"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Essential Influence Of Fathers–Lessons From Turgenev, Lawrence, Miller, And O’Neill

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (alternatively translated ‘Fathers and Children’) is less about the relationships between parents and their offspring, than about the evolution of a young man born into a traditional family with conservative values of paternity, filial and paternal responsibility, and expected social values from a predictable bourgeois to a proto-revolutionary. ‘The first fictional Nihilist’ as some critics described him, Bazarov has less to do with the emotional and biological determinism of most father and sons, but is still influenced by a heritage he rejects.

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But for the best expression of the bewilderment of life one must turn to the portrait of a man, to the famous Bazarov in Fathers and Sons . Turgenev raises through Bazarov the eternal problem—Has personality any hold, has life any meaning at all? The reality of this figure, his contempt for nature, his egoism, his strength, his moth-like weakness are so convincing that before his philosophy all other philosophies seem to pale. He is the one who sees the life-illusion, and yet, knowing that it is the mask of night, grasps at it, loathing himself.

One can hate Bazarov, but not have contempt for him. He is… rid of sentiment and hope, believing in nothing but himself, to whom come, as from the darkness, all the violent questions of life and death. "Fathers and Sons" is an exposure to the power to mold one’s own life. Bazarov is a man of intellect—the pawn of an emotion he despises – and a man of gigantic will—who can do nothing but destroy his own beliefs.  He is a man of intense life within which is the hopeless struggle between mind against instinct, of determination against fate, of personality against impersonality.

But though Bazarov is the most positive of all Turgenev's male portraits, there are others… Rudin, typical of the unrest of the idealist; Nezhdanov ("Virgin Soil"), typical of the self-torture of the anarchist; Shubin ("On the Eve"), hiding his misery in laughter; and Lavretsky ("A House of Gentlefolk"), hiding his misery in silence. In all Turgenev put his hand upon the dark things; and perceived character, struggling in the "clutch of circumstances," the tragic moments, the horrible conflicts of personality. His characters have that capability of suffering which is the true sign of life...  (From "Turgenev and the Life-Illusion," in "The Fortnightly Review" (April, 1910).

The question of the influence of fathers on their children is not unique to Turgenev; and in fact other authors have focused much more directly on it.  Walter Morel, the father of Paul in Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, while less directly important to the sexual maturity and personal development of his son than his mother, is nonetheless as important.  The elder Morel is essentially male if only stereotypically so. He is most at home with men, in male environments, comfortable in an atmosphere of male camaraderie and easy, non-imposing or –demanding friendships and uncomfortable and inept in any more intimate especially with his wife and their children. His masculinity is pro-forma, characteristic of a class and philosophy, and as such meaningless.  He cannot understand his wife, her Oedipally incestuous relationships with her son, and the strictures of class and society which have forced her into surrogate authority. 

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Nevertheless, howsoever Lawrence may have idealized the relationship between Paul and his mother and marginalized his father, the importance of Walter Morel cannot be minimized.  Paul has been feminized; and believes that the feminine values he sees in his mother – artistic sensitivity, empathy, and social intelligence – are worth far more than his father’s male drudgery and arrogant simplicity.  Yet he cannot ignore his father’s essential maleness – a certainty, sexual confidence, and simple valuation. Paul is male, suspects his father’s brand of virility, but is not completely content with his obviously distorted and exaggerated love of and dependence on his mother.

Because of his mother’s willful determination to keep Paul to herself, she encourages a mutual conspiracy against Walter. She hates her husband for his crudeness, low birth, and social and emotional ignorance; and encourages her son to feel the same. They alienate and marginalize Walter who eventually, beaten and neutered, accepts his role as paternal supernumerary.  Yet Paul, after failures in his adult relationships with both Miriam and Clara, wonder if he has been too feminine and ignorant of his father’s sexual confidence.  After his mother’s death Paul is lost – neither feminine in his sensibilities nor masculine in his sexual character.

Bazarov’s father has had an influence on his son only by way of general example.  He is not Bazarov’s father but all fathers intent and insistent upon on conforming their sons to an outdated, retrograde sensibility; and by extension a society which collectively has no interest in progress, value, or evolution.

"He has abandoned us, cast us off!" his father muttered. "Abandoned us, he only feels bored with us now. Alone, all alone, like a solitary finger," he repeated several times, stretching out his hand with the forefinger standing out from the others.

