Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Children Of The Grave: The End Times of Jack London and Cormac McCarthy

Our civilization is obsessed with its own demise. Perhaps this has been the case since the first civilizations arose from mire; we can see the systems and processes that support and nurture our cosseted and comfortable existence in all their fragility and we are very well aware of their weakness and potential for failure. This is as true of the modern world where supermarkets have available only a 3-day supply of foodstuffs as it was in pharaonic Egypt that depended on the annual flood of the Nile. Human progress may be represented by an upward curve but as the curve gets steeper so the potential for the fall becomes all the greater. In reading Cormac McCarthy’s post-modern novel The Road I was struck by some similarities to Jack London’s novella The Scarlet Plague, published in 1912. Both place their protagonist – an educated, self-reliant and traditionally heroic male – in a landscape of extreme future-shock, forced to live in a world that has changed beyond recognition, forced to exist on hope and the memories of hope, both protagonists having the desire to pass on knowledge and humanity in a place where neither are valued. However there are points of disparity between London and McCarthy and the message of their respective stories that mark the authors as men of their own times, that show the tectonic-shifts in human consciousness that occurred in the century between the publication of the two books and which cause the reader to react in very different ways. The Scarlet Plague is narrated by James Howard Smith to his three grandsons as they sit eating shellfish on a beach in the San Francisco bay area around the year 2063. They are dressed in animal skins, armed with the hunting weapons of the Paleo-Indian and obsessed with finding enough to eat. Smith is the oldest man in their scattered society, perhaps the oldest man still alive anywhere in the world and the only man who remembers the coming of the monstrous pandemic known as The Scarlet Plague which brought an end to the human dominion of the earth in 2013. London’s plague kills swiftly and implacably and seems to be a product of the overcrowded megatropolises that cover the world. As it spreads across the world Smith describes to his grandsons how the lights went out one by one, how news from other places ceased, how in the panic and chaos caused by the collapse of society virtues and values were discarded and selfish, lawless thuggery reigned. How even the family unit disintegrated in the face of the plague, causing parents to abandon children, husbands to abandon wives. In scenes perhaps echoing the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 London narrates a world of huge city-wide fires in which armed gangs of drunken looters destroy and carouse until death, inevitably, takes them. However London sees the eradication of humanity from the face of the earth not as the final and irrevocable end but as a temporary, albeit cataclysmic, set back in the onward march of progress. Freed from the yoke of Man London’s earth is slowly reverting to a wild, pre-Edenic state of abundant fecundity tempered by the natural laws of prey and preyer. The forests are reclaiming the fields, the salmon are running the rivers and wild horses are driven down to the coast by the increasing presence of mountain lions. Life for London’s survivors may be harsh and full of challenges but it is still possible, still tenable for those with sufficient knowledge and the will to use it. For London the human race has been doomed to sink down into a pre-barbaric state but it will, though it may take eons to achieve, one day begin its climb upward to civilization. There is optimism in London’s narrative; Smith has saved and stashed some books, he hopes to preserve some learning and his community, albeit it primitive and lacking in the finer social graces, is sustainable. London never lived long enough to see the twentieth century wax into it’s noontide of horror and degradation. He would not see the industrialized, bureaucratic death machines employed by totalitarianisms of various complexions or see survivors walking through the ashes and rubble of Hiroshima. He would not see the endless cycles of famine inflicted on whole continental regions, the cancer at the heart of the modern man who has so much that he feels only self-pity or the destruction and poisoning of the forests, seas and air. As such when the end of the world arrives in The Scarlet Plague it comes in a medieval fury of blood, fire and death but when the smoke clears the survivors find themselves alone in a savage pristine paradise. For McCarthy the smoke does not clear. We are not told how the end comes. Like his characters, places and times it is anonymous and universal. The Man simply hears the massive percussive crump of some vast, unknowable event and fills the bath to conserve as much water as possible. What has happened has happened, no explanation or justification is offered. Neither do we know how long has passed since the cataclysm, we can speculate that the Boy – born into a world after the end – is now old enough to undertake the journey but young enough so that his protection and nurturing is a constant source of stress and anxiety for his father but time as it was understood prior to the end is forgotten and is now measured in the passing of days without food and fire. Even the sun and moon are no longer visible, abandoning the earth beneath a pall of smoke and ash. Across this landscape of fimbulwinter and eternal twilight the Man and Boy make their way, a slow heartbreaking exodus through a devastated wilderness, aiming always for the coast, seeking warmth, seeking food where there is only the blowing of ashes, the drifts of litter and refuse, the empty and desolate echoes of a time that has passed. Their rejoicing when they happen across a bunker of stored food is real and terrible, it is an oasis, water from the rock of Horeb. It has saved their lives and with it their hope. In London’s story the narrator, wandering lonely and mute in the empty wilderness of the Sierras is overcome at the sight of people and craves their society but for McCarthy it is other people who threaten the existence of the family unit that is everything. London saw his survivors banding together in