My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all over night with labour and yet all spontaneous. There was present that night at Henley’s, by right of propinquity or of accident, a man full of the secret spite of dulness, who interrupted from time to time, and always to check or disorder thought; and I noticed with what mastery he was foiled and thrown. I noticed, too, that the impression of artificiality that I think all Wilde’s listeners have recorded came from the perfect rounding of the sentences and from the deliberation that made it possible. That very impression helped him, as the effect of metre, or of the antithetical prose of the seventeenth century, which is itself a true metre, helped its writers, for he could pass without incongruity from some unforeseen, swift stroke of wit to elaborate reverie. I heard him say a few nights later: “Give me The Winter’s Tale, ‘Daffodils that come before the swallow dare’ but not King Lear. What is King Lear but poor life staggering in the fog?” and the slow, carefully modulated cadence sounded natural to my ears. That first night he praised Walter Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance: “It is my golden book; I never travel anywhere without it; but it is the very flower of decadence: the last trumpet should have sounded the moment it was written.” “But,” said the dull man, “would you not have given us time to read it?” “Oh no,” was the retort, “there would have been plenty of time afterwards—in either world.” I think he seemed to us, baffled as we were by youth, or by infirmity, a triumphant figure, and to some of us a figure from another age, an audacious Italian fifteenth century figure. A few weeks before I had heard one of my father’s friends, an official in a publishing firm that had employed both Wilde and Henley as editors, blaming Henley who was “no use except under control” and praising Wilde, “so indolent but such a genius”; and now the firm became the topic of our talk. “How often do you go to the office?” said Henley. “I used to go three times a week,” said Wilde, “for an hour a day but I have since struck off one of the days.” “My God,” said Henley, “I went five times a week for five hours a day and when I wanted to strike off a day they had a special committee meeting.” “Furthermore,” was Wilde’s answer, “I never answered their letters. I have known men come to London full of bright prospects and seen themcomplete wrecks in a few months through a habit of answering letters.” He too knew how to keep our elders in their place, and his method was plainly the more successful, for Henley had been dismissed. “No he is not an aesthete,” Henley commented later, being somewhat embarrassed by Wilde’s Pre-Raphaelite entanglement; “one soon finds that he is a scholar and a gentleman.” And when I dined with Wilde a few days afterwards he began at once, “I had to strain every nerve to equal that man at all”; and I was too loyal to speak my thought: “You and not he said all the brilliant things.” He like the rest of us had felt the strain of an intensity that seemed to hold life at the point of drama. He had said on that first meeting “The basis of literary friendship is mixing the poisoned bowl”; and for a few weeks Henley and he became close friends till, the astonishment of their meeting over, diversity of character and ambition pushed them apart, and, with half the cavern helping, Henley began mixing the poisoned bowl for Wilde. Yet Henley never wholly lost that first admiration, for after Wilde’s downfall he said to me: “Why did he do it? I told my lads to attack him and yet we might have fought under his banner.”
The STORY OF THE TRAMP
In the larch wood he ran into a tramp. His first thought had been that it might be the escaped showman, but the tramp was nothing to do with that. Not at all. The painter had been startled, because he had failed to see the tramp, and tripped over him. “Like a corpse lying in the middle of the road,” says the painter. A hypothermia victim, he had thought, and taken a step back. From the man’s clothes, he could tell he wasn’t from here. Where is he from? “Striped pants, you know, the sort that circus people wear, particularly circus directors.” Assuming the man was dead, he had tried to flip him over with his stick so that he could see his face, “because the fellow was lying facedown. It’s natural to want to see someone’s face,” said the painter. But no sooner had he applied the stick to the “dead man,” than he had emitted a scream and leaped to his feet. “Oh,” the tramp is said to have said, “I was just playing dead, I wanted to see what happened when someone comes across somebody else, lying flat on his front like a dead man, in the road, in the middle of the forest and the middle of winter.” With those words, the tramp had got up, and brushed down his pants. “If you think I’m the escaped showman, you’re mistaken, I have nothing to do with those showmen. You don’t have to worry about that. Let’s shake!” He held his hand out to the painter, and introduced himself. “He gave me such a complicated name that I was unable to remember it,” said the painter. “Then he buttoned up his coat, which must have come undone. A dignified but completely reduced appearance,” said the painter. “It could just as easily have been a trap, I mean, God knows whom I could have encountered.” That was no one’s idea of a joke, the painter had said, one did not simply play dead, that was a prank, a silly prank of the sort teenagers might indulge in, to give their parents a fright. “Just imagine if the shock had given me a heart attack!”