Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The Quest For Father 3

In this post I won't have too much to add to the comprehensive survey I made of Seán Hamilton's character as delineated in Hugo Hamilton's first memoir The Speckled People.  In fact as the boy grows older he grows further and further away from his parents as is natural.  The second book The Sailor in the Wardrobe, the presence of father grows less large while that of his mother comes strongly to the fore.  However, I shall briefly skim this second memoir for any other possible insights into the father archetype

In all that I have written yesterday in my last post and in what I shall say in this I find that at least one of Friedrich Nietzsche's aphorisms can serve as a marvellous backdrop.  It goes thus: "What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found the son the unveiled secret of the father." (Thus Spake Zarathustra, quoted in Reclaiming Father, op.cit., 103)

Quoting another German author, Hans Magnus Enzensberger on the frontispiece of The Sailor in the Wardrobe and this quotation reads: "Disconnectedness is our identity."  There is a lot of truth is this.  These two memoirs are about a youngster called Hugo trying to find his identity.  In his searching for it he has to get out from under the shadow of his father.  He has to break free from the weight of the past.  Both his father and mother had deep and troublesome experiences, but they were also very strong people so the young boy had to struggle hard to break that strong umbilical chord. 

On the burdens of the past, Hugo says this: 

These are things I need to forget, things I don't want to think about any more.  I want to have no past behind me, no conscience and no memory.  I want to get away from my home and my family and my history.  (ibid., 7)

Seán Hamilton, the man of Causes:

I have always been interested in what makes people take up causes; to have the feeling that they need to promote causes for the greater good of others; and why they should be so convinced that they themselves are a prophet or even theprophet

But my father will not let go.  He is angry and sad at the same time.  I can see his chin quivering.  He speaks as if my mother has become part of Irish history now...(ibid., 7)

My father is in the front room trying to write articles for the papers and thinking of new inventions that would make Ireland a better place... (ibid., 14)

Repeating Mistakes of the Past:

Once when his father had punished him physically we read:

My hand goes up to my ear and I see the look of anger in his eyes.  sadness, too, as if he can't help lashing out, as if it's not really him at all, but the countless lashes he got himself that have suddenly compelled him into this summary punishment in the hallway.  All the punishment in history passed on, lash by lash.  (ibid., 23)

It is all the punishment in history being passed on blow by blow, all the revenge and all the resentment going back for centuries, here in my bedroom.  Nobody can stop it.  My father is breathing so hard he cannot speak... (ibid., 219)

Seán later apologises to Hugo and says that he made a terrible mistake.   Here we have a very conflicted man acting out of his unconscious.  A conflicted person often acts thus, letting the primitive id go unchecked.

We are also told that at his uncle Gerald's funeral Seán's Aunty Eily reprimanded him for rearing his children so autocratically - "You'll turn them against you," she said. (ibid., 73) However, once again Seán admits to the adolescent Hugo that years later he said to Aunt Eily that she had been right and that he had turned his kids against him.

My father is telling me this himself.  He's admitting to me that he is wrong.  I want to run out of the room, because I can't bear to think of him like a small boy, with Aunt Emily putting her arms around him.  He has tears in his eyes, saying that she told him it is never too late.  He says that he hopes there is still some time for us to be friends.  He's worried that one of these days I'll leave the house and never come back.  (Ibid., 74)

Mental Health:

When mental health issues are unaccepted and covered up they become festering sores which many secrets can become.

When we were small I can remember him going to the funeral of his cousin Gerald in Skibbereen.  My mother often made us pray for Onkel Gerald who was drinking too much and telling too many stories.  We were not told how he died, only that it was a tragedy.  Some time later we found out that he had taken his own life because his older brother had died in front of his eyes in a drowning accident and he never came to terms with that. (ibid., 72)

Needing to Win:

