Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Quest for Father 5

Soul Song and the Quest for Father:

Our dreams bring us deep into our individual and collective psychic worlds.  They contain the primordial material of our ancient humanity.  Jung referred to our dreams as doorways into the collective unconscious where archetypes abound.  Father and Mother are just two of the many archetypes Jung and his followers have outlined.  (I have listed more of these archetypes in a recent post).  As I grow older I find I quite often dream about both my parents.  My father has been dead now for some 15 years while my mother is still alive though demented and a patient in a nursing home/hospital.  A few nights ago I dreamt that I was with them in a huge building rather like a hotel.  I went outside the room where I had been with my mother to find my father smoking a cigarette.  In life he had given up smoking some twenty years before he died.  Then I returned inside the hotel and complained to my mother that my father had begun to smoke again - and all of this in defiance of the doctor's orders.  Of course, one of the beauties and fascinations of dreams is that they know no time or space boundaries boundaries.  Almost immediately my father appeared beside my mother still smoking.  What this dream might mean I have yet to explore.  I am honouring it here by recounting it.  I realise that these are archetypes of which I am dreaming - archetypes that are speaking to my very soul.  My father was more solidly delineated in the dream than was my mother.  He was self-assured and confident in this dream - in fact rather stubborn and very much himself.  Indeed he was being very truly himself.  I am here reminded of Polonius's advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet:

"This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou cans't not be false to any man "(Act I, scene iii, ll.78-80). 

I have subtitled this post "Soul Song and the Quest for Father" because all children want their parents to listen to their song - their soul song.  Often when I am walking up or down Grafton Street in my home town of Dublin I quite fancy that the many buskers are singing out loud and clear their very own soul songs.  It seems to me that they are asking us to listen to the very substance of their individual souls.  I am always deeply moved as I pass because I know how much of themselves these wonderful musicians invest in their craft.

Let me return briefly to the wonderful book by Benig Mauger and quote some relevant and apt lines:

...all children want parents to listen to their song.  They want to be responded to.  They will sing their song for so long, and if they receive no reply, they will gradually cease to sing. (Reclaiming Father: The Search for Wholeness in Men, Women and Children, Soul Connections, Dublin, 2002, 34)

Mauger recounts on the same page how she watched a video of a little baby girl over a certain period of time crying for attention again and again and that eventually this crying faded away when no parent or significant other came to pick it up and comfort it.  Mauger continues:

It was as if by not receiving any response she had given up.  A part of her began to shut down. (Ibid., 34)

I remember sadly once waking to hear a woman sleeping beside me crying almost silent tears in the dark of a  shared night.  She did not know that I had awoken.  When eventually I decided to break my silence I asked her why she was crying, she replied that she had not been and that she was quite okay. This same woman suffered from schizophrenia and was locked into a world she called her "glasshouse."  How I tried to free her from her self-imposed imprisonment there, but all efforts were to no avail!  She once told me how she had herself lain in bed while she had heard her son - in his early teens - cry himself to sleep in the room next door.  Deep down I was upset and deeply pained for these two wonderful people who had somehow been failed by parents going back years each repeating the mistakes of previous neglect.

As I am a man as as I am specifically writing of my own search for my own father - or for integrating the father archetype into my own psyche or soul - the reader will have to forgive the maleness of this writing here.  It's true that a boy child needs his father in order to fully integrate as a man.  However, this, of course need not be his blood father because any good caring male figure will do.  If the father is absent the boy child will use as reference points other male figures - grandfather, uncle or mother's current male partner.

