The quiet crushing futility of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea has always seemed to me an appropriate symbol of life’s pointlessness. You work hard to make something good for yourself and for the people you love, perhaps with the hope that something you do will be larger than yourself and live beyond your short years—it comes to nothing. My (not-at-all-unique) answer to this is that you struggle through your life anyway, not because you expect reward—even as simple and as grand as happiness or goodness—but because you want to, because the doing is good in itself, because to do otherwise is to give up; you live and work and love because you must.
There is a lot of this sensibility in The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s almost unrelentingly grim novel of a father and son trying to survive as they travel a post-apocalyptic highway in some unnamed part of the U.S. (I’m guessing it’s mostly in what we currently call Tennesee and North Carolina.) Witness this passage:
The days sloughed past uncounted and uncalendared. Along the interstate in the distance long lines of charred and rusting cars. The raw rims of the wheels sitting in a stiff gray sludge of melted rubber, in blackened rings of wire. The incinerate corpses shrunk to the size of a child and propped on the bare springs of the seats. Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts. They went on. Treading the dead world under like rats on a wheel. The nights dead still and deader black. So cold. They talked hardly at all. He coughed all the time and the boy watched him spitting blood. Slumping along. Filthy, ragged, hopeless. He’d stop and lean on the cart and the boy would go on and then stop and look back and he would raise his weeping eyes and see him standing there in the road looking back at him from some unimaginable future, glowing like a tabernacle.
Perhaps McCarthy is flashier and more graphically violent than Hemingway because he is writing in this time rather than Hemingway’s. Nevertheless, McCarthy displays his usual and powerful command of the language. Gritty details and metaphorical flights evoke feelings well past despair for the future of humanity. The story pretty much can’t have a happy ending; we read it to see how bad it gets, to see if the life conjured could really be as bad or worse than the one we see around us all the time.
And yet, I think McCarthy retains hope. To call the basis of that hope “love” would overstretch credulity. His hope does seem founded in the relationships between people, but these relationships are formed in the crucible of pain and suffering; they are made of perseverance, habit, trust, flashes of courage, and tenderness in still shorter instants. Thus, and somewhat surprisingly, we discover that McCarthy likes people. Love or no, a pointless second of tenderness is still a tenderness. I’ll take it every time.