Seán had a need to win at all costs - probably related to his height and his disability - his limp.  He taught Hugo to play chess and often they played what Hugo terms polite chess until the young boy mastered all the moves.  Eventually Hugo became good at it, not quite as good as his father, but on one occasion he beat him.  Seán could not take this defeat and he upturned the chessboard in anger and rushed out of the room.  Once again the mother comes and explains to young Hugo why his father had done this.  The story is beautiful, if sad - a little boy with a limp went to fetch a jug of milk by the light of the moon, but he tripped and fell and spilled the milk - his disability was the cause.  And this is his mother's take on the father:

And now he's still trying to make up for it and put things right long after they've happened and cannot be changed anymore.  He's repairing history, my mother says, trying to pick up the moonlight from the street. (ibid., 135)


Hugo tells a story from his father's student days at UCD.  Before a lecture one day an argument arose about Irish and British politics and in a fit of anger he father threw a chair across the room.  He then tells us that his mother says that this is called "the flying chair of lost arguments." (ibid., 175)  One day Hugo found himself almost doing the same, and then he realised "I had become like my father inside." (ibid., 176)

Inheriting the father's Guilt:

There is a smaller parallel father-son story in The Sailor in the Wardrobe and that is the relationship between his cousin Stefan and his father Onkel UlrichUlrich had seen a Nazi war assassination of innocent people and the nightmare used drive him demented for years afterwards until one day he had to let the secret out by telling his son.  The son then inherited his father's guilt and shame for saying nothing and indeed the collective shame of the German people.

So that's how Stefan inherited the history of his father and the nightmare of the forest massacre in the Ukraine.  (ibid., 211)

In fact, we learn that Stefan had knocked his father down in the garden with a blow of his fist.


I love what Hugo says about the whole world - whether it is Northern Ireland, Vietnam or any of our current wars.  He says succinctly: "It was a big hurt factory."  And then, his friend Packer's beautiful phrase "goodbye to the hurt mind."  This is a wonderful valediction as he leaves his old life of the harbour for third level education.  There is much wisdom and much sound healing in this advice. (ibid., 228-231)



Life is essentially about coming to terms with who we are.  The project we call life is a journey.  Personal identity is not a given at all.  It is a task.  Indeed, we receive much genetically, but we also have to learn much by our interactions with others and indeed with our own inner self, if not selves, until we have unmasked all the impostors and somehow have integrated all into some overarching unity called Self. I have long been exploring the mystery of my life project, often enhanced, provoked and pained by sundry problems, big and small, along the way.  However, it has always been an interesting and exciting journey insofar as I have learned so much about what strengths and weaknesses I have personally inherited in my own family.  I have inherited both the strengths and weaknesses of my own father, just like Hugo did Sean's.

The hurt factory of life, this wonderful phrase that Hugo uses, is so true.  The task of psychotherapy in all its incarnations is in helping to decrease the occurrences of hurt.  We hurt one another practically in everything we do, especially when we are unconscious of how we are acting.  We must engage with our own inner demons.  We must embrace all our inner archetypes and unmask all impostors.  Knowing our own faults, especially our unconscious ones, will decrease our own capacity to do hurt to others and to those we love, and indeed reduce our capacity to hurt ourselves.  Self-exploration is never easy, but it is so worthwhile and so liberating.  No longer am I as an individual at the mercy of unconscious forces within my own psyche. 

Hugo Hamilton has courageously painted a thorough portrait of his father, warts and all.  It's neither black nor white.  It is all the shades of gray in between.  Let's not pigeon hole people by demonising them on the one hand or canonising them on the other, for such extremes, I think, do not really exist psychologically.  Jung maintained that we as human beings must look at ourselves as a whole unity, a colourful one at that, made up of all those colours, black and white and the many shades of gray in between.  When we integrate the darker parts of our self we stop projecting them onto others and so prevent much anger and possible hurt and destruction.

Freud's structural model of the psyche can be very helpful for us in this growth of self, as also can Jung's ideas of archetypes and of shadow.  I have already discussed the structural model in detail here: Structural Model.  In one post I said the following by way of describing this model:

The reasonable and reasoning Ego tries to control the primordial Id which is seething with impulses, desires and instincts.  It seeks to defend conscious awareness from these primitive feelings by various means like repression, denial and projection.  At one and the same time the Ego tries also to meet the demands, remonstrations and criticisms of the Superego which has internalised the values and standards of society mediated through the parents.  The Ego, then, works away to attempt to mediate or to fine a balance between these opposing aspects of the person.  In this way it strives to unify the processes of the psyche.  When the Ego fails in this task neurosis occurs.