—“Then I would have run off,” the tramp is said to have replied. Anyone could have a heart attack at any time. “Yes. Of course.”—“No involvement from any other party would have been suspected,” the tramp is supposed to have said. “Of course not,” the painter. In any case the road was full of tracks, who would have taken the trouble to trace all the different footwear. “No, of course not. If you should happen to be in financial straits,” the painter is supposed to have said, “then I must point out to you that I have no money. I am a poor man, and my situation is miserable.”—“Oh,” the tramp is supposed to have replied, “I’ve got enough money.” He was amazed that the painter should take him for a robber, was it perhaps the fault of the circus pants he was wearing. “Oh, no,” the painter is supposed to have said, “I’m an artist myself.”—“It’s remarkable how little understanding is displayed by people one would expect to have a lot of understanding,” the tramp is supposed to have said. Besides, he did not dislike the painter. “When I heard someone approaching, I lay down in the road. It was just an experiment.”—“An experiment,” the painter is supposed to have said again. “Yes, an experiment. And what happened is exactly what I thought would happen. I listened to every step you took. The way you walk, it’s as though you were on deer hooves,” the tramp said. “I had a fantastic image of you in my head as you approached. A completely fantastic image of you!” His pronunciation was a little northern, it might be that he was from Holstein or Hamburg. “A deer is coming to present itself to me,” he said, and: “That was pure poetry.” The painter: “I understand.” What profession did the tramp pursue, inquired the painter. “I am the owner of a movable theater,” he is supposed to have replied. “The way you’re dressed, one would have thought you’d just come from some rather dubious society piece,” the painter is supposed to have said. “You’re not a million miles out there,” the tramp: “I appeared in this costume three hundred times in Frankfurt am Main. Till I could stand it no longer, and ran away. You should try playing the same part in a play three hundred times, and a pretty boring play at that, a so-called George Bernard Shaw play, and you’ll go crazy too.” But he was surely a man who could live by his jokes. “Oh, I should say so too. I have always lived by my jokes.”—“And how do you propose to continue now? Since, as I am forced to assume, you are pretty much at loose ends, drifting here and there? How do you mean to continue?”—“I never asked myself that,” the tramp is said to have answered. Since he, the tramp, the theater manager, the director of a so-called movable theater, had no children, it wasn’t so very difficult to live “unto the day.” But was that entirely realistic, said the painter. Men of his (the tramp’s) type had freedom, disrepute, and humor written in their faces. “I am said to have picked up a few magic tricks from my father,” the tramp is supposed to have said, “that everyone likes. For instance how to make my head disappear. It’s very easy.” He could do a demonstration, “if the gentleman cared to see,” and the painter did care, and the tramp duly made his head disappear. “The man only extended as far as his Adam’s apple. What I say is true. It may strike you as thoroughly implausible, but it’s as true as the fact that I’m standing in front of you now. The whole appearance of that tramp … And just imagine this whole scene taking place in the middle of the larch wood, where we take the fork down into the ravine …” Then, in a trice, the tramp’s head was back in its original place. “That’s just a simple trick, making my head disappear,” said the tramp, “what’s harder is playing ball with your own legs.” Of course the painter wanted to see that magic trick as well. And suddenly the tramp’s legs came down from the sky, and he hunkered down on the ground and played ball with them, kids’ ball games. While he was playing, he said: “I’ll stop right away if you feel scared.” The painter could feel a shiver, but he still said: “No, no, I’m not scared.” He was, as you say, astounded by what was put on for him. “I have never seen such consummate magic tricks,” he said. “Now I’m too bored to go on,” the tramp is supposed to have said, and he stopped. “The thing with the head was as baffling to me as the other one, with the legs,” the painter said, “can you imagine it? Of course, as with everything, there must be some sort of knack to it!” All Paris had lain at the tramp’s feet, and if he felt like it, it would lie at his feet again, only he didn’t feel like having Paris lying at his feet again. “I’m bored.” In London he had been presented to the queen. If the gentleman would like it, he would be happy to give him the address