Monday, January 18, 2010

The Road

"Let us beware of saying that death is opposed to life.
The living is merely a type of what is dead, and a very rare type." Nietzsche.

I loved reading The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It felt like watching a movie and I read it in about as much time. But I also loved the poetic and symbolic resonances of this story. (spoiler alert) Amidst the earth's devastation, a family (albeit without a mother) takes to the road, walking through the earthly landscape, carrying "the fire," until they reach the sea.

Asako Narahashi - "Kawaguchiko" - 2003 - from half awake and half asleep in the water

The earth/sea contrast didn't strike me at first. It wasn't until they reached the ocean and the father died that I saw the sea as this force confronting earthly mortality. If the earth is a place with generative properties, the sea is no place that man can live. It offers no foothold. The sea could be read as a final mortal oblivion.

Roberto Kusterle - 2004

In Swinburne's poem A Forsaken Garden, "the ghost of a garden fronts the sea." One almost thinks McCarthy read these lines when imagining The Road:

The sun burns sere and the rain dishevels
One gaunt bleak blossom of scentless breath.
Only the wind here hovers and revels
In a round where life seems barren as death.
Here there was laughing of old, there was weeping,
Haply, of lovers none ever will know,
Whose eyes went seaward a hundred sleeping
Years ago.

So Swinburne writes that it is to the sea that the dying look. And if there is any confusion that it is the sea that swallows the living, that consumes the "generative and degenerative" laws of mortal time, the poem's last stanza reads:

Till the slow sea rise and the sheer cliff crumble,
Till terrace and meadow the deep gulfs drink,
Till the strength of the waves of the high tides humble
The fields that lessen, the rocks that shrink,
Here now in his triumph where all things falter,
Stretched out on the spoils that his own hand spread,
As a god self-slain on his own strange altar,
Death lies dead.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Seasacape

The sea may be unearthly, but The Road does not end in despair. It only uses the sea as a metaphor of lifelessness, of human oblivion, to counter the power of fire.

Of course "fire" represents human life force. To the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 BCE), fire is the primordial element out of which everything else arises. However, fire represents not just human being but human legacy. In The Road, "We carry the fire" symbolizes carrying the flame of civilization, the survival of mankind. The boy is not only the father's legacy, he is the legacy of humanity, the meaning of life.

Roberto Kusterle - "secret of lights" - 2004

In Virgil's The Aeneid, Aeneas is entrusted to relocate the House of Troy. The ghost of Hector, a fallen Trojan warrior, appears to Aeneas. "From the inner altars he carries out the garlands and the great Vesta and, in his hands, the fire that never dies" -- a fire that feeds the household gods (penates) and preserves Troy's "continuity in time." The writings of the historian Fustel de Coulanges explain that in antiquity "to be at home meant to reside within the blessing sphere of the sacred fire, in which and through which the dead maintained a presence among the living." (from Dominion of the Dead) To carry the fire is to carry the heritage of the dead into the future of those who are yet unborn.

Of course The Aeneid is a story of wanderers. Of a journey filled with the suffering and loneliness of homelessness, as well as the joy of discovery, hope and anticipation of what lies ahead. So there they they are, father and son, walking the road of life to its inevitable conclusion, meeting the good and the bad along the way. It's hard not think of Simon Hoegsberg's photograph We're All Going to Die - 100 Meters of Existence. In contrast to the darkness of The Road, Hoegsberg's photograph has a stark white background, another symbol for death. While Simon similarly captures people walking along a road, they more resemble us, people caught up in their lives, relatively oblivious that the end comes eventually.

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