Review of And When Did You Last See Your Father? (3)
As I have already pointed out the strength of this book lies in its honesty and sincerity; in its unwillingness to dissemble or to be disingenuous. He tells things as they are, not as he might wish them to be. There is no sanitizing of the facts. The technique used by Blake Morrison is one of the juxtaposition of the image of his young ego-driven father beside the old decrepit and painfully dying image of the older incarnation of the same person. He achieves this by alternating chapters between scenes from his young days that portray the younger Doctor as one very much in control and contemporary scenes of his father's painful dying - an old man very much not in control. We are spared no details no matter how nasty. We learn that the old man had puked up "brown stuff" called "faecal vomit." Blake's mother who is also a Doctor tells her son: "Well basically it's sicking up your own excrement. It's usually a terminal sign." (Op.cit., 66)
The Dissolution of the Ego:
One experience we all like having is that of our own independence. In short, we all like to be in control of our own lives. Who doesn't? When we are hit by any illness we are no longer in control of our bodies. According to the severity of the illness we will be faced with loss of control to a greater or lesser extent. If we are in a bad car smash we will have both major physical and indeed major psychological injuries. We cease to become independent; we cease to be in control. Our every need almost depends on others being there. In short, such an experience heralds a dissolution of the Ego which very much likes to be in control. We have all heard sayings like "father knows best" (or "mother knows best" etc - substitute whatever significant person you wish for "father" in the foregoing statements.) These are all Ego statements or control statements. Part of the cultural accretion around the father image or archetype is very much one of power and control. From primitive times the man has been the hunter and provider, the protector, the earner, the bread-winner, the strong defender of the fairer and weaker sex and especially the head of the family.
Let us read about the dissolution of body and mind here in Blake Morrison's words:
I swing his legs up onto the bed, and then my mother and I take an arm and an armpit each and try to slide him up onto the pillows. It's like moving a heap of rubble, and when we finally get him there he's asleep at once...My mother shows me the sheet he was sick into, the dark brown stain on it, not smelling of shit but looking like it...
We consult his chart, pages 622 and 624 of an old ledger he has torn out so as to record his regime of pills and injections and food intake - the old workhorse... It's all neat and fanatical, just like all the other endless lists and diagrams and instruction sheets he has compiled over the years, and with the same message: he's in control. But the last few entries are in my mother's writing, not his: he can no longer hold a pen. (Ibid., 67)
I especially loved Blake's initial mishearing of his mother's description "faecal vomiting" for "foetal vomiting." The wondrous propinquity of the words "faecal" and "foetal" in sound mirror their closeness in reality. I was immediately reminded of Saint Augustine's famous phrase "Inter faeces et urinam nascimur" which literally, if crudely, translates as "We are born between piss and shit." We have here an almost obscene commingling of the sexual and excretory organs. However, it is really and truly appropriate if a little distasteful to sensitive constitutions. Also I believe there is a wonderful psychic unity between the father and child or baby archetypes in this piece of uncensored writing:
Faecal vomiting, I realise she has just said, not foetal. Had I misheard it earlier because I didn't want to hear it right, because I wanted associations of birth not death? 'Foetal' had made me think of meconium, the black stuff during labour when a baby is in distress, the shit in the womb which midwives and doctors recognize as a signal for a forceps delivery or Caesarean. My father's, too, is shit voided into a stomach, violating places where it shouldn't be. He, too - the great moment approaching - is a baby in distress. (Ibid., 68)
My father, Gerard and I with my maternal grandmother Phoebe St Ledger