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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Fatherhood–Paternity, Having Sons, And Lessons From Dostoevsky And Lawrence

Fyodor Karamazov was a bad father.  He was authoritarian, domineering, distant, and brutally honest.  He fathered four sons all of whom had their issues with this unapologetically patriarchal, strong man.  

He wanted nothing to do with his third son, Ilyusha, a romantic monastic; his second son, Ivan, an intellectual cynic; his first son, a sensualist like his father and an amorous competitor; or his illegitimate son, the most cunning, amoral, and most like him of all of them.

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He and Ivan’s devil are cut from the same cloth – vaudevillians put on earth to shake the preposterous morality of the day.  What would life be like, the Devil says to Ivan, if there were only prayer and church on Sundays.  Without me, life would be an enslaving bore.  Fyodor could not be more the Devil’s man – insatiable appetites, arrogance, and a complete disregard for sanctimony and piety.  On a visit to the monastery to visit his son, Ilyusha, Fyodor is insinuating and insulting.  Nothing could be more irrelevant than a life of perfect prayer, an asylum of neutered, idealistic, and remote monks who have fled life rather than sought salvation.  He has nothing but irreverent irony for Ilyusha’s mentor, Father Zossima.

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Fyodor cannot understand Ivan who is both his sexual competitor and intellectual rival.  He cannot dismiss him as easily as he does Ilyusha because he cannot dismiss his arguments against godliness and Christian sanctimony.  Dmitri is too strong, too much like Fyodor in his male arrogance and certainty and with too much hatred of his father to dismiss easily., but controllable.  Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son who has his father’s will and his brother Dmitri’s angry insistence, is his true rival – a canny, amoral enemy and suitor who will ultimately be Fyodor’s downfall.

Fyodor is Dostoevsky’s hero – a mensch, a Nietzschean ubermensch who defies country, society, and family.  For all Dostoevsky’s sympathy for the idealistic and sweet Ilyusha and for all his respect for the doctrinal challenges Ivan places before the Church, and for all his gladiatorial will against Dmitri, Fyodor is the essential father.  He demands nothing of his sons and accepts them as who they are.  No filial piety or respect required. No paterfamilias mantel necessary.  He fathered sons and so be the natural order. Nothing compelled him to be a father or to become a nurturing, supportive parent. His sons were  sperm-and-egg, special only in their character relative to his but nothing more.

Walter Morel, the father of Paul, Lawrence’s thinly disguised alter ego in the bildungsroman Sons and Lovers, is much like Fyodor Karamazov, an unapologetic male in a world of women and feminized sons.  He has nothing but dismissive scorn for his wife who, agreeably lowering herself to marry a collier, assumes airs, attributes fey sensibilities to her favored son, Paul, and becomes an adversary rather than a wife.  He will drink wherever and with whomever he wants, come home when it pleases him, and consort however because he spends ten hours underground, a slave to the colliery, the way the world works, and to England. He is unrepentant and independent until a woman of stronger will and purpose – his wife Gertrude – neuters him.  He is supernumerary, marginalized, and left out.

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Yet his virility and his irrepressible male refusal submit have had their impact and influence. Paul, Oedipally attached to his mother, wedded only to ‘higher’ values of art and philosophy, and unable to form any mature, adult sexual relationships with any woman, is still under the thrall of his father.  Despite his sensitivity, his intellectual aspirations, and his spiritual quests, he wishes he were his father – uncompromisingly male, unforgiving, demanding, and confident.

Modern readers of Sons and Lovers may find Lawrence’s moral and sexual conundrums quaint; but human nature and sexual identity have not changed as much as post-modernists might think; and fatherhood is still distinct, valuable, and distinguishable from parenthood.

How is a father to behave in a modern age? What distinguishes him from a mother? Has he really any particular, gender-specific role to play? Can he ensure that his sons are more Fyodor than Paul? More male than female? Or need he bother?

Fatherhood today is far more insecure than it ever was.  While American fathers may rightly hope that all traces of their patriarchal grandfathers have disappeared, they still have trouble squaring their maleness with post-modern ideas of gender irrelevance. Is it wrong to encourage a son to be as risk-taking, adventurous, aggressive, and sexually insistent as his father? Has the notion of an irrepressible male, a la Fyodor Karamazov disappeared entirely? Have modern males given up on their heritage?

Most men cringe at the depiction of fathers on Turkish television soap operas. These wife-beating, insulting, authoritarian figures can only be caricatures.  They cannot possibly still exist in a post-modern world. American men today have evolved far from this Middle Eastern traditionalism.  Yet, for all modern men’s disgust at male backward abusiveness, they feel left out.  They do not want to be the old-fashioned Mardin or Sicilian patriarchal autocrat – enough water has passed under the bridge for them to realize that women’s place has been readjusted – but they do not want to be Paul Morel, tied forever to his mother’s apron strings, unable to mature beyond early adolescence, afraid of becoming his father but desperately wanting more of his male direction.  It is the dilemma of all dilemmas.

Strindberg’s The Father is the worst male nightmare.  Laura, the female protagonist in the story, wants control over the fortunes of her daughter – unlikely in Victorian Scandinavia where paternal legal and social authority is unchallenged.  To achieve her ends, she suggests to her husband that their daughter is not his; and as he becomes increasingly angry, upset, and violently unsettled, she has him committed.  She has used the one absolute, undeniable weapon in her female armory – paternity – and destroys her husband with it.  He has contributed his portion – that disgusting bit of maleness to enable conception – but he cannot be allowed to control its destiny.

In a chilling summary statement of her dismissal of her husband and dismissiveness of all men, she says:
Now you have fulfilled your function as an unfortunately necessary father and breadwinner, you are not needed any longer and you must go. You must go, since you have realized that my intellect is as strong as my will, and since you will not stay and acknowledge it.
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Although women have certainly leveled the playing field, and more and more men have accepted the idea of a genderless society – the balance will likely swing the other way.  Men will eventually be less concerned about reasserting their maleness – an undefinable but irrepressible quality that women have always valued and other men admired.

For most men, the ascendancy of women is simply a matter of social evolution and the result of prosperity.  Yet few men are totally happy with this new social configuration.  It is not that they resent women per se or wish to deprive them of their newfound liberation. It is just that maleness has been devalued in the process.  The most male traits of strength, sexual will, and pursuit have been hammered smooth, tinkered with, and evened out.

Which is why Jack London’s The Call of the Wild resonates so loudly with men.  Buck is the uber-male - wild, untamed, ferocious, indomitable and dominant.  Men in London's view are supposed to be like Buck but have been corralled, harnessed, stabled, and shod.

There is something even more compelling about the story of Buck – his aggressiveness, and male dominance.  There is a completeness and perfection in the male character of Buck – he has no feminine side – and his will is male, one unmistakably virile, potent, and forceful.  While many men may publicly disavow any such characteristics as primitive evolutionary throwbacks, privately they feel that they have capitulated too much of their maleness. 

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Fatherhood is being reexamined as never before.  In an age when recombinant DNA and laboratory fertilization has become common, and when fatherhood can been eliminated, what is a heterosexual male father to think of his newborn son?  Has maleness been bred out of him and his offspring? Will genetic disposition always out? Paul Morel’s brothers, Arthur and William, were nothing like him.  They had little of his maternal piety and oedipal desires.  While they too suffered under their abusive father, they did not lose their maleness, became sexually confident and willful, but never negligent like their father.  Only Paul succumbed to his mother’s ways.  

What is a modern father then? Only genetic contribution and thereafter irrelevant? Or a positive, unalterably male figure which will assure that sons will be sons? Dostoevsky and Lawrence have suggested answers. 

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