Saturday, February 25, 2012

Literary Traditions And Daddy Issues

Our own issues jump out at us in literature.  They seem so painfully obvious to us that we wonder at others, who do not seem to see them, who see other things instead.  I noticed early that Charles Dickens refused to blame his father, choosing instead to blame systems, and courts, and businessmen.  I thought it admirable when I was young.  It carried a note of support Dad in his battle against the world, the noble son, bloodied but unbowed, doing his filial duty.  I did think he was hard on adult women in general in his books, and thought that a disloyalty to his mother.  It was the girls and young sweethearts who got the good press in Dickens.

Somewhere in my own adulthood it came home to me that refusing to blame his father necessitated his blaming someone else, and I grew more queasy about Dickens after that, even in A Christmas Carol. I have also felt a bit guilty over the years at enjoying a Christmas book so bereft of Jesus, but its lifting up of generosity, a thoroughly Christian virtue, seems to overcome that.  Or perhaps I just like all the trappings of Anglospheric Christmas so much that I can overlook the weaknesses.

It still amazes me that no one seems to notice this in Dickens, or at least, writes about it.  We get caught up in his views of social conditions, or women in general, or crime, and miss an obvious thread that runs through all of it.  Well, people who are interested in social conditions will see that, and those concerned with the place of women in society will see that, and so on.  Yet we do see Daddy Issues in other writers, so I suspect there is some willful avoidance here.  We want to see an indictment of that society for our own reasons today, so we deftly sidestep anything which might muddy this.

But after almost two centuries, shouldn’t it have shown up somewhere?  If Dickens knew his father deserved blame but refrained from mentioning it, that would be significant.  Or, if it never occurred to him that his father deserved at least some blame that would be significant.  That he has powerful ambivalence about many other family relations, about wealth, about respectability – these have all been amply noted.  I conclude that no one wants to blame Dad, because they also want to blame systems, and courts, and businessmen.  A somewhat willful blindness, I think.


At the other end of the spectrum is Samuel Butler, who spent all day blaming Dad.  In The Way of All Flesh he goes at Dad directly, but piles on by kicking him indirectly as well, kicking clergy in general, dads in general, and respected people in general. 
The book must have been in some friend’s or relative’s home when I was young, because I can picture an old edition of the book, but am sure I never read any of it until my 20’s.  It looked old and uninteresting, though the word “flesh” did indeed suggest scandal.  I had read in a 60’s magazine article that Butler had not wanted it published until after his death, because it was critical of his family and too shocking.  I intuitively knew, even as a teenager, that this wasn’t true.  If that were the case, you would have it published after their deaths, not yours.  Without a word read, I knew that it was his reluctance to face them if it came to light.  I didn’t know whether that was justified because they were vindictive, or cowardly because he was sneaky – I don’t think that distinction was even present in my mind.  But I knew the stated reason was not the real one.  Perhaps I had had fantasies of writing terrible things myself and had dimly imagined the consequences.

I still haven’t read it, but I started it and then skimmed it at one point, and the story was pretty obvious:  Butler was a prick who thought any difficulties were other people’s fault.  The evil of characters was so overdrawn as to be near-comic.  I actually wondered at one point if it were all some wild send-up of the adolescent family expos√© genre, whose humor everyone had heretofore missed – then remembered that he had reportedly started the trend, so could hardly be satirizing it before it existed.  I figured that everyone else could see that as well, and concluded that the mild sexual themes were titillating enough that people overlooked it.  I did know there was a continuing market for accusatory novels by young men indicting all of their society, beginning with Mom and Dad, with prissy sisters and bootlicking brothers thrown in just for variety, but I hadn’t read them much.  They irritated me.

I doubt that the thought was ever conscious, but I now think part of my response was Yeah, you should try going through it with no father at all.  Then maybe you wouldn’t be so quick to criticise.  Do young men write such novels now, or were they solely a product of an era when fathers generally were present and their virtues taken for granted, setting their failings in high relief?  I suppose the tendencies of film and TV might bear on the cultural understanding of this as well.

I looked up the Wikipedia entries on the book and on Butler, and read other commentary about The Way of All Flesh.  Every person writing about him takes at face value Butler’s story about why he didn’t publish it when written in 1885, but two decades later.  They also take as given that Butler’s father was indeed a horror and a hypocrite, a failure who resented his own father.  So they can have the whole concept of “Daddy Issues” occur to them, but only about Thomas, not about Samuel.  No one seems to have asked the least question whether Butler might be wrong, might be in any way unfair. Hell, it occurred to me immediately, before I had even opened the book.  I again conclude, as with Dickens, that the literary world wanted certain things to be true, and refused to question whether those were, in fact, actually clothes that the Emperor had on.

Update: Terrence McNally's play "Bringing It All Back Home" (1969) has Daddy Issues as part of its larger family issues, culture issues.  Is it quite the same thing when gayness is the foundation for the cartoonish evil, or is it the same thing?

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