Biographies and memoirs are often wonderful because they often capture the writer's search or quest for their parental archetypes.  I have already reviewed in detail the two wonderful memoirs of Hugo Hamilton about his quest to find and integrate his parental archetypes especially that of his father.  I have also recently been reading another wonderful childhood memoir, this time by the English writer Blake Morrison namely, And When Did You Last See Your Father? (Granta, 1993)

This book is also a wonderful tour de force which can be put on a par with Hugo Hamilton's wonderful memoirs.  What all of these memoirs have in common is their authenticity and congruence to use terms from existentialist and counselling/psychotherapy circles respectively.  Or to put it more plainly all have a refreshing honesty and truthfulness which are the hallmark of good writing per se.  Blake outlines very well his father's way of playing the game of life -

This is the way it was with my father.  Minor duplicities.  Little fiddles.  Money-saving, time-saving, privilege-attaining fragments of opportunism.  The queue-jump, the backhander, the deal under the table.  Parking where you shouldn't, drinking after hours, accepted the poached pheasant and the goods off the back of the lorry.  (Op. cit., 13)

Next, like all wonderful writers, Morrison juxtaposes a second chapter of contrast where we get this strong character of the first reduced to his polar opposite.  This chapter portrays the weakness of the same man physically as he approaches his death from terminal cancer at 75 years of age.  In this piece which I'd like to finish this post with Blake and his mother are in his father's hospital room during his final illness:

It's seven-thirty, and my mother and I are saying goodnight.  It seems odd and cruel to be leaving him.  But he doesn't want us there, will be happier thinking he's 'not a nuisance'.  he hugs me longer than he usually would, ands sits holding my mother's hand, the kind of tender, quiet thing he never does, something I want to feel touched by but which seems so untypical it's almost offensive: a late bloom, another man's flower.  I've always imagined him dying in character - overtaking impatiently on too short a straight, or collapsing with a heart attack while rotavating an obstinate corner of the orchard .  This new gentleness, his slow drained face above the bedsheets, seems a sort of death already.  (Ibid., 29)

This reminds me of the time before my own father's death back in February 1993.  I remember distinctly visiting him in hospital.  I remember his frailness as he turned and walked back down the corridor after walking us to the lift.  His eyes were full of tears and as he walked away I knew instinctively that he walking down the corridor to death.  He never recovered from the simple operation he was to have for an enlarged - though not cancerous - prostate.    Unfortunately a stray clot of blood caused a minor stroke and eventually an embolism to the brain took him off.  He went quietly as he would have wished for he was a quiet unassuming man who was always himself - just that, himself alone - no poses, no pretensions, no airs and graces.  I can empathise with Blake Morrison's sentiments in the above quoted passage.  However, my father's death was very much in character.  He died a gentle soul as he had lived.  For some reason he thought he had been in a car crash at one stage, but managed to kiss us all goodbye and say that he had loved us all.  I can still feel his kiss on my face after all these years.  But it is his waking away down that lonely hospital corridor that is forever etched in my mind.  Death, it would seem, defies us and very often defines us, too.

Above I have upliaded a picture of my dad (on the right) with his first cousin John Saunders

Friday, September 05, 2008


I have already alluded in these pages to this author's love of words.  From time to time I find a beautiful word and "pleonexia" is one such word.  Let me explain it.  It is a noun meaning excessive or insatiable covetousness. Like most such abstract nouns its etymology is classical, in this case from the Greek pleonektein (to be greedy), from pleion (more) + ekhein (have).

This is a beautiful word in and of itself, even before we look to its meaning.  The word refers to a condition at the heart of humankind -that of greed.  Greed is an obsession with possessions and hence with all objects, acquisitions and indeed attendant status that accompanies such blandishments and allurements.

This word fascinates me because it cuts to the heart of the human condition as we experience it in modern living.  I read somewhere that several people have argued that a condition called pleonexia has overtaken the U.S.  A writer called Don McClanen states that 'Pleonexia is an insatiable need for more of what I already have, and it has penetrated our culture to the point where people are angry at the poor." (See )

