Ralph Waldo Emerson versus Cormac McCarthy: The Annihilation of Emerson’s Values in McCarthy’s The Road

Ralph Waldo Emerson versus Cormac McCarthy: The Annihilation of Emerson’s Values in McCarthy’s The Road

Nora Kestermann

The title of this article could easily be changed to “Transcendental Dreamscape versus Apocalyptic Nightmare” for the representation of the American landscape in literature has oftentimes been ambivalent. Alongside the frequent tendency to color nature with American optimism, exemplified by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Nature” (1836), lies another, darker practice: to affiliate the natural environment with gothic elements and/or apocalyptic fear, as Cormac McCarthy does it in his novel The Road (2006). The general portrayal of wilderness as terrifying can already be noticed in the Bible, while the depiction of the American wilderness as a realm of evil is a phenomenon that arguably started in early Puritan chronicles. In this regard, the term ‘wilderness’ would be defined in contrast to cultivated land, i.e. not (yet) settled or domesticated, whereas ‘landscape’ is usually considered to have already been under distinct influence of civilization. On the American continent, the wilderness was often considered to be God’s testing ground, which was difficult to bear but which could be conquered. It seems, however, that this concept of describing a harsh wilderness has been taken a step further when it comes to novelist Cormac McCarthy, as will be elaborated on in this article. Undoubtedly, the theme of nature, and along with it in particular the topic of wilderness, have had a unique influence on American culture and literature. Moreover, the depiction of the relationship between the human being and the natural environment still plays a significant role in contemporary literature. My special concern in this article is to show how poignantly the two works—on the one hand Emerson’s “Nature” and on the other hand McCarthy’s The Road—differ in their depiction of nature. In what follows, I would like to contrast the two texts by looking at specific references and key themes in both of them. Against the background that Emerson believes in nature as a symbol of spirit, his text conspicuously displays a quite optimistic vision, whereas McCarthy’s work offers a threatening and bleak account of a devastated world. In light of the latter’s divergent view, the following assumption may sound disturbing, but I argue that Emerson’s essay “Nature” could be regarded, at least to a certain degree, as a useful frame for an analysis of McCarthy’s narrative. The article focuses on how McCarthy cunningly enunciates his opposition against Emerson’s transcendental values. Thus, I propose that McCarthy directly and indirectly writes against the conception of Emerson’s nature: The use of landscape and nature in The Road can be understood as a critique, opposition, and even rejection of Emerson’s concept of nature.

As it will be crucial for the later discussion, I will include a short summary of the major themes in Emerson’s essay “Nature” and of McCarthy’s story. In regard to Emerson’s almost book-length essay, I will concentrate on its introduction and the first three chapters. In brief, Emerson believes that nature is a medium through which God speaks to humanity. Following a pantheistic belief system, he envisions God to be everywhere in the natural surroundings. In his writing, Emerson sets forth his thesis of an all-loving and all-pervading God, whose presence in people makes them divine and assures their salvation. Expanding on this idea, he establishes the concept of humankind’s immersion into nature, which he refers to as the so-called “over-soul”—an encompassing whole representing the unity of God, man, and nature. Consequently, the transcendental philosopher believes to be able to commune with nature and God in the woods. Undoubtedly, this work of Emerson represents a key text in American literature because it is part of the phenomenon that American writers “identified the health, the very personality, of America with Nature” (Miller, Nature 199) in the nineteenth century. Since this plays a significant role in McCarthy’s narrative, it will be explored more closely later.

In contrast to Emerson’s text, McCarthy’s novel unfolds the image of a situation in which a small number of individuals find themselves after a catastrophe. In The Road, a father and his son make their agonizing way through a postapocalyptic America. Most part of mankind has been destroyed by an apparently man-made disaster, which is never clearly specified throughout the story. Life has turned into a nightmare. In burned-out ruins only a few human beings try to survive, among them the two unnamed protagonists called ‘the man’ and ‘the son.’ Their everyday task is to find food, to provide themselves with clothing, shelter, and warmth—briefly, to simply subsist somehow in this cruel environment. The son has been born shortly after the catastrophe and has never known a world other than this ravaged one. In addition, the reader learns about the mother having left her family by committing suicide after the disaster, because she was not able to live in this world. By travelling south and east, the man and his son hope to find a better climate, only to be disappointed once they arrive at the coast. The reader becomes quickly aware that, against Emerson’s belief, not “[e]very natural action is graceful” (Emerson 827) in McCarthy’s story. Throughout the narrative, the protagonists are confronted with violence and a dead, ransacked environment.

