You, Word, made words
And you made me:
Why can’t I say what I mean?
Perhaps this is all words do—
Fail to the realization:
We’re made to say
Not what we think but how
You are for us.
You are what I mean.
The King’s Son made a marriage feast in blood at Golgotha;
there the daughter of the day was betrothed to him, to be his,
and the royal ring was beaten out in the nails of his hands;
with his holy blood was this berthrohal made …
he led her into the Garden—the bridal chamber he had prepared for her.
At what wedding feast apart from this did they break
the body of the groom for the guests in place of other food?
Wives are separated from their husbands by death,
but this Bride is joined to her Beloved by death!
—Jacob of Serugh
The Road, before anything else, is a stark re-telling of Dante’s Comedy. This comes clear right from the novel’s beginning. Waking to the cold in the night, the Man reaches out to touch the Child sleeping beside him and remembers a dream in which he had “wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand.” In the dream, they, like “pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast,” had found themselves at the shore of a vast subterranean lake. Across the water, they had seen a creature “pale and naked and translucent,” which, startled, loped away into the dark.
The parallels to the opening lines of The Inferno are striking.
Half way along the road we have to go,
I found myself obscured in a great forest,
Bewildered, and I knew I had lost the way.
Dante, like McCarthy’s nameless father, finds himself thinking of standing beside and staring into “dangerous water.” He too sees a beast, although he does not startle it away. Dante in fact sees three beasts—first, a leopard, a “wild animal with brilliant skin,” then a lion, and, last, a she-wolf—each of which startles him and then forces him back to the road he has forsaken. And Dante too has a guide—the ancient poet, Virgil—who appears after the beasts have blocked Dante’s way. Dante’s guide is more father than son, more dead than alive, but he too leads into a cave, into hell, just as the Man’s child-guide led him in his dream.
The novel’s beginning evokes the opening lines of Dante’s Inferno, and its end matches (perversely) The Paradiso’s final lines. The Road closes with a bleak coda:
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 in 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.
Paradiso, by contrast, ends with a bright song. Dante, leaving Beatrice, as before he had left Virgil, comes at last into the living, eternal light:
In the profundity of the clear substance
Of the deep light, appeared to me three circles
Of three colors and equal circumference
And the first seems to be reflected by the second,
As a rainbow, and the third
Seemed like a flame breathed equally from both.
Within the shape of the circles, Dante sees an image of one “painted with our effigy.” And “Like a geometer who sets himself/To square the circle” he fails to find words for what he sees. He loses his imaginative and linguistic grip on reality. Rapt in mystery, his will and desire are”turned like a wheel, all at one speed,/By the love which moves the sun and the other stars.”
McCarthy perverts, wicks, this final vision. Leaving Beatrice, beholding God, Dante sees humanity’s likeness etched into the divine shape. But McCarthy’s narrator sees other likenesses, other shapes: the becomings of the world are etched (map-like and/or maze-like) on the shimmering backs of the now-extinct mountain trout. If for Dante the human speaks of the divine, then for McCarthy the non-human speaks of the pre- and post-human.
The Road’s coda turns away from humans (at least seemingly), but it does not quite turn to God. It turns instead to a humming mystery which though it is older than man, is not divine (at least in any recognizably Christian sense). If the Paradiso ends in a light too bright for vision, The Road ends (or, again, at least seem to end) in a darkness in which there is no light at all, a darkness with no gleams of turning.
As I read it, McCarthy’s Man has fallen into something like Kierkegaardian despair.
What is this “despair”? Given that Kierkegaard understands the human person as called to be a self, to relate to himself and to others as he rests in God, the ground of his being, then “despair” names a misrelation, a misrelating, of a person to himself. A man is in despair in the Kierkegaardian sense when his relation to himself has been thrown entirely out of balance, when he is utterly at odds with himself and so with others because he has refused to be rightly related in God. “To despair over oneself, in despair to will to be rid of oneself—that is the formula for all despair.” In other words, when a man wants not to be the self he has been given to be, but a self he has dreamed up for himself, when a man has no choice but to be the self he does not want to be, then he is left in despair. Such a man is morally—and mortally—ill.
