Notes from “'The sacred idiom shorn of its referents': An Apophatic Reading of The Road"

By L. Lamar Nisly

Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road follows a father and son’s journey as they try to survive in a devastated landscape.  In a world in which the boy’s mother has committed suicide rather than attempt to escape the roving bands of cannibals, the father and son find few signs of hope and more questions than affirmations.  I believe, however, that reading The Road through an apophatic lens shows that the novel contains hints and suggestions of the divine.  Apophatic (or negative) theology proposes that the language we use about God is always limiting, so it may be more accurate to avoid positive statements about God—such as God is mighty—in favor of negative statements—such as God is not weak.  My apophatic reading examines The Road’s negations, hints, and images to point out that even in the novel’s bleak world, some suggestions of God shine through. Noting these possibilities of hope does not ignore the darkness but rather provides the reader—and the characters—a ray of possibility, a way to push forward on the journey.

Over several millennia, apophatic theologians have pointed out the limits of language to talk about God and have sought to find other, sometimes negative, ways to point to the divine.  The apophatic tradition spans many religions with a variety of emphases.  Two examples from the Christian tradition suggest something of the range of apophatic responses. In the fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa says, “Thus in speaking about God, where there is a question of his essence, then is the time for silence.” Meister Eckhardt, pointing to language’s limitations in describing God, writes in the thirteenth century, “So if I say, ‘God is good,’ that is not true. . . . . For these three dogmas are alien to God: ‘good,’ ‘better,’ and ‘best,’ for he is superior to them all.”  Though at times the bleakness of The Road may evoke silence about the divine, the text more commonly contains hints that break the silence and point toward a hidden God.

The plot and setting of The Road are spare, opening space for the reader to focus on McCarthy’s searing, poetic language as he narrates the father and son’s journey south.  Traveling through a bleak American landscape and largely abandoned cities, the man seeks to protect and feed his son while wrestling with how to make sense of the devastation they encounter.  Early in the novel, the man briefly steps away from the boy and kneels in the ashes from past fires: “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.”  While the compressed prose leaves some uncertainty about the man’s address, his kneeling posture and final exclamation to God—which seems some combination of invoking and cursing—draws the reader’s thoughts to the divine. The father seeks to find some hope to sustain their journey. 

Shortly thereafter, though, facing ongoing hunger and cold, the father finds the “name of things slowly following those things into oblivion.  Colors.  The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. . . .  The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality.” In this evocative passage, the father seems to despair of any solid belief in God, with certainty about the divine leaching away as have other things previously encountered—colors, birds, food.  With the elevated language that McCarthy masterfully uses throughout his texts, the sentence, “the sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality,” seems to suggest that any names for God have become separated from a divine reality. Yet this calling into question the language—and even the reality—of God suggests an apophatic approach to God. 

Amidst this questioning, the novel provides images associated with the son that suggest a numinous quality.  In a scene after the father has shot a man who is about to kill the boy, the father washes the dead man’s brains out of the boy’s hair, thinking of it as “some ancient anointing. So be it.  Evoke the forms.  Where you’ve nothing else construct ceremonies out of the air and breathe upon them.”  This linkage to the sacrament of baptism simultaneously points toward a higher reality while the father also undercuts the message by suggesting the ceremony may be an empty form.  Watching the boy sleep, the man again conjures a sacramental image as he strokes his son’s hair: “Golden chalice, good to house a god.” In another scene, the boy points out that it is snowing.  The father caught a “single gray flake” in his hand and “watched it expire there like the last host of Christendom.”   These powerful religious images—baptism, communion—call to mind the possibility of God at work in the world while their context, embedded as they are within the horrific reality of the novel, simultaneously resists a certainty about the divine. 

The boy’s prayers similarly show not a direct address to God but rather a sidling, glancing approach to the divine.  For instance, in one of the few bright spots of the novel, the father and son have discovered an underground bunker fully stocked with food, water, and other essentials for living.  Before they eat, the boy suggests that they should thank the people who left these supplies.  In what sounds like a sort of prayer, he says, “Dear people, thank you for all this food and stuff.  We know that you saved it for yourself and if you were here we wouldn’t eat it no matter how hungry we were and we’re sorry that you didnt get to eat it and we hope that you’re safe in heaven with God.”  The boy seems to respond to an urge to commune with the supernatural, to address a higher being, yet he approaches God indirectly. 

In an interview, Oprah Winfrey says to McCarthy, “You haven’t worked out the God thing yet.”  McCarthy responds, “It depends on what day you ask me.  Sometimes it’s good to pray. . . . I don’t think you have to have a clear idea of who or what God is in order to pray.  You can even be quite doubtful about the whole business.”  This questioning, apophatic stance infuses the whole narrative, even the passages that could include a direct address to God. Yet the presence of even attenuated prayers provides the characters and reader a suggestion that some divine power may yet be at work in this devastated world.

The novel’s concluding paragraph does not include an overt reference to God, nor is it unambiguously hopeful as it is suffused with a sense of loss.  Yet as has been the pattern throughout The Road, the ending can be read as hinting at the divine.  An apparently omniscient narrator offers these reflections:

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.

On a basic level, the novel’s ending with a fish image provides a possible religious connection, with fish being long symbolically associated with Christianity.  More substantively, the passage is pulsing with a sense of beauty and order, with the exquisite description of the brook trout highlighting the wonder of creation.  Yet the description is prefaced and in some manner negated by the phrase “once there were,” suggesting that this awe-inspiring vision occurred in the past and may have been wiped away by the apocalyptic event, “not to be made right again.” 

True to the devastating scenes throughout the narrative, the novel refuses to provide an easy or unqualified hope in an ongoing divine ordering of the universe.  At the same time, the final line can be read as hinting at a reality that transcends humans’ terrible destructiveness.  Do these amazingly intricate brook trout still live in these deep glens?  Do they represent a faint hope that, as one of the “things . . . older than man,” they have survived the horrors that humanity has wrought upon the earth?  The novel’s end does not provide certainty.  But an apophatic reading that seeks hints and uncertainties as a way of pointing to God can embrace the humming of mystery as a possible glance of the divine.

The post above is adapted from the author's article, “’The sacred idiom shorn of its referents’: An Apophatic Reading of The Road,” published in Christianity & Literature. Read the full article by subscribing to Christianity & Literature or through your academic institution's academic database subscription.