We may argue that Seán's Ego was very strong.  He had to be in control at all costs.  He became, as I stated in the immediately previous post, a "control freak."  There was too much going on in the primordial id and he spent all his energy keeping the lid on this "Pandora's box", this seething cauldron of primitive impulses and instincts.  However, just like trying to force the lid down on a boiling pot of water, the steam must needs force itself out.  Hence, we have those horrible explosions of anger as shown in Sean's outbursts and his "flying chair of lost arguments."  Seán had denied his own father, had denied his seeming "British-ness," his feebleness of mind as a result of a tragic accident, his loss of memory, his threatening of his son with a knife, his sad young death, the way the kids in the parish used to taunt him over his own disability and his father's having taken the "British Shilling."   All of this, unconsciously, forced him into a "false Irish-ness" or rather a "fanatical Irish-ness" rather than a true an authentic one.   It made him, also unconsciously, force all his fanaticism and causes onto his family.  Hence we have that wonderfully symbolic act, for us the readers that is, of hiding the picture of his father in the wardrobe.  Interestingly enough Hugo talks of his home becoming a wardrobe out of which he wished to escape.

Hugo's task then became that of liberating his grandfather from the wardrobe, in liberating himself from the wardrobe, in breaking the connections with his father and in establishing a relationship with the denied grandfather.  This is wonderfully healthy stuff for a young adolescent to set as his goal.  Now to repeat Nietzsche's aphorism with which I began this piece: "What was silent in the father speaks in the son, and often I found the son the unveiled secret of the father." (Thus Spake Zarathustra, quoted in Reclaiming Father, op.cit., 103)

Then, there is also the issue of taboo subjects and secrets - bad secrets [there are good ones, but I shan't digress about those here]. Seán's father had become "mad" through an unfortunate accident, his first cousin had committed suicide - yet, all of these things had to be hidden like the picture.  All good psychotherapy has at its roots the releasing of these taboos, the expression of secrets in a timely and authentic way.

Seán was a very talented and brilliant man, but very conflicted, at the mercy of his own unconscious actions - his anger, his corporal punishment of his children, his obsessive and compulsive habits, his causes and even his creativity which he had poured into those causes.

That needing to win at all costs, to be in control at all times - this is a terrible burden for anyone to carry.  None of us can be in control all the time.  Certainly, I feel and think that life is about learning to control the ego which wants to over-control things.  Life is gift and a wonderful gift which can only be controlled by skilled hands at the reins.  The ultimate victor in Life is Death.  Our seeking for control at all costs is a denial of Death  and dying in our lives.  Why?  Well, every losing is a little death which prepares us for the ultimate loss - our own death. Most psychologists tell us that the ultimate denial or the ultimate suppression is, in fact, death.

Hence, the greatest task or goal anyone of us can set ourselves is to get to know our real Self truly and authentically.  This means that we learn to make all our unconscious desires and forces and instincts conscious (Sigmund Freud), that we work for the integration of self (Anthony Storr); that we strive for individuation (Carl Gustave Jung); that we seek self-realization (Hindu Atman Jnana; Psychosynthesis: Roberto Assagioli); that life be guided by goals - teleology (Alfred Adler);  that we are on the search for meaning or logos in logotherapy (Viktor Frankl); or to quote two of Fromm's five basic needs: we are in a search for a Sense of Identity - to see ourselves as a unique person and part of a social group and for a frame of orientation - the need to understand the world and our place in it; or finally to quote that well-worn phrase from the wonderful Abraham Maslow that we are all on the journey to self-actualization.  Other psychologists have given this search for Self different names, but essentially they all mean the same thing, though they come at, as it were, from different directions.

Above I have uploaded a picture of my father on O'Connell Bridge from sometime in the 1950s.

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