Then Arina Vlasyevna came up to him and leaning her grey head against his grey head, she said: "What can we do, Vasya? A son is a piece broken off. He's like a falcon that flies home and flies away again when it wants; but you and I are like mushrooms growing in the hollow of a tree, we sit side by side without moving from the same place. Only I will never change for you, and you will always be the same for me."

Vassily Ivanovich took his hands from his face and embraced his wife, his friend, more warmly than he had ever embraced her in his youth; she comforted him in his sorrow.

Vassily Ivanovich has been a complaisant father, accepting that sons will always leave and abandon yet uncertain about their unguided future.  It is one thing to accept the independence of sons, but another to accept its consequences and, by extension, the responsibility of their fathers.

Arthur Miller in All My Sons has written about father-son relationships in a moral context.  How can a son who has always admired, respected, and loved his father possibly accept the fathers horrific moral failure? How can he accept the fact that his father has cheated on an Air Force contract and jeopardized fliers lives, perhaps even that of his eldest son?  Is there any room for forgiveness or at least understanding?  In The Price Miller has again dealt with the relationship between fathers and sons.  One son, always dutiful and respectful to his father, is considered na├»ve and ignorant by his older brother.  The two siblings have dramatically different views of their father; and that difference can never be resolved.

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In Death of a Salesman, Miller returns to the same theme of father-son relationships and asks to what degree sons can forgive their father, understand the shame and difficulty of salesmanship in a time of depression and desperation.

Eugene O’Neill in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night focuses on the relationship between James Tyrone and his sons, all dominated by their mother Mary, a needy, selfish, and manipulative woman no different from Gertrude Morel.  Tyrone, like Walter Morel, has been neutered by his wife, and that his sexual dependence has corrupted them and inhibited their own sexual maturity.

So where is the line drawn? Can one, after more than 150 years dispute Freud and his Oedipal theories? Will sons of heterosexual families always be consigned to mother-love father-jealousy?  Will modern gender politics finally delegitimize patriarchy and paternal influence and we can finally dismiss Coriolanus?

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Unless Lawrence is wrong and there is no such thing as male essence – a natural, genetic, inextinguishable disposition to assertiveness, sexual impatience, aggression, and ego –and that gender is never entirely determined by social influence, there will always be male fathers; and that the reflections of Miller, O’Neill, Lawrence, and Shakespeare will be perennially valid.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Otherworldly Children–Precocious, Unique, Unaccountable, And Frightening

Pearl, the daughter of Hester Prynne in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is a mystery even to her mother. Defiant, unconventional, precociously mature, willfully assertive, and without any childlike compassion.

Her nature appeared to possess depth, too, as well as variety; but — or else Hester's fears deceived her — it lacked reference and adaptation to the world into which she was born. The child could not be made amenable to rules. In giving her existence, a great law had been broken ; and the result was a being whose elements were perhaps beautiful and brilliant, but all in disorder; or with an order peculiar to themselves, amidst which the point of variety and arrangement was difficult or impossible to be discovered.

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Where did she come from, her mother wondered.

She could recognize her wild, desperate, defiant mood, the flightiness of her temper, and even some of the very cloud-shapes of gloom and despondency that had brooded in her heart. They were now illuminated by the morning radiance of a young child's disposition, but later in the day of earthly existence might be prolific of the storm and whirlwind.

The child was hers but not hers,  and frighteningly so:

Her mother, while Pearl was yet an infant, grew acquainted with a certain peculiar look, that warned her when it would be labor thrown away to insist, persuade, or plead. It was a look so intelligent, yet in- explicable, so perverse, sometimes so malicious, but generally accompanied by a wild flow of spirits, that Hester could not help questioning, at such moments, whether Pearl were a human child. She seemed rather an airy sprite, which, after playing its fantastic sports for a little while upon the cottage floor, would flit away with a mocking smile. Whenever that look appeared in her wild, bright, deeply-black eyes, it in- vested her with a strange remoteness and intangibility; it was as if she were hovering in the air and might vanish, like a glimmering light that comes we know not whence, and goes we know not whither… Pearl was a born outcast of the infantile world. An imp of evil, emblem and product of sin, she had no right among christened infants. Nothing was more remarkable than the instinct, as it seemed, with which the child comprehended her loneliness ; the destiny that had drawn an inviolable circle round about her ; the whole peculiarity, in short, of her position in respect to other children.

Anna, the stepdaughter of Tom Brangwen, a principal character in D.H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, is much like Pearl.

