Academic Paper

Artificial Reality – Layering The Road In Meaning

by Lauren Jackson
Ashes coat the world, but they are pale. Charred remains are scattered in stark, eerie representations of life, but they are blurry. The world is dark, but still the sun shines on. In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, there is an element of transgressed simulation as initially set forth by Jean Baudrillard. The protagonist in this novel essentially simulates a new reality, transposing objects over the world to affect a level of artificiality, and filter the truth to place distance between horror and acceptance.
The man and his son view the world through mediums, tools used to create a screen or place distance between themselves and the actuality of the world around them. According to Baudrillard, the initial level of simulation is that of a faithful image or copy of the original reality, one in which it is deemed good and appropriate. In the case of the man, he feels the image in front of him, the death and permeation of destruction is ultimately harmful and painful. He attempts to create a veil that screens him and his son from the awful reality, and present an image that is not unfaithful to what is present, but takes on a meaning outside of simply existing in a world lacking life and love.
The mediums the man uses are in the form of transparent screens. The man uses binoculars, mirrors, and windows. They all reflect things as at one remove. The man and his son “…glassed the valley below” (4), and more telling of how reliant they are on this remove from reality: “He lowered the glasses and sat watching. What do you see? the boy said. Nothing” (66). The glasses are his only means of viewing that before him, he must simulate reality through the glasses, he cannot simply look on the landscape before him and detect anything. They are even a means to detecting life and therefore a means to existence: “In the morning sometimes he’d return with the binoculars and glass the countryside for any sign of smoke but he never saw any” (158).
Another of the man’s mediums, or device used to simulate reality is through the reflections of a mirror. One such device that the man appropriates is a motorcycle mirror which he affixes to the shopping cart that carries their belongings. This toting around of belongings creates a reality essential to their existence, this storing up of worldly goods. This mirror allowed the man to: “…watch the road behind them” (5). Always watching the world through that which creates a barrier, that can simulate through a reflection, and allow him the ability to control how he sees things. He later on takes it a bit further by making it not just an occasional glance but rather a continued method of watching: “He kept constant watch behind him in the mirror” (21). The mirror is seen again in a house the pair find themselves in later in the novel: “They came upon themselves in a mirror and he almost raised the pistol. It’s us, Papa, the boy whispered. It’s us” (111). This moment seems to reflect that in their constructed reality they are almost unable to recognize even themselves anymore. There is an element of the artificial in confronting oneself in the mirror.
Windows are frequently utilized in the novel as methods of seeing what lies before them or behind them in this bleak world. What is interesting in this regard is that often the windows provide scenes of beauty or respite from this gruesome imagery that the world typically perpetuates. Examples of beauty represented through windows are: “They sat and watched through the water on the glass” (70-71), the natural wonder of water being exemplified here, especially as water seems to take on a significant and nearly sacred role throughout the novel. Further, the beauty of the windows representation is that it allows escape from reality: “After a while they just looked out through the silted glass to where the track curved away in the waste of weeds. If they saw different worlds what they knew was the same” (152). When the man dreams he dreams of the past: “A gray day in a foreign city where he stood in a window and watched the street below” (157). Even in his dreams the man finds himself gazing out of windows and reminiscing on things that were. His remembrance of the past is altered by his present. Windows now take up a much greater and essential meaning. The alteration of meaning in the past will be explored further on, as the man firmly believes this is done albeit unconsciously. Windows also allow the man to detect danger or not, and in this way, allows him to perceive reality at a distance, and so have adequate time to remove himself from harm. He first looks in windows of houses before entering, he looks in windows of vehicles before approaching, he uses this method to find himself still safely removed from the actuality of what is.
The man and his son are also often lost in worlds of remembering and dreaming. These two facets of their methods of understanding the world around them based on the past or on figments of their imagination, that may yet be based on realities, help shape what they see and how they interact with those things. The man says directly of the past as relating to the future: “What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not” (111). The man was describing a party game wherein you say a word and pass it on, watching as the word would take a shape and form and reform and reshape itself over and over continually until it came to the end. It took on a life of its own, and remembering and recalling memories could perform the same function. He believed a memory was injured each time you thought it. If the man could so simply restructure what he remembered, would he not restructure and apply these same methods to the physical world around him?
Even a photograph is a simulation of reality, and the man carries one with him for a long time of his wife. This simulation however, is destructive to his current one. It is a simulation of the past, and it does not coincide with the present, except in feelings of distress and sorrow. Thus the man must discard that reality for his adopted one in a world where such people no longer exist: “Then he laid it down in the road also and then he stood and they went on” (44). This acceptance of distance between time and the alteration of reality is a clear example of what the man is building for himself and his son. The man lets us in on these thoughts and their power when he thinks death may finally have stalked them out: “He wasn’t sure what it was about but he thought it was about beauty or about goodness. Things that he’d no longer any way to think about at all” (109). With the discarding of the reality they had known, and the simulation of what was before them, they had to leave behind all thoughts of beauty and goodness. His wife’s photo was a clear example of this, it simply didn’t fit in. With this construction of reality, they simply had no way to think of those things anymore.
