Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Catastrophist

Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

- Cormac McCarthy, The Road (241)

It’s only in the last year or so that I have begun thinking of myself as a catastrophist. The threats that once seemed to be far-fetched or hypothetical now seem to be clear and present dangers. How will our world end? There are more threats than we can shake a stick at: Nuclear War. Global Warming. Oil depletion. Water Pollution. Soil Exhaustion. Ozone dimunition. Terrorism, and the resulting breakdown in government (see Iraq). Overpopulation. AIDS. Avian flu. Megastorms.

Everywhere I look, I see danger. Everything I read, literally everything, gives me pause. I wake up each day and wonder how much longer American citizens can expect the way of life we have enjoyed for the last two hundred and fifty years to last.

Cormac McCarthy has been worrying about this too. His last book, No Country for Old Men, was roundly criticized in the national press for its cinematic hyperviolence and for its apparently straight-line plot. But none of the reviews I read—and I read a lot of them—seemed to get the point. The point, as I take it, is McCarthy’s intuition that the world is changing in ways that are no longer a matter of degree but a matter of kind.

The interchapters of the novel are narrated by Sheriff Bell, a man who has been around the block once or twice, and now, in his declining years, is beginning to see things that he has never seen before:

I read the papers ever morning. Mostly I suppose just to try to figure out what might be headed this way. Not that I’ve done all that good a job at headin it off. If keeps gettin harder. Here a while back they was two boys run into one another and one of em was from California and one from Florida. And they met somewheres or other in between. And then they set out together travelin around the country killin people. I forget how many people they did kill. Now what are the chances of a thing like that? Them two had never laid eyes on one another. There cant be that many of em. I dont think. Well, we dont know. Here the other day they was a woman put her baby in a trash compactor. Who would think of such a thing? My wife wont read the papers no more. She’s probably right. She generally is. (40)

Sheriff Bell meditates, here and elsewhere, on the origins of the evil he encounters, and wonders why the nature of that evil is becoming darker as time goes on:

I read in the papers here a while back some teachers come across a survey that was sent out back in the thirties to a number of schools around the country. Had this questionnaire about what was the problems with the teachin in the schools. And they come across these forms, they’d been filled out and sent from around the country answerin these questions. And the biggest problems they could name was things like talkin in class and runnin in the hallways. Chewin gum. Copyin homework. Things of that nature. So they got one of them forms that was blank and printed up a bunch of em and sent em back out to the same schools. Forty years later. Well, here come the answers back. Rape, arson, murder. Drugs. Suicide. So I think about that. Because a lot of the time when I say anything about how the world is goin to hell in a handbasket people will just smile and tell me I’m getting old. That it’s one of the symptoms. But my feelin about that is anybody that cant tell the difference between rapin and murderin people and chewin gum has got a whole lot bigger of a problem than what I’ve got. (196)

The most riveting character in the novel, a psychopathic contract killer named Chigurh, embodies all of Sheriff Bell’s worst fears about the direction in which we are heading. And it was apparent to me as a reader that Chigurh is in some ways McCarthy’s personification of That Which is Beyond Our Control, the objective correlative of the entire inventory of catastrophic potential with which I began this post.

McCarthy’s new novel, The Road, elaborates on this set of apocalyptic apprehensions and takes them to their logical conclusion: a world in which everything has been lost:

On the far side of the river valley the road passed through a stark black burn. Charred and limbless trunks of trees stretching away on every side. Ash moving over the road and the sagging hands of blind wire strung from the blackened lightpoles whining thinly in the wind. A burned house in a clearing and beyond that a reach of meadowlands stark and gray and a raw red mudbank where a roadworks lay abandoned. Farther along were billboards advertising motels. Everything as it once had been save faded and weathered. At the top of the hill they stood in the cold and the wind, getting their breath. He looked at the boy. I’m all right, the boy said. The man put his hand on his shoulder and nodded toward the open country below them. He got the binoculars out of the cart and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste. Nothing to see. No smoke. Can I see? the boy said. Yes. Of course you can. The boy leaned on the cart and adjusted the wheel. What do you see? the man said. Nothing. He lowered the glasses. It’s raining. Yes, the man said. I know.