The girl was at once shy and wild. She had a curious contempt for ordinary people, a benevolent superiority. She was very shy, and tortured with misery when people did not like her. On the other hand, she cared very little for anybody save her mother, whom she still rather resentfully worshipped, and her father, whom she loved and patronized, but upon whom she depended. These two, her mother and father, held her still in fee. But she was free of other people, towards whom, on the whole, she took the benevolent attitude. She deeply hated ugliness or intrusion or arrogance, however. As a child, she was as proud and shadowy as a tiger, and as aloof. She could confer favours, but, save from her mother and father, she could receive none. She hated people who came too near to her. Like a wild thing, she wanted her distance. She mistrusted intimacy.

In Cossethay and Ilkeston she was always an alien. She had plenty of acquaintances, but no friends. Very few people whom she met were significant to her. They seemed part of a herd, undistinguished. She did not take people very seriously.

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As she grew older, her misanthropy increased.  Not only was she harshly judgmental of others, but her antagonisms did not stop there but became visceral hatred.  Anna was precocious in her canny understanding of petty nature of the catty intrusiveness of her classmates; the inflexibility and ignorance of her teachers; and the drudgery of the colliery men around her.

She had not done her lessons: well, she did not see any reason why she should do her lessons, if she did not want to. Was there some occult reason why she should? Were these people, schoolmistresses, representatives of some mystic Right, some Higher Good? They seemed to think so themselves. But she could not for her life see why a woman should bully and insult her because she did not know thirty lines of As You Like It. After all, what did it matter if she knew them or not? Nothing could persuade her that it was of the slightest importance. Because she despised inwardly the coarsely working nature of the mistress. Therefore she was always at outs with authority.

From constant telling, she came almost to believe in her own badness, her own intrinsic inferiority. She felt that she ought always to be in a state of slinking disgrace, if she fulfilled what was expected of her. But she rebelled. She never really believed in her own badness. At the bottom of her heart she despised the other people, who carped and were loud over trifles. She despised them, and wanted revenge on them. She hated them whilst they had power over her.the catty intrusions of her classmates; the ironbound and senseless discipline of her teachers; and the plodding drudgery of the colliery life around her.

Beneath Anna’s general bitterness and dissatisfaction – or because of it – she is desperately idealistic; but after a few years of marriage and a baby each year, she becomes less bitter but more disillusioned. Sex for her, as for most of Lawrence’s characters, is essential; but unlike her daughter, Ursula, one of the protagonists of Lawrence’s next novel, Women in Love, she can make nothing out of.  She has neither Ursula’s will, complexity, or insights.

Pearl on the other hand, thanks to a more mature intelligence and adult understanding, and having survived her mother’s ordeal, the Salem trials, and the eccentricities and abusiveness of the men in her world, turns out well and wealthy and just fine.

So Pearl — the elf-child, — the demon offspring, as some people, up to that epoch, persisted in considering her, — became the richest heiress of her day, in the New World. Not improbably, this circumstance wrought a very material change in the public estimation ; and, had the mother and child remained here, little Pearl, at a marriageable period of life, might have mingled her wild blood with the lineage of the devoutest Puritan among them all. But, in no long time after the physician's death, the wearer of the scarlet letter disappeared, and Pearl along with her.

Bart Haller was a colicky, difficult infant, born to proper middle class parents in a small town in Connecticut. He was a disobedient, demanding, and willful toddler; and a destructive, mean, and defiant child. He was naturally, inherently bad, the town gossip rumored.  A bad seed, an unexpected, unwelcome, irremediably antisocial child. The Hallers thought that such ideas were nonsense.  There was no such thing as child born bad. All behavior is derived from predictable genetic and environmental factors and can be mediated, reformed, or at least directed in positive ways.  As St. Augustine himself said, evil does not exist in the world –only the absence of good.  Such theological conundrums were, however, beside the point. Whatever words might be used to describe their son – evil, demonic, possessed, or simply a bad seed – the Hallers knew that he had been born with a congenital deformity.

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By the time he was in the third grade (passed up quickly by lower-grade teachers who wanted nothing more to do with him), educators and administrators did their best to convince themselves and Bart’s parents that he was simply ‘different’ – that his arrogance, cruelty, and disrespect might indeed by part of a demanding, highly intelligent nature; one which only needed formation and guidance. 

However neither the psychiatrists the Hallers consulted, nor any of the school psychologists and social guidance counselors, despite their best and most positive thinking, could find no redeeming values in young Haller. After three years of suffering his abuse, recalcitrance, and absolute indifference to authority and care-giving, they all agreed that he was indeed a bad seed.

