Monday, March 10, 2008

The Sins of the Father

“The world must be in balance, Ged. Every act has its consequence. Even to light a tiny match is to cast a shadow.” -Ursula LeGuin, A Wizard of Earthsea

“It is a very sick animal that is reduced to fouling its own nest.” – Bioloogical saying

When I was about twelve years old, my father discovered psychology. From that moment on, everything any of us said and did was subject to paternal review and analysis. It became a family joke that you couldn’t even say “Good morning,” to Dad anymore without him answering, “Hmmm. What are you really trying to tell me?”

From this I learned two important lessons. The first is that daily life may be more shaped by a priori theory than we think. The second is that if you want to get to the bottom of anything, you’ve got to get out your shovel and dig.

Very few of the debates that rage across families, societies and even countries have much to do with what people say they are. To give a few examples, the fundamentalist debate over the Bible is less about the inerrancy of scripture than it is about the error of a scientific and material culture that takes things at face value and prefers answers to questions. The debate over evolution is less about who created the universe than about the problem of how to live in it. And finally, the whole debate about the “place” of women may reveal less about the relations between the genders than about the fact that half the human race, far from having a “place,” has been homeless for a very long time.

If someone else has to put me in my place, you can be quite certain it is not a place I would have chosen for myself.

From my earliest childhood, no matter how deeply he loved me, my father made it perfectly clear that to be born female was to be born with an innate disadvantage. There was always someone who could overpower you. Like Thrasymachus, my father lived with the reality that force had its own inexorable logic and that if it could be used, eventually it would.

My father also existed in an intensely gendered world. He modeled himself after a Roman paterfamilias, that ancient executive and executioner. It was the father’s job to love conditionally: to judge, to preside, to be the “head” of the household. Meanwhile, the mother’s duty was to love unconditionally, to be the family’s “heart.” C.S. Lewis employed a similar metaphor, in Mere Christianity, but I think he strove to balance the two. Whether or not his argument succeeds is up to you. In my family, by contrast, there was no mistaking that the heart had no life or reason without its head, which may have been why most of the horror storiese told me in childhood involved an executioner's axe.

If meaning is to be found in hierarchy, then to be judged “inferior” is always to be lacking in the full possibility of meaning. At the very least it may mean deferring authentic identity in favor of compromise and learning to live in the mirror of others’ eyes.

To be inferior does not mean that others don’t love you. Look at the way people adore their dogs. I am God’s sled dog, am I not? Inferiority in the hierarchy may awaken great breadth of compassion. For all his posturing, for all his androcentricity, my father was completely indulgent toward his daughters. I think he found us spirited and pleasing. He was lawyer by profession, not a warrior. Both law and psychology seek to do with words what the warrior does with his weapons. To even make such a statement, however, reveals the influences of war, and my father was deeply influenced by war. World War I had cut his father’s life short. World War II left my father with visions of men reduced by fear into animals. The only thing that could redeem such an experience was that our country won and could build an empire sufficient so that it could never happen again.

I believe that I learned non-violence from my father, but you would never know that to listen to us argue and you would never guess it to hear him speak. Masculinity forced my father to exult strength, even as experience told him that cleverness was far more powerful. He donned the armor of the intellect and learned to deflect opposition by brandishing questions that would knock them off their feet as effectively as a samurai with his sword. One of his feints, of course, was to make you afraid of his upper body strength to keep you from looking too deeply into his mind.

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