Being angry with the poor is nothing short of prejudice whether class or race-based.  Some years ago I remember seeing a documentary where one politician argued that the blacks in his constituency in one southern state of the USA were poor because quite simply they were innately lazy.  In other more philosophical terms one could argue that this politician believed in a meritocracy.  A meritocracy on the surface seems to be fair.  But, then, is one to argue that only those who earn a living deserve a living?  Where do the poor lie in such a scheme of things?  Let's take a few ways of stating some myths which lie behind meritocracy.  One myth could be stated thus: "The poor are sinful and corrupt and are only getting their true deserts" ( a travesty of all religious values).  Another would be "The poor owe their poverty to their stupidity" or another still "The poor owe their poverty to their sheer laziness or sloth."  Alain de Botton in his wonderful little book Status Anxiety (Penguin Books, 2004) has some interesting reflections on these matters:

With the rise of an economic meritocracy the poor moved, in certain quarters, from being described as 'unfortunate', the target and charity and guilt of the rich, to being described as 'failures', fair targets of contempt in the eyes of robust self-made individuals...

There could be no more telling expression of the idea of satisfactory justice behind the distribution of wealth and poverty than the nineteenth-century philosophy of Social Darwinism.  Social Darwinists proposed that all humans began by facing a fair struggle over scarce resources: money, jobs, esteem.  Some gained the upper hand in this contest, not because of improper advantages or luck but because they were intrinsically better than those they outpaced.  The rich were not better from a moral point of view.  They were, intimidatingly, naturally better.  They were more potent, their seed was stronger, their minds were cannier, they were the tigers of the human jungle predestined by triumph over others.  Biology wanted the rich to be rich and the poor to be poor. (Op. cit., 87)

This, to my mind, adds another layer of understanding to the way the British administration both in England and Ireland handled the Great Famine or the Gorta Mór in Ireland between 1845-1848.  Of Sir Charles Edward Trevelyan (1807 – 1886) who was a British civil servant and later Governor of Madras we read in the WIKI:

He was assistant secretary to HM Treasury from 1840 - 1859, during both the Irish famine and the Highland Potato Famine of 1846-1857. In Ireland he was responsible for administering famine relief, whilst in Scotland he was closely associated with the work of the Central Board for Highland Relief. His inaction and attitude towards the Irish are widely believed to have worsened the Famine. As Assistant Secretary to the Treasury he was placed in charge of the administration of Government relief to the victims of the Irish Famine in the 1840s. In the middle of that crisis Trevelyan published his views on the matter. He saw the Famine as a "mechanism for reducing surplus population". He described the famine as "The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people".  (See this link: Trevelyan)

My goodness, could you imagine anyone arguing for this today? "Reducing surplus population" is exactly a tenet of Social Darwinism.  Imagine the outcry if someone said this about the consequent deaths and injuries due to the great natural disasters we have had recently like tsunamis, earthquakes and all the other natural disasters that have beset our world.  Look at the prejudice which probably masked an innate hate in these seemingly logical words.  Social Darwinism, then, argued that the weak (or poor) were nature's mistakes and that their sufferings and early deaths were beneficial to society as a whole and consequently should not be prevented by government interference.

In such a light these Social Darwinists argued that it was probably wrong to offer welfare to the poor.  Even if welfare were given the poor would have to earn it.  Hence we have all those useless roads leading into bogs and piers built at different places around the coast where no boat ever docked - these poor 'works' were a means whereby the poverty stricken and starving people earned their welfare or food.

Alain de Botton argues cogently in the above named book that such philanthropists like the Scottish American magnate Andrew Carnegie were at heart people who subscribed to an often heartless meritocracy.  He sums up this philosophy of meritocracy succinctly and with great insight thus:

To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame.  (Ibid., 91)

It's all too easy to hate.  Prejudices are often the outer masks of a deeper naked hatred of others whether because of their creed or colour or any other characteristic one might care to mention.  Hence I feel Don McClanen's contention quoted about is worth repeated here for emphasis.  His sentiments are really the truth of the matter that lies at the heart of the concept of meritocracy.  Once again, read the following meditatively and let the truth sink in: 'Pleonexia is an insatiable need for more of what I already have, and it has penetrated our culture to the point where people are angry at the poor." It's a beautiful word and yet it cuts to the heart of the matter by getting to the essential way we humans are and how we treat each other!