It is hard in an day and age to simply write off a child as worthless or worse, a perniciously destructive, antisocial being. In this age of tolerance, inclusiveness, and diversity, it was particularly unpleasant to come to the conclusion that Bart Haller would always be a social derelict, devoid of compassion or moral rectitude. Whether or not he ended up in a federal penitentiary was of no consequence.  Whether he broke the law or simply ignored it and any of the social customs that regulated behavior for the common good, he would always be irremediable.

The case of Bart Haller never got written up in any professional journal, but not because there was no interest in him. He was neither a dangerous sociopath, a devil to be exorcized, or a simply a foundationally amoral person with not even a scintilla of rectitude. He was one of a kind, one of a million, and a reminder that perhaps good does not prevail and that the human genome, as wonderful as it seems, is quite capable of producing irredeemable souls.

Where did Pearl, Anna, and Bart come from?  Given their parentage and the family life which they entered, their almost preternatural misanthropy was totally unexpected.  One might have expected, in the case of Pearl, some defiance of the oppressive social order of the time, but not such a devilish impudence expressed at a time when she herself might have been burned at the stake for witchery.  Anna was nothing like her mother and although Lawrence tells little about her natural father, certainly her stepfather with whom she had a strong tie, contributed little to her disobedience and callous indifference.  Bart’s parents were the most normal, socialized, devout, and communitarian of any member of New Brighton society.  Nowhere in their distant genealogical past was their any ancestor who resembled Bart.  There were thieves, carousers, and layabouts in the family tree to be sure, but nothing resembling him.  He had literally come out of nowhere; but contrary to Pearl who recovered her moral equilibrium and went off to find fortune and happiness; or to Anna who resigned herself to a life of sex and procreation, Bart never changed, reformed, or repented.

All three children had a precocious brilliance.  Even a bad seed needs more intelligence than most to use his cruelty; and Bart’s willful hatred was even admired by the nihilists of the town. The only lesson to be drawn for parents is to watch out.  The human genome is far more complex than anyone before or after Watson and Crick had ever imagined; and amidst the billions of bits of DNA clinging to the double helix there might be an anomaly so distorted that its bearer will never have the chance to reproduce, of no interest or consequence at all to the parents of that unique child.

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Thursday, January 18, 2018

Sexual Dynamics–The Necessary And Important Conflictual Nature Of Sexual Relationships

D.H. Lawrence, perhaps more than any other writer of fiction was concerned with the idea of sexual will, the exercise of which is central to all relationships; and only if equilibrium is established through struggle for dominance or acceptance of submission can relationships be anything more than predictable and ordinary. In Women in Love, the novel which most completely explores the sexual dynamics among all four characters – Ursula, Gudrun, Gerald, and Birkin – both men and women struggle to fix their place and roles based on sexual conflict. 

There are no romances in the novel although all are looking for relationships which will be mutually satisfying while uncompromising.  All characters recognize sexual power as the essential expression of will and are attracted to it; but none are willing to give up their own sovereignty. As the relationships mature, simplistic notions of sexual dominance are replaced by more complex one of submission.  All the characters having struggled with their partners throughout the book reconsider their sexual purpose.

Lawrence and Edward Albee are the two modern writers who best understood the idea of will within the context of sexual relationships. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf  Albee tells of the brutal, savage, and unremitting expression of will and desire for dominance of George and Martha.  At the end, when they are both ‘flayed to the marrow’ with no energy left for fighting, with their wills spent and irrelevant, they come together.  Perhaps there is hope after all.  George and Martha might not love each other, but they realize that the both need each other to survive. Love, if it exists at all, is a by-product of sexual equilibrium.  There is at least some hope that they, with their individual wills at least for the time being neutralized, can restore whatever mutual feelings they might have had decades earlier. 

Lawrence’s hope has nothing to do with mutuality and the weakening of individual will but with the resolution of conflict between essentially male and female beings.  In all his novels, especially Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he expresses his almost mystical belief in the spiritual nature of sexual union through which perfect Tantric complementarity between maleness and femaleness is achieved.  Post-modern critics have dismissed Lawrence as a hopeless romantic surprisingly oblivious in matters of sexual intimacy to the psycho-social, cultural, and political forces of which he is very much aware in all of his novels. Men and women are fundamentally different, Lawrence writes, but their common traits – intelligence, will, and ambition – prevent the ambitionless, emotional, submission to each other which constitutes perfect sexual union. Sexual combat must necessarily result, for only when issues of dominance and submission have been resolved and each partner has accepted their sexual nature and personal identity within it can any possible satisfaction occur.

