“He spreads the snow like wool
and scatters the frost like ashes.” Psalm 147
I wouldn’t wish the apocalypse on anyone. I’ve never been particularly attracted to stories or novels or films that pitch survivors into the living hell of post-nuclear-holocaust madness, or a world sprung out of orbit by some errant heavenly asteroid. I’ve got enough anxiety; I don’t more than I have, especially when it rises from a burned-out world I simply don’t want to imagine.
But I loved Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which is pure and unadulterated apocalypse vivdly—unrelentingly--evoked.
Something’s happened, what—we don’t know. Maybe ten years before the story begins, the world went up in smoke, triggering mass starvation. Those few who’ve stayed alive spend their days and nights foraging for food and clothing, fuel and shelter, trying to stay alive in a nightmare. Many do the unimaginable to keep breathing.
Fire must have raged everywhere, because no matter where the story brings us, the landscape is gray and wan; even snow seems ashen. Sullied rain falls throughout the novel, the color green is no more. A vast conflagration must have reigned. Nights are dark as pitch, but there is a day, even though the sun is shrouded. There are few shadows.
A man and his boy are pushing a shopping cart, walking south to the coast in search, it seems, of warmer weather. We don’t really know why they are on the road—perhaps because there was nothing left where they’d been able to stay alive. The mother is gone, having taken her own life for reasons which are clear and even forgivable. Hunger—starvation—has created monsters in human form. All along the way, the boy distinguishes his father from the “bad guys” around them by his father’s promise never to eat another human being. Yet, amid the wretchedness, we understand how tenuous that pledge is. Such is life down the agonizing emptiness of The Road.
The novel is a kind of prophecy, but it’s prophetic in a way that has nothing to do with politics. It is not a Jeremiad. Cormac McCarthy is not warning his countrymen and women of the decline of American prosperity or freedom. The scenario is nightmare, but there’s no agenda—political or environmental or cultural.
What the novel is more than anything, I believe, is fable. For despite its bitter horrors and beastly characters, its desolate world and desolated environment, love triumphs. It’s not possible to say what I mean in those very words—love triumphs—because anything we might connect to that phrase—that subject and that verb—seems empty and clichéd. What shines through the devastation is respect and trust; what triumphs in the ruins is love.
The Road begs you to have faith, to believe that even in the darkest of our possibilities, there can be light. Transcendent faith is all there is, even in the apocalypse.
I have no idea what the psalmist was imagining when he wrote that God scatters the frost like ashes, but somewhere therein is the suggestion of conflagration and sadness.
But the theme of the song the psalmist is singing is praise, praise, and more praise, his heart so full of faith he may well sing far, far better than he thinks. And that’s okay. Because I believe him, just as I do Cormac McCarthy.
Faith still sits at the heart of our every moment—yesterday, today, and tomorrow, whatever our tomorrow might be.