They left the cart in a gully covered with the tarp and made their way up the slope through the dark poles of the standing trees to where he’d seen a running ledge of rock and they sat under the rock overhang and watched the gray sheets of rain blow across the valley. It was very cold. They sat huddled together wrapped each in a blanket over their coats and after a while the rain stopped and there was just the dripping in the woods.

When it had cleared they went down to the cart and pulled away the tarp and got their blankets and the things they would need for the night. They went back up the hill and made their camp in the dry dirt under the rocks and the man sat with his arms around the boy trying to warm him. Wrapped in the blankets, watching the nameless dark come to enshroud them. The gray shape of the city vanished in the night’s onset like an apparition and he lit the little lamp and set it back out of the wind. Then they walked out to the road and he took the boy’s hand and they went to the top of the hill where the road crested and where they could see out over the darkening country to the south, standing there in the wind, wrapped in their blankets, watching for any sign of a fire or a lamp. There was nothing. The lamp in the rocks on the side of the hill was little more than a mote of light and after a while they walked back. Everything too wet to make a fire. They ate their poor meal cold and lay down in their bedding with the lamp between them. He’d brought the boy’s book but the boy was too tired for reading. Can we leave the lamp on till I’m asleep? he said. Yes. Of course we can. (7-8)

The man and the boy described in the passage are wandering in a frigid, burned-out, ash-covered landscape in the aftermath of what appears to have been some kind of nuclear or environmental holocaust. All vestiges of civilization, of creature comforts, infrastructures of any kind, have ceased to exist. There is no electricity. There is no government. Cities, like the one in the second paragraph, exist only as ruins. The earth is populated by small groups of humans scraping out a living by foraging, hunting, and, often enough, preying upon one another. It’s a vision of life on earth that once might have been characterized as dystopian science fiction, but today it reads more like tomorrow’s news. McCarthy’s accomplishment in this book—and I think it is a significant one—is to dramatize with great precision and compassion exactly how vulnerable and fragile our present world is.

The critic Christopher Clausen once wrote, “All great literature addresses directly or indirectly two questions: What kind of a world is this? and How should we live in it?” While McCarthy’s most recent paint a picture of a world which is bleak and getting bleaker, they also offer a sort of endorsement of something that balances that bleakness, something more fundamentally benign and immediate. Here is Sheriff Bell again, speaking the final lines of No Country for Old Men:

At supper this evening she told me she’d been reading St John. The Revelations. Any time I get to talking about how things she’ll find somethin in the bible so I asked her if Revelations had anything to say about the shape things was takin and she said she’d let me know. I asked her if there was anything in thre about green hair and nosebones and she said not in so many words there wasn’t. I dont know if that’s a good sign or not. Then she come around behind my chair and put her arms around my neck and bit me on the ear. She’s a very young woman in a lot of ways. If I didn’t have her I don’t know what I would have. Well, yes I do. You wouldnt need a box to put it in, neither. (309)

When I awaken each morning to do my exercises and prepare for my day, I watch the sun rise outside my window and try to find space in my mind for appreciation. Unlike many in the world right now, much less in the broken future, I live in a place where we have pure running water, electricity, supermarkets stocked with every kind of food might want to eat, roads, cars, good schools, good people, safe streets. I don’t know how long it will last, but I’m grateful for what we have.

Dear Reader, wherever you are: Happy Thanksgiving.

(Addendum: In his comment below, Mark Maretzki mentioned that the McCarthy passage cited at the top of today's entry reminded him of Hemingway, specifically of "Big Two-Hearted River," where Nick, like the father and son in The Road, wanders in a kind of wasteland and gives himself over to the rituals of survival. Jennifer Egan, writing in Slate, has developed this idea felicitously.)


M Maretzki said...

hey bruce,

i haven't yet read "the road," (how can i put that in italics?) but the landscape description reminds me much of the land that nick adams returns to in hemingway's story, "the big two-hearted river." perhaps there's some sense in returning to trout sparkling in current-swept streams and even spending some time cradling their bodies in our palms.

happy thanksgiving, bruce!

Bruce Schauble said...

Yeah, there was a review by Jennifer Egan in Slate that developed the Hemingway connection at some length.

I'll link to it from the blog...

M Maretzki said...

interesting review--thanks, bruce. i've got to borrow "the road" from you over the next break!

i'm happy i wasn't making some connection that was really far-fetched. the brook trout were a tip-off, too. no surprise that mccarthy echoes hemingway, huh.