America as “Nature’s Nation”

Generally speaking, the idea that the sublimity of nature in America shows God’s good will towards the American people spread in the period of optimism in the 1840s. The assumption that the nation would find inspiration from the surrounding extraordinary nature manifested the perception of America as “Nature’s nation” as Miller ascertains (Nature 201). The identificatory element of the wilderness had a vitalizing effect on the country: the theme of spiritual nature became ubiquitous in the American arts, which had until then appeared to be negligible compared to the rich traditions and long history of European arts. Artists in the ‘New World’ began to define the American character through landscape; many started portraying the potential and even glory of the American wilderness. Poets such as William Cullen Bryant, for example, found use for wilderness in their poems, and painters such as Asher B. Durand also turned to wilderness to portray the beauty of the American continent (cf. Nash, Wilderness 76). In comparing American mountain ranges, forests and lakes to those of Europe, Americans found arguments for a new self-awareness: to many writers, the variety and diversity of the various regions were “remarkable for their picturesqueness and truly American character” (Cole 12). While nationalists declared the uniqueness of the wilderness, writers discovered the literary possibilities of nature and the wild. They began considering wilderness as a moral influence, where one could find exciting adventure stories as well as spirituality and beauty. Eventually, the idea of embedded nature rose to be one of the defining American ideas as a cultural and moral resource and a foundation for national self-esteem: “a crucial ingredient of the American national ego” (Buell, Imagination 33).

While wilderness became the theme that was desperately longed for in the ‘New World’ of the nineteenth century and, in addition, was associated with spirituality during Emerson’s lifetime, it is portrayed as a threatening element in the novel The Road. Apparently, the understanding of nature has dramatically changed: McCarthy outlines the final stage of this development. Everything points to the presence of a subtext in which McCarthy quite clearly seeks to expose the ideal belief of America as ‘Nature’s nation.’ In his novel, “the notion of nature as a refuge from complexity” (Buell, Ideology 10) clearly finds an end. The harsh contrast will be exemplified in the following through a closer analysis of the vitalizing effect that nature has on Emerson and other transcendentalists but definitely not on the main characters in McCarthy’s story. Describing a journey through America which is usually celebrated for its natural beauty, McCarthy portrays it as a waste land: ‘Nature’s Nation’ has turned into a stifling landscape of degeneration.

Extremes of the Natural World

Both Emerson and McCarthy unanimously attach a symbolic meaning to the topic of nature, though in radically different ways. While many scholars claim that Emerson in his time stressed nature’s contribution to the process of American identity formation in the nineteenth century as delineated above, McCarthy uses the image of nature, or rather of wilderness, to illustrate and comment on the country’s downfall and along with it, to convey the moral decline of the American people in the novel. Furthermore, Cormac McCarthy undermines transcendental principles by refuting Emerson’s positive perception of finding inspiration and divinity in nature.

In Emerson’s remarkable description of the fusion of humans with the natural world, which according to him allows one to experience God directly, he emphasizes his belief in the inspirational power of the natural environment. As mentioned before, he sees God as an omnipresent force, and accordingly unity with the natural world would also lead to unity with the divine as he claims in his work:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life—no disgrace, no calamity […] which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, —all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (Emerson 823)

Since ocular references play a crucial role in The Road, I am going to return to the image of the “transparent eyeball” again for a closer analysis. Looking at McCarthy’s novel, it becomes immediately obvious that his narrative lacks the kind of trust in nature that Emerson describes. A sense of this is already given in the novel’s opening:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. (McCarthy 3)

Throughout the story, the two protagonists awaken in the woods every dark morning. It is crucial to point out that the man and his son clearly did not choose to go or remain in the woods in order to communicate with nature; instead, they have to face “the primal laws of survival” (Maslin n.pag.) in this violent environment. In contrast to Emerson and other transcendentalists, McCarthy’s characters have no other choice than to live their life in the wilderness. Indeed, this striking contrast between the novel’s protagonists and transcendentalists also becomes quite obvious when having a closer look at Henry David Thoreau as an additional example, who in 1845 had deliberately chosen to spend two years and two months by himself in a simple cabin at Walden Pond in order to find spiritual truth.

