Vocation and the Apocalypse: McCarthy’s The Road

It would seem that the apocalypse, whether religious or environmental, would lay to rest questions of vocation. But questions of purpose and meaning are front and center in many of the popular post-apocalyptic films and books with which our students are familiar. In fact, the post-apocalyptic genre presents excellent opportunities for thought-experiments that force students to consider the foundations and driving forces of purpose, meaning, and vocation. I do not wish to talk directly about the environment, Anthropocene, or end times and will leave fears about climate change and cultural decay, or, alternatively, hopes for sustainable energy and cultural renewal, to experts in those areas. But environmental concerns as well as cultural anxieties spurred by mass shootings, heightening racial tensions, and immigration-related issues weigh heavily on students’ minds. These anxieties are yet further reasons why teaching vocation via post-apocalyptic film and literature will resonate with students. I also think this genre is valuable because of its capacity to instill deep gratitude and a sense of responsibility for the world that is still there when a student closes a book or when the credits role on a film.

Blockbuster films like The Book Of Eli or Mad Max Fury Road, George Miller’s 2015 reboot of his Mad Max series, draw students into a world wherein conventional vocation, i.e. a job you get a degree for, is replaced by essential vocation, namely surviving, protecting or saving others, preserving culture, and defeating warlords or would-be dictators who assert themselves in the Hobbesian state of nature depicted in these sort of films. Of course, the genre is nothing new. Students familiar with I Am Legend, World War Z, or the Fallout gaming series are often surprised at how contemporary, for example, Lord Byron’s poem, “Darkness,” feels.

My reflections here can be applied to vocational discussions of most post-apocalyptic films and literature, but I’d like to focus on what I think is the most philosophically profound and existentially poignant of recent works of this sort, Cormac McCarthy’s beautiful and harrowing novel. The Road (2006) brings readers to vocational ground-zero, laying bare fundamental questions regarding purpose and meaning. The novel calls readers both to discover and construct ways of thinking about vocation that could sustain them through the grimmest circumstances imaginable. (As I argued in my previous post, vocation is always both a discovery and a construction, i.e. an act of invention).

Yet the book does this in a way that foregrounds not disaster so much as the love story of a father and his son and offers profound meditations on hope and belief. The Road would fit well in courses on religion, psychology, or vocation, and the 2009 film version makes the story accessible in one-sitting. The world of the novel, its wrestling with whether or not meaninglessness can be overcome, and its examination of the nature of hope and questions about the necessity of belief in God and whether hope and belief are sustaining inner fires or dangerous delusions, are all aspects of the novel that students can profitably examine in light of vocation.

The novel wastes no time plunging readers into its world. A mysterious cataclysm has destroyed the earth. It has been several years since the world ended. The boy, who is born shortly after, is between 6 and 10 years old. It is one of the virtues of the novel that McCarthy leaves the cataclysm unexplained. He doesn’t cook up any phony political or environmental scenarios. It has been variously argued to be a nuclear war, meteorite, or even volcanic activity. The novel simply says: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions . . . a dull rose glow in the window glass” (52). Placing the cause of destruction in the background brings journey on the road and the father’s struggle with how and why to keep going to the fore: “They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here . . . He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke” (4-5). And so, pushing a grocery cart containing their merger supplies, armed only with an old revolver and two last rounds for it, the man and the boy take to the road.

Because of years of shortage, life has been reduced to the bleakest possible terms. The environment is poisoned maybe beyond any hope of regeneration. The days are gray and short and the nights are black and freezing and the air is filled with ash that swirls on the winds like the charred remains of the world itself. Except for a few “good guys,” as the man has taught the boy to call them, humanity has degenerated into a gruesome, cannibalistic state of nature, beyond anything Hobbes could have imagined. The man is sick and weak and coughing blood from a respiratory illness induced by the gritty, ash-filled air.

I ask students: What would vocation or purpose mean in such a world? Money has no value. Likewise, fame, honors, platforms, followers, job titles, political power are all meaningless because they depend on other people, who would be (mostly) dead and because the media, corporate, and government structures required for them are extinct. What is vocation when it’s conventional means and ends are stripped away?

The next question is: how does one overcome meaninglessness and despair and keep going down the road when it looks like a sense of purpose might be only a delusion or a refusal to face reality.

These questions are dramatized in the Hamlet-like debates about “the pros and cons of self-destruction” carried on by the man and his wife. The wife (nameless, like the man and boy) finally choses self-destruction over life:

We’re survivors he told her across the flame of the lamp.
Survivors? she said.
Yes.
What in God’s name are you talking about? We’re not survivors. We’re the walking dead in a horror film . . . My heart was ripped out of me the night he was born so don’t ask for sorrow now . . . The one thing I can tell you is that you won’t survive for yourself . . . as for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.

The Road (55, 57).

I ask students what makes the man’s choice to live more than just fear of death or survival instinct. The answer is vocation: the man’s sense of purpose elevates his choice to live from mere animal survival (cannibalistic gangs choose “life”) to something genuinely human. The Road suggests that at the heart of vocation are two things: a beloved other and a task. For the man, these converge in his son. The Road shares this vision of vocation’s two sources, work and others, with potential accompanying texts ranging from Genesis to Man’s Search for Meaning.

From a movie review of The Road in The New York Times

The end of the novel explores the nature of hope. When the man dies, he has gotten as far down the road as he can. He must pass the child off to a world of which he cannot be a part. The man’s hopes that he will live on with his son die with him. Yet, even though he dies without knowing it, his hope for his son’s future is realized when the boy is found by a family. The novel reminds us that what we most hope to see flourish—children, institutions, nations—we also hope not to outlive. If the man could not give his son a future, he does give him the inner resources to keep going after he is gone. This is captured in the phrase “carrying the fire” that the man uses to teach the boy to preserve a sense of goodness and hope. Fire, of course, has destroyed the earth. But throughout the book fire recurs as the small night fires made by the father and son while on the road. Fire thus suggests the all but extinguished values of home and hearth, light and warm, that are necessary to keep going down the road. The man leaves his son the legacy of vocation; it is planted in the next generation and extends beyond him.

The novel closes with a paragraph that returns readers this world and reminds us of the world’s beauty and fragility and mystery as though it were calling us to cherish and preserve it and each other:

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 against 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. 

Closing paragraph of The Road

 Jason Stevens is an Associate Professor of English at Cornerstone University. He is interested in the role of the imagination, particularly the poetic imagination, in places of political violence and distressed social conditions. 

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