Ibsen writes compellingly about will and how it governs all relationships; but his characters are more one-dimensional.  The complex sexual nature of will expressed by Lawrence is absent, and Ibsen’s women are less concerned with the sexual nature of dominance and submission than with sovereignty alone.  Hedda Gabler has no reason for trying to dominate and destroy the men around her; nothing particular to gain.  The expression of will is the only validation of the individual, Nietzsche claimed; and Hedda’s actions were pure, uncomplicated, and mortally determined. Hilde Wangel (The Master Builder) was no different. She had nothing to gain by controlling the architect Solness and sending to him death from the church tower any more than Hedda had by encouraging her lover’s suicide.  For both women it was the exercise of will that mattered – a purely amoral expression of individual power; and neither had the rectitude and moral purpose of Nora (A Doll’s House) whose rejection of her husband was a refusal to live by the norms of an abusive husband and an oppressive society; or the conviction of Rebekka West whose domination and manipulation of Rosmer had a political purpose. 

Strindberg’s Miss Julie is more akin to the characters of Lawrence than any of Ibsen’s.  She is a strong, willful, determined woman who is conflicted by her sexual desire for Jean whom she sees as essentially male and dominant.  At first she dominates him, humiliates him, and tests him; but in the end she cannot resist him.  She ends badly, and Jean, despite his sexual and social pretensions, returns to form.

Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Elektra is a sexual melodrama – a theatrical soap opera of the Mannon family complete with incest, adultery, murder, and jealousy.  Christine Mannon is no different from an Ibsen hero – determined, willful, amoral, and ambitious – and she uses her marriage and her children to promote those she favors and to eliminate those she does not.  In his more mature plays like Long Day’s Journey Into Night, sexual dynamics of influence and authority are more subtle. Mary Tyrone is a tyrant who, although drug addicted and dying, manipulates her husband and her sons, relying on guilt, filial love and responsibility, and will. She is far less attractive than Hedda or Hilde because she is so self-serving and selfish.  Her control results less from willful dominance than the weakness of others. 

Shakespeare’s plays are all about sexual combat, and strong women feature in almost all of them. Tamora, Dionyza, Goneril, Regan, Volumnia, Margaret, and Cleopatra are just some of his tragic willful heroines.  Rosalind and Beatrice like most of the women in the Comedies are less amoral and destructive, but manipulative and purposeful as well. Romeo and Juliet was the only love story that Shakespeare ever wrote.  All the rest of his 37 plays were cynical about love, marriage, and intimate relationships.  He did not doubt the human folly behind sexual attraction, but knew that it must always be contained within the rigors of a practical, economic-based treaty between men and women.  Shakespeare understood that sexual competition, particularly in an unequal society, was unavoidable and predictable. Women would use every bit of their sexual advantage over men to achieve their ambitious ends.

Today’s marriages take the notion of contract and treaty as seriously as the Elizabethans; and are entered into only with ironclad prenuptial agreements. Choice of residence is governed by state tax laws and regulations concerning communal property.  Men and women, for all the blush and exuberance of weddings, are deeply suspicious of each other, certainly as much as in Shakespeare’s time.

So, what is to be made of the modern, loosely-defined marriage, concluded on practical grounds in which responsibility is measured by adherence  to prescribed rules, limitations, and regulations?  Are we not moving farther and farther from the truths suggested by Albee and Lawrence?  Albee, who hated bourgeois institutions and especially marriage, understood however how it is the crucible of maturity. Unless couples face their sexual roles and their ability either to exert their will or submit to that of the other, they have no chance of any real fundamental relationship.  Easy divorce means easy escape and little promise of anything but facile satisfaction.

Lawrence went ever further. In The Rainbow he explores the nature of sexual desire.  Sexual unions can only be finalized if the two partners know each other deeply – and to achieve this understanding they must compete, conflict, and emotionally battle. Tom Brangwen wants to have sex with the young Polish woman he meets, but fears her ‘unknown’.  Casual sex has no value for Lawrence.

The idea of dominance and submission in sexual affairs has acquired a negative connotation today, for it suggests outdated notions of patriarchy and male authority. Yet viewed through the more critical lens of Lawrence, it is no such thing.  Lawrence and Albee in particular understood that conflict is human, and sexual conflict absolute; but only out of such sexual struggles for dominance can a more perfect union be formed.