Moreover, the man and his son in the novel intend to hide from other human beings because the majority of their fellow men have turned into savages and cannibals. To quote a telling dialogue between the son and his father:

The boy lay with his head in the man’s lap. After a while he said: They’re going to kill those people, arent they?
Yes.
Why do they have to do that?
I don’t know.
Are they going to eat them?
I don’t know.
They’re going to eat them, arent they?
Yes.
And we couldn’t help them because then they’d eat us too.
Yes.
Okay.
(McCarthy 127)

Life in the wilderness has become characterized by mistrust and suspicion—towards nature as well as towards other human beings. The Emersonian inspirational quest in nature has changed into a fight for survival in the wilderness. McCarthy’s characters do not succeed to become one with the cosmos. They do not experience an awe-inspiring feeling; instead, they encounter the cold indifference, some might even refer to it as hostility of nature. The description of nature is illustrative of the characters’ inner conflict. McCarthy’s nature “forms an exterior version of the main characters’ inner universe” (Cheuse 141). It is exactly at this point where the wilderness as an ideal turns into a place of horror for the characters: the transcendental landscape becomes a dark apocalyptic nightmare. As oftentimes before in American literature, “nature is turned into a reflection of the human soul” (Neubauer 355), but in this case, not much is left of nature, and in fact, not much is left of morality. The fact that there is nothing to eat in this infertile world lets the remaining humans turn into cannibals. It appears as if the people can only survive in this world “by killing and eating each other” (Keller n.pag.). The world has become a landscape of terror because of its people. Nature that Emerson still idolized in order to ask for national self-esteem is now being applied by McCarthy to hint at America’s moral decline.

Facing the wild within nature and within people, McCarthy’s protagonists do not see any beauty in nature. While Emerson enjoys the “uncontained and immortal beauty” (823) of nature, the man in the novel comes across “trees as dead as any. He picked up one of the heavy leaves and crushed it in his hands to powder and let the powder sift through his fingers” (196). Father and son walk through a burned and ravaged country where everything has been looted and ransacked. As the man points out, the landscape is “[b]arren, silent, godless” (McCarthy 4). This appears to be a direct allusion to Emerson’s manifesto, since it reveals the key themes that also constitute the core around which Emerson’s ideas are formed in a positive manner: to Emerson, nature is not barren but alive and spiritual, not silent but considered as the original source of language, not godless but divine.

Withdrawal from God

Emerson’s idea of the omnipresent God has been substituted by an omnipresent threat that does not allow for any sympathy between man and nature. Gradually, McCarthy’s protagonist loses faith in God. He evidently does not sense any Emersonian oneness with the divine:

Then he just knelt in the ashes. He raised his face to the paling day. Are you there? he whispered. Will I see you at the last? Have you a neck by which to throttle you? Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul? Oh God, he whispered. Oh God. (McCarthy 11)

The man’s constant speculation about the presence, respectively the absence, of God is undoubtedly incompatible with Emerson’s ideal stated in “Nature”: “Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive” (828). Whereas Emerson does not doubt that God can be found anywhere in nature, the world described in the novel is almost entirely destroyed. As a consequence, the man clearly does not believe in the existence of God in nature: “A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of Christendom” (McCarthy 16). Like the snow flake melting away, the man’s hope for salvation vanishes. Not only does this image of a snow flake emphasize how fast the father’s hope vanishes, it also exposes the opposition towards Emerson’s optimistic pantheism. The reader of The Road is constantly confronted with the protagonist’s dilemma: he clearly does not agree with the image of God in nature, but neither can he deny the belief in God entirely. However, even if God exists, it is not a benevolent one who offers salvation. The world obviously appears to be beyond redemption. If at all, the man sees the divine spirit in his son, as he reveals on his walk: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke” (McCarthy 5). Thus, in spite of the protagonist’s withdrawal from man and God, he “conceptualizes the son as an icon of religious significance” (Wilhelm 136) and considers his divine redemption to save the son: “My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God. I will kill anyone who touches you” (McCarthy 77). Although the man cannot determine “any hint of divinity in the barren landscape” (Tyburski 124), to him the son symbolizes the godly spirit and consequently, hope for the future.