McCarthy’s Man is in despair. But certainly not a childish despair. He is no sensualist. And he is unconcerned with any systems of meaning. His despair is something like what Kierkegaard calls the demonic.
Demonic despair is the most intensive form of the despair: in despair to will to be oneself. It is not even in stoic self-infatuation and self-apotheosis that this despair wills to be itself … No, in hatred toward existence, it wills to be itself, wills to be itself in accordance with its misery. Not even in defiance or defiantly does it will to be itself, but for spite; not even in defiance does it want to tear itself loose from the power that established it, but for spite wants to force itself upon it, to obtrude defiantly upon it, wants to adhere to it out of malice—and, of course, a spiteful denunciation must above all take care to adhere to what it denounces. Rebelling against all existence, it feels that it has obtained evidenced against it, against its goodness. The person in despair believes that he himself is the evidence, and that is what he wants to be, and therefore he wants to be himself, himself in his torment, in order to protest against all existence with this torment.
Not long before he meets his end, the Man sees (or foresees) “the absolute truth of the world.” He catches sight not of “three circles/Of three colors and equal circumference,” as Dante does in his final vision, but of “the cold relentless circling of the intestate earth.” And, again unlike the Beatrice-led Dante, he finds himself finally facing not light, but only darkness—”darkness implacable.” He sees not the wheel of angelic providence, but “the blind dogs of the sun in their running.” Not a light from which it is impossible to turn away, but the “crushing black vacuum of the universe.” Living like beasts, hunted night and day, the Man and the Child live on “borrowed time [in a] borrowed world [with] borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.”
Borrowed? A startling turn of phrase, which reveals the Man’s imagined relation to God. As he sees it, God, the ground of all being and relating, mercilessly lends him and his son everything they need to suffer a world they cannot possibly overcome. “The rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” God’s rule, he feels, is unimaginably, unrelentingly cruel.
That misrelating to God leaves the Man rotting in his fears. And yet, at the moment of death, he seems to break through to hope. As at the novel’s beginning, he wakes in a cave’s darkness and listens for the boy:
He woke in the darkness, coughing softly. He lay listening. The boy sat by the lire wrapped in a blanket watching him. Drip of water. A fading light. Old dreams encroached upon the waking world. The dripping was in the cave. The light was a candle which the boy bore in a ringstick of beaten copper. The wax spattered on the stones. Tracks of unknown creatures in the mortified loess. In that cold corridor they had reached the point of no return which was measured from the first solely by the light they carried with them.
The boy asks a question about a child his own age they had seen not too long before in the town:
Do you remember that little boy, Papa?
Yes. I remember him.
Do you think that he’s all right that little boy?
Oh yes. I think he’s all right.
Do you think he was lost?
No. I dont think he was lost.
I’m scared that he was lost.
I think he’s all right.
As the Man falls asleep for a final time, he wonders to himself, “But who will find him if he’s lost?” He finds in his heart a surprising answer: “Goodness will find the little boy. It always has. It will again.” Dying, returning all that he has borrowed, he sees he has been enriched beyond imagination. Against all odds, God’s lending has been a mercy.
The death of the father frees the son. The Child stays by the Man’s cold body for three days, saying his name, and then walks back to the road and looks along it. He looks “back the way they had come,” and sees someone coming. His father had always said only enemies were behind them, yet the boy does not run from the road. Instead, he stands his ground and waits, pistol in hand.
When the man approaches, the boy sizes him up, and asks: “Are you one of the good guys?”
The man pulled back the hood from his face. His hair was long and matted. He looked at the sky. As if there were anything there to be seen. He looked at the boy. Yeah, he said. I’m one of the good guys. Why dont you put the pistol away?
Back at camp, the boy finds that this man and his family have rescued the child he had seen and so often worried about. And we readers recognize that his father’s hope has been fulfilled. Goodness has found him, as it finds everyone in the end.