of his movable theater. “It’s small, but exquisite,” he is supposed to have said, “and it can go into action anywhere you require.” It was the most exquisite of theaters. The most exquisite theater in the world. But one day he was fed up with magic tricks—“it’s so easy to get fed up with magic tricks”—and had turned instead to pure, true art, the sort of art that isn’t dependent on magic tricks. Now, he was sure the gentleman would love to know which was harder, to perform magic tricks of the sort he had just performed, and which were unquestionably among the best in the world, or else to act in straight theater, to put over a true art form, then, as exemplified by the theater, an art without tricks, as for instance, “playing King Lear.” They were both equally difficult, one was harder than the other, but it was a better thing to act in a play than to perform tricks, he personally found acting far more satisfying, and for that reason he had magicked up his movable theater “out of thin air,” as he said. “Though, of course that too was a stunt, a sort of trick,” said the tramp. Acting, moreover, was highly intellectual, whereas performing magic tricks wasn’t intellectual at all. Only the trick itself was. “Of course it always comes down to the audience.” And he said, supposedly: “The audiences for my magic tricks are a thousand times dearer to me than the audiences who watch me acting.” The audiences for his tricks would know right away what it was that was so astounding to them, whereas the audiences for his acting never seemed to know. “Theater audiences are invariably disappointing. Audiences for magic tricks never are.” And yet he would rather act, even though he was better suited to doing tricks. “Theater audiences don’t make me any happier than magic-trick audiences,” he said. “Audiences for magic tricks are as they are. Theater audiences are never as they are, they are always as they ought not to be, they want to be as they are not …” The audiences for magic tricks were never so stupid that they failed to realize how stupid they were, but theater audiences were, if anything, more stupid. “Most actors are so stupid they don’t even notice how stupid the audiences are. Because in general actors are even more stupid than audiences, even though an audience is infinitely stupid.” Why did he not demonstrate any more magic tricks, the painter wanted to know. “Magic tricks of themselves are not satisfying,” the tramp is supposed to have said, “but a play can be satisfying in itself.” He didn’t know, anyway, why he now preferred acting to demonstrating magic tricks. Right at the moment, he wasn’t doing one thing or the other. “But I will demonstrate my magic tricks again!” he is supposed to have said, “and Paris will lie at my feet again!” Then he supposedly asked what the quickest way down to the station was. “Go down the ravine,” the painter told him. Then: “I’d like to know at what age magic tricks of themselves are no longer satisfying.” The tramp reflected briefly and said: “That’s different in each performer’s individual case. But often the magic tricks are no longer satisfying, even before they have been mastered,” he is supposed to have said. The painter offered to accompany the tramp part of the way down the ravine. “I know my way around here,” he is supposed to have said. “You lose your footing somewhere, and you’ll break a leg. Come with me!” Before they parted, the painter asked him: “What was it that prompted you to try that silly nonsense out on me?”—“Silly nonsense?” the tramp is supposed to have answered. “You mean, playing dead in front of you? That’s a passion of mine, that’s all.” And then he suddenly disappeared. “He was as supple as you’d expect a performer of magic tricks to be,” the painter said. “I’ve never met anyone like that, who claims to be the proprietor of a ‘movable theater.’ Or do you think I’ve made up the whole story?” I think it’s true myself.
–From Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost.
Literature seems to have an ambivalence toward fatherhood that’s too complex to address in a simple blog post–so I won’t even try. But before I riff on a few of my favorite fathers from a few of my favorite books, I think it’s worth pointing out how rare biological fathers of depth and complexity are in literature. That’s a huge general statement, I’m sure, and I welcome counterexamples, of course, but it seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon‘s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance). What I’ve tried to do below is provide examples of father-child relationships drawn with psychological and thematic depth; or, to put it another way, here are some fathers who actually have relationships with their kids.
1. Prospero, The Tempest (William Shakespeare)
Prospero has always seemed to me the shining flipside to King Lear’s dark coin, a powerful sorcerer who reverses his exile and is gracious even in his revenge. Where Lear is destroyed by his scheming daughters (and his inability to connect to truehearted Cordelia), Prospero, a single dad, protects his Miranda and even secures her a worthy suitor. Postcolonial studies aside, The Tempest is fun stuff.
2. Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude, (Jonathan Lethem)
Like Prospero, Abraham Ebdus is a single father raising his child (his son Dylan) in an isolated, alienating place (not a desert island, but 1970’s Brooklyn). After Dylan’s mother abandons the family, the pair’s relationship begins to strain; Lethem captures this process in all its awkward pain with a poignancy that never even verges on schlock. The novel’s redemptive arc is ultimately figured in the reconciliation between father and son in a beautiful ending that Lethem, the reader, and the characters all earn.
3. Jack Gladney, White Noise (Don DeLillo)
While Jack Gladney is an intellectual academic, an expert in the unlikely field of “Hitler studies” (and something of a fraud, to boot), he’s also a pretty normal dad. Casual reviewers of White Noise tend to overlook the sublime banality of domesticity represented in DeLillo’s signature novel: Gladney is an excellent father to his many kids and step-kids, and DeLillo draws their relationships with a realism that belies–and perhaps helps to create–the novel’s satirical bent.
4. Oscar Amalfitano, 2666 (Roberto Bolaño)
Sure, philosophy professor Amalfitano is a bit mentally unhinged (okay, more than a bit), but what sane citizen of Santa Teresa wouldn’t go crazy, what with all the horrific unsolved murders? After his wife leaves him and their young daughter, Amalfitano takes them to the strange, alienating land of Northern Mexico (shades of Prospero’s island?) Bolaño portrays Amalfitano’s descent into paranoia (and perhaps madness) from a number of angles (he and his daughter show up in three of 2666‘s three sections), and as the novel progresses, the reader slowly begins to grasp the enormity of the evil that Amalfitano is confronting (or, more realistically, is unable to confront directly), and the extreme yet vague danger his daughter is encountering. Only a writer of Bolaño’s tremendous gift could make such a chilling episode simultaneously nerve-wracking, philosophical, and strangely hilarious.
5. The father, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
What happens when Prospero’s desert island is just one big desert? If there is a deeper expression of the empathy and bonding between a child and parent, I have not read it. In The Road, McCarthy dramatizes fatherhood in apocalyptic terms, positing the necessity of such a relationship in hard, concrete, life and death terms. When the father tells his son “You are the best guy” I pretty much break down. When I first read The Road, I had just become a father myself (my child was only a few days old when I finished it), yet I was still critical of McCarthy’s ending, which affords a second chance for the son. It seemed to me at the time–as it does now–that the logic McCarthy establishes in his novel is utterly infanticidal, that the boy must die, but I understand now why McCarthy would have him live–why McCarthy has to let him live. Someone has to carry the fire.
From the beginning of Leo Tolsoy’s attack on William Shakespeare, A Critical Essay on Shakespeare:
I remember the astonishment I felt when I first read Shakespeare. I expected to receive a powerful esthetic pleasure, but having read, one after the other, works regarded as his best: “King Lear,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet” and “Macbeth,” not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium, and doubted as to whether I was senseless in feeling works regarded as the summit of perfection by the whole of the civilized world to be trivial and positively bad, or whether the significance which this civilized world attributes to the works of Shakespeare was itself senseless. My consternation was increased by the fact that I always keenly felt the beauties of poetry in every form; then why should artistic works recognized by the whole world as those of a genius,—the works of Shakespeare,—not only fail to please me, but be disagreeable to me?For a long time I could not believe in myself, and during fifty years, in order to test myself, I several times recommenced reading Shakespeare in every possible form, in Russian, in English, in German and in Schlegel’s translation, as I was advised. Several times I read the dramas and the comedies and historical plays, and I invariably underwent the same feelings: repulsion, weariness, and bewilderment. At the present time, before writing this preface, being desirous once more to test myself, I have, as an old man of seventy-five, again read the whole of Shakespeare, including the historical plays, the “Henrys,” “Troilus and Cressida,” the “Tempest,” “Cymbeline,” and I have felt, with even greater force, the same feelings,—this time, however, not of bewilderment, but of firm, indubitable conviction that the unquestionable glory of a great genius which Shakespeare enjoys, and which compels writers of our time to imitate him and readers and spectators to discover in him non-existent merits,—thereby distorting their esthetic and ethical understanding,—is a great evil, as is every untruth.
Tolstoy spends most of the rest of the (long) essay showing why he believes King Lear a terrible piece of literature. His rubric is of course terribly subjective, aesthetic, and perhaps ultimately rooted in his own literary mission of realism and social reform—but what I find most remarkable is that, despite all his claims to have read and reread Shakespeare (in English, Russian and German!) he never mentions actually watching a performance of the play.