There is a hint that dreams are equal to reality, or that the two begin to blend when the boy wakes up from a nightmare and begins to speak to his father. He says: “I was crying. But you didn’t wake up. / I’m sorry. I was just so tired. / I meant in the dream” (154). This blending of what they have constructed is a sign that their reality may soon be breaking down.
Naming is another removal from reality and a construction or simulation of their own. The characters themselves are unnamed throughout the entirety of the novel, creating at once a removal, and a layer of the artificial. One cannot know what one cannot name. The man has stripped the names from reality, from constructs created by man, and has simulated his own. He has allowed these things to fall away into nothingness by disconnecting them from memory. This is evidenced by the man’s own thoughts: “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” (75). The old man that the pair meet on the road that claims his name is Ely admits that it isn’t his true name. When the man asks him why he doesn’t want to say his real name the man says simply: “I couldn’t trust you with it” (144). Indeed, the man could not be trusted with a name, names implied meaning, implied a reality, implied a structure beyond his own.
Consumerism is a past construct of reality that is merely glossed over in the novel as an outdated mode for a lens of the world. Billboards are scrawled on (108), and grocery carts sit empty and void (127). What once provided meaning, albeit a superficial one, has now been tossed aside and these images of life are no longer meaningful. They are seen without being seen.
There is a direct will throughout the novel of the man imposed on his son to not see things. This seeing is a guarantee of remembering; an indelible stamp on the mind. This direct attempt at avoiding reality, of shielding the truth, seems to coincide with the idea that there is an artificial layer covering the world through the man’s eyes, transported to the son’s. There is a distinct example in the novel as proclaiming that the actual seeing of reality would equal death. The boy argues with his father: “I just wanted to see him, Papa. I just wanted to see him…” and further, “I want to see him, Papa. There’s no one to see. Do you want to die? Is that what you want?” (72). It seems that to see is to know, to know is to die. To accept the reality is to accept death, as death is inevitable in this lifeless reality. The text points further to this by saying of the man who noted his surroundings in great detail: “All of these things he saw and did not see” (92). For how could he truly see that which he chose to accept as merely a layer? This was a reality he constructed, a mere reconstruction, even if based on the actuality of the world. It placed a necessary distance between that which could destroy and that which could maintain.
As the novel draws in on its conclusion, the breakdown of all of these methods of simulation occurs, and reality is finally accepted. The initial breakdown begins when the man notices bricked up windows in a town they pass by (168). Their worldly goods become scattered and at one point even stolen (200). The man feels that the necessity of seeing is coming to an end: “He is coming to steal my eyes. To seal my mouth with dirt” (220). An attack is made on the man and his son in the street through a window in a building (222). The destruction as having come through the construct of their lived reality seems to highlight the breakdown of that reality. And even in the ultimate moment of crisis of being attacked, the man enters the building and first looks out the window (222-223). The man and his son have a discussion on telling stories, which is a method of constructing one’s own reality, and they conclude that real life is pretty bad (226).
All of these notions come to a heaving and tumultuous culmination when finally the medium is broken: “The melted window glass hung frozen down the walls like icing on a cake” (229). The man and son note that the window has literally melted, and no longer can this be used as a medium. The illusion is shattered, and reality becomes a reality. Once the melted window is acknowledged, the world becomes far more unbearably visible than it had yet been, for the reader, yet seemingly for the man and his son. There is now wreckage and destruction and death everywhere. There are heaps and piles and masses of lost life. These things were present before surely, but this scale and this appreciation, this seeing was before lacking. When all of this is revealed, it is also revealed the man is dying, and he is seeking a place of death amidst the rabble and destruction of reality. He finally lays down to rest, his illusion, his simulation at last deconstructed. One of his final thoughts: “He lay watching the boy at the fire. He wanted to be able to see” (233). Here at the end, when all else is fading away, and the world is accepted in its reality, the artificiality constructed falls away, and the man longs only to see. The boy encloses this momentous occasion, by one simple action. When his father finally dies, the boy repeats his father’s name: “When he came back he knelt beside his father and held his cold hand and said his name over and over again” (236). This is the final piece of the once constructed and simulated reality breaking apart. The boy has now named his father, and that naming is essential to the reality they had in fact, left behind.
There is a distinct difference between what’s real and what’s lived. These are not the same experiences or constructs, and the man and his son make this distinction clear. A reality that is simulated based off of signs and symbols that can be seen as descriptions or meditations of reality, is one in which the man and his son were living. They structured something that accepted what was around them, while reiterating the good, the whole, and essentially not seeing that which was detrimental to their own lived reality. This was a fall from the progression Baudrillard presented in his idea of simulation, from replication, to perversion, to pretending without an original reality, and then diverging from reality entirely. The natural progression is to something which is unrecognizable from the original, from the whole. Perhaps McCarthy is pointing out that the simulation escalated too far and a regression was not only natural but necessary to retain sanity and humanity. Perhaps creating an artificial reality, was a way of maintaining actual reality.

Works Cited:
Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Baudrillard: On Simulation.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. Date of last update, 01/31/2011. Purdue U. Date accessed, 10/26/2013. .
McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

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