communities, founding tribes and clans. He foresaw the problem that survivors would not all be men of good character, that the foolish and small-minded may stand as much chance as the brave and the good but he did not foresee a future in which community meant nothing, in which captives were chained to walls as their limbs were harvested, in which men armed with lengths of pipe raped and ate those weaker than themselves. How can there be hope in such a place? Is it hopeless and nihilistic to abandon a life that is truly without hope? Is it cowardly and vain to prefer the painlessness of oblivion to an existence of brutal slavery and cannibalism? Is it not better, as the Mans wife said, to go now before the horror finds you? McCarthy’s vision is bleak and pessimistic, at times the living really do envy the dead, but it is not utterly without hope. The Man is driven only by a hope that in searching he will find a future for himself and his son. Perhaps the Man no longer hopes that he and his son will meet with the good guys, perhaps he never did but he can not abandon the life that he has created, not walk away from the duties and obligations that his act of creation has bestowed upon him. That both London and McCarthy choose to view their new worlds through the eyes of children tells us much. The boys in London’s story are feral and cruel, wearing strings of human teeth knocked from the skulls of plague victims, delighting in the pain and humiliation their childish pranks inflict on their frail, senile grandfather and spurning the learning and wisdom that he tries to impart. The boys are not noble savages but ignoble and stupid brutes, reveling in their ignorance, wearing their lack of knowledge as a badge of honour. When Smith tries to explain the meaning of the word scarlet he is mocked and howled down, two of his grandsons state that there is no such thing as scarlet, only red. If the Inuit have many different words for snow it is because they are aware of the subtle differences and qualities that the phenomena we call snow can possess. This knowledge is won through many generations of experience and passed on because it allows the possessor of that knowledge to know something valuable about the world in which they live; In allowing that there is only red and not scarlet the boys aid the contraction of the world, abet the loss of that knowledge and awareness that was the legacy of human progress. But the Man in The Road can hardly bear to impart knowledge to his son because of the pain that would be caused by the realization of its loss for a boy to whom even the words and meanings of a language from before are meaningless and empty. Information is pared down and simplified because there is nothing one can say to a child about a world that has gone except the need to move, the need to stay warm and to eat, the message that we are the good guys and that we are carrying the fire for the other good guys. For London there is no place for God in either the destruction of the old order or the rebuilding of the new. In The Scarlet Plague London predicts a stratified society in which the government of the USA, indeed the world, is carved up into hereditary fiefdoms by impossibly wealthy industrial magnates. A society in which technocrats do the bidding of plutocrats, built on a foundation of oppression and servitude. When the plague has ebbed away it leaves behind only scattered individuals who come together to start afresh in brutish innocence. If Jack London’s evocation of the future is not as bleak and existentially desolate as McCarthy’s how can we blame him for not knowing that God would be put on trial in the courtroom of a death-camp bunkhouse or believing that survivors would wade through the ash and rubble of their cities. McCarthy’s apocalypse is very much more modern and simultaneously ancient, very much more eschatonic – God’s name is called down not in anger or grief but simply as a manifestation of beauty and presence. Through the course of the narrative the Boy is deified, he becomes the God of New Life that the Man swears to serve, to carry across the Jordan. It is through the Boy that the Man finds redemption from his own misanthropy and cruelty, albeit cruelty that only seeks to protect and prolong the life and thus the hope that they both carry. When the Man and Boy happen upon Ely in the road it is the Boy who prevails upon his father to help the old man as it is the boy who begs his father to return the clothes and boots to the thief who stole all their belongings. It is the Boy who forgives those who trespass against him and it is the boy who reminds the Man what it is to be human and why they continue to carry the fire. Man and Boy, the Father and the Son. An old and a new testament and each a reflection of the others entire world. Can we find any redemption or return to grace at the conclusion of these texts? Smith and his grandchildren simply strike camp and herd their goats back towards their tribe, resigned to the millennia-long struggle ahead of them. The Boy finds others who we hope are the good guys, like him we have to take a shot on it but we know that what has gone will never return. I was never scared until I became a father. I was reckless and I was fey in the true meaning of that word – contemptuous of death and all its unknown faces. But when I became a father I also came to know what fear was. I became fearful for the future, I became fearful for the world that my daughters would have to live in. I began to calculate risk and measure dangers. I became intolerant of those things that would impose upon and threaten the sanctity of my family. In making life we become aware of those unknown faces of death and most of all that face which reflects our own mortality. The conscious act of will to create life is also a conscious investment in the future and in return for that investment we receive a violent, atavistic impulse to protect it from those who would squander it or take it from us. We become the Creator-Destroyer but we are also given hope. It is our children who Harrow this Hell for us, who light our way. We are no longer the tip of the spearhead, the fire has been placed in the hands of a small child. Jack London’s novel The Scarlet Death was published in 1912 and is available online at The Road is published in the UK by Picador at £7.99

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