response to my point that no one could possibly know what McCarthy meant by parsible because, quite simply, this is not a defined word in the English language: "Those readers, to whom this board by its very existence has a responsibility, are not helped by EK's post, which I would delete were I in a position to." I should note that peterfranz later backed off the censorship angle, but did suggest that I should "self-censor" and remove my critical comments myself notwithstanding the fact that I was entirely correct on this point. To his credit, a bona fide McCarthy scholar named Rick Wallach who was more or less kind to me and fair in his arguments conceded finally that parsible as it appears in The Road "could be a typo - but in McCarthy, how the hell do we know?" - Ed. 12 Oct 2010] 


* * *


Nevertheless, McCarthy's vision of the end of civilization is chilling, plausible, and probably accurate. As noted at the outset, The Road simultaneously recalls Byron's Darkness and refutes the benign nature of the universe perceived by Camus's Meursault, while still finding disquiet in the indifference of the heavens.

In Darkness, the Sun has gone out and "the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space," while "the icy earth swung blind and blackening in the moonless air."

McCarthy echoes this vision of the Earth and Sun divided. He writes: "Dark of the invisible moon. The nights now only slightly less black. By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp."

In another passage, McCarthy again parallels Bryon's Darkness; departing from the gray roads and withered forests of the Earth, he looks godlike upon the Earth as a lost child of the Sun: "[T]he bleak and shrouded earth went trundling past the sun and returned again as trackless and as unremarked as the path of any nameless sisterworld in the ancient dark beyond."

* * *



Blaise Pascal once remarked that he found terror in the "eternal silence of these infinite spaces." Hearing this for the first time as a much younger man, I was perplexed by the expression. For as much of my life as I could remember at the time, I had been deeply moved in contemplation of the vast, immortal skies. It was a religion to me.

As a boy, lying outside under a starlit summer sky on the green army blanket my parents dedicated to my use as an amateur astronomer, I viewed the infinite heavens with hope and warmth and optimism.

As I grew older, I frequently turned to the heavens for comfort, and being reminded of my slight significance within the context of the benign and indifferent universe, I was comforted.

As an adult, I continue to find comfort in such thoughts, and seeing the eternal Moon ascend in the arms of Orion over the North Carolina mountains will always bring me solace as one fortunate traveler on Earth's solitary ship through the infinite, rolling oceans of space and time.

Yet, I now have learned enough about the world, and the universe, and our place in it - so fragile, so brief - that Pascal's remark is no longer quite so mysterious to me.


* * *
He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. . . . Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.
- Cormac McCarthy, The Road


From Dogwood Hill, the Moon rises over the old gray shoulders of Mount Jefferson.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

When much, much younger, I sat in the dark with a Smith-Corona portable typewriter on the desk in front of me lit by a single light over it and desperately tried to find my personal place in the universe. I contemplated the infinite and tried to imagine the end of it and to believe that I was it. But I wasn't and no one else will be either. What I am is exactly what I have within my grasp at the moment. All of it and the people who accompany me are as transitory as the men who wrote the Constitution and the women who sewed the stars in the first flag of this country. It all depends on your immediate definition of "transitory". Arriving at an advanced age is like showing up at La Guardia without a ticket. No matter what destination you prefer, you may have one and, then again, you may not. "The Road" affected me not at all. I was, though,moderately impressed by the author's ability to convert a simple idea into a long question mark. What did impress me was the analysis by E.K. Hornbeck showing me once again that few authors sitting at computers today, including Cormac McCarthy,rival E.K. for pure writing talent. Whither goest, E.K. Whither goest?

Alejandra said...

I read All the Pretty Horses a few years ago and thought it was great, and it sounds like his writing style in that book and The Road are very similar.

Anonymous - I love "Arriving at an advanced age is like showing up at La Guardia without a ticket." That is a perfect characterization. Too true, too true.

And so, alas, E.K., you have made me think; you have made me question; you have changed the way I view the world just a little bit. I used to wonder whether you wrote about what you really believed or whether some of it was for dramatic effect, but I don't suppose I should question it any further. Yours is a dark, sometimes sad, sometimes sweet world. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.

Jp said...

Dammit, why do you have to go and write posts about books I'm in the middle of reading (okay, I did stop and read another book in the middle of reading this one, but nontheless.) Now I can only read the first quarter of this for fear of spoilers. I guess that the upside of this is that I now want to read the book as quickly as possible just to get to your commentary. I shall return.

Child of God said...

The Road is currently sitting on my bedside table. It seems to stare at me as I struggle to finish my latest Jodi Picoult (my guilty pleasure). Reading Cormac McCarthy reminds me of eating collard greens. The aging hippie we buy our vegetables from says that collard greens are more tonic than food. I feel the same way about Cormac McCarthy. His books must be read but you are probably not going to enjoy them very much. Case in point: Child of God. I guarantee THAT book is not going to be on Oprah's list. Ever.

By the way E.K., I can't believe you had to look up meconium. Come on. I thought that most of the words you cited as obscure made a great little preview of the book.

The thing is, to get through any of Cormac McCarthy's books, except All the Pretty Horses, you have to be somewhat into intellectual self-flagellation. Let's face it. These books are painful to read. Remember how The Old Man and The Sea made us feel that we were out in that little boat with that poor old man? I mean, my lips were cracked and dry from the salt water and wind when I finished that book. McCarthy's books are the same way. You are THERE, in that grim landscape, in that Mexican prison, in that cabin in Appalachia. You are a witness to unspeakable acts. You are never the same.

child of god said...

OK people -- how about a little warning or caveat or just advice about this book: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK IF YOU HAVE SMALL CHILDREN. Do not read this book if you once had small children. Do not read this book if you like small children.

I could not put it down -- I thought it was beautifully written -- but it is the most upsetting book I have read since The Price of Motherhood. Thinking about my 7-year-old in that situation was devastating.

The fact that the book has the happiest ending of any Cormac McCarthy work was little comfort.

Hidari Uma said...

Once again ek you have brought a smile to my lips and a deep, satisfying sadness to my soul. I read The Road several years ago and was, frankly, too traumatized to spend much time thinking about it afterwards, so reading your blog was a gift -- you do an excellent job of capturing the essence of a dark, complicated novel.

As far as obscure words go, try reading McCarthy's novel Suttree -- I felt like The Road was on a second grade reading level compared to Suttree. I started writing down every word I wasn't familliar with when I was reading it and ended up with two things:
1. A list of about 200 words
2. A list of about 50 words I couldn't find in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Great, great, great writing, as always, ek. I want to know when you are going to favor us with some more of your own fiction -- can you, too, keep us awake at night, despairing over the pointlessness of our pathetic existence? Something tells me the answer is yes . . .

Laura Hawkins said...

While my favorite McCarthy read has to be Blood Meridian, I also absorbed The Road during a long weekend at the beach, relishing the juxtaposition of the happy family activities I was engaged in (nieces running around the beach in polka-dot swim suits, my little brother walking on his hands to much applause, staying up late with beers and cards and stories), in comparison to the hard-scrabble survival portrayed in The Road. What touched me most about The Road (besides the haunting prose) was the bond between Papa and The Boy. Certainly you can take away a sense of futile, woebegone, vain existence after reading The Road. It forces the reader to ponder the utility of humanity in the face of complete destruction and intractable bleakness; it is just enough oxygen to keep you conscious but not nearly enough to allow you to catch your breath. However, I found that, for me, The Road was strangely self-affirming due in large part to the unconditional love between Papa and The Boy McCarthy captures so poignantly. Papa clearly loves The Boy and struggles to shield him from the brutal reality that they both find themselves wandering through. The child's mother has killed herself, yet the father remains, protecting the child and even providing a purpose for their day to day struggle-- to reach the ocean, the promise of a better life. The act of preparing a hot bath for The Boy, expending meager and dwindling energy on an activity with no objective survival component shows the immense capacity Papa had for love, even when stripped of all humanizing influences and facing inevitable misery.

Perhaps I simply lack the philosophers mind. I know I am ill-equipped to puzzle my place in the infinite. Certainly I have been influenced by being constantly well fed, warm and with having ready access to Disney movies. But I read The Road and saw the importance of love- fierce, hard, bright love, to provide a meaningful tether for one's life; otherwise it would be all too easy to float off into the infinite and matter not at all.

Julie said...

For all its stark simplicity McCarthy is an author that begs to be read aloud in the oh so dim middle of the night. Its beauty is palpable in its paradox. I'm going to go pull a copy off the shelf right now. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

http://abcnews.go.com/nightline/faceoff