by Cormac McCarthy
Memory and the Past Quotes in The Road
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Section.Paragraph)
By the time they got there it was dark of night. He held the boy's hand and kicked up limbs and brush and got a fire going. The wood was damp but he shaved the dead bark off with his knife and he stacked brush sticks all about to dry in the heat. Then he spread the sheet of plastic on the ground and got the coats and blankets from the cart and he took off their damp and muddy shoes and they sat there in silence with their hands outheld to the flames. He tried to think of something to say but he could not. He'd had this feeling before, beyond the numbness and the dull despair. The world shrinking down about a raw core of possible entities. The names 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. More fragile than he would have thought. How much was gone already? The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality. Drawing down like something trying to preserve heat. In time to wink out forever. (137.1)
Cormac really outdoes himself with the language here. We want to point out a very cool paradox, though. Just as McCarthy starts letting fly with some very beautiful and sinuous language, he slyly suggests just how fragile language is. What happens if the things words refer to disappear? Do our words for those things also cease to exist? And what if most things in the world cease to exist? Does language vanish as well? Here's McCarthy's fancy way of saying all that: "The sacred idiom shorn of its referents and so of its reality."
Rich dreams now which he was loathe to wake from. Things no longer known in the world. The cold drove him forth to mend the fire. Memory of her crossing the lawn toward the house in the early morning in a thin rose gown that clung to her breasts. He thought each memory recalled must do some violence to its origins. As in a party game. Say the word and pass it on. So be sparing. What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not. (200.1)
The "party game" McCarthy mentions here is "Telephone." (At least that's what we've always called it.) You whisper something into your neighbor's ear, she whispers that into her neighbor's ear, and so on until everyone has heard the thing. After all the whispering and mishearing, the phrase barely resembles the thing you originally said. Everyone laughs at human error, at how we hear what we want to hear, and it's really fun – unless you're Cormac McCarthy and you see the scary implications of such a game. When The Man remembers something, he changes the original memory. (He might focus on one part of the memory, or let his current mood alter his view of it, and thus alter the memory.) What's does all this mean? If The Man truly wants to preserve the past, he can't think about it.
When he woke again he thought the rain had stopped. But that wasnt what woke him. He'd been visited in a dream by creatures of a kind he'd never seen before. They did not speak. He thought that they'd been crouching by the side of his cot as he slept and then had skulked away on his awakening. He turned and looked at the boy. Maybe he understood for the first time that to the boy he was himself an alien. A being from a planet that no longer existed. The tales of which were suspect. He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well and he thought perhaps the child had known this better than he. He tried to remember the dream but he could not. All that was left was the feeling of it. He thought perhaps they'd come to warn him. Of what? That he could not enkindle in the heart of the child what was ashes in his own. Even now some part of him wished they'd never found this refuge. Some part of him always wished it to be over. (228.1)
The Man desperately wants to tell The Boy about how the world was before the "long shear of light" (88.1). We can't blame him – wouldn't you want your son to love the world instead of hating it? And who would love the world The Man and The Boy have found themselves in? One problem: "He could not construct for the child's pleasure the world he'd lost without constructing the loss as well." Basically this means that The Man can't talk about a happy world without always implicitly suggesting that it no longer exists.