No Clarity in a Darkened World

This feeling of doubt about God’s (non)existence is also exemplified by the presentation of the world as a forlorn and darkened place. The reader frequently comes across various ocular references in both texts. Through immersion into nature, Emerson praises the “clarity of vision” (Edwards 56) which he illustrates with his concept of the “transparent eyeball”: “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God” (823). As a “transparent eyeball,” man becomes receptive towards the divine that can transmit itself into one’s consciousness, hence, make the human being one with God. Again, McCarthy absolutely rejects this idea in The Road. He implies that the visual (if not all) senses are not stimulated but impaired when it comes to the protagonist’s experience in the novel’s deathscape: “Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” (McCarthy 3). Due to remarks like this, the author once again focuses the reader’s attention on how incompatible a fusion of nature, God, and the individual in this narrative is. Just how emphatically McCarthy refuses Emerson’s ideal of a “transparent eyeball” is demonstrated in another decisive moment on the man’s walk through the country: 

[…] he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. […] Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. […] then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. (McCarthy 4)

The eyes do not have anything to look at in McCarthy’s story. Evidently, this passage also brings into focus how darkness and ashes as symbols of destruction work as recurring motifs hinting at a darkened and hopeless world and thus prevent spiritual revelation as Emerson suggests. The sun as a frequently used image in both Emerson’s and McCarthy’s works contributes to this perception. Emerson proposes that “the sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child” (823); and akin to this assumption, he points out that among others the sun “yields its tribute of delight” (823). Emerson perceives the sun as benevolent, evoking “a perfect exhilaration” (823) of the human mind. By contrast, McCarthy gives us a world that is now darkened and even grows darker every day in the mind of the protagonist: in the narrative, the sun (and dawn as something going hand in hand with the image of the sun) do not have any positive connotation. What differentiates its image from Emerson’s ideal is the sun’s frequent absence, thus the reference to “the lost sun” (McCarthy 31) as the man in McCarthy’s story remarks. Even when visible the sun is described as “indifferent” (219), or only able to provide “gray light” (4). This is especially interesting if one considers that many ancient cultures associated deities with the sun and thus emphasized the sun’s role not only as a source of light and warmth, but in general as the source of life. The aspect of an absent sun in the novel metaphorically visualizes the doubts the protagonist has about the existence of God. What the novelist further enhances with these images of a dull sun and a sunless sky is that man is unable to have the clarity in nature as proposed by Emerson.

Through the permanent use of his binoculars, the man is monitoring the surroundings in order to protect his son and himself from the threatening world. In fact, he cannot observe anything most of the time. After the destruction the landscape is deprived of anything natural or living, the result of his observations is thus usually the same:

He got the binoculars out of the cart and stood in the road and glassed the plain down there where the shape of a city stood in the grayness like a charcoal drawing sketched across the waste. Nothing to see. No smoke. Can I see? the boy said. Yes. Of course you can. […] What do you see? the man said. Nothing. He lowered the glass. (McCarthy 8)

In short, nature has been erased of its spiritual features and its emptiness is striking. Interestingly enough, the individual in Emerson’s concept experiences the harmony with God by observing nature. In The Road, there is nothing left to look at; it is the end of the civilized and natural world. Consequently, the man and his son are never granted unity with the divine. 

It seems to be quite difficult to interpret the depicted landscape in McCarthy’s novel; in fact, it withstands any interpretation at first sight (cf. Edwards 56). The landscape is rather silent, even mute. It presents itself in dark colors, if not even colorless: Kennedy proposes that the only colors left in this world are those of fire and blood. Obviously, nature is devoid of any diversity, stripped of any discernible content. The man and his son have to find their way through not only a bleak landscape but, in fact, through an empty world in which it is impossible to find food—or hope. Accordingly, the reader is often confronted with the author’s attempt to destroy the traditional Emersonian idea of the inspiring American environment: “The blackness he woke to […] was sightless and impenetrable” (McCarthy 15). The ideal of a boundless future and faith in limitless possibilities, proclaiming America as a green and lush ‘second Garden of Eden’ is heavily attacked by McCarthy. In his America, everything is covered by ashes and soot: there is no hope or order, the only thing to be sure of is destruction and death.

Cormac McCarthy’s novel thus often hints at Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idealistic concept of American nature with which the country once strove to identify itself. Whereas Emerson comes to read nature as his medium to become one with God, McCarthy projects confusion and disorder through terror and great anxiety onto nature—or rather what is left of it. In the novel, the unity of the divine, nature, and the self proposed by Emerson appears to be destroyed from the inside by one of its essential parts—the human being itself. In The Road, McCarthy underlines the estrangement between the human being and nature through indirect and direct references to Emerson, for example, by exposing the concepts of the ‘oversoul’ and the ‘transparent eyeball’ as clear idealizations. Clarity and trust in nature are replaced by desolation and desperation. The alienation between humans and the natural environment thus leads to a radical disillusionment with Emersonian values.


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