I read Tolstoy’s gripes last night and felt the need (why?!) to reply, but found this morning that George Orwell already did so. From Orwell’s rebuttal to Tolstoy, “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool“:
Artistic theories such as Tolstoy’s are quite worthless, because they not only start out with arbitrary assumptions, but depend on vague terms (‘sincere’, ‘important’ and so forth) which can be interpreted in any way one chooses. Properly speaking one cannot answer Tolstoy’s attack. The interesting question is: why did he make it? But it should be noticed in passing that he uses many weak or dishonest arguments. Some of them are worth pointing out, not because they invalidate his main charge but because they are, so to speak, evidence of malice. . . .
There is no argument by which one can defend a poem. It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible. And if this test is valid, I think the verdict in Shakespeare’s case must be “not guilty”. Like every other writer, Shakespeare will be forgotten sooner or later, but it is unlikely that a heavier indictment will ever be brought against him. Tolstoy was perhaps the most admired literary man of his age, and he was certainly not its least able pamphleteer. He turned all his powers of denunciation against Shakespeare, like all the guns of a battleship roaring simultaneously. And with what result? Forty years later Shakespeare is still there completely unaffected, and of the attempt to demolish him nothing remains except the yellowing pages of a pamphlet which hardly anyone has read, and which would be forgotten altogether if Tolstoy had not also been the author of WAR AND PEACE and ANNA KARENINA.
How many brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins of all degrees a little story has! And how few of the tales we listen to can lay any claim to originality! There is scarcely a story which I hear which I cannot connect with some family of myths, and whose pedigree I cannot ascertain with more or less precision.
Shakespeare drew the plots of his plays from Boccaccio or Straparola; but these Italians did not invent the tales they lent to the English dramatist. King Lear does not originate with Geofry of Monmouth, but comes from early Indian stores of fable, whence also are derived the Merchant of Venice and the pound of flesh, ay, and the very incident of the three caskets. But who would credit it, were it not proved by conclusive facts, that Johnny Sands is the inheritance of the whole Aryan family of nations, and that Peeping Tom of Coventry peeped in India and on the Tartar steppes ages before Lady Godiva was born?
If you listen to Traviata at the opera, you have set before you a tale which has lasted for centuries, and which was perhaps born in India. If you read in classic fable of Orpheus charming woods and meadows, beasts and birds, with his magic lyre, you remember to have seen the same fable related in the Kalewala of the Finnish Wainomainen, and in the Kaleopoeg of the Esthonian Kalewa. If you take up English history, and read of William the Conqueror slipping as he landed on British soil, and kissing the earth, saying he had come to greet and claim his own, you remember that the same story is told of Napoleon in Egypt, of King Olaf Harold’s son in Norway, and in classic history of Junius Brutus on his return from the oracle . . .
Through tatter’d clothes small vices do appear;
Robes and furr’d gowns hide all. Plate sin with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless breaks;
Arm it in rags, a pigmy’s straw does pierce it.
King Lear, 4.6
A scene from the Peter Brook directed version of King Lear. Cornwall gouges out old man Gloucester’s eyes. The horror!
In his dream HCE, as we shall now call him, tries to make the whole of history swallow up his guilt for him. His initials are made to stand for the generality of sinful man, and they are expanded into slogans like “Here Comes Everybody” and “Haveth Childers Everywhere”. After all, sexual guilt presupposes a certain creative, or procreative, vitality, and a fall only comes to those who are capable of an erection. The unquenchable vitality appears in “our Human Conger Eel” (despite the “down, wantons, down” of the eel-pie-maker in King Lear); the erector of great structures is seen in “Howth Castle and Environs”. From the point of view of the ultimate dreamer of the dream, though (the author himself), “HCE” has a structural task to perform. As a chemical formula (H2CE3) or as a genuine vocable (“hec” or “ech” or even “Hecech”) it holds the dream down to its hero, is sewn to it like a monogram-HCE: his dream. But HCE has, so deep is his sleep, sunk to a level of dreaming in which he has become a collective being rehearsing the collective guilt of man. Man falls, man rises so that he can fall again; the sequence of falling and rising goes on till doomsday. The record of this, expressed in the lives of great men, in the systems they make and unmake and remake, is what we call history.