I’m re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is, if you are unfamiliar with it, an utterly compelling account of the journey of a man and his young son across a torched and ravaged American post-nuclear landscape, inhabited by bands of cannibal survivors whose murderous violence the pair must evade in their efforts to reach the south.
The man and his child imagine the south to be warm, and more conducive to life than the freezing, ash-filled ruination through which they stoically trudge, dragging their small cart, confronted at every bend by the carnage that ensues when the thin membrane of civilisation is fatally ruptured.
McCarthy’s 2006 novel can of course be read as a metaphor, and one appropriate for the present, as a mighty struggle begins in earnest between those we describe as fascists and the rest of us, a motley and divided crew, ill-equipped to deal with what we ought to have seen coming but mostly didn’t.
So many of us blinded by a wilful innocence: a refusal to acknowledge the depths of hatred, disdain and self-interest of which humans are capable, because we want to believe that as a species, we are better than that. We aren’t. We can’t afford to lie to ourselves anymore about the extent of humanity’s destructive capacities. This is how the darkness of us triumphs: because so many of us refuse to believe that it is real.
There are places in which the post-apocalyptic world McCarthy describes are not metaphorical, but real. I’m thinking today of Aleppo. Like almost everyone else, I have no idea how to assist the children, women and men who struggle to survive the myriad ruptures that have reduced their world to smouldering devastation. We send money that we hope will be put to good use. We protest. We demand that our government take more refugees, for all the good that does.
Increasingly, I’m coming to believe that our only hope is to relinquish our wilful innocence, and find courage enough to stare into the abyss which is undoubtedly our future. We have no magical protection from it. All the signs are there for anyone to read. The ascendance of fascism. The normalisation of a state of “post-truth.” The increasing domination of ignorance, and contemptuous rage at the expression of any loving sensibility. The mocking of concern. The violent hatred of those who wish to protect and preserve the natural world. The reduction of human beings to units of consumption. The disintegration of community.
The Road is a harrowing read. It’s an account of the author’s gaze into the abyss. Yet tenderness and love break through, frequently in the sparse dialogue between the un-named protagonists. I can hardly imagine the courage it took to write this book. To survive such imaginings, to fully realise such a world. And then I remember there are people living this imagined narrative. Millions of them.
I can only bear witness to their anguish by refusing the selfish protection of wilful innocence. And I think that perhaps if enough of us do this, if enough of us relinquish our imagined right to turn away, there might one day be enough of us with strength to triumph. I don’t know. But I have to, like McCarthy, insist on the legitimacy of hope, and our capacity to love and nurture, as well as our capacity to destroy and hate.