Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Quest for Father 9

Review of And When Did You Last See Your Father? (4)

The last three posts and this one are a little more than a review of the above named book.  They are also personal explorations of the father archetype for the present writer.

One of the things my brothers and I have always liked doing is going camping.  I remember many great camping trips to the UK and the continent and indeed in our own wee country Ireland from the early eighties through to the late nineties.  Camping appeals to something very basic within the human psyche - for me it's the closeness to the ground, the clay and the grass and the fresh air that matter and also the primitive nature of it - one has none of more obvious modern conveniences around one.  I wish I could associate camping with my father.  Unfortunately, due to his losing the use of one arm with polio early in life and his consequent disinclination to much travel as well as lack of money meant that he did not accompany us on many holidays, much less camping ones.  What brings the issue of camping to my mind is that Blake Morrison writes of his many camping expeditions with his father who was an outgoing adventurous type.  Camping is also great for bonding.  These trips which Blake undertook with his father were exercises in male-bonding between father and son.  I envy him his memories, though at the time, being a bookish indoor type he did not thoroughly enjoy them.

I also remember some years back counselling a young lad who had lost his father.  At the time his father was only getting back into his life after an absence of many years.  The one great memory he had of his dad was the time he took him up the Dublin mountains camping.  I remember getting him to close his eyes and my doing a little meditation cum visualisation of his last camping trip with his father.  I can remember the boy telling me that the visualisation was good.  Healing, I would call such an exercise.  I then told him that maybe asking a good friend to go with him to retrace the steps of that trip might be another healing exercise.  This he did and so the trip proved to be, though needless to say he could not capture the original magic.

Blake's account of one of his camping trips with his father is very vivid indeed:

Then we came north again, nosing through the drizzle round Grasmere and Rydal Water, listening to the car radio, the weather forecast, the latest on Cuba.  'It's bound to clear up soon,' my father says, who is never one to complain, whose meteorology is a science of optimism.  To him rain is the natural order of things, which in the Yorkshire Dales is about right, and anything other than rain is a blessing. 'Lucky with the weather,' he'll say when it's heavy and overcast.  'Marvellous day,' denotes high cloud.  'Miraculous, like being on the Riviera' is when the sun, however briefly, gets through the clouds... We take a left turn to Skelwith Bridge...Grasmere...Chapel Stile...and as darkness begins to fall we settle on a spot by a stream.  It is a low unsheltered strip of flat grass...Already I'm nostalgic for the site we found last night, but to which my father says it would be bad luck to return...We tie the tent flaps and set off for the pub, leaving the shaky house by the stream.  As we drive, the Home Service is taken up with presidents Kennedy and Khrushchev: the smiley young hero has blockaded Cuba; Russian ships are sailing towards it... (Op. cit., 73-74)

During his father's final illness Blake begins to search through his father's study and his desk and finds that Dr Arthur Morrison was an inveterate hoarder.  He had kept everything, literally everything: "...nothing had been chucked, nothing let go of...cigarette lighters; leather watch straps; a magnifying glass; Remembrance Day poppies; unsigned cheeky suggestive Valentine's cards..." (ibid., 87)  My own father left practically nothing behind him.  He had been poor all his life - a postman - the only earner in the house and had to support a wife and three children.  He had a few jackets, a few pairs of trousers and shoes and one very good overcoat - a Crombie - which I still have and wear occasionally with great pride and with a deep reverence for the man who originally bought it.  Unlike my father, I am an inveterate hoarder who simply has too many things about him.

For Blake the history that really matters are all those stories his father told him as a boy.  I have written in these pages about the importance of stories in our lives.  See this link Stories.

My father used to say that places up here got their name from the time that Charles the First, or was it Cromwell, crossed the Pennines...I'd not believed him...but never mind: he had told me, that's the only history that matters. (Ibid., 88)

I'd imagine that it is quite hard for a son to live up to a father who has been very successful in life.  Blake's father was a consummate outdoors man, an extravert who was good at sports: squash, tennis and rugby.  He used to say that he had a good eye for a ball.  When the younger man was at college, I think, the father thrashed him at a game of squash.  He also did the same at tennis.  I know this would do my head in - a father there goading me on to be better at sports, to be like him.  Also Arthur wanted his son to follow in his footsteps and had often told him that there was a medical practice he could walk into.  Obviously Blake did not follow in his father's footsteps and achieved a Ph. D. in English Lit instead, becoming a writer and wonderful journalist.  Some sons must find it hard to survive their fathers.  I know I would if I had been Blake.  However, it would have been nice to have had a father with an interest in sports and activities who could have brought us places.  In comparison my father had been a weak sort of man, a poor man who had been beaten down by life.  He had looked after an ailing mother widow, an older alcoholic brother before marrying late at 40 years of age.  Not too long after being married the poor man lost the use of his right arm to polio.  In fairness he worked all his life, first as a postman then as a security man.  I have memories of his doing a lot of shift work and overtime and being very very tired.  He worked very hard to support us.  Hence, he was not around as often as my mother.  In this sense, I may be said, like my brothers, to suffer from the "absent father" syndrome.  My father was off there in the distance earning too little money while my mother did all the looking after.  In hindsight as I explore this whole father archetype I realise that my poor father did not have many options.  There were few jobs about that paid much then and he had to work far too hard for what little of the world's goods we had as children.  However, both my parents encouraged us to get a good education.

Above I have uploaded a picture of my mum and dad from the late fifties.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The Quest for Father 8

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

The Quest for Father 7

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.