Review of And When Did You Last See Your Father? (2)
Blake Morrison quickly realises in this wonderful memoir of his father and of his relationship with him that his written testimony is more than one about his father - it's essentially about his inherited experience of fathers down through the history of the family. Here is Blake's expression of this revelation:
Telescoped, edited, misremembered, any family's past seems a catalogue of grief and dispersal. But so many early deaths, and between the lines the other stories of alcoholism and madness and miscarriage and venereal disease and haemorrhages and mining disasters - For my father to be facing death at seventy-five begins to seem, in such a family, not a tragedy of cut-shortness but a miracle of longevity...It isn't just (just!) that my father is dying. Where he came from is dying too... (Op.cit., 41-42)
Then we have this beautiful passage about the passing of time:
Later I lay on my back beneath the trees, and heard the wind in them like a stream, and pretended I was listening to the sadness of passing time, and I knew one day I'd come back and the sadness would be real. Now I am here. (Ibid., 44)
I have already mentioned many time sin these posts that the real repression is not that of sex, but rather the repression of the reality of death and dying. Modern humankind represses this stark though obvious reality because it sets to naught all that this same humankind aspires to - accumulated wealth, possessions, achievements of all types, even knowledge itself - for in the passing of an individual it is all blotted out, wiped away for that person. Hence humankind has learnt not to face up to its own finitude in a realistic way and prefers to believe in the capitalist myth of wealth and unlimited wealth, of success and unlimited success.
Blake Morrison in his quest for father is essentially going beyond the shallow preoccupations of modern society. This memoir is redolent with the very stench of death. In describing his father's death from cancer of the stomach Blake does not "pull any punches." He lets us have the whole story in its indignity and in its demeaning of the human person. Such a truthful account must have been hard to write, yet the sincerity, the congruity and the truth to self of it all must have been liberating in the extreme.
In searching for our father, often after he has long been dead, we come up against our guilt for so very many things. Blake Morrison is unsparingly honest in his description of his guilt with respect to his father who had built a house when he had retired from his doctor's practice:
He'd have liked me to have helped with the house, to be the apprentice, the plumber's mate, the Lad at his side. But I was lazy, and living 200 miles away, and he roped in others instead... I feel guilty now for not having been there; I feel guilty for ever having grown up and away...Now chastened and frightened I want to tell him I was wrong - that it didn't matter any more to me that the only book I'd ever seen him reading (abandoned halfway through) was Jaws...Why had I thought my interests more important, less ephemeral than his? What could I compare with this monument he'd built to himself? What consolation can art be, what comfort are reading and writing, now that grief streams through the trees and this home he made for living in is about to become the house where he will die? (ibid., 46-47)
We all have our regrets with respect to our fathers. I regret the fact that I had not spent enough time with him in his later years. My youngest brother Pat managed to do so because he was far less caught up in the Ego than I. I seemed to be forever studying, seeking to go places academically, enthralled with the idea of the wonderful nature of knowledge and how important it was to be a possessor of the same, not because it would bring me money, but rather in the sense of Liberal Knowledge, namely knowledge for knowledge sake. I also regret that once when I was 18 years old or so that I had hit him once when he was drunk and had caused his nose to bleed. At the time I remember I had apologised, but deeply I was saddened by my own anger and at what I had reduced myself to doing.
The quest for father, then, is often a painful one. The quest for all archetypes truly is. We must be brave enough to face our own demons and all these demons are blocks to embracing the reality of the archetypes within us.
However, it is in facing our own finitude, our own death that embracing the father in us can be helpful. We who plant the seed of life in a mother's womb will also fade away and die. When we have done the task that nature has assigned us we, too, must fade away. Even the myth of eternal youth and beauty and even eternal health itself all must needs die. I remember my father saying to my American Aunt: "Nancy, you're going to die healthy with a full set of teeth." Ponder the wisdom in this saying even for a moment. Realise the contradiction in terms humankind is. Be mindful of the contradictions in your own life and try to lessen and assuage them. Face the reality of your finitude, of your dying and of your death. Embrace the sub-personalities within you and tame them. Embrace the archetypes within you and learn to integrate them. Jung spoke about the individuation process by which we become more and more at one in ourselves. Storr, along Jungian lines, alludes to and explains this individuation process in these terms: "the integration of the personality." For Storr and Jung it is the integration of opposites into a unity or "oneness" or whole that matters, not the denial of the negative and the heralding of the good - it is both together incorporated into the reality that the individual deeply is.
My father and mother with my two brothers and me in the very early sixties.