Thursday, August 21, 2008

Cormac McCarthy's The Road

by Lycia ALexander-Guerra, MD

A road, a journey, the myriad of metaphors for life or life experiences, and for an analyst, a metaphor for the experience of psychoanalysis itself. But the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy [who also won the National Book Award for All the Pretty Horses, (1992)], a book of "gratitude" dedicated to his young son John Francis, is almost too much to bear. I recall writing the film review, based on another of McCarthy's novels, No Country for Old Man, and alluding to psychoanalysis as no country for the faint of heart. The opening page of The Road had me reevaluating thinking myself of pretty strong constitution. McCarthy writes "the frailty of everything revealed at last."

I thought the novel might be describing the metaphoric annihilation of a severely depressed person, an existential angst par excellence of aloneness in a cruel world. The father in The Road says "if only my heart were a stone." And he recognizes that "he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own." The Road is profoundly sad, but, unlike depression, beautiful. Tenderness and sacrifice evident in a yellow toy truck or a half packet of cocoa. Frighteningly, aliveness seemed to interrupt the relentless deadness only in passages that described a kind of kill-or-be-killed mentality, and a spark of love or tenderness almost too much to bear. I thought of patients who cut themselves.

There is a kind of 'be here now' to their lives, whether vigilant for marauders or a swim in a mountain pool. There is no past, and no place to be. The compelling reality is the search for food and for shoes.

The terse sentences, the paucity of dialogue, the bleakness, all reminded me of Hemingway, but, in The Road, even with the man sometimes dreaming of "aching blue" sky, or of his bride, or of flowering woods, there is no room here to entertain illusion, as Jake (The Sun Also Rises) thought Brett might, evident in his question to her, the book's last line: "Isn't it pretty to think so?" The Road has not a chapter, not a name (except Papa; and a name used as a lie); with almost every thing barren, sometimes not even a completed sentence, not an apostrophe, save one, for contractions, the daylight, grudging, the sun, indifferent. Corpses grimace, and the mummied dead are everywhere.

The boy is (understandably) frightened, alot. Perhaps the most heartbreaking of all is the recognition of what children in this (our) world always bear. The father, exhausted, irritable, tells his son, "You are not the one who has to worry about everything." The boy replies, "Yes, I am. I am the one."

Though the environs in The Road stand in stark contrast to descriptions of nature's lushness in McCarthy's The Orchard Keeper, I was nonetheless reminded by The Road of the journey of Inman, in Charles Frasier's Cold Mountain, on his intrepid trek, plodding through starvation, murdering marauders, and cold. But in The Road the man and his son trek through a nuclear winter of total destruction. If there is parallel devastation for Inman, it was what he thought became of goodness within himself, whereas the boy in The Road still carries the "fire" within, and his father believes this enough to keep them both alive against all odds for as long as necessary. Sometimes the analyst carries the belief inside, enough to propel analyst and analysand through the devastation. Sometimes it is the analysand who is responsible.

Perhaps in the last line of her NY Times review (Sep 25, 2006) of The Road, Janet Maslin said it best: "'The Road' offers nothing in the way of escape or comfort. But its fearless wisdom is more indelible than reassurance could ever be." Another Janet, Janet Malcom, might have written that about psychoanalysis, had she read The Road before writing The Impossible Profession.

key words: psychoanalytic literary criticism, Cormac McCarthy

Friday, August 15, 2008

Links to the blog posts about David Brooks's article and Empathy in Children have now been added to the posts.

The links to the articles in the blog posts about the David Brooks article, and empathy in young children, have now been added to the posts.

Edward H. Stein

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Has David Brooks become a relationalist?

Has David Brooks, the usually-conservative New York Times columnist, become a relationalist or a contestualist?

Edward H. Stein

New Study Shows Children Ages 7-12 Are Hard-Wired for Empathy

A new study by two University of Chicago students has demonstrated that children ages 7 t0 12 years are hard-wired for empathy. Their MRI studies demonstrating their findings, with graphics MRI images, are at the above link. Their studies demonstrated that the areas of the brain associated with moral reasoning are activated when the children see pain inflicted upon others. These are similar to findings that have previously been demonstrated in adults.

Edward H. Stein