What is true of the Man is true of the story and the storyteller as well: they break from despair only just at the last. In the book’s final scene, the Woman puts her arms around the Boy, and comforts him. She talks to him about God, and encourages him to pray. When he admits that he can’t quite bring himself to pray, she assures him that that’s all right. “She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” Breath, it turns out, is not so much borrowed as given, shared.
God saves us
—if we’re saved at all—
By queerest means:
Water, oil, wine and bread
Words in the dark, silence, a kiss.
God saves us: divinely.
God saves us
—if he does anything at all—
By no means whatsoever:
This street, this stranger
Clutching this crude “need $$!” sign.
God saves us: humanly.
God saves us
—if “saves” is what we call it—
By any means necessary:
Plenty and lack, height and depth
Beauty and ashes, life and death.
God saves us: after all.
On his feast day:
“Writing should always be exploratory. There shouldn’t be the assumption that you know ahead of time what you want to express. When you enter into the dance with language, you’ll begin to find that there’s something before, or behind, or more absolute than the thing you thought you wanted to express. And as you work, other kinds of meaning emerge than what you might have expected. It’s like wrestling with the angel: On the one hand you feel the constraints of what can be said, but on the other hand you feel the infinite potential. There’s nothing more interesting than language and the problem of trying to bend it to your will, which you can never quite do. You can only find what it contains, which is always a surprise.
Read the full essay here.
“If you didn’t have the simplicity, how could
this thing have happened to you, lighting the night?
Look: God, who thundered over the people,
makes himself gentle and comes through you into the world.
Had you imagined him greater?
What is greatness? His destiny moves in a straight
line through all measurements, crossing them out.
Not even a star has a path like his.
Look how great these kings are, look
how they bring before your lap, your womb
great treasures they thought the greatest.
And perhaps you’re astonished by their gifts — :
But look, again, in the folds of your clothes,
how he already surpasses all that.
All amber, brought from far off,
all wrought gold and aromatic spices
that move about, blurred, in your senses:
all of that belonged to one brief, hurried moment
and in the end one regrets it . . .
But (you will see): he brings joy.”
—Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Franz Wright)
Today, the Feast of the Holy Innocents forces us to acknowledge that Christmas is not all sweetness and light. Christmas is a time to remember not only Christ and his miraculous birth, but also those who died for him before they had a chance to live. After all, there’s no way to tell his story rightly without also telling theirs. Their story and his story are one. And because we can’t praise his coming without at the same time protesting their going, we need to consider them just as we consider him.
Even though we feel the need to “make sense” of what happened to these children, we have to be careful not to sentimentalize the event, however subtly. Irenaeus runs just that risk when he suggests Herod did not so much take the lives of the innocents as Christ gave them early entrance into his kingdom:
For this cause, too, he suddenly removed those children belonging to the house of David, whose happy lot it was to have been born at that time, that he might send them on before into his kingdom; he, since he was himself an infant, so arranging it that infants should be martyrs, slain, according to the Scriptures, for the sake of Christ, who was born in Bethlehem of Judah, in the city of David (AH III.16.4).
And Bede, by finding all kinds of significance in the story’s details, arguably distances himself and his hearers just a bit too much from the event itself.
In this death of the children the precious death of all Christ’s martyrs is figured; that they were infants signifies, that by the merit of humility alone can we come to the glory of martyrdom; that they were slain in Bethlehem and the coasts thereof, that the persecution shall be both in Jerusalem whence the Church originated, and throughout the world; in those of two years old are figured the perfect in doctrine and works; those under that age the neophytes; that they were slain while Christ escaped, signifies that the bodies of the martyrs may be destroyed by the wicked, but that Christ cannot be taken from them (Homilia I.10).
It’s not that Irenaeus and Bede were wrong to reflect on the slaughter, of course. It would be fundamentalist to insist otherwise. But we must be careful not to take refuge in the theologizing. Theological vision should sharpen, not obscure, the sense of tragedy.
Consider Rubens’ iconic painting, “The Massacre of the Innocents.”
No doubt it (powerfully!) captures something of the madness of the event. But even so, it is just a bit too stylized. Impressive, sickening, it is not actually sobering. Therefore, it can only get us so near to the truth.
Now, consider Pieter Brueghel’s painting of the same event:
As I see it, where Rubens is too hot, Brueghel the Elder is perfectly chilling. Rubens is enraptured by an orgy of bloodlust, but Brueghel cooly turns his eye on the overwhelming power of clinical state violence, a power which in the end simply envelopes madness and makes use of it for its own ends.
Auden hits some of the same notes in a strange little meditation (published in Harper’s, December 1953) that imagines Herod’s self-talk on the night before the massacre. Recognizing what will happen if Christ is allowed to live, the king concludes:
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in those professional tidiers to whom it is all one if it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate. O dear. Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid. Why can’t they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is…
Auden perhaps unfairly humanizes Herod, who by all accounts was horrible. But even if the king was a monster, the men who actually slaughtered those children in the name of the king were not monsters. They were ordinary soldiers, simply doing their enlisted duty. Hence, I suspect that Auden and Brueghel are right: we have more to fear from “professional tidiers” and the pragmatic, order-protecting politics they champion than we do from blood-crazed mobs. And surely that gets us closer to the ugly truth of the massacre of those children in Bethlehem, and closer to the darkness in the depths of our own hearts.
The collect for the day asks God to remember the holy innocents, and to receive into the arms of his mercy all innocent victims. But it also asks that God in his “great might” would “frustrate the designs of evil tyrants” and quickly establish his kingdom of justice, love, and peace in the world. It is a fitting prayer, no doubt. But of course in the case of these Bethlehemite children God did not in his great might frustrate the designs of Herod. So, the prayer sticks in my throat.
The lectionary readings for the day do nothing to comfort me. The OT reading delivers the burden of the Word of the Lord:
Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
And if the reading stopped here, as Matthew’s quotation does, I could take it. But it goes on:
Thus says the Lord:
Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
there is hope for your future,
says the Lord:
your children shall come back to their own country.
How are we to hear this without revolt? What is it, if not refusal to face the tragedy, to bear the sorrow?
The Psalm only deepens the trouble:
1 If the Lord had not been on our side, *
let Israel now say;
2 If the Lord had not been on our side, *
when enemies rose up against us;
3 Then would they have swallowed us up alive *
in their fierce anger toward us;
4 Then would the waters have overwhelmed us *
and the torrent gone over us;
5 Then would the raging waters *
have gone right over us.
6 Blessed be the Lord! *
he has not given us over to be a prey for their teeth.
The Christ child escapes, but the other children in Bethlehem? The waters do overwhelm them. Their enemies do devour them. God does gives them over as prey.
Again, we have to ask ourselves how we can hear these texts, this story, as gospel. How can we let them come to us as God’s good word? Only by learning to hear them via the promise given in today’s NT reading:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”
Somehow, in the mystery of God, hope remains for those massacred children and their families, and for the soldiers and their rulers, as well—even for Herod. Against all hope, hope remains for all those who have been slaughtered and who have taken part in the slaughtering of innocents in our long, bloody history. So, in spite of it all, we can indeed rejoice. Not because of what has happened already, of course, but because of what is sure to happen in the end when God makes all things new. The gospel promises that every tear will be wiped from our eyes. Every tear. Every tear.
But if it is true that hope that is seen is not hope, as St Paul says, then it is also true that hope that keeps us from seeing is not hope. Hope is not delusion. Our confidence in the God who raises the dead sustains us just so we can come to terms with all that is broken in this world. As Stanley Hauerwas reminds us, God’s victory over death “does not mean that these children are any less dead or their parents any less bereaved, but rather resurrection makes it possible for followers of Jesus not to lie about the world that we believe has been redeemed.” As I said already, we cannot praise Christ’s coming without also protesting the going of these innocent ones. And the hard truth is that we best honor his life, as well as their deaths, by weeping with Rachel, refusing to be comforted by anything less than the setting right of all things. But God is not yet done being God for us.
Come quickly, Lord Jesus!