“There is no God and we are his prophets”:
Deconstructing Redemption in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
(paper under review: not for quotation)
The University of Manchester
Despite its overwhelmingly positive reception, the apparently redemptive conclusion to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road attracted criticism from some reviewers. They read in it an inconsistency with the nihilism that otherwise pervades the novel, as well as McCarthy’s other works. But what are they referring to when they interpret ‘redemption’, the ‘messianic’ and ‘God’ in McCarthy’s novel? Some introductory thoughts from apocalypse theory and deconstruction reveal a more nuanced approach that not only ‘saves’ McCarthy from the charge of such critics. It also opens up more interesting avenues for exploring the theme of redemption and the messianic in contemporary disaster fiction.
Justifiably effusive praise was heaped, by the literary community, upon McCarthy’s multiple award-winner The Road (2006). But perhaps the most interesting reaction came in the form of critique of the allegedly “redemptive” and “messianic” tone of its conclusion. Michael Chabon’s celebrated review of the book argued that McCarthy appeared to insert such a tone “almost…in spite of himself”,1 that is, out of character with his usual nihilism. Another reviewer went as far as to suggest the novel “failed” the “modernist challenge: to write about a holocaust, about the end of everything…What happens is a redemption, of sorts, arguably absurd in the face of such overwhelming nihilism.”2 One wonders how McCarthy himself would respond. Perhaps we should begin by recalling the cautionary and prophetic injunction that Nietzsche appended to one of his last works, Ecce Homo: “I have a terrible fear I shall one day be pronounced holy: one will guess why I bring out this book beforehand; it is intended to prevent people from making mischief of me... my truth is dreadful: for hitherto the lie has been called truth.”3 Nietzsche feared the untimely nature of the truth he came to announce to a modernity whose ‘end’ had only just begun. He predicted the unpreparedness of us “murderers of God” to stand up in the ruins of the transcendent “old God” of metaphysics, and an unwillingness to create our own tragic pursuit of life. God, he would later write, would simply refuse die; the task of modern man was therefore to kill him again and again.
In order not to make mischief with McCarthy, we should acknowledge similarly that the difficult and paradoxical redemption offered in The Road is very far from resurrecting the old God of metaphysics. Indeed, I would like to argue in the following that it interweaves themes both of resistance (the refusal to die) and mourning (the passing of irreversible loss). In doing so, the novel powerfully engages the reader with the very porous nature of redemption in the context of its post-apocalyptic environment.
Engaging McCarthy’s text in this way invites a Derridean, deconstructive reading of the narrative of redemption in contemporary disaster fiction in general. This is because the conversations and thought-experiments employed by McCarthy attempt in many different ways to destabilise and provoke questions of the binary oppositions involved in that very discussion of redemptive ends (indeed, of the possibility of conceiving ‘ends’ at all). There are oppositions such as the saved and the damned, the lost and the retrievable; the redeemed and irredeemable futures. McCarthy provokes the question, in particular, of what meaning we might possibly attach to human redemption and the “messianic” in an ostensibly irredeemable earth. What can be hoped for, sustained, and believed in? On the one hand, therefore, McCarthy’s pursuit of life and lives in the scorched wasteland bears all the hallmarks of Nietzschean tragedy - the “taming of horror through